Friday, August 3, 2012

The Philosophy of The Dark Knight Trilogy

Christopher Nolan and company have created what is arguably the most celebrated comic book movie trilogy of all time. Not only have the movies been box office smashes but they have been lauded with critical acclaim, most famously Heath Ledger's posthumous Oscar for his riveting portrayal of the Joker.

Now that the series has come to its conclusion, it is worth investigating the philosophy presented to us in these films. Since the last movie is still in theaters now, I will try to remain as spoiler free as possible, but I do not know if that will be very successful.


There appears nothing metaphysically extraordinary The movies make no specific comment as to what the underlying metaphysical principles are at work. The universe does appear to have random elements to it. Bruce's parents are not killed by some master criminal, but by a desperate lowlife who was in the wrong place at the right time. But we can see how justice does not sleep and that eventually good wins out. The world is not empty of meaning. In fact, meaning is one of its central points in the form of symbols.

People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can't do this as Bruce Wayne. A man is just flesh and blood and can be ignored or destroyed. But as a symbol... as a symbol, I can be incorruptible, everlasting.”

Bruce says these words as he begins to gestate the idea that would become Batman. But the point is that symbols matter. What is flesh and blood is passing. But there are some things that cannot be destroyed that way because they are not material. Now, it is not clear if this points to some kind of spiritual reality or if this is only in reference to concepts and ideas. Either way, there is an acknowledgment that matter is not enough. A material symbol is needed to bring about awareness of an invisible reality.


As with the philosophy of the Terminator, The Dark Knight films focus heavily on experiential knowledge. Bruce has to experience fear as boy from his fall into the bat cave and his parents' murder.

When he confronts Carmine Falcone, the mobster puts him in his place when he says, “Now, you think because your mommy and your daddy got shot, you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate.” As cold as those words are, Falcone was correct. It's these words that start Bruce's training in his war on crime. He needed to experience criminality in order to understand it, so he left and became a street thief.

But the role of parents is also very important in the series. While Bruce needs the experiences to shape his abilities, it is his father who imparts the great moral lessons of his life. We see this in two areas. First, his father teaches him that failure is a tool to learning. “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up,” his father says. We learn about the world and ourselves by failing and starting again. The second lesson is ethical. His father teaches him that he must give back to Gotham. Thomas Wayne's example of doing good for others is the ethical core of Bruce's life.

This parent/child relationship also has a terrible flip side noted in The Dark Knight Rises. The grand designer of all the evil in that movie is motivated by the lessons of that person's father. The moral core was poisoned because of the influence of the parent.


Here we find the central thematic elements of the series. Are we essentially good or essentially bad? Thomas Aquinas said that humans are essentially good and that given the choice between good and evil they will always choose the good (even if it is only an apparent good). Martin Luther said that people are by nature bad and given the choice, we will always choose the bad. Both acknowledge that human nature is fallen, but one thinks that we can rise above it, the other does not. Thomas says that we can be transformed and become good. Luther says that we have to be covered up by the righteousness of another.

The Dark Knight Trilogy recognizes the worst and the best in humanity. The Joker is the embodiment of evil. It is important that we do not know his origins or his true identity. It does not matter what his upbringing was. “[S]ome men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The trilogy recognizes that some men will choose evil no matter what. They cannot be persuaded or moved by compassion. Men can become monsters.

But men can also be heroes. Batman is incorruptible on the issue of life. He refuses to kill (though he does skirt the line at the end of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises). He constantly puts others before himself. There is a lot of Christology in the Batman character. Though he is too flawed to be a perfect Christ figure, Bruce goes out of his way to take on the burdens of others.

But what about the common man? Sure we have great saints and horrible sinners in our history, but those are the exceptions. What about the rule?

Man is corrupt and fallen. Ra's Al Ghul says to Bruce, “You are defending a city so corrupt, we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure.” We are weighed down by our desire to do what is evil.

But the most important anthropological statement comes at the end of The Dark Knight. The Joker sets a bomb on two boats, one with convicts, the other with ordinary citizens. Each has explosives and the detonator to the others boat. Either they blow the other up or they both blow up. This test was the Joker's ultimate point. “See, their morals, their code... it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you, when the chips are down, these... these civilized people? They'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster, I'm just ahead of the curve.” He is trying to prove that everyone, deep down, is like him. So what do they do? These people are faced with a choice for survival: Murder others or die.

At first, everyone starts leans towards killing the other. It is so tempting. But when the time comes, they cannot do it. And though the desire was there, the words from Batman Begins are important: “It's not who I am inside, but what I do that defines me.” Our desires and pre-dispositions may be inclined to some evil. But it is not how we feel, but what we DO that is important. Here is where the is actually defeated. It is a great moment in the movie where we can see the look on his face how his whole view of the world collapses in a moment.

