The only time I ever waited in an hour-long line for a film on opening weekend was to watch The Dark Knight. When the movie finished it was déjà vu: no one said a word, exactly the response after The Passion of The Christ. The inability to comprehend and contextualize the movie has taken time: it has been over six months since that experience and I have seen the film twice again. Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, and The Prestige) directs the great issue of our day: can principled individuals or nations retain their standards when combating an enemy who has none? Connections to 9-11, American government, and the war on terror remain close to the surface in The Dark Knight.
How does one contest a person who has no ethic and whose goal in life is anarchy? The Joker (Heath Ledger) has no compulsion for a “fair fight.” He’s pleased for the thrill of the kill with a combatant of Batman’s stature (Christian Bale). Joker revels in the joy of carnage. There is no concern about “collateral damage.” Anxiety about anything is absent. Alfred (Michael Caine) well summarizes the situation: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
For Batman, who has an ethical foundation in life, the difficulty escalates as he battles such an aberration of pure evil. How can one fight another who has no scruples without crossing some of his own virtues, his own standards? How does a hero serve and protect when battling someone without combat rules? Innocents are consistently put in harms way. The principled character must ride the razor’s edge of obtaining information that will give him the knowledge he needs to know Joker’s next step. “You either die a hero or live long enough to watch yourself become the villain” is the proper commentary expounded by Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent, the supposed “white knight” of Gotham, is himself transformed into the hideous face of unadulterated dualism. A flip of a coin determines a good or evil outcome. Fate is pure despair and hopelessness.
Though the movie has an ending, the message continues. The brilliance of this concept is not a set up for a sequel but a statement about life: we should think about these ambiguous questions and understand the consequences of our answers. Ultimately The Dark Knight is not only about good and evil but about order and chaos. What will we do to establish the first so that we might forego the second? The tension that we face as individuals and nations, committed to holding back the terrible twins, is never ending. “Victory” over enemies is short-lived. “Mission accomplished” has a time limit. “The war against terror” has existed since Cain killed Abel. Humans will always look for one outside themselves who will clean up their world. But when salvation comes, we second guess the provider, unsatisfied with the outcome. Even if one came from heaven to earth, the Gotham-like response would be rejection. Ultimate triumph demands the eradication of all evil to renew earthly order: the true sequel to The Dark Knight. I am waiting again.
Rated PG-13 for adult situations, some profanity, constant violence and bloodletting.
Mark Eckel, Professor of Old Testament, Crossroads Bible College