This movie provoked some incredible discussion afterwards that I’d like to put up here, but most of that will contain spoilers so it might be nice to put some preliminary thoughts down first. Let me just say that I have not enjoyed a movie like this for a long time—Children of Men was probably the last film to give me such a high as this one. The filmmakers were able to build on the foundations laid in Batman Begins, and there is no question that Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker takes the character to new heights (and/or depths). What a phenomenal film to have as one’s last.
As of today, the whole Batman world has taken on a more distinguished hue. The word “epic” has been applied to the film, and I myself had the feeling that what I was viewing was at least was striving to operate on the level of something like Greek drama. About three quarters of the way through the movie, I realized why this comic book figure has fascinated us for almost a generation now: it is a modern myth. It is the same sort of myth the ancients recounted as they circled around the fire and reminisced about their godlike heroes late into the night, perhaps only dimly aware they were telling stories about themselves. It is what their poets worked and reworked, fleshing the tales out over time, embellishing them with their own narrative inclinations and truncating what did not grip the imagination or fortify the soul. Where else in our age can we find this storytelling than in our more enduring popular literature and film?
Now, I am no reader of comic books. I’m sure there are plenty of deviations in the movie from who Batman is in those original comics. Most of what I have to say will have no awareness of the prior fieldwork that has produced this fruit; I judge the film on its own terms. As long as what is presented stands in basic continuity with its prior forms, there is room for legitimate reinterpretation of this heroic figure and his attendant nemeses. There are no copyrights on myths.
I should also note that I am chronically incapable of enjoying stories for stories’ sake. It’s like I have a compulsion to launch into abstraction without taking the time to delight much in characterization, scenery, or storytelling. This is nothing to boast about and is probably the reason why I could never write good stories (I mean stories with a plot and not just things that happened to me). Most of what follows is going to fall into this, so if that annoys you, bear with me.
Dark Knight is about the meaning of the unrequited suffering of innocents. (There’s a thesis statement for you.) Most crime heroes are concerned with one question—justice—and its corollary, the gratifying application of it to the deserving. Innocent suffering falls within this category, but the writers are doing more with it than just using it to demonstrate the bad guy’s lack of compunction. What snapped it all together for me was a friend’s observation of a significant fact about the Joker: each time he tells the story of his disfigurement, it always changes, and it always places him in a state of innocent suffering. The Joker, though he has no backstory (and is therefore all the more menacing—a great move by the filmmaker, framing him as a sort of absolute), in some way sees himself as embodying the unjustly wounded innocent and puts into the practice the only response possible to one who has despaired of healing. The Joker is the agony of unrequited (and unrequitable) suffering, run amok.
I should say the Joker is one of two erroneous responses to unrequitable suffering: the other villain of the film, Two-Face, constitutes the other, which I’ll get into later. In a way, these two are the twin spawn of this grief-stricken mother. Bruce Wayne refuses either of these and chooses a third way, which in a remarkable ending gave his character the shadowy depth that caused him to assume the mythical proportions I spoke of already.
So, the Joker. It is no stretch to see him as aggressive despair cloaked in violence. A world in which there is unrequitable suffering is devoid of justice and therefore is a world in chaos. There are no rules. He is driven by no motive, operates according to no plan, and as such, cannot be placated or intimidated. The fear with which Batman weakens his enemies is useless against this creature, and so this villain, in his immunity, is the Batman’s supreme enemy.
Yet, it should be noted, he is not Batman’s correlative (as it's often said). Joker insists “they’ll go on and on like this forever,” but that is a lie—not only is this the voice of despair at the cycles of violence and retribution, but in stark contrast to the Joker, Batman is a response to the parasitic presence of evil. His particular brand of vigilantism only came about through the rise of criminality (into which he was drawn, interestingly enough, by the unrequitable suffering of his parents), and it would cease if it achieved its purpose. Yes, the day may never come when criminals do not hold the populace at its mercy, but that does not mean good needs evil. Quite the opposite.
The Joker’s mandate for chaos requires him to inflict suffering on others. In his more personal encounters, he draws his victims into pity for him by telling a false story of his suffering to make them more vulnerable to his final blow. In the wide angle, he creates a number of dilemmas for his victims in which they are forced to choose between two equally abhorrent situations involving innocent suffering.
The most interesting of these is the ferry dilemma, in which an element of culpability is introduced with the boat full of convicts. Innocent citizens of Gotham are confronted with the possibility of saving themselves by electing to blow up this ferry full of convicts. Each ferry has the detonator to explosives in the other ferry, and will be spared if they are the first to use it. If neither use it, both ferries will explode and all will die. Thus, these people are given the semblance of control and freedom in a situation manufactured to inflict pain no matter what.
The citizens insist that “those men have made their choice.” The felons’ character has been unimpeachably established as unworthy. The citizens’ protests are fueled by an awareness of the injustice of the situation smashed up against their conviction of their own innocence. Compared to the men on the prison ferry, these people are clearly less “killable,” and they seem to intuitively recognize the reasonable course of action: blow up the other boat. We simply can’t be killed instead of them. We don’t deserve this—therefore, they do!
Note the modus operandi of evil here: it dehumanizes its prospective victims. The citizens see a crowd of mothers, children, elderly, and identify with them; that other ferry is full of felons and lowlifes. The antidote to this dehumanization comes from an unexpected quarter. The convicts' boat is the first to recognize good in the situation—one guard points out, minutes before their deadline, that “we’re still here; they haven’t killed us yet.”
