In this post I am going to explore the moral themes from the first two films of the Dark Knight trilogy. This post gives away nothing about The Dark Knight Rises but assumes knowledge of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In a subsequent post I will explore how The Dark Knight Rises picks up, advances, augments, and culminates these folllowing themes from the first two films of the Dark Knight trilogy. For a spoiler-free preview of my reading of The Dark Knight Rises, see my review from earlier.
First I want to frame what follows with an insight from Nietzsche.
One of Nietzsche’s more fundamental criticisms of morality is that it is “immoral”. One of the things he means by this is that historically moralities have implemented themselves by resorting to the same sorts of abuses that they explicitly claim to curb and destroy. Specifically the most formal, idealized, and absolutist moralities which allow the least deviations from a strict rule of conduct dominate people using tactics that break their own rules. If we imagine morality to be about autonomy, then the ways that moralities use lies, fear, brute force, and other forms of manipulation to ingrain themselves in people’s minds and to enforce themselves make morality a deeply hypocritical thing. Looked at this way, moralities are especially insidious forms of immoral coerciveness because they wrap themselves in a self-righteous sanctimony that allows those who ruthlessly enforce them to indulge in all their worst instincts with a clear conscience. They are also, among systems of domination, potentially the most oppressive because of the leverage their halo gives them.
I don’t think that this means we should do away with moralities altogether (for reasons I try to make clear in a dialogue I wrote last fall) but Nietzsche’s criticisms are worth keeping in mind when dealing with morality. Moralities cannot occur outside of, or somehow above, power relationships. All relationships are implicitly constituted by power dynamics. There is no escaping, denouncing, or demonizing power, in my view, but only accepting the responsibility to develop our own power in the most constructive way possible. Ultimately our own maximal flourishing is in our ability to empower people and institutions beyond ourselves.
The Dark Knight trilogy deals with these themes in intricate ways. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, like his magnanimously generous father Thomas before him, wants to be a great force of empowerment in Gotham City. Thomas Wayne used his personal fortune strategically to singlehandedly try to counter the economic devastation that had been brought on through systemic (deliberately fostered) governmental corruption. He also hoped his exemplary priorities would inspire other wealthy people to do the same. Where the violently moralistic and self-righteous League of Shadows was trying to purify Gotham by exacerbating and accelerating its corruption so that the people would suffer their just consequences, Thomas Wayne was trying to role model the aspiration to nobility.
Bruce Wayne sets out to inspire people similarly. But his goal is to not be simply an inspiring human. He thinks he can be an even greater force for good if he can create himself into incorruptible and “everlasting” symbol. He thinks, essentially, that the people of Gotham need more than good human role models—they need the myth of an eternal and omnibenevolent god. The League of Shadows embody and explicitly embrace all that is evil about the way moralities function. They represent morality as mercilessly vindictive vengefulness, the sort of violence and ruthlessness that Nietzsche warned us about. And they trained Bruce Wayne to embrace fear, deception, and mythic theatricality as his means of combatting evil. They taught him to think of improving people as a process of manipulating them, by exploiting what was worst in them and catering to what was weakest in them.
Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham and created the Batman without a goal of reforming criminals but rather of terrorizing them and breaking their spirit. He explicitly wanted to turn their own ability to inspire fear against them. In doing so, he embraced what they were and what they represented and tried to use it to his own advantage with a good conscience. And though he wanted to inspire the average person he did not respect their intelligence to deal straight with them. In fact, throughout the three films, he repeatedly fails to trust the people of Gotham with the truth or with any power. He condescends to them by giving them noble lies to have faith in, instead of trying to convince them to believe in justice while knowing the truth.
Things get especially mythic and dialectical in this regard in The Dark Knight. As Batman begins to establish order and justice only by terrorizing the criminal underworld, this practically summons into being his dialectical antithesis—the fearless agent of chaos, the Joker. The Joker represents the inevitable pushback against the tyranny of orderliness. He represents the irremovable element of untamable chaos in the world. He represents the pushback of primeval instincts when they no longer have anything to lose. Against someone trying to stifle the human spirit in a shortsighted and destructive attempt to save it, the desire for liberation would choose no rules at all rather than continue to be so tyrannized.
