Jungian Analysis of The Dark Knight

Thursday, August 7, 2008

[Note: after writing this, Firefox crashed and Blogger lost what I had written (so much for auto-saving!), so this post may be a bit rough around the edges]

I thought it would be interesting to identify some of the archetypal themes and underlying symbolism behind the Batman film, The Dark Knight.

Jung in 1910.
Jung in 1910.

Here's a re-cap of some of the concepts we'll use in the analysis, excerpted from Wikipedia. Feel free to skip this if you're already familiar with these terms:
Jung described: archetypal events: birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, the union of opposites etc., archetypal figures: mother, father, child, God, trickster, hero, wise old man, etc., and archetypal motifs: the Apocalypse, the Deluge, the Creation, etc.

The Self
In Jungian theory, the Self is one of the archetypes. It signifies the coherent whole, unified consciousness and unconscious of a person.

There are two centers of the personality. The ego is the center of consciousness, whereas the Self is the center of the total personality, which includes consciousness, the unconscious, and the ego. The Self is both the whole and the center. While the ego is a self-contained little circle off the center contained within the whole, the Self can be understood as the greater circle.[1]

The Anima and the Animus

The Anima and Animus are, in Carl Jung's school of analytical psychology, the unconscious or true inner self of an individual, as opposed to the persona or outer aspect of the personality. In the unconscious of the male, it finds expression as a feminine inner personality: anima; equivalently, in the unconscious of the female, it is expressed as a masculine inner personality: animus.

The anima is one of the most significant autonomous complexes of all. It manifests itself by appearing as figures in dreams as well as by influencing a man's interactions with women and his attitudes toward them, and vice versa for females and the animus. Jung said that confronting one's shadow self is an "apprentice-piece", while confronting one's anima is the masterpiece.

The Shadow
In Jungian psychology, the shadow or "shadow aspect" is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. It is one of the three most recognizable archetypes, the others being the anima and animus. "Everyone carries a shadow," Jung wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is."

The shadow is prone to project: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections are unrecognized "The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object--if it has one--or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power." [3] These projections insulate and cripple individuals by forming an ever thicker fog of illusion between the ego and the real world.

The Persona
The persona is also the mask or appearance one presents to the world. It may appear in dreams under various guises (see Carl Jung and his psychology). Importantly, the persona, used in this sense, is not a pose or some other intentional misrepresentation of the self to others. Rather, it is the self as self-construed, and may change according to situation and context.

Enantiodromia. Literally, "running counter to," referring to the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control. ("Definitions," ibid., par. 709)

The grand plan on which the unconscious life of the psyche is constructed is so inaccessible to our understanding that we can never know what evil may not be necessary in order to produce good by enantiodromia, and what good may very possibly lead to evil. ("The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales", Collected Works 9i, par. 397)

One of the main themes in the movie is duality, especially that of enantiodromia. This concept was famously summarized by Nietzsche in the quote, "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one." Both Bruce Wayne/Batman and Harvey Dent/Two Face have a "fall from grace" caused by their desire to fight crime.

The fall of man is one of the two major themes finding expression in the contemporary psyche, according to Richard Tarnas, the other being man's conquering of nature through technology. The latter theme could also be summarized as using reason to overcome obstacles in the face of irrationality. Both of these themes have left indelible marks on the collective psyche of humanity for generations, so it's interesting but perhaps not surprising that we see both of these themes expressed strongly in The Dark Knight.

Duality and The Fall of Man
First on the theme of the fall. It is very dualistic, being about inversion, contradiction or paradox, irony (doing something which results in the opposite intended effect), and enantiodromia. For example, stories which have fall symbolism include the story of King Midas and that of Icarus.

In The Dark Knight, both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent are over-confident and somewhat self-aggrandizing, or egoistic. And, it is certainly ironic that Batman's intent to fight crime caused a new breed of criminal to arise, i.e. The Joker, as well as Harvey Dent's actions to lock up criminals leading to his own demise. Both characters fall as a result of their actions.

On the theme of duality, we can explore some of the ways it is expressed in the film:
  • Bruce Wayne/Batman leads a double life

  • Batman is called "The Dark Knight" while Harvey Dent is "The White Knight"

  • The whole "Two Face" character is entirely about duality: the name, the clothing (half white/half black suit, split down the middle), and so on. Not to mention the constant coin flipping throughout the film (though the coin flipping also has other connotations such as chance, fate etc). Harvey Dent (who later becomes Two-Face) also says the following Nietzschean gem early on in the film: "Those who don't die a hero live to see themselves become the villain."

  • The Joker says at one point, "You complete me." The Joker also describes their meeting as the meeting of an unstoppable force (the Joker) and an immovable object (Batman). In this sense, they represent chaos vs. order, energy vs. matter, or 2 sides of the same coin to put it another way.
To interpret the fall psychologically, I would say that it generally signifies a moment of transformation that results in a part of the self being rejected, thus creating (or amplifying) the shadow. It can be seen as a split where one seems to be living two lives, the "old" one and the "new" one. The fall in this sense can be seen as a death and rebirth cycle, as well as having a dividing or doubling motif.

Early in the film, Harvey Dent is seen making decisions by flipping a coin. However, when pressed about it by Rachel, he responds that he doesn't leave anything to chance. Later, it is revealed that the coin he has been flipping all along has heads on both sides. Therefore, he always knew the outcome ahead of time.

This, to me, signifies that there was an essential unity, naivete or one-sided view of the world existing in Harvey's character at that point in the film. After his traumatic death/rebirth experience in which he lost his fiance (his "other half") and half of his face in a chemical fire, the coin, too, shows one side blackened.

From this point on, when he flips the coin to decide on whether people live or die, it truly is blind chance. In other words, chaos. By the end of the film, Harvey Dent has completely transformed into Two-Face, and switched from an agent or order to an agent of chaos.

His character experiences many inversions on the macro- and micro-level, another such example being when he first encounters The Joker while recovering in the hospital after his ordeal. Harvey, becoming Two-Face before our very eyes, initially reacts by wanting to kill The Joker, but The Joker instead gives him the gun, carefully keeping it pointed straight at him. At this point, Harvey, now fully present as Two-Face, decides to keep the gun, letting The Joker live.

Batman himself experiences such an inversion at the end of the film, where he takes the blame for Two-Face's murders, thus sullying his own name but keeping the dream of Harvey Dent alive "for the greater good." Batman says that Gotham must never know about Harvey's fall, and it will be said that he died a hero.

According to Nolan, an important theme of the sequel is "escalation", extending the ending of Batman Begins, noting "things having to get worse before they get better". Shades of Nietzsche's dark night of the soul.

Introducing the cast of characters

Bruce Wayne
Even though Batman wears a mask to hide his identity, Bruce Wayne is really the symbolic mask. It is Bruce Wayne who is the ego, masking the greater self that is Batman. If we look at what Bruce/Batman was meant to be in life, we see that his true calling is certainly as Batman, not as a rich, superficial and vapid billionaire. Similarly, the ego can be seen as vapid and superficial in relation to the self, which is the totality of conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind.

Also, although Bruce Wayne's wealth may have been conceptualized out of a juvenile power fantasy, it is certainly not glamorized in the film. His wealth, when touched upon, makes the character seem more distant or unlikable. In this way, the film resonates with an "everyman" attitude that money can't buy happiness, and the important things in life are free.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Panel from Batman #84 (June, 1954), page 24. Bale as the new Batman in Batman Begins (2005).

Batman, being the protagonist and also the icon which embodies the entire franchise, certainly resonates with the self. The bat logo can be seen as a sort of mandala for the self.

I would go a step further to say that Batman is the self after finishing the grail quest (another form of death/rebirth symbolism), and after integrating the shadow. While Bruce Wayne is feeble, uptight and superficial, representing a rather immature, materialistic ego-driven personality, Batman represents the individuated self, having accepted and integrated its negative traits.

Batman isn't simply the shadow, for if it were, he would be all of the negative things that Bruce Wayne rejected from his life. Rather, Batman is the integrated self that has overcome the trials and tribulations on their quest for self discovery. Having quested and matured (as evinced in Batman Begins, 2004) this Batman represents the developed self, which is able to hold the opposites.

We see Bruce struggling with the opposites early in the film after some Batman-imitating vigilantes interfered with a mafia drug deal. He says to Alfred that when he said he wanted to inspire people, he didn't mean for them to take to the streets as vigilantes. Again, the exact opposite of the intended effect has occurred, yet at this stage in the film, Bruce has difficulty accepting it.

