Before entering the movie theatre to see ‘The Dark Knight,’ I didn’t know that the name for what I have always longed to be is a superhero. Sure, my favorite movie growing up was Superman (I would watch the VHS over and over and over), and my grandiose proclivities are as obvious in my diction as they are in my actions. What’s more, I have long felt attracted to mythology, poetry, archetypes and science–the broad, over-arching themes that elevate life from the mundane to the theatrical. I need to feel things deeply or, it seems, I don’t feel them at all. This is, of course, a double-edged sword: my joys and sorrows are extremely poignant and crisp, yet I often feel like alien, isolated from the day-to-day world that unfolds around me.
Despite my obvious predilection for all the pieces that make up a superhero story–good triumphs over evil in a lonely battle–they have never quite captivated my attention, because no matter how hard I try to see the world as black and white, my heart feels things in a beautiful, technicolor gradation. So as I sat through The Dark Knight I was delighted to see a Batman that was unsure of himself, whose actions were not clearly good, and who inspired ambivalent feelings in the people he tried to save. I was mesmerized, not only by the dark, beautiful cinematography, but also by the morality play unfolding before me.
I’ve long been fascinated by ethics, and the movie brings human actions back to the core challenge: in order to be a principled individual, one must be principled even when it goes against one’s self interest. As the Joker–played brilliantly, almost hauntingly, by the late Heath Ledger–continuously puts Batman in impossible situations, we watch as our hero accepts being lonely and misunderstood over being happy yet unethical. All of the characters seeking righteousness struggle, and their choices–one way or the other–have significant consequences.
In many ways the central themes of this movie about a comic book superhero are the same as the ones that appear in all the world’s religions. Would it be offensive to call Jesus, Gandhi, and Moses superheroes? Perhaps that’s a stretch, but all religions stress the importance of selflessness. However, in much the same way that most superhero stories don’t interest me, I have always been bored by simple religious parables: the world is more nuanced and subtle than a mere battle between good and evil. In the real world, right and wrong aren’t obvious, and sometimes–especially in our globalized world–even a seemingly ethical choice still has negative consequences. (*See the end of this article for an example of a religious parable that is more complicated than one would think)
The Dark Knight captures these nuanced issues and runs with them. In one instance “near the end of the film, [the Joker] invites two ferry-loads of passengers to blow up the other before they are blown up themselves.” The resolution of that scene, as well as the resolution of the movie, have much to say about the nature of human beings as social animals and as individuals.
In the end, what most caught my attention was the strong feeling that I identify with Batman’s lonely, perhaps even misguided, efforts to better the world. He is an intense individual, bent on achieving his aims, isolated by the passions that drive him. His mission is more important that his well-being, and the choices he makes rarely serve his well. In many ways, that is an ideal that, though painful, I often strive towards. Perhaps it is out of a sense that I don’t understand the world I live in or that the world I live in does not understand me; but regardless of the ambivalence about my place in the world, I love life and people, and my longing is always to work for beauty, peace and prosperity.
I can’t say why The Dark Knight has been so popular; I doubt it is overtly for the reasons that I have mentioned. But I can’t help believing that many people long to do battle for good, to fully experience the epic play that is life. The success of this movie is that entertains even as it touches on some of the profoundest and most deeply rooted of human longings and struggles.
*I remember reading a Joseph Campbell book in which he describes an unorthodox telling of the story of the fall of Satan. Ordinarily, Satan is portrayed as evil, and God is good, and that is that. But Campbell tells of an alternate story that is much more interesting to me: “One of the most amazing images of love that I know is Persian – a mystical Persian representation as Satan as the most loyal lover of God. You will have heard the old legend of how, when God created the angels, he commanded them to pay worship to no one but himself; but then, creating man, he commanded them to bow in reverence to this most noble of his works, and Lucifer refused – because, we are told, of his pride. However, according to this Muslim reading of his case, it was rather because he loved and adored God so deeply and intensely that he could not bring himself to bow before anything else, and because he refused to bow down to something that was of less superiority than him. (Since he was made of fire, and man from clay.) And it was for that that he was flung into Hell, condemned to exist there forever, apart from his love.”
We might interpret this to mean that to truly love the world is to be vilified by it. And indeed, are not most visionaries reviled at first? Do we not reward those that are clever more than those that are wise?. . .
Joseph Campbell Quote Via: Wikipedia
More on ‘The Dark Knight’
Zero to Hero: Scientist could turn you into Batman
Roger Ebert’s Review of the Movie
NY Times Review of the Movie