/ / Articles

Shining Light In ‘The Dark Knight’

“You’ll hunt me; you’ll condemn me,” Batman says at the end of The Dark Knight. “That’s what needs to happen.” Some Christians cried: “No it’s not! Heroes don’t lie!” They miss the point.
| Jul 17, 2012 | No comments |

If you left The Dark Knight (2008) almost giddy at the evil wisecracking and chaos-raising of The Joker, or perhaps worse, wishing the character was more “developed,” I feel sorry for you. If for similar reasons you can’t wait to see The Dark Knight Rises, the final film of director Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy that releases this Friday, I’m also sympathetic.

Christians have had mixed reactions to superhero films in general, and The Dark Knight (TDK) films in particular. Many reviewers praised the first film, Batman Begins (2005), for its view of revenge versus real justice. Yet they weren’t sure what to make of the darkness.

Superman flies in blue skies, in bluer tights and a bright red cape.

Spider-Man, wearing similar team colors, swings about the sunlit streets of Manhattan.

So what’s with Batman? Here is a hero who hides his colors. Yet he’s a true hero anyway?

We can rightly mock the “gritty reboots” TDK “inspired.” Stories need not be “gritty” to be realistic. In fact, light is more real than darkness.

Yet deeper darkness may cloud how Christians perceive TDK — and may also see The Dark Knight Rises. For God’s glory and our good, let’s explore and reject those false doctrines and darknesses, so that we may best expose the real darkness we encounter.

Christians misread two TDK elements: the Joker’s motives, and Batman’s sacrifice.

1. Not getting the Joker

Just days after I saw TDK in summer 2008, I was still gripped. Much of that centered around The Joker, the sadistic, psycho clown who apparently cannot even be hurt, and works only to “watch the world burn.” He kills without remorse. While he takes a life he merely jokes and (dare I say it) “cuts up.” He disturbingly switches between false offers of comfort — “C’mere. Hey. Look at me” — and maniacal, murderous chaos.

Since then The Joker has helped to inform my perception of ultimate human evil, a fact of “total depravity” untempered even by God’s common grace. The Joker is absolute evil. To say so isn’t to “redeem” the villain from the director’s intent, but to respect Nolan’s original vision. “To me, the Joker is an absolute,” Nolan said. “There are no shades of gray to him.”

Paul appealed to the pagan poet to find a touchpoint with his culture about the Creator. We can appeal to The Joker to find a touchpoint with out culture about real, unrestrained evil.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work if Christians misinterpret TDK, and what Scripture says about real evil. In doing this, they not only miss the film’s themes, but bypass the truth of how Scripture says we would act apart from the common and specific graces of Christ.

Even worse, these misinterpretations may reveal a lack of understanding part of the Gospel and why Jesus died — and a lack of seeing how this can be echoed, not repeated, in a story.

Even secular movie critic Roger Ebert did not understand the Joker. In his review of TDK, he wrote that The Joker’s “cackle [betrays] deep wounds,” and that “he seeks revenge, he claims, for the horrible punishment his father exacted on him when he was a child.”

If you’ve seen the film, you know why you are smiling right now. You will recall The Joker tells at least two different versions of his “origins story.” He’s about to tell a third to Batman before the hero finally one-ups the villain. Which one is real? That’s the point — he makes it up. Perhaps Ebert was out refilling on popcorn during the Joker’s next two “testimonies.”

Perhaps a Christian movie critic will understand evil better, not trying to whitewash it by saying the villain is merely Wounded or has Father Issues. Right?

How about MovieGuide.org? “Joker is psychotic and mean from the beginning,” the site wrote in its review of TDK. “He’s shown to be psychotic and mean several times. A little character growth would have helped him a great deal.”

Alas, MovieGuide misses the point. The Joker is an axiom, almost an “icon” of evil. To complain about a lack of “character development” is to misjudge the genre and intent.

How about fantasy author Bryan Davis? Whew, we had a fascinating exchange about this in response to his Aug. 8, 2008 film review — though that debate has since vanished from his page. “There is nothing ‘real’ about this movie,” Davis insisted in one comment. “Our kids will never run into anything close to the characters or events in this movie. The story is a twisted view of reality. People who think this is realistic have serious problems.”

Beliefs like these have given me scars. They may betray a false mindset: that villains need not really be so evil deep down. That belief is at best unhelpful, but this resulting inevitable conclusion is more perilous: that the Gospel only works in a pre-cleaned world.

As for the “our kids will never run into anything close to the characters or events in this movie” claim, I daresay some Christian children who have grown up to become police officers, psychiatrists, prison guards or paramedics have had their share of dealing with insane and psychotic people — that certainly qualifies as “anything close” to the Joker.

