The Philosophy of Batman: Literary Theory Edition

Or: Holy plaisire du texte, Barthes-Man! The plot of The Dark Knight, like that of Batman Begins, is honestly kind of shapeless and waffle-y. And yet, as Memento proves, Nolan is capable of writing narratives that are drum-taught and mongoose-agile. … Continued

Or: Holy plaisire du texte, Barthes-Man!

The plot of The Dark Knight, like that of Batman Begins, is honestly kind of shapeless and waffle-y. And yet, as Memento proves, Nolan is capable of writing narratives that are drum-taught and mongoose-agile. Why is he churning out these behemoths? Why, despite the wafflage, are they so dang good?

To answer this, I’d like to take a minute to consider Batman as a piece of storytelling, to consider the properties of the tale as it’s told. You’re probably taking it as given that there are spoilers for The Dark Knight ahead. But I should warn you that there are also spoilers for Batman Begins, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Forrest Gump, the Superman comic books, and The Hunt For Red October. Be warned.

In his famous – for a certain value of “fame” – book S/Z, Roland Barthes strip-mines Balzac’s Sarrasine, wringing every scrap of meaning out of the text and classifying his findings into five narrative codes: Hermeneutic, Semic, Proairetic, Symbolic, and Cultural. The wikipedia definitions of these codes are pretty solid as of this writing (I mean, they could be “Taco! Taco! Taco!” by tomorrow), but they’re easier to understand when you see them in action. Like after the jump! Convenience!

The Hermeneutic code (henceforth HER) is composed of mysteries and enigmas:  the questions that we keep reading to learn the answers to.  At the beginning of Citizen Kane, the Hermeneutic code is activated with the question “What is Rosebud?”  Throughout the film, whenever the reporter asks someone about Rosebud, the code is activated again, whetting our appetite for an answer.  Finally, at the very end, it’s activated one more time when the mystery is solved (although this is optional).  Or take this example, from The Hunt for Red October.

Ramius looked aft at the bluffs of the Kola Fjord.  They had been carved to this shape millenia before by the remorseless pressure of towering glaciers.  How many times in his twenty years of service with the Red Banner Northern Fleet had he looked at the wide, flat U-shape?  This would be the last.  One way or another, he’d never go back.

HER is activated by the statement “One way or another, he’d never go back.”  Why won’t he go back?  Inquiring minds want to know!  But of course, we don’t really want to know, because that would make the book stupid.  Imagine if the passage ended like this:  “One way or another, he’d never go back.  The reason he’d never go back was that he was planning to defect to Alec Baldwin.”  Way suckier, am I right?  What’s interesting is that it’s still suckier even for people who have already read the book.  The reading mind likes to encounter “mysteries,” even when it already knows the answer.

The Proairetic Code (PRO) is composed of actions, the mechanical details of how the events in the story take place.  (Note that the Proairetic and Hermeneutic codes, together, constitute the entirety of the plot.)  A great example of a proairetic scene in a film is the heist sequence from Mission Impossible.  It’s all actions, one after another, meticulously shot, and following a more or less causal logic.  Of course, almost any scene has proairetic elements, but it’s not usual to have them placed so strongly in the foreground.  In the Red October passage above, all you really get for PRO is “He looked aft at the bluffs.”

The Semic and Symbolic codes (SEM and SYM), are both about connotation.  It can be very hard to tell them apart – even Barthes gets confused sometimes, in my opinion – and honestly when you’re looking at a text, there’s usually not that much to be gained from telling them apart.  In The Godfather, oranges are a Symbolic code for death and violence, while guns (and less direct but still non-arbitrary signs, like Michael’s army uniform) are Semic codes for the same thing. Seems pretty straightforward, right?  But what about the “Sicilian message” that Sonny recieves about Lucca Brazzi’s death?  The association of fish with death is pretty arbitrary, but then again the fish is actually dead, and kind of grisly looking…  more often than not, things will fall into this grey area.  This particular instance is also a reference to Mafia traditions, bringing up:

The Cultural code (which Barthes abbreviates as REF, probably because CUL, in French, is Not Okay), is found in aspects of the text that refer to a preexisting body of knowledge.  Any episode of CSI disgorges massive chunks of REF, both in the dialogue (“Using luminol, we found blood and semen on the Tilt-o-Whirl!”) and in the flashy montages of the actors doing Important Scientific Things in the crime lab to the haunting strains of Sasha and John Digweed.  The references in both of these cases are to scientific knowledge, but the show is also heavy on REF connected to the hobbies of the victim and/or murderer of the week.  For instance, if the killer is a hangglider, you can bet they’ll throw in some information about thermals, or the difference between rigid-wing and fixed-wing, or whatever it is that hanggliders care about.  Interestingly enough, the body of knowledge that is referenced doesn’t have to be accurate, or even really exist.  The technobabble on Star Trek is REF.  So are all the references to elvish folklore in Lord of the Rings.  Barthes found this to be the least interesting of all the codes, but it turns out to be crucial when we talk about The Dark Knight.

24 Comments on “The Philosophy of Batman: Literary Theory Edition”

  1. Adrian #

    Hey, thanks Stokes. I really enjoyed this post.

    But what about the REF concerning the fact that Ledger is dead? That’s also knowledge we bring into the theatre, and I think we play upon it somewhat. It’s definitely another interesting dynamic to the experience of the film.

    Thanks again!


  2. Gab #

    I think one thing your missing, though, is that a lot of the scenes in Nolan’s films that are confusing the first time through make more sense the second, third, etc. time. And elements or themes that show up constantly throughout. Take the Prestige and the, “You mean it today,” element. It makes total sense the SECOND time, because then you realize which twin is in the scene, but the first time, it’s just, well, awkward and seems almost stupid. Another example from the same movie is Bale’s performance. Up until the very end, it seems like he’s doing a bad job in his acting because how he carries himself, speaks, and looks at the other characters seems to vary from scene to scene. But then, all of a sudden, WHAM, and you shit your pants and realize it’s because he was playing two men the whole fucking time. So you watch again and say, “Ok, he’s Soandso here.”

    The “cofusing” stuff in TDK gets less confusing every time you see it.

    All except one thing, and maybe someone can help me. At the end, Gordon tells Batman that Harvey killed five people. Who were they? I count three for certain: the cop at the bar, and the two men in the car. A fourth is possible but not very likely, and that is the bartender. So who are the other victims? I and a friend sat there and COUNTED when we saw it again this past weekend (IMAX, hellz yes), and we COULD NOT come up with five.

    Oh, and since this was a drawn-out way to talk about how badass the Joker is, what about the fact that he decries having plans, yet everything he does is so methodical and meticulously detailed?


  3. Kate #

    Loved this – thanks.

    I would be interested in someone’s take on this philosophy in regard to, say, Iron Man – a character for whom most people have very little specific REF but lots of genre REF.


  4. wiggin #

    I too have been wondering who the five people are. in fact, it was the only confusticating thing in the whole movie!

    I think the Joker saying he’s an agent of chaos could be seen as an attempt to play on words and could offer insight into his characterization. You would typically think of agent as a representation of something, such as an f.b.i. agent (pardon the lazy analogy) represents, at least to a degree, the attempt to bring justice, and that the person himself behaves in a manner at least similar to his job, such as the investigator acting lawfully and inquisitively. When the Joker says he’s an agent of chaos, you think ok, he is going to be chaos incarnate. However, the dictionary meaning (however fruitless it may be) of agent has many layers and many possible interpretations that help clarify the Joker’s characterization.
    Gleaned from

    1.a person or business authorized to act on another’s behalf

    to be an agent of chaos, one does not have to be chaotic himself. he is merely acting on its behalf, attempting to bring it about, thus allowing himself to logically plan causing (seemingly) illogical destruction.

