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:
- Batman Begins — vengeance. Indiscriminately destroy evil.
- The Dark Knight — anarchy. Embrace evil and become it.
- 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.
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.)