Masks of Infamy: The About-faces in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the opening credits sequence maps the contours of what appears to be some undecipherable structure, the camera sliding along its walls, curves, and grooves, which turn out to index the chest symbol of the film’s title character. This sequence suggests that this sign, or rather the idea for it, emerges from a center, as it traces out the canals, cavities, ridges, sockets, and nerves of the splanchnocranium or facial skeleton. The stylization of Gotham City in the film—a strange mixture of the Gothic, Expressionist, and Art Deco—also suggests that its grotesqueness rises from the spirit of its vain consumerist citizens, its corrupt officials, and its Mafioso industrialists. These sets find their counterpart in Batman’s costume, which is also animalistic, anthropomorphic, and steely-robotic all at once. It too contains a centre, reclusive millionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who, as one youngster in the set-up to the film’s first action scene suggests, can right the “wrong direction” that Gotham society is taking. In contrast, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) eschews the notion of a centre, no one truly inhabiting the character’s costume or its symbolic vesture. In this update, everything wears a mask, and the film implies that there is nothing under these masks. As Renata Salecl makes clear, “when the subject sacrifices his desire to the Ideal, when he completely subordinates himself to symbolic identity and takes on a symbolic mask, it is in this mask that one can discern his desire” (11). As desire traverses our symbolic identities, it undergoes a continuous deformation, transcoding the qualities of the flesh and stretching them into such “externalities” as our moral ideals, spatial ensembles, ideological coordinates, aesthetic sensibilities, and social outfits. The desire of the characters in The Dark Knight remains mobile, acentric, and indeterminate, impossible to neatly situate or describe in somatic or representational terms alone. The masks these characters wear rather span these terms and thus carry the stamp of their topological relation to the face.
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