    4. an active cause; an efficient cause

    the Joker could be referring to not “chaos” in the empirical, logic sense, but in an “inciting social turmoil” sort of chaos. the rest of the movie provides much evidence for this interpretation as a “causation” of “social turmoil”, or an “agent” of “chaos”.

    I believe that the second option holds the most evidence (if evidence is what we want or even necessary) in clarifying what the Joker meant by an agent of chaos.

    as to not having plans, it does appear that he has “plans”. however, being an agent of chaos can inherently mean that you incite chaos into the others. remember the “magic pencil trick” article explaining how the infamous scene with the Joker toys with your notions of what is expected? for instance, you know that the Joker is a psychotic killer, then he masquerades and toys with this perception as a harmless magician before shattering this false sense of understanding by impaling a guy’s eye and brain on a pencil. or, alternately, the doubt you felt of your understanding of the Joker when he gave a second and third explanation for his scars? the very questioning of your reasoning, questioning what you think you know about the Joker, is how the Joker could be seen as inciting “chaos”. He lies and paints his face like a clown and yet doesn’t offer to make you a balloon dog. the very act of interacting with his persona in your mind incites doubt and chaos. we think he is lying about not having plans. but how can we be sure?

    i think he is a superb agent of chaos.


  5. Daniel #

    acording to IMDB, the five people Two Face killed were:

    -Maroni and his two thugs (yes, there were three, if you look closely when Maroni is getting in the car, one thug opens his door and then proceeds to get inside after Maroni, meaning that he wasn’t the driver)

    -The fourth its Wurtz in the bar.

    -And the fifth wasss…..(drums please)

    the cop that the joker killed in the hospital when he freed Harvey, because nobody saw knew the joker was inside the hospital.

    There you have it. Now it makes sense, doesn´t it?


  6. Stokes #

    Adrian: Absolutely! But does it add new elements to the viewing experience, or does it just ramp up everything that’s already there? I’m honestly not sure… I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on that.

    Gab: You’re right that sometimes these things clear up on multiple viewings, but that’s still very unusual, isn’t it? Even for a “puzzle” movie like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, it’s more normal for everything to seem to make sense the first time around, even if watching again makes you go “ohhhhhh!”


  7. MIchael Bay #

    >Also, in some of the more frenetic examples of the Michael Bay school of
    >filmmaking, the Proairetic code begins to break down. (If you can honestly tell >who is beating up who at the end of S.W.A.T., I’ll mail you five dollars.)

    I’ll tell you: that’s me, Michael Bay, beating the hell out of the box office competition, that’s who. You can mail me those five dollars now. Thanks.

    p.s. Actually, The Dark Knight would be kicking even more box office ass now if only they had used my script instead of this Chris Nolan crap:


  8. Gab #

    Wait, so even though the Joker killed the cop, they attribute his death to Harvey? THAT doesn’t work for me, but, then again, it’s the same gun, and Gordan and his people would have no way of knowing who pulled the trigger…

    I’ll need to see it again to look for the second thug in the car. Oh, damn. I’m so sad about that.


  9. Gab #

    ::cringe:: And it should be “you’re” in my first post. God…

    Oh, and Stokes, I think that’s what makes Nolan’s movies better than, say, Shyamalan’s- it makes me not just sort of want to see them again, but feel something closer to a NEED to see them again. And, being the nerd I am, I like analyzing and coming up with stuff every time, so I enjoy the intellectual/mental exercise and discoveries. It’s like a new experience each time. Like reading a book for one class and looking for stuff specific to that topic, then rereading it for another and looking for stuff specific to THAT one.


  10. Adrian #

    Daniel: When I first read your post I thought “yes! finally! that makes sense!”…. but then I thought, how did they know that cop got shot if the building was blown up? Help me out here!

