Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Dark Knight

Over at National Review Online, Jason Lee Steorts has an article on the significance of the Joker in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight.

The Dark Knight is a good movie, considerably more intelligent than one expects from the film industry these days. And Heath Ledger's performance is all they said it is. In fact, it is so good that Ledger has replaced Bruce Dern as Longhair in The Cowboys as my favorite movie villain. And that's saying something; Dern held the title for 36 years.

I don't think Steorts quite understands the Joker. This is what he says about him:
But that's not right, because the Joker doesn't do just anything. What he does is destroy. He is not chance, for chance might treat you well. He is, rather, a vandal. Why he wants to vandalize is not clear. Beyond question is that he thinks there is no such thing as right or wrong.
The Joker isn't a vandal, because a vandal is a barbarian who just wants to have a good time sacking a city. The Joker, in fact, doesn't actually do a lot of destroying. What he really wants to do is corrupt, or, more precisely, expose the corruption that is a hidden reality in all of us. We might call him a connoisseur of Original Sin. 

Like all villains of his type, the Joker claims to be a "realist" but he is really a secret idealist. For the idealist, only the perfect is worthy of respect or even deserves existence. Since nothing is perfect on Earth, especially men, the idealist thinks it an abomination that the world exists at all. He can't understand how someone like Batman would spend his life defending men even in their state of corruption. He thinks it must be that Batman doesn't really understand the depth of corruption in men. So the Joker makes it his task to expose the corruption in men, and makes it his special task to corrupt even the few men who seem to be purely good. And he the Joker is pretty good at being bad.

But Batman, like Christ, has no illusions about the nature of men. The difference between the Joker and Batman is that Batman thinks men are worth saving even though they are corrupt. A better name for the film might be the Dark Christ because Batman, like Christ, sacrifices himself for men who are not as good as him. 

The film does an excellent job of showing the two sides of the dual nature of man. Yes, even the best men have some store of evil in their hearts; but the converse is also true, that even evil men have some store of goodness in their hearts. The Joker sets up several "no-win" situations intended to expose the selfish nature of men, but he is (occasionally) thwarted by the surprise appearance of virtue in places one would least expect it. Good is as real as evil; in fact, it is more real. 


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just found your blog through The Whirlpool's Rim. It looks like you're thinking about a lot of things that interest me.

You make a good point about the Joker. The truth about him is much more sinister than Steorts has it. But I wonder about your conclusion that good is more real than evil. That is, I wonder how that conclusion squares with your contrast between the Joker and Batman. You seemed at first to be saying that both see the same mixture of good and evil in men, but make differing judgments about the worth of this mixed world. Why then in your final remark do you fall back on a real prevalence of good in the mixture? If the Joker could be decisively refuted in his meaning, and not merely defeated in his immediate schemes, by a dramatic triumph of good in "the soul of Gotham," what need would there be of a hero willing to value even a soul in which good is not prevalent? I have an inkling or two about how this question might be answered, but I'm curious to see what you think first.

David T. said...


That's a good point and I've been pondering it...

I suppose I find a hint of an answer in my remark that the Joker is "pretty good at being bad." The Joker is powerful because of his virtues, not his vices. He is brave, resourceful, temperate, intelligent and insightful. In fact, the only other person in Gotham who matches him in these virtues is Batman. The virtues, as such, are good, although they can be put to evil ends. The Joker, then, pays tribute to goodness even in his badness.

The difference between Batman and the Joker is a single virtue... humility. The Joker's sin is the sin of pride, the worst sin of all, and it makes him turn his considerable virtues to evil ends. But pride also makes the Joker ultimately weak, for it finally undermines his insight. Humility can understand pride, but pride cannot understand humility.

And this, finally, makes humility stronger than pride. I see the dramatic resolution of the film as a logical consequence of the relationship between pride and humility. The Joker can conceive of every possible countermove to his plans, which is why he regularly demonstrates his superiority to ordinary criminals (the Mafia) and ordinary cops. But humility defeats him because it is beyond his comprehension and he can't anticipate it.

