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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

36 Comments

  1. Jesse
    November 13, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

    Good stuff, but BATS ARE NOT RODENTS.

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      November 13, 2017 @ 8:54 pm

      Sorry, my knowledge of the matter extends no further than Calvin and Hobbes, so all I know is that they’re not bugs.

      Reply

      • Josh Marsfelder
        November 14, 2017 @ 5:02 am

        It’s a common misconception, born probably from the assumption they’re like flying mice (even Alice says “There are no mice in the air, I’m afraid, but you might catch a bat, and that’s very much like a mouse, you know. But do cats eat bats, I wonder?”), but they’re technically in the order Chiroptera (“hand-wing”, referring to the fact they are the only mammals capable of true flight).

        Reply

  2. Alex
    November 13, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

    Reply

    • Alex
      November 13, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

      Ah, damnit, Phil’s reply appeared to me immediately after I posted this…

      Reply

  3. Lauvd
    November 14, 2017 @ 5:25 am

    It’s the most overrated movie of the past 20 years, so it getting something of a kicking for it’s terrible neocon politics is honestly a breath fresh of air.
    “Yes, Ledger’s schlubby maniac was an easier fit for a certain strain of geek masculinity than the more overtly queer portrayals that came before him.”
    Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill’s Jokers aren’t consider masculine? Really the only version of The Joker comes across as genuinely queer is Frank Miller’s terrible homophobic take on him in The Dark Knight Returns.

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      November 14, 2017 @ 5:49 am

      This seems an appropriate time to hat-tip Jay Edidin, who gave a talk about the Joker and queerness at a University of Florida conference years ago with the delightful title “The Joker Wears Purple,” which was where I got that claim in my head. It was alas a decade ago, and so I remember his conclusion better than the details of his argument, but I think the title frankly already makes a strong case. He’s a thin, rakish man in makeup and a purple suit that exists in contrast to chiseled block of heteronormative masculinity.

      Reply

      • CJM
        November 14, 2017 @ 8:51 pm

        This Joker style has his most important speech whilst dressed as a nurse.

        If you read into that, chaos becomes the most chaotic when gender norms are destroyed, so it makes any queerness deeply problematic, but it’s style there, even in Ledger

        Reply

      • Dr. O
        November 14, 2017 @ 9:49 pm

        I’ve read the Batman/Joker relationship in The Killing Joke as queer

        ” It is an 80s comic book view in which the Joker represents what happens when queerness is allowed free reign, Batman when it is closeted. They are both extreme reactions to a comic book world where queerness is defined as deviancy, and as such deviant behavior is the only way to express the queerness underlying their relationship. Any chance to express intimacy outside of those confines is engulfed in silence, and it is by seeking out these silences in the text (or how sound and silence interact) that this special bond between them is demarcated.”

        Reply

  4. Josh Marsfelder
    November 14, 2017 @ 5:44 am

    The Dark Knight is, perhaps shockingly, a movie I have a lot of experience with and thoughts about, and I’m really glad Phil and I seem to come to roughly the same conclusions about it.

    Here’s my thing with The Dark Knight. I saw it as someone whose previous experience with Batman was the Saturday morning cartoon show, the Burton/Schumacher movies and Scooby-Doo. I saw it not having seen Batman Begins, because it was getting talked up by absolutely everyone all throughout 2008 (even, IIRC, before Heath Ledger died) as one of the best movies ever, and the best superhero movie of all time. I saw it because it was supposed to be good and I knew who Batman was, but not because I had any real investment in him or superhero media.

    In that context, The Dark Knight was a very revealing experience. Going in knowing nothing about the first movie (though I maintain it works wonderfully completely in isolation, and, given the rest of its “trilogy”, this is probably the only way it can work in a productive and beneficial way). Because, as Phil points out, The Joker is astonishingly cogent and the film never really gets to the point of actually showing him to be wrong or refuting any of his arguments.

    In fact, I’ll take it one further. The film, taken in a vacuum, gives The Joker the moral high ground for an alarming percentage of its runtime. And it ends on what I read, at the time, as a total indictment of the concept of Batman and the charismatic authoritarian hero archetype he stands for (not the ferry scene, which I’ll get back to, but the fight with Two-Face: I never thought we weren’t supposed to sympathize utterly with him or feel that Batman in any way hadn’t been completely in the wrong throughout the wrong the whole movie). Considering I spent most of the movie finding myself in complete agreement with The Joker, watching this movie was an experience that was equal parts sobering and clarifying (the obvious mass-murdering sadism stuff I just brushed aside as necessary conceits of the genre and didn’t give it any further thought than that: I read The Joker more as a philosophical fiction character and paid more attention to what he said than what he did so that didn’t really bother me, apart from a brief stint of feeling society must view me as a hated villain because of my beliefs).