And hence the Joker, Batman’s perfect antithesis emerges as a mythical representation of all this. Whereas we saw Batman painstakingly create himself and got intricate explanations about how he pulled off all his stunts, the Joker appears fully formed like a force of nature and all his plans are carried out with unbelievable precision and no explanation. Where Nolan totally demythologized the Batman in Batman Begins and highlighted the artifice and creative process that created the Batman, with the Joker we never get any reliable information on his origins but just stories the Joker tells to terrify people. We get a backstage pass to how Batman’s theatrics, so we are in on how the magic is done. With the Joker, Nolan just wants us to be dazzled by the illusions and marvel at them.
He counters Batman’s stifling seriousness with a defiant mockery. Where Batman tries to coddle and cower people in a fragile attempt to keep them in order, the Joker constantly is trying to push them to their breaking points. When he rigs two boats with explosives and gives each boat the detonator to blow up the other boat and warns them that if they do not do so he will blow them both up, he is trying to expose the selfish limits of the ordinary person’s virtues. He is trying to exacerbate the ways that moralities are rooted ultimately in self-interest. He wants to prove that moral principles are ultimately matters of self-serving convenience and will be abandoned when the social contract fails and people return to Hobbes’s state of nature.
Whereas the League of Shadows ostensibly wants to send purging fire from which a more just society might emerge, to the Joker the fire is the justice. Fire represents flux. Fire is not a fixed thing. It is constantly changing its shape and its constituent molecules. It is symbolic of change. When Heraclitus talked of fire as the most basic element of reality, he was talking about change as the essential reality. This view, that all things are always fundamentally changing in all respects, sees all universals and all permanence as impossible.
There are no fixed eternal ideal beings in total opposition to each other. There is no absolute Good which is not on a scale with the evil, with which it is in dialectical tension and in mutual interdependence at all times. Rather, as heat and cold are on the same scale of temperature, all opposites are of the same basic reality, just in dialectical tension with each other. Just as I discussed earlier—it is never fundamentally a matter of “morality vs. power”. Morality is one kind of power in dialectical tension with immorality as another. Only power can create good and only exercises of power can destroy it.
To the amoral nihilist who embraces the chaos as all there is and who denies all universals and all ideals for how nature would better be transformed, might makes right is the eternal principle of fairness. The sheer ability to ascend and dominate earns a being the right to dominate. The fairness in this is that should any other being seek to displace that being there is nothing in moral principle standing in its way of forcefully displacing that other being. The eternal, natural contest of beings, including human beings, is fair: all may struggle for victory with no restraints and to the victors go the spoils.
The Joker embodies this ideal. Numerous times he psyches himself up in the face of death and other forms of pain. It’s all fair to him. It’s all good to him. All the chaos is good. Chaos is generative of greatness. The petty selfishness and low aspirations of the ordinary civilian and the ordinary criminal alike, so controlled by fear and desire, is all that bores and disgusts him. He embraces the Batman as someone at least willing to impose himself and his ideals on others, as someone willing to fight and sacrifice and commit to something. He delights in having Batman to serve as his dialectical opposite in tension with him. He recognizes that order and chaos are ultimately degrees on the same scale, in constant dialectical tension with each other. In the grand tug of war of things, he needs the Batman to pull the rope towards order so his tugging towards chaos has the resistance to make it meaningful. Joker’s affirmation of chaos and might makes right allows him to affirm his enemy in a way that Batman cannot. It allows him to fearlessly embrace what he sees as true in a way that the order creating, lying, fear-reliant Batman cannot.
And the Joker wins the soul of Harvey Dent by disillusioning his belief in a morally just world—one where every coin flip can be rigged to come up heads as one wants.
In a serendipitous coincidence, in the comic books Harvey Dent’s nickname when he was Gotham’s DA (before transforming into Two Face) was “Apollo”. In Nietzsche’s reading of Greek mythology the god Apollo is the avatar for belief in form, order, moderation, morality, social structure, beauty, and reason. The god Dionysus represents formless chaos, indulgence, violence, sensuality, and the blurring of all the distinctions upon which morality, social order, and reason depend until all things are one and there is no good and evil. In Nietzsche’s writing the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian is central. Nietzsche is often superficially read as encouraging a Jokeresque sort of nihilistic submersion in complete Dionysianism, whereas I think the most constructive reading of Nietzsche has him encouraging us to avoid dualistic oppositions and think about how to embrace what is chaotic and untamed and generative of new possibilities that are not easily boxed in into something constructive, rather than to extirpate it as inevitably the stuff only of decay.
