Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight (pt.2)

In the last post, we explored the character of the Joker, the Joker’s “truth”, and a Christian response to it.

In this post, we will take a look at the film’s ending. In a unique and surprising twist, the movie doesn’t actually end on a happy note. The Joker has accomplished his goal by turning Harvey Dent, gotham’s best hope for a legitimate future, into the homicidal villain Two-Face. Two-Face has gone on a brief rampage, killing cops and kidnapping Gordon’s family. In doing so, the Joker has won the battle for Gotham’s soul. All they had worked for was gone, having banked on the reputation of Harvey Dent. The criminals would be set free, and their spirit would be broken.

But in a self-sacrificing move, Batman realizes that he doesn’t have to be the hero. Batman can be the villain, because he’s a symbol, “whatever Gotham needs me to be”. Batman takes the blame for Harvey’s death and the murders Harvey committed, living a lie so that the truth doesn’t destroy Gotham. The movie says that “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. People deserve to have their faith rewarded.” In similar fashion, Alfred burns a letter written by Rachel before her death that says she was going to choose Harvey over Bruce. The movie suggests, then, that there are times when it is better to lie than to tell the truth.

As a side note, these are themes which resurface in the third film. In a fascinating way, Rises really questions the integrity of the ending of this movie. But we’ll get to that when we get to that.

Until then, we have to take this movie on its own terms. Is a lie ever better than the truth? What is the nature of truth? And what do we make of Jesus’ declaration, “I am the truth”?

And more importantly… did the good guys win?

The first observation to be made is that this ending forces Batman into the kind of ethic he fought so strongly against in the first movie. As we explored in the Batman Begins post, the movie is essentially a debate between situational ethics and idealistic ethics. Ra’s Al Ghul believes that it is right to kill some for te sake of the many, but Batman believes that there are a set of principles that should never be violated that govern human interaction.

But at this juncture in the movie, Batman compromises that ethic by saying that sometimes it is better to lie than to tell the truth. (Not to mention the ethical issues with the sonar system he builds.) The Joker may not have turned him into the killer, but he managed to turn Batman into a liar; a noble liar, yes, but to get Batman to question his ethical code at all was enough, and we see the implications of it in the third movie.

This may be a thought experiment, however, in which neither utilitarianism nor kantian ethics are good enough. Consider the classic “noble lie” situation: suppose you are hiding Jews in your attic in Holocaust-Europe. A Nazi soldier comes to your door and says, “Are you harboring any Jews in this house?” Your answer to this question, if your only two choices are a utilitarian and kantian ethic, is a lose-lose. If you operate under the principle that lying is wrong, you are forced to tell the truth to the Nazi and ensure the death of the fugitives. If you tell him a lie, you admit that there are situations in which principles are set aside, and that opens the door for endless ethical interpretation.

This is the quandary Batman finds himself caught in, and this is why, in the end, this story is a tragedy. Like the classic Shakespearean tragedy, nobody walks away unscathed. This is the Joker’s final victory.

But what was Batman to do? He had to make a choice between two ethical camps just like the first movie, but this one isn’t as cut and dry. There’s a significant grey area when it comes to “truthfulness”. Truth isn’t always black and white.

This now runs the risk of being more philosophical than I am capable of handling, so my smarter philosopher friends be sure and correct me and help me out. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between “truth” and “fact”, and I think the former has some theological implications.

This comes primarily from Peter Rollins’ book “How [NOT] to Speak of God”, which you just simply must read. But in this book, Rollins examines this idea of truth and lies related to the thought experiment from earlier:

“In response to this question we have three options:

  1. we regretfully say ‘yes’, acknowledging that we are held under a higher moral law which requires that we do not deceive
  2. we say ‘no’, judging that it is the lesser of two evils
  3. we say ‘no’ and feel happy we told the truth

In this example, most contemporary Christians in the west would, I suspect, choose (2) as closest to their own position. However, if we take truth to mean any act which positively transforms reality, rather than describes reality, then there is no problem acknowledging that, while denying there are Jews in the house is empirically incorrect, it is true in a religious sense precisely because it protects the innocent (as well as protecting the soldiers from committing a horrific act).” (61)

Rollins here redefines “truth” as being separate from “fact”. These are, in fact, two different words. Fact is that which “describes” reality, and Truth is that which “transforms” reality. “Truth-telling” is therefore a positive, creational act that makes a better world out of the one we have, not a risky, ethical quandary. With this understanding of Truth, no-one in the scenario commits any sin or evil. In fact, the person who “lies” to the Nazi has instead created a better future in which the innocent are protected and the victimizer has not committed evil.

I would also argue that this is an essentially Christian position. While in the Batman Begins post I suggested that a Christian position is closer to a Kantian ethic than a Utilitarian one, it is important to note which particular “principles” we hold firmly to, and the one thing we are called to hold firmly to as Christians is Christ. And Christ said that the law and the prophets (all the ethical quandaries) rest on two commandments (which are actually one commandment): love God and love neighbor.