In the film series, Nolan seems to offer three explorations of wrong responses to evil:

  1. Batman Begins — vengeance. Indiscriminately destroy evil.
  2. The Dark Knight — anarchy. Embrace evil and become it.
  3. The Dark Knight Rises — control. Dictator-like, wickedly manipulate others’ sins.

We’d be fools to discount these reflections of very Biblical views of good fighting evil.

2. Not seeing the Knight

MovieGuide and Davis also misread what the film clearly showed as a sacrificial, heroic act. Before we continue, you might want to see the scene again. It’s rendered well, right here.

Commissioner Gordon and Batman face an impossible quandary. Thanks to The Joker, Gotham City’s “white knight” hero, on whom the others had based all their hopes to rid the city of crime, had himself become the villain Two-Face and gone on a killing spree.

The Joker took their best face and corrupted it, Gordon laments. “People will lose hope.”

Then Batman steps in. That needn’t be the story, he says. “I killed those people. … You’ll hunt me. You’ll condemn me. Set the dogs on me. Because that’s what needs to happen.” Batman takes the blame. This hero has become a penal substitution for another man’s sins.

“Why’s he running, Dad?”
“Because we have to chase him.”
“He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”

No, it is not “truthful.” It is not “fair.” It is not an exact replica of the Gospel that inspires all other hero stories. Yet is does echo that part of the Gospel: that Christ switched places with sinful men, and that God the Father, as He planned from eternity past, burst out with His crushing and condemning wrath against the Son of God Who deserved no punishment.

Some could say Christ is a “liar.” In place of those who believe, He became the villain. Yet in that way, He is the true hero — a hero on a level much deeper than many would think.

Yet MovieGuide summarized the film this way: “Very confused and eclectic, or mixed pagan, philosophical perspectives ending on a relativistic, deconstructionist ‘truth does not matter’ sentiment.” The reviewer later criticizes Batman’s substitutionary sacrifice: “[H]ero decides to lie to solve plot problem and police commissioner agrees with him. … It suggests a hero can be a liar without tarnishing his heroic qualities.”

Evidently the only person “confused” about the film’s worldview was the MovieGuide reviewer. If TDK’s finale equals “truth does not matter,” so does Christ’s “deceptive” death.

Davis also misread TDK’s atonement echoes. “What? Are you kidding?” he wrote. “Save the reputation of the psychopath and destroy the reputation of the true hero? For what reason? So the Joker wouldn’t ‘win.’ Lie to honor the dead false hero, who can’t help you anymore, and destroy the true hero who can help? That’s absurd. It’s stupid. It’s wrong.”

No, it’s war. This is not exactly the real world, where there is no Joker and no Batman, but still reflective of reality. Real psychopaths exist. Our children may encounter them. True heroes may lie, even for right reasons. And man’s heroic stories can only echo the Gospel.

As I attempted to say back then:

There will never be a parallel to the true Gospel in people’s fiction, without it being so allegorical as to be a verbatim re-telling of the real Gospel. Not even Aslan dying for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (either book or film) was an exact parallel — whether Lewis meant it or not, it was more similar to the false “ransom theory” of atonement in our world rather than Aslan suffering His own Father’s wrath as Christ did here. (In the story, Edmund didn’t even know that Aslan had died for him.) But that does not mean I cannot appreciate and enjoy the story for its close parallel to Christ’s sacrifice and redemption anyway.

Moreover, Christ, though He never sinned, has died and in our place. It was not simply as a gesture of forgiveness, or to show (in a very backward, confusing way!) that God is now “above” requiring death as payment for sins (Hebrews 9:22). His death is substitutionary.

Even some professing Christians don’t understand that. They decide that the idea of Christ laying down his life and in effect “lying” about the sins He claims as His own is “cosmic child abuse.” They insist: “God wouldn’t do that; He’s all about love, so He could never be a villain!” But God Himself, in Scripture, didn’t see a need for such propaganda. “He was crushed for our iniquities,” the prophecy about Him says (Isaiah 53:5).

It’s a terrible truth. Even an “unfair” truth. But speaking as someone who could have been a psychopathic killer apart from His common grace, and a Hell-bound sinner apart from His specific grace, I won’t question God’s “unfairness” or Jesus’s becoming a “villain.” Christ is truly heroic — even though many try to hunt Him, hate Him, and loathe Him as the villain. That reaction to Him now is just like the angry mob’s reaction to Him then. And ultimately it’s very similar to the fate chosen by the Dark Knight as well.

