We have waited a long time to have Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit out movie screens. And finally, it’s here! And dark it is -- more violence, dark humour, and much darker moral complexity. The story opens with a bank robbery in progress and as it proceeds we realise that these bank robbers are ruthless and motivated by an intense greed. The moral darkness of the whole film is set as we see the bank robbers turning on each other. Even the "honour among thieves" code is broken. Finally, the perpetrator of the bank robbery is revealed. The Joker is the new criminal mastermind up against whom Batman is set to fight.
The moral fibre of Gotham City is stretched and torn and it would seem there is no good left. The moral protectors of society, the police force, seem completely impotent in their fight against crime. The good seems to be losing the battle over evil. Batman is their only hope. But how far will he go in his fight with The Joker? This is the central motif running through The Dark Knight -- nothing good seems to work against The Joker. Batman needs to decide how far towards evil he is willing to travel in trying to overcome his enemy.
There is no doubt that The Dark Knight can be evaluated purely on a entertainment level. It has all the trappings of the modern Hollywood film -- special effects, amazing stunts, romantic interests. But the narrative asks us to journey into deep ethical and moral territory as it confronts the problem of evil which seems so intractable against good action. For Batman to overcome The Joker, it seems he must descend into moral darkness himself. But the question is, can he remain pure, while using evil methods to overcome the evil.
Anyone even remotely aware of the current global ethical debates around the use of torture to fight the alleged "war on terror" can’t possibly miss the allusions to the argument of some that using unethical means, such as torture, is the only way to deal with the evil as terrorism.
In our contemporary world, where a moral tsunami seems to bear down on us, maybe -- just maybe -- it is necessary to use what we are fighting against in order to overcome the enemy. This moral conundrum is what lifts The Dark Knight above mere entertainment. Do we need heroes who are prepared to lose their own good reputation -- their own moral character -- in order to rescue our society from that very evil? Batman is not like Christ, who became human and took upon himself humanity’s sin without becoming corrupted himself. Batman is a human hero. And perhaps The Dark Knight brings home to us the necessity for a saviour who is beyond the human. The Dark Knight is compelling entertainment. But those who think about their movies will be provoked to consider more deeply about contemporary morality and whether it is possible or not to overcome such intractable evil in the world using only good means.
Heath Ledger’s performance is everything we were expecting and more! It is an intense evocation of profound evil without a conscience. The Joker’s physical scars reflect a deep emotional scarring. Throughout the story, he has multiple explanations for the way his face has been turned into a perpetual smile. And there will undoubtedly be people in every audience whose life experience will resonate with the dark horror of each of these explanations. The narrative twists and turns with the motivations on the side of good and evil unclear and messy. If we want it to, The Dark Knight can become a powerful meditation on good and evil, ethics and morality, and the uselessness of black-and-white thinking when it comes to resolving the problems of our society.
This is one Batman film where evil takes over the stage and shifts our attention away from the hero. The audience clearly identifies with the Joker as they laugh and cheer at the perpetrator of evil. He has our sympathies and those on the side of good seem so weak. The Joker presents a powerful irony. The audience begins to laugh at the evil perpetrated by the joker. He seems to be the powerful one and somehow his actions against the weak take on a dark humour. There is something in us that resonates with this combination of violent evil and humour. Is it because so many of us suffer in ways similar to The Joker and can identify with his desperation to let the pain express itself. To survive his suffering, he has moved beyond suffering to a disinterested evil.
Ultimately, The Dark Knight presents us a message of power in weakness. Jesus Christ was one of many teachers who have modeled an approach to evil which is more about weakness than strength. What is it that really overcomes evil? Is it Batman’s superior physical prowess? His superior science fiction technology? Is it about the self-sacrifice of one’s reputation and everything that one holds dear -- even the very loss of one’s life?
Watching The Dark Knight as mere entertainment will lead to the loss of the power and depth of this contemporary fable -- one which confronts us with the reality of evil in our world, the apparent inability to overcome it, and the possible options in dealing with it. If you see this movie, make sure you leave thinking about the deeper issues that Christians need to confront. We need to face the reality that simplistic responses to evil may never work. But how far are we prepared to go in overcoming it?
Steve Parker reviews movies and books and comments on things of interest to Christians who are thoughtful about their faith on his blog, Thinking Christian, where this review was first published. He writes from Adelaide, Australia.