Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Finding light in the ‘Dark Knight’

Not all stories that dive deep into the darkness are worthy, but the good ones get at some truth about the world we live in, the Story of which we are a part, our own condition and who God is. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Or films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Pan’s Labyrinth. Or television series like Battlestar Galactica (so far, at least). Stories like these often expose the worst in us, the insidiousness of evil, the confusion, murkiness and fear darkness can bring, and the destruction and waste of sin—but the best of them also reveal the relentlessness of life, hope and goodness.

The Dark Knight falls into the realm of one of those stories. I haven’t yet decided if it is among the very best, but it is among the good. There is a plethora of excellent reviews and reflections out there about this film, so for my part, I’ll just stick to those elements of the film that resonated with me the most. But be warned: there are spoilers woven throughout.

Not surprisingly, I loved the mythic nature of the story—something comic-book films have a penchant towards. Stories like these are like mists or shadows that seep out from the greater reaches of the world around us, teaching us about the fuller and real world in which we live. In words of Lewis and Tolkien, stories like these can be seen as “God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there . . .” And, as Jeffrey Overstreet puts it, “Myth-making is one of history’s most rewarding avenues for exploring and illustrating the conflicts of the age.” This makes for rich stories, full of layered themes and truths about our world, who we are and who God is. As critics and bloggers have well noted, this story touches on and invites exploration of a rich layer of subjects, from terrorism and state powers to self-interest and sacrifice.

I also appreciated the exploration of and tension between those things in which we place our faith. Do we trust rule and law to prevail? The depravity of people? Or perhaps the goodness in us? All of these are deftly laid open to us, leaving questions floating in the air: If our faith is in rule and law, what happens when those break down or shatter in the face of evil? Is rule and law even something in which we are to place our faith? When they do break down, what do we believe in? What are the rule and law to live by? Are there ones that are set in stone—or are there ones that run deeper than that? And if there are, do we call that rule and law, or do we call that something else? And as to the nature of us all—are we fully depraved, or is there goodness in us too? Is one stronger than the other? Why do we make the decisions we do? And of all these, in which do we place our faith and hope? Or is there something more, something greater in which our hope and faith is to be placed? If our faith is ultimately in Jesus, how does that affect how we view rule, law, and others with all their goodness and depravity?

But the aspects of the film that resonated most in me came in the moments where I glimpsed into the nature of the devil and the experience of Jesus.

Overstreet calls Heath Ledger’s Joker “one of the greatest portrayals of the devil I’ve ever seen… perhaps the best.” Indeed, the Joker bears an eerie approximation. His identity is completely hidden (even his face is concealed) and he has no known existence before he appears before us (he even revels in lying about his own past). And as Todd Hertz points out in his review at CT, even the actor portraying Joker is absent: Ledger is nowhere to be seen in this film. All of this leaves the Joker open to comparison to something other than human (think a somewhat murky reflection of Clint Eastwood’s justice-riding Pale Rider). And the Joker’s nature and goals give us a brutal reminder of just what the devil is after. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred tells Bruce Wayne—and later the Joker says of his plans for Gotham: “It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message: Everything burns.” He’s the incarnation of destruction, anarchy, and depravity seeking to eviscerate every living existence of hope and goodness.

And the Joker’s incarnation of evil has something to say about the choice to use evil to overcome evil: it doesn’t work. Evil can’t be overcome with evil, as this film points out all too well: it will only escalate (hat tip C-Orthodoxy). And, ultimately, the practice of using evil to achieve good or justice (which all too often becomes a façade for revenge) becomes that gravity-like push into madness. In the end, it is as Paul tells us: it is the use of good to overcome evil that brings hope and life. And that good includes justice—but a justice that is not simply punishing wrong; it is, as Rachel hints at in Batman Begins, not only stemming evil but also bringing life, hope, help and aid where there is none.

And that brings me to the most moving aspect of the film for me.

At the end of the film, Bruce Wayne decides to take on himself the "sins" of others—which he knows will bring on Batman the hate and anger from the masses—in order to bring hope to Gotham’s people. Earlier in the film, Wayne struggles with the weight of the consequences of fighting evil and Alfred gets at one of the aspects of being “more than a hero:”
Wayne: 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 be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.
By the end of the film, Wayne makes the choice to be that outcast when he makes the decision to take the blame for the deaths caused by another in order to maintain the hope that evil can be overcome by just means. I like how Ken puts it:
. . . The Dark Knight suggests that to truly be “more than a hero,” one must be strong enough to take that fall and survive it, to courageously choose the right and noble even at great risk, to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. This is the only ray of hope in the darkness of unrestrained evil.
And I found this to be a powerful and moving echo of Jesus’ experience. Jesus spent at least three difficult years of being misunderstood, despised and pitied by many in his community. He made choices to put love of others above himself—which eventually led to his choice to take on the sins of the world and give up his physical life. But his vision was on something greater (the Father) and he lived by that sight. Jesus took on all of that to free us, to free hope—real and best hope, the kind that is confident and full of Life. But there is a pain in that, of being the outcast, the one who is hated and spat upon and misunderstood. That aspect of Jesus’ experience tore through the film at the point when Wayne saw beyond his own suffering to a greater purpose, deciding to sacrifice himself for the sake of Gotham.

And perhaps this also says something about the anger with which many of us respond to the presence of suffering in a world created and ruled by a God who is Love. In the public anger against Batman perhaps we can gain an insight into our own. And maybe that gives us reason to pause and consider that behind all the suffering in this world that there actually could be a God making right choices that will save us in the end—right choices outside our knowledge and to which we respond in our ignorance with undeserved blame and anger for situations that were actually created by the choices and actions of others.

Of course, Bruce Wayne and God are not one and the same, and the film isn't a perfect shadow of the real world. But there are echoes here that bear consideration. And that brings some good God-talk into these open spaces.

(Images: Warner Bros)

5 comments:

Ken Brown said...

Great thoughts! Recently someone commented on my blog asking whether I really believe that God dying on a cross would be the best way of dealing with evil. I could only say, absolutely: self-sacrifice is the only response to evil that nullifies, rather than perpetuating, the problem.

BTW, I'm reading a fascinating book right now by Jon Levenson (a Jew), called The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, which argues convincingly that the near-death and humiliation, combined with exaltation and blessing (for self and others) of the "beloved son" is a consistent theme throughout the Hebrew Bible, appearing time and again (Abel, Ishmael, Isaac, Joseph, Benjamin, Moses, Samuel, David, "the Servant" of Isaiah 53, Israel herself, not to mention Jesus, to name just a few). Levenson makes the point that the sacrifice of the beloved is not some unprecedented shift in the biblical picture introduced by Christianity, but an underlying theme throughout.

josephmcbee said...

Carmen: Excellent Review! I also loved the Christ picture of Wayne taking on the sins of others. Very well done.

Carmen Andres said...

thanks, guys. ken, i'm adding your book to my half.com wishlist - sigh, how come there are so many good books out there and soooooooo little time to read?! and joe, i liked your review, too!

Ken Brown said...

Just be warned: Levenson's book is pretty dense and (at times) disquieting, but definitely worth a read.

KEANAN BRAND said...

I just saw this film today (August 9), and am still trying to absorb it. There are many thought-provoking ideas woven into it, and the storytelling is superb. I'll have to see it a few more times, I think, just to grasp all that's there.

(Thanks for visiting my blog, and putting in your vote for the next piece of fiction. I'll be posting it in a day or so.)