The Ideological Dichotomy of The Joker and Bane

A lot has already been said of the “The Dark Knight Rises” and the significance of its place in not just the Christopher Nolan film trilogy, but in the collective mythos of Batman as a whole. The latest of these commentaries is in the obvious comparisons between the central antagonists of Nolan’s own “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises”.

Bane and the Joker. The Joker and Bane. The debate and discussion gravitating around the comparison of these on-screen depictions of two of Batman’s most iconic nemesis’ is not surprising in the least, as the existence of both characters in their respective films encapsulates and defines the themes or central thematic message of those films. Although, the general boiling point of most of these discussions comes down to which of the villains is “better” than the other.

This post is not one of those discussions, but rather study in unpacking and comparing the motivations/modus operandi of these two characters and how they represent the themes of their respective films. To put formality and tact aside, this is in no way another chapter in the pissing match between “Team Joker”, “Team Bane”, and the overzealous hoard of comic purists who claim to love The Dark Knight but denounce The Dark Knight Rises’ in the same sentence somehow for its divergences from accepted “Bat-Canon”.

What is the difference between The Joker and Bane? To start off, let’s get a little perspective from Tom Hardy, the actor who portrays Bane in TDKR, and his take on that very question in the 2012 Summer Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly,

“The Joker didn’t care—he just wanted to see the world burn, and he was a master of chaos and destruction, unscrupulous and crazy. Bane is not that guy. There is a very meticulous and calculated way about Bane. There is a huge orchestration of organization to his ambition. He is also a physical threat to Batman. There is nothing vague about Bane. No jokes. He’s a very clean, clear villain.”

It’s interesting that Hardy would use that particular phrase, “he just wanted to see the world burn”, as it is an apt, succinct, and popular one coined particularly to describe the Joker’s anarchic-nihilistic nature. What’s even more interesting is that neither those particular words nor the original phrase they are derived from are ever directly spoken by the Joker himself , but are instead  accredited to the ever astute Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler/caretaker/confidant.

The Nolan trilogy depiction of Alfred, portrayed by Michael Caine, serves a comparatively small but otherwise vital purpose in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.  As Bruce’s confidant and mentor, Alfred’s observations and stories serve as foils in understanding both the fundamental nature and the forshadowed intentions of the villains in The Dark Knight Trilogy. The first example is in The Dark Knight. Typically turning to him for advice in his personal war against crime, Bruce is confronted with the introduction of a new, terrifyingly formidable opponent in the Joker. Alfred tells Bruce a story of his younger years in the British Special Forces, and it is from this story where the iconic quote is derived.

The Joker is a free agent. As disarmingly as he would rather suggest that he’s “just a dog chasing cars” or that simply he doesn’t have a plan at all, he’s only telling half of the truth. His existence before the adoption of his namesake persona is deliberately left as vacuum of interpretation, as Nolan preferred that his take on the Joker be a fully formed entity rather than an onscreen creation. I believe that this decision is especially wise, as this persistent appearance of immaculately formed villains throughout the Nolan Film Trilogy sets it apart from previous film adaptations  and comic depictions such as that the villains are presented as exceptional cases rather than the rule of law of this Batman universe. They don’t reoccur, they just are.

What makes the Joker’s disheveled charisma and knee-jerk spontaneity so captivating to movie audiences is in that he treads a fine line between the qualities of insanity and intelligence throughout his performance. The Joker is anarchic in a way that he is guided by his impulses, (Dog chasing cars”, “Dynamite, Gunpowder, Gasoline…”, etc.) but he is also intelligent enough in such a way as to measure those impulses against one another in benefiting him in the long term. I truly believe that he did not have a clear cut plan, but rather grew into one over the course of the story. That’s what’s so enrapturing about the Joker character in The Dark Knight. He’s an immaculately formed,  static entity that otherwise grows and changes in ways that occur both on and off screen, adding a whole new dimensionality to him along the way.

