The Dark Knight – Fear Itself

Theological Reflection

The Dark Knight is the Empire Strikes Back of superhero movies. It takes the rich but relatively direct moral universe of the first film in the trilogy and stretches those moral absolutes to their limits. In Batman Begins, a young man plagued by fear and filled with anger learns to channel his fear and anger into righteous vengeance. Bruce Wayne became a myth, a legend—the Batman—a golem stalking the night skies descending on criminals to enact justice.

As The Dark Knight begins, we see what Batman’s scare tactics have inspired in both well-meaning and ill-meaning individuals. Masked mimic men sporting hockey pads and carrying guns are trying to follow Batman’s example and fight crime on their own. These vigilantes aren’t up to the task though, and Batman has to both save/subdue them while stopping the Scarecrow from selling his hallucinogenic compound to drug dealers.

Jim Gordon has been put in charge of his own brigade of mob-hunting cops, corrupt though some of them may be, and he peppers the evening clouds with the sign of the bat hoping to instill further fear in Gotham’s criminals. It’s working. Criminals, seeing the bat signal in the sky, abandon their activities lest they get captured by Batman much to their customers’ chagrin.

Batman has inspired more than Jim Gordon’s resolve and a few foolish vigilantes. Batman’s brand of societal control has also called forth the Joker, a man not too dissimilar from Batman himself. Both men wear a mask, both men are going after the mob’s money, and both men hope to inspire Gotham’s citizenry to follow their example. However, while Batman inspires fear to impose order on society, the Joker inspires fear to create chaos. Batman believes that deep down, people are good, that properly inspired, people will do the right thing. The Joker contends that people are as bad as him, and given the right kind of encouragement, they will turn on each other and destroy everything.

If this was all The Dark Knight was, it would still be an entertaining film anchored by strong performances from Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart and by a career defining performance from Heath Ledger. Nolan knows how to keep a story surging forward, and from the opening scene showing the Joker’s rapid robbery of a mob bank to the closing moments when Batman runs from police dogs hot on his heels, the film never slows, even in moments when the audience would welcome a few extra seconds to let key plot and thematic details settle in. To its credit and to its detriment, The Dark Knight is a propulsive film.

As it rushes on and Gotham is besieged by terror—terror initiated by both Gotham’s villains and heroes—The Dark Knight constructs an increasingly complex moral landscape. The characters we assume to be good are increasingly twisted toward evil by the film’s events. Batman kidnaps a Chinese citizen in an extraordinary way, rendering him on Gotham’s courthouse steps so the cops can use whatever means are necessary to get information out of him about the mob. Later in the film, after he has brutally beaten the imprisoned Joker, Batman even begins surveilling all of Gotham’s citizens, violating their privacy in his attempt to locate the Joker. Even noble Jim Gordon bends the arrow of his moral compass and lies to his wife and children, pretending to die in order to ferret out the Joker.

Then, of course, there’s Harvey Dent, the “white knight” to Batman’s black one, Gotham’s absolutely righteous District Attorney, the standard of hope Bruce hoped Batman would inspire who can potentially lead the people of Gotham into a more just age. Even he is twisted by the Joker’s terrorist tactics. Scarred almost beyond recognition, he goes on a one-man crusade to rid the city of corruption. Righteous passion fanned by fear and untempered by patient grace becomes wrath, and Harvey’s wrath is ferocious. Gotham’s greatest hope yields to despair, so Batman takes the blame, making Harvey a martyr instead of just another one of the Joker’s minions, a tragic symbol instead of a terrible one, and Gotham’s sense of hope is maintained for now.

Being the second of a three film series, The Dark Knight has no need to resolve its thematic conflicts. The series can hold off on that until the third film. In the mean time, The Dark Knight is able to explore the nooks and crannies of what it means to live in a climate of fear. Gotham’s heroes war on terror with terror and reap the consequences both in their city and in their own lives. They lose loved ones. They lose their moral compasses. They lose hope. In the end, they must compound lie upon lie to maintain control. When the only thing holding back chaos is deception fueled by mutual, widespread distrust, the terrorists have won.

Perhaps that is why the only moment in the film that feels genuinely hopeful is when the convict (portrayed with great conviction by Tommy “Tiny” Lister) on the ferry refuses to kill the other boatload of people and throws the detonator out the window. In that moment, he commits to trusting others even if it costs him his life. His is an act of love and, potentially, an act of sacrificial love, because “love always trusts,” and he decides to trust the people in the other boat no matter what happens. Not Jim Gordon, not Harvey Dent, not even Batman is capable, at this point in the story, of making that same decision to trust Gotham’s citizens to do the right thing no matter the cost.

The Dark Knight resonates deeper than any other superhero movie released in the past fifteen years and for many, more than any other film regardless of genre. This is in large part because The Dark Knight best represents the world we’ve been living in since the events of September 11, 2001.

That day opened a wound in the world that has yet to heal. Mostly, we’ve all adopted the tactics of the terrorists. Like Batman and the vigilantes he inspired, we’ve mostly taken the law into our own hands, exacting vengeance, and terrorizing the terrorists, becoming like them ourselves. Our leaders have lied to us. Those we put our hope in have proven as susceptible to corruption as all the rest. Often, it has been very difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, and we’ve wondered whether it might be right to do the wrong things for the right reasons. Our world has been a confusing place, even more confusing than the morally complicated, never-slow-down narrative world of The Dark Knight.

In our war on terror, we’ve forgotten that war doesn’t cast out fear. Perfect love does. It is the only antidote to terrorism’s poison. But it requires a courage that even Batman isn’t capable of at this point in the story.

Key Scenes

Clip 1

Clip 2

Clip 3

Discussion Questions

Watch Clips 1 and 2, and read Romans 3:9–20.

1) Alfred’s story suggests that some people are so evil, there’s nothing that can dissuade them from hurting others. Do you believe that?
2) When Alfred first tells the story, he ends it by saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Later, when Bruce asks how they caught the bandit, Alfred says he and his men burned down the forrest. How does the fact that the only people who did any world-burning were Alfred and his men change your perception of the story?

Watch Clip 3, and read Romans 12:18–21.

1) How does the Joker convince Harvey Dent to chase down the corrupt cops? What does this tell you about how evil tries to get us to join in its work?
2) How should have Harvey responded instead? What would have ended the cycle of violence in which he was wrapped up?

Scripture and Related Resources

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
(Romans 3:9-20)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(Romans 12:18-21)