Truly great pieces of art, literature, music, and film do not simply thrill us. They do not simply tickle our eyes or our ears. Great works are not temporary enjoyments, but rather permanent and lasting in one’s mind. Once experienced, they have left an indelible mark on their viewers and readers. More often than not, these works also reveal truth about human nature or the human existence. The Dark Knight is one such work. Compelling, engrossing, gripping and terrifying, but perhaps most importantly of all, Christopher Nolan’s dark and gritty foray into Gotham City is lasting. The unadulterated evil of the Joker, the tragic fall of Gotham’s “white knight”, Harvey Dent, and the tormented and at times seemingly futile struggle of Bruce Wayne as Batman remain in the minds of viewers long after the credits roll ends. Moral ideas and conflicts abound within this film for those willing to dig deep in thought and examination, and reward those who take the plunge. As a tremendous fan of the film, I have taken that plunge, and found, to my surprise, that within The Dark Knight abides an allegory few would expect. Within the most popular and lauded film of recent times is also one of the most eloquent arguments for and representations of the truths of Christianity to grace the silver-screen in quite some time.
Many may quickly discount this idea out of hand, scoffing to themselves “What, are you saying Batman is the modern day Pilgrim’s Progress? Boy, these religious freaks get crazier by the minute…” But when one examines the film itself, the story it weaves, the central conflicts, the moral beliefs and actions of the different characters, one finds undeniable similarities between the plot of The Dark Knight and the story of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Now certainly, a comparison between Batman and Jesus will break down, as all metaphors do at some point, especially considering the fact we are comparing a flawed superhero figure, a simple man, to the Savior of the world. But once we accept that there will, of course, be certain things that don’t precisely add up, and get over the psychological hurdle of making a spiritual analogy out of a DC Comics figure, we can delve into the many truths about human nature and the undeniable necessity of God that The Dark Knight holds.
Anyone who knows even the smallest shred of information about The Dark Knight knows that it is best known for its chilling antagonist, the Joker, brilliantly portrayed by Heath Ledger. The genius of Ledger’s Joker is that he is not simply a greedy man with a twisted sense of humor out to steal a few dollars, but rather a villain with depth, a man motivated by a worldview. The Joker claims he is “a man of simple tastes”, that he just enjoys explosions and destruction. But he is much more than that. He is an “agent of chaos” out to upset the social order. The Joker despises men and their schemes, as they scramble around trying to control one another, so he finds his enjoyment in upsetting their trivial plots and structures. The Joker’s mantra is to “introduce a little anarchy. Upset the social order and everything becomes chaos.” The Joker is a master of deception, sprinkling just enough truth in his social critiques with his lie that all is meaningless so that, when coupled with the mayhem, death and destruction he causes, it is the Joker who appears to be the sane one. The Joker kills for the sake of killing.
But what drives the Joker to this? His schemes are far too elaborate, his arguments much too compelling to be the simple ravings of a lunatic. No, the Joker is perfectly sane. His quest for anarchy is the perfectly logical continuation of existentialism. Existentialism is a humanist belief system where human mind and reason is the ultimate source for truth. God is absent from the world, or non-existent altogether, according to the existentialist. Ultimate truth is derived by each person individually, and thus there is no outside moral standard. This is where the Joker stands. There is no God, there is no morality, there are only men, and their pathetic schemes. If every man can decide for himself what is true, the only logical path to take is that of anarchy. When the Joker tells Batman “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve” he is telling the truth, if one subscribes to moral relativism, atheism, or a host of other belief systems where there is no absolute moral guide for life. The Joker has just followed the humanistic beliefs of society to their complete logical conclusions far before society itself has: if there is no God, there is only man, and if as man I am all there is, I may do as I please. Anarchy, chaos. The Joker understands what philosophers have not understood for centuries. If there is no God, the very idea of a social order is absurd. There is no moral basis or reason for such an order. Therefore, let us “watch the world burn.”
