The Truth Shall Make You Lie

[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. 

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9 responses to “The Truth Shall Make You Lie

  • Seth J.

    Wow, I really appreciate this blog. I personally loved that movie for eerily similar, but less eloquently worded reasons. I agree the movie was quite disturbing, because it is far too real. Btw I could NOT stop thinking of your WV class that WHOLE movie (or while listening to Dust in the Wind, like I am now), in a good way. And in the way of Harvey Dent, I will admit his part was a tad too short. However I thought he added a different side of Nihilism, one that made me think of Anton Chigur. Dent’s fall from the temporary hero is not simply a fall from good to evil, but the coin flip has significance that he still holds on to chance in a radical pseudo-taoism. This is to say that he believes the principle of the balance of good and evil being absolute and arbitrary, with only chance to decide which applies at a certain time or another.

  • Jasmine

    These are all great points that really explain why this movie was so quickly a favorite for me and so many others. There is so much to see and think about in this movie. In light of your comments I’d like to expand a little on the cycle of fear and death the citizens of Gotham are trapped in, as you so clearly pointed out, and how Batman aids that cycle instead of breaking it.
    Throughout the movie there is a sense that Batman is fighting for a world in which he does not need to exist: a world in which the few bad eggs of society are taken care of so that the the goodness of the rest of the citizens can allow perfection. And yet, if the definition of “goodness” includes truthfulness, Batman undermines his own assumptions about the natural goodness of citizens by claiming they cannot handle the truth. It is almost as if, with the covertness of Two-Face’s identity, and the false guilt Batman takes on himself, Batman is nullifying his own vision. He is aiding Joker and nihilism and any other villains by not having faith in the goodness of the citizens. He is making a statement about the world in which he lives in– it is more important to live securely than to live in truth. The people are Gotham are people guided by fear, not be the heroism he tried so hard to cultivate in Harvey Dent.
    The question of whether people are more naturally good (guided by honor and nobility) or naturally evil (either by madness, or through a self-preserving moral-less fear) is present throughout the whole movie. Joker’s nihilistic actions suggest the latter. And unfortunately Batman “completes” the Joker by living by the same assumptions, and is just another “freak,” just as the Joker taunted.
    Joker wins.

  • Halden

    Good stuff. Love it.

    The one thing I think about the typology of Nihilism versus goodness (or perhaps its really nihilism versus hope?) is that the movie ultimately portrays everything taking a third option between the two: the tragic. Batman is less like the sanitized superheroes of genre and more like a figure in a attic tragedy in which the ultimately good character is ultimately party to horrendous evil inadvertently and ends up eliciting the wrath of the gods.

    This is very much like the typology that David Toole develops in his Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in which he charts the possibilities for dealing with the horrors of the modern world as being either nihilism (Nietzsche), tragic virtue (Milbank), or apocalyptic hope (Yoder).

    In Batman we do catch glimpses of apocalyptic hope, especially in the two boats of people who have the detonators for each other’s bomb, and ultimately bring themselves to wait, in a way that makes almost no sense, in a state of complete suspension over the void rather descend into nihilism and violence. But, what is notable is that these examples always involve masses of common folk, or even lower rungs of society, prisoners. Batman can never embrace this kind of counter-intuitive hopefulness.

    Just like in the conversation with Alfred, the one thing that Batman cannot do is simply endure. He must rather be constantly engaged in the tragic fight, bringing down on himself the wrath of madness and of law. And thus he remains caught in a sort of never-ending catharsis.

  • adamsteward

    So much to say about this movie. Thanks for saying some of it, Christian, and saying it well.

    A couple of things:

    1, its departure from the other “mere comic book movies” is simply its representation of another strand of the comic book world – the tragicomicbook (i just made that up. how do you like it?). It took the name, though not the content, from Frank Miller’s ’86 revisioning of the batman series called Dark Knight. Miller’s just dark, though – he still has a clear distinction betw/ good and evil, and a strong confidence in the good’s ability to tell the difference (as is readily apparent especially in 300 and any of the interviews in which he talks about global politics, which are many). Check out the series DMZ, for instance.

    More later. Got to go now.

  • Christian

    Hey, Dan Oudshoorn has an interesting review of the film ala Zizek and The War on Terror:
    http://poserorprophet.livejournal.com/143330.html

    I hope Dan picks up a copy of Ramachandra’s book (wink, wink).

  • dan

    Actually, I’ve hatched a plot to get a free copy from the publisher. I’ll let you know how that goes.

  • Christian

    In seeing the movie a second time I realized that the actual quote from the end is actually more depressing than I gave credit for in the post:

    “Sometimes times the truth isn’t good enough. Some times people deserve more. Sometimes they deserve to have their faith rewarded.”

    Faith in what? What sort of faith can only be rewarded by telling a lie? I suppose it is a truth based upon idols, that is, a truth that is not truthful.

    It seems that real truth, Christian truth, can see fallenness and sin as part of the truth. As Christians we should not have to lie to make things come out alright. The problem is, we don’t live in a Christian world. Furthermore, most Christians don’t have real faith in the promises of God and instead are held captives to the merchants of fear and death, who require lies.

    So what is a person to do when to be truthful means to hurt other people?

    That is the question I’m struggling with.

  • Perry Robinson

    Perhaps the Joker doesn’t win. Perhaps Plato does. The Noble Lie seems to function at the end. It is not completely false, but it isn’t the direct truth either. If a virtue is the right proportion of two opposing powers then honesty will include sometimes lying. (Do you have any Jews in your basement?) The Joker only wins if we look at it through the lens of Deontology or some other form of moral legalism rather than through some version of moral particularism, like Virtue Theory. I prefer to think that the Joker doesn’t win.

    The film was good but it disturbed me. Not because of the Nihilism, but because I wonder how long you can make films that glorify Nihilism and give it a platform for rather explicit preaching and not get a significant amount of people to take it seriously. That would be bad for the whole.

  • dan

    Perry,

    I reckon that the ‘nihilism’ preached by the Joker (or The Dark Knight) resonates so deeply with Western audiences, because it is a nihilism that we already have accepted and taken seriously. I don’t think the film is seeking converts, or providing a platform for something extra nos; rather, I think it is simply reflecting back to us, that which we already believe.

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