    I would actually go so far to call The Dark Knight an important milestone in my coming to terms with my own politics, even if the message I took from it was, in hindsight, probably the exact opposite of the one I was “supposed” to (I have far right relatives, indeed close relatives, who walked away from The Dark Knight saying the movie shows that “there is Evil, and Evil Needs To Be Fought”, which probably says it all). I think that’s where a lot of The Joker’s popularity comes from: He gave a huge, populist voice to concerns and views a lot of people would never have dared to allow themselves to entertain before, and it gave them a lot of ground…Even if some of those people took their lessons in an indefensibly destructive and hurtful direction.

    And in that sense, the climax is a total letdown for sure. Even back then I left the drive-through thinking the film dropped the ball there. I kept thinking the boat scene made no real sense, but if it had to be there the civilians should have been the ones to pull the trigger on the convicts, while those on the prison ship should have been looking for a peaceful resolution. That would have proved the Joker’s point that “When the chips are down, these, ah, ‘civilized people’? They’ll eat each other”.

    I could never figure out why the movie left it like that, especially as it seemed so much like it was setting Batman up to take the fall from the get-go: It always seemed to me that this was a proper “deconstruction”: A role-reversal where our “heroes” turn out to have been villains in disguise all along (as for The Joker dropping out of the narrative in favour of Two-Face, I can forgive that a bit more considering Heath Ledger’s death was so unexpected. The Joker was always intended to be a reoccurring character in the Nolan series and would have played a big part in the third film, and indeed any hypothetical subsequent Nolan Batman movies, had Ledger lived. Naturally he wouldn’t get closure here). Of course, once The Dark Knight Rises came out it became abundantly clear that proving The Joker right was never something Nolan was ever seriously invested in.

    But, y’know, aren’t redemptive readngs one of the things we’re supposed to be doing here? If a text can be mobilized for revolutionary good, shouldn’t we try to make it if we can? After all, we need all the tools and help we can get at this point.

    Reply

    • Josh Marsfelder
      November 14, 2017 @ 5:57 am

      To rephrase it a bit in terms of Phil’s reading of Man of Steel as being a movie where “ordinary people’s lives are upended when the Old Gods fight”, I guess you could say I read The Joker in this movie as a kind of cosmic trickster god who operates outside the code of human morality in ways that are horrific, but in doing so still teaches us valuable lessons we need to learn.

      Reply

      • Lauvd
        November 14, 2017 @ 6:47 am

        “I could never figure out why the movie left it like that, especially as it seemed so much like it was setting Batman up to take the fall from the get-go: It always seemed to me that this was a proper “deconstruction”: A role-reversal where our “heroes” turn out to have been villains in disguise all along…
        Of course, once The Dark Knight Rises came out it became abundantly clear that proving The Joker right was never something Nolan was ever seriously invested in.”
        And that is one of the many reasons why I think Batman Returns is the best Batman if not super hero film because unlike Nolan, Tim Burton’s sympathies clearly lie with The Penguin and Catwoman and even Batman if forced to concede that he doesn’t have much of a moral high-ground over them in the end.

        Reply

      • Sean Dillon
        November 15, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

        Perhaps fittingly given Phil’s read on Man of Steel, that’s essentially Grant Morrison’s conception of the Joker.

        Reply

    • Austin G Loomis
      November 14, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

      When you say “the Saturday morning cartoon show,” which one do you mean? An incarnation of The Super Friends, the DCAU version, or the 1977-ish Filmation series with Bat-Mite in?

      Reply

      • Josh Marsfelder
        November 14, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

        The Super Friends and Batman the Animated Series both, actually.

        Reply

    • Sean Dillon
      November 14, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

      I should note that this is literally the same argument Mikey Neumann makes in his redemptive reading of the film, right down to siding with the Joker as the film’s protagonist. (Though his argument to make the ferry scene work is a bit weak compared to the rest of the video.)

      Reply

      • Josh Marsfelder
        November 14, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

        Well, it’s nice I’m not the only one who seemed to think so then!

