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The Dark Knight

Todd Walters reports on justice, rebellion and random acts of violence in Gotham City.

Most morality tales depict a simple world where a clearly defined struggle between good and evil plays out, where recognizably good values do not conflict with one another, and where the unjust are punished and the righteous rewarded. This Manichaean structure underlies most superhero narratives – the thème du jour on the silver screen. Take recent films such as Spider-Man and Superman Returns, for example. Although they dazzle us with special effects and provide a means of escape from our harsh realm of reality, these pictures are morally uncomplicated. They may entertain, but they do not provoke. They can be considered part of our culture, but not part of our Art. This is why writer and director Christopher Nolan’s installments of the Batman series, first with Batman Begins (released in 2005), and then with The Dark Knight (released last summer), have been such remarkable achievements. They are simultaneously blockbuster action-adventure thrillers and heart-wrenching portrayals of the tragic dimensions of our moral universe.

The Dark Knight Begins

Superhero stories pose an often overlooked dilemma for democratic societies. The hero may stand opposed to crime and corruption; but viewed in a different light he is a vigilante running afoul of the laws of the city he professes to protect. This creates tension between two noble ends that appear at first glance to be fully compatible: between justice and the rule of law – but as the late Isaiah Berlin taught us, even the most highly-regarded liberal ideals don’t always harmonize. For instance, equality can often come only at the expense of liberty, and liberty at the expense of equality. So too with justice and law. If justice is defined as appropriate retribution against those who transgress moral norms, then in certain cases it must be sacrificed to uphold the letter of the law, and vice versa. Man-made legislation is not necessarily just. Nor does it always even allow for the pursuit and attainment of justice. This begs some troubling questions that the superhero – and, for that matter, all citizens – inevitably must confront: What is to be done when the gap between law and justice becomes too great to bear? Are there circumstances in which the rule of law, that putative bedrock of modern democracy, should be suspended or ignored altogether?

These were the philosophical questions that permeated Batman Begins, which prompted us to follow in the footsteps of Socrates by thinking deeply about the nature of justice. A cinematic Bildungsroman in many ways [‘story of moral development’ – ed], Batman Begins took us back to Bruce Wayne’s childhood to witness the event that catalysed his evolution into the Caped Crusader. Bruce’s parents were murdered in front of him by a common street thug in downtown Gotham City – a random but not unusual shooting in a society being overwhelmed by criminal activity. Some years later, when things have only become worse, we see Bruce at the thug’s parole hearing with a gun in hand, ready to exact revenge. But as the killer leaves the courtroom, a mafia hit-man shoots him before Bruce has the chance to (the thug had turned state’s evidence against the mob). Bruce’s opportunity to avenge the death of his parents is lost, but he has also been saved from a descent into murder. Later, Bruce reveals to his childhood friend Rachel Dawes, now Assistant District Attorney of Gotham, what he had planned to do, and why:

Bruce: My parents deserve justice.

Rachel: You’re not talking about justice. You’re talking about revenge.

Bruce: Sometimes they’re the same.

Rachel: No, they’re never the same. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. It’s why we have an impartial system.

Bruce: Your system is broken.

The ‘broken system’ is the crux of the matter: does the appearance of the justice system’s being broken, of its alleged inability to punish the guilty and discourage crime, justify well-intentioned law-breaking to combat the ill-intentioned law-breaking? In deciding to transform himself into Batman, a crime-fighter who exists above and beyond the law, and whose actions violate any judicial standard of proportionality and due process, Bruce is implicitly accepting the irreconcilability of justice with law, and crowning himself the arbiter between them. But he knows he’s pursuing a dangerous path, and he does not take the decision lightly. Thus the moral stage is set for The Dark Knight.

Light and Shade

While most superhero stories laud the protagonist unreservedly, particularly those adapted for cinema, The Dark Knight actually forces us to grapple with the complex ethical dilemmas of Batman’s unhappy situation. One of these dilemmas stems from the fact that, because both heroes and villains act outside of the legal system, it can be difficult to tell them apart. In other words, it is tempting to establish a facile moral equivalence between them based on their unlawful behavior, which completely ignores their intentions. Thus, Batman is criticized repeatedly by the citizens of Gotham for his illegal and destructive behavior, and they continue to ask themselves if he is really combating crime or practicing and provoking it. This is his external struggle, the public relations front.

