It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years.
No doubt there are a hundred articles and blog posts and Tweets out there on this anniversary arguing that The Dark Knight is more “relevant” now than ever. But it is hard to imagine how Nolan’s Batman epic could ever be more “relevant” than it was when it was first released. The Dark Knight is one of those truly rare films in which everything seems to come together perfectly––theme, idea, character, timeliness––to illuminate our world and to give us a moment of clarity. This is what makes great cinema, great storytelling, great superhero myth. TDK not only tells us about the post-9/11 world in which it was released; it transcends its time to tell us something about what it means to be human, what it means to be virtuous, and what it means to be a hero.
The Hero We Need
The Batman of The Dark Knight is more than just a guy “dressed like a bat” (in my best Jason Momoa voice). He’s the one who looks at the world and sees things as they really are. It’s fallen. It’s broken. Its politicians are inept and foolish and––yes––sometimes evil. It has its share of villains, but it’s also filled with normal people who have to make hard choices––and often they’re forced into making decisions that they’d rather not make. But it’s also good in some sense, and that goodness makes it worth saving.
The problem is that saving the world––or even just one city––is a lonely job. This is mostly because as much as we all want to see people divided into Good Guys and Bad Guys, things aren’t nearly so simple. There are real monsters out there––Jokers and Penguins, Hitlers and Stalins, people who “just want to watch the world burn”––but the more frightening truth is that the line between good and evil runs through each of our souls. So anyone who wants to be a hero must find himself in conflict not only with Bad Guys, but with normal people as well. Trying to save the world must mean in some sense setting yourself against the world––because most often the world needs to be saved not from some outside foe, but from itself.
So when Batman pits himself against the Joker, he finds that he isn’t just fighting one enemy. As an “agent of chaos,” the Joker is more than just a man; he is everyone. He is fear itself, hatred itself, aggression itself, distrust itself, murder itself, torture itself. These things don’t originate in the Joker; they originate in the human heart. The Clown Prince merely embodies them and gives them a symbol. Therefore opposing the Joker means not just opposing a single villain: it means opposing humanity.
That’s why Batman––and ultimately every hero––suffers. You can’t be a hero without also suffering. It’s not just an unfortunate byproduct of heroism; it’s the point of heroism. As Alfred tells Bruce,
Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make––the right choice.
All of film, literature, poetry, religion, storytelling, and myth have told us this. Wherever and whenever people tell us of heroes, they tell us about people who suffer. This is true because being a hero means pitting yourself against the disease that affects everyone––not just the Bad Guys, not just Two Face or Killer Croc, not just Hitler or Pol Pot, not just Those People On The Other Side Of The Political Divide. It means suffering because it means being alone, being hated, being rejected.
You Either Die A Hero . . .
But there is a tremendous danger in setting out to save the world. That line between good and evil runs through every human heart––including the hero’s. Batman pushes himself to the peak of human potential. Excellence of body and mind and immense wealth give him power that few people ever possess, and unlike police officers and soldiers, Batman isn’t accountable to those that he seeks to save. If he ever gives in to the evil impulses that are the disease of all people, then he will become an even more horrific villain than the Joker.
So it takes a certain amount of arrogance––some might even say hubris––to take on the job of saving a city, let alone the world. That’s why we should never think of politicians as saviors who will rescue us all from the Bad Guys or from ourselves. They’re just people, sick with the same illness that we’re all born into. It’s a rare person who can take on the role of hero without eventually being corrupted by power.
We see Batman in The Dark Knight come very close to becoming a villain in his effort to save Gotham when he creates a device capable of spying on everyone in the city. Only two things save him. First, the only person who can use the device is Lucius Fox––who, because he doesn’t want the power, is the only person who can be trusted with it. And second, he gives Fox the power to destroy the device when they have caught the Joker. It would be easy for someone like Batman––someone who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice and security––to believe that he could keep the device and use it when he needed it to stop crime. He remains a hero because he realizes that he can’t be trusted with too much power.
Just as importantly, Batman remains a hero because in the end, he is willing to be “whatever Gotham needs [him] to be”––even if that means becoming the sacrifice that atones for Gotham’s sins. In the end, he takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s fall in order to keep peace and hope alive in Gotham. Yes, this lie backfires in The Dark Knight Rises, but that doesn’t change the heroism of Batman’s sacrifice. He is willing to be hated and hunted and wrongly accused of murder in order to save Gotham from itself. And it is that willingness to suffer wrongly that makes him a hero.