This essay on themes of evil, freedom, and morality in the 2008 film The Dark Knight was originally written as part of a film-response essay required as part of an application to the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. It has been modified for publication here.
“Do you want to know how I got these scars?”
The Dark Knight introduced me to an unfamiliar and yet familiar reiteration of that question. I’ve asked and been asked that question countless times. I think everyone has. Not through those words, but through casual conversations, testing questions, and moments of intentional tension. Those moments ask, “Do you want to know me, really?”, “Can you bear my story?”; they beg to know whether you could love me if you knew how the scars that show up as anxieties, half-spoken truths, and a thousand insecurities became etched upon my soul.
I love film’s capacity to suspend reality, to allow some small part of me to engage with a creation of creation- a world made flesh by the word of an artist. The world director Christopher Nolan invited me to was dark and frantic. As the cultivated calm of my home was broken by scenes set on a backdrop of sparse landscapes, settings marked by the absence of light, and a chaotic social climate, the viewing of this film in many ways felt like an assault. Assault seems like an appropriate word- a good word, as good true art that explores chaos, violence, and a loss of morality I often experience as disturbing.
In many ways the Dark Knight struck me as a case study in freedom. The morally ambiguous climate of the film features many characters struggling at the intersection of freedom and duty, but it was Batman and the Joker who, because they were the “most” free, provided the most interest to me. As this film unfolded, the lines between archetypal heroes and villains became blurry but the source from which characters made their choices seemed to me to be immobile. Batman made decisions, good, bad, and morally ambiguous from a core of freedom, marked by kindness, that originated from feeling unbound to law or society. “He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.“ The Joker could also engage people from a place of freedom, but his character demonstrated how freedom without kindness can degenerate into unrestrained evil and compass-less morality. Without kindness or justice as a compass, the Joker exercised his freedom by working to destroy, deface, and mar even the concept of justice in Gotham. This made me consider my own freedom. Where can I choose to be free, how would that affect my community, and what is the source of that freedom? How can I find the wisdom to both embrace freedom and reject the use of freedom to justify speaking and acting recklessly?
In this film’s exploration of freedom and obligation, I noticed the repeating theme of impostors- of a litany of frauds and decoys for both good and evil and their interplay with freedom. The Dark Knight introduced me to impostors of both “hero” and “villain”, but it was the impostors’ motivations that struck a cord of truth in me. Each of Batman’s impostors were imitators- men who chose to imitate Batman in seeking justice and good for Gotham. Impostors of the villain, however, seen both in clowns duct taped to weapons and in the crowds psychologically manipulated into bloodlust on the Joker’s behalf, were never more than captives. Unable to exercise freedom, the Joker’s victims were used and then discarded without care. I loved that this secular film’s exploration of good and evil so mirrored the gospel narrative: that with Christ comes love and with love comes freedom to pursue and imitate goodness- even if the cost of that pursuit is our own lives. Evil and sin, however, are always a result of captivity of the heart and mind to that which is not of God. It made me grateful to be an imitator, not a captive.
It was the freedom of one character in particular, however, that brought my heart a moment of peace and delight in this chaotic and darkly disordered film. As bombs and detonators are discovered on two ferries and the “rules” of the game are spelled out over the loudspeaker, the fate of at least one of the ferries seems inevitable. The skillful screenwriting of this film set my expectations in cement, based on my own cultural presuppositions, before I even realized my error in reflexively assuming the fact that one ferry was prisoner laden would guarantee a fatal outcome. Breaking through my assumptions was the surprising character named only “Tattooed Prisoner” by IMDB. Speaking words I thought the inevitable lead-up to a bloody end, this character carefully spoke, “You don’t want to die, but you don’t know how to take a life. Give it to me; these men would kill you, and take it anyway. Give it to me. You can tell ’em I took it by force. Give it to me, and I’ll do what you shoulda did ten minutes ago.” As the prisoners watch in silence, the detonator is placed into the speaking prisoners hands, and the man immediately throws it out of reach in the dark waters below. As he turns and returns to his friends, the other passengers respond with stunned but noble silence. In this film depicting the decay of justice and moral absolutes in Gotham, this character’s noble act felt like a moment of victory for goodness and for my own heart.
The Dark Knight’s run time of 150 minutes dedicates almost all the screen time to heroes, villains and other notable, public, and important figures but it was the actions of an ordinary man, a man who by all accounts was not a “free” man, using the freedom of choice to choose goodness that influenced the people around him and shaped the outcome of this film. I expect action scenes to resolve conflict in a superhero movie, but I think “Tattooed Prisoner” was the hero who saved both ships. His creative use of his own strength and shrewdness on behalf of good saved his ship from an ignoble decision. Further, in making the choice for his own ship, he deeply influenced the decision of the group and leaders on the other ferry. Though complex, dark, and difficult to watch, I loved that this film highlighted for me the role of one ordinary person’s effect on a community, and how the kind of self-aware intelligence, creativity, and skill I hope to hone at the Seattle School can influence individuals, groups, and communities.
So, at the risk of ending this essay in the way at least a few previous applicants have, I’ll simply ask: “Do you want to know how I got my scars?” Because I am willing to show my scars, willing to engage with others’ scars, and eager to work towards gaining the wisdom to exercise, with kindness, freedom that engages the hearts of others for Christ.