The Dark Blight
What the new Batman movie says, and doesn't say, about the origins of evil.

by Skye Jethani

Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, Batman!

I've been meaning to write a post about The Dark Knight for weeks, but between family vacations and working on the fall issue of Leadership, I've been swamped. I'm a big fan of superhero movies, and this summer I've seen a bunch - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and the latest installment of Christopher Nolan's fantastic Batman series, The Dark Knight. My companion to most of these comic book movies is a psychiatrist from my church who has a penchant for professional wrestling and shares my follicle failings. (I highly recommend watching fantasy movies with a psychiatrist - it's more fun than applying Freudian dream analysis to nursery rhymes.)

I feel no need to add my accolades for The Dark Knight to those already swirling around the web. (Check out Todd Hertz's review at CTMovies.com.) Instead, I want to discuss an interesting storytelling element of the film that may help explain one of the more mysterious elements of the Bible - emphasis on the word may. (Let's not take a movie too seriously or read overly spiritual themes into it. That only spoils an otherwise good the film and risks diminishing our faith.)

Batman's nemesis in The Dark Knight is the Joker, played by the late great Heath Ledger. Unlike earlier film depictions of the Clown Prince of Crime, Ledger's Joker has no back-story, no origin, no narrative arc. In The Dark Knight, we never discover what would drive a man to dye his hair green, paint his face white, smear a ghastly smile across his cheeks and murder people for the sheer fun of it.

In Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, is a mob boss who falls into a vat of chemicals that bleaches his skin, gives him a permanent grin, and loosens a few screws in his head. Nicholson's Joker is the product of an accident. This knowledge humanizes the character, and despite his evil behavior the audience retains some degree of pity for the villain.

Not so in The Dark Knight. Director Christopher Nolan says he intentionally avoided giving the Joker any back-story in his movie. "He's got no story arc," says Nolan, "he's just a force of nature tearing through [the film]." Co-writer David Goyer says there is no need for an origin for the Joker because, "He just is. He's more interesting without it."

Nolan says a back-story for the Joker "would reduce the character. It's more frightening because, in a sense, there is no mystery there.... He is exactly what he presents himself to be; which is an anarchist." Nolan describes the Joker as a "mad dog" - a description carried into the film when the Joker describes himself as a dog chasing cars - he wouldn't know what to do if he caught one.

August 29, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 16 comments

adam

September 03, 2008  8:01pm

One of the best Christian responses to the movie I've read! Incredible.

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LK

September 03, 2008  7:35am

Have to say. I also love love LOVE superhero movies!

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Jelani Greenidge

September 02, 2008  11:41am

Great timing... I finally saw this in an IMAX theater last night. Incredible movie. (and for Nolan fans... how about the title card coming at the end? a subtle homage to Memento?) To those who say the Joker has no back-story, there is some backstory implied in the "why so serious" bit that he shares with both Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and one of the mob bosses earlier in the movie. Nevertheless, that's nitpicking... and of course, there's no guarantee that he didn't just make that story up just to do something interesting whilst holding a knife in someone's mouth.

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Bil_

August 31, 2008  11:47pm

Something else Joker said to Batman, which I started to present as a Senior High Sunday School teacher a few years back when the first Spiderman came out, is the whole "we need each other" line. Like Batman (Spiderman) is less himself without Joker (Green Goblin). Does good require evil? Does light require darkness? It's a common thought–one a friend just expressed to me moments ago around a campfire when referring to the seasons of the midwest. Something doesn't ring true to me about that...or perhaps just too uncomfortable? I happen to believe good is good and defies comparison. I like the "evil as absence" idea above. I agree that "Evil" cannot exist of it's own accord... Great post! Great thoughts!

