Wednesday night I saw The Dark Knight again (mild spoiler alert), and it was ten times better the second time around. I’m not quite sure if it was the fact that I didn’t have a headache and I wasn’t so close that I had to look up for two and a half hours, or if it was because I already knew the overall plot so I had a chance to pay closer attention to how things unfolded and pick up a lot more about the details, plot intricacies, cinematography…
Mainly, though, I came away with a greater understanding of the philosophical themes presented in the movie (as an aside, the political themes are worth an essay in themselves) and was blown away by the unabashedly honest portrayal of human nature.
As I watched the film the second time, I was thinking about the Joker’s character and why he’s so simultaneously likable and hateable. The mannerisms and nuances of Ledger’s acting makes every appearance by the Joker charmingly enjoyable, and he delivers several of the film’s funniest lines (although Fox’s “Blackmail?” taunt is my favorite), yet his diabolically cruel plans mixed with the casualness of their deployment makes you want to hate him for his evilness.
I also noticed – and I don’t know how I missed this the first time – that the Joker’s fight is not against Batman, but against the idea that people are inherently good. Batman has lent courage to the town of Gotham to flush out the mob and turn itself around, and that doesn’t sit well with the Joker’s paradigm that people are inherently cruel, selfish, and heartless, so he tries to use Batman to bring out the worst in people. He tells Batman that the laws and morals of the citizens is all just a bad joke. “I’ll show you, that when the chips are down, these uh… civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”
Thus the Joker proceeds to concoct “social experiments” to strip away the moral fiber of Gotham’s inhabitants. He tells everyone that if a certain character isn’t dead in an hour, he’ll blow up a hospital – instantly turning relatives of the sick and injured into would-be assassins of an innocent man. And his detonation scheme involving two ferries is downright ingenious.
I then realized the brilliance of making the Joker’s character so likeable – he doesn’t represent the typical magnificent but distant force of a Hitler or even a Sauron, such an extreme of stereotyped evil that no one can identify with or use to make philosophical comparisons. No, the Joker represents the simple potential impulse for evil inside of us – the bare, sinful nature of our own hearts, just as you can love yourself but hate what you find yourself doing.
The Joker corrupts the most honorable man in Gotham to prove his point, which Batman views as a defeat for the forces of good. With an epiphany, I viewed it as a vindication of the beginning of the most beautiful victory, because, in a sense, the Joker’s paradigm is correct – but only as the opening frame of a much more complete and fulfilling paradigm. The Joker’s corrupting of Gotham’s “white knight” represents the fact that all of us are sinners, acting for our own selfish desires, fulfillment, and feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. But that’s not the end of the story!
I’m reminded of a song by Shane & Shane called “Embracing Accusations,” where the duo sings about the devil accusing people of being horrible and selfish and tries to bring them down with dismay and despair. With a twist, the Shanes say the devil is actually telling the gospel story; he’s just stuck on the first part and has “forgotten the refrain,” where Jesus says, “Yes, you have sinned, you have done things only for yourself at the expense of others, but I have paid the price for that, and I’m offering you forgiveness. Follow me and I will teach you to love.”
It is Love that covers the Joker’s paradigm that people are cruel, and takes them and molds them into something better. It is this brilliant portrayal of the realities of human nature that thrusts The Dark Knight from greatness to a legendary film.