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No Joke—Morality Matters

My daughter and I planned to see The Dark Knight together. One of my movie buddies, who saw it earlier this week, said I should spend the time some other way because the film was average, at best. Naturally, I had to see for myself. And when my daughter asks me out on a date, how can I refuse?

I kept hearing that the movie is “very dark.” This isn’t a very enlightening summation (no pun intended). In fact, now that I’ve seen the movie, I wouldn’t say that at all.

First, Gotham City is remarkably lit up. It doesn’t have that pervasive seedy look that we naturally associate with the City. It looks like a normal American metropolis—present-day New York, in fact. Doesn’t the director know that Batman movies of the past have uniformly rendered Gotham City gothically? Of course he does. So maybe there’s a message there: a bright and bustling city on the brink of moral chaos . . . . Hmm.

Is city-wide chaos really imminent? The citizens think so; the Joker hopes so. And by the end of the movie there is quite a mess to clean up. The demolition of the General Hospital, the disarray of the police force, panic in the streets, mangled vehicles piled everywhere, the involuted character of the District Attorney, are all powerful symbols of disintegration. Teetering on the brink, however, a deeper truth about Gotham’s citizens is brought to light.

Isn’t that what the Joker believed, that in those final moments, with life in the balance, a person’s true character is revealed?

The Joker’s mind is supposed to be completely inscrutable because there quite literally is no method in his madness. This is how he wants to be known, and this is how he is regarded. He has an appallingly distorted view of the world. We can agree that his childhood experiences contribute significantly to his twisted perspective. He seems genuinely unable to resist his urge to injure others. He is, we imagine, driven by some unintelligible motive. But for all that, the Joker is a calculating individual, with a conception of humanity and our shared moral impulses.

The Joker’s worldview is dark. It is repugnant. But it is not representative. He reasons that the good conduct of individuals in an ordered society is an illusion. There is no goodness, deep down. All people are fundamentally self-interested. The Joker is so sure of this that he fully expects one group of passengers on one ferry to blow up the ferry loaded with other passengers. It doesn’t matter which group prevails, the group of ordinary citizens or the group of convicts. In their heart of hearts, they do not differ. And though they deliberate about saving their own skin at the expense of the others, each group ultimately resists the temptation. Even the convicts, represented by a truly imposing man of criminal bearing, do the right thing. And the Joker is baffled. Batman notices this and rubs it in. It is the most effective means of wounding the Joker: demonstrating that his worldview is simply false.

The Dark Knight is not a dark film. It conveys the hopeful message that morality matters, and that it is within reach. It also reflects the possibility of self-inflicted character deformation. The Joker is not altogether mistaken when he says, “I’m not a monster—I’m just ahead of the curve.” His sinister behavior is the result of habit, fueled by an obsession with his own injuries. He plays the hand he’s been dealt in life with clownish charades of “chance” behavior. His life is tragic, but he is a responsible agent in a morally significant arena.

Unfortunately, the film makes no attempt to explain why morality matters. Being good appears to be a purely secular value. As such, it dangles in suspended animation, rather like the Joker himself, whose fate remains a mystery at the close of The Dark Knight.

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