The Dark Knight of the Soulless

Spoiler alert!

With the advent of The Dark Knight, I can safely say that post-modernism has reached its zenith in film. 

The film is a masterpiece of the filmmaking art. It is a narrative of stunning ambiguity with a collection of heroes, villains and anti-heroes whose lack of individualism is a picture of our world at its darkest.

What I mean is that we live in a time where personal identity has become submerged in the superficiality of celebrity morality plays and fashion status. We now live in a time where people live serial identities, seeking authenticity and truth in a social landscape that lacks a ground for it.

I heard recently a comment that the old cultural forms have a difficult time finding traction today because social class distinctions have given way to fashion and cultural status as the driving interpreters of society, and of personal identity.

At the heart of The Dark Knight is a tripartite relationship between Batman, The Joker and the new DA Harvey Dent. As my friend and comic book philosopher, Tom Morris (see Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, a book that Tom and his son Matt, a filmmaker, co-edited.) commented to me this morning: There is a theme running through comic books and Batman in particular, that these heroes, villains and anti-heroes need their counterpart to be complete. This is an important theme in The Dark Knight.

The Joker, magnificently played by Heath Ledger, needs Batman as his alter-ego in order for his mad genius to be seen for the evil greatness that it is. Ledger's Joker may be the greatest villain ever on film. What makes him such is his total amorality. He has nothing to lose, and therefore is totally free to wreck destruction in ways that highlight his sociopathic personality. Here is one moral lesson about freedom that is worth reflecting on.

Batman on the other hand needs the crusading hero DA Harvey Dent to become the hero that Gotham City can believe in. Batman, the alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, does good by being bad, simply put. He knows that unless a true hero emerges, he will go further and further into amoral destructiveness to rid Gotham City of crime, avenging the death of his parents, and becoming more unhinged from reality, and closer to the person of The Joker.

Harvey Dent is a talented, ambitious district attorney who decides to take on the mob.  To me, in one viewing, it was not clear to me whether his ambition to beat the mob is noble or self-serving. This ambiguity in my mind is due to Dent's practice of flipping a two headed silver dollar piece to make his decisions. This lack of core set of principles ultimately is his undoing as he takes on the persona of Harvey Two-Face after his burning by The Joker.  Dent's relationship to Batman is complicated by his romance with Bruce Wayne's childhood girlfriend, Rachel Dawes. Bruce Wayne becomes his political benefactor to thrust Dent into the role of Gotham City's hero, the hero that Batman can never be.

In the end, The Joker is defeated, Dent is dead, and Batman disappears into the night to take up his crusade to rid Gotham City of crime. He lives with the ambiguity of doing good as a hunted vigilante.

When I left the theater, I was disturbed by what I saw. It wasn't the violence or even the amorality. It was something deeper. Joker in his madness was the only character who logically acted from a clear set of principles. He was consistent and clear as a character. Batman/Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent came off as characters without a clear sense of what their principled core might be. Batman's vigilantism and Dent's crusader persona are masks hiding the ambiguity that resides at the core of their identities. Is Bruce Wayne looking for who he is through Batman's crusade to avenge his parents' deaths? Is Harvey Dent, like many in the political sphere, looking for affirmation through the characterization of being a hero or savior?

In the end, what we know is that The Joker in his sociopathic amorality was no match for Batman's incorruptibility. That Harvey Dent's heroism was a sham masking a personal character that was corruptible. And that the true heros were the men and woman, criminal and non, on the two ferries who walked to the brink of pulling the trigger and did not, believing to do so was wrong, accepting their imminent death sentence that did not come. 

We live at the intersection of two era's. An older one where values and ethics became icons held up as the pillars of society's institutions, yet rarely upheld in behavior and practice. And a new one where there is no ground for determining good and evil, no objective basis for identity, no certainty, only people in real and virtual relationships with a shared experience of ambiguity. 

Are these our only choices? I don't think so. Our choices are determined by not only what we value, but also what we are committed to creating. Is Gotham City the world as I know it?  In part yes, and yet, everyday I encounter people who live intentionally quiet, humble lives that are heroic in their own way. They are the people on the ferries who will walk off, go home, fix dinner, write a check to the United Way and spend 24 hours walking in their communities Relay For Life.  They are the people who adopt autistic and physically handicapped children from around the world, bringing them into a home of love. They are the people who move to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and start organizations to rebuild communities where they are and will ever be outsiders.

Ambiguity is a choice. It is not a given. You and I can choose to be someone without an alter-ego to complete us. This is where personal strength is found. To be able to stand when all else is failing apart.  This is what was so disappointing about Harvey Dent's turn of character. He lacked that inner core of resilience to face the horror of his loss and of his physical deformity. As I told my son as we walked to the car after the show, I was disappointed, because I never saw Dent as the hero Gotham City needed. Yet he was simply a plot device in Batman's ongoing narrative of vengence and self-discovery. The real hero, along with the citizens, was quiet Commissioner Gordon, who put himself in harm's way so that the progression of events to their denoument could take place. In reality, he is the better foil to Batman, and I'm glad that he has lived to see another day.