the dark knight

In light of the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado last week, I decided it was time to watch the earlier Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” which just happened to be running on TNT over the weekend. I’m glad I did, because I hadn’t realized before how Batman was a Christ figure, bearing the guilt of Harvey Dent and returning to heaven (aka Wayne’s Enterprises), where God was played, to no one’s surprise, by Morgan Freeman. The illegal eavesdropping that was necessary to catch the Joker caused Freeman to resign his post in Bruce Wayne’s company, which I took as a metaphor for the Father abandoning his Son. I think I need to watch more movies, for these sermons almost write themselves.

I want to be clear that the guilt for last week’s tragedy lie entirely on the deranged shooter, James Holmes. Our prayers and grief are with those whose lives were so shockingly and completely destroyed in the early hours of Friday morning. But after watching “The Dark Knight,” I have one observation and a question.

1. Observation: James Holmes reportedly told the arresting police, “I am the Joker,” and his actions were consistent with Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance in “The Dark Knight.” Ledger’s Joker terrorized two locations—putting Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent in separate locations so that Batman must choose who to save (and end up saving the wrong one because the Joker lied about which was where) and putting bombs on two ferries so each must choose whether to save their own boat or the other. I think I know where Holmes got his deranged idea to booby trap his apartment while he was shooting people in the theater.

The Joker of “The Dark Knight” was partially a sympathetic figure. Besides the widespread appreciation which poured in after Heath Ledger’s untimely death, the Joker doesn’t die in the end. He seems to have won in his own mind, for he is able to sway Harvey Dent into becoming Two Face and tells Batman that they are morally the same. I’m not being critical of Ledger’s acting. If anything it was too convincing. What are the odds that there might be at least one crazy person out there, down on his luck—say because he had recently dropped out of grad school—who takes the accolades flowing to Ledger to heart and thinks being the Joker might not be a bad way to go out?

In these turbulent times, as more young people become saddled with debt and are unable to find jobs, might it be too risky to continue to make darkly violent movies such as these? I’m not blaming “The Dark Knight” for what James Holmes did. I’m just saying it’s obvious—because he told us—where he got the idea.

2. Question: “The Dark Knight” is an important movie because of its social commentary, but who would watch a movie like this for entertainment? My wife and I fast forwarded through the Joker’s scenes of stylized violence, for we didn’t think we’d enjoy the drama of watching him push his knife against the throats of Rachel Dawes, mob bosses, and policemen. We didn’t want to endure the anguish of Mr. Two Face brandishing a pistol against the forehead of a wife and child while their father, Commissioner Gordon, looked on.

So here’s my question: what society are we living in when parents take their six year old children to a midnight premier of movies like this? Is it possible that we are callously raising the next generation of James Holmeses? Last week a ten year old girl freed herself from a kidnapper on the streets of Philadelphia. I was relieved to hear she got away, but chagrined to hear her parents say she learned her escape from watching “Law and Order: SVU.” How many of our children are having television or movie induced nightmares, and how many of these may grow up to become ours?







5 responses to “the dark knight”

  1. Jim

    We’re definitely raising the next generation of James Holmeses. Just consider the way our society is entertained by and sympathizes with sociopaths — the Joker in “The Dark Knight” (as you pointed out), Hannibal Lecter in a series of books and a series of movies, and Dexter Morgan in a series of books and a series on television. Those are just a few prominent examples; The list could go on and on. And, as you wrote, it isn’t restricted to adults: it’s entertainment for six-year-olds. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The human race, according to religion, fell once and, in falling, gained the knowledge of good and of evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.”

  2. You asked what kind of a culture it is. It is a culture which writhes and moans against any restraint or prohibition. Freedom and autonomy trump decency and purity – even as we parent. As a Christ-follower I have been mocked and marginalized even by mature believers for placing prohibitions on myself for what I see, hear, taste and touch. I know how deceitful my heart is. That is why I must guard it. Only a solid recognition of our propensity to sin gives us the wisdom to embrace restraint. It used to be called discipline.

    Just the other day I sat down with my son to talk about internet usage in his room. “I don’t stay up late alone online, and neither does your father. He trusts me, I trust him, and I trust you. But don’t give people a reason to suspect you, and don’t start a habit you don’t want your own future wife or children to follow.” Oh, the blurry, smeary lines in my argument. He could have objected with a million arguments against legalism and arbitrary rules. But with wisdom he closed the lid. Not only should we govern our children, we should teach them the value of self-governance.

  3. Jonathan Shelley

    I think a question you posed earlier regarding Stephen Colbert’s satire is apropos to this situation – the question is not so much whether the content and genre of the Batman movies have any place in our society but whether the majority of the people who watch these movies truly appreciate the value of what they are seeing. If we see the Batman movies as nothing more than typical Hollywood summer blockbusters, albeit with much better acting and writing than the typical summer blockbusters have, than we are missing the point of what Christopher Nolan and the source material for these particular movies were trying to accomplish. The original Frank Miller Dark Knight graphic novels, which Nolan is drawing from, are actually very deep and complex literature that deals with the human condition and the high cost of holding on to moral absolutes in a society that has abandoned notions of right and wrong. For example, you noted that the Joker survives in The Dark Knight, which is an important underlying motive for Batman – all life is sacred and he alone does not get to judge who lives and who dies – that is for the proper authorities to determine. (You may have missed the significance of this since it is expounded during some of the more violent scenes to give the appropriate juxtaposition to Batman’s respect for life). The point of The Dark Knight is not to see how spectacularly things can blow up or what cool new special effects a computer can animate (although they did those things) but to ultimately confront us with the question of where do we stand on the question of morality – like Batman do we believe in absolute right and wrong and the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak, or do we side with the Joker, who simply wants to see the world burn, or are we mostly concerned with our own survival and find ourselves willing to bend the rules when the situation becomes too difficult. I think we know where James Holmes ended up. The focus of the discussion, I think, should not be whether or to what extent a movie may give motive or ideas to people who are clearly deeply troubled – Holmes would have found his inspiration somewhere – but what, if anything, we have learned from a movie that confronted us with the presence of true evil, true depravity in this world, and whether we choose to confront that evil or ignore it. Sadly, too many people simply see the action – like many of Colbert’s fans are simply laughing at the stereotype – and the much more important and subtle message is lost.

    And of course Batman is a Christ-figure. As CS Lewis pointed out, all good stories have a Christ-figure, which is why every story is really just a shadow of the one true story of Creation-Fall-Redemption. So you should watch more movies and read more fiction – the sermon possibilities are endless.

    Oh, and as a preemptive response to all those who want to discuss whether Christians should watch movies like this – I side with Paul: all things are permissible but not all things are beneficial. I think Terry summed this up well in her post – we need to learn and pass on the importance of self-governance. (And taking a six-year-old to see any movie at midnight is just bad parenting.)

  4. Daniel B

    I largely agree with Jonathan. I would certainly not condone the gratuitous evil displayed on so many movies today. However, Dr. Wittmer, I believe that your appraisal is mistaken. It is not clear to me that the Joker was a sympathetic figure. I would argue that while fans may have had an unhealthy obsession with the bad guy (I would have argued that 3 years ago with all the Joker T-shirts, etc. alone), the movies never clearly sympathize with him, but rather always portray Batman as just and the Joker as evil. If this is the case, then I believe Chesterton would fully support this movie as a first rate fairy tale. “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already… What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of [evil]… [it] provides for him a St. George to kill the dragon.”

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