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A Dark Knight of the Soul

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 is retired after working on life issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for 36 years. He is a Fellow with the University of Notre Dame's deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, and the author of a monthly syndicated column for Catholic News Service.