        Reply

  5. Josh Marsfelder
    November 14, 2017 @ 6:37 am

    Speaking of The Dark Knight, and because this happens to intersect with a variety of my areas of expertise, and also to plug the good Liam Robertson, here’s a fascinating post-mortem of the movie’s aborted video game adaptation:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTCayY8FDT0&index=21&list=PLE51D8DC24EBCBFA5

    Liam has also done historical investigation into many other aspects of DC’s numerous failed attempts at a cinematic universe and other ventures as they pertain to video games. should you be interested:

    Superman, by Factor 5 Inc:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBeSUzmG43g&list=PLE51D8DC24EBCBFA5&index=19

    Watchmen, by Bottle Rocket Entertainment
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki4pwvRjlcE&list=PLE51D8DC24EBCBFA5&index=8

    The Flash, by Bottle Rocket Entertainment
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fGs1QcUWsg&list=PLE51D8DC24EBCBFA5&index=7

    Justice League, by Double Helix games:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypneUBO_8Y0&list=PLE51D8DC24EBCBFA5&index=1

    Reply

  6. Przemek
    November 14, 2017 @ 10:13 am

    An excellent essay. Thank you, it gave me a lot to think about.

    You’re spot-on about the Joker being a leftist villain in the same way that Voldemort is a fascist villain – I can’t believe I never realized that. He even fits a certain right-wing stereotype about the “lefties”. He’s a man who was hurt and traumatized – and who wears his ugly scars out in the open, obsesses about them, keeps telling everyone about them and uses his trauma to justify his “insufferable” behaviour. A proper hero, like Batman, supresses his pain and sublimates it into a powerful hunger for vengeance upon all criminals – substitutes of those who hurt him. A proper hero understands that the problem of violence can only be solved by more violence. Someone who keeps talking about his pain must be a villain.

    And of course the Joker’s trauma is made up, existing in multiple contradictory versions ranging from parental abuse to self-inflicted pain born out of love. Because to really show him as a victim of abuse would mean taking his trauma seriously. If the Joker were really hurt, like Bruce Wayne was, they could, God forbid, bond over their traumatic experiences. Ask uncomfortable questions about the world that hurt them both so much. But no, the Joker is just crazy. And in Batman’s world, we lock these freaks up in the Arkham Asylum. The only ones who need psychological/psychiatric help are those who deserve to be in prison.

    This version of Joker reminds me of both Rorschach and the Comedian from “Watchmen”. A nihilistic agent of chaos who considers the world he lives in “a bad joke”. The name he chose, it’s like a promise he made. To laugh at the world, to show everyone the absurdity of it. To make people question it. The key to comedy is surprise. And if I can be surprised, it means there is something true about the world that I never considered. It means there is a crack in my worldview through which other worldviews can be seen. No wonder it scares the hell out of people like Batman and Gordon.

    Reply

    • Przemek
      November 14, 2017 @ 10:32 am

      It just occured to me that Harvey Two-Face fits the trauma angle as well. He’s created by the Joker by way of emotional and physical pain. “One bad day” indeed. But this pain can only be transformative in a negative sense. That’s what his refusal to suppress his pain with medications means. If you acknowledge and feel the pain, it only deforms you. Harvey’s inner dualism, exposed by the Joker, is then further fueled in a hospital, by someone dressed as a nurse. Those who want to help you to deal with pain are actually enemies with ulterior motives. Of course they are.

      And so Harvey chooses the wrong path. He chooses to leave his face (his trauma) exposed instead of hiding it behind a mask. He chooses to listen to both sides of his personality instead of supressing one and keeping it in check like he did before. And he chooses to accept the random, chaotic nature of the world instead of trying to police it. The film’s ending tells us clearly what the right path was. It was to turn dead Harvey’s head to the side so that only his good half can be seen. And it was to close his casket and put up his pictures so that everyone could see that this man was never hurt.

      Reply

    • Matt Moore
      November 15, 2017 @ 10:20 am

      Fair points – although it’d be a stretch to call either Rorschach or the Comedian “leftist”.

      Reply

      • Przemek
        November 15, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

        You’re right, of course. The Joker mostly reminds me of them on aesthetic/characterological grounds.

        Reply

  7. Josh04
    November 14, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

    This structure – of Batman’s villains being ostensibly correct leftists who the film can barely manage to keep a conservative lid on – is really going to come to a head in the next one, huh?

    As an aside, I’ve got a bit in an upcoming video essay on Suicide Squad (and it seems I’ve got more time for Leto’s Business Class Joker than you) about how Ledger’s line at the end – “we’re going to be doing this forever, you and I” or w/e, is the ultimate defeat of Bale’s Batman, who is opposed to any kind of progress or transformation in society whatsoever. Even if he keeps fighting the Joker forever, stomps down on every point of rupture, eventually society will change.

