Warning: This post contains major spoilers from The Dark Knight, though not from The Dark Knight Rises (although certain themes and plot elements from the latter are discussed)
The haunting and acclaimed film The Dark Knight ended with one of the most arresting and morally provocative twists in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre (and for anyone familiar with his films, that is truly saying something). Confronted with the awful truth that Gotham’s “White Knight,” Harvey Dent, the city’s last best hope for order, justice, and redemption, has in fact succumbed to the Joker’s nihilistic message that the only justice is that which we make for ourselves, Batman makes a heroic decision. He will take the guilt of Harvey Two-Face’s crimes upon himself. He will bear the guilt, he will become an outcast. He will be the Dark Knight so that Harvey can remain the White, and Gotham can sustain the faith she needs to conquer injustice. A greater sacrifice, perhaps, than bearing physical death for the sake of the city, for Wayne has already poured himself out, given up his own life to pour it into the symbol that is Batman—now he must accept the death of that symbol, as it becomes an image of evil, that the city might be freed from evil.*
It is as profound an image of the Atonement as one can find in recent cinema—the hero becomes guilty in order to make his would-be killers innocent, takes evil upon himself so that his people would not have to bear its curse and stain. And yet, something is amiss. For this noble act of self-sacrifice is a lie. Nolan makes no effort to hide from us this rejection of truth:
“It’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more,” says Batman.
And so Gordon duly tells his lie. Tells how Dent was a hero, and how Batman, a vigilante with his own agenda, turned on him in the end and murdered him (the truth precisely in reverse, of course). Batman becomes an outcast, Dent a hero. And Dent’s death provides the city a new start. Upon this murder a new political order is to be forged, justice is at last to be realized. What neither Harvey nor Batman could bring to pass on the basis of truth is at last to be achieved on the basis of a lie. The film thus leaves the viewer with sharply divided sympathies, torn with the moral ambiguity of the situation, as so many of Nolan’s films do. The nobility of Batman’s abnegation stands in irreconcilable tension with the sense that justice founded on falsehood cannot succeed.
It also renders deeply ambiguous the otherwise deafening Christological resonances. For while Christ takes the guilt of his people, including those who want to kill him, upon himself, and thereby restores the possibility of a community of justice, his judgment is a proclamation of the truth about us and about himself, and the justice that he establishes is a justice dependent upon truth-telling. While he may appear to be the Sinner, this is only temporary, and with the resurrection he is vindicated as the Righteous One, who does not merely take the guilt of the people upon himself, but buries it forever so that he may share with them his righteousness. The ending of the Dark Knight, to be sure, does not foreclose the possibility that the scapegoating will be temporary, that the Dark Knight will rise and receive his public vindication, but it certainly leaves us with an uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs.**
The Dark Knight Rises affirms this fear—justice founded on falsehood will fail; indeed, it will collapse utterly. The film opens with our heroes, Gordon and Wayne, deeply conflicted about what they have done—alienated from the city they sought to save, and alienated from themselves. And how could it be otherwise? Justice is their highest goal, and yet justice requires reconciliation, and reconciliation requires telling the truth and facing the truth. The rotting canker of evil at the heart of Gotham that the Joker had sought to reveal has not been fundamentally addressed; it has merely been papered over by a stifling layer of law and order. Dent’s so-called “murder” has enabled Gotham to clean up its streets, yes, but not by inspiring a reformation from below, giving the people a symbol of hope and goodness that they could embrace and emulate, as Batman had always hoped to do, but merely by justifying a repression from above. It has convinced the public to consent to a draconian “Dent Act” that has succeeded in purging the city of crime, or so it thinks. In reality, it only succeeds, as do all such top-down impositions of justice, in driving evil underground—quite literally, as we soon see as the film unfolds.
Gordon cannot live with the false peace he has bought, which he knows at his heart must be transient, and is tormented by the lie he has told. At one point near the beginning of the film, we see him try and tell the truth, but he cannot—”maybe now is not the time,” he sighs, and continues to repeat the party line, though without conviction. Wayne, meanwhile, having poured himself into the Batman as a symbol of hope, a symbol to inspire people, now has to live with the poisoning of that symbol, and the loss of his identity. Even more crippling, perhaps, is the fact that the achievement of peace is perhaps necessarily a defeat, not a victory for him. The fight against injustice, he had decided, was all he lived for, and now that it has been “won”—what can he live for? He is back, in a sense, in the same position he found himself in Batman Begins, after the assassination of Mr. Chill, his parents’ murderer whom he had intended to kill. “Justice” has been achieved in the most superficial sense, as a restoration of balance and order—the wicked have received their comeuppance—but it carries no satisfaction for him, for it remains arbitrary and irregular. At a deeper level, right order has not been restored. So it is for Gotham under the Dent Act.
Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, I will argue, contains profound reflections on the nature of justice, truth, and the conditions of possibility for true political judgment. It asks such questions as: Can justice be both true and transparent on the one hand, and effective of the other hand? Where is the line between private judgment and public judgment, and why is it so critical that private judgment not take it upon itself to attain public objectives? What is required for true political agency?
Let us first reflect more extensively on the relation of justice and truth. We should not be surprised that justice bought at the expense of truth should prove transient for Gotham, for justice and truth-telling are in fact inextricably interdependent. We see this in the confluence of the two concepts in our word “judgment.” To make a judgment is to enact justice, but it is also to discern a truth about the world. In The Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan argues that judgment always has this dual character because it is both retrospective and prospective—it “both pronounces retrospectively on, and clears space prospectively for, actions that are performed within a community. . . . The form of the political act lies in this double aspect, retrospective and prospective, as pronouncement and foundation. Initiative in action does not constