On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.
“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
“Some men just want to see the world burn.”
“Why so serious?”
The script for The Dark Knight is peppered with aphorisms that, 10 years ago, thrived as culturally relevant memes, and continue to pop up daily on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit. The Dark Knight came into existence during a vital, shifting period of internet culture. Memes as an overarching part of our day-to-day online experience just as the movie took hold of the collective internet consciousness; experts refer to the period between 2008 through 2012 as some of meme culture’s earliest days, dominated by anonymous 4chan posts and early Reddit threads.
Anarchists and internet trolls embraced The Dark Knight and its nihilistic Joker, turning Heath Ledger’s portrayal of a deranged clown eager to see the world burn into a consistently reused joke. Early marketing campaigns for the movie, which drew heavily on the Joker’s now seminal phrase, “Why so serious?,” were remixed into a series of recognizable meme prototypes, turning the malevolent maestro of mischief into an icon months before film’s actual release. Soon you could quote the movie without directly referencing the movie — why repurpose the image of the Joker when you could use a cat?
The memes only continued following the movie’s release.
Ten years later, an eon on the internet’s timeline, and The Dark Knight is still as essential to meme creation than ever. According to Know Your Meme’s managing editor Don Caldwell, the reasons range from perpetuating political ideologies to the Joker’s adaptability as a pop culture mainstay. The Dark Knight was so popular, and became so recognizable as a meme to generations that never saw the movie, that there became an instant ability to comment on the bizarre nature of an event through a one-liner everyone knows.
“You can apply them to different things going on at different times,” Caldwell told Polygon. “There was another one from The Dark Knight, ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.’ That a big quotable line that still gets used to this day. That one gets applied to the political sphere a lot. They’re super, super adaptable, and they’re a major part of pop culture. That film was huge, and The Dark Knight became a household name. It’s not surprising that the memorable quotes from the film became memes that continue to this day.”
This is especially true with today’s current political climate. Logging onto Twitter is a lesson in masochistic curiosity; everything seems bleaker with each passing story, and there’s no way to really respond to ridiculous situations without referencing some equally absurd landmark. The Dark Knight provides an easy solution to this sadly laughable quandary. Every line that’s applied to these moments, like, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” is something that people are guaranteed to understand.
“I still see Heath Ledger’s depiction of the joker everywhere to this day, still,” Caldwell said. “‘Why so serious?’ is kind of the line that usually goes along with it. But there are so many lines we still see. The memes surrounding Heath Ledger’s lines and performance specifically are still the biggest memes from my perspective that I’ve seen, but the movie is full of popular memes used today.”
The longevity of The Dark Knight’s memes is particularly impressive considering that memes are birthed with a guillotine’s blade over their head. Memes are temporary; they exist and thrive according to our attention span. Collective interest in a meme wanes all the time. There are memes that last a couple of weeks (Avengers: Infinity War’s fade to dust meme, perhaps) and memes that last a couple of months (“Is this a pigeon”) but rarely are memes continuously relied on and recycled as frequently as Dark Knight quotes.
Caldwell also points to nostalgia and digital inheritance as a specific reason The Dark Knight memes have stayed around these last 10 years.
“That period, like 2008, was a really interesting period for memes,” Caldwell said. “The Dark Knight happened in 2008, so did Loss [a popular and controversial web comic]. They’re both from this same era, birthed from this same period. There was something going on in 2008 that made it ripe for memes surrounded by all of these cultural phenomenons.”
More people were coming into a period of internet culture dominance in 2008; social media was really beginning to take off, and sites like Reddit or 4chan were finding bigger audiences. Memes evolved from an alien language into something comprehensible, and those who stumbled into a newfound, chaotic world driven by jpeg shitposting wanted to jump into the action. The Dark Knight, Caldwell said, gave people the opportunity to join in on these moments by pointing to a joke that everyone already knew.
Unlike most memes, contained and image-heavy, The Dark Knight jokes continued offline. Versions of President Obama re-imagined as the Joker started to appear around Los Angeles. The image focused on Obama’s face, with the word “socialism” written underneath.
No one took ownership of the poster at the time, but internet culture and meme expert, Whitney Phillips, wrote the artist’s identity didn’t necessarily matter. Phillips was intrigued by how this poster, which played into a popular political discussing at the time regarding Obama’s ideologies, transformed from a meme on 4chan to a political talking point in publications like The Washington Post. Phillips wrote:
When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, Anonymous immediately embraced the film and generated a veritable fleet of new memes. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that images of Obama as the Joker have been in circulation since before the election; it was only a matter of time before some clever Anon incorporated the Wingnut/ Birther/Teabag contingent into the joke.
Thus, why so socialist.
It is impossible to know how and when “Why so socialist?” was replaced by the simpler “socialism.” Perhaps a Rightwing blogger encountered the original image somewhere, assumed the author was playing for his team, and tweaked the message in the name of clarity and/or font size. A more likely possibility, however, is that this image is the handiwork of some Anonymous troll who did it for the “lulz,” a term trolls and gamers use to indicate shenanigans.
The Dark Knight had all the right ingredients to become the piece of pop culture that diminished the line between a passing interest online and total ignorance offline.
Everything within The Dark Knight is still relevant, perhaps even more so today. Combine the film’s subject matter — a nihilistic sociopath working with a legion of loyal followers to upset the natural order through chaos and destruction — with today’s political sphere and online temperature, and the possibilities are endless.
The Dark Knight arrived at a perfect moment, when online culture was entering a new wave accessible to more people than ever before. There’s a very good chance that kids and younger teens today first came across The Dark Knight as a meme before they ever watched the movie; think Bee Movie or even Shrek.
Unlike the ironic enjoyment of those animated films, The Dark Knight isn’t pointed to as a joke. The dialogue, and the Joker’s absurdist nature, remain relevant memes 10 years later. The memes are funny, yet scary. They’re vague, yet specific to any immediate moment. And it’s likely they’ll last longer, remixed through the eras of internet culture, than the identity of the movie itself. The next generation and the one after that and the one after that will imprint and cling to its own $1 billion-grossing blockbuster. Yet it’ll still be quoting the Joker, perhaps without knowing who the Joker even is.