    Stokes: It probably ramps up what’s already there. The reason I wanted to mention it was that you used an apt example in this post of the meaning imbued in an action performed by an iconic actor such as Jack Nicholson, etc, because of the REF associated with that person. And at the moment, who has more REF associated with them than Heath Ledger? If we’re all doctors when it comes to Batman, we’re all surgeons when it comes to Heath Ledger’s untimely death.

    Also, I read a review of TDK where the reviewer was complaining about how Batman’s struggle with whether or not to reveal himself wasnt really valid, and I wish I could remember where it was because I would refer them to this article. Just as you say, its genre theory… “superhero has an identity to conceal”. That’s just the way it is.


  11. Stokes #

    An alternate explanation is that death #5 is Harvey himself. I’m wondering if the “cop in the hospital” explanation – which no one would have known about, because the hospital was blown the heck up, cop and all – is a kludge they came up with to justify using Eckhart in the sequel now that using Ledger again is sadly impossible.


  12. Gab #

    But is the “cop in the hospital” the OFFICIAL explanation? I just read that IMDB thing, and the cop at the hospital isn’t there as an option, either. And besides, there is no source, so I assume it’s just a fan with an IMDB account writing their own theories.

    I still feel like five is at least one-too-high.


  13. Daniel #

    Yes, i looked again and the “hospital cop” was removed from the FAQ section of IMDB. By the way, i dont think that just because the answer is in IMDB, its an official answer, that would have to come up from Nolan himself, when I read it it just made sense to me. And still kinda does, after all Gordon sent the cops specifically to get Dent. He would have known if one of the cops and Dent turned out missing, and when he found out that his family was kidnaped by Dent and that he had gone into a killing spree, its not that far fetched to assume that he blamed the missing cop to him. I do grant you that it does take a lot of assuming, maybe its just easier to belive that when Ramirez turned out missing they thought she was dead. My two cents.


  14. Gab #

    No, I think the cop-hospital theory is pretty sensical. Like I said, there’s no telling who pulled the trigger- and that’s assuming the body didn’t get crispified in the fire and there was even a bullet to retrieve from it. I guess I just would like the official answer, yeah, from Nolan. And while I don’t think IMDB is the be-all-end-all, it’s always good for a quick answer. Like Wiki! Thinking it was Ramirez is a tidbit harder for me to swallow, for she is the one that calls Gordon’s family. But they never show his wife tell him as such before he says there are five dead, two of them cops. I do think it’s safe to presume he’d find out within a few minutes of his little film-ending-monologue, and that she’d so get her ass fired. And even if his wife didn’t tell him specifically that Ramirez had baited them, he still is smart enough to figure out why she would have “gone missing” at that time: because she had something to do with Rachel’s death; so it would be a matter of time before he figured out just what that connection happened to be.

    Bah. My point is this is frustrating me and lots of theories sound valid and make sense and stuff, but I won’t really stop twitching about it until I get word from Nolan. Any ideas as to how I can contact him??????


  15. Adrian #

    I dunno, but you could always try to contact Jonathan Nolan instead. Anyone of the three writers should know the answer, and the other two are probably easier to get in touch with (I bet Christopher Nolan is lighting cigars with dollar bills in a golden tower right now).


  16. josh #

    awesome post. that was incredibly fun to read.