That observation expands the space to surround both ferries, and it snowballs into one convict’s demand for the detonator to the other ferry. This con recognizes the guards can’t make the choice because they do not know what it means to kill. In a stunning and cathartic move, he chucks the detonator overboard and refuses to engage evil on its own terms, demonstrating the revulsion for doing evil that overpowers the visceral urge to live at any cost. To capitulate to the dilemma is to surrender to chaos concealed beneath a respectable veneer of the lesser of two evils. The businessman who attempts to take responsibility, however, fails to see any way out other than injustice because he has never felt the life of another run through his hands. A split-second intuition preserves him from doing what he does not understand. Only those who have done evil and experienced its meaning have the clarity to short-circuit the dilemma.
This is the only proper human response to unrequitable suffering (this side of heaven). Director Christopher Nolan insists that “the Joker's form of evil is a very human form of evil and I think it is very important you believe in him as a human being as well as a monster.” This lends credence to my intuition that what drives the Joker is not just insanity but something human gone into meltdown. This gives rise to a the common characteristic between these villains: facial disfigurement. What else but the face can sum up the whole of the person? Inflict pain in the foot and you will see it reflected in the face. Analogously, so too with the soul.
Now for Two-Face. He, too, finds his pathological genesis in truly unrequitable suffering. He, too, seeks satisfaction by inflicting injustice on others. “I did not deserve to suffer this loss, to be deprived of this promise of happiness, and there is nothing that can heal my wound. Others deserve nothing like this, either, but they don’t suffer, whereas I do—is there not injustice here? Would it not be just for all to suffer unfairly, then? Is this not my only hope for justice?” Such is the reasoned interior monologue of the bereaved Harvey Dent. With no hope to soften his own loss, he must inflict the same loss on others—and he does so by forcing Commissioner Gordon to “lie to his son and tell him everything’s going to be all right,” flipping a coin to decide the boy’s sentence.
Clearly, the ideal of this justice is not pure chaos (the Joker) or the restoration of balance between right and wrong (Raz al Gul, in Batman Begins), but blind chance. It is impersonal and requires no one to act responsibly, and therefore is an abdication of human freedom and the projection of it onto the cosmos. The law of chance is always watching and always acting. Nothing escapes its jurisdiction, and therefore it has appeal for this man who can find no tribunal to hear his claim. I would not be the first to point out the clear parallel to Anton’s coin-flipping discipline in No Country For Old Men, though Two-Face has been making his own luck for much longer.
How, then, does Batman himself fit in to all of this? We pick up in Dark Knight as Bruce Wayne is stepping out of the honeymoon phase of being a hero. We can sense his awareness of the grind of his double life and the relentlessly encroaching intensification of evil. We see a shot of the numerous scars across his back and arms from untold encounters with unscrupulous evildoers. Alfred, in perennially wise tones, informs Bruce he is still only a man, with limits. Something tells us we are going to witness a transformation in the Batman.
Indeed, it proves to be a transformation from symbol and executor of justice to despised bearer of secret truth. The Joker maintains the upper hand on Batman by playing on his reputation—only a weakling and a coward would allow a psychopath to continue to kill people rather than reveal his true identity (so goes the Joker's story). Batman’s ethics require him to rise to this challenge, and he does. It is here he discovers his limit—Commissioner Gordon saves his life when the Joker gets the best of the Batman. In Harvey Dent, Bruce recognizes the man who can do what Batman can never do: bring justice to the daylight. Dent is the White Knight; Batman only comes out at night.
It is this recognition that requires the “noble lie” following Two-Face’s death. This lie is required, we are told, because the people need an image of hope, and that “their faith deserves a reward.” This reward must be of the waking world, or not at all; shadowy vigilantes are no basis for a system of government, after all! (Nor are watery tarts distributing scimitars, but that’s another argument altogether.)
And so Batman assumes the role of the scapegoat. Like Plato’s just man, he is most truly just when he does right even when opprobrium and abuse is heaped upon him, even from the very ones he protects. A common enemy diffuses the rising tension and allows it to expend itself on a victim equally repulsive to all. Bruce Wayne has been thereby invited into a new way of being—one in which unjust suffering is its very condition. Yet he does so with alacrity. As we see him run from the scene, a new weight is upon him, which he bears willingly and secretly. Not only does Gotham’s order hang on his shoulders, but its sanity as well. In his acceptance of unjust suffering lies the rescue of Gotham.
[END SPOILER ALERT]
Whew! Where does all this leave us? Unrequited suffering of innocents is a real question, and so we ought to expect faith to have something to say about it. It’s not exactly peripheral to Christianity, after all. I will not attempt a thorough answer to it at this point, but I do want to emphasize again how this film carries a portrayal of the longing for ultimate justice. It is the cry of the suffering innocent from beneath the altar in the Book of Revelation, where they cried out with a loud voice,
O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?
It is this cry that nourishes Christian hope. In this case, God's judgment is good news! Not without reason did the Holy Father Benedict write his latest encyclical on this most fundamental of virtues. In a short hat-tip to the atheistic philosopher Theodor Adorno, Benedict addresses the longing for justice cast in dramatic terms in our film (and in so many films today). The answer to this longing is not to be found in ever more spectacular retribution against those who perpetrate violence and evil. Rather, it is only to be found in the final judgment. Adorno insists that the horrible injustices of history should not have the final word. There must finally be true justice. But that, in the words the Pope quotes from Adorno, would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” In other words, there can be no such thing as unrequitable suffering, and therefore it is never justified to inflict it on others in order to preserve ourselves from it. Yet this would mean, as the Holy Father points out, something foreign to the thought of Adorno: the resurrection of the dead.
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not fail or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth.
If we are to evangelize this culture, we need to find ways to unearth its deep longings and show what truly satisfies them. And if that means I have to go watch Batman again, then I think I’m up for it.
[Update: saw it again this past weekend. I stand by my interpretation.]