Upon its release in 2008, it was immediately clear that The Dark Knight was an important film. Arriving in the dying days of the Bush Administration, months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it’s undeniable that Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film is a landmark of its era. Instantly canonised by the near-hegemonic manosphere of online film culture, encapsulated best by the IMDb Top 250, The Dark Knight has, over time, joined Pulp Fiction and Fight Club to form the holy trinity of films that insufferable straight men love. But surely, it can be more than that.
Let’s get something out of the way first: The Dark Knight is a manly movie. That does not mean it is “for” men, just that it is a film “about” men, where notions of femininity are actively suppressed. The only significant female character in the film is Rachel Dawes, whose recasting from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal only highlights how inconsequential she is to the overall story. The squashing of femininity is evident early in the Nolan brothers’ script when two henchmen are discussing the Joker’s use of face paint, describing it first as “makeup”, before adopting the more traditionally masculine term of “war paint”. It’s an exchange that hints at the queer potential in such a character, and it is not the first time writers have added a gay element to the Joker. In Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, the Joker is explicitly flirtatious; he even gropes Batman.
Giving villains queer attributes can perpetuate negative stereotypes, but it can also open the space to queer a straight text. Given its status as a film bro favourite, there is no fruit more tantalising to queer than The Dark Knight. To do so is not to posit that the Joker is queer, but to explore what that idea can mean within the world of the film, and by extension the society that produced it.
In his films, Nolan is often interested in doubling (most obvious in The Prestige), and the relationship between order and chaos. Think of how films like Memento and Inception seek to render abstract concepts like memory and dreams into explainable phenomena. Nolan sympathises with the need for order. This is evident in his adherence to narrative film technique, where events are tied together by a cohesive inner logic. At the same time, the conflicts in his films hinge on the introduction of a chaotic element. In Inception that element is Marion Cotillard as Mal Cobb, and in The Dark Knight it is the Joker. Nolan villainises these characters, but he also recognises their allure. The demarcation between order and chaos is also clearly gendered, with the former coded as masculine, and the latter as feminine. This is typical of a patriarchal society that sees women, and by extension femininity, as a threat.
At its heart, The Dark Knight is really about a love triangle between three men: Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and the Joker. Dent is essentially a passive straight man who is torn apart by the sexual tension between Batman and the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime seduces Dent with a cute nurse’s outfit to get at Batsy, his one true love. Both the hospital scene and the interrogation brim with a potent sexual energy. Batman beats the Joker, who laughs with gleeful pleasure. By withholding vital information, he is teasing the Dark Knight, pushing the Caped Crusader to both his physical and moral limits. The homoerotic tone of the scene is made more explicit in the Joker’s dialogue. Playful lines such as “You complete me” and “What would I do without you?” could easily have been lyrics in a cheesy love song.
Meanwhile, in the hospital, the Joker disguises himself as a nurse to gain access to the mutilated Dent. The latent eroticism of the nurse-patient dynamic underscores the tone of this scene, where the Joker seduces Harvey to his way of thinking, convincing him to “upset the established order.” Joker’s corruption of Dent is not only an attempt to tease Batman, but also an attempt to steal Batman’s crush, because Bruce Wayne loves Harvey Dent. The three men are distorted reflections of each other. As Two Face, Dent is a reflection of the Joker, but as District Attorney he is a reflection of Bruce Wayne. In turn, as an upholder of justice, Batman reflects Harvey Dent, but as a violent lawbreaker in a silly costume he hews closer to the Joker: “a freak.” It is important to see Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin. The script conveys this in the fundraiser scene, in which both Bruce and the Joker enter the party asking the same question: “Where is Harvey Dent?” Bruce is in love with Dent because he represents Gotham’s white knight, a perfect saviour that Batman could never be. In other words, Dent completes Bruce. This moral alignment is ultimately why he chooses to save Dent over Rachel.
The ability to queer a text like The Dark Knight highlights the pleasures that can be unlocked by watching it. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker remains thrilling even after 10 years. At the same time, however, in queering the film we must also examine its politics. The suppression of homoerotic energy into violent spectacle that plays out on a citywide scale hints at the destructive consequences of a patriarchal world. At its time of release, as questions around American and British use of torture continued to bubble in the public consciousness, Nolan saw fit to have his hero beat an unarmed prisoner. The scene itself is visceral and thrilling, and so interrogation under torture is worryingly eroticised. At the same time the viewer’s pleasure may be derived not from Batman’s brutalisation, but from the way the Joker emasculates him, by saying “you have nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.” There is a perverse ecstasy in effectively dulling your torturer’s instruments, thereby exposing his sexual frustration, and ultimate impotence.
Unfortunately, Heath Ledger’s Joker did not become a symbol of queer liberation, but instead a poster boy for edgelords, which reached a depressing nadir in 2012 when James Holmes opened fire at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and called himself the Joker. Despite the queer potential of the character, the Joker became a way for angry young men to project their own angst in much the same way Men’s Rights Activists appropriated the concept of “red pilling” for their own purposes, even though it was created by two trans women.
For a film whose politics are so reprehensible, I can’t in all honesty say The Dark Knight is a bad film. Teasing out the queer potential in the film wasn’t so much a way to justify my enjoyment of it, but rather to better understand why, 10 years later, I am still fascinated with it. In the end all I can say is that there is perverse thrill in watching Heath Ledger upset the established order.