Through history, specific moments have defined and changed its course repeatedly, steering the world to junctures that provide a larger framework for humankind to react to and operate within, until the next moment arrives. With a euro-centric world that had survived a holocaust and witnessed the euphoric fall of the Berlin Wall, one would be tempted to believe that they had seen it all, until, the World Trade Centre came crashing down in the heart of the US and, simultaneously, on the collective conscience of humanity.
Everyone from the other side of the Pacific became a suspect in a universe run by the white man. Almost overnight, society at large was at the brink of an Orwellian crisis — a moment that had steered humanity away from the reality it had known all along. As writer Haruki Murakami says in an article titled ‘Reality A Reality B’ for The New York Times, “Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?” Yes, what else could one possibly term this moment that had definitively changed the way we looked at the world, and the way the world looked at us.
Seven years later in 2008, the same world woke up to the ‘agent of chaos’ — thankfully, this time only on their theatre screens. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had arrived in all its post promotional glory, with the most perfectly unlikely actor playing its villain, that too after his sudden death seven months prior to the film’s release. Heath Ledger’s Joker came at a time when his meteoric rise as the “thinking man’s actor” seemed to have caught Hollywood’s fancy. With intrigue running high on the back of Ledger’s shocking choice to play the bad guy in a sequel to an underwhelming film, his subsequent and unfortunate death set the stage for a cult classic, one that did not necessarily break box-office records in retrospect, but paved the way for its successors to emulate and capitalize on. Nolan’s critique and allegory of the 9/11 terror attacks had successfully shifted the tectonic plates of art and pop culture, forever.
While many may have initially construed the film as a pro-war propaganda in support of the policies being peddled by the Bush administration, it can now be safely established that The Dark Knightmade a strong commentary against it. From engaging in wiretapping to taking a radically fundamentalist stance against communal tensions, Nolan auteured a story that critically examined the most prominent historic moment of its decade while changing the course of visual culture itself.
It’s been exactly a decade since the film released, and in retrospect, the virtual world inhabited by us hashtag-citizens might just be studied as a post Dark Knight phenomenon.
The DC universe on screen was primarily colonized by Jokers who were often comical and at other times menacing. But after Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the clown, the narrative for Batman literally conflated the comic book universe into what was playing out in the real-time backdrop of our theatres. The Joker is always, in all his forms, an extension of our Byronic hero’s worst and darkest fears. It is the perfect antithesis to the order Batman had established in the middle of his meaningless life, where his parents had been murdered by a tramp over a string of pearls they refused to part with. The death of his parents barely made any sense to him, and that’s when the firearms rejecting, superpower-less guardian of Gotham city decided to spin some sense out of the whirlwind around him. This is where the nihilistic figure of the Joker comes in and plays his card to become an equal and opposite force against the Batman. War-paint spraying, truck ramming, hospital burning his way through town, the Joker’s moves were as unpredictable and shrouded in mysteries as his past. Unlike his nemesis, his origins cannot be traced, and it is this incomprehensible nature of the Joker, an incendiary, mutant-like vile creature (identical to the functions played by the card itself), which throws the order-loving Batman off guard. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stranger,” — certainly, witnessing a man say those lines when he himself was rumoured to have met with his end while rehearsing that script, added to the enigmatic halo overarching the film. It was perhaps a culmination of smart marketing, an early press screening to make the buzz stronger, coupled with a villain who became timeless even before the film’s release that laid the foundation for what was to become a one-stop-shop for the hashtag-millennial’s lexical needs in the days to come.
With “Why so serious?” and “Let’s put a smile on that face” taking over common parlance in a manner that perhaps even “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” could not, the lines have even found inherent resonance among a generation that crossed paths with it much before they had even heard of its source. The Dark Knight can be fairly attributed with triggering the meme-culture one seems to have accepted as their natural habitat now. YouTube had barely turned three when the film had released, and soon, the video hosting website got the taste of what one knows as ‘viral’ today — with a spoofed scene from The Dark Knight made by Raul Lezcano aka Monkey & Apple uploaded on it. The video has clocked over 21 million views in nine years, testifying to the fact that it has passed the most crucial popularity test the world knows at present. The universal, almost philosophical appeal in the words of the Joker has transcended time, space and situation. As memes caught on, people realized the potential of not the Joker’s face, but his lines from the film. Soon, words from The Dark Knight were put into the mouths of cartoons, stick figures, animals and every other unsuspecting creature inhabiting this newly constructed meme-world. Nolan’s creation had become the unexpected architect of this space, and boy was the architect here to stay. With cat memes and dab memes slithering in and out of fashion, the Joker’s lines from The Dark Knight have withstood changing internet trends and tastes.
As the world observes the film’s tenth anniversary and is flooded with a superhero movie every other weekend, one can almost feel themselves hoping, and simultaneously knowing deep within, that none of the freshly minted baddies can match up to how bad Ledger’s Joker was. At the end of the day, when the world really teeters on the edge of collapse, people are going to turn on each other and bay for the blood of their own kind. And that’s exactly what the Joker tries to convey, unlike other antagonists who seem to judge the world through the myopic lenses of their own crisis. Maybe that’s why Nolan’s Dark Knight is not the film we deserved, but the one we all needed, and continue to seek out even today.