Dark Knight is a movie that grabs you by the you-know-what and doesn’t let go till the last scene. It’s one of the few movies where I saw people clapping when the credits rolled. Was it that good? The box office receipts say yes. So do the critics. It is a powerful movie, an adult movie. Compare it to Spider Man 3 and you know what I mean. It even has a different feel from its predecessor, Batman Begins. No futuristic trains in the sky, Gotham here looks like any major city. It looks like New York, and September 11 is the constant not so subtle subtext. Dark Knight may be a fantasy but it is a fantasy about our life, a vehicle to ponder our questions.
If you are not living in Baghdad, Dark Knight gives you a good feel of what it means to live in constant fear of violence and death. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the star of course. And so the show is about evil, evil that is smart, cruel, and seemingly unstoppable. When the Joker is inflicting his violence, you want to look away, but like road kill caught in the lights of the truck that is bearing down on you, you can’t. Sometimes there is no time to look away, like the scene where the guy gets the pencil through the eye. I was surprised that I didn’t black out during the show. Maybe I did. I held my breath throughout.
Dark Knight is a violent movie, a visual Ecclesiastes. Through the mouth of the Joker, it tells us that everything is meaningless. There is no guarantee that good guys win. Indeed those on the side of the angels get no special protection from evil as exemplified by the fate of Rachel Dawes. So why bother? Why so serious? Why do we try so hard to do the right thing when it doesn’t guarantee us anything? Indeed why bother to make any plans at all when we have absolutely no control over what happens in life? The only rational response to the absurdity of life is anarchy. Listen as the Joker sells this to a bitter Harvey Dent.
It’s the schemer who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You had plans. Look where it got you. I just did what I did best — I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair. (Dennis O’Neil, The Dark Knight, New York: Boulevard Berkeley Books, 2008, 248.)
If I had the chance to have a chat with the Joker, I would suggest that the fact that he finds live meaningless and seeks an appropriate response — anarchy — presupposes some intuitive belief that there is such a thing as meaning. I wonder where that came from since the data that life provides seems to argue the opposite?
But the question that the Joker and the movie poses, is a serious one. Why bother doing good when the forces of evil are so powerful? Why continue to work for good when we have no guarantee of victory? Why press on when we are so tired and we do not know how long the battle is going to be? Why so serious? Might as well enjoy life while we can. Eat drink and be merry and a consumer society has many suggestions as to how you can do that in style, with products and services tailored to your income level and credit rating.
So why bother? Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, who wrote the story that was the basis for the movie, find salvation in a romantic irrational belief in the goodness of human nature. They have the Joker setting up a horrible experiment. He sets up bombs in two ferries, one carrying hard-core criminals and the other carrying civilians. He gives each boat the option of blowing the other one up, or he blows them both up.
Joker: “At midnight I blow you all up — both boats, boom, bye-bye. If, however, one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live. You choose. So who is it going to be — Harvey Dent’s most-wanted scumbag collection or the sweet, innocent civilians? Oh, and you might want to decide quickly, because the people on the other boat might not be so noble.” (O’Neil, Dark Knight, 268)
Nolan and Goyer would have us believe that a group of hardened criminals would not take over their ship and press the button to save themselves. Or that a group of concerned citizens would not carry out their decision to execute a bunch of murderers and thieves. Riiiiight. I found the Joker’s position more honest. In the face of the absurdities of life, and the uncertainties of any battle against evil, the human spirit cries out for hope and a happy
ending. But if all we have to count on is the goodness of human nature we might as well choose the path of anarchy/hedonism.
This is the real good news — that while we were yet sinners Jesus died for us. This is the real good news — we couldn’t save ourselves but a loving and holy God intervened in history, that He died for our sins and rose again from the dead as concrete proof that death and evil can and have been defeated.
I have come to have fresh appreciation for the Lord’s Supper. It is a commemoration of the reality of what God has done. But it is also a symbol of defiance, a fist in the face of a world where evil and meaninglessness seem to hold sway. Jesus has won the victory and He is coming again to wrap things up. And that is why I am joyfully serious about good and about God.
Nolan and Goyer did get one thing right. In a fallen world, good can only come through sacrifice. In the final scene of the movie we have Batman taking the rap for the murders committed by Harvey Dent so that Harvey Dent’s reputation remains unsullied, and the criminal cases he had successfully prosecuted continue to stand. The innocent takes responsibility for someone else’s sins for the greater good.
And as Batman crossed the rooftops of the sleeping city, not sure where he was going, knowing only that his wounds were deep (O’Neil, The Dark Knight, 291)
By His wounds we are healed.