Conclusion: Rises predictions

I’d be loathe to end this without a brief exploration on a question that will be current for only a few more days: whether Batman will live or die in the final film. I believe Bruce Wayne and/or Batman can live or die symbolically to wrap up the story and this version of the hero; there is no need for him literally to die. Either way, the story can end powerfully.

(Edited from articles posted at the original version of Speculative Faith and my own blog.)

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

Leave a Reply

Notify of
J Wilson

Thank you for summing up so well the thoughts that I’ve had about this movie, especially about the end. I’m surpirised I had not made the connection between taking the fall for Harvy, and Christ’s subsitutionary death sooner.

I’ve been thinking about the fall recently — working on a short story about it, and the theme that keeps coming up is how if Satan can force God’s hand to destroy his beloved creatures, or to turn a blind eye to their fall, he has won.  Just like the Joker can win dead or behind bars, because he’s forced justice’s hand to undo all Dent has done, or cease to be justice.

But like Satan, the one thing he hasn’t counted on, is an innocent hero who would come forward, and in agreement with the element of Justice – God, or Gordon, would take that penalty, and convert all the good and right to the guilty party — “He became sin for us who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

We are Harvey Dent — walking corpses — twisted distortions of what we were made to be, hurting and destroying as we were hurt and destroyed. Unable to help ourselves. But the Joker — Satan — cannot win.

This is a quote about Christ on the cross from “When God Weeps,” by Steven Estes and Joni Eareckson Tada that I feel sums this up well: 
“He begins to feel a foreign sensation. Somewhere during this day an unearthly foul odor began to waft, not around his nose, but his heart. He feels dirty. Human wickedness starts to crawl upon his spotless being – …
His Father! He must face his Father like this!
From Heaven the Father now rouses himself like a lion disturbed, shakes his mane, and roars against the shriveling remnant of a man hanging on a cross. Never has the Son seem the Father look at him so, never felt even the least of his hot breath. But the roar shakes the unseen world and darkens the visible sky. The Son does not recognise these eyes.

“Son of Man! Why have you behaved so? You have cheated, lusted, stolen, gossiped – murdered, envied, hated, lied. … – relishing each morsel and bragging about it all. I hate, loathe this things in you! Disgust for everything about you consumes me! Can you not feel my wrath?”
Of course the Son is innocent. He is blamelessness itself. The Father knows this. But the divine pair have an agreement, and the unthinkable must now take place. Jesus will be treated as if personally responsible for every sin ever committed.

“Father! Father! Why have you forsaken me?!”
But heaven stops its ears. The Son stares up at the One who cannot, who will not, reach down or reply.
The Trinity had planned it. The Son endured it. The Spirit enabled him. The father rejected the Son whom he loved. Jesus, the God-man from Nazareth, perished. The Father accepted his sacrifice for sin and was satisfied. The Rescue was accomplished.”
(Quoted from  http://yonah.wordpress.com/2007/10/30/when-god-weeps/ )

… On an entirely different and side note, I have to say I laughed when I read what Bryan Davis had to say about the movie, because frankly, I would say the same about most of the situations he puts his characters in, and their mindsets. (I barely finished Dragons in our Midst.)


I definitely have to agree with  your very last part. I had the disconnect from reality in his books, not TDK. 

J Wilson

Reading his books really became a series of “wait — what? Really…. eh…. whatever I guess…” as we go from dragons that blow a particular kind of fire — the only kind there is that can destroy demons, to rain automatically falling since the demons have been released, to gobs of people trapped in the stone thingy…. “mum…. pepperoni pizza” — actually, that was the most memorable part :D.  And every so often, someone is referred to as “Godly”…. really? Okay, whatever.

After a while, nothing made logical sense, and only existed, or worked…. because Davis said it did.

(Okay, end of my anti-Davis rant — this post wasn’t about him)

So I really did laugh when I saw he’d said TDK was divorced from reality.


I don’t think Batman/Bruce Wayne will die because there are rumors that both Batman and Wonder-woman are mentioned in Man of Steel. Plus, there is a Justice League movie coming out, and you can’t have the League without Batman. 

Good article. 


I had to watch Dark Knight for a worldview evaluation in class–never having seen a superhero film before except the original Superman–and that last scene stuck me with power in so many ways. That quote–it poked something deep and strange inside me, and it was so intriguing.


Yeah, it did the same with me, and I was on a bus with 40 other people on the way to church camp so I could barely hear it. That line definitely has power. 

