The Dark Knight

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.

The New Vigilantes

I recently saw Neil Jordan’s new film The Brave One, which stars Jodie Foster as a Erica Bain, a vigilante killer who cleans up the scum of NYC in revenge for the brutal murder of her husband by a couple of thugs in a park. It’s a very interesting film for a number of reasons—essentially a feminist retelling of Taxi Driver (which also starred Foster)—but its chief provocation is that it offers up a likeable protagonist who kills for pleasure, walking the streets at night in search of (male) sinners who need to be silenced.

Another incarnation of this amoral anti-hero is seen in the show Dexter (now on CBS). A sharply written and well-acted drama, Dexter follows a serial killer (the title character played by Michael C. Hall) who has an insatiable urge to kill those who kill others. He’s as likeable as any character on television and wouldn’t harm a hair on any principled, law-abiding citizen. But when it comes to rapists, pedophiles, murderers, and human traffickers, Dexter is as menacing as Jeffrey Dahmer. The show doesn’t condone or celebrate Dexter’s actions, but it definitely wants us to be on his side. To that end, it offers a “life is horribly complicated” backstory that attempts to explain (perhaps justify?) Dexter’s violent actions. Like Erica Bain, Dexter faced a violent past that made him who he is today: an unstable timebomb with a murderous axe to grind.

These are just two of the most recent examples of vigilante heroes in pop culture, which is just one subset of the much broader trend of moral ambiguity (the tendency of culture today to celebrate “the gray areas”). But none of this is especially novel or unique to the 21st century. I immediately think back to the novels of Dostoevsky that tackled these notions of DIY justice.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explores the idea that some men are of an “extraordinary” nature, set apart from, or rather above, the common man. The character of Porfiry interprets the idea in this way: “The ordinary must live in obedience…while the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law.” In the novel, this concept is embodied in the character of Raskolnikov, a neurotic, distressed student who kills a pawnbroker and her innocent sister. Like Porfiry, Raskolnikov believes that the extraordinary man has a right (not official, but his own) to “step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea—sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind—calls for it.” For Raskolnikov, his murderous actions constitute the “stepping over” of an extraordinary man, for in the killing of the wretched pawnbroker many people—if not the whole of mankind—will be better off.

So goes the logic of both The Brave One and Dexter. In each case we find ourselves rooting on the murderous actions of these vigilantes because they are “taking out the trash” so to speak. The disturbing allure of these types of films (and TV shows) is that we all, secretly, enjoy seeing a bad guy get shot in the face or (in the case of Dexter, chopped into pieces and thrown in the trash).

But there is a frightful end sum to this type of vigilante amorality. In Crime and Punishment progresses, Raskolnikov begins to understand that in trying to rationalize his killing through some grand idea, he is deluding himself. He senses the dishonesty of it, and though it proves painful, admits to himself that: “I simply killed—killed for myself.” At the end of the novel (the “punishment” portion in Siberia), Raskolnikov imagines the true implications of the idea that had fueled his former torment. He has a disturbing vision of pestilence taking over the world and producing a race of men who each assume the right to step over and who each find the truth “in himself alone.”

This vision paints a scary portrait of a world governed by relativistic morality. Dostoevsky’s comments that in this world “they did not know whom to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good” prophesy the coming of postmodernism. Of course, the initial cultural manifestation of the “stepping over” idea seems to have been the rise in totalitarianism in the early-mid twentieth century, but Dostoevsky expresses a foresight of what would ultimately come in totalitarianism/modernism’s wake. Once one or two “extraordinary men” step over and take the reigns of a totalitarian authority, the natural outcome is that more and more people view themselves in the same way. Soon, because extraordinariness is so arbitrary and totalitarianism so distasteful, everyone claims the same rights to power and/or truth. Raskolnikov sees something of this future in his idea, and that is why he ultimately discounts it.

Does our culture today see the folly and contradiction that Raskolnikov finally does? Or are we once again romanced by the notion of “extraordinary” men and “above the law” morality? More broadly: is our emphasis on cultural specificity and relativism weakening our ability to even delineate where the “stepping over” lines are? It’s a question and pesky problem that deserves to be discussed.