Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight--A Psychologist's View

This second installment of Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman and his world offers a psychologically rich and multi-layered portrayal of characters struggling with all-too-real issues of responsibility, trust, betrayal, the role of physical appearance in forming impressions of people, and of psychopathy unleashed. Whereas Batman Begins explores Bruce Wayne's evolution from anxious child to the Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight brings us a matured Batman battling against a terrifying psychopath whose main motivation appears to be similar to two-year but with deadlier consequences: he does "stuff" just to see what happens.

This film is really about the Joker. We're lured in to his world, where we learn what he's capable of and what he cares about—what motivates him. Learning more about him is like watching a car accident unfold, but worse and more frightening, because it feels like you might be hit next. Nolan's incarnation of the Joker, and Batman's reactions to him, seem so real that The Dark Knight doesn't feel like a superhero movie, but like a documentary on the emergence of a terrorist-cum-serial killer.

I was repeatedly struck by the Joker's cleverness and restraint: [spoiler alert!] He planned three simultaneous murders, Godfather style. [end of spoler alert] That takes extraordinary planning abilities, meticulous attention to detail, and the ability to defer gratification. Sound like anyone else in the movie--like Batman? This Joker is neither impulsive nor capricious, although he may appear that way at first blush. Just as with Batman, the Joker's actions are designed to create a particular impression, an impression that puts his adversaries at a disadvantage: that he's weird and unpredictable. That you never know how far he'll push something, so take him seriously. This, too, is part of the impression that Batman tries to create. But the Joker's got Batman's number because he knows that Batman isn't entirely unpredictable—Batman lives within certain self-imposed and societally-imposed rules. Because of those rules, Batman becomes predictable…at least to the Joker. Two men with similar talents, but in the Joker's case, his talents are used to create anarchy for his own amusement. Is he a psychopath? Let's investigate.

A psychopath is someone who displays personality traits that involve more than simply engaging in criminal acts. A psychopath:

(1) can be superficially charming and manipulative. The Joker is that. Imagine him without his clown makeup—imagine him with a handsome face doing and saying what he does in the film. He'd make a compelling—versus repellant—figure to some, wouldn't he?
(2) is emotionally callous, without remorse or guilt. The Joker lies freely when it suits him (he gives two different stories for how he came to have his scars, both likely untrue). He doesn't feel badly about his dastardly deeds—the lives he taken or ruined.
(3) has a socially deviant lifestyle. Not only is the Joker a criminal, but he seeks out the excitement of his life of crime. His crimes act as a drug and he needs the regular fixes of the intense stimulation his actions bring. Unfortunately, he seems to develop tolerance to the drug, wanting ever-increasing "doses" and so planning increasingly sadistic and elaborate capers.

Hats off to Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and the cast and crew. Heath Ledger's performance deserves an Oscar.

For more about my take on Batman, look for me on the History Channel's Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight and an essay wrote about "What's the Matter With Bruce Wayne?" in the anthology, "Batman Unauthorized."


  1. I've been deeply interested in the sociological aspect of books and movies for a while (in film especially: Hitchcock's Rear Window, and recently Iron Man and The Dark Knight.)

    My friends usually roll their eyes, but it's fascinating to see an authoritative source comment on 'popcorn flicks.' Now I have back up!

    I was surprised the movie was given a pg-13 rating, because of the darkness and the wanton terrorism. Unlike Spiderman, Dark Knight was grounded completely in the real world, and it brings to mind prevalant, recent attacks such as school shootings, mall massacres, gas station sniping etc.

    It does all this without making a caricature of the villian for the sake of a comic feel. Any guy might smear on makeup and wantonly pit citizens against each other, whereas it's not likely someone will build a hoverboard and throw exploding pumpkin-like bombs.

    Very interesting commentary - I look forward to reading more, now that I've stumbled across the blog which both validates and enriches my thought processes. :)

    1. I saw that film with one of my movie director pals and asked him after the film.... "How can an actor become that character and then return to his own everyday identity unscathed? Well we got the answer soon enough after the actor died. I told my friend I thought that movie should have been rated X. He laughed. Who is laughing now?

    2. Really? Because Heath Ledger died before the movie came out.

    3. RIP Heath Ledger. You were the best Joker ever! Also, you wanna hear how I got my scars? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Grassrootsmovement: I was suprised by the PG-13 rating as well. I can only hope that parents of younger children will think twice about letting their children see this film in a movie theatre, where the scary scenes can't be fast forwarded, and talking during the movie (to calm the children down) is frowned upon.