As The Dark Knight begins, we learn that Batman’s brand of vigilante justice has caught on in Gotham. An early scene shows a band of Batman impersonators trying to stop a drug deal – rather unsuccessfully. When the real Batman arrives, he tells the copycats that he does not want or need their help. As he is about to leave, one of the hapless impostors yells to him: “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” Though Batman apparently does not give this a second thought, these are critical questions. They imply the further questions: are his actions appropriate, even if intended for good? And is his behavior ultimately self-defeating? The film answers both of these questions in the affirmative – and that’s why its exploration of the possibility of justice is so terribly tragic.

As Batman, Bruce has to be wary of the inescapable temptation to amass and maintain excessive power. This is his internal struggle, and the measure of his incorruptibility. Plato argued that rule by Philosopher Kings would be a much less messy system than democracy. But dictatorial schemes are doomed to failure because of the innate fallibility of the human soul. In one of the more insightful exchanges in The Dark Knight, Bruce’s old friend Rachel and Gotham City’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, debate the threat that Batman himself could eventually pose:

Harvey: When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor. It was considered public service.

Rachel: And the last man they asked to protect the Republic was named Caesar. He never gave up that power.

Harvey: Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Batman certainly runs the risk of becoming Gotham’s Caesar: he has already become its guardian and watchman. Rachel understands the danger, and is true to her convictions about the sanctity of democracy. She’s channelling the Roman writer Juvenal, who famously wrote in his Satire VI, “But who watches the watchmen?”

This line from Juvenal was the inspiration for the comic book series Watchmen, recently made into a movie. The Wikipedia entry for the series says that it “examines the trope of the costumed adventurer or superhero by examining the human flaws of its ‘hero’ characters in lieu of the traditional comic book focus on its characters’ strengths.” This is also a fitting description of the examination of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego in The Dark Knight.

We may be witnessing here a significant shift in superhero cinema (perhaps as part of a shift in cinema generally): a turn away from simplistic narratives toward representations of more complex realities. One has to wonder if this is in part a consequence of the new world that we live in – a world no longer characterized by the sharply-defined bipolar standoff between the liberal democratic West and the communist totalitarian East. In contrast, today’s battles with religious fundamentalism, rogue states with nuclear weapons, and the potential for environmental and economic catastrophe seem to be colored in variegated shades of gray.

Bad Jokes

If the central conflict of Batman Begins was between justice and the rule of law, then that of The Dark Knight is between order and chaos. Although Bruce struggles with questions about the propriety of his crime-fighting in a democratic society, such concerns are rather irrelevant for the charismatic villain of The Dark Knight, the Joker, sinisterly and superbly portrayed by the late Heath Ledger. The Joker indiscriminately kills, maims, steals and destroys. He has no obvious rational desires, no respect for human life, and no boundaries. He is a symbol of the most extreme form of Isaiah Berlin’s ‘negative freedom’, the absence of all constraint.

To cite just a few examples of the Joker’s mayhem: he recruits for a position in his gang by breaking a pool cue in half, exposing its sharp, flesh-slicing points, then throwing the broken pieces down in the middle of three men so they can kill for the position (he calls this ‘tryouts’). In another instance, he threatens to blow up a hospital unless someone in Gotham kills a lawyer he has targeted. And in one of the climactic scenes of the film, he plants bombs on two boats filled with passengers, each boat given the detonator for the other, and announces that if one of them does not push their button by midnight, he will remotely push both buttons himself.

By orchestrating these perverse social experiments, the Joker forces innocent people into making impossible life and death choices – all to articulate his central message: that human morality and social stability are not absolute, but contingent on circumstance. The Joker says of Gotham’s citizens that “Their morals, their code – it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” This shows the real core of conflict – the psychological war, the struggle for the soul of the city.

The decline in decency in the city had begun long before Joker’s arrival, but in attacking Gotham’s best and brightest he’s able to push things to new depths. There are two juxtaposed scenes showing Batman and Harvey Dent in turn torturing captives to glean information about the Joker’s whereabouts. Batman drops a mafia figure from several stories up, breaking his legs; and Harvey threatens to shoot one of the Joker’s hapless henchmen in the head. But this is exactly the kind of behavior that the Joker wants to provoke, to demonstrate that his own twisted psyche exists inside all of us, that his actions are those any human being would adopt in a Hobbesian state of nature. “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve,” he declares.

