Take the famous pencil scene. It would be entertaining in any case just as a little piece of stylish ultraviolence, but the kick, the juice of the scene comes from the fact that the Joker is doing it. Ledger walks into the room, facing down a collection of mobsters. In our minds, the Cultural code *pings* and we think “The Joker is known to be totally badass. The Joker is known to be insane.” Then HER takes over. “How will they demonstrate that he is badass and insane?” Events transpire. It rocks our worlds. Imagine that scene stuck into, say, a random gangster movie, with some random psychopath in the Joker’s role. Not quite as fun, right? Now imagine it in a specific gangster movie, The Departed, with Jack Nicholson doing the stabbing. Awesome again? I think so… but that’s just because Jack Nicholson has developed a library of REF expectations as a screen presence that are just as pervasive as the Joker’s own. (Feel free to repeat this thought experiment with the following actors for hilarious results: Christopher Walken, Vincent Price, Neal Patrick Harris, Tom Hanks, John Goodman.) Generic expectation is a powerful thing.
This also sheds some interesting light on the whole “lying about his scars” thing. One small HER/REF code attached to any new version of the Joker is the question “Are they going with ‘makeup Joker,’ or ‘deformed Joker’?” Production stills answered this question for us long before the movie came out, leading to the inevitable follow up questions of “How did he get deformed?” and, although we can pretty much guess the answer, “Is he wilding out because of his deformity?” When we get to that first speech about the scars, then, it’s not just a pretty piece of scripting and a masterful piece of acting, it’s the closure of one of the film’s most compelling HER mysteries (incidentally, one that operates both within the text and metatextually). It’s quite a good resolution. It’s suitably creepy for one thing. More importantly, it reveals some without revealing too much: that is, the hermeneutic code is somewhat sustained, not finished and tossed aside. We feel primed for a third-act confrontation with Batman where we find out some crucial detail about the Joker’s abusive father that really explains his deviant behavior. The resolution of the mystery seems to be following an arc that is as pleasant as it is predictable. Or so we think. When we hear a second, completely contradictory explanation for the scars, the Hermeneutic code reactivates almost convulsively. We were curious about the scars before, now we have Got. To. Know. It’s an incredibly savvy piece of storytelling. What’s more, it changes the rules of the game (by showing that Ledger’s Joker is not abiding by the unwritten rules of villainhood). Typically, we would be annoyed with a film that didn’t explain the villain’s motivations: that’s one HER enigma that we expect to be closed, and we’ll usually get angry if it’s left open. But when it became apparent that Nolan had no intention of letting us in on the Joker’s real motivations, I found myself feeling almost gleeful at the bucking of the narrative trend. I didn’t want the Joker to escape from Batman’s detective work… but I’m glad he got away from mine. Much as I’m dying to know how he got his scars, if they explain it now it’ll feel like dropping a Monarch butterfly into a kill jar and pinning it’s corpse to a board. (In my fanboyish heart of hearts, though, my preferred theory is that the Joker’s scars are latex fakes. That when he’s carving people up and speechifying, not only is he lying about how he got the scars, he’s lying about having scars to begin with. That would be pretty boss.)
So there you have it. I probably could have saved a lot of your time by just writing “The Dark Knight is awesome because the Joker is awesome,” which, while less than nuanced, sums up my argument pretty accurately. Unfortunately, this leaves me a touch concerned for the future of the Bale/Nolan Batman franchise. There’s not another character in Batman’s rogues gallery that’s as compelling as the Joker. Two-Face would have come in second, but that character is dead (just like The Author!). Oh, they could do a little handwaving and bring him back, but it couldn’t make for a compelling movie, becayse we already know how these filmmakers are going to portray Two-Face. They did a great job with the character, nevertheless, the territory has been consumed. So who’s left? The Penguin worked pretty well for Tim Burton, but the demented camp sensibility of the Burton films is miles away from Nolan’s high-minded solemnity. The Riddler? Maybe. Mr. Freeze? Ech. Poison Ivy?
We’ll just have to wait and see.
By the way, I should at least mention that the symbolic and semiotic codes get quite a workout in this film as well. I won’t bother trying to describe these at length (or even to parse out whether the codes I’m mentioning are SYM or SEM), but briefly, there are two big issues that the film keeps bringing up. First, terrorism/counterterrorism: we’re confronted with torture, extraordinary rendition, bombs, insane criminals, foreign criminals, talk of burning the world, criminals who send the police videotapes of them torturing and killing hostages, etc. etc. Second, the fluidity of identity (something of a thematic obsession for Nolan). We get an entire gang of Jokers at the beginning, and a couple of counterfeit Batmen. Batman is equated with the Joker (by the Joker) and with Dent (by Batman). Dawes is equated with Dent (in that they were “exchanged” by the Joker in a crucial scene), and also with the random Joker henchman that we see wearing a Rachel Dawes nametag. Dent, as Two-Face, is also equated with the Joker (by the Joker). And the Joker is even equated with his own victims (by the filmmakers) in his final appearance, where the idiosyncratic camerawork, which has him hanging upside down but framed so that he seems rightside up, is the same that he used on his torture tapes. I still think the main reason I’m so jazzed about the film is the whole HER/REF complex I described at such length above, but all this connotative stuff sure helps to keep things interesting.