The Dark Knight: Evil as It Should Be

Heath Ledger's character in The Dark Knight is truly evil, tearing down the good for being the good. Despite its overall darkness, the movie is genuine Romanticism, in a sense Ayn Rand would recognize.

Everyone knew that guy in college — the philosophy major who made you tear your hair out as he proclaimed the futility of morality, while simultaneously lamenting the inherent evil of man.

He was the guy who stayed up until three in the morning posing ridiculous “lifeboat scenarios” as examples of real-life ethical dilemmas, challenging anyone’s claim to knowledge or efficacy, and giggling at the understandable frustration of his more rational peers.

Ever wonder what he’s doing now? Apparently, he’s found work terrorizing the innocent citizens of Gotham as the Clown Prince of Crime.

The late Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing portrayal of the classic Batman foe, The Joker, in Warner Brothers’ The Dark Knight, replaces Ellsworth Toohey as my pick for greatest literary villain.

The Joker, whose unforgettable dialogue was written by director Christopher Nolan and his brother, combines an anti-life premise with a consequential hatred of morality.

His transparent, though not explicit, view of himself as evil manifests itself in his ultimate goal of proving that all people are, deep down, as evil as he is.

Heath Ledger as The Joker
The Dark Knight, while lacking much of a benevolent premise, is classic Romantic storytelling. The three main characters are exemplars of differing moral and epistemological ideas.

The Joker, as stated before, does not value life, especially not his own. He murders people indiscriminately, with the prime motive of destroying, not specific lives, but rather morality and any respect for life, in general. His disrespect for values can be heard resonating through Ledger’s chilling articulation of the Joker’s tagline: “Why so serious?”

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent
At the other end of the spectrum, Harvey Dent exhibits faultless integrity and justice as Gotham City’s new district attorney.

As logic would have it, he also shows a clear understanding of his power of volition, mocking those with a mystical mindset through the use of a two-headed coin and the heart-swelling statement, “I make my own luck.” Playing Dent, Aaron Eckhart of Thank You For Smoking fame exudes confidence and certainty in his actions.

Caught in the middle is Batman, played by the versatile Christian Bale, who finds himself having to question how far he would go to defend goodness. Like the irritating college philosophy major, The Joker delights in creating artificial, unanswerable ethical dilemmas, such as threatening to kill people until Batman reveals himself.

Batman is then forced to choose between continuing to protect the innocent or stopping his crusade and hopefully saving those the Joker might otherwise murder. Whereas in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne and his caped alter ego are the main focus of the story, in The Dark Knight, Batman is more of a vehicle for responding to the Joker’s evil.

Overall, the movie could be classified as an optimistic tragedy. In true Romantic fashion, the tragedy is not one of a fatal flaw inherent in a character, but rather the logical extension of a conscious choice.

The tragedy comes in the form of Dent, who, after suffering a terrible loss and physical trauma, allows the Joker to convince him that life is chaotic and unknowable, and that the only reward for goodness is pain.

Dent’s conversation with the Joker, laden with dialogue so honest and powerful that it evokes memories of Toohey’s final monologue in front of Peter Keating in The Fountainhead, might be the most suspenseful scene in the film, even in the absence of any martial arts or explosions.

Dent eventually takes the Joker’s words to heart, seeking revenge for his loss, and leaving all his decisions up to the flip of his coin, now charred on one side. Dent’s fall, tragic yet volitional, leaves Batman to uphold virtue alone.

Christian Bale as Batman
In his final standoff with the Joker, Batman attempts to prevent a destructive end to a “social experiment” the villain has concocted for the citizens of Gotham, a literal lifeboat scenario.

The Joker reveals the true motive for his actions, citing Dent as proof that men are a product of their circumstances, and that all it takes is the right circumstances to turn a man to evil. It is made painfully clear in this final altercation that The Joker is concerned, not with achieving any value, but in destroying value in its purest form.

Even when faced with death, he laughs, as life is of no importance, and his own demise would only fuel his thirst for destruction. In a delectable line, Michael Caine as the butler, Alfred, sums up this death-worshipping mentality: “Some men aren’t interested in anything logical, like money. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Ayn Rand wrote in The Romantic Manifesto that “Romanticism is a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition.” The Dark Knight not only recognizes this principle, it incorporates it into its theme and characterization. Harvey Dent is a walking concretization of the decision to forsake one’s free will. Batman is left to make the tough decisions after Dent’s abdication, and he rises to the call.

Still, the villain steals the show, which is a prevalent problem among modern Romantic stories, unfortunately. The dark tone is the one major drawback of the film — but with the Batman storyline, this might have been unavoidable.

Even so, the brilliance of Ledger’s performance easily assuages any misgivings about The Joker’s prominence against the other characters. The Dark Knight is an insightful look into the nature of evil, and how the good responds to it.

As such, its villain, a cackling demon devoted to destroying the good for being the good, takes center stage, with the forces of good playing catch-up through most of the film.