  17. rewg #

    Wow, great article. You really brought together a lot of ideas about the movie and how the story is told. From what I’ve seen so far, Chris Nolan has a unique way of playing with the audience’s emotions. A lot of movies play with fear or suspense a bit, and some cause a certain character or ideal to grow on you throughout the movie, but Chris Nolan’s movies, and TDK in particular, are a carefully planned emotional/psychological rollercoaster. It’s like he can guess the impact each moment of the movie has on the viewer, and then incorporates that into the next bit. For instance, one of my favorite effects of the movie, and I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this, was getting the audience all wrapped up in the Joker character, only to prove him wrong in the boat scene. The Joker seems so fearless and free, and we love him for it, we start to believe that he must really have some great wisdom to impart… (I imagine everyone on this sight was a sucker for his philosophizing, at least a little bit) and of course we wanted to know more about him, get into his character, even though he lied to us we cared about him… Then just as he’s about to show us the darkness of the human soul, his test subjects let us all down. So what does he do? He tries to blow up the ships anyway. Suddenly he’s like a child overturning the game-board before he can “officially” lose at Stratego, (even though he already made the game rules to include blowing up both ships, we don’t want him to do it, and it surely doesn’t seem fair- yet another twist, but I digress) and we are sitting in the theater almost ashamed, thinking, “did I really side with this guy?” and still wondering who we want to believe. And the sentiment is reinforced by the upside-down camera effect- putting us in sympathy with each of the characters whenever he is in the spotlight. At least that’s how I felt during that scene- like I was right there with the Joker shuffling off that silly faith in humanity when suddenly I was smacked upside the head with… gasp… proof of something good in people. But I think it’s more than just a “ray of light” in the plot as some have said. It’s like Chris Nolan knows that the audience will love whoever the movie wants us to love, and he’s mocking us for it. Now you can say people always like that bad guy, but that’s not true. Did you love the bad guy in Blue Velvet? David Lynch didn’t want you to. But you liked Alex in Clockwork Orange? Of course, Stanley Kubrick filmed it that way. Chris Nolan wants you to love the Joker just until he’s ready to drop the trap door out from under you, and then he leaves you hanging, not knowing whose side you’re on, or which side is better.


  18. patrick #


    I LOVED the Joker from the moment he made the pencil “disappear” and only REALLY noticed Heath beneath the make-up when he has “a feeling we’re destined to do this forever” and I cry a little each time.

    As for the 5 dead, my issue is with the “2 of them cops”, (I count 3) my theory:

    1. Wuertz (First kill, implied.We cut to the sonar tv board)
    2. The bartender (?)
    3. Maroni’s Driver (FACT: he “spares” Maroni then kills the driver)
    4. cop guarding the Gordon’s #1
    5. cop guarding the Gordon’s #2

    Its theoretical that Maroni died, but I’d swear Barbara says there are 2 guards whom Ramirez was GOING to call off but couldn’t since Dent knocks her out immediately after the phone call. We KNOW factually that Wuertz, the bartender and Maroni’s driver were all attributed to Dent/Batman depending on the Commissioner’s/public viewpoint, we’re @ a loss for the second cop and the 3rd victim, correct?


  19. elsa #

    (My head after reading both article and comments:
    no wonder obama won the election that year, where did the interesting and in-depth (with wit) conversations go.
    so thank you all.)

    bringing back the barthes-man, i just have to drop the farfetched SEM or SYM (my “oh”) with the name of “Bruce Wayne”. As in if we think of Bruce as a bruise with barthes: “where there is a wound there is a subject” (from the lovers discourse). Henceforth Bruce Waynes overcoming of this bruise – his fear (of bats) not loss could be an argument to his “character development”not much because his parents was killed nut because what happened s i n c e his parents was killed. (w gotham). with the little boys reasoning/guilt that his fear put them out infront of the bullets.

    but do you have any interesting thoughts on the technical aspect? now with the dark knight rises also behind us? im using batman and benjamin (walter) to discuss my “marxism” (what people like to call feminism) for a new way/body ahead.

    (and abt the heath/jack REF – though i rather be topic oriented – i just want to mention that to many non nyc’ers or non-americans (but still almost americans: meaning europeans) dont know much about Heath nor his death)

    and maybe that REf also has somehthing to say about the fact that the dark knight rises was a bigger hit “overseas”. as far as i could tell just overlooking the boxoffcie numbers. and i wonder if anyone els share the “new tech” aspect of the hit of this movie since the HER and the plot have a long and lousy ending (in my opinion)

    but again, thank you


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