[Warning: This post assumes readers have seen the movie. Spoilers have been observed.]
All who experience the world as a safe and secure place tend to assume that has been so always and is so for everybody. When familiar sources of security fail us, we are left adrift in a meaningless void until we can latch onto other idols. And then the never-ending cycle of optimism and despair is reenergized once more. In the absence of biblical hope, which is grounded neither in futurology nor in romantic utopias but in the promises of God, entire societies are held captive to the merchants of fear and death.
~ Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths
The word that has been repeatedly used to describe Christopher Nolan’s second installment of the Batman franchise is dark. My local film reviewer, Shawn Levy (although a bit of a hack), commented that The Dark Knight is many things, “But most of all it is dark.” And this is true. But my friend Adam offered a much more precise adjective. When I asked him if the movie was dark, he answered, “Yeah… and devastating.”
Adam was right.
Even on the surface, this is no mere comic book movie; the film is too real. From the opening scene the viewer is suspended by a tightly shot sequence of crime, violence, and anarchy. This is added to by a sparse musical score reminiscent to the single piano key struck in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Furthermore, the playfulness of most other comic book films, which works to remind the viewer that, “after all, this is just a work of pulp fiction,” is noticeably absent. So much so, that at times it seemed oddly out of place to have a man in a bat costume suddenly appear in the frame.
But this was not at all so for The Joker. Heath Ledger brought a starkness to this character that deepened both the complexity and the realism of the film. And this was most poignantly stated as The Joker — shoulders perfectly stiff and with a light and labored stride — walked from Gotham General Hospital dressed in a nurses uniform and capped with a red wig. It was at this point where the film seemed to fully reverse the interplay of fiction and reality: The Joker was no longer a comic character; he was real person whose psycho-pathology had turned his world into a comic book.
And like all good comic book characters, The Joker had a mission: Set the world on fire to watch it burn:
“It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message. Everything burns!”
The Dark Knight soars above so many super-hero movies because it refuses to pander to the shallow formula of good against evil. Instead of pitting a good hero against a bad villain, and then having them duke it out until order is finally restored — thereby reinforcing our commitments to the myth of redemptive violence — Nolan takes his viewer to the heart of a clash between rival myths. (I’m tempted to say that this is a clash between Christianity and Nihilism, but that would not be true, as I hope to demonstrate in what follows. However, it is certainly a clash between Nihilism and Goodness. Whose goodness will need to be discerned, though). And the reason this is a clash of myths rather than a clash of good and evil is that both The Joker and Batman are making claims about the way the world really is. Batman is staking his life on the claim that life is inherently beautiful, orderly, and good. The Joker, however, insists that all such things are a facade masking a murderous self-interest latent within the soul of each and every person, a self-interest that only needs to be nudged in the right direction to be unleashed in its fullest and most depraved form. “Madness, The Joker quips, “is like gravity… all it needs is a little push!”
This clash of myths is made overt as Batman attempts to beat out of The Joker the whereabouts of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent.
Batman: You wanted me? Here I am.
Joker: I wanted to see what you’d do. And you didn’t disappoint. You let 5 people die. Then, you let Dent take your place. Even to a guy like me, that’s cold.
Batman: Where’s Dent?
Joker: Those mob fools want you gone. So they can get back to the way things were. But I know the truth, there’s no going back. You’ve changed things…forever.
Batman: And why’d you wanna kill me?
Joker: I don’t wanna kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No. No…no. No…you complete…me.
Batman: You’re garbage who kills for money.
Joker: No, don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them you’re just a freak–like me. They need you right now. When they don’t…they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show ya. When the chips are down, these, uh…civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.
And having all the, uh… civilized people eat each other is exactly what The Joker sets out to do. Through a intensifying series of utilitarian dilemmas (the sort of moral quandaries that Introductory Ethics teachers love to employ) the citizens of Gotham find themselves betraying any sort of code of conduct in favor of self-preservation and security. In other words, The Joker, not unlike his philosophical predecessor, Fredrick Nietzsche, reveals that the utilitarian morality of our social order is merely a veneer, behind which lies a naked and ruthless self-interest. And so Ramachandra is correct: When our gods fail, we become captive to the merchants of fear and death.
The Dark Knight is devastating because of its unflinching drive to expose this reality in full. And one this route the viewer is taken along this death drive to discover another truth: Those who do choose to stand for good will most likely lose, and lose mightily. Bruce Wayne not only allows several people do die in the first of The Joker’s utilitarian schemes, but he loses his love (Rachel Dawes) and his hope (Harvey Dent). The seeming impotence of goodness to overcome this ravaging destruction may well lead the viewer to find a connection between the suffering of Batman and the kenotic theology of Good Friday. And this might have been the case, if it were not for the twist at the very end. After capturing The Joker and putting an end to (an all too short-lived and unconvincing) Two-Face, Batman decides to take upon himself the guilt of Dent’s crimes, turning himself into what the city needed, a scapegoat for the crimes it cannot bear to face. This ostensibly altruistic act was done, we are told, because the city of Gotham cannot find out the truth that its White Knight had been corrupted. This knowledge would simply be too much for the citizens to bear, that remaining semblance of goodness and order would crumble, and thus ensuring The Joker’s victory. In perhaps the films most heavy-handed moment, we are told that, “Sometimes people deserve more than the truth.” The truth, it turns out, is not enough to set us free.
In the end, Batman’s true identity is finally revealed: He is yet another merchant of fear and death. Because the truth is not enough to keep the citizens of Gotham from spiraling (back?) into a state of primordial chaos, the ultimate winner in the clash of myths is The Joker. If the truth must be concealed in order to preserve the beauty, order, and goodness of civilization, then such things are a mere facade. Thus, it is The Joker who has the last laugh, as the old idol which preserved the social order was torn down only to be replaced by another, new idol for the citizens of Gotham to latch onto. While Harvey Dent became Gotham’s martyred hero, Batman becomes the sacred sacrifice — “The hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”
In the dark and devastating world of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, even when you win you lose. And the gods of The Nothing called forth their next sacrifice.