The Dark Knight

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)

Some have accused The Dark Knight of being too much movie, and if there is any fault with this epic film, this is probably it. Knight is so absolutely full—overflowing, really—with ideas and provocations… it is almost too much for one movie to bear. As such, I’ve had a hard time deciding just what I wanted to say here about it. I could go on and on about Heath Ledger’s performance (which was spectacular, frightening, funny, disturbing, etc) or talk about the film’s striking resonances with a post 9/11, terrorism-stricken world (not to mention a presidential election year).

But as much as this film is about politics and terrorism and psychopaths and crime, it is also a film about ethics and epistemology and the questioning of the hero myth.

As the marketing campaign indicated it would be, Knight is chiefly about three men: Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Dent. Each has his own way of dealing with a world gone wrong. Batman compensates for his own emotional injuries by donning a mask to battle one city’s criminal underworld to whatever extent he can. The Joker compensates in a different way: by making things even more anarchic. Because he suffers from the world’s cruelty, the Joker makes everyone else suffer. And then there is Harvey Dent, the “white light” of Gotham who offers the city’s best hope for reform. Dent is an idealist, answering the insanity of the world by aggressively dealing in fixed binaries: good vs. evil.

In the end, the approaches of the Joker and Dent (Two Face) prove unsustainable. The Joker’s thesis that chaos necessarily reigns supreme because humans are irredeemably self-destructive is proven untrue in the film’s final setup, but this is no big surprise. The world is obviously not quite as malevolent as the Joker hopes it is.

What happens to Dent and his ideologies, however, is far more disturbing. Doubtless he is sincere about his desires to make things better for Gotham, but his sense of justice ultimately proves his downfall. He appeals only to himself for ethical jurisdiction, rather than any transcendent norms or guidelines. “I make my own luck” is his mantra early in the film, with his two-headed coin his symbolic way of mocking fate. But as the film progresses, Dent comes to see that his bifurcated moral lens is altogether arbitrary and unable to wield much authority over the complexities of morality and law. Having lost faith in “the good guys” by film’s end, Dent loses trust in himself. His coin becomes the two-sided, fate-driven determinant of crucial ethical choices.

This is, of course, exactly what the Joker wants: for Gotham to see that even its most “moral” hope is ultimately subject to the collapse of his unsupportable dogmas. But Batman will not let this happen, and herein the film’s most incisive commentaries come to fruition. Batman orchestrates a cover-up so that the public will not see Harvey Dent’s moral collapse. Taking on the mantle of the “Dark Knight,” Batman becomes public enemy #1 so as to maintain order and hope in a “for the greater good” sort of way. In the film’s beautiful (and tragic) final scenes, director Christopher Nolan’s point is hammered home: in a world as crazy as this one, sometimes deception is necessary to protect the world from itself. If the true ugliness of everything were revealed, perhaps chaos would reign supreme. We need examples, figureheads, Aristotelian moral guidance—otherwise we might give in to the worst within our selves.

This is a stark and disturbing conclusion, and it bothers me in many ways. I’m not sure if Nolan is arguing that this is how it should be (lying for the greater good) or this is how it is, but either way it is frightening.

It is immensely dangerous, I think, to protect our heroes from fallibility. The end of Knight suggests that letting the public see a flawed, morally (and physically) disfigured Dent would cause irreparable damage to the fight against crime. But isn’t it true that things would be even worse if later on people found out that Gotham authorities had covered up Dent’s failings, holding the wool over the public’s eyes to keep them gleefully ignorant? Though not a parallel example, the film made me think about Pat Tillman—how the government lied to us about the circumstances of his death to offer us a heroic figurehead who died at the hands of the enemy terrorists (turns out he died by friendly fire). How many other cases are there in politics where we’ve been deceived by a government who concluded it was in our best interest to not know the “full truth”?

The danger and deception of holding our leaders and heroes to too high a standard is never more evident than in the church today. Time and time again the church is made to look foolish because of fallen leaders (Catholic priests, Ted Haggard, etc) who—because they have been painted as incorruptible moral exemplars—do immense damage to the overall legitimacy of Christianity. If we are more about hiding sin than dealing with it, why would anyone look to our gospel for any sort of relevant, reconciliatory truth?

