Dark Knight Shines

I loved Dark Knight, the latest Batman film. The acting is superb — I already loved Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, MIchael Cane, and Morgan Freeman, and they certainly live up to expectations here.

Ledger’s performance is everything the hype suggests. However, I found him to be frightening not because he played it “over the top,” as some critics have alleged, but because he is at times so chillingly calm. I confess to mentally leaving the movie for a moment in sadness as the Joker tells Batman, “We could do this forever.” No, they can’t.

I was not overwhelmed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom I generally like, but who couldn’t seem to spark much excitement here. I just couldn’t buy a romantic link between her and either of the two men in her life (Bale’s Bruce Wayne or Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent).

This is a movie of serious ideas as well as superbly crafted action, and I like that. Americans, it seems, hunger for intellectual material, so long as it’s part of an interesting and heroic story. Sadly, some of the ideas the film presents are terrible.

Spoiler Alert: From this point on, I’ll be discussing details of the film’s plot that you probably won’t want to read until after you see the film.

There are three main thematic elements to the film. The first may be summarized, “Don’t negotiate with terrorists.” The Joker is essentially an urban terrorist, motivated not by some religious cause but by raw nihilism. He hates societal order, hates good people planning their lives, hates the good-faith pursuit of values. His goal is to destroy values, destroy peace, and destroy the best people. So the film creates a very compelling villain.

Much of the film involves the Joker unleashing mayhem in order to blackmail Batman into turning himself in to the authorities and removing himself from the action. For a time, Wayne considers doing so. But Dent, the District Attorney, refuses to allow Batman to give in to the Joker, and turns himself in as Batman instead.

Another significant part of the non-capitulation theme rests with an employee of Wayne’s who has discovered the secret identity of his boss. He threatens to out Wayne — until the Joker also threatens violence unless somebody kills him. Then the employee learns quickly why it’s a bad idea to play games with terrorists and give in to demands. This first thematic element is positive and a huge reason why the film succeeds.

The second element is closely related to the first. Will people remain decent when pressured by a violent madman? The key sequence involves two ferries, one filled with good people of the city, another with criminals. The Joker loads both boats with explosives and gives each boat a detonator to the other boat. If one boat doesn’t blow up the other by a set time, the Joker will blow up both boats.

This is obviously a set up, but it plays well, and the dramatic suspense is palpable. This sequence involves a truly great moment aboard the criminal ferry. In many emergency contexts, I would choose to save the lives of decent people over criminals. However, in the context of the film, the people are aware that the Joker gets a special thrill out of manipulating people, and they also know that Batman as well as the authorities are on the case. So I think that the actions the people take — not to blow each other up — are defensible on grounds of not negotiating with terrorists. As others have noticed, this sequence has a lot to do with game theory in economics.

The third main thematic element is the fall of Dent from a respected District Attorney to villain, and the response of Batman to this. The fall of Dent from criminal-chasing hero to embittered villain is not set up well enough be be plausible. The only way such a fall would be possible is if Dent had dramatic personal problems that he’d been hiding. There is a hint of previous trouble: he was once known among police as “Two-Face Harvey.” He goes from making his own luck to thinking the world is fundamentally unfair and that such a condition excuses his vindictive violence. I knew the turn was coming, so I wasn’t too upset about it. Nevertheless, the mostly inexplicable turn of a hero into a villain is deeply unsatisfying and morally distressing.

Even worse, though, is Batman’s reaction to Dent’s fall. Batman wants to preserve the people’s faith in a hero, so he decides to take the wrap for Dent’s crimes. That’s horrible, horrible, horrible. Deception can never be the basis of a healthy social reaction. Batman’s action is profoundly unjust, not only to himself, but to Dent (who deserves condemnation for his fall), and, more importantly, to the people he claims to defend. Assuming that people must be deceived if they are to do the right thing is fundamentally disrespectful of those people.

I got the idea that the film was trying hard to make Batman a particularly “dark” knight. We can’t have him seem too heroic! Given that despicable goal, dinging Batman for crimes he didn’t commit is the least-bad way of mucking up his character.

As much as I hate Batman the Liar, the ending does not ruin the film for me. The dominant theme of standing up to villains saves it. That’s good, because there’s far too much talent here to waste.

2 thoughts on “Dark Knight Shines”

  1. “So I think that the actions the people take — not to blow each other up — are defensible on grounds of not negotiating with terrorists.”


    I agree that this would have been the most moral course of action. But this was not the case. Unfortunately, I think you have ascribed your interpretation to the people’s actions, which actually is not warranted.

    Their act was not of moral defiance against the terrorist but of upholding the “virtue” indicated by the statement: “I’d rather die as an act of self-sacrifice and let the other person live.”

    However, what this sentiment actually would lead to in this particular situation is this: “I’d rather die and bring everyone else down with me.”

    Notice that on the convicts boat, the virtue of self-destruction was thrust upon everyone by the fact that the detonator was thrown out of the boat. Thus, the context was altered to remove any hint of a possibility that a choice against self-sacrifice might be made.

    Certainly, I’m not saying that they should have blown each other up. What I’m saying is, they acted in a way that signified resignation from life, acceptance of death, and self-sacrifice as a virtue.

    Alternatively, I would have used your interpretation of defiance against the terrorist by showing that BOTH GROUPS of people throw their detonators out of their boats–wilfully and volitionally, after a discusion of the philosophical motive underlying this action, namely, “We’d rather not dance to the whims of a terrorist and thus die, not because we value self-sacrifice, but because we despise the life of a prisoner.”

    This would have been the most moral course of action. You could argue that the morality actually portrayed in the movie is ambiguous, which is what I stated in my blog post as well. Although, my stance is that the morality projected was the idealization of death and self-sacrifice as a moral virtue.

  2. First, the theme, “don’t negotiate with terrorists,” is firmly and overtly established in the movie. So I am not merely ascribing my “interpretation to the people’s actions;” I am interpreting the scene in light of the film’s own explicit theme.

    The fact that a convict throws his boat’s detonator out of the window does not indicate a “virtue of self-destruction.” It indicates that the convict thought the prison guards might blow up the boat full of innocent people, and he wanted to put an end to that possibility.

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