The Dark Knight: Chaos and the Human Will

Note the caption: “Welcome to a world without rules”

The Dark Knight picks up where Batman Begins left off. Batman has begun to bring order to the city of Gotham through vigilante force. Gordon has warned that this will escalate, a statement which proves to be prophetic. The Dark Knight begins with the enemies seeming to be a simple crime syndicate who Batman is slowly shutting down with the help of District Attorney Harvey Dent. As Alfred explains later in the movie, though, in their desperation they turn to a man they know nothing about, the man who becomes the real villain  the Joker. The Joker is, in a sense, the ultimate villain because he seems to lack any motive for what he is doing. He even says he doesn’t care about the ridiculous amount of money he gets from the crime bosses, calls the standard mob boss vs cops battle boring, and Alfred says that he just likes to watch things burn.

Chaos thus becomes the primary theme of the movie. As is often the case, more than one way of responding to this chaotic suffering are presented in the movie. There are other themes that could be tackled here: how both the Joker and Two-Face appear on the surface to allow free will or chance but are actually orchestrating everything (many see God this way), or how Batman ultimately creates peace in the city not through violence but through allowing himself to be the scapegoat (many see Jesus as the ultimate scapegoat), or The Joker’s comment that people don’t panic when things go according to plan even if the plan is terrible (also related to how many see God as planning both good and evil), or how Harvey being held up as a hero was ultimately what led to his downfall (many celebripastors are in this dangerous territory). I’m going to focus on something that is a bit more down-to-earth, though: how we respond to chaos and suffering.

Response #1: Harvey Dent

For the first section of the movie, Harvey Dent is the “white knight” to complement Batman’s “dark knight.” While Batman operates as a vigilante, he realizes that for the long-term security of the city, somebody has to step up to fight crime in the light. Harvey is clearly that guy… at first. He clearly has an edge, exhibited for example when punching the mob man who pulled a gun on him in court, telling the mob boss that he should probably buy American if he’s going to try to kill a public servant, and then saying that he isn’t done questioning when the judge suggests a recess. This edge is kept in line, though, always working through the legal system, only using violence when necessary, and never seeming to be out of control.

The turning point comes when Harvey’s fiancee Rachel, also Batman’s love interest, is killed by the Joker. In one of the Joker’s chaos-inducing games, he provides Batman the choice to save either Harvey or Rachel but he will not have time to save both before the bombs in each location go off. Batman saves Harvey – interesting that he prioritizes the greater good as he sees it over his own love interest, representing his own turning point – but the half of Harvey’s face which was covered in gas and hit with fire from the blast burned away. Abandoning his white knight status over the loss of his love, he refuses the skin graft to repair his face and becomes a surprise second villain in the movie.

Dent/Two-Face represents how many people respond to suffering: a desire to inflict more suffering. He even invokes the idea of his new violence only being fair as revenge for what happened to him. Most of us are like Two-Face in that we don’t think of ourselves as violent or vengeful; we just think we are being fair, evening out for the troubles that happened to us. We could even invoke the Old Testament law for this idea. If your neighbour took your eye, you could take his. If your neighbour took your tooth, you could take his. You couldn’t go beyond that, but you could get even. That’s fair. Jesus went beyond fair, though, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, offering us grace, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice for others and calling his followers to do the same. 

Two Face’s two faces: representative of the choice humanity faces between good and evil?

Response #2: The Escape Boats and Batman

It is to this alternate response that I now turn and which is ultimately what stops The Joker’s schemes. Probably the most dramatic part of the movie comes simultaneously to Batman confronting The Joker in his usual vigilante-violence way. For background information: The Joker had manipulated the circumstances in such a way that there were two boats leaving Gotham City. Every other way out of the city was cut off. One boat was full of prisoners and the other full of average citizens. The Joker in his love of chaos explains the situation: each boat has a trigger to blow up the other boat, whoever blows up the other first gets to live, and if neither pull the trigger by midnight then The Joker will blow up both.

The prisoner boat ends with one of the prisoners taking the trigger from one of the guards who was going to use it and throwing it into the water. The citizens’ boat is the more interesting one as they debate between the utilitarian ethic of “there’s no reason for everyone to die when only they have to” paired with the fairness idea of “they deserve it more than us” and a more absolutist ethic of “we don’t want to be a part of murder even of prisoners.” They decide to put it as a vote and it is decided that they will blow up the other boat but with the time taken to vote it is now almost midnight and they’ve realized that the prisoners didn’t blow them up when they had the chance. Having had grace extended to them, they suddenly change and don’t blow up the prisoners. As it turns out, since Batman stopped The Joker both boats survived. This grace between the boats was the first time in the entire movie that The Joker did not predict what would happen down to the little details. Grace surprises those who can’t understand it and it is ultimately how evil is stopped.

Batman also learns as the movie progresses that his brute force attempts did not alleviate the chaos but rather made them worse. His response was actually so predictable that The Joker was able to manipulate absolutely everything into more chaos including the killing of Rachel, the corruption of Harvey, the boat decision scenario (just not its outcome), killing the police chief, and much more. The Joker at a few points argues that Batman is really no different than him: a freak outside the law. In some ways this turns out to be true, but not for why The Joker wanted it to be.

With the big-picture of The Joker’s chaos stopped by the grace exhibited on the boats, Batman and Gordon must confront Two-Face. They realize something important: if people know that Harvey Dent, the white knight of Gotham, has been corrupted, their hope will be shattered and the city will dissolve into more chaos. That’s why corrupting Dent was such an important part of The Joker’s plan. Batman convinces Two-Face that if he really wants fairness it should be Batman and Gordon shot, not Gordon’s family. Batman is shot first but his suit is strong enough that he is able to get back up and take out Two-Face. The big question is left, though: how do we hide the corruption of Dent which included a few dead cops?

Batman’s growth throughout the movie is exhibited in this final move: he’ll become the villain. Gordon will report that it was Batman who killed all of those cops and Dent. Batman goes into hiding and Dent is celebrated as a hero. Since The Joker had already been turning the city against Batman and since he is such a shadowy figure in general, we learn in the next movie that it works for a few years. This is a fascinating turn: Batman has realized that being the strongest man in the city does not create peace. Instead, he becomes the scapegoat, willing to sacrifice his own reputation to save the reputation of the villain and establish peace in the city. Peace – meaningful, long-lasting peace – does not come through Batman’s weapons but through his sacrifice, a theme that continues in the next movie.

Which Response Will You Take?

Even in the West, we are occasionally presented with the larger scale choice, such as the Sandy Hook shooting. Do we respond by calling for more violence to keep the bad guys in order? Or do we respond by extending grace and willing to suffer ourselves for the sake of others? These large-scale choices are in front of the majority of the world and we are often hidden from it in our comfort, but when we do see them we should be reminded that this is normal for most people and therefore pushed to do something about it. That’s where The Joker failed: his disruption of the plan, even when the plan is horrible (like allowing people in other countries to suffer in order to keep our own comforts), pushed many into chaos and hurting each other but pushed some others to grace and compassion.

We are also presented with a similar choice on smaller scales all the time. It is easy to miss those little instances where we are faced with this similar choice. When the bus arrives two minutes early and you miss it, do you get annoyed? Or for the drivers, when somebody cuts in front of you, do you honk in frustration? When you disagree over something, is your primary goal the well-being of the person opposed to you or is it to be right no matter what it takes to convey that? I don’t think Jesus’ call to repent – which simply means to change your way of thinking – is only for the big things but should permeate every aspect of our lives.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.