To preface this theological review of The Dark Knight, I think Christians tend to fall into opposite errors with respect to popular, secular culture. On the one hand, it is treated with paranoid suspicion or outright hostility by its detractors as a realm entirely controlled by Satan and his minions. On the other, it is wrongly treated as a suitable source for sermons and doctrine along with, or, in the worst cases, in lieu of, the Scriptures. I tend to take the middle road. Popular culture has its place, and its fruits can be enjoyed by Christians in their liberty with thanksgiving. Music, art, and storytelling in any medium can be entertaining, thought provoking, and even God-honoring. He created all things good. Beauty and truth can be creatively expressed even by those who are unregenerate. If one believes that God is sovereign, this should come as no surprise. Likewise, if enjoyment of such fair replaces our Christian duties of discipleship (Bible study, prayer, church attendance, good works, et al) they should be plucked out of our lives and cast from us as Christ commands. My goal with this review is to analyze some of the overarching themes (the nature of man, law, providence, morality, faith) raised in the film by looking at some of the crucial scenes. Caution: there are some spoilers.
I was reading an article where Christopher Nolan was describing his favorite scene in TDK: the interrogation scene between Batman and The Joker, hero vs. villain, good vs. evil. He said it was the hinge on which the whole movie turned. Or, to put it in terms the theologically Reformed can understand, it is the film’s doctrine of justification. In it, The Joker presents his own brand of chaotic nihilism. He spoke of the goodness (or lack thereof) of Gotham’s citizens,
“Their morals, their ‘code,’ it’s all a bad joke; dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. When the chips are down, these, uh, ‘civilized people’: they’ll eat each other. You see, I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.”
When one grounds all hope and all authority in mankind, one must certainly reach The Joker’s bleak conclusions. If the law was conjured up within the mind of man, it is a bad joke. It is moral pretension. It has no ultimate power or intrinsic authority. However, the Scriptures declare that the moral law, the ultimate standard of goodness and purity, finds its origin in God. It is the product of the Ultimate Judge and is binding on all men. It is the bedrock for the laws of the state, itself instituted by God to bear the sword, to protect the innocent, and to punish the guilty. Civilization is a gift of God. It certainly is a means by which He restrains the evil of men.
Sadly, The Joker’s anthropology is more Biblical than that of many professing Christians. Man is NOT basically good. We are basically corrupt. Every aspect of our being is tainted and deformed by sin to one degree or another. This is often called total depravity, though a more apt term I’ve heard applied to it is radical corruption. We are not as evil as we could be, but there is not one aspect of our beings that is left unaffected by sin. Apart from God’s grace, we would indeed “eat each other.” So, too often, we see ourselves as “better” than the serial killers, the rapists, and the deviants of society. Horizontally, we may be better than The Jokers of the world. Vertically, however, we are all sinners deserving of God’s just condemnation. In comparison to God’s holy standard, we are all lawbreakers and criminals. We are the scum of the earth. That is why faith in Christ alone is so important. It is through faith in Christ, itself a gift from God, that Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to us. This allows us to stand before God blameless. For as Christ gives us His righteousness, so too did He take upon Himself our sin. He became sin and was crushed by God’s wrath that we might be saved from the Judgment. In terms of sin, we are all “monsters.” Despite this, God in His loving mercy still chose to save us.
The Joker continues to expound his twisted worldview in the hospital scene with Harvey Dent:
“I’m not a schemer. I like to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are…You were a schemer. You had plans, and look where that gotcha.”