The Joker is an unconventional villain waging an asymmetric war, and in confronting him Batman feels compelled to push the boundaries of law and morality farther than he ever thought would be necessary. For example, in addition to engaging in torture, he builds a phone surveillance system to locate the Joker, despite the glaring violation of civil liberties that comes from listening in on the telephone calls of everyone in the city. However, he does acknowledge this violation, and has the system destroyed after it has served its purpose. But the specter of Caesar has begun to descend, and Bruce realizes that the game may almost be up: “I’ve seen what I would have to become to stop men like him,” he says. Batman needs to pass on the mantle of justice, and he wants to pass it to Gotham’s revered District Attorney. But the Joker has other ideas.

The moral erosion of Harvey Dent is the most unnerving plot line in The Dark Knight. His fall from grace goes far beyond the psychological torture described above… but this is better left for the film to reveal.

Harvey, a noble and law-abiding man who wanted nothing but to do good for the city, first emerged as Gotham’s true hero when the people began to turn against Batman. “You’re the symbol of hope that I could never be,” Batman tells him, recognizing that because Harvey works solely within the legal system to serve the cause of justice, he represents the only viable means of achieving stability in the long run. But the Joker knows this as well, and so goes after Harvey relentlessly. While the Joker ultimately fails to destroy the collective conscience of Gotham – the people on his bomb-rigged boats decide not to destroy each other – he does succeed in turning Gotham’s once shining symbol of hope into a depraved criminal, and thus concludes that it will only be a matter of time before everyone else’s moral moorings also come wildly undone.

Rebellion Without A Cause

The Dark Knight is not explicitly dedicated to the post-9/11 age, but through the Joker’s shocking behavior and outlook and Batman’s response to him, it does address some of this age’s salient themes.

The critic Paul Berman has been one of the most influential and eloquent commentators on September 11th and its aftermath. In his provocative 2003 book, Terror and Liberalism, he argued that despite their superficial differences, today’s brand of Islamic radicalism and the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, communism and fascism, share the same psychological root, which is an impulse to rebel against liberal society. Berman gives due recognition here to existentialist Albert Camus, who explored this idea in his aptly-title work, The Rebel, published in 1951.

As Berman, following and building on Camus, retraces the increasingly menacing notion of rebellion from the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Olympian gods, via the French Revolution, to the iconoclastic writings of Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, we see a gradual and painful unraveling of the human conscience. As Berman notes in his discussion of Baudelaire’s poetry in ‘Flowers of Evil’: “It was rebellion in the name of absolute freedom. The freedom to do what is absolutely forbidden. It was a plunge into the experience that is more than fleeting or partial: the experience of total annihilation … It was murder and suicide not as acts of a virtuous and responsible rebellion… but as acts of Satanic transgression. Murder and suicide for their own sake – for the sake of crime. It was nihilism: the rebellion against all moral values.” If there was ever a cinematic symbol who captures the essence of this rebellious nihilism, it is the Joker.

But we must go even further in our exploration of rebellion by exploring its pernicious counterpart – hatred. We can turn again here to Berman, in a review he wrote for The New Republic in November of 2005, about French philosopher André Glucksmann’s book Le Discours de la Haine (Discourse on Hatred):

“Glucksmann reminds us that, for more than a thousand years, writers from Aeschylus through Seneca to Shakespeare and Racine understood the ferocious independence of hatred – its extreme and irrational paroxysms, its ability to maintain its own strength and even grow, regardless of whatever may have provoked it. But this knowledge has evaporated in the modern centuries. We have ceased to believe in the reality of hatred. We are all social determinists now. We like to suppose that everything has a material explanation … But why should we go looking for larger motivating explanations? The wildest of hatreds do not need a cause outside of ourselves.”