    Reply

  8. Jarl
    November 14, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

    Everything the Joker predicts comes true. Everything he started, Bane finishes. Kills the mayor, isolates the city, destroys the society. Those civilized people eat each other.

    Reply

  9. Matt Moore
    November 15, 2017 @ 3:41 am

    Good essay. It provokes some thoughts.

    The Joker is a particularly Nolanesque villain. From his earliest films, Nolan has been obsessed with structure. His films always feel “architected” rather than “drawn” or “told”. My main beef with his work is his prioritisation of structure over character in his plots.

    The Joker represents a particular threat, a particular fear in Nolan world: a force whose goal is to provoke the collapse of structures. Nothing could be worse. Except that the Joker is very Nolanesque is his anti-Nolanism. Contrary to his speech in the hospital, the Joker is a schemer, a creator of elaborate structural plots. The opening bank heist turns on each crime playing his role exactly as scripted – even to the point of standing in the right place to be hit by a bus. For someone who proclaims chaos & decries plans, the Joker is awfully addicted to planning. In his painstakingly choreographed violence, the Joker resembles nothing so much as a director of blockbuster action movies.

    Reply

    • Matt Moore
      November 15, 2017 @ 4:57 am

      Another thought concerns when this movie came out. It was in production in 2006-2007. This is a fair way post-9/11. It is also well into the Iraq War and post-Katrina. It is just before the Financial Crisis. In some senses, it is out of joint with the zeitgeist.

      The movie proposes Batman as authoritarian. But a competent authoritarian facing an anarchic force. His mass surveillance system does its job and it is destroyed at the end of the movie.

      Our world is not behaving in such a neat fashion. There are authoritarians but they are far from competent. Lightning wars turn into quagmires. Storm-drenched cities are flooded wrecks for weeks. George W Bush’s approval ratings are on the slide for most of his presidency (with bumps for the Iraq invasion, the 2004 election, and a massive one for 9/11) but it’s after Batman Begins that they fall below 50% (not that I am suggesting any causation here). Surveillance drags on and morphs beyond simply the state monitoring people’s phone calls and emails.

      And I’m not even going to touch things like this: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/column-is-barack-obama-our-harvey-dent/

      Reply

      • Matt Moore
        November 15, 2017 @ 5:13 am

        Another: What kind of anarchist is the Joker?

        (N.B. I am not an expert on anarchist thought). The Joker’s primary antagonist is not really the state. He fights as much with criminals as he does policemen. He has no utopian vision of the future nor any real interest in how humans interact. What he offers is kind of negative of Hobbes. The state of nature that Hobbes abhors, he looks on and says “that seems pretty cool”. He’s not interested in amassing wealth or the normal trappings of power. He instead seems driven by the need to escape an intense boredom. The chaos is to be created and nurtured and supported because the alternative is so… what? Insipid? Threatening? It’s hard to know because he’s not supposed to be a character with conventional motivations, with an origin story. He is a fundamental force of the narrative. He’s not political so much as ontological.

        Incidentally, I don’t think that audiences were ready in 2008 to go along with the Joker’s premise that that human beings are one hair’s breadth away from chaos. I wonder if they are now.

        Reply

        • Przemek
          November 16, 2017 @ 9:45 am

          I don’t think people are ever going to be ready to accept that. It’s a very scary thought, and not just for the conservatists.

          Good catch about the Joker being an ontological force of chaos rather than a character. If I had to assign any actual character motivations to him, I think I’d go with the need to be proven right. He’s like those deeply cynical people who look at anyone less cynical than them and say “you’ll come to agree with me, just live a little longer”. The Joker figured out the truth about humanity and now humanity must prove him right, even if he’s not. (But then again, like Phil said, the movie doesn’t really manage to prove him wrong).

          Reply

          • Matt Moore
            November 16, 2017 @ 11:25 am

            Which makes him sound a bit like an internet troll. A characterization that has some truth. You could imagine him doing something like GamerGate.

            This Joker is deeply cynical about human nature. But he has no concept of human imagination or intimacy. He’s… lacking. Batman can’t really oppose that because he doesn’t either.

    • Przemek
      November 16, 2017 @ 9:55 am

      Ooh, a very good point! It’s like Nolan wanted to create an embodiment of chaos… but the best he could come up with was “a violent schemer”. A surprising and, frankly, cute lack of imagination.