A quick point, I know it wasn’t the script writer’s intention, but there is a droplet of truth here. We are all schemers. We are going to attend college here, we are going to do this, we are going to marry when we’re this age, have this many kids, live here, travel here, do this, do that, ad nauseam. God is the one who often shows “how pathetic our attempts to control things really are.” He alone is sovereign. While we should plan diligently, we must not do so assuming that we have the final say. God has measured our days. We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can plan the time and the means by which we will come to God for our eternal destiny. The Scriptures declare that today is the day of salvation, now is the time to believe. Likewise Christ is the only way by which we may gain both acceptance by God and entrance into His heaven. Walking an aisle, signing a card, saying a prayer, getting baptized, taking communion, joining a church, singing a hymn, doing good deeds, and “living a good life” won’t save the first soul from hell. Only God-given faith in Christ can accomplish such a feat.
The Joker goes on:
“See, I’ve noticed something. Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan,’ even if the plan is horrifying. If I told the press that tomorrow like a gangbanger would get shot, or a truck load of soldiers would be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.’ But if I say that one little old mayor will die, then everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy; upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”
Hear we see the philosophical conclusion of an atheistic worldview, or at least a worldview with a non-Biblical god. The Bible declares that God is dread sovereign over the entire universe. He has the hairs on our heads numbered; he knows when a sparrow falls to the ground dead. We may see mayhem erupt in riots, wars, and other violence, but God remains in total control of every atom in Creation. Though God is not the author of sin and evil, He still may use these things to accomplish His purposes. We need look no further than the Cross for evidence of this. The Crucifixion of Jesus was the most evil act ever perpetrated by the hand of man. Pure innocence was executed. Jesus was murdered. By killing Jesus, His accusers and executioners committed cold-blooded murder in the first degree. However, out of this murderous act, God brought salvation. What men meant for evil, God meant for good.
However, while The Joker is the antagonist of the film, the film’s hero has a faulty worldview as well. So do the other ‘good’ characters. In her letter to Bruce, Rachel, lets him know that she has chosen to marry Harvey. She also says something worth examining:
“If you lose your faith in me, please, don’t lose your faith in people.”
Now, this seems like a kind letter that seeks to “let Bruce off easy,” but the final statement is truly foolish. We must not put ultimate faith in people, starting with ourselves. We are people of deceitful hearts and unclean lips. It is in Christ alone in whom we must place our faith if we hope to endure all trials and tribulations.
The end of the film has Batman delivering an interesting last line:
“Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded. Sometimes people deserve more.”
Gordon and Batman had “bet it all” on Harvey Dent. The Joker told Batman that he had brought Gotham’s “White Knight” down to “our level.” If people were to know the crimes of Two-Face, then they would lose hope in what Gordon and Batman stood for, or so the protagonists assumed.
That is the overarching flaw of the film’s outlook on human existence. If man is the measure of all things; if God is not given his proper place, then The Joker will ultimately have the last laugh. If we put our faith in our government, our military, our wealth, our health, our family, our spouse, our children, our own moral performance, our heritage, or ourselves we will be eternally disillusioned. All these things, though good, cannot provide ultimate satisfaction or security. Only God can do that. Truth, Biblical Truth, is always good enough. People do not need to have their faith rewarded if that faith’s object is anything but the Living Triune God. Such faith should be torn down and exposed for what it is: a lie. The faith of Christians is the only faith that will bring reward. Not because of the faith itself but because of whom that faith is in: Jesus. We may not deserve Jesus, but He is the “something more” we all desperately need.
One scene from which I do draw inspiration in my Christian walk is the scene in the Bat Bunker before Bruce decides to turn himself in:
-Bruce: People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?
-Alfred: Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can make the choice no one else will make, the right choice.
Many Christians, like me, who struggle with assurance and sin would benefit if we would take to heart the numerous Biblical passages that tell us to persevere in the faith. Knowing that our salvation is a free gift and that we are free from both the dominion and condemnation of sin, what will we now do? Turn ourselves back over to the world, the flesh, and the devil? God forbid! The world may hate us for it, but we must take it.
Let us press on to the goal keeping our eyes fixed on the Cross. Let us endure.
In conclusion, I loved The Dark Knight. It is a cinematic masterpiece. It raises the right questions that most movies shy away from even if it doesn’t offer the right answers.