It may be obvious then, that in our allegory of Christianity, the Joker represents Satan and his lies in the modern age of supposed reason. According to Scripture, the Devil prowls “like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” This is exactly what the Joker does, destroying Gotham City, and its finest hero, Harvey Dent, with his lie that chaos is all there is. But who then, the question must be asked, does Dent represent? Harvey Dent, the noble District Attorney who dares fight the mob scene, and fights evil and corruption wherever it is, becomes the focus of the Joker’s attacks. The Joker claims to be after Batman, but who is he really pursuing? It is Dent. Dent is the one forced to realize his utter helplessness, as he and his police force is thrown back and forth at the whim of this seeming madman. Finally, he loses the one person he loves most, Rachel, and marred by terrible injuries, burning and scarring half of his face, he finally breaks. Chance is the only thing that is fair, he claims, and he throws off his old noble self, succumbing fully to his desire for vengeance. Dent comes to the conclusion that it is fruitless to try to be “decent men, in an indecent time” and thus he falls, threatening the life of the son of the one man in the force he could completely trust, and losing his own life in the process as Batman intervenes.
Who does Dent represent? Dent represents humanity, he represents man striving to live rightly in a fallen world, but without the saving grace of Christ. Alone, man can never triumph. Dent earns the nickname “two-face”, and this title is ultimately lived out in his physical appearance, a stunning image of the duality of man. We war between our God-given knowledge of what is right, and our fallen desire to do evil. Dent succumbs to his fallen nature, convinced by the unfair tragedies that have befallen him and the city, and given “a little push” by the Joker, determines that chance is the only thing that is fair. Batman tells him that the price he paid was one that was paid only because he made the decision to stand against evil. Where good stands, great evil gathers also. But Dent does not realize his error, and interprets his misfortune not as the result of evil striving to tear down what is good, but as validation that chance is the only morality. Striving within the law only, relying on the strength of man to overcome evil, Dent does “live long enough” to see himself become the villain, tarnishing his innocence with the black stain of his sins.
And this is where Batman, The Dark Knight’s savior figure, enters. At the climax of the movie, Dent has died, a victim of his own madness, leaving Commissioner Gordon despairing that “the Joker won.” With Harvey’s demise, the Joker proved that even the best could fall, and now the people of Gotham would lose all hope. But Batman, innocent of any wrongdoing, decides that he will take the blame and guilt for Dent’s terrible acts upon his own name. Batman will take the sins of Dent and shoulder them, restoring Dent’s purity, and thus his ability to still inspire the people of Gotham to fight for what is good and true. Throughout the film Batman has been blamed for the terror of Gotham, though he has fought as hard as any to save it from the Joker’s madness, and now, completely innocent of fault himself, he takes the guilt for Dent’s murders upon himself, so that Dent’s reputation will still be that of “Gotham’s white knight.” The similarity to Christ, innocent of all guilt, taking the sins of humanity upon Himself so that we may be considered blameless before the Father, is stark, but also uplifting. Batman knows that Dent has fallen to the lies and schemes of the Joker, just as Jesus knew we all were bound by sin and hopeless on our own, and yet though he is innocent, he shoulders the burden. Completely undeserved. An act of grace. Yes, we can rest in the knowledge that in Christ, we are not bound to the things of this world, and its agent of chaos. We do not need to fear that, like Dent, we are two-faced, for Christ is there, as Batman was for Dent, to take our failures upon Himself so that we might be called “Children of God.”
Now certainly, my comparisons are not perfect. As I mentioned earlier, any metaphor, particularly one using human means to describe a perfect Savior, will crumble at some point. But regardless, The Dark Knight provides a stunning and poignant image of our world, and the loving God who looked down and pulled us from the mire, though we certainly did not deserve it. Life without God would truly be meaningless and anarchic, as the Joker pushes, and man’s struggle for nobility would be futile, as illustrated by Dent’s tragic fall from grace. But Christ is willing to take our guilt and bear it on His own name, cleansing our record and writing our name instead in the Book of Life, to take our place as white knights for the kingdom. And as The Dark Knight ends, and the story of Batman continues, Gordon’s son asks his father why the police must chase the man who “didn’t do anything wrong.” It is just as it is in our world today: the man who did nothing wrong, but saved us all from sin and death, is chased out of our lives, unwanted.