Bane is introduced in a flamboyantly constructed appearance similar to that of the Joker’s in TDK, although the essence that he emits is entirely different. Captured and transported by an unknowning CIA agent, revealing himself only to orchestrate an elaborate aerial assault on a flying cargo plane, ripping the tail end of said cargo plane to allow for the entrance of a rappelling cadre of  armed mercenaries, capturing a mysterious scientist and planting a double body before disconnecting a set of support cables and sending the remnants of the plane hurtling into the bottom of a deserted European valley, Bane is very much a man with a plan.

There is a moment in The Dark Knight Rises where Alfred does recount another story to Bruce, but it is rather directed at shedding light on Bruce himself rather than anyone else. This is a prime example of the divergent thematic intentions between the two films. While The Dark Knight was summed together as a story of “escalation”, The Dark Knight Rises is rather one of resolution and the quest for redemption from one’s own self-afflicted turmoil. Alfred’s commentary on Bane is much more unimaginative compared to that of the Joker’s, but it is no less important.

*As The Dark Knight Rises is a fairly recent film as of this writing and no fair use footage from it has as of yet appeared online, We’ll just have to work from quotations of the film instead.*

Alfred: There is a prison in a more ancient part of the world, a pit where men are thrown to suffer and die. But sometimes a man rises from the darkness. Sometimes the pit sends something back.

Bruce: Bane.

Alfred: Born and raised in hell on earth.

Bruce: Born in prison?

Alfred: No one knows why or how he escaped, but they do know that once he did he was trained by Ra’s Al Ghul, your mentor.

Bruce: Bane was a member of The League of Shadows?

Alfred: And then he was excommunicated. And any man who is too extreme for Ra’s Al Ghul is not to be trifled with.

A lot more on the nose compared to the Bhurma story, isn’t it? But there’s more,

[Alfred looks at the monitor where we see footage of Bane killing]
Bruce Wayne: I’ll fight harder, I always have.
Alfred: Take a good look. His speed, his ferocity, his training! I see the power of belief. I see the League of Shadows resurgent.
Bruce Wayne: You said he was excommunicated.
Alfred: By Ra’s Al Ghul. Who leads them now?
Bruce Wayne: Ra’s Al Ghul was the League of Shadows, and I beat him. Bane is just a mercenary, and we need to find out what he’s up to.

The power of belief is what separates Bane and the Joker. It is not only this quality, but the power of a self-affirmed purpose that drives Bane’s intentions, not a fleeting whimsical indifference.

Daggett: I’ve paid you a small fortune.
Bane: And that gives you power over me?
Daggett: What is this?
Bane: Your money and infrastructure have been important. Till now.
[Bane gently takes Daggett’s head in his hand]
Daggett: What are you?
Bane: I’m Gotham’s reckoning. Here ends the borrowed time you’ve all been living on.
Daggett: You’re pure evil.
Bane: I am necessary evil.
[Bane places his hand on Daggett’s face and squeezes, Stryver standing outside flinches as he hears Daggett whimper]

The Joker has no purpose. The Joker has no belief. He’s not necessary evil, but rather chaotic indifferent evil. But what does the quality and depictions of these two opposing forms of evil say about the films in which they inhabit?

The Dark Knight is a widely critically acclaimed film with volumes of accolades and critical interpretations present across the Internet. Although there are a variety of wonderful articles summarizing the film, I personally would point to Annalee Newitz’s Top 10 list on io9 as an excellent summation of the wealth of themes that encompass The Dark Knight. I see the density and execution of themes in The Dark Knight as compared to the single domination of one theme in The Dark Knight Rises as the most apparent difference  in the entertainment between the two.

My final point returns to Bane, and I think that this reason most of all in particular positions Bane, at least in this incarnation, as a lesser evil compared to that of the Joker. While the Joker’s “plan” was formed spontaneously and more or less culminated effectively even without his presence, Bane’s plan was meticulously calculated but the motivations behind it are so confused or simplistic that it takes away from the satisfaction in seeing it come even partially into fruition.