Jeremy McNabb

I’m so very impressed. This was a brilliant run-down of both the movies and their critics. I’ve always felt that Joker perfectly embodied evil: Chaotic, pointless, irreverent, inconsistent, wickedness. The breakdown of Batman’s substitutionary sacrifice was new to me, but I can see it. Great job.

Timothy Stone

Amen, great piece brother. Stephen, I remember the piece on your old site a few years back, right after I first “met” you and some other fans of fantasy and comics online, who are also brothers/sisters in Christ. I would say now in agreement what I said then, that Joker is realistic in the extreme. 
He is not realistic as a supervillain and all, but in the nihilistic evil he represents. Whether it is a nihilism that strives for nothing for the sake of nothing, or the terrorists who strive for nihilism via embracing death to placate their twisted devotion to their warped idea of God, it is the same evil mindset. Evil occurs, and we ought to confront that fact in our stories, so we can do so in reality. If we can’t confront the reality of evil (not necessarily graphic displays that cheapen it, but as a “concept”), then how can we confront it in real life?
Not that the moral qualms with Batman and Gordon’s decision didn’t have some discomfort from the audience, myself included, but I think it was meant to make people uncomfortable. As was the creepy one-deal only self-destruct at the end surveillance of the entire city. To confront evil is not clean, and easy, and that’s why it makes people uncomfortable. We don’t want to face the darkness withing ourselves, or the darkness in others, so we retreat spiritually and physically from the task.
The thing that these movies do for me is to reflect the truth that the world is a fallen world of sin, where good often can not conquer evil without, to use your applicability of Christ’s sacrifice, taking that same darkness upon ourselves. Not that we turn evil to fight evil, but that’s the problem every person, and especially every believer faces: either we try to remain “pure” at all times, and evil thrives, or we are harsh, and must remain vigilant not to lose ourselves to the darkness. Not to allow lies, killing, or so forth to become actions unto themselves, instead of actions to confront evil. Or on a personal level, not allowing scolding, yelling, confronting, so forth to becomes acts of cruelty instead of acts of accountability to each other in the Lord.
My opinions on the movie, it will not do as well if they kill off Batman. I don’t think there will be the repeat views from die-hard comics (especially DC/Batman) fans if that happens. I hope it doesn’t. I don’t think I’d bring myself to watch it then. 

Jill Stengl
Jill Stengl

Thanks for this great post! I appreciate your insights into what allegory actually is–not an exact re-depiction of the gospel but a story that gives glimpses into reality from an unusual perspective. I am a fan of TDK, and I liked movie #3 overall. The modern depiction of the French Revolution was chilling–and I hope it makes a few “Occupy” supporters think twice.

My daughter, Anne Elisabeth, writes the Tales of Goldstone Wood series, which is highly allegorical yet entirely fantasy. I know how diligently and carefully she handles the allegorical aspects of her story, knowing always that her stories will be despised by many, if only because they might touch an exposed nerve here and there. Some of her Amazon and Goodreads reviews reflect this; others reflect ignorance of the subject matter. Fantasy readers, on the whole, respect only strong heroes and heroines. Flawed characters who cannot save themselves are despised, and their need of God’s grace is at best a mystery and at worst a personal insult.

 I expect negative, even nasty reviews from some non-Christian readers who recognize and resent the allegorical meanings underlying her stories, but I’ve been distressed by the reactions of many CBA readers who complain of the inaccurate depiction of Christ’s love in Heartless because the Christ-figure devotedly loves and rescues the quite undeserving princess. Being a mom (and therefore overreactive), I so much want to point out that Aslan died only for Edmund. Does this make LWW a bad allegory? As you pointed out, there will be imperfections in any allegory. C.S. Lewis had to write a disclaimer at the beginning of The Great Divorce lest anyone think he actually believed we would all ride a bus from Sheol to Paradise. . .

I cannot write fantasy myself, but I am a lifelong fan of the genre–God first touched my heart through the Narnia Chronicles, so I know the power of inspired story. I believe that writers of Christian fantasy, particularly YA and children’s books, need to be extremely careful with the symbolism they use. (I tried reading Dragons in our Midst but couldn’t make it through book one, so I can’t express an educated opinion about that series myself–yet your comments here solidify the impression I gained from those first few chapters.) I am distressed by the shallow, shoddy, or even harmful quality of much fantasy published in the CBA market, yet I hesitate to express my opinions about books because I know how much criticism hurts, and I don’t want anyone to think that I would “dis” any fantasy book in the effort to make my daughter’s books look better–that would be pointless! My desire would be to challenge authors to raise quality throughout the CBA market–quality of writing, depth of theological understanding, and portrayal of truth through fantasy fiction. 

There. Got that out of my system. Heh.