Friday, December 26, 2008

Philosophical Meanderings on "The Dark Knight"

Spoiler Alert: If you still haven't seen The Dark Knight, you should skip this post!

So last night my family watched The Dark Knight, the second Batman movie directed by Christopher Nolan. Words cannot express how much I love this movie. With the huge recent collection of superhero movies, it's awe-inspiring to see these Batman movies stick out so prominently. While they give superhero lovers all the action and adventure they need to be excited about watching, they also capture some of the most serious themes that human beings deal with--love, loss, evil, justice, and sacrifice.

The topic I thought most about while watching The Dark Knight was justice. I have no idea where the writers for this movie are coming from in terms of worldview, but regardless, I think it implicitly gives several reasons why justice based on pure secularism is impossible. This analysis might say more about me than it does about the movie, but I still think it's worth mentioning. I just want to point out a few things that The Dark Knight teaches us about justice.

Justice cannot come from chance. The movie's main villian, the Joker, fancies himself a "better class of criminal." He doesn't care about money; in one scene, to the horror of a fellow criminal, he burns millions upon millions of dollars he has made from his crimes. He claims that his only real goal is to defy every moral constraint society imposes--to create chaos. As Alfred wisely points out to Bruce Wayne, "Some men just want to see the world burn." This love of pure chaos is precisely what makes the Joker so frightening beyond belief (that and Heath Ledger's--God rest his soul--absolutely brilliant performance).

But even the characters who are good can become evil by embracing chaos, putting their faith in chance to give them justice. Harvey Dent becomes Two Face when he decides that the death of his true love, Rachel, was the result of random chance. After all, why Rachel, and not him? He then takes his anger out on the police, who he perceives to be corrupt all around. He flips a coin to determine whether or not each one will live. Whereas before he had made his own luck--the coin he uses was once heads on both sides before one side was defaced in the explosion that nearly killed him--now he depends on random chance to give him justice. He, too, has become a monster.

Batman explains to Harvey at the end of the movie why he lived instead of Rachel. It was a choice, based on who Batman thought the city needed more at the time. True justice is based on real choices, not random chance. This ought to give us pause when we think about our origins as human beings. If we were not created by a loving God, but instead by random chance, what reason to we have to suspect that justice means anything? What hope do we have of establishing justice in a universe that is based on chance?

Justice is universal, not relative. In one of the most incredible scenes I have ever watched, the Joker attempts to show how weak humans' commitment to justice really is by giving two groups of people a choice: kill or be killed. There are two boats, one carrying more or less average, middle-class citizens, the other carrying prisoners. Each boat is loaded with enough explosives to kill everyone on the boat, and each boat is given a detonator for the other boat's explosives. The Joker gives the two boats until midnight to decide whether or not to kill the other boat. He promises that if one boat decides to kill the other, then he will not kill that boat. But if neither of them decides to kill the other, he will destroy them both.

The Joker does this kind of thing earlier in the movie on a smaller scale, forcing three criminals to fight to the death so that the survivor may join his forces. Presumably these men do indeed fight to the death, especially since they are hardened criminals who can't trust each other. One senses that there is a disturbing credibility to the Joker's theory that human beings can't be all that committed to justice after all. In the right circumstances, we will all succomb to our baser instincts.

Indeed, anyone familiar with game theory will see that the scene with the two boats couldn't possibly turn out well for justice. Both sides would have to be convinced that the other side was going to kill them, and therefore both would attempt to act quickly to save themselves. But that isn't what happens. Neither boat can produce one person who is willing to pull the trigger and kill the other boat. Even the boat with the prisoners refuses to kill the other boat. (Indeed, one of the most powerful moments in the movie comes when a prisoner asks for the detonator from the commanding officer on the boat and proceeds to throw it out the window.)

Both sides know that justice, if it is real justice, applies to everyone equally in all circumstances. It can't be one kind of justice for you and another kind of justice for me. It is universal, not relative. It is even universal in the sense that there are many things all people know to be wrong without having to be told. Of course that does not mean we are all naturally just; it just means we are capable of being just. Perhaps there are weird exceptions, but as a general principle I think this holds. If it doesn't, then what do we even mean by justice? How can justice be justice if it is not universal? But justice is universal; even a criminal knows what it is and knows deep down that it applies to him.

