Dark Thoughts from The Dark Knight
My first thoughts walking away from Dark Knight were dark thoughts. This film was, at times, too believable for a comic book hero. Yes, I realize that the Nolan brothers intentionally recast Batman out of the traditional hero role; however, in doing so they changed the comic book appeal, lost the frivolity and unbelievability of fictional heroes who save the day. The Joker was brilliant, disturbing, soul-punching, landing blows awfully close to home, but even closer to hell. Nicholson never came this close to “dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight.” *Note: there are spoilers below.
The film is rife with philosophical dualisms–chance and free will, good and evil, hero and villain, justice and chaos, sacrifice and suffering. And then there’s the maxim of the movie: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become a villain.” Unlike many films that flirt with such dualisms, Dark Knight probes into their depths. For instance, Two-Face would rather put his faith in “unbiased chance” than in the wavering free-will of humans, but in so doing, flips a coin with two heads on it. Which is more consistent? Chance or Justice? Two-Face argues for chance: “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.”
Or consider the social experiment rigged by the Joker. Two ferry boats loaded with explosives and remote detonators left on board. One boat filled with convicts, the other with civilians. Each boat has the detonator to the other boat in their hands, with the promise of safety to the one who pushes the button first. They are given 20 minutes to decide what action to take. The Joker banks on the depravity of humanity to lead to self-destruction, but alas, each boat refuses to detonate. Is humanity essentially good or essentially bad?
More Than the Truth?
Some have questioned why a brilliant writer and director like Christopher Nolan would go from Memento to Batman, but clearly he brought his philosophical depth and knack for the darkside of humanity with him. Personally, I prefer a more tame delivery of such deeply disturbing themes as evil, depravity, injustice, chance, free-will, and so on. Nolan followed up Batman Begins with his post-modern take on the hero. As I have discussed elsewhere, Batman transcends the superhero to become an everyman, conflicted and troubled by the difficulty, pain, and the brokenness of life. Much like us, he is groping for identity while also trying to maintain a groundless morality. The postmodern hero has very little to stand on to support his actions.
In the end, the bat signal is broken signifying the bat’s rejection by Gotham. Why? Because as he states: “Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” People deserve more than the truth? There’s a quandary for you! In one sense, this is how many of us live. Many of us prefer to build our lives, our significance on things that are not true; we place our faith in the goodness of humanity (when humanity has not been good to us). We insist on believing that being successful and family-oriented will bring us true happiness (while money corrupts and families divorce). We place our faith in a lie, a lie that temporarily rewards our faith, only to crumble seconds later under the weight of truth-sized hope. The truth isn’t good enough because we have grasped at lies.
Less Than a Savior
Though the postmodern Batman depicts our struggle, he offers very little to give us a way out of our predicament. In the end, he tells us that we deserve more than the truth. He absorbs the rejection of Gotham with the strength of sentiment, that Rachel would have married him, if she had lived. However, this is not true. Batman is motivated by hope in a lie. He embodies our need for hope and our proclivity to place it in hopelessness.
The bat becomes scapegoat for Gotham, a “dark” knight, not the one in shining armor. Yet, this act holds out a shadow of truth, the truth of our need for one man to take on our sin, our refusal to stand on the truth and insistence to believe in something “more” than the truth. The need for a savior, not who is postmodern, but who is supra-postmodern, a hero who can identify with the plight of humanity and bear its burden, but also rise above our predicament to speak life into it. There is a hero who does this, by taking depravity to the grave while also lifting our infinite desires for hope, justice, acceptance, and meaning into heaven itself, where they alone can be met by an infinite God. Contrary to the Dark Knight, we need more than what we deserve. We need a faith greater than what we can manufacture, to find a God greater than a man-made philosophical structure. We need a god-man.
From movie gods to imperfect actors, Ledger and Bale were convincing and human, perhaps too convincing given the tragic death and curious London arrest. Is this film Drama, Action, Thriller or Comic book philosophy? One thing is for sure—it is unlike any other Marvel/DC hero film ever made. It has set the bar high, perhaps as high as it can go.