  3. I just saw the movie and loved the dialogue! But I have two questions:

    Did I misunderstand Batman say that he was going to rescue Rachel, leaving Harvey Dent for the police to rescue? If that is what he said, then did the Joker purposely mislead everyone as to which victim was at which address?....knowing that, of course, they would try to rescue Rachel and that if Harvey lived it would destroy him?

    If I am wrong about who Batman chose, then why is Harvey so mad at the Commissioner Gordon? Only Batman could have gotten to one of the victims in time and Batman is the one who chose which one to rescue. I know some of the Commissioner's men were crooked and responsible for capturing Rachel, but that was hardly Gordon's fault. Is it realistic (okay I know this is the comics, but still), is it true to character that he would turn so evil so quickly and kill a little boy?

    I would love your take on this part of the story. Thanks! ~Ann Marie

  4. Ann Marie:
    I thought that the "social experiment" part of the film was confusing--truth be told, I didn't realize there were two different ships until very far into that part of the story--I thought it was two different parts of the same ship (I'm not much in to ships, so perhaps that was the problem).

    Putting that aside, I agree with you that Dent's kidnapping of Gordon's family seems very out of character. But, let's remember all that he'd experienced within the previous couple of days: parents and sibling killed, love of his life killed--after she'd agreed to marry him, facial disfigurement, and extreme pain from the fire. So, although it's out of character for him to have taken Gordon's family, unending pain (and loss) can make people behave in ways that are out of character. We need only look in the news for examples of murderers whose friends and coworkers don't believe he was the perpetrator because "he's such a nice guy."

    In addition, I kept thinking about Gordon's son--about the trauma he was experiencing and the ways it might affect his development. Would he devote his life to fighting crime? Would he become another Bruce Wayne/Batman, or in some other way become a social activist? Or would the incident leave him affected in a maladaptive way?

  5. I loved contemplating your questions about Gordon's son. He seemed to be in awe of Batman, and he knew the truth, that it wasn't Batman that kidnapped them and killed the police officers. At his age, he may not be able to fully understand the reason for Batman's sacrifice. (Hopefully, he will also read Harry Potter and learn about "Judas Sacrifices" like the one Snape made when he killed Dumbledore to protect Malfoy--at Dumbledore's request--incurring the wrath of all good witches and killing forever his chances of acceptance among them.) If he never understands Batman's choice, he could become bitter and decide what's the use in being good. But he would be acting from his ego, like Dent, and not from his higher self, like Batman.

    I think the answer is that everyday we face these challenges and have to decide which path to take. There is no way to predict the outcome, we must be ever vigilent not to cross over to the dark side. (I can hear Yoda talking, now.) I really liked your comments that I read in Creative Loafing, "What interests me is the villains who keep returning....These figures, these problems recur....They come back, and you have to figure out how to deal with them. It's about figuring out how to deal with yourself, and them, over and over again."

    Someone once told me that life repeats itself, but like a sprial rather than a circle. Each time you are at a higher and higer level of the same issue---sort of like a video game, huh?

    Best wishes, ~Ann Marie

  6. to Anonymous, who asked about Batman saving Rachel instead of the DA:
    Yes, Batman was going to save Rachel, but the Joker told him the wrong address. This is the Joker just rubbing it in Batmans face, proving to himself (and to Batman) that the main thing on his mind isn't what is best for Gotham, as he claims. The joker is messing with Batman's mind, while proving to himself and to Batman that Batman's first priority isnt really Gotham.