Bane is not the puppet master behind the plot to destroy Gotham city, but rather it is the true heir of Ra’s Ah Ghul, Miranda Tate (Talia) who is pulling the strings the entire time. Bane was Talia’s protector in the pit, joined her in the league of shadows, and loyally served her in her plot to avenge her father and carry out his last unfinished mission. That’s all fine and good, I have no problem with late reveals of master conspirators in stories ( in fact, I rather enjoy them). What my problem is with the motivations behind this plan and how they come off as disappointingly more shallow compared to the multifaceted but otherwise “go with the flow” plan of the Joker.

The Dark Knight Rises takes place 10 years after the original. Talia, assuming the identity of Miranda Tate, has infiltrated Wayne Enterprises and become a prominent member on the board of directors. She is trying to get her hands on a nuclear fusion reactor developed by WayneTech, using the scientist kidnapped by Bane at the beginning of the film to refit into a nuclear bomb to wipe Gotham city from the face of the Earth.  Bane also assumes control over the entire city, trapping the entire GCPD underground, killing the Mayor, exposing the dark secret of Harvey Dent’s descent into madness, and freeing the entire city’s host of criminals thereby upturning the social order of Gotham. My beef with this is: Did Bane/Talia somehow know before they started this plan that Harvey Dent was a murderer and that the peace that followed in his memory was based on a lie, or was this all just a way of exacting revenge on Batman?

If the answer is the former, then that information is never properly communicated and it is a fault of the film from withholding crucial information regarding the antagonist’s motivations. If it’s the latter, then this boils down to a spiteful vendetta case  otherwise holding itself to the pretension of a cause of a higher calling. If that’s the case, Bane is most definitely not the league of shadows.

He’s a lapdog, and we all know who really runs the pack in this town.

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3 responses to “The Ideological Dichotomy of The Joker and Bane

  1. I’m not sure there really is a meaningful difference. The villains in all three films are basically doubled versions of Batman. The comparisons are meant to cast doubt on the morality of Batman’s own crusade, which causes things to get worse and worse.

    One of the things I like the most about the third film is that it makes the second much better in retrospect. Reading this essay, what really struck me was the extent of fire symbolism in the second film — something that’s particularly striking given the third’s emphasis on “the fire rising.” And when Alfred comments that “some men just want to watch the world burn” is he really offering a better description of one over the other?

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    • Very true, the villains within the trilogy are basically dark mirrors of Batman’s own nature. I think that the closest comparison to make would be between Batman and Ra’s Ah Ghul, as they are both men who see a world in need of saving but the extent to which they are willing to go in saving it (Becoming the masked vigilante protector of a single city vs. wiping out corrupted cities throughout history) are starkly divergent. Joker reflects the inherent moral inscrutability of Batman’s own crusade, that no matter how well meaning, a hero who is beholden to no authority, unelected by the people can and has in the past proven to become a tyrant. I think we see the closest instance of that in his repurposing of Lucius Fox’s technology in the third act of TDK, invading the privacy of all of Gotham for the sake of finding one man.

      (Sidenote: Isn’t it interesting how in the third act of every Nolan Batman film that it’s always some repurposed piece of technology from Wayne Enterprises that does some form of harm? Microwave Emitter, City-wide surveillance sonar, clean energy fusion reactor. I wondered if that was intentional or coincidental?)

      When I’m comparing Alfred’s “Bhurma” story in TDK and his “Bane and the Pit” story from TDKR, I’m not trying to make the insinuation that the former is “better” than the latter, rather that the Bhurma story is alluding to other themes that populate TDK, whereas the Pit story feels more like a more surface level expositional plot dump even its passing reference of “rising from the dark”. The Bhurma story serves purposes outside of the shedding light on the Joker, which I think says a lot about the two films. The Dark Knight is a story that uses its characters to serve a multitude of different themes and concepts, The Dark Knight Rises feels like a story that serves its characters first and foremost.

  2. this essay was pure gold, and have you ever thought that the villians may not be that different, after all, their main goals were to turn gotham on itself.

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