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Nihilism, villains, criminals, The Dark Knight.

Nihilism, villains, criminals, The Dark Knight. July 22, 2008


Many people have commented on the nihilism in The Dark Knight — note that I do not say the nihilism of The Dark Knight — but very few of them have literally written the book on nihilism in popular culture, as Thomas Hibbs has. So I was particularly interested to read his thoughts on the film at First Things today. Some choice quotes:

What makes Nolan’s latest film such a success is not, however, Ledger’s compelling presentation of evil, on which critics have focused their attention, but the way in which he uses that character to bring out the depth and complex goodness of the other characters in the film, including Batman. The title of the film is not The Joker but The Dark Knight. . . .

Beyond good and evil, The Joker is off the human scale. In preparation for the role, Ledger studied the voices of ventriloquist dummies aiming for a chilling effect in which the voice itself sounds “disembodied.” Ledger and Nolan looked at Francis Bacon paintings to try to capture the look of “human decay and corruption.” As in William Peter Blatty’s definitive depiction of demonic evil in The Exorcist, so too here—the demon’s target is us, to make us believe that we are “bestial, ugly, and not worthy of redemption.” . . .

The Joker espouses a nihilist philosophy concerning the arbitrariness of the code of morality in civilized society; it is but a thin veneer, a construct intended for our consolation. If you tear away at the surface, “civilized people will eat each other.” As The Joker puts it, “madness is like gravity; all it takes is a little push.” In a wonderfully comic take on a Nietzschean sentiment, he sums up his beliefs: “Whatever does not kill you makes you stranger.” His character also illustrates the parasitic status of evil and nihilism. A thoroughgoing nihilist could not muster the energy to destroy or create. As The Joker puts it at one point, he’s like the dog chasing a car; he has no idea what he would do if he caught it. . . .

If in certain prominent instances in this film, the hopes of the audience for these characters are dashed, the film does not succumb to The Joker’s vision. It is not nihilistic; it is instead about the lingering and seemingly ineradicable longing for justice and goodness that pervades the film. As Batman put it in the original film, “Gotham is not beyond redemption.” . . .

In related news, my colleague Brett McCracken ponders whether Batman’s decision in the film’s final moments — which many, including myself, have interpreted as a heroic act of self-sacrifice — might instead set him down the path to becoming “in truth the villain he is now only pretending to be.”

And John Carney asks whether Bruce Wayne’s activities in both this film and Batman Begins make him a de facto corporate criminal, perhaps even the “better class of criminal” that the Joker says Gotham City “deserves”.


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