Prophets and Priests
Eric Bugyis July 24, 2008 - 3:41pm
I've never been a big fan of comic book movies, or the fantasy genre in general. There is enough drama and suspense in the banal evil and heroic good of regular humans not to need my stories super-sized. But it is true what they say: The Dark Knight is no ordinary comic book flick. This is not, however, because Batman and the Joker have been downgraded to mere mortals. They still remain quite inaccessible as they fight a transcendent battle between an ambiguous good and an indefinable evil. What is compelling about the film, though, is that these prophets of light and dark now have much more complex priests to do their work in the world. Thus, the most interesting pair is not Batman/Joker, but rather, the more minor juxtaposition of Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon. [Warning: This post is replete with spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie, you may want to skip this for now.]First, a few words about the headliners: Heath Ledger's Joker, while well played, is not the best villain since Hannibal Lecter. The most frightening evil is that with which we find ourselves sympathizing as reflecting the darker parts of our own nature. Joker's brand of mayhem makes him easily dismissible. He just needs to be put in a padded cell. His miscalculation at the end of the movie in which he assumes that regular citizens will blow up a ship full of prisoners in order to save themselves shows the degree to which he is alienated from his own humanity. He does not know us because he is not one of us.If the Ledger's Joker is not the most compelling villain, Christian Bale's Batman remains similarly inaccessible. While Nolan has gone to lengths to humanize the Caped Crusader by highlighting the toll that crime-fighting takes on Bruce Wayne, there is only so much he can do with his source material. Batman cannot be like the rest of us. Batman must live away from society for the sake of society. He must wrestle with demons in exchange for gaining prophetic insight into a measure of justice that, like Kierkegaard's "Knight of Faith," he remains unable to fully explain. The "one rule" separating his order from the Joker's chaos remains perilously ungrounded given the radical evil he must combat and the degree to which his mission requires the suspension of any universalizable ethical order. Bale's Batman realizes that he, as a kind of prophet, cannot alone redeem Gotham. Real salvation can only come with internal reform. His dark and mysterious goodness needs a priest. The hope that such a "ministry" is possible comes in district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
Dent, as a man living firmly within the bounds of the "secular" world, is the only one able to truly redeem it. He takes it upon himself to confront the basic human vices that are the necessary preconditions of the Joker's reign of terror, which is merely parasitic upon the more banal forms of human evil that plague Gotham: greedy two-bit criminals serve as the Joker's foot soldiers, vengeful mafia bosses finance his mayhem, and traitorous cops trade victims for favors. Dent spends most of the film fighting against these "lesser evils," but then his would-be fianc is killed in a seemingly random turn of events of the Joker's invention. Dent's encounter with the caprice of evil becomes his undoing. The truly nihilistic turn of the film comes with Dent's fall from grace. Dent becomes the most compelling villain in the movie by succumbing to the chaotic world he encounters. He turns from a man who once "made his own luck" to one governed by a coin toss. Dent's response bespeaks resignation to the nothingness that the Joker preaches, and with this, this would-be priest for the mystery of good becomes a minister ruled by the absurdity of evil. This ultimate loss of hope remains for the rest of the film. Batman, however, is the ever-hopeful fool to the end. He takes responsibility for Dent's crimes, so that Dent can be celebrated as the hero Gotham needs. But this is too little, too late. As Dent's picture is put on display at the end of the film simultaneously offering an image of Gotham's fallen hero and a symbol of its resurrected hope, the audience knows that the portrait is merely a hollow idol.This nihilistic conclusion, which presents a world where there are only warring prophets and no priests, is, however, not the last word of The Dark Knight. A potential hero does emerge to serve as the counter-point to Dent in Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Nolan and company deserve the most credit here for expanding what has, so far, been a rather static character in the Batman saga (for a similar take, check out this piece at mtv.com). In previous presentations, Gordon has mostly been the good-hearted but ineffectual institutional supporter of Batman, but here Gordon risks his life and family to save Batman. Yet he is unable to take credit for his role. Gordon remains Batman's only real connection to the world he is trying to save, and as such, Gordon is the only one who can legitimately embody the redeemed society Batman seeks. In the end, this redemption never comes as the movie fades on the image of the fallen Dent. Thus, the audience is left to wonder whether Gordon will ever become the priest to Batman's prophet. If we do get another sequel, though, this will certainly be the relationship to watch for those interested in finding redemption.
About the Author
Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies in the Division of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of Washington Tacoma.