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.