It’s no secret that I love the movie The Dark Knight. I’ve loved it since I first saw it, and I’ve only grown to love it more. It’s been a couple of years since its release, but it resonates with me on a lot of levels still. If anything, I enjoy it even more now than I did then.
It goes without saying that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is electrifying. Many people have spent a lot of time expounding on that. Others have spent time unfairly mocking Batman’s vocal inflection, kind of not getting why he speaks with the intonation he does. That’s fine; it’s one of those choices where if he didn’t make the voice as over the top as it was, people would complain that he didn’t sound different enough. People find a reason to complain no matter what choice a director makes.
But a train of thought that has started gaining traction, that’s really been the root of my respect for this film, is the allegory of God and the Devil. On the surface, it’s a very obvious good and evil morality tale with Batman fighting the good fight against the inexorable evil of the Joker. That’s the universally accessible part.
However, intended or not, there is a decidedly Judeo-Christian aspect to the tale, and even a specifically Christian concept of God expressed in its resolution. Read no further if somehow, you haven’t yet seen this movie and don’t want it spoiled.
The first movement of the film shows The Joker doing exactly what the Devil does. He sows discord and mayhem for nothing more than his own pleasure. Technically, he barely gets his hands dirty. He lets the sinners around him destroy each other and then the only ones he has left to destroy are those that thought the riches he promised had worth. In a particularly beautiful and malicious moment, he places a grenade in the mouth of a mafia accountant…that does nothing more than spew out smoke.
If I don’t need to kill you, The Joker lets us know, then I’m just as happy to break you.
The Joker also is a malevolent force for those that invite him into their lives. After a demonstration of power, the mob (a synod of evil deeds) invites the Joker into their lives. And through the course of the film, they find that this deal they’ve made with the Devil costs them everything they had as he continues to promise more. Of course, at the end, the only one left standing is the Joker.
Reinforcing this thought is that when he takes the last vestige of territory from the mob bosses, he does it against a backdrop of flames. There is no one else in control now except the Joker (the Devil). He has literally killed (consumed) everyone who bargained with him.
By contrast we’re introduced to Batman as Old Testament God shortly afterward. He is a symbol of fear and respect in the world. People refrain from dealing drugs or making mayhem because they’re afraid of potential repercussions. You may never see him, but he is there and he will punish the wicked. And most importantly his rules are not to be broken, nor are they to be enforced by any but those he specifically chooses.
Have I lost you yet? I sure hope not, because that’s just the obvious surface allegory.
The Book of Job finds an echo through The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent, a good man, lives a righteous life following the law and building a better world. He is constantly tested; people around him don’t like him because he is not flawed as they are. Is he just another politician or does he really believe in doing the right thing?
We know him to be a truly righteous man because we see him judged by Batman — though he doesn’t know it — and pass with flying colors. Batman, for lack of a better word, blesses him with his grace and promises of success and support.
Batman/Bruce Wayne acts as well much the way God does in terms of the sanctity of life. The Joker promises the city death targeted at the most helpless unless people take the life of a single man. One life, weighed against hundreds. Does Batman allow the one man to die? No, he moves to preserve that one life. The message is plain: one life, any life, is worth saving.
The Joker, meanwhile, sows merry chaos and offers seductive logic to explain it. If anything, the scene in the middle of the film highlights the Joker’s Devilish nature. He offers explanations for his actions that make sense. But for his complete lack of compassion, the Joker is a fully functional soul. However, he lacks any desire beyond inflicting pain for the sake of bringing people down to his level.
Again, as he says repeatedly, he didn’t do anything. He merely offered people choices. They could have said no. The fact that they accepted him and his ways is what led to the mayhem. The Joker tells Dent the truth later, after he’s taken love and pride from him: he didn’t do anything. He just sets the pieces up and then follows where they lead (“a dog chasing cars”).
His overall mission being to prove to Batman (God) that people are just as ruthless and cruel as he. Which Batman won’t accept. He’s proven right, of course, to the surprise and amazement of The Joker and even the audience. When presented with the opportunity to kill others in favor of saving their own lives, two groups of people – one convicts and evil men, one average people – choose instead to save their souls instead of their lives.
But it doesn’t end there! At the end is perhaps the most poetically Christian allegory of the entire film. Batman, with the dead and broken Dent before him, realizes that the his evil actions (sins) will condemn him and destroy people’s faith in the goodness of the world, a goodness just recently proven that night when groups of people were willing to risk their own deaths instead of taking the lives of strangers.
Batman absolves Dent and takes his sins upon himself. He even turns his face, burned (!) into a ‘good’ and ‘evil’ side, so that the scars are no longer showing.
In so choosing, Batman is no longer simply a judge but a force for redemption and salvation. He transforms from an Old Testament God into a New Testament Jesus figure who acts through love and faith as well as law and order.
He is willing to take the sins of a man on his shoulders to preserve his living memory – his soul – so that people will remember the good that he’s done. In transferring the burden of guilt from the man, redemption is given though people never asked for it. Forgiveness will always be there.
I’m hoping that in finally committing this to writing, I can give my friends a much-needed respite from my endless ramblings on this topic. It’s doubtful. Because it strikes such a resonant, harmonious chord that is frankly surprising from a superhero movie.
And this doesn’t even delve into the issues of freedom and security in the modern world about which it challenges the audience to think! Maybe somewhere down the line I’ll write about that one….