Humility, for example, defeats him in the "no-win" situation he created of explosives on two rival boats. A criminal, of all people, demonstrates humility by throwing a detonator overboard. This is one of the best scenes in the film, because it shows the surprising nature of virtue. Up to that time we have been shown the depth and strength of evil by the Joker's resourcefulness, which always seems to be deeper than that of the good guys. But just when we think the Joker is unbeatable, he is defeated, and by an ordinary criminal who does not possess the Joker's strengths... but who possesses the one virtue beyond the Joker's ken - humility.

Batman ultimately wins because he is humble, and does not shirk from "taking the fall" for people who are not as good as him. But, this ultimately, demonstrates the superiority of good to evil.

That's the lines along which I was thinking... I'd love to hear what you think about it. Thanks for stopping by.


Anonymous said...

Could I paraphrase your argument like this:

The Joker's strength to corrupt is founded on his own partial incorruption. If the real is distinguished from the unreal by its making a difference for the world (without considering whether that difference is good or bad), then the Joker's virtues are real because they corrupt the soul of Gotham, and his evil inclination is less real because it requires the auxiliary strength of his virtues in order to be effective. Furthermore, it loses all of its power over the soul of Gotham immediately it is confronted with a virtue (humility) which exceeds the spiritual effectiveness of the Joker's virtues.

Maybe at some future time we will be able to discuss the above understanding of the real in terms of the proposed definition of being as power in Plato's Sophist. For now, let me just ask what you make of the implication that the soul of Gotham can resist the Joker's corrupting influence only on the basis of an illusion, an appearance of something unreal: the unmitigated good face of Harvey Dent. If the public were confronted with the additional corrupting stimulus of the knowledge of Dent's fall, the soul of Gotham would be forfeit.

David T. said...

Yes, the salvation of Gotham depends on an illusion, but the illusory good face of Harvey Dent is only the least significant part of it. More significant is the illusion Gotham holds about Batman; in his case, instead of believing the corrupt man incorruptible, they hold the uncorrupted (I won't say incorruptable) man corrupted. Both illusions are actively created by Batman as a means to an end. In other words, while the illusions are unreal, they are derivative of something very real indeed: Batman and his good purposes. In other words, it is only because Batman really is good that the unreal illusions have any power.

Anonymous said...


What would you say to a person who criticizes Batman at the end of the movie for asking Gordon to lie for the sake of maintaining hope among the people of Gotham? Would you consider his lie to be a mark against his character? Prima facie, it has traits resembling self-sacrifice, but it is nevertheless a lie.

What say you?

Anonymous said...


As far as the goods and evils in Batman and the Joker are concerned, I find your analysis to be quite coherent. But what about the people over whom Batman and the Joker are struggling? Good wins out in them, but only on the strength of an auxiliary, unreal foundation. When what is real (the good in the soul of Gotham) has to call in the support of an unreality (the good of Dent and evil of Batman) in order to hold up, then how real is the real, really?

I don't think it would be a mere quibble to point out that it is not Batman, but the people of Gotham, who first propose the two-sided illusion which gives them hope (and not "the worldly confidence that things will turn out well," but a preservation of the belief that good is both viable and authoritative, a belief which both Joker and Batman threaten). The arrangement with Gordon only hardens the appearances by which the common people have been more or less sheltered all along from the harsh reality inhabited only by Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Dent. While the curtain was still only half-drawn over the truth of Batman, he inspired a mixture of condemnation and imitation (in varyingly disastrous forms, from would-be Batmen to the Joker himself). The city preserves itself from becoming a hive of outlaws and anarchists by turning away from Batman to Harvey Dent. The good in the common people of Gotham cannot maintain itself in the face of the reality of Batman, but has to turn to unreality. The fact that Batman puts his humility at the service of this turn does not mean that it is only the instrument of his good will. Rather, it is a necessity drawn out by the fragility of the common good.

David T. said...

Amos and Paul,

I've been thinking about your two comments. I will have a longer post in response to them posted on the main blog today.