Friday, January 16, 2009

The world of the Dark Knight

...Spoiler alert...

One of the bonuses of going home last month was getting to see The Dark Knight for free on the plane, having been one of the few who missed it during the summer. It's an excellent film, although it certainly does live up to its dark moniker. I'm not going to be showing it to my hypothetical kids anytime soon, and I see why giving it a mere 12A rating stirred the pot a little here in the UK.

I really wished I had written down some of my thoughts while they were still fresh, so I'm afraid I'm only serving up the leftovers.

A good question to ask of any cultural/artistic piece is what it assumes about the way the world is, or to put it another way: what is not possible in this imagined world? Fantasy novels and films foreground this question since we usually know upfront we're entering a different universe, but any piece of work makes decisions about the shape of reality. Mills&Boons novels, for eg., make plain that their worlds must end in a neat, happy ending.

As such, I was intrigued (and actually, a little disturbed) by Gotham, and specifically, what sort of world it was: a world in which there is no Universal Authority, no Supreme Being. Let me unpack that a little. This isn't to say the movie is explicitly spouting some atheistic pseudophilosophy, but simply because of the way it's set up, with the Joker the centre of gravity in this film. One of the reasons the Joker is such a frightening figure is because he delights in anarchy, or as Alfred puts it: he "...doesn't play by the rules. Some people just want to see the world burn." In some ways, he reminds me of what Samuel Coleridge said of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, that he was a "motiveless malignity". The Joker doesn't play by any principles (except maybe nihilistic ones), and so fears no consequences. There's no boundary he isn't willing to cross. And how do you stop someone like that? The Joker knows it, and he constantly dares Batman to stoop to his level. Where do you draw the line, Batman? Be a mask-wearing vigilante and risk the lives of foolish copycats? Break international law on wire-tapping, but not kill the Joker? Who are you going to save, Batman? Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes? The Joker, with his tactics, poses the question of just how different Batman is from him, just with more (unnecessary?) restraint.

And part of the reason the Joker can do so is because well, Batman isn't God. He's not omnipresent or omniscient. Sure, he's Gotham's superhero, but he doesn't possess supreme insight in knowing what's the right path to take. He isn't able to enforce justice all the time or rescue every individual. It's a responsibility too big even for him to bear. Batman depends on society retaining some cohesion - that people will generally trust each other, be good citizens, etc. while he cleans up around the edges. What happens, though when such social cohesion begins to unravel? The Joker, with his pessimistic views on human nature, is seeking precisely to do just that. He appeals to humanity's self-interestedness. So, he announces the mayor (was it the mayor? I don't quite remember) has to die, or he blows up the hospital. Cue the mob.

Time and time again, the Joker forces the good guys into impossible moral decisions, and for me, exposed the hollowness of a morality independent of God. Why should Batman play by the rules? Why shouldn't the people on one ferry blow up the other? Why shouldn't we applaud the Joker when he kills other mobsters? And why shouldn't Batman be right in the end when he decides that "truth isn't good enough?" If the world in which Batman and Joker and Harvey Dent populate is ruled only by chance, then there's no reason to look out for others beyond pious platitudes about goodness. The Joker says, "you know the thing about chaos? It's fair." That's a truly frightening world.

But if God does exist, then the world isn't so bleak any longer. The prospect of final justice in the hands of a all-powerful, all-knowing, all-just God allows us to turn the other cheek and not take the path of a vengeance-fueled Harvey Dent. The Christian story in particular means that we can be relieved of trying to play Saviour, a burden none of us, even Batman, can bear. It also means that even in a world where seeming randomity still strikes, and the likes of the Joker roam about, we can actually have a deep-seated security that transcends surface appearances. And the Dark Knight, bleak as it is, isn't willing to depict a completely amoral world. The resolution of the ferry scene is one much needed gulp of air for the audience, as is Commissioner Gordon, and to a lesser extent Lucius Fox, whom the movie relies on as one/two fixed moral point(s) amidst constantly shifting ground.

Thank God we don't live in the world of the Dark Knight.

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