Whether it is a letter than we burn to protect someone from the truth (as Alfred does with Rachel’s letter to Bruce), or a surveillance technology we use in secret “for the greater good,” we must sacrifice full disclosure—The Dark Knight seems to suggest—for the sake of order rather than chaos. Though I agree that things are complicated (morality especially), I’m not sure that protecting people from the dark truths in the world is the best course of action. We need heroes, yes, but not heroes that are too perfect.

I read an essay once by Jenny Lyn Bader that described the transformation of heroes in American culture over the past fifty years, and I think it is instructive here. She argued that our “larger than life” heroes have proven less and less relevant in a world in which life is now larger. Because we now realize that the good guy/bad guy split is a reductive approach to life, we have to look beyond superheroes to more everyday, imperfect yet admirable role models, though it may prove more difficult:

A world without heroes is a rigorous, demanding place, where things don’t boil down to black and white but are rich with shades of gray; where faith in lofty, dead personages can be replaced by faith in ourselves and one another; where we must summon the strength to imagine a five-dimensional future in colors not yet invented. My generation grew up to see our world shift, so it’s up to us to steer a course between naivete and nihilism, to reshape vintage stories, to create stories of spirit without apologies.

In Knight we see the polarities of naivete (Dent) and nihilism (Joker), and how Batman tries to forge the gray middle ground between the two. In the end I’m not sure how I feel about what Batman has become, though I suppose that is how we are supposed to feel. On one hand his is a story of spirit without apology—a man willing to bear the weight of hatred and “be the villain” in order to truly be the hero. But I also don’t feel completely comfortable with his willingness to deceive the public—to keep them from the horrific truths that he is somehow uniquely able to bear. It is a dangerous thing to designate oneself as somehow more capable of dealing with truth than the “average Joes” of the world. Dostoevsky could tell you that. So could Shakespeare. And if Batman continues down that path, he’ll become in truth the villain he is now only pretending to be.

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10 responses to “The Dark Knight

  1. Whether it is a letter than we burn to protect someone from the truth (as Alfred does with Rachel’s letter to Bruce), or a surveillance technology we use in secret “for the greater good,” we must sacrifice full disclosure—The Dark Knight seems to suggest—for the sake of order rather than chaos.

    It’s interesting that you say so, because my impression was that The Dark Knight argued exactly the opposite: the fact that Batman uses surveillance technology ‘for the greater good’ (it doesn’t seem that Lucius Fox is set up as wrong in the scene in which he and Bruce conflict over the program) and, ultimately, convinced Gordon to lie to the citizens of Gotham because it was the only way to morally defeat the Joker was what made the film a tragedy: The Joker’s entire raison d’être was creating morally treacherous situations in order to demoralize and finally invalidate Batman’s (and Dent’s, and Gotham’s) sense of morality. He’s never interested in Batman revealing his identity, but wants him to feel the weight of guilt for the people the Joker kills because he won’t reveal himself. In the end, Batman finds that the Joker has constructed yet another scenario in which he can do the right thing— tell Gotham the truth about Dent— or the wrong thing— lie— and he chooses the wrong thing, because he feels that it will have the more favorable outcome. The fact that this feeds into Bruce’s gluttony for punishment and his guilt over his previous actions in the film (allowing Dent to take the fall for him, etc.) really does, I feel, make this the easier choice, despite how heroic he and Gordon obviously seem to think it is. Ultimately, then, the Joker has lost the battle for Gotham’s morality, but has won the battle for Batman’s morality, which seems to have been his goal in the first place— and, as you suggest, can easily lead to a victory over Gotham as well.

  2. Very nice analysis of the film. I think you’ve touched on many important reasons why the Dark Knight is resonating so strongly with so many people. (I haven’t seen this many people united in their love for a movie since – I don’t know, ever.)

    I’ve seen the film twice now, and am planning on seeing it, at the very least, once more, and probably even three or four times after that.

    A suggestion: maybe put a spoiler warning at the top of your post – luckily I’ve already seen it but if I hadn’t I would have been pretty pissed off at what you gave away – I know you weren’t really writing a review, but some people who haven’t seen it may just start reading and be rudely surprised by several key plot points and the ending that you give away.

    Out of curiosity – what do you think about the unprecedented hype over this movie?

  3. I also wondered about Gordon and Batman’s decision to martyr Batman in order to salvage the myth of Harvey Dent, for exactly the reason you mentioned — someone’s going to find out, and when they do, the resulting loss of faith would probably be more catastrophic than facing up to the truth at the outset would have been.

