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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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

5 Responses to No Joke—Morality Matters

  1. A. C. Gleason says:

    Wow, sorry Doug I didn’t realize I had gone on so long. 🙂

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  2. A. C. Gleason says:

    One correction: The Dark Knight was actually filmed in Chicago not New York.

    Also I think that the issue of why morality matters was solved in primarily one way. The Joker. He clearly is an unattractive alternative to Batman and the organized law. It is simply an appeal to common sense. We don’t want to leave this way. And the Joker was just being more honest than the crime families were. They wanted to live in a bastardized existence where honor and morality played a large part of how they treated each other they simply would not obey the prescribed morality of the state. But as the Corleone family learned sin is hard to escape and in the end when all you care about is preserving what you have you will lose what is most important. The Joker wants to bring Gotham a “better class of criminal.” An honest criminal. The kind that does evil for the shear joy of it. Why does morality matter? Because it leads to the deaths of good people (Bruce’s parents) and creates creatures like the Joker. Batman’s pressure on the criminal underbelly of Gotham simply squeezed that psycho out. He was ripening and waiting for an excuse to pop and Batman gave it to him.

    Also the issue of whether it is better to believe a lie that hurts or the truth that helps isn’t really what’s going on here. For a great pop culture example of this look to the 90’s remake of A Miracle on 34th Street (whereupon this phrase is directly used in the climactic court case) or Second Hand Lions. What is at issue here is letting the Joker take away all hope. Harvey Dent was murdered by the Joker. By pushing him to the breaking point and then throwing him over the edge with his lies about the fairness of chaos the Joker created Two-Face. In order to defeat the Joker Batman took upon the sins of Two Face to clear the name of Harvey Dent so that hope would survive. They never lie about what Harvey Dent did or how he truly died, because Two Face is no longer the White Knight, he is a creation of the Joker’s machinations. They do lie about what Batman did, and by doing so cover up what would truly destroy the soul of Gotham City. In the end Jim Gordon still lied to the people of Gotham City. But he did not lie about what was most important. The issue is far more complex than simply is it better to believe the truth or a lie? Did Gordon and Batman make the right decision? Yes, if preserving hope in Gotham City is a better thing than it’s citizens having all the details of an extremely bizarre murderous crime spree. This is not a similar situation to covering up evidence that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead in order to preserve hope because an entire worldview is based around the truth of that event. This is one event that could have destroyed a city but instead Batman takes the blame for the actions of another in order to save the soul of Gotham. And by doing this he ceases to be a hero and becomes something far more wonderful and powerful: The Dark Knight. The Dark Night of Gotham City produces The Dark Knight. To quote Jim Gordon “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.” The end honestly took my breath away because in some ways it was so similar to what is probably the greatest film ending of all time: Casablanca. Self sacrifice is the greatest quality a hero can possess. It may seem weird to compare three extremely different heros to each other but Jesus Christ, Rick Blaine, and this version of Batman have a lot in common. The most significant differences between Jesus and the latter two notwithstanding Jesus never had to lie in order to save our souls. Which is what is bothering Mr. Allen so much. But all three of them are willing to take lies upon themselves in order to save the day whether it be the cosmos, World War II, or a fabricated comic book city. Jesus never sinned but he became sin for us. He became an outcast, a heretic, a criminal in order for hope to spring eternal. Rick and Batman do the same thing. All three of them have to really get their hands dirty in order to save what is most valuable. Maybe I’m off my rocker but I think Jim Gordon and Batman made the right decision because sometimes we can’t handle the complete truth.

    John Mark Reynolds actually said something like that in the one class I took with him. He said that “the truth will set you free” is one of the most poorly quoted and misunderstood phrases in the New Testament. Because it is not accurate knowledge of reality which sets you free. You will never know just how bad you really are. If you did you couldn’t bare your own existence. In the context the TRUTH is clearly Jesus and his teaching. John 8:31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

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  3. Jimmy Allen says:

    It is interesting in the last 20 minutes or so of the movie, a new ‘theme’ is introduced, ‘It is better to believe a pleasing lie, then know the difficult truth.’ as was presented in Bruce’s decision to allow the people to believe Harvey a good man and Alfred’s decision to allow Bruce to believe Rachel would have waited for him.
    I remember we discussed something similar in class. And it is certainly an interesting question, one I have been thinking about since I saw the movie, “It is better to believe a pleasing lie, then know the difficult truth?” (would Bruce Want to know what the letter said)
    I guess the question might be what do we value more? (if it Was the case we had to choose one or the other)

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  4. Doug Geivett says:

    Dark Knight was fun, nostalgic, and though-provoking. Not what you might expect from a DC Comic Book series. I think the ending sets things up for a sequel.

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  5. donstuff says:

    My twelve year old son and I went to see Dark Knight yesterday. We found it enjoyable and our assessment of the story line is very similar to yours. A good idea on morality without a truly satisfying ending – but still fun!

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