Rather than presenting us with the ideal man, as Rand did, The Dark Knight shows us a true villain. The Joker challenges Batman, and by extension the viewer, to be good enough to defeat an evil as pure as his. The Dark Knight, both the character and the film, achieve this goal.

Ryan Krause is a senior at Indiana University majoring in finance and public policy analysis.  He plans to pursue an intellectual career, incorporating Objectivism into the teaching and researching of business practices.

16 comments from readers  

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Made this ol' fart want to see it. Sounds delicious.
I could not have said it better myself.
The prevelance of this kind of uninspiring junk is why i seldom am inspired to go to the movies.
You certainly know to to critique a movie. I intend to see it, even if evil does win in the end. The joker got his philosophy out of the Koran, curious you didn't notice, or at least, did not comment on the comparison.
I roughly agree with your philosophical analysis.

Although, I am somewhat of a fan of not having my intelligence insulted by watching things that are completely physically impossible given the situation (ie: semi-trailer truck, end-over-end because of a cable wrapped around lightpoles). When someone makes a completely true-to-physical-reality movie like "The Matrix" "Atlas Shrugged" or "Unintended Consequences", I will really be happy with hollywood. (Michael Mann's movies come close to what I like to watch, due to the superb weapons and tactics consulting from Mick Heath, and their attention to realistic details...)

For cartoony pro-freedom stuff, you really can't beat the Wachowski brothers (even with the urlidgen).
While I applaud this reviewer for understanding the philosophical underpinnings and characterizations of "The Dark Knight," the character of the Joker is not Evil. He is the absence of every philosophy, he is a moral nothing. He is a nihilist.

One of the tenets (if you can call it that) of nihilism is that no action is logically preferable to any other in regard to the moral value of one action over another. Nihilists also hold that existence is without meaning, and that objective morality does not exist. The Joker stated as much when he said he said to Batman: "You have nothing to threaten me with."

Morality is a toss of the coin to a nihilist. Which is why the device was used to illustrate the fall of Harvey Dent. Dent thought he had rigged the game by using a double-faced coin to make his moral decisions for him. It was only when the coin was recovered from Rachel Dawes' charred body that the true horror of flipping a coin to make life-or-death decisions was revealed - one side of the coin was burned, making it truly two-sided. Dent no longer took responsibility for his actions, he gave that up to the coin. And to the moral swamp of nihilism.

One more thing - the villian (neither the character nor the actor) does not steal the show. Frederic Neitszche understood the threat of nihilism to man's psyche (especially his own). He called it " of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!"

This was Bruce Wayne's/Batman's dilemna - was he strong enough to resist. The answer the film provides, clearly, and resoundingly, is "Yes." In the face of the Joker's threat that the "only sensible way to live in this world is without rules" Batman held fast to his.

In terms of acting, while Heath Ledger had one acting role, Christian Bale had three - Batman, Bruce Wayne (his public persona) and Bruce Wayne (the private man, in his relationships with Rachel and with Alfred), all three perfectly played. I dare any viewer to find one moment in the movie where the characters overlap.
The only goal The Dark Knight has (and achieves) is showing that evil (nihilism) is more powerful (and fun) than good. Evil, the filmmakers believe, plays humanity for pawns, and no human is great enough to challenge and win against its cleverness or alleged power.

Harvey Dent (through some deus ex machina conversation device that the viewer is not fully privy into) turns to the dark side. The turn is a jolt and not believable for a man of obvious resolution of character and virtue. The little bit of conversation we are allowed to hear between Dent and The Joker is laughable and as cartoonish as Dent's destroyed face. Yeah, so his face and the charred coin are metaphors. Yawn (as I did two-thirds of the way through this movie). If Dent was really bent on retribution, why not start with The Joker?

When it comes time to press (or not press) the button of destruction on the boat with prisoners, it isn't the good guys who make the right decision; its a surly prisoner. Good has no moral gonads.

Batman won't run over the Joker and kill him when he's got the chance, and then he won't allow the Joker to fall to his death (just deserts) at the end of the movie. Batman is a wimp. (How can we think otherwise when mere dogs bring him to his knees - twice? Talk about your metaphors.) He not only should've killed The Joker but devised a clever strategy to ensure lots of pain while simultaneously check-mating a clever Joker strategy of destruction. This is what Batman should've done throughout the movie: show us a good that is almost always one step ahead of the bad and that understands what he's up against.

Instead, Batman, like all the other "good" (brainless) guys, are chasing their tails, while The Joker plays the blithe, ironic and incisive personality in command of reality and people. He's the one who always gets the last laugh, even at the end, when Batman STILL won't kill him. (Come on!) Batman is the representative of the modern existentialist in constant sturm und drang, incapable of judging fully and acting upon it.