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mike rucker

August 31, 2008  7:57am

i guess steve and i suffer from the same ocd impulses - i did the same thing. having already admitted to being a david cassidy fan, y'all probably won't let me back on the board here if i tell you i used to dress up as batman when i was 4-5 years old, with a towel for a cape, my batman t-shirt, my sister's leotards, and wearing my underwear on the outside. i'm sure i've lost what little street cred i had left here with that revelation... there are times my mind takes a real 'naturalist' view of humanity - how at the core we are still just an evolved animal enjoying a brief run at the top of the food chain, waiting for the next challenger in this eternal king-of-the-hill game to come and knock us off our perch. i noticed y'day watching college football that EA was doing heavy game advertising - and, i tell ya, these games scare me in how they try to be brutal and funny at the same time. i used to say i liked the friday the 13th series of movies because they were funnier than scary, but perhaps i was just proving that the filmmaker had accomplished his real goal. laughing and enjoying interesting ways to kill people is not a good mindset on which to build a civilization, one might think. last night i went to wal-mart, and here's another confession: i wondered when i looked at a lot of folks there if we were members of the same species. yeah, i say that to be somewhat funny, but you let your mind wonder ten-to-twenty thousand years in the future, and does it make sense to believe a shining city on the hill is our destination? or are we destined to have an armaggedon on our own if one doesn't come form the hand of God? maybe we've just been playing dress-up all these years to the amusement of the rest of the monkeys... mike rucker fairburn, georgia, usa

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Steve Mooradian

August 30, 2008  9:49pm

I checked to see if the number of na's in your Batman song was divisible by 8. It was. :-)

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len

August 29, 2008  3:54pm

I'm with Jarrod, and with Rowan Williams (Jeffrey McCurry's provocative paper, "Toward a Poetics of Theological Creativity: Rowan Williams Reads Augustine's De Doctrine After Derrida"). Scripture is multi-valent, we apply NT Wright's "fifth act" analogy to hermeneutics also. While the text may not answer all questions, it answers many we have not yet asked. For Derrida, a text is always a promise ... deferred presence ... we won't exhaust Scripture because we can't exhaust the Almighty.

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Sara

August 29, 2008  3:37pm

The strangest creatures on earth are humans who deviate from the norm for no reason, who abuse, maim, kill, and seem to lack a conscience. We dig for answers, we pick apart their brains, we even dissect them after they die only to find out they are identical to those who are normal. These are the scariest [people] of all–the true sociopath, the true psychopath. Why? Because they are in the minority. Because we always wonder if we could suddenly snap and become this Joker without the back story, without reason. The unknown is scarier than the known. That's why we sleep with our lights on. But G-d would never allow this to happen to me, a loving xtian... right? Not to my family... not in our Body of Christ... Right?

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sheerahkahn

August 29, 2008  1:20pm

"Listen to this: To disobey God was to initiate evil. Evil is not the presence of something. Evil is the absence of righteousness. You can't create evil, because evil doesn't exist as a created entity. It doesn't exist as a created reality. Evil is a negative. Evil is the absence of perfection. It's the absence of holiness. It's the absence of goodness. It's the absence of righteousness. Evil became a reality only when creatures chose to disobey. Evil came into existence initially then in the fall of angels. And then next, in the fall of Adam and Eve. Just put it this way in your mind. Evil is not a created thing. Evil is not a substance. Evil is not an entity. Evil is not a being. Evil is not a force. Evil is not some floating spirit. Evil is a lack of moral perfection. God created absolute perfection. Wherever a lack of that exists, sin exists. And that cannot exist in the nature of God or in anything that God makes. Evil comes into existence when God's creatures fall short of the standard of moral perfection. I don't usually quote John MacArthur, jr., because of "some" of his other...um...more...hmm, "interesting" thoughts...well, yeah, anyway, I find that this is so far, the best explanation outside of the Bible about evil. I'll give this some more thought...may even write a blog post about it...hmmm....thinking.

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Dave Robinson

August 29, 2008  11:16am

Skye, Once again, it's an honor to claim to know you! Excellent article. Thanks for putting to pen many of my jumbled and random thoughts. I for one, am so glad he wanted to tell a good story, because in doing so, he told a great one.

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