March 08, 2009

Movie Metaphysics: The Dark Knight

A new year ( a few months back, I know), a new month, a new season, and a new category. Hopefully a new series, but I'm bad at series writing (something I'm trying to improve on). Movie Metaphysics -- a series looking at the spirituality in film.

I probably won't spend much time looking at explicitly Christian films, since the spirituality there is apparent. I'll look at mainstream film, to see the religion "ghosts" (as the folks at GetReligion put it). I also won't just be saying "good movie, bad movie" (I'll do that kind of thing at my reviews blog); this is going to be more like "What does this movie say, spiritually?" "What is the worldview in this movie?" -- that kind of thing. Sometime soon I'll be republishing my review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, because there's a very important "ghost" there that really gives the movie a different metaphysical slant than the books had.

But today, I'm going to look at The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is a great movie. It's intense, fast-paced, and exciting. It ends with the promise of some great sequels. And it's full of spiritual themes.

The major spiritual theme is the idea of the "nature of man." Are we inherently good, or inherently evil? Left to ourselves, which side of the coin are we (to pull Harvey Dent into it for a moment)? Is it all just random, or is there something in us that makes us choose one way or the other?

The Joker (bad guy) is of the opinion that people are not basically good, and tries to show this throughout the movie. TV reporter comes out and says that Bruce Wayne is Batman; Joker says "Unless someone kills this man, I will blow up a hospital. You have one hour." No clue about which hospital. Obviously, the only way to save everyone in the hospitals is for someone to murder an innocent man.

Humanity fails the first test, as the man's life is only saved by the Gotham police department and Batman. People with loved ones in Gotham hospitals are willing to kill to save their family and friends - even if the victim is completely innocent. So the Joker goes for another test.

Joker puts a bomb on two ferries. One is carrying civilians; the other prisoners. Each ferry has the detonator to the other ferryÂ’s bomb. If only one detonator is triggered, it will blow up the other boat. If both detonators are triggered, neither boat will be blown up. If no detonators are triggered, both boats blow up at midnight.

This test seems like it has an easy solution, if you think of things purely from an analytical POV. The only way to ensure that your boat survives is to hit the detonator. If mankind is essentially interested only in self-preservation, and is willing to do whatever it takes to that end, then there's no dilemma. If mankind is really that way, the Joker is right.

The convicts throw the detonator out of a porthole in their boat, taking the "moral high ground" and "proving" that even hardened criminals have some good in them. The "citizens" are not so pure -- they argue and debate, until one of them takes the detonator and cannot quite bring himself to set it off. Neither boat hits the detonator, and Batman ends up saving the day once again. And again, the Joker loses.

Third example is the cruel fate of Harvey Dent. Dent is a man with pure moral intentions, someone who is making a difference. The Joker takes everything away from him, and makes Dent into something less. Harvey Dent becomes that which he most hated. This time, the Joker won.

I had a huge problem with this theme when I first watched the movie, and it still bothers me. Are people really essentially good? Is there something in all of us that makes us moral people?

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)

"as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God." Romans 3:9-10 (ESV)

"We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)

This goes directly to the idea of total depravity. Does man have any redeeming value in and of himself? Or are we essentially at odds with God, and inherently sinful?

It's pretty clear which side the Bible takes. We can't do it on our own; we can't seek after God, we can't do what is right on our own. We are ultimately self-serving; even our good deeds are done because they "make us feel good about ourselves" rather than out of any real concern for our fellow man. More importantly, our good deeds do nothing to improve our standing with God. Our righteousness is as filthy rags (the polluted garment in Is. 64:6). Unfortunately, the Joker is right.

That's where I had the problem with the movie. But then I started thinking of the role Batman played. He was the one who really saved the people of Gotham. At the end of the movie, he is going to save Harvey Dent's reputation. How? By taking the blame for everything.

Just like Jesus.

I'm not going to go on about how Batman is a Christ figure in the movie, because I hate that kind of speculation. But it's clear to me that the producers, whether consciously or not, recognize that in spite of all the righteousness we think we may have, no matter what good stuff we do for others, we're still in need of a savior. The people in Gotham, for all their good intentions, were going to die on those boats without someone to save them. Harvey Dent would have died in shame without someone taking the blame for what he did - the people he killed. Without intervention, the TV reporter would have been killed by an angry mob.

And without Christ, we're condemned. Our righteousness doesn't measure up, our sins are more than a holy God can countenance. But Christ took our punishment for us.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 02:36 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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