  7. Thank you so much!! I thought that's what I heard, but haven't been able to comfirm it. So, it makes even more sense then that Albert burned her letter.
    ~Ann Marie

  8. I loved the movie. some one brought their children to the movie. i was appalled. i just wanted to tell these people off. this movie was one of the darkest movies i've seen in along time. all of the main characters had ideals that not many could live up to, or down to for that matter. the people on the boats proved in my mind that for all our perceived givings about each other here in america there still persists the underlay of humanity. do we really still give a S#@* about each other in the face of horrible adversity. do we still stand for one another in america? or do we fall away from each other? and for me this movie poses the question of who am i really under all of the facade i put on day after day. we all smile time to time for someone we'd rather not smile for. we all put on that phoney look like the joker when all the while we sometimes feel like he did.we'd rather not care. after all it's only a face he put on. don't we all do the same?
    bat man, bruce wayne puts on his mask to try and make believe it eases his pain. to try to make things "right" with the world he lives in. but he will never feel any better than he does now because criminal activity will never cease. things will go on and on and on and this drives him crazy. he knows he will never be rid of it. i feel like him too. always battling to do right, but never seeming to find that one thing that will make life what i want it to be.
    Harvy dent before two face was an insane lopsided manifestation of idealism. a two headed coin that meant he could never loose, in the movies reality, to what ever decison, right or wrong, that he made. rachel was his balance. her presence kept him just, on the right side of the law. but when he lost his balance, and he had to believe in her love, or in my opinion, if she wern't there, i believe he might have had a corrupt side early on in his career. when he became two face and lost the love of his life,he lost his mind. as i see it ,he had no right because harvy was always so right morally, so two face had to be morally wrong. was he then always morally right or was there always the wrong side hiding.?
    gordon, his son, alfred, lucious, the criminal and the man on the other boat were the only ones who came closest to being ideal in the way we think we ought to be.
    but aren't we all complex and prone to having so many sides.
    this movie to me just tore apart pieces of people. each character reminds me of one whole person that fell apart just fighting to piece their self together to become one whole again. this has become my new chick flick.

  9. I don't think the Joker was "rubbing it in Batman's face" when he told him the wrong address. I think he played it out in his head that "If I tell him opposite addresses, he'll obviously go for Rachael and find Harvey...if Rachael dies, that will break Harvey's spirit enough for me to convince him to join the team, therefore proving to everyone that Gotham's hero can be tainted. After that, people will have doubts and be scared and I'll run this city." Granted, The Joker said in the movie that he "doesn't make plans"...but this is what the whole jist seemed to be. Now, for a really mind-boggling question:

    Fox knows Bruce is why did Bruce use his Batman voice while he was talking to him in the scene with the sonar stuff? O.o And can Batman not breathe through his nose in the mask? Cause the way he talks sounds like his nose is severely stuffed up!

  10. To Tami:
    I assumed that when Wayne dons his costume, he speaks in his low voice as a habit, so that he never slips and betrays his Wayne identity while wearing the cape. It's possible that in Batman Begins he does speak in his regular voice when dressed as Batman and talking to Alfred (I'll check next time I watch it), but if so, perhaps he hadn't yet developed good "safety" habits to protect his Wayne identity when dressed as Batman?

  11. I found the voice very obnoxious, but I was able to get over it as the movie progressed. Thinking back I believe we were seeing adjustments to his quest as a superhero physically. Not only did he change his voice, but we witnessed the adjustments to his suit. To guard himself against the attacking dogs.

    Dr. Rosenberg I was wondering if you could shed some light on the late Heath Ledger and his performance of the Joker. While I understand he passed away well after the production of the movie, I wondered if emerging himself so deep into character lead to his unfortunate outcome. If this movie brought to light glitches in social responsibility, what damage could that do to someone acting in it for a period of time.

  12. Additionally, as he called out the things we do within our society that hurt us as a whole I felt like we contributed to the unfortunate outcome in a quest for entertainment.

  13. When did Dent lose his Parents and sibling? I just saw the movie, I don't remember that happening. Please explain.

  14. Freddy: I think that everyone is wondering whether playing the role of the Joker somehow affected Heath Ledger in ways that contributed to his use of various drugs. For instance, did the aftereffects of playing that role exacerbate his insomnia, leading him to take medication to sleep? I don't know that the results will ever be known, or at least to the public, but it's worth considering whether the individual costs to performers and crew of entertaining the public are reasonable ones.

  15. To Nick P:
    Two of what I assumed were Dent's relatives were killed by the Joker (in the room from which Batman took a sample of the wall that contained a bullet). The first time I saw the movie, I thought that three people had been killed: both parents and a brother. With my second viewing, though, it was unclear who exactly the relatives were: One had a last name of Harvey, and one had a last name of Dent. Can anyone shed more light on this?

  16. I believe the two were not related to harvey dent even though one did have the same last name. I think the joker was just trying to send a message as to who his next victim was going to be. But I'm not really sure either.

