The Catholic Thing
A Dark Knight of the Soul Print E-mail
By Richard Doerflinger   
Tuesday, 07 October 2008

Director Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie, The Dark Knight, has now been in theaters long enough for comment using “spoilers” that give away the end of the film. If you still have not seen it, you may want to read no farther. Go. It will be quite an experience. Then come back and read this.

Many critics have called this a powerful film, transcending the “comic book” genre even more than its predecessor, Batman Begins. But I believe this is also one of the most powerful Christian movies of 2008. Let me explain.

It involves the usual primordial battle between good and evil – with the complication that the writers know the truth articulated by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

Evil in pure form is represented by the Joker. He not only does evil, but lives to seduce seemingly decent people into doing evil – so that they will see their goodness, and goodness in general, as an illusion. He even kills other criminals, his wickedness being so far beyond theirs that even they are relatively innocent victims. He is the ultimate utilitarian, inviting people to kill or disgrace others on the pretext that they will save more people by doing so. The scene in which he encourages each of two boatloads of people to blow up the other boat, to save themselves, is especially harrowing. The reality is that if they save themselves by doing evil, they lose, and the Joker wins. The denouement suggests, however, that maybe Gotham’s people are worth saving after all.

The Joker is an embodiment of evil so convincing, so enigmatic, so thoroughly creepy, that it’s easy to believe that playing the role factored into Heath Ledger’s death by drug overdose. He has no known identity, no background, but infinite ingenuity and resources. At one point we think there‘s a childhood cause for his mania and facial scars – but later he gives a completely different explanation, and we realize he is merely playing with our expectations of a rational cause. He is, as is said at one point, an “agent of chaos.” For all intents and purposes, he is Satan. (Roger Ebert says Mephistopheles – I won’t argue demons with him.)

The forces of good capable of fighting this seemingly unstoppable force are conflicted and complicated. And here we are forced to meditate on what it means to be a hero.

Batman is the conventional action hero – he swoops in and punches out evil. He has great physical courage, and little regard for law if it hampers justice.

A second kind of hero is district attorney Harvey Dent, the “white knight” the city needs to feel good about itself. Incorruptible, he fights within the system, aggressively prosecuting evildoers. At one point, Batman realizes that such heroes for a more civilized world may soon render him unnecessary. He is not entirely unhappy about this.

So two kinds of heroism emerge within a secular framework: The heroism of action and of moral agency. (Those of classical mind may picture the Spartans in the movie 300, or the equally noble heroism of Cicero speaking against dictatorship.)

Okay, here come the spoilers. I warned you.

So how does the Joker confront these two heroisms? He mocks both, repeatedly defeats or eludes Batman, and drives Harvey Dent into despair, disfiguration, and “the dark side.” The Joker even boasts that Batman cannot kill him because of his moral decency, and the Joker cannot kill Batman because he sees him as the opponent who “completes” him. The two kinds of heroism have produced a stalemate. So what’s left?

A third and unexpected heroism – the hero who offers hope by accepting exile and disgrace. Gotham has been battered and demoralized. The knowledge that its “white knight,” Harvey Dent, joined the Joker and became an insane murderer in his last days, would be the last straw – the city would “lose its soul,” as one character observes. In effect, though temporarily incarcerated, the Joker has won after all. And so Batman, already widely suspected of being an outlaw, saves the city’s soul – by framing himself for Dent’s murders.

The police, mostly tolerant of Batman earlier, henceforth will hunt him down, thinking he has murdered policemen. He is branded a villain, abandoned by his former friends. The bat signal on the roof of police headquarters is smashed, and the city can take out all its rage and frustration on him.

As Batman flees the police in one of the final scenes, his only friend in the police knows the truth. The friend’s young son asks: Why is Batman running away? He’s done nothing wrong. No, agrees his father – he’s done nothing wrong. That’s why he has to run.

The man without sin, who takes on himself the sins of the people?

Okay, people have long been finding Christ figures in the movies. I think this one holds up, whether explicitly intended by the scriptwriter and director or not. One thing is clear: This is the only kind of heroism that the Joker, the embodiment of evil and chaos, can’t touch. He can’t do anything to someone who, for the sake of others, is willing to let others unjustly think him wicked. This form of heroic virtue transcends earthly definitions of heroism.

The title The Dark Knight obviously refers to Batman as a greater hero than the “white knight” Gotham had trusted. But in his self-imposed exile and loneliness, Batman must now experience a Dark Night of the soul. We’ll have to wait and see whether the third movie in the series believes in resurrection.

(Mr. Doerflinger has a day job at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has not the remotest connection with his love for watching and talking about movies in his spare time.)

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Iosephus, October 07, 2008
I am lost on your distinction between the "heroism of action" and "moral agency" - is the hero in the "heroism of action" not a moral agent also? And if the hero in the "heroism of action" is not a positively moral agent, why should we, unless we're also utilitarians, like the Joker, admire him?
written by Richard Doerflinger, October 07, 2008
Iosephus's comment is well taken. I think I had more of an explanation about two kinds of heroism in my original -- maybe I'll blame this one on the editors' cuts!
I meant a distinction between physical courage (like that shown by police officers or by soldiers in wartime) and what is often called moral courage (shown by those who speak against injustice or corruption despite consequences to themselves). Both are valuable, and both are possible outside a distinctively Christian worldview.
written by rufus, October 08, 2008
1) Wonderful beginning of what should be an extensive discussion about the nature of evil as it is treated in this movie

2) The movie did evil very well, but good less so

3) As evidence, Batman would have been perfectly justified in killing the Joker when he had the chance. I understand the importance of these plot moves but...

4) Yes, the resolution of the next movie is key, but moreso in the sense that we must see that preserving the appearance of good (Dent's image) is not enough.
written by Nick, October 10, 2008
Mr Doerflinger, I think you are on to something. I caught a whiff of this after viewing the film and threw together some thoughts which I posted on my own blog. If you're interested, you can view them:
I haven't come across any other figures that seem to approach the film as you have, so it's a little gratifying to come across a kindred spirit...
written by Richard Doerflinger, October 10, 2008
Thanks for these comments. I recommend Nick's blog as well for those interested. On Rufus's 4th comment: I do think it is more than maintaining appearances: The people of Gotham have been brutalized by the Joker's crimes, but also forced to see how capable they are of evil if tempted. To realize that even the city's "white knight" became a murderer would plunge the city into hopelessness, "losing its soul." Batman's sacrifice is about maintaining hope. Hope isn't everything, but...
written by Lisa, October 10, 2008
I do not agree with the assessment here. We have an ending where the apparent hero LIES to everyone - creates a deception. A lie is never the answer, the way, or correct under any circumstance. If a society cannot understand or accept the truth, there are bigger problems than who is to blame for a tragedy. Sorry - the ending is a grave disappointment.
written by Theresa, October 10, 2008
Here's my summation of the movie and what we can draw from it.
We are all born for greatness.
With this knowledge we must transcend the mediocrity of relativism.
Greatness lies within Christ, Relativism lieing within Satan.

By the way, had it not been for Morning Air, I would not know of this website!
written by Scotty the Menace, October 11, 2008
To Lisa, I don't remember the scene well, but I don't recall that Batman lied about anything to the public. He did not tell everyone the truth, but that is not the same thing.

Pilate and the high priests accused Christ of many things in their trial of him, but Christ only said, "It is you who are saying this," or else he remained silent, letting them maintain their own illusion, so that his call to die for us would be realized. This seems to be what Batman did. Correct my memory as needed. :)
written by Richard Doerflinger, October 15, 2008
Re Lisa's point: The Commandment is "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." Such false witness is a sin against justice. Here someone allows himself to be unjustly accused of a crime out of love for others, which but involves exposing only oneself to injustice, a self-sacrificing act. There is an intent to mislead, but one might ask whether it is primarily what the Commandment was directed against.

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