This is why the Joker appeals to us so viscerally even as we disapprove of his actions so unequivocally. There is something about his spirit which is exciting and worth preserving. Nietzsche forces us to face the hard question of how to harness what is admirable in someone like him without the heinous consequences.
Two-Face’s psychological fracture between his Apollonian “good” side and his Dionysian “bad” side remains dualistic. He does not sublimate the chaos within himself into something constructive but he succumbs to it. His decision to flip a coin to determine who lives and dies represents his total loss of conviction in any truth to morality beyond chance. He embraces the fatalistic philosophy that whatever happens is what should happen because nothing else can happen.
Bruce Wayne had invested his hopes in Harvey Dent as Gotham’s White Knight before the Joker broke Dent’s belief in morality. He was hoping that if the people could see the justice system working properly, there would be no need for him to circumvent it and hypocritically impose lawfulness through his lawlessness. A reformer from within the system could represent the resiliency of the system. Wayne seemed to understand that his fear-based terrorizing was limited in its abilities to inspire confidence in the virtues of the system, of the law itself. Wayne wanted to believe that theatrics and manipulation and brute force could be put aside and that an honest system could deliver fairness without all these immoral compromises.
But even when Wayne was still believing in Harvey Dent’s possibility to save Gotham within the rules, Dent was still corruptible. Wayne caught Dent using coercive tactics on a suspect who he believed had information that could save his girlfriend. Wayne nonetheless wanted to preserve the image of Dent as the White Knight. And in the end, when the White Knight crossed the line into undeniable lawbreaking to avenge those who treated him unjustly, Wayne judged that a noble lie was necessary to protect the White Knight’s reputation. It was (mostly) true that Dent acquired his many convictions of mob players fairly. It was just that they be locked up. They truly deserved it. But the system, with its numerous protections for the accused, would allow appeals when Dent’s violent criminality was revealed. It might cast a shadow on all his just accomplishments from before his mental break.
So, Wayne decided to tell a noble lie—a story which is literally false but philosophically true. Dent, at least before going insane, had done things by the book and the system had worked. The legal process could acquire justice. The ideal of the White Knight was not pure fiction. There was a truth to it that the people were entitled to but which would be obscured from them if they knew the literal facts about Dent’s descent into brutal madness. And the lie of the Dark Knight as the killer of Dent’s victims expressed a philosophical truth too—Batman was a lawless vigilante who was ultimately responsible for numerous deaths through his recklessness. He did regularly resort to the very coerciveness that he ostensibly existed to oppose. And so even though he usually adhered scrupulously to a principle against crossing the line into killing (and becoming barely distinguishable from his foes) which kept him still a hero, he was nonetheless, in philosophical truth, a Dark Knight and not a hero to be embraced in a morally uncomplicated way.
Wayne tried to uphold faith in the legal system when he did not in truth believe in its ability to withstand manipulation should the truth about Harvey Dent come out. So, he decided to make himself the bad guy if that was the way to be effectively most successful in actually creating good. In this way, Wayne is deeply noble and deeply committed to a true good. He wants people to actually flourish due to his actions rather than to get credit for them. He would even go so far as to become demonized if the result were that in truth he would be effective in doing actual good. He properly keeps his eye on the goal of genuine achievement rather than glory and honor for their own sakes. When forced to choose between what he sees as the actual creation of good and getting the credit for it, he is a true role model.
But as admirable as his intentions and priorities are in this respect, he still is paternalistic towards Gotham and he still does not value the intrinsic value of truth or see any hope in using truth to inspire people. Like a true, hypocritical moralist, he resorts to noble lies. Initially, he relied on the noble lie that he was an incorruptible god. He readily switches his mask to be that of the devil. He’ll do whatever gets the job done to keep people believing that there is no devil in God and no god in the Devil but that they are dualistically separate.