  17. One of the victim's last names was Harvey and the other victim's first name was Dent.

    It may have been the other way around, but if Harvey Dent's parents / relatives were killed during the movie there would have been a big ordeal about it... He never mentioned once about his family dying.

  18. I guess we will never know. Our society pushing everything to its limit. To the point where we can't make clear decisions. A problem we saw with the characters in the Dark Knight.

    Thank you for answering my post.


  19. Robin I thought your interpretation was dead center concerning the Joker's behavior and the link to psychopathology. To me the movie seemed to shy away from a super hero movie and into the area of a psychological thriller. For example the Joker's behavior concerning the impressions that he was making on the citizens of Gotham.

    I am a student of psychology and am deeply interested in interpreting the mental health of the characters in movies and books. It's a habit I developed in high school. While sitting in the movie theaters critically analysing every nuance of the Joker's behavior, I sat intrigued by the authenticity in which was displayed. He displayed everything that would be considered psychopathic in a clinical situation. My freinds call me a nerd when I think of these things but I rarely see it that way.

    I also enjoyed your interpretation of the Joker exhibiting both psychopathic and anti-social traits. Thank you Robin for the insight

    1. I am a neuropsych with ten years experience. As I said in a post above, I saw the movie with a very well known movie director and talked about how that actor would have to have an extremely strong ego and a seriously stable personality to play that part without having a psychological break. The general public has no idea what it actually takes to "become" someone other than who you are for a film. "Becoming" a character that is so very deeply disturbed can be very risky business for those using drugs or those with unstable lifestyles and support systems. Any actor that goes that far into such a character might be wise to hire a really good psychologist to monitor their ego functioning and transition back to the self.

  20. Watching this once more, I think the psycho-problem behind the triangle of Bruce/Joker/Dent is one of a dangerous belief in symbols, of humans being pushed into something more than physical, turned into emblems, signifiers.

    The Joker kills judges and policemen for they represent justice, no matter how corrupt the Gotham PD may be. He calls himself an 'agent of chaos', a force of nature as opposed to a man.

    Batman of course is the same by his very nature - indeed, look at the various messages that pop up on the Bat-tumbler computer screen - INTIMIDATE, DAMAGE CATASTROPHIC - dramatic words which allow for no room in interpretation. They are the be all end all.

    All this insistence on symbolism is what releases the horror of Harvey TwoFace, a man who used an object - the coin - to make his own luck, who is (willingly) presented as a 'white knight', an ideal, an object as opposed to what he really he is - sadly just a man, like us, unlike the Joker and Batman. Dent is the horrible mid-point between the two in a city which in its despair turns to masks for hope.

    I personally find the emphasis on humans as cyphers to be more in tune with a sociopathic mindset; the people around you turned into opportunities or opposition, no empathy that they are actually flesh and blood inside.

    What's really horrible about Two Face is that even when the Joker teaches him about the absolute free chaos of reality, he still has to rationalise it through the 50/50 choice of the coin, still has to channel chaos through an object, the coin which aligns with Joker's war paint and Batman's bat suit. His mind is still tethered to the physical.

    And Gordon may be the only healthy one, but even he chose an absolute when faking his death so as to protect his family, and of course at the end he is the one who turns Batman into the Dark Knight - the masked man Gotham can change into whatever it wants & needs, forgetting he's human, turning him into hero/anti-hero.


  21. for a start children should see this movie as it may be dark but it is real and children across the world have seen and done far more that what is depicted in this film and also it gives them things to think about. i interpreted batman as changing his mind and going for dent sacrificing his personal happiness but thinking about it i guess the joker did give the wrong address in order to corrupt and punish dent. Harvey dent did not loose family in the film. the people were killed and placed there to say who the joker was ultimatly after. the crazy man who got kidnapped by dent after the mayor attack had a badge with racheals name on to tell his next target aswell.

  22. Someone mentioned that Joker did everything to "run" the city. I disatgree - First of all: His acts of violenca and terrorism surely look like not connected with any logical cause and are most likely carried out for his own amusement - in exception of the police station breach - but i believe this one was carried out to bring joker enough power to carry on with his work. Also: remeber what he said about cops closing mob one block at a time it was BORING. So he in fact seeks the all-the-time going state of war and chaos. Not power to rule the city...

