The Dark Knight and the ends justifying the means

Lots of people have mentioned what an amazing movie The Dark Knight is.  And I think they are right.

But there are two things that I think are worth noticing about the movie that are a little more questionable.  They’re idealogical things.  And to get very deep into them, I have to discuss the movie itself.  So if you’re going to get all grumpy with me for blowing some of the plot of the movie, come back and read after you’ve seen the flick.  If you keep going, know that you’ve been forewarned.

The first piece of idealogy that’s creeping around is a bit of hypocrisy around whether or not the ends justify the means.

Early on, I was actually quite impressed with the statement that was made about the ends not justifying the means.  The Joker’s way in the film is to force others into things they wouldn’t do.  At first, he attempts to get Batman to reviel his identity.  Later he manipulates the people of the city of Gotham to kill the accountant dude.  After that he tries to get people to blow up a boat full of people.

In each case, he tries to control people by threatening a much worse result if they don’t do it.  Basically, he’s going to kill more people in each case if the people don’t do what he wants.

There are two different reasons that I think it’s wrong in these cases to do what the Joker wants.  The characters notice these reasons, too, and they point them out.

The first is that there’s nothing to stop this from continuing and no good reason to trust the Joker.  The second is that the ends don’t justify the means.  Just because a good result will happen, (or in this case a comparitively less evil result) this doesn’t mean that we should do it.  Wrong is wrong and right is right regardless of the consequences.  The ends don’t justify the means.

I realize that others might disagree with me.  I wouldn’t complain about if it the characters seemed to believe that the ends did justify the means.  But characters like Batman, Gordon, and and the scientific guy (forgot both the actorts and characters name… Can anybody help me?) all speak out against giving into the Joker because the ends don’t justify the means.

Until suddenly, the ends do justify the means.

At the end of the movie, they decide to pin the blame on Batman for the people that Harvey Dent/Two-Face killed.  In general, this would be a bad thing, to let Batman take the fall.  Lying is the wrong thing to do.  But suddenly, it’s o.k. to compare the ramifications of lying with the ramifications of not lying and choose what we’re going to do based on this.  And the scientist guy in general believes that Batman’s sonar thing is a violation of peoples rights… except that he’s willing to do it that one time. 

Perthaps the idea is that it’s not as easy as it looks, to avoid acting as if the ends justify the means.  Maybe the idea is that the Joker is right: we don’t have morals or values except when it’s convenient.  This brings me to the other idealogy that’s worth noticing in the movie.

I don’t know exactly what the name is for this, but there is this growing … thing in movies.  It started with horror flicks.

Once upon a time, horror movies had heroes.  Consider the first Nightmare On Elm Street.  I choose that precisely because it’s fairly low-brow.  It’s not exceptional, literary, or any of that.

But the climax of that movie is in the main characters taking the power back from Freddy Kreugar.  The idea is that they have to engage in an act of heroism.  The most important thing about humanity is that we can rise above our animal instincts.  Almost any horror movie where the main chatacters live, made before the mid 90’s, is one where the main characters were braver or smarter than the villians.

No matter how bloody, violent, or otherwise immoral a movie or book was, there was something moral about the final message: there is something powerful about goodness and humanity than evil and inhumanity.

Since that time, the ethos is this: our only power is the power of endurance.  We must sink to the level of the enemy or simply try to outlast it.   It’s not so much the violence of these movies as the nihlism that turns me off.   Consider the Saw movies, or The Descent, or The Mist.  In all of these, humanity and goodness are a liabality, a crutch.

Once screen writers asked “What’s the scariest situation I can create.” and I was o.k. with this.  It seems like the new question is “What is the most dehumanizing situation I can create?  How can I turn my human heros into animals?”

I started to notice how “The Dark Knight” fits into this mold when Bruce Wayne and Alfred had some conversations about endurance, and how some of the themes revolved around “Just how far will you go?”

Once in a Batman movie, the Joker might have jumped out at somebody, and we all would have jumped.  Once the most intense moment of these sorts of movies would have been the big battle.  But in The Dark Knight, the most intense moments are when The Joker tries to force Gordon to choose between his family members, as to who will live and who will die.

These two pieces of idealogy work together in the film.  In some ways Harvey Dent’s character is the most idealistic.  (Remember the scene where he and Gordon argue?)  He has the furthest to fall.  He is the most utterly transformed.

Batman does submit some of his own ends-don’t-justify-the-means mentality and he suffers for it as well.  Early on he won’t be bullied into taking off his mask.  But later, he allows his reputation and relationship with the police to suffer when he takes the fall so that nobody will know what become of Harvey Dent.

There’s a level on which Gordon is even less idealistic than Batman.  He suffers in the movie, but he doesn’t really get transformed.   He actually becomes the Chief.  The subtext seems to be: Gordon started off operating in the real world.  He benefits by it.  He seems to begin the movie closest to embracing the idea that sometimes the ends do justify the means.  That’s why he allows crooked cops to continue on the force.   Because he was operating in the real world, he was the one who ends the movie in some ways in a better position than when he started.

Am I thinking too much about all this?

Actually, I don’t think so.  I think it’s there, in the film.  I’m unsure if the script writers were aware of it, or the writers of the comics which these were quite closely based on.  Idealogy that we’re not conscious of is the most dangerous sort, in my opinion.  When these motifs pop up over and over again, I think it’s worth looking at.

(It’s tempting to go-on from here and explore the ways that The Joker seems to be a terrorist and Gordon, Batman, and company seems to symbolize the military and government.  But that’ll get hopelessly political and I’m trying to stay away from politics at this point in my life.)

This post was submitted to Randy Elrod’s Watercooler Wednesdays.  Click here for some great readings on art and culture.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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