Throughout the film, the theme is reinforced that Batman can do what others can't. He can break the rules, such as going to Hong Kong to forcibly extradite a criminal. However, Bruce Wayne continues to struggle with his role. After the death of Rachel, we see Bruce in the early morning hours, obviously depressed, asking Alfred if it is all his fault.

He struggles throughout the film, ultimately coming to a conclusion that he can accept his role. At the end of the film, we see a much more self-assured and confident Batman, fully accepting and embracing his dual nature. Here he says that he will give Gotham the hero it needs, not the one it deserves.

Harvey Dent

Harvey Dent is the archetypal "fairy tale" hero, which humanity's collective pscyhe is now too jaded and cynical to ever accept as anything other than make-believe. Harvey is the "too good to be true" goody two-shoes district attorney who intends to single-handedly bring down the mob in Gotham city. He plays the hero to Batman's antihero.

Psychologically, he can be seen as the naive, undifferentiated self. His theme is unity and simplicity. He flips a double-sided coin but both sides are the same. His character resonates with the mind in a state before it has become cynical and jaded.

In the film, Harvey is initially at odds with Gordon. It seems that Gordon represents the world-weary, cynical, jaded cop while Harvey is the hot-shot rookie. A backstory for Harvey and Gordon is revealed in the film: Before becoming a district attorney, Harvey Dent worked at Internal Affairs and had investigated members of Gordon's unit for corruption.

Cover art for the second printing of Detective Comics #818, by Simone Bianchi.


We've already explored the symbolism of Two-Face quite a bit through discussing Harvey Dent and the rest of the film, but here are a few particular details about his character.

He is reminiscient of Janus, the two-faced god.
In Roman mythology, Janus (or Ianus) was the god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings. His most prominent remnants in modern culture are his namesakes: the month of January, which begins the new year, and the janitor, who is a caretaker of doors and halls.

Roman bust of Janus, Vatican.
There is quite a bit more interesting symoblism about Two-Face but alas, it will have to wait until another article. Check Wikipedia for more info.

Rachel Dawes
Being one of the only female characters in the movie, Rachel resonates as an anima symbol. I would say she is similar to Helen of Troy, or anima level 2, according to Jung's categorization. Helen is described as follows:
The second is Helen, in allusion to Helen of Troy in Greek mythology. In this phase, women are viewed as capable of worldly success and of being self-reliant, intelligent and insightful, even if not altogether virtuous.

Gyllenhaal has acknowledged her character is a damsel in distress to an extent, but says Nolan sought ways to empower her character, so "Rachel's really clear about what's important to her and unwilling to compromise her morals

Michael Caine as Alfred.
Michael Caine as Alfred.

Alfred Pennyworth
Alfred is the wise old man. In fact, he's even listed on the Wikipedia page as such. Here's the description from Wikipedia,

This type of character is typically represented as a kind and wise, older father-type figure who uses personal knowledge of people and the world to help tell stories and offer guidance that, in a mystical way, may impress upon his audience a sense of who they are and who they might become, thereby acting as a mentor.

Jung dubbed this character as a senex. This is Latin for old man in general, and in fact, two stock characters of the stage are the senex iratus, an old man who irrationally objects to the love between the younger characters, and the senex amans, an old man foolishly in love with a woman too young for him. Jung's senex, unlike these characters, has grown old graciously. His wisdom is not only in his increased knowledge and judgment, but his knowing that younger people have taken on the role of hero, and that his position has changed to one of mentor.

Alfred in this case is certainly the austere senex, who is far removed from the outside world and has taken on a mentor role, having no active part in Bruce Wayne/Batman's endeavours.

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox from Batman Begins.
Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox

Lucius Fox
Lucious is another wise old man character who mentors Bruce Wayne/Batman. He is an invaluable resource for providing the armor, weaponry and technology used by Batman.

His name is interesting as Lucius resonates with Lucifer, or light-bringer, and Fox is numerologically 666. (F = 6th letter, O = 15th letter, X = 24th letter).

That being said, I fail to find any connection between "Lucifer 666" and the character portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the film. One very tenuous tie that I can perhaps stretch is that Lucius/Lucifer means "light bringer" and is related to Prometheus, who famously stole the light of knowledge from the Gods. If we look at this light of knowledge as technology, then it perhaps makes sense that Lucius is the "bringer" of light/technology to Batman. But I think that this entire trope is a rather futile effort in making sense of this unusual sidenote.