    And because I thought the men involved would *know* the situation to be true, that whole dimension of the ending clanged instead of rang true. I was also disappointed in how often we were told things by characters instead of shown them by their actions. And one of the few exceptions to that trend, the resolution of the lady-or-the-tiger scenario with the ferries, was so obviously artificial and eager to be an Important Point and Comment on Humanity by the Writer that I couldn’t buy what it was supposed to be showing me.

    In my own little whistle-stop of a review, I said “The Dark Knight” wasn’t really a bad movie, just disappointing. And because of it, I believe, the case that a third Nolan-Bales Batman movie will be a great one is going to depend more on crossed fingers than I’d have liked.

  4. I think it’s interesting that what the movie seems to say (according to your analysis) and what the movie seems to do are opposite. It says we need unblemished heroes to inspire hope and maintain our sanity. What it does is give us Batman–a hero who has his share of faults and instabilities–to inspire us.

    I’m still processing this one.

  5. I just saw it for the second time, and it’s still a lot to process. RP: I think that the film is pointing out that the need for unblemished heroes is a false need–a need we conjure up so as to not reckon with the reality that what we really need are imperfect, morally ambiguous forces like Batman who transcend the “hero” label. The film is redefining “hero” as someone like Batman who doesn’t need to inspire us in order to truly be good. He can do the opposite– make people hate him– and still be doing what’s in their best interest. Some Christian resonances I suppose… “The world will hate you…”
    And Brandon- in terms of the unprecedented hype, I am totally unsurprised by it. I do wonder if the film would have been quite as huge as it is ($155M opening!) w/o the “Heath Ledger is dead” factor… though I suspect it would have been equally big had he lived. Doubtless his performance and the surrounding buzz (“he’ll get a posthumous Oscar”) created a huge hype, but also the amazing viral marketing campaign. It worked!

  6. Brett, really insightful review. I liked “The DK” very much and I think that it now tops my SuperHero film list (admitted I haven’t seen “Ironman” yet).

    I would argue that the film is really about 4 men. I didn’t expect Gordon’s plotline to be as involved as it was (given the sparse use of Gary Oldman in the first film) but I think by the end, he takes his place next to the other three. And what an understated, nuanced performance it was. I felt that Gordon was essentially the “control group” of the film. In the very last scene (SPOILER) you get to see the toll that an average human pays to be involved with Batman, Joker, et al when he’s asked to choose between his son and his wife.

    In my opinion, the strength of this film is not Ledger’s performance, although he was powerful and original. The strength of the film is its uniformity. Strong acting, strong directing, excellent script, awesome cinemetography, fantastic special effects, etc. Nothing stood out to make everything else pale in comparision. Call it verisimilitude or whatever..

    To me, the end decision was not as disturbing as it was to you. Remember that the distinction is made in the film that Batman is not Gotham’s hero, but Gotham’s guardian. As such, I felt like Nolan was trying to draw the distinction between the self-righteous heroicism of Dent (who ended up crumbling under the weight of his self-perceived righteousness) and the self-imposed protectorship of Batman (who sheds his heroicism to save Gotham from disillusionment). I don’t think he was condoning lying to the public, but was trying to show the sacrificial tendencies of Batman. The handling of the truth is a bit sticky in the film, but in actuality Gotham does indeed have a hero, just not who they want to be their hero. Maybe that’s the message that Nolan was trying to communicate and its one that ring true for us too. We are very picky about who we want/allow to be our heroes. The point is that action and sacrifice determines heroicism, but that doesn’t stop the pervasive plague of relativism from invading who we dub as our heroes.

    I enjoy the blog very much.

  7. Pingback: » The Dark Knight « The Search Half Past Noon

  8. Thanks for your blog, and this review in particular. Good stuff all around!

  9. I think that the show Lie to Me adds a bit of interesting commentary to the above analysis of truth versus deception, and what is best for “the greater good.”

  10. Very interesting, I just want to add that, in effect, the joker won, the film really was about the Joker, and not about Batman.
    in a sense, the Joker is presented as a modern anti-hero, he may do evil things, but he is tryng to show Batman the Hipocresy of morality, in a world full of predators, He decived Batman in several ocassions during the movie and his final deception was to make Batman thing he will prove this by making the people on the boats kill each other, when actually he planned to do it trought Dent’s corruption of values.
    His final classic Laught of victory is the indication that he is satisfied with the outcome of things.
    The message I get from this, is that in the end, good cannot overcome evil, becauze good people tend to do nothing, and often people who fight monsters end up becoming one themselves.

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