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Prophets and Priests

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.

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Interesting critique! I hope others respond who have seen the movie, but now my interest has been piqued. Dent sounds like the most interesting character "by succumbing to the chaotic world he encounters." Does Commissioner Gordon live up to his priestly role? It brings back the characters from the '70's show, and I had never thought of them in the light of priest and prophet. Nice post, Eric!

Eric: First, let me say that at one level I regret always disagreeing with you because I so enjoy you posts. So, please read my disagreements within the noble tradition of intellectual sparring.I just saw the movie a couple of hours ago, and I am still digesting it. It may be worth noting that I actually clapped at the end of this movie, something I cannot remember doing for another movie -- although I did laugh out loud at the end of Gibson's The Passion. I REALLY enjoyed this movie. However, I did come home and deliver some bad news to my seven year old son; ain't NO way he is going to see this movie. Very violent.The reason I am drawn to the movie is that it so exemplified what I take to be the heart of evil; namely, chaos, the breaking down of order with only disorder to replace it. The Joker is a glorification of chaos in a remarkably consistent way. So often, evil is characterized like a counterforce of darkness, seeking to defeat the good and reign in its place. What is terrifying about chaos is that it does not seek to replace the good, but rather simply to destroy it. It has no counter motive. Above all, it is not ego.Your characterization of the Joker misses too much if you describe his actions as mere mayham, especially given your interest in Dent. In the movie, Dent's fall is placed squarely within Joker's plans. Where I am sympathetic to your critique of Joker is that his mayham proves to be way too easy (e.g., the blowing up of a hospital, there is no way that all of these traps and plots could be planned the way we are led to believe). The enduring problem for chaos is that it must work within the forces of order. In many ways, it cannot itself even seek a purpose because to do so would be to participate in creation, in the good. Thus, the Joker as character is not compelling to me, just as the Devil a free creature is not compelling to me, but what he represents is terrifying. As a cypher, the Joker raises the question of our vulnerability to an attraction to chaos, our attraction to a death wish writ large.The scene with the ferry boats is a classic in ethical theory, and the resolution is entirely consistent with religious reflection, going back at least to medieval rabbis. One is never required to do evil in order to save the lives of others from an evildoer.Batman is interesting insofar as he has yet to grow up. He is still working his way into his chosen path, at times demonstrating the desire to chuck it all; here is chaos as temptation, something the movie does not really explore. Alfred, in this regard, is perhaps the most interesting character of the movie for me. He is VIRTUE, the unbreakable measure of the good and the right.Batman is not supposed to work well as realism, but I find the possibilities that it however unrealistically rasises to be frighteningly real. I worry a lot about the success of chaos in a world that forgets what it means to hold on to much of anything at all. I also worry about chaos in a world that cannot recognize that order must always be created and embraced anew, and so differently. I worry about chaos in a world that no longer much gives a **** about anything for more than an hour or so.Well, so much for now. The kids are hungry.

I have not yet seen the movie. I am confused by all the comments. But as my professors used to say: "If you are confused that means you are learning." Hope so. First Eric, I question the use of your terms which we admittedly take for granted. For example, the "desert fathers" may not be the ideal. Were they not more the creation of a fourth century Christendom gone awry? Secondly, some hold that Jesus was the last priest and the pontifex (especially combined with "Maximus") is another unnecessary creation. Are there still people who hold the Alter Christus model of the ordained? So terms are important and pivotal and can change the whole conclusion. At any rate I do believe there is a tremendous lack of generosity in the world and that self-glorification is ever present. Just look at that Manhattan skyline and those restaurants that make no indication that dinner is being served lest some lower caste might venture in to dine! And I do love those classy folks who pay $3500 a night for the penthouse suites refusing to mingle with those slobs on the lower floors who are paying a mere $350 per night. Luxury yachts are now come to the rescue for the super elite.I guess you haven't spoiled the movie for me Eric. I will have to see it to make heads or tails of all this fantastic, elaborative analysis.

It's funny that you say the Joker's character is inaccessible and dismissible because when I was listening to an interview with the director he said that he wanted the Joker's chracter to alienate the audience meaning to never engage the audience. I love your take on the movie because the protagonist in a story is normally put on a pedastool; however, he is normally not the most admirable or influential character because he sets up the success or failures of supporting characters which truly communicate a message. I think this happens often in real-life and is similar to your take on the priest to batman's prophet.In terms of ever seeing the relationship between Gordon and Batman being portrayed like you say in the future, it probably will never happen in full. The relationship between priest and prophet remains distant until true redemption is found...and true redemption normally doesn't come until the prophet's message is fully conveyed --- meaning he disappears or "suffers for our sins."

How about Mary Jo Murphy's take in the Times Week in Review today? Her slant is that viewers pick dard side movies that are in tune with their own evil nature. She is more complicated than that and quite provocative. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/weekinreview/27murphy.html?_r=1&ref=we...

Amy, what insight you have taken from the post by aligning these characters to real life scenerios of protagonist, priest, and prophet. Your clarity around these insights is great. Now I'll have to see the movie!

Eric--I just saw this movie. I definitely agree with your analysis about the four main characters. Gordon is the man who we are waiting to step up to the plate. It was a good analysis of good and evil. This is usually not my type of movie, but for a lengthy movie it did go by quickly. Thanks for your analysis.