But Jesus also said, “I am the way, the TRUTH and the life.” (Emphasis added.) If Jesus IS Truth, then we must, in a discussion abut what truth is, bring Jesus to light. If Jesus is truth, then “telling the truth” can never be an act which harms the oppressed or neglects to love God, neighbor, or even enemy. This is why Rollins’ definition is so poignant. Truth is “that which transforms reality” because Jesus is “that which transforms reality”. This is an important lesson, perhaps for another post, that sometimes what is “fact” can be wielded and used to destroy or harm maliciously, and is therefore not “truth”.

So what about Batman? Batman essentially chooses (2) of Rollins’ three choices, under an incomplete definition of truth. This causes the events of Rises to occur, in which the “buried” truth literally comes up to the surface and rips the city apart.

I don’t know what Batman should have done in this situation. The movie presents Batman as the tragic hero, who in a Christ-like manner absorbs and takes on the sins of others for the salvation of the city. But the difference between Batman and Christ (among many) is that Batman’s self-sacrifice is based on deception, burying the truth and attempting to live out a lie. Living out the truth, unflinchingly, is what got Jesus killed.

While the events of our Holocaust-Europe thought-experiment  led to a dichotomy between fact and Truth, I’m not sure that Batman is justified in his actions. The city actually had much to be proud of; they subverted the Joker’s attempts to turn them all into villains on the two boats. Harvey Dent may have served as a painful reminder that we are all potential villains, there were other commendable figures such as Rachel Dawes, in memorium, or especially Commissioner Gordon, that the City could place their hope in for a better future. The city needed a hero that was alive (or Resurrected?) to place their hopes in. At the end of the movie, all Batman’s lie gives Gotham is a dead hero and a murdering Batman. What kind of hope is that? I’m thoroughly unconvinced that the stakes were as high as they were in the thought-experiment, and the third film proves that Batman and Gordon did not make the right choice, but would any of us have done any differently? I like to think that if Batman and Gordon had more time to think it through, there was a better way. But the fact that they didn’t choose that way, and the Joker truly wins the fight for Gotham’s, and Batman’s soul, is what makes this movie the unprecedented, tragic, iconic, and unforgettable film that it was. Not every story has a happy ending.



4 thoughts on “Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight (pt.2)

  1. I think you are right in that there is a significant difference between the holocaust-hidden-Jew scenario and the-people-must-never-know situation with Harvey Dent;however’ I also think you chose the wrong difference in your paper.
    You seem to argue that the reason the actions of Batman were unethical is that he was mistaken. He was wrong because he thought his noble lie was necessary for the betterment of Gotham, while in fact it wasn’t. In this sense his err was factual not ethical. While I think it is correct that the noble lie of batman was unnecessary, and on those grounds unwarranted, I also think that misses the true sin behind his actions. If it were the case that the only reason his lie is unjustified is that it is grounded on false premises, we might forgive batman and move on, but the root of Batman’s sin is not his reasoning but his hubris.
    Batman believes that for some reason he and Gordon alone are in a position to judge what the people of Gotham can or cannot handle. While he is incorruptible, the people of Gotham are either too simple, or too fragile to handle the reality of Harvey Dent.
    I think this is the danger of utilitarian ethics (and maybe even situationally redefining words like truth). It presumes that we know better. And I’d have to ask why are we so sure?

    1. Great point, Carson. I definitely underdeveloped that thought, and you made more sense of it. I agree that pride is more of an issue than the facts of this case.

      Am I correct that your comment in parentheses, “and maybe even situationally redefining truth”, is a critique of my assessment of truth in this post? Or did you mean something else? Because I would certainly agree that situationally redefining truth would be an example of the same sort of pride. But I was hoping to suggest that Jesus “redefined” truth and that a faithful interpretation of truth in a situation would be based on Jesus, such as in the Holocaust example. You could say that in that situation that “Truth in this situation is preserving life and preventing injustice in a peaceful way, because those are characteristics and behaviors consistent with Jesus”.

      More at stake in this situation is a person’s interpretation of Jesus, not truth. And I would think that’s a much better conversation to have. Thoughts?

    2. that it’s really hard to put into words a jueemdgnt on Heath Ledger’s performance) was when he sits down next to Dent in the hospital and gets a glimpse of his ruined face and is just like “..hiiiii.” almost apologetically or something. God, hilarious.I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought the Batman voice was overdone (even though I love you fo realsss Christian Bale and you ARE the greatest Batman ever). I’d never noticed it as much in the first movie but in this one it sounded almost like he had one of the mouthguards I used to wear for field hockey in. Also – how does he talk like that and not spit all over his co-stars??I was kind of over the movie after the Joker had made his glorious exit — it just felt a little typical, I guess, and sort of at odds with the rest of the movie. I guess what made it atypical was that Harvey Dent, la White Knight, had made such a drastic flip in terms of his personality and sanity.Either way…I’ve got to say this was a great, great, movie. I particularly loved Michael Caine — who is always spectacular. “We burned the forest down” — what a great line!!

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