The Great Criminal

SEK compelled me to respond to The Dark Knight. I don’t have much new to say on the topic–I really enjoyed the movie, particularly Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, but found the Two-Face part a bit contrived and unsatisfying.

I would like to make a remark, however, about the theoretical importance of the Joker, who is a startling illustration of the link between the “great criminal” and the sovereign. [Note: SPOILER ALERT!!! Including an unexpected spoiler of The Wire that I should’ve mentioned before!] For instance, the Joker is frequently in situations where he is surrounded by violent criminals hostile to his goals (such as they are). Why don’t they simply kill him? I believe the answer is more than the perception that he might just be crazy enough to take out Batman: his joyous criminality gives him a kind of sovereignty. For the same reason, it becomes believable that he could have a horde of faithful yet unseen followers willing to set up bombs in hospitals, boats, etc. — the very insanity of his plot simultaneously places him above the law and compels obedience, at least in certain types of people.

Doesn’t everyone pale into insignificance compared to the Joker? The good Harvey Dent and the evil Two-Face are both pathetic compared to him — even Batman is. One also cannot help but note that the Joker does not die at the end, and I believe there is an inner necessity to this that goes beyond Batman’s personal code. Ledger’s performance is obviously a big part of this effect, but I would argue that Ledger succeeds precisely insofar as he injects a criminal sovereignty into the role.

[A semi-related note — the notion of the great criminal as sovereign also helps to explain one of the great mysteries from season 1 of The Wire: Why did Omar wait so long to take his shot after drawing Avon out? The answer is simple: even Omar is not immune to the sovereign aura of the king, which Avon is in his world. If Omar were a truly great criminal, he would’ve been able to pull it off, just as the Joker has no trepidation about killing the mayor. Instead, Omar is merely Batman, and the fact that the Batman of the new franchise can only meet Omar’s pathetic end is what will almost certainly make the inevitable third installment a failure — because a summer blockbuster can’t do what The Wire can.]

10 thoughts on “The Great Criminal

  1. I’ve not yet seen The Dark Knight — hopefully this weekend — but your parenthetical about Omar made me think of his declaration in season one (to, I think, Wee Bey), “You come at the king, you best not miss.” What I think season five makes explicit is that Omar’s reign of terror, his claim to sovereignty, was purely illusory — or, at best, mythical. It’s not that all such myths or illusions have to be dispelled … but, in a nihilistic world, clearly that of Batman & the Wire, there is little room left for them.

  2. Stringer Bell is also relevant here: he ultimately isn’t in control because he isn’t as immersed in “the game” as Avon is. Think of when Avon gets arrested in the raid in season 3 — he laughs!

  3. As seen in season five Avon’s level of control, and indeed his immersion in “the game,” didn’t cease when he was imprisoned (or w/ the collapse of his empire on the streets). He delivered the Greeks to Marlo. And presumably was no worse for wear in prison than he was during season two.

  4. What Adam is not referring to is the heartbreaking revelation that Omar’s love for Honey Nut Cheerios does not in fact lower his cholesterol, and he becomes the butt of many jokes for his trust in commercials. I still cringe when I think of that heartbreaking scene.

  5. Two interesting notes re: this: 1) Plato’s comments that the great criminal is the result of an imperfect political structure, i.e., the great criminal was potentially a great philosopher but corrupted by the imperefect society. 2) Kierkegaard based his early philosophical speculation on several charcater types, one of whom was the Master Thief. For Kierkegaard, this charcter type represents a kind of martyr.

    On this concept, Sara Jandrup writes:

    According to Kierkegaard, the Master Thief is a humorist, yet also a melancholic character. He is dissatisfied with the established order, and therefore aims, by teasing the authorities, to disclose the true nature of what they claim to be justice. In a way, then, the Master Thief can, according to Kierkegaard, be considered a martyr, because he willingly accepts his punishment – “as a man who is conscious of having lived for an idea” (Pap. I A 12; Journals and Papers, no. 5062). This predication is precisely what Kierkegaard later expresses his own hopes for in the Point of View.[ii] Such a figure might not be a martyr in the mold of Christ, but would certainly be a martyr in the mold of Socrates – at least in the mold of the Socrates we encounter in Kierkegaard’s writings!

    3) The common late Romantic religious conception (picked up and modified by Dostoevsky) that the great sinner often becomes the great saint. Berdyaev paraphrases Dostoevsky’s idea on this as being the idea that “if evil exists, God exists.”

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