But that is not to say that people will ALWAYS choose the good in a crisis. The scene that follows shows the total fall of Harvey Dent. He was arguably the most moral character in the entire series. But the Joker pushed him to the breaking point. The most important thing the Joker did was that he took away Harvey's sense of free will. There is no choice or plan, only chaos and chance.

You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time. But you were wrong. The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance,” Harvey says. Notice is complete abdication of moral agency. Rachel wasn't killed by the Joker, but by chance. Harvey doesn't murder people, it's chance that does it. When Harvey surrenders his ability to make choices, he can no longer be a moral man. The people on the boat were given a choice. Harvey removes choice from the equation.

There is one more example of how human nature can be horrible corrupted. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane turns much of the city into a roving, French Revolutionary-esque mob. If everyday people are basically good, then how is this possible? First, Bane creates for them an inescapable situation, which leads to panic. The second is that he appeals to their sense of envy and injustice. Notice his words outside Blackgate Prison. He tells the poor of the city that the rich have robbed them and that they have a right to take it. Like all Marxist revolutionaries, Bane paints the rich as evil who get what they deserve. This is the dangerous sense of self-righteousness that I wrote about yesterday that allows for the dehumanizing of your “enemies.” And by mobilizing the people into a mob, Bane knows that groupthink can also sublimate the individual conscience. Mob mentality is a real thing that can warp the common sense morals of a people.

But that does not mean that all people will be corrupted. Though it is more difficult to resist, you still have a choice. Many in The Dark Knight Rises resist and fight this mob, even at great personal cost. But humans need a symbol to rally behind. They need a hero like Batman.

One more note going back to first part of this section on the Aquinas/Luther split. Note how at the end of The Dark Knight Batman and Gordon try to cover the city in the righteousness of Harvey Dent. They use his name and his story to cover the sins of Gotham and make it appear clean. But it is only an apparent good. The evil festers beneath the city until it explodes to the surface. This method of making people righteous does not work. The point of The Dark Knight Rises is that people need to be transformed from the inside. People are given choices and those choices will define them. If they choose to embrace goodness, they will find themselves becoming heroes. As Bruce tells John Blake, Batman could be anyone. We all have it within our power to do what is right and become that ideal.


While the first movie is about overcoming fear, the main ethical dilemma is not between fear and courage. It is between fear and sacrifice. In all 3 films, the main villain inspires fear so as to push the moral buttons of the people into self preservation. And while courage is necessary, it is only a means, rather than an end.

The Joker is the best example of this. He is beyond fear. Notice how he wants Batman to kill him. He orders him run him over with his batpod. He laughs as Batman throws him over the edge of the building. He puts a loaded gun into Harvey Dent's hands. He has no fear. Bane also shows no fear in the face of certain death. Courage without compassion can be as destructive as fear.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce says that he is not afraid to die. He is afraid to fail his people. He is completely selfless. Notice when Selina tries to convince him to leave before Gotham is destroyed:

Selina: You don't owe these people any more! You've given them everything!
Batman: Not everything. Not yet.

Notice that Selina is right about not owing them anything. His love for Gotham is completely gratuitous But also see how simply Bruce looks at his situation. When he says “Not yet,” he assumes that his love will cost him everything. And he serenely accepts this truth. Once again we see the Christology come back into play. We see it work out imperfectly at the end of The Dark Knight, when he takes upon himself the sins of Harvey Dent.

But this points to the fact that sacrifice is also weak by itself. It needs truth. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman says “Sometimes the truth isn't good enough.” But that is the major sin that causes so many problems in The Dark Knight Rises. Sacrifice must be done in truth. Lies are always destructive. We see this personally when Alfred burns Rachel's letter to spare Bruce pain, but this only makes things worse. We also see this socially, where the lies of Bruce and Gordon light the fire that causes the mob uprising.

In regards to killing, there is not an absolute moral prohibition in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman will not kill because he must be the ideal. He must be above killing because he is not a duly deputized law enforcer/executioner. But other characters kill for the side of right like Gordon, John Blake, and Selina Kyle. They times they take life are not presented as wrong, but necessary.

The last point about morality is that it does not have to be big like saving a city from a madman. In one of the most touching moments in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman says to Gordon “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy's shoulders to let him know that the world hasn't ended.” We can all be moral heroes. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that
Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” The true ethical message of Batman is that we must have the courage to truly put others before ourselves in our every day lives.


While the series holds up an often dark reflection of human cruelty, it is overall one of the most optimistic pieces of cinema in the last decade. Human beings can be cruel. But at our core we are good and capable of being heroes in our world today.

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