  23. Quote: "The Joker lies freely when it suits him (he gives two different stories for how he came to have his scars, both likely untrue)."

    I'd like to take a different perspective on the above quote. Specifically on the two stories of his scars being likely untrue. Assuming Joker (Is it the Joker or Joker...Batman or the Batman...what is the significance of adding "the?" ...King or the King has spoken...John has spoken.... the John has spoken... Sorry. I digress.) did in fact cut his own cheeks, the two stories seem to support each other and his act of self-mutilation. One story was how he experienced a traumatic "scaring" event as a child, when his father took a knife and put it in his mouth. It was never said that the father explicitly cut his sons face. He just put the knife in his mouth. A metallic deadly phallic looking object in the child's mouth against the son's will. The psychological scars of the event with his father stayed with him and manifested in the second story where Joker was holding Bruce Wayne's "girlfriend" or love interest. He said in that story that he put a blade in his mouth and "did this," pointing to his scars. For reasons not too clear yet, the girlfriend's scars on her face reminding him of his psychological scar(s) (i.e., traumatic event with father) and whatever emotional or logical rationalizing in addition to possibly wanting to somehow relive, repeat, and/or control the past scenario caused him cut his face. Want to know how he got these scars? Now we know. ...maybe

    Terrorists may likely be emotionally disturbed people with their own traumatic experiences. For example, a terrorist goes to a school and shoots young innocent children, something not too distant from what Joker is capable of. Perhaps the terrorist, who may not have been born a terrorist just as someone is not born a socialist, was created through a traumatic or series of traumatic events. Perhaps one of the events included waking up one day, going to work, and coming back home to see his entire family smashed and crushed underneath concrete because a missile just happened to accidentally his the wrong housing complex. If he can't find the individuals who did this, he finds perhaps the next best thing, the "tribe" that the individuals are from. Thus, more innocent people are killed and the spiral downwards of revenge and trauma starts.

    Obviously, a lot of assumptions are made and the scenario is a simple model in order to understand something much more complicated. Some "DNA" of racism can be seen in this scenario.

  24. Oh, and one more thing. Just a comment on Joker being like a "force of nature." I don't know exactly how a deadly, destructive hurricane or supernova or tornado or tsunami is created. I assume a series of complicated events happen and that somehow the "right" series of reactions happen at the "right" time and something is created. The tornado has no plan. It just is. It just does things. "I just do... things" says Joker. If the deadly tornado or freak phenomenon could speak, it might say something similar. Chaos and order just seem to be, from my limited perspective. The same may be said of Joker and Batman.

  25. A primary theme in Dark Knight, running throughout the superhero genre, seems to be duality of character through portrayal of alter-ego and a voluntarily adopted secondary persona. Consulting alone the above definition of 'psychopath' concerning the Joker, is the jury not still out on whether the term is also applicable to Bruce Wayne? The dialogue in the film between a tied up scarecrow and batman after the parkade scene [B- "I don't need your help" S-"not on my diagnosis"] seems to brush on the idea and may leave one questioning perhaps the social permissibility of mental deviance when its repercussions are 'good' [or alternatively, 'not bad'].
    Considering too a contingency in identity each has upon the other [i.e.. villain needs hero in order to be 'villain', hero needs villain in order to be 'hero'], Bruce Wayne's dependence on Joker seems to ellicit an intertwining of good/evil within himself.

  26. Dr. Rosenberg:
    The Joker killed someone whose last name was Harvey and someone whose last name was Dent in order to show that he would be targeting Harvey Dent next. The victims weren't his relatives, despite the fact that one of them had the same last name. The movie commits something of a faux pas by showing a character (albeit only a corpse) whose last name is the same as a main character's without really explaining that there's no relation. We're conditioned to look for significance in such coincidences when we go to see a movie like The Dark Knight, and glossing over something as obvious as two people sharing the same last name as mere happenstance risks leaving the audience confused.

  27. Have you ever noticed that the Joker's choice of story behind his scars seems to attempt to connect to the victim on a personal level? Gambol, a mob boss with a temper who one would commonly assume came from a stressful family environment, was fed the story of an abusive father. Rachel, the known girlfriend of Harvey Dent, was fed the story that centered around a wife. It would have been interesting to hear what story Joker gave Batman, simply because his scar stories contained a little bit of Joker's own perspective on his victim.