A few nights ago, I watched for the second time Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I had seen the movie in the theatre and was impressed, but the second viewing sealed it for me. The Dark Knight now stands on my list of all-time great films, with movies such as Star Wars (the original trilogy) and The Shawshank Redemption.
This seems like an odd statement to make about a film based on a cartoon superhero. However, The Dark Knight is indeed a great film precisely because it transcends the requirements and expectations of the superhero genre in order to explore a thematic realm that I can only describe as profoundly spiritual.
Superhero stories have always possessed the potential to retell spiritual stories. The best of them (the first Superman movie, for example, or Spiderman 2) clearly reveal the spiritual symbolism implicit in the superhero genre as a whole—that transcendent beings exist to save us from evil forces that seek to destroy the world.
The Dark Knight goes one step further. Not merely content to retell the metaphor of superhero-as-saviour, Nolan’s film explores with unnerving clarity the spiritual realities that underpin our entire civilization, realities on which we depend for our very survival—whether we acknowledge that dependence or not.
Although this article is not intended as a movie review, some recap is necessary. Gotham city is under threat once more, this time from the Joker, a psychotic maniac backed by a small army of equally psychotic thugs. The Joker appeared in the first Batman movie, played by Jack Nicholson as a theatrical showman whose diabolical purposes, though twisted, are driven by base greed and the need for revenge.
Nolan’s version of the Joker is nothing like the Nicholson character. Brilliantly performed by the late Heath Ledger, the Joker in The Dark Knight has no rational purpose. “Do I look like a man with a plan?” he asks at one point. The answer is a resounding no. As Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred remarks early on, “Some men just like to watch the world burn.” The Joker is just that: an irrational force of chaos and destruction. He is not motivated by greed, revenge or any other material consideration. He exists simply to ruin that which is good, to bring to nothing our best laid plans, to disorder the order of the world.
Watching the film with Christian eyes, I could not help but recall Saint Paul’s words to the Romans: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:18-19) As a diabolical agent seeking to subvert and sabotage humanity’s best intentions, the Joker embodies a fundamental demonic spiritual force lurking in the human heart, whose only purpose is to tear down, destroy and watch the world burn.
Against this satanic force, the film pits Harvey Dent, Gotham’s District Attorney. Dent is described as a ‘white knight’: a noble man with the best will and intentions. Tirelessly crusading for justice, he symbolizes all of Gotham’s hopes, which are the hopes of every civilization: that law and order and peace are possible and will prevail. However, when personal tragedy (instigated by the Joker) befalls him, Dent proves as fallible as anyone else, degenerating into the bitter and twisted Two-Face.
The film’s point seems clear: human civilization cannot survive on the strength of its best intentions and noble efforts. Humanism—the belief in humanity’s innate will to accomplish good—is not enough. Even at its best, the human race will always sabotage itself, because it is subject to the destructive force of the Joker. Our lament will always echo Saint Paul: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”
In the end, Harvey Dent’s reputation is preserved, but only through a public cover-up to bolster the faith and hope of the people of Gotham. Real salvation, however, lies elsewhere, in the person of Batman himself.
Here, in my opinion, is where the film really soars: Batman willingly agrees to be blamed for Harvey Dent’s crimes, and by implication, the crimes of all Gotham. In the closing scene he declares, “You’ll hunt me. You’ll condemn me, set the dogs on me, because it’s what needs to happen…” Commissioner Gordon, who witnesses this self-sacrifice, explains that Batman must be hunted because “he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.”
Once again, my Christian eyes and ears could not help but return to Christ, who was blamed for the sins of Israel and killed as a criminal. Nor could I help but recall how the Psalmist prophesied that sacrificial death: “Dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet…” (Psalm 22:16)
Indeed, by offering himself as a sacrifice, Batman becomes what literary scholars call a “Christ figure”—someone who symbolically reenacts the life and death of Christ. In this, Batman stands beside many such characters in film and fiction. Luke Skywalker is a Christ figure, and in the most brilliant and crucial twist of the Star Wars saga, Dark Vader becomes one too. Shawshank’s Andy Dufresne also follows a Christ-like path—an innocent victim who enters into the darkness of a prison and redeems its inmates.
The Dark Knight is worth watching, not just because it is well-made, but for its spiritual insight. Films such as these demonstrate that while our society rejects and denies Christianity, it cannot help but replay the Greatest Story Ever Told in the symbols and metaphors of its popular culture. Like the citizens of Gotham, who need Batman in order to survive, but can’t admit to that need, our civilization needs Jesus Christ; it needs someone who can ‘take’ everything—all our weaknesses, our failures, our sins—who is willing to be our ‘Dark Knight’ so that hope and peace can prevail in the city of this world.