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Dark Thoughts from The Dark Knight

July 27, 2008

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.

Probing Dualisms

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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2008 1:27 pm

    Thanks for the great review!

    Still haven’t seen it, but looking forward to it.

  2. July 28, 2008 2:58 pm

    Go see this movie for one reason alone: Heath Ledger.

    Some have said he is a “force of nature” in The Dark Knight. I’ll define that a bit further: He is a cinematic tsunami. He completely takes over. I can’t remember that last time I was so moved by the artistic expression of an actor in a movie. When the movie was over I immediately wanted to watch it again and I credit most of that sentiment to Heath Ledger’s performance. It actually makes me sad that we won’t be able to experience his gifts as an actor any longer due to his recent death. If he doesn’t get the Oscar for best actor I’ll boycott movies for the rest of my life. (Are you tiring of my overstatements?) It really was that good. Freaky good. And The Joker was freaky. Probably one of the scariest characters ever on film but oddly one that I couldn’t get enough of. When he wasn’t in a scene I found myself wondering when we would get to see more of him.

    You have probably read a lot about this movie if you have not seen it by now. When it comes to Heath’s character, it’s all true. Go see it for all the reasons that you probably have already heard of, but if you don’t believe those go see a very special artist pull off a performance that you’ll likely never forget. And sadly we know that we’ll never see one like it again.

  3. Ken permalink
    July 28, 2008 3:27 pm

    Could have warned there were spoilers.

  4. July 28, 2008 3:35 pm


  5. July 29, 2008 8:24 am

    JD – I was equally struck by Nolan’s use of duality, even choosing Two Face as the villain – the whole film was thematically tight, maybe the tightest I’ve seen in quite a while. From the angle of craft, I think Nolan did a brilliant job with the story.

    Batman reminds me a bit of King Arthur, actually. And what I mean is, Arthur possessed a deep belief in a moral code and mankind’s ultimately good nature. I think Nolan is taking us to the logical conclusion, as you point out, that an Arthurian belief system is flawed; just look at what happened to Camelot because of Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal of their king. The effects of the fall are inescapable and it seems that Nolan is deconstructing the pop culture propaganda that claims we are not fallen.

    But, that isn’t to say that Nolan is offering us, or will offer in a future film, a hero that comes close to “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.”

    I really do appreciate when you engage popular culture like this and I hope you’ll continue to do it.

  6. July 29, 2008 8:27 am

    Awesome insights via the Arthur legend; I never caught that!

  7. Tony permalink
    July 29, 2008 1:01 pm

    Maybe I missed something…your review and insight comes off that Batman is making something of a mockery of faith. It seems to me just the opposite.

    The end of the movie seemed to place Batman squarely in the Christ-figure role. He “makes the choice no one else can make”. Batman wants to be loved- he wants to be the hero. However, he realizes that in order to truly save Gotham he must become the anti-hero. He must endure the wrath and scorn of the city in order to save it. He becomes the curse.

    Now, I realize the analogy falls apart on many levels, and there are many references that question the logic of faith. However, it seems that Batman’s role at the end is to save the city by becoming what the city most hates. Much like Christ saved us by becoming the curse, making the choice that we could not make, and unfairly and unjustly enduring the wrath. Isn’t this the point…or have I missed it altogether?

  8. July 29, 2008 1:12 pm

    I am not suggesting any kind of “mockery”; however, batman is far from a Christ figure when is spouting postmodernisms and basing his actions on falsehoods (sentimentality of Rachel’s intention to marry him). There is no way that Nolan is not trying to depict Jesus with batman.

    However, as I said, he does “carry depravity of the city” as a shadow of the truth or as you put it, “he becomes the curse.” I like your statement: “However, it seems that Batman’s role at the end is to save the city by becoming what the city most hates. Much like Christ saved us by becoming the curse, making the choice that we could not make, and unfairly and unjustly enduring the wrath.”

    However, Nolan’s batman is not so one-sided, so christological. He is an unsure hero, fighting for morals he can’t explain, offering people the reward of a faith that is placed in something other than the truth. He supports the idea of giving Gotham a two-faced hero, of painting things better than they really are. Jesus tells us how it is, how utterly hopeless we are and how helpless our false saviors are. This, I think, is a significant difference.

  9. Tony permalink
    July 29, 2008 1:31 pm

    Fair enough. I think that is accurate. I guess I was stopping at his willingness to take on the wrath of the city, unjustly, in order to save it. I really was not looking at that in the context of the whole movie. However,I do think Nolan was attempting to create a Christ figure in Batman-though skewed and imperfect- still a Christ figure.

  10. July 29, 2008 1:36 pm

    Thanks for your fine contributions, Tony!

  11. August 4, 2008 11:30 am

    Wow, Jonathan. I truly appreciated this analysis. You are a very insightful. This is my first time at this site (found you at Alltops “religion” category), but I will be back for sure.

  12. August 4, 2008 2:39 pm

    Cheers, Jeff!

  13. Svetli D. permalink
    December 14, 2008 8:50 pm

    I would rather say that Joker and Batman represent a part of our unconscious, a hiden part of our ideal (good or bad depending how we feel about our own degree of tolerance and on the point of view for the means to take to defend values)that struggle with everyday fight for a real (or precisely utopic) justice while there’s full of hypocrisis in the will of those who admit work for justice, thus our intention is burden between this dualism that personifies us.

  14. BongoBilly permalink
    December 21, 2009 1:36 pm

    The best summery or review of The Dark Knight. I’ve read most, and this resonates the most, it’s worthy of the great film. So much so, I had to say so. Outstanding.

  15. December 21, 2009 1:46 pm

    Thanks Billy! Glad you thought so. It was a good film.

  16. joewulf permalink
    January 2, 2010 5:10 am

    Great review Jonathan! Such a great movie with so much philosophy makes your review a welcome frame of reference.
    A friend has compared the Joker with Nietzsche’s ubermensch which I find interesting, though my understand of all parties precludes me from making too profound of connections between the two.
    Thanks again for the review!


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  6. A Good Critique of my Dark Knight Review « Creation Project
  7. Theological Reflections on Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” » To Think God as Love

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