Disregarding the name Lucius Fox, we can focus on some of the other details of this character. I notice that the character of Lucius started in Batman Begins as a humble worker in the basement at Wayne Enterprises, yet has climbed the ranks to become president. This can be seen psychologically as reaping the rewards of being virtuous and ethical.

It, too, is an inversion -- going from a lowly basement worker to the president of a company.

So, while Lucius Fox has some duality themes, I think he primarily symbolizes ethics and right livelihood. The actor Morgan Freeman (at least to me) just exudes ethics, as does his character in the film, who initially refuses to use a surveillance network of Gotham City on the grounds that it's unethical.

Gary Oldman as James Gordon in Batman Begins (2005)
Gary Oldman as James Gordon

Commissioner Gordon
Gordon is the Everyman. Gordon is symbolic of the average joe, just trying to get by and do the best he can.

The struggle between Gordon and Harvey Dent can be seen as the world-weary and cynical yet wise old man with the bright-faced, optimistic but ultimately naive young man.

Gordon, too, has a death and rebirth in the film, when he fakes his own death during an assassination attempt on the mayor. He is revealed to still be alive later in the film, when he comes to Batman's rescue. In this scene, Batman has just crashed his motorcycle after swerving out of the way to miss The Joker, as he won't break his one rule, which is to never take a life. Just when it seems that The Joker will kill Batman, Gordon comes to the rescue.

Is this telling us that we need to stick to our morals, ethics and beliefs, and have faith in humanity?

Gary Oldman described his character as "incorruptible, virtuous, strong, heroic, but understated".

Heath Ledger as the Joker.  The Joker's scruffy and grungy make-up is intended as a reflection of his "edgy" character. Heath Ledger as the Joker.

The Joker
The Joker certainly embodies the Trickster archetype, though in The Dark Knight he is considerably less playful than in the prior comics, cartoons and films (except, perhaps, the specific somewhat dark envisioning of the Joker that this most recent film is based on).
Hynes and Doty, in Mythical Trickster Figures (1993) state that every trickster has several of the following six traits:[1]
  1. fundamentally ambiguous and anomalous
  2. deceiver and trick-player
  3. shape-shifter
  4. situation-inverter
  5. messenger and imitator of the gods
  6. sacred and lewd bricoleur
The Joker meets all of these criteria, if you think about it. The "shape-shifter" thing can be seen in the various disguises, masks, face paint and even a nurse outfit that The Joker wears during the film. Situation inversion is also a constant thread, where The Joker is able to get out of situations against all odds through trickery (e.g., pretending to be dead and having his "corpse" delivered to a mob boss who wants him dead, only to "come alive" and kill the mobster).

The other criteria fit in as well, but I think that this incarnation of the Trickster is a bit darker than most. Whereas there are many benevolent Trickster archetypes (e.g. Robin Hood), the Joker is certainly a malevolent one.

The Joker also resonates with other archetypal characters, such as Thanatos (aka The Grim Reaper), and Eris (Goddess of Discord). There is such a wealth of symbolism surrounding The Joker that I'll continue this analysis in a post dedicated entirely to this character.

Posted by Jonah Dempcy at 12:19 AM  


wow. great work.
honor to post first.

Ben said...
August 11, 2008 at 1:25 PM  

Good work here. This post is very much along the lines of something I was going to do with The Dark Knight film, except I was going going along the lines of Batman as pure ego, straining to control the shadow/trickster archetype as represented by The Joker.
For me the whole film is an allegory of ego vs. shadow, the trickster is the mediating archetype that confounds the ego into an intense individuation process, forcing Batman into a relationship with his dark, primeval self.

But good post. Hope to see you do one again sometime.

May 6, 2009 at 9:47 AM  

Would love to hear your thoughts on the Joker as an individual article!

Sean said...
September 20, 2009 at 9:33 AM  

Batman is the integrated shadow/hero, so he has two mentors. One for the hero (alfred) and one for the shadow (Lucius). 

If there is a tie to Lucifer, it would fit. Lucifer (bringer of light) was an angel who fell and became the greatest shadow.

Anonymous said...
April 28, 2012 at 9:13 PM  

Post a Comment