The Dark Knight — A Philosophical Review
Hello Bloggers. Welcome to the new Christus Victor Ministries website! I think you’ll find it easy to use and very informative. I am so blessed to have wonderful friends who put in a lot of time and effort to make this site what it is. I am forever indebted to Julie (Queen) Ross, Greg (Guitar Hero) and Marcia (Paparazzi) Erickson, Jen (Doc) Halverson and my wonderful wife and best friend, Shelley (Beso) Boyd. Our deepest appreciation also to Tim Bednar who designed this site and very patiently worked with my team to produce this site. Great job Tim! (For all who are interested in constructing their own website, I heartily recommend Tim’s company, Turtle Interactive).
Now, we’ve been mainly focusing on wresting with the problem violence in the Old Testament the last few months on this blog, and I will continue to post on this topic as I come across new material or ideas to reflect on. But I’m also going to diversify a bit more. Today I want to talk about BATMAN.
I just got back from watching The Dark Knight with some pastors from my church. I really liked it. Two thumbs way up! Sure, the plot is filled with the sort of incoherencies and unbelievable coincidences all action films have. (To get my money’s worth of entertainment, I always have to try to not notice such things and try even harder not to let them bug me when I can’t help but notice them). But as action films go, this one was better than average on this score.
And I predict Heath Ledger will get a posthumous Oscar for his role as the Joker. Honestly, this was about the best portrayal of pure anarchist evil I think I’ve ever seen.
Most importantly, this movie was packed with more philosophical insight than any action film I can remember. I’ll give four closely related examples.
1) The Dark Knight brilliantly explores the nature of order and chaos. The Joker is a Nietzscheian ubermensch (superman) who lives in a mindless, immoral, chaotic world. He believes order (e.g. societal rules, ethics) amounts to nothing more than artificial constraints cowardly people impose on reality. He exists to expose the joke of our pseudo-orderly world.
Even more significantly, the Joker believes the cowardly masses embrace this order hypocritically. He believes that as soon as it’s in their self-interest to abandon rules, the veneer of civic decency vanishes and the masses become barbarians — like the Joker himself. The Joker’s mission is to expose what a joke this thin veneer of human righteousness is. Throughout the movie he creates anarchy to reveal the evil that lurks just beneath the surface of our orderly lives. He also forces people to make impossible choices where they either become barbarians like himself or face death. He is usually (but not quite always) proven right.
2) Related to this, The Dark Knight masterfully explores the close connection between good and evil. While society pits the Joker and Batman against each other, the Joker proclaims that they are actually two sides of the same chaotic coin. The basic truth of the Joker’s perspective is woven throughout the movie.
For example, Batman is always breaking laws and creating chaos — to the point where he’s officially declared an outlaw. Yet, in contrast to the Joker, Batman breaks rules in ways that benefit the orderly, hypocritical masses, so they tolerate him. Also in contrast to the Joker, Batman always pulls back just short of the chaotic abyss. “For some inexplicable self-righteous reason,” the Joker says toward the end of the movie, “you just can’t kill me.” (This is from memory, so it’s probably not an exact quote). The Joker says this while hanging upside down on a rope over an abyss — revealing how very tenuous is the line between good and evil.
The line between good and evil is made even more ambiguous when, at the end of the movie, the masses turn on Batman as they come to believe he is evil. The Joker turns out to be right again. As soon as it’s in the self-interest of the masses to turn on this law-breaker, they do. Yet, the Joker is proven wrong in that Batman is the one who orchestrates this turning, and he does so for the good of the whole. The masses needed a new hero and a new villain — so Batman volunteers for the latter role. Good ultimately overcomes evil — but only in a rather ambiguous manner. (I’m tempted to see some Christian symbolism here: Isa 53, “he was despised and rejected” and “counted among the transgressors,” etc.)
3) Along the same lines, The Dark Knight ingeniously explores how easy it is to become the evil that we fight. The District Attorney (Harvey) initially is an uncompromising selfless hero who wants to rid Gotham City of its criminals. But as he suffers personal losses at the hands of evil he is slowly transformed into evil. Instead of overcoming evil with good — which Batman sort of does — he is overcome by evil. He comes to agree with the Joker that anarchy is the most fundamental reality. Hence he believes all order is ultimately futile.
The impossible choices the Joker forces people to make also explores this theme. The ultimate question being explored in each instance is: Do we live in an anarchistic, immoral, dog-eat-dog world, or do we live in a world where goodness exists and ultimately triumphs?
Batman’s refusal to kill the joker, and the choice of two others in the movie to refrain from violence despite a threat to their life, suggests that the ultimate joke is on the Joker. Yet, as I said above, the fact that the ultimate good Batman chooses is to be perceived as evil shows that the Joker was hitting on a great deal of truth as well.
4) Finally, one of the things I thought was most intriguing about this movie is the role chance played in it. When Harvey the District Attorney was on the side of order, he carried a coin that had heads on both sides — though only he knew it. He’d flip the coin, pretending to rely on chance, when faced with various decisions — but he always declared “I make my own luck.”
A turning point in the movie occurs when one side of his coin (along with one side of his face) becomes burnt. Now he can tell one side from the other, and so, as he’s being overcome with evil, he bitterly succumbs to the Joker’s philosophy that chance rules everything. Consistent with this view, he wagers the lives of people, and ultimately his own life, on the flip of a coin. (Ironically, Harvey is trying to live out an anarchistic view of the universe with logical consistency. But if the universe is truly anarchistic, why should logic play any role? )
This motif of The Dark Knight harshly captures the truth that so much of life (and one could easily believe all of life) is governed by mindless chance. Why was I born me rather than you? Why does one person live a long productive life while an infant dies after five days? Why is one family slaughtered by a tornado while the family next door goes unscathed? What (more than chance) really separates Batman and the Joker? With a vengeance, The Dark Knight forces us to look straight into the arbitrariness of life and ask the question: Is this the last word about the way things really are?
Who is the joke really on?
Lots of good action, great acting and a ton of philosophical material. How often do you get that in a record-breaking box office hit?
Til next time,
Be Blessed and Be a Blessing,