Some men just want to watch the world burn. (From: The Dark Knight)
The newly-released film, "The Dark Knight," has caused something of a sensation since its opening day appearance last week. Box-office records have been broken, and a great deal of discussion has been generated by the film beyond even the highly favorable reviews. Social, political, cultural, psychological, and even philosophical commentary and analyses are pouring out by way of reaction. No doubt the fact that one of the principle roles in the film is played by Heath Ledger, a promising young actor who died recently from an unintentional overdose of drugs, has contributed to the intensity of the film's reception. In other words, this is a "blockbuster" of some proportions, though somewhat beyond the bland superficiality associated with that term. Having said that, we need to also bear in mind that "blockbusters" must meet the popular demand for entertainment, and the film industry's obsession with money-making. But within the parameters of those twin necessities - both of which have been met with rousing success - "The Dark Knight" deserves to be received as a serious film that raises fascinating themes. Having seen the film for myself, I was hoping to explore a few of those themes, but one in particular: the boundaries of evil.
The director of "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan, has clearly aimed at transcending the "comic book to film," and "superhero movie" genres. In this, I believe, he has succeeded. Shot in Chicago, no traces remain of the urban gothic that gave the earlier renditions of Gotham City its phantasmogoric quality. This realistic setting lends a plausibility to all of the mayhem that ensues. "The Dark Knight" is dark and brooding, intense throughout, with no comic relief. Perhaps that is the only way to effectively capture the character of Batman, a self-appointed urban vigilante who thrives on pulverizing criminals while dressed up as a human bat. This "war on evil" is the result of watching his parents murdered before his very eyes as a young boy. The Batman clearly has "issues." And he is definitely postmodern. No wonder he eventually earned the title of the "dark knight." The film has some spectacular action scenes, but they do not overwhelm the production by submerging it into a stream of kinetic energy and pulsating sound. Characters do not exactly "develope," but they are certainly not reduced to stock comic book figures lacking any complexity or depth. The intelligent script - though not without some murkiness and cliches - in fact allows for the interaction of the characters, and especially their clashing "worldviews," to stand at the heart of the film. This is a crime film with some heart and soul to it. All in all, a Batman movie that will leave you thinking as you leave the theatre - or should we say the suburban multiplex of your choice.
To my mind, the most fascinating and intriguing aspect of "The Dark Knight" is the complex relationship and interaction between Batman and his infamous nemesis, the Joker. Here is where I would like to explore the theme of the boundaries of evil. Returning to Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, I would say that it is both phenomenal and frightening. His unsettling presence dominates the entire atmosphere of the film. All of the violence and tragedy that unfolds is caused by the Joker. There is something of the "terrorist" in him in a post-9/11 manner. In many ways, he "steals the show," even from Batman. He is portrayed as being sinister, sardonic and even sadistic. It is clearly all "over the top," but if you strip away the features of a comic book villian - replete with the obligatory costume and bizzare facial make-up - it remains a troubling portrayal of evil as incarnate in a human being.
The Joker is troubling precisely because there are no real "exterior motives" to his criminal activity. It is made obvious that he is not interested in piles of money, beautiful women, or even power over the criminal element in Gotham City. While Batman is desparately trying to uncover the Joker's motives, his faithful butler Alfred then uncovers the truth that has eluded Batman by saying: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." The Joker is a nihilist. His self-proclaimed goal is "chaos." This appears to be his one all-encompassing "interior motive." But chaos comes at the expense, or in the absence, of order. The Joker thus desires to subvert and overthrow the moral order of the world. He wants to prove human weakness by forcing others to embrace that very "chaos" as the only choice once the "prejudices" and comforts of a moral order are stripped away or demonstrated to be powerless in the face of the struggle for survival. Sardonically, he manipulates the landscape of his world by forcing others to make that choice. With the Joker, then, there are no "rules." There is nothing to contain or restrain the evil that he unleashes. Evil has no real boundaries. The Joker has looked into the abyss, and with a monumental perversity of character, he likes what he sees. And this is what makes him so dangerous and frightening.
The ultimate victory for the Joker would be to remake Batman in his own twisted image and likeness. He constantly tempts and taunts Batman to overstep the boundaries of his own principles, one of which is that "goodness" and "justice" do exist, and that there are "heroes" in this world. For the Joker, this is an endless game that he delights in. He claims that he "needs" Batman for that very purpose. (This whole theme of temptation works out tragically for another important character in the film). "The Dark Knight" is thus a portrayal of Batman tempted and taunted to succumb to his own "interior demons" by acknowledging that the Joker is right in his rejection of human goodness. Without being a "spoiler," I would simply point out that the Joker is surprised in the film's dramatic climax that builds with escalating tension, and that the Batman retains his integrity and humanity in the end, though this proves to be costly. Other characters suffer harsher fates . But the film is thus saved from being relentlessly dark and hopelessly bleak. "The Dark Knight" does not carry us into the abyss, as vestiges of hope remain. In the final analysis, the Joker is a fascinating character, but one tires of him and awaits his demise. Once the initial spell or lure disappears, evil is ugly and repulsive, devoid of any redeemable qualities. Ultimately, it is evil that is boring and not the goodness that it attempts to subvert.
Though easily dismissed as high-level popular entertainment, I found "The Dark Knight" to be a very good film, though somewhat undermined by its length (150 minutes) and a few other non-fatal weaknesses. It makes a serious exploration of some universal themes in a dramatically attractive way. Though highly entertaining, it is equally unsettling. "The Dark Knight" unfolds within a seemingly "closed universe," but still raises, if even unconsciously, genuine "theological" issues. Hard, thoughtful questions and moral/ethical dilemmas are presented throughout, but without easy ready-made answers. "The Dark Knight," through the dominating presence of the Joker, also raises the troubling issue posed by genuine works of art: the creation of evil characters as the most fascinating, intruiging and convincing ones within a given work. What that may say about human nature or life in "this world," we can leave for another time, but it remains a perplexing issue. If this type of film would interest you, I would definitely recommend it; but hold on tight, for it is quite a ride.
One final note: "The Dark Knight" is rated PG-13. That rating, perhaps, is generous. The violence is bloodless, but pretty relentless and intense. There is no sex. But the thematic elements explored above are even more problematic for young adults, and the Joker can be the source of more than one kind of nightmare. For sure, do not bring the kids!
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is the parish rector of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, OH. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he teaches in the theology department.