The Joker (played to perfection by Heath Ledger) has, like all psychopaths some unconsicous drive to see the death face in others' souls to vindicate the subconscious judgment he has made upon them and himself. He is indeed a great villain -- and, unfortunately, the hero of this film.

This movie is not romantic realism (romanticism), which has as its construct how life ought to be, which has as its central driving force the expression of the good, which shows pre-eminently the grandeur of volition, which holds justice as a primary virtue, which exhibits the good with more force than the bad to vindicate and confirm benevolence, which has as its ending optimism and happiness.

The Dark Knight violates all of the above tenets. It is not about volition; it is about malevolence. It is as dark as the night. It is (to paraphrase myself many years ago in a discussion of art) a giant heap of colorful shit.
Romanticism? Please. The movie is propaganda for the neoconservatism that is running amok across this country.

A few of the insane ideas I remember from that movie:

- That we need to keep the truth from most people. It's entirely justified to break laws and vilify good people in order to defend the common person's delusions about reality.

- The good guy has to sacrifice himself in order to maintain the delusions of the masses, while they cheer and carry some evil bastard on their shoulders. It's OK for the masses to hate the good and love the evil if that maintains their delusions, because their delusion keeps them going.

- To hell with due process. It is perfectly OK to throw 500 people in jail as a collective group even if you have no specific evidence against each individual; loose association means group guilt (Hey, just like public school! As in when one kid makes noise the whole classroom gets punished.)

- What is important and relevant is not whether a given action is legal or moral, but whether it is popular and whether you believe in your heart that you are doing the right thing.
Excellent analysis!!
I loved the movie as well; however, this review like all the others I have read by Objectivists, fail to identify some crucial failures in the morals held up as ideals by the director for the characters of Batman, Dent, and the people of Gotham.

For one, Rand would never have approved how the boat scene in the end turned out, nor would she have approved of how Batmand undercuts his own virtue and corrupts the image of good by accepting the mantle of a criminal fugitive. It's a very Christ-like self-sacrificial attempt to take on the "sins of the world."
Well Mr. Krause, you gave a vivid account of the film and thus I will not go see it. Not my kind of entertainment. However, after reading your review I agree that Ms Rand would most like have gone to see it and enjoyed it.
Excellent review, but you gave too much of the story away. Revealing Dent's fate will dampen the suspense for the viewer.
Ryan, your review of the movie is excellent. I agree with your parallel to Ellsworth Toohey. This actually took Toohey to the next level. It does not take away from the movie, by giving away the premise. The movie is worth the admission, just to see Heath Ledger's abilities to portray this character. Just as most who have read Atlas Shrugged will not avoid that movie, when it is made. I believe this movie will be of value to anyone who shares Ayn Rand's Philosophy. Keep in mind, this movie take place in a dystopia as does Atlas Shrugged. You may try to analyze the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics but, I agree that Ayn Rand herself would of enjoyed this movie.
For reasons cited above, "The Dark Knight" is not Romantic, but Naturalistic. It is certainly too dark for me.

The hero is a psychopath. (I refer to The Batman here, not The Joker.)

In movies and comics past, Batman was "The World's Greatest Detective." Now he just bludgeons people to get information. Just another thug. Poor Batman, what a comedown.

Having a cool car, that turns into a cool motorcycle, does not make Batman any more of a detective, or any less of a psychopath.

Ayn Rand, who thrilled to Sean Connery's masterful Alpha-male Hero, in the original Bond films, would not find much excitement in this Batman, I think. He's too much a product of his environment, and does not rise above it.

Even Michael Caine's Alfred, and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, spouting exposition about Mawster Bruce's clever re-routing all the cell phones in the world, to image-range apparently all of Gotham City into God-like snoop screens, don't make me think any more highly of Batman.

Those are gadgets, and why statist snooping should be the province of alleged heroes (on or off the screen), is beyond my ability to reason.

I do appreciate the convict throwing the detonator out the window, and the irony that he understands what moral goodness demands, even if the other convicts (and the "upright" simps in the other boat) don't.

Show me the Batman's goodness, DESPITE his parents' murders, and his magnificent deductive reasoning. That Batman is not in the media any more, just this brooding, violent nutcase.

I agree Christian Bale's three performances, as Batman, Bruce Private and Bruce Public, far outshine Heath Ledger's scenery-chewing.

Heath's performances, including his gay cowboy tragedy, and now this Joker, add up to one Naturalistic resume, in my humble opinion. I don't care for it.

I do think it unfortunate Heath ate too many pills and died, but I won't lose sleep over it. Oscar buzz? I nominate him for Best Overdosed Overactor.

I think it's irresponsible this film glorifies the nihilistic Joker, and restricts the Batman to an endless cavalcade of dark savagery.

People used to know how to make movies entertaining, uplifting, inspiring, exciting, and thought-provoking. This ain't it, and I hope, eventually, somebody gets it right.
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This review captured everything that was great about the movie. Extremely well done. Thank you.
Good piece. I think i'm going to go watch it finally.
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