Just as the Joker’s hatred of Gotham City is not motivated by any specific grievance, the hatred which totalitarian ideologies have can be so pure and consuming that it transcends any justificatory pretext of political oppression, socioeconomic disadvantage or the threat of subversive forces from within. Instead it finds its anchor in the darkest depths of the human soul. Berman continues his discussion of hatred with reference to another existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre:

“And why choose hate?… In Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre wrote that people who give in to the pleasures of hatred do so because they cannot abide their own frailties. Weakness and imperfection are the human condition. But weakness and imperfection leave us unsatisfied, maybe even disgusted with ourselves. Hatred, however, can make us feel strong … When we choose to hate, we discover that, by hating, we overcome our own disappointment at ourselves. We choose to hate because we want to feel the exhilarating vibrations of power instead of weakness, the perfect ideal instead of the imperfect reality.”

The Joker has succumbed to this supreme hatred which stems largely from the inability to cope with the imperfections of the human condition and its troubling but inherent value conflicts – such as that between justice and law, or safety and civility: both conflicts which run throughout The Dark Knight. However, unlike the totalitarian doctrines of the modern age, the Joker’s anger is not directed at a particular kind of citizen or a particular class of society, but at all citizens and all societies (and thus might be called postmodern). His is not a forward march to usher in a new form of political organization, but a rejection of all forms of political organization as such.

Indeed, the impulse to rebel can march ominously in two directions; one toward totalitarianism, the ultimate state of order; and the other toward anarchy, the ultimate state of chaos. The Joker has unquestionably chosen the latter path. Here, then, is another twist on the traditional comic book narrative – a villain, who, unlike Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor for example, is not striving for world domination, but rather for its opposite – the destruction of all control. Hitler and Stalin were nihilists, to be sure; but they were nihilists who believed in order. The Joker is a nihilist too; but he is also an anarchist. This is an equally potent concoction of ideologies, which can threaten to unravel the fibers of civilization in an instant. “I don’t have a plan,” the Joker declares, “I just do things… I hate plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer, I show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

Stark parallels can be drawn between the Joker’s rebellion against Gotham City and that of the Islamic fundamentalist groups which have risen up against the West of late. The fact that the Joker sends out videos of his victims suffering in captivity, and his threat to blow himself up with grenades strapped to his chest at one point, are only the superficial connections. The stronger ties concern motivation, which is without conscience, and objective, which is irrational – destructive for its own sake.

In sizing up the Joker, Bruce’s butler Alfred shrewdly observes that “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” This is also an apt description of perpetrators of terrorism who target innocent civilians in the name of grandiose political or religious programs that strive for an unachievable future. The revealing difference with the Joker is that he is a terrorist uncloaked of any ideological shroud: there is no ultimate doctrine for which he fights. Rather, the Joker frighteningly personifies the dark psychological impulse to rebel at the root of these sordid political movements.

Questions Remain

In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal written soon after the movie’s release, the novelist Andrew Klavan asserted that: “There seems to me no question that the… The Dark Knight… is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand.”

This assessment is far too ideological, and robs the film of its true merit. Yes, in depicting a terrorist who cannot be negotiated with, apologized to, or appeased, The Dark Knight has made a case for the occasional necessity of an extreme response to extraordinary circumstances. But it also portrays the consequences of such a response, and the importance of balancing the desire for security with the preservation of the rule of law, civil liberties, and our humanity. The Joker represents a permanent stain on the human soul: a chronic illness rather than a fleeting sentiment. The Joker can be killed, but his call for chaos, as an idea, is something that we have faced before, that we are combating now, and that we will surely confront again. There must, then, be an open debate about the measures we take to combat the real-life Jokers. What are the appropriate means to the end of security? If we change our laws or relax our moral standards to achieve justice, can we ever restore them?

In The Dark Knight, the Joker declares victory whenever he succeeds in provoking someone to dispense with their ethics and join him in his embrace of pure hatred: such transformations prove his point that people are only as good as circumstances allow them to be. This is the essence of his psychological warfare, tricking an adversary into inadvertently defeating himself.

The film does not provide any final answers about how to negotiate the proper balance of justice, law, security and liberty; but it does warn that we have to tread carefully, because even the most noble among us – the Harvey Dents and the Bruce Waynes – are liable to lose their footing when confronted with a vicious enemy who abides by no rules at all. The film’s importance resides in its implicit statement that we need to continually ask the “political question par excellence,” as Leo Strauss put it in Persecution and the Art of Writing, of “how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.” This question must be asked even, or especially, in times of crisis.

© Todd Walters 2009

Todd Walters is a writer living in New York.


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