Americans love our heroes. But we are a little confused about what we should expect from them. We celebrate Michael Phelps's record-breaking achievements of human strength and endurance. And yet we wonder if he should use the platform to address China's broken record on human rights. Retired basketball superstar Charles Barkley once confessed in a commercial, "I am not a role model." Now, in the view of ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon, Barkley is the most beloved sports hero in America.
NBC hit comedy series The Office parodied America's hero confusion. A visiting diversity trainer uses the acronym H-E-R-O to promote honesty, empathy, respect, and open-mindedness. But office goof Dwight Schrute has his own definition of a hero. "A hero kills people, people that wish them harm," Dwight explains. "A hero is part human and part supernatural. A hero is born out of a childhood trauma, or out of a disaster that must be avenged." The trainer responds to Dwight that he is describing a superhero.
America's hero worship has propelled the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight, up the charts as the second-highest grossing movie of all time, behind only Titanic. Surely morbid curiosity about the late Heath Ledger's final, chilling performance has something to do with the film's success. But The Dark Knight is a rare summer hero movie that invites thoughtful engagement with its themes.
Spoiler alert: Read no further if you plan to see The Dark Knight and haven't yet.
The movie's title reinforces its thesis, spoken by two characters: "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain." Gotham's three heroes fulfill the prophecy. Police commissioner Jim Gordon works outside the law in order to uphold it. He covertly supports Batman's vigilante justice. He refuses to take the advice of courageous district attorney Harvey Dent and investigate corrupt cops. Two of those officers allow the Joker to capture Dent and his girlfriend, Rachel Dawes. Only Batman can save Dent, but not before the once-congenial politician loses half of his face in a fire. Dent, the unflinching defender of law and justice, cannot cope with this unfair turn of events. He lives long enough to become the villain Two Face. He blames Gordon and threatens the top cop's family.
Like Dent, Batman ends the film as a villain, at least in the eyes of Gotham. Gordon and Batman agree that the public cannot know that their hero, Dent, became evil. So they blame the city's descent into chaos on Batman. Only he and Gordon's family know the secret: Gotham will pursue Batman, but he is actually their dark knight. In order to defeat the city's villains, he must become one of them. Only dark can overcome dark.
This is a view critics sometimes ascribe to the Old Testament, filled with stories of God's people destroying God's enemies — men, women, and children. Like Batman, Samson excelled in hand-to-hand combat. He needed only the jawbone of a donkey to kill 1,000 Philistines (Judges 15:15-16). When Samson gave up the secret of his power to Delilah, the Philistines captured him. But he called on God one last time for vengeance. God granted him the power to kill a record number of Philistines when he tore down the pillars of a house (Judges 16:28-30).
Another great Old Testament hero, David, likewise warred in God's name against the Philistines. Only David, a small boy among Israel's greatest warriors, stepped forward with faith that God would grant him strength to kill Goliath (1 Samuel 17). As king, David and the army of Israel trusted in God and by his strength waged war against their neighbors, building a great kingdom, as God promised to David (2 Samuel 7:9-11).
We must not, however, draw too many parallels between the Old Testament and The Dark Knight. In the movie, justice is detached from God. Sometimes Batman stands for justice, but he is able to be tempted to retaliate in anger against the Joker. Sometimes the people of Gotham can be trusted to encourage justice, but what they really seek is security. God's purposes may not always be apparent, even to Christians. But God steadfastly defends his divine prerogative to define the terms of justice (Psalm 33:5; Isaiah 30:18; Isaiah 61:8).
Drawing close parallels between The Dark Knight and Old Testament also misses the nuances of progressive revelation. Consider Daniel, a great hero of the Babylonian exile. He completely trusts God to vindicate his faithfulness (Daniel 1:8-21). His character is so consistent (Daniel 6:4) and his blessing by God so apparent that he even wins over the kings of heathen nations (Daniel 2:46-49; 6:25-28). Daniel fights not with the weapons of this world but with the armor of God. Light defeats might. Though God's people are in exile, God's purposes never fail, Daniel remembers. "Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice" (Daniel 9:14).
Exile is the posture of the church (1 Peter 1:1). Daniel pointed toward the day when the Hero of Heroes would defeat the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms by his submission to death on the Cross. The kingdom of God will not be consummated until Jesus Christ returns. Nevertheless, the light of Jesus Christ has already shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome him (John 1:5). Jesus died a villain's death, but he lived again as the hero.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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