Batman and Morality in an Era of Terror

It’s not like the world needs one more comment on The Dark Knight, but…here goes. Note–this post is full of spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Fundamentally, this is a movie about terrorism, but terrorism stripped of all of its ideological attachments and reduced simply down to its method, which is to use shock and fear to induce collective demoralization. The figure at the center of the movie, The Joker, has not ideology, no program—in fact, he makes clear that this is precisely what makes him so dangerous, because being directed toward a goal places limits on what one is willing to do. The Joker, on the other hand, is a force of pure chaos, of unalloyed nihilism, whose only purpose is to induce social collapse by undermining the basic civilities and edifying fictions that hold together civilization. Like Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz, he has stared into the abyss, seen that there is nothing there, and now insists that everyone see what he has seen.

The movie has, for me, two genuinely daring moments. The first comes when a boat full of prisoners is set by the Joker against a boat full of ordinary Gotham citizens. As those who have watched it know, the Joker has rigged them up (in almost perfect, non-cooperative, prisoner’s dilemma game form) so that the first boat to blow up the other will be saved, but (presumably) both will be saved if neither side pushes the button. The audience is primed for the prisoners to do the deed, and the camera lingers on a huge, frightening, muscular black man who, we are sure, is going to take the button from the cop who is holding it and blow the other boat to smithereens. He grabs it, we brace, he announced that he’s going to do what they should have done a long time ago, and then….throws it out the window, and takes his seat again on the boat. The way this scene plays with our expectations about race and criminality was, to me, just incredibly effective. What the director Christopher Nolan was saying, I think, is that, even hardened criminals know that there is a distinction between murder and wholesale slaughter. Perhaps not a lot to build a civilization on…but something.

The other really critical scene—the one to which the whole movie ultimately points—comes right near the end. The crusading DA, Harvey Dent, has been twisted physically and mentally by the tragic death of his (and Batman’s) beloved Rachel Dawes into Two Face. Where Dent once believed that justice was possible, now he has been twisted to believe that the only real force in the world is randomness, dictated by a flip of the coin. Batman knows that he, a superhero, is no substitute for the moral resuscitation of the city, and that for that to happen the forces of disorder have to be confronted “in the light,” by ordinary citizens summoning up the courage to defend civilization, and not by sub- or superhuman creatures emerging out of the dark. Batman and Gary Oldman’s incredibly effective Commissioner Gordon stand exposed by the Joker, who has shown that when pushed to the limit, even they are willing to compromise on their code. But Dent, it seemed, was willing to go to prison, to the grave, if that’s what it took—he was, they say, the best of all of them. Now that the Joker has compromised even him, what hope can there be for the citizens of Gotham to believe that true heroism—the uncorruptible man—is possible?

This, I think, is where Nolan makes his most daring move. Batman and Gordon insist that only a “noble lie”—the lie that Dent was uncorruptible—can give the citizens of Gotham, in essence, a martyr. And to make Dent the martyr requires that Batman become the villain, by accepting responsibility for his death. Batman lies for the greater good, holding up an image of Dent’s virtue that he knows to be false—and, the movie implies, impossible. Here Nolan echoes the closing of Heart of Darkness, where Marlowe, having peered into the abyss, chooses to bend to Victorian convention and lie to Kurtz’s widow rather than tell her the truth about his final words (he says that they were “your name” rather than “the horror, the horror”). The noble lie, both Nolan and Conrad seem to suggest, is necessary for civilization to survive. The difference between the Joker (and Kurtz) and Batman (and Marlowe) is that the latter judge decency more valuable than truth.

There is much in The Dark Knight that doesn’t work—I find Nolan’s unwillingness to linger over the death of Dent and Dawes a serious flaw. But in the grand scheme of things, this is a remarkable, haunting movie—oddly, perhaps the most profound rumination on morality in an era of terror yet put on the screen.

My only question is, can Nolan’s maintain this level in Batman’s Third Act?

CORRECTION: One of our ever-vigilant readers drew my attention to an element of the “game” in the two boats scenario that I somehow missed. He explains that, “I believe the Joker claimed that both bombs would go off at midnight if one didn’t go off sooner, and it didn’t seem like the passengers were relying on or expecting the Batman to stop him. So in prisoner’s dilemma terms, the payoff matrix was negative all around — both cooperate = both die; either or both defect = one dies. (Both defect would be a very unlikely outcome — they’d have to hit the detonators simultaneously.)” My bad.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.