The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately corrupt;
who can understand it?
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a bright spot in the usually dismal summer blockbuster scene. There is more than enough action and spectacle to satisfy the most ardent thrill seeker, and yet the script takes us way beyond the usual comic book Good Vs. Evil theme. At times we are close to Hamlet or Mac Beth country, with the tormented Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale’s ) tiring of being the vigilante misunderstood and feared by the public, and Joker (Heath Ledger’s ) revealing enough of his tortured upbringing so that he far more complex a character than Jack Nicholson’s.
The other characters are more than cardboard props, with Bruce Wayne’s valet Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) offering some wise advise, and at one key point burning a letter that could wound the hurting Wayne even more following a tragedy. Morgan Freeman is a delight as Lucius Fox, the inventive genius who provides Batman with his advanced gadgetry. Gary Oldman fleshes out police Lt. Jim Gordon far more than the comic book ever did, and there is a new hero, a “White Knight,” in District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a crusader genuinely determined to put an end to the mob.
Maggie Gyllenhaal takes on the role once inhabited by Katie Holmes Assistant DA Rachel Dawes, once the sweetheart of Bruce Wayne, but put off because of the ever demanding need to dash off as Bat Man to save the city.
Bruce is upset to learn that Rachel and Harvey Dent are dating, but when he meets Dent, he is so impressed with the man’s integrity that he decides to trust and work with him as Bat Man. All might have gone well if not for the Joker. The film starts out with his leading a gang of Joker-masked bandits robbing a bank where the mob stashes its money. Thus catching their attention, the Joker crashes their meeting and installs himself as their head, declaring that Gotham City needs a higher class of criminal. The Joker’s ultimate goal is to confront and defeat bat Man. He devises a series of clever and cruel dilemmas that will force Bat man and the police to make excruciatingly painful ethical choices.
As you will see in the discussion section, the conversations crackle with menace and moral probing. The Joker apparently sees his relationship with Bat man as a Ying-Yang affair, telling his adversary, “You complete me.” It is Alfred who leads Bruce/Batman into a deeper understanding of the chaos-loving villain when he explains, “Some 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.” Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the demented villain is right up there with Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter. In some scenes the film helps us see how some in authority today have decided to cross lines that ought not to be crossed, as in Abu Ghraib or the government wire tapping program. The Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s film is a conflicted man who, in reference to Jesus’ words, might be trying to pick figs from thorns and grapes from bramble bushes. Although far too violent for unattended young children, the film offers a great opportunity for youth and young adults to explore ethical issues and matters of the soul.
Spoilers in the following!
1) How is the film both a flight of fantasy and yet true in matters relating to the human condition?
2) How would you relate the Jeremiah passage to the Joker? To Harvey Dent?
3) What do you think of the role of the vigilante in this film? How is Bat Man different from the one in Death Wish? What is the danger in assuming the kind of power that Bruce Wayne/Bat Man does?
4) What do you make of this conversation between Bruce and Alfred?
W: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight. But this is different. They crossed the line.” A: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” 5) Alfred tells Bruce, “Know your limits, Master Wayne.” Bruce replies, “Batman has no limits.” “But you do, sir” “Well, can’t afford to know them.” What is the danger in Bruce’s attitude? When he is trying to get the jailed Joker to tell where he has taken Rachel and Harvey, how does he go beyond “the limits” ? (Or “cross the line.” How is this like what some in our CIA and Justice Department say we should do in interrogating suspected terrorists? Can a democracy remain untainted when its leaders resort to harsh, even tortuous, methods? How is Alfred the conscience of the story—such as when Bruce taps into all of the telephones of Gotham City?
6) What do you think Bat Man means when he says, “Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” 7) What dilemma does the Joker place Bat Man and Gordon in with regard to rescuing Rachel and Harvey? How might you decide? On the basis of utility—which of the two was needed more by society? On sentiment?
8) In the case of the two ferry boats, what does the Joker expect will happen? What is his view of human nature? How is he surprised? Were you also surprised by what the big burly convict did when he demanded the detonator? Or the fearful and whiney businessman in the other boat?
9) What happens to Harvey as a result of his horrendous burning? This is summed up in his comment to Gordon, “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.” How is he an even more tragic figure than the Joker?
10) Reflect on some of the last words we hear in the film, spoken by Commissioner Gordon, “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.” What do you think he means when he says that Bat Man is not a hero? How is the world of Bat Man’s Gotham City very much like that of the prophet Jeremiah’s Jerusalem? Can you see God amidst the corruption of either, or is there a danger that we might begin to feel like the disfigured Harvey Dent?