While travelling I recently found myself with the opportunity to catch up on two classic films, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 2008’s The Dark Knight. The two works make for very different viewing experiences: the former makes a (respectful) comedy out of two ultimately tragic lives, the latter tells a gratuitously dark story despite being centre around a clown. Both films feature plenty of gunshots, but only The Dark Knight will alienate those who don’t like their stories to be drowned in action.
What unites these works, however, is that they are stories centred around “villains” (well at least The Dark Knight will be best remembered for its villain). Villains can be the best parts of films, and perhaps no narrative-universe has understood this better than Batman, entertaining viewers with characters like The Penguin, The Riddler, Harley Quinn and of course, The Joker. At the same time, writing a character as a villain can be a literary and ethical dilemma. It’s a literary dilemma as writing complex, three-dimensional humans, means not putting them in the hero-villain binary. Humans do “villainous things” out of need, due to misunderstanding, due to deep internal battles, etc.
Writing characters as villains can be a political dilemma, since the mis-categorization of humans on a good-evil binary is still applied by advocates of tough-on-crime/militaristic policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, extra-judicial detention, torture and the death penalty.
The Dark Knight is certainly not a film that ignores politics, featuring a Mayor, and more prominently, an elected district attorney: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). For both of these figures the political issue of central concern in Gotham is crime. If Gotham is in fact New York, the city’s well-known liberal side is nowhere to be seen. Justice in Gotham is simply understood as having a district attorney who can put as many people away as possible.
Despite these foundations, The Dark Knight does not give in to promoting a right-wing, good-evil dichotomy. How it avoids doing this is fascinating. Rather than showing us the moral of complexity of (most of) its villains, The Dark Knight introduces a villain in The Joker (Heath Ledger) who “just wants to watch the world burn.” The Joker defies the categories of (realistic) evil villain and complex-human-driven-to-evil-by-circumstances. Instead, his villainy manifests itself through his expression of a bizarre system of principles. When offered an immense sum of money for his work, the Joker sets it on fire, implying that evil should be done for its own sake. Another interesting choice on the writers’ part was to explicitly deny the Joker a backstory that explains his circumstances. A recurring motif in the film is Joker monologues beginning with the line “Do you know how I got these scars?” This line, superficially links the joker with characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III and (fellow Dark Knight villain) Two-Face; characters who explain their turn to the dark side citing marginalization related to their physical deformities. The Joker, however, defies this script by offering different explanations whenever he explains his scars; he does not explain his turn to evil, he mocks the idea of explaining his turn to evil.
As The Joker baffles audiences, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script performs a bait and switch. The joker sets up an explosive system and presents two ships escaping Gotham with detonators, telling the passengers the only way to save themselves is to set off their detonator and destroy the other ship. After long deliberation both ships’ passengers refuse to give into temptation. Most notably, the first ship to refuse is the one populated by convicts. In this moment, the Nolans spell out that the Joker is not a rule, but an exception—a cartoonish exception. Contrary to Alfred’s advice to Batman, one should not read villains as simply “want[ing] to see the world burn.” The Dark Knight has its cake and eats it too. It thrives on the portrayal of a deeply evil character (the Joker), while still making clear that real criminals are not “evil” people who deserve to be detonated.
The Nolans further illustrate the message that there is no such thing as pure, irredeemable evil through the character of Harvey Dent/ Two-Face. Dent, who is portrayed as a hero at the beginning and end of the film, nonetheless develops a disproportionate, vengeful urge to kill innocents after the traumatic experience of having his face burned while learning his fiancé has died in an explosion.
I digress here to note that Dent’s portrayal is otherwise not one of The Dark Knight’s strong suits. Despite the film’s lengthy runtime, Dent’s turn to the dark side feels rushed and forced. A further oddity in Dent’s portrayal is that his corrupting is revealed to be a plot by the Joker to show that even the purest of souls can be turned evil. While (as I just noted) the contrast between pre-trauma Dent and Two Face is stark, Dent never comes across as a kindly or idealistic figure; his virtuosity only goes so far as prosecuting criminals (he even has a Joker like tendency of flipping a coin as a way of making moral decisions). While perhaps the Nolans aim is to challenge viewers to have a sense of morality that goes beyond what is plainly stated to them by the film’s cast, the presentation of pre-Two Face Dent as a “white knight” arguably realigns the film with a right-wing understanding of crime and justice, that the scene with the detonators rejects.
Despite its missteps in portraying Dent, The Dark Knight should still be recognized as a work that centred its plot around criminal exploits, without touting a tough-on-crime political message. Bonnie and Clyde, though otherwise a very different film than The Dark Knight, should be hailed for achieving the same feat. The latter film wastes no time in establishing its leads as criminals (carjacks and bank robbers, to be clear, we’re not talking Joker level villainy). It also wastes no time in establishing Bonnie’s (Faye Dunaway) motive—escaping her mundane life, and perhaps (though not explicitly stated) the limits placed on her as a woman in rural 1930s Texas. Clyde’s (Warren Beatty) motivations are less clear, though his own psychological side is exposed through his moments of brooding, and his attempt to celebrate his “career” choice as a stand against bank-tyranny.
Bonnie and Clyde, however, is not a biopic that sought to capture the psychological realities of two people. The film can instead be reasonably described as tragi-comedy. It uses the comic trope of an awkwardly put-together gang featuring the adventurous Parker, the troubled but equally adventurous Barrow, a naïve but eager youngster (Michael J Pollard), Barrow’s doesn’t-want-to-be-there-daughter-of-a-preacher sister in law (Estelle Parsons), and (briefly) a couple of very gracious hostages played by Gene Wilder and Evans Evans (yes, as far as I can tell that’s her real name).
The story of Bonnie and Clyde is not simply a comedy to its viewers, but in a way, a comedy to its participants. An unmistakeable characteristic of Parker is her playful side, seen most notably when the gang ties up an unsuspecting Sheriff and takes a goofy photo with him. Bonnie and the gang’s criminality thus essentially comes across as a game of cops and robbers. In the eyes of the gang members they are not stealing and shooting so much as they are playing.
Bonnie and Clyde are ultimately assassinated by a sheriff and posse, but crucially, not mid-robbery or at the hands of someone they had shot at. Rather, their killer is the same sheriff they had earlier humiliated (a historical inaccuracy, as the posse was in fact headed by a sheriff who had never deal with them before). This was an important decision on the part of the writer. Viewers are thus not inclined to see Bonnie and Clyde as having faced their just deserts, but instead as having faced a cruel end to their game at the hands of a humourless sheriff.
There is much stylistic difference between Bonnie and Clyde and The Dark Knight, but the two share a common accomplishment—making good art about crime, without making reactionary statements about the role of crime in the real world. The Dark Knight depicts its central criminal as the twisted being that many want to write off real criminals as, while making it clear that this cartoon villain is not at all representative of crime in the real world. Bonnie and Clyde, meanwhile avoids making its titular bank robbers symbols of real world criminal danger by making their criminal exploits appear (both to viewers and the characters themselves) as playful escapades. In doing so, it simultaneously separates the character’s actions from real world criminality, while also sympathetically portraying a psychological state that some real criminals may have (a playful naivety to the consequences of their actions).
So riddle me this Batman, can we have a cinema rich in crime that isn’t tough on crime? These two films suggest we can.