This does not mean that every dispute over morality can be resolved easily, but it does mean resolutions are possible. Slavery has ended all over the world because people finally confessed the truth that was already self-evident, namely that a person is not an object. Ending slavery took a huge toll on some very powerful economies in the 19th century, particularly that of the British Empire. But justice is universal, and some things should not be tolerated no matter what side-effects may result.

Justice is not purely democratic. In that same scene with the boats, the "average citizen" boat decides that they should vote on whether or not to kill the other boat. That's because a lot of them are in theory convinced that killing the other boat makes sense. So they put their trust in the democratic process to give them justice. The results are not surprising. A large majority of the boat votes yes, they should destroy the other boat.

When it comes to actually pulling the trigger, however, no one is able to volunteer. One man finally stands up, the man who was most vocal in his support of killing the other boat. "After all," he says, "they had their chance," referring to the fact that the other boat is full of prisoners. Yet despite his ability to justify himself in words, he cannot pull the trigger. He holds the detonator in his hand for a long, frightening moment, and then puts it away and returns to his seat. No one blames him. When it gets right down to it, the majority opinion just doesn't matter. Justice is not relative, even to the majority.

Many secularists believe that while morality is not relative to the individual, it is relative to the majority--that is, democracy gives us morality by definition. This is simply not the case. When we really want to work for justice, we want to work for something much grander and nobler than the will of the people, as grand and noble as that might be. Yet everyone knows how the will of the people can be horrible, and often we have to protest against it on the basis of a truth more powerful than a majority vote. Indeed, I cannot conceive how the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement would have been successful if not for the deeply spiritual impulses behind them.

This is exactly what Batman does. By becoming more than just a man, in fact by becoming a symbol, he is able to fight for a kind of justice that is both universal and more powerful than the laws made by men. And despite the Joker's assumptions about mankind, the people on the two boats--both criminals and average citizens--prove that ordinary people do believe in this kind of justice, which transcends even the will of the majority.

Justice requires sacrifice. Not just any sacrifice, either. I find Christ's sacrificial atonement intriguingly present in The Dark Knight. When Harvey Dent, who is now Two Face, falls to his death after having killed several police officers and threatened the child of Commissioner Gordon, both Gordon and Batman are crestfallen to see their hero die in shame. Gordon thinks the battle for Gotham's soul is lost, but Batman will not accept it. Because Batman is more than just a man, he can take the blame for Two Face's killings; he can be the Dark Knight, who takes blame for the very evil he fights against.

In this way Harvey Dent is, to stretch Christian terminology, a justified sinner. At the end of the film, Batman is chased by police officers--a crucifixion, of sorts--while Commissioner Gordon explains to his son that even though he has done nothing wrong, he is willing to be the bad guy for Gotham's sake. Batman's sacrifice means that Gotham will remember Harvey Dent, the saint, not Two Face, the sinner.

I think this can teach Christians a lesson on the concept of atonement. Christ died to make sinners right with God, but did He do it merely for our own sake? Is Christianity just about how I can be right with God? No, Christianity is about how God will save the world, and I think that He justifies sinners not just for their sake, but for the sake of the world. Think about all of the amazing people of this world who fight for justice and truth; then think about what would happen if we could truly see into their hearts and uncover all the wretched evil thoughts and deeds that even the best of us carry inside. God will not allow this. He saves sinners, because it is by making sinners into saints that He will save the world. He absorbs all the guilt into Himself, as we see visibly demonstrated on the cross of Jesus Christ. He is our Dark Knight, who fights evil where we cannot bear to see it, even in the depths of our own hearts.

And because we have such a Dark Knight, justice is worth fighting for. What a different message it would've sent if those two boats had been blown up by the Joker. It would have been poignant, indeed, for then we should say that one of the two boats probably should have killed the other and at least saved some lives (or worse, that in the end there was no correct decision at all--all justice is meaningless without a Savior). But the Joker did not have the last word. Batman sought him out and stopped him. In the same way, evil and chaos--that is, random unfeeling chance--will not have the last word in our world. Justice is meaningful because God will do something about evil. He is doing something about it. He has already raised Jesus Christ from the dead in defiance of it.

Of course, you can always just watch the Batman films without thinking about these things, but I prefer to let them stimulate my thinking and learn a thing or two from them. If you got The Dark Knight for Christmas, I hope you enjoy it!

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