      I wonder if unleashing a true force of chaos upon this movie would render Batman powerless and ineffective. If his enemy really doesn’t have a plan then how can he plan against him? If the violence that killed his parents cannot be eliminated by military gear and surveillance cameras, why even bother to fight crime?

      Reply

  10. Devin
    November 15, 2017 @ 7:43 am

    An interesting observation about actually-leftist villainy. Makes me think about left-labeled villains too: It seems to me that the common pattern, when someone we might broadly call “center or right” wants to write a leftist villain, is basically to write a fascist and pin a red star on them.

    There’s some historical grounding for this, of course: you could legitimately frame the Bolsheviks this way if your heroes are meant to be anarchists in the vein of Makhno or Durruti, for instance. But I can’t escape the suspicion that most of the time, the sort of people who write like that actually think that the NSDAP was a socialist party (“That’s what the S is for, duh, and everybody knows Nazis never lie about anything”), or that Orwell and McCarthy would have gotten along since they both hated Stalinism.

    Probably mostly it’s just laziness, though: the fascist stuff is just “what villains do,” so if we want a commie or anarchist villain we’ll put some commie/anarchist words in his mouth and then have him do “what villains do.”

    Reply

  11. Aylwin
    November 15, 2017 @ 11:50 am

    From the point of view of anyone less amoral than the Joker, isn’t there a certain contradiction, or at least serious tension, between endorsing anarchism and rejecting the upbeat resolution of the bomb situation as tritely unrealistic? (Granted that this article doesn’t quite do that, rejecting it as contradicting the world as represented in these films rather than the world as it is, but still.) Anarchism depends on a highly optimistic view of human nature. If it’s only the veneer of social order that keeps people from eating each other, best keep that veneer laid on good and thick.

    That tension can be resolved in principle by taking a Rousseau-style position that it’s the very fact of being civilised that makes people bad. But that would not do away with the practical problem that if people at present are bad, however they came to be so, toppling the social order would still lead to a bloodbath, nor the likelihood that, as soon as the frenzy calmed down a little, a population accustomed to order would promptly start building it anew, in a more basic and brutal form than the one that went before.

    Reply

    • Matt Moore
      November 15, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

      Agree. The Joker doesn’t really offer a coherent political view of the world (but then he’s a cartoon character who dresses a clown fighting another character who dresses as a bat). And the film isn’t interested in exploring the politics, morality or implications of different forms of anarchism (David Goyer was the writer rather Ursula Le Guin).

      Reply

    • Devin
      November 16, 2017 @ 11:33 am

      Not necessarily “highly optimistic,” but you’re basically right. (Alan Moore has described anarchism as “the only political system that has ever worked,” and he’s pretty much correct: It turns out that “do what I say because I have a gun” doesn’t actually function well for much longer than the length of the average bank robbery. At some point you need to build consensus and start behaving like sensible anarchists at least within your group, even if inter-group relationships are still at gunpoint.)

      I don’t think the problem is the outcome of the boat set-piece. The problems are first, that it’s unprecedented: maybe this is how people really are (if you’re an optimist), but it’s a sudden intrusion of real people into a movie that hasn’t had them until now. Second, it’s just not good movie. It’s lazy, we don’t care about the characters (Business Guy on Business Trip, The Warden, and Big Prisoner #1, I think are their given names), and the writing doesn’t earn much either. Honestly the only bit that really sticks in my head is the prisoner playing to the warden’s baser desires. Those lines worked, the rest was just okay.

      Reply

      • Aylwin
        November 17, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

        Obviously we’re verging on a much bigger debate here, but that does seem a bit reductive (though that may just be the product of summarising complex ideas in a few sentences).

        Power ultimately rooted in violence operates through a profusion of different material, psychological and cultural mechanisms other than explicit threat, and even explicit threat usually only requires the threatener to take action occasionally. Consensus-building within a group typically takes place in ways much inflected by gradations of hierarchy and authority – everyone getting a say does not imply everyone’s say having equal impact. The implementation of consensus decisions commonly calls forth enforcement mechanisms (which often have a way of developing their own momentum once they get going). And of course interactions between groups of one sort or another account for an extremely large proportion of the violence, coercion, exploitation and general power-imbalance in human history.

        So characterising all political relations that aren’t one person compelling one or more others by the active, present exercise of violence as essentially anarchistic seems like stretching the definition of the concept into uselessness. But I grant that that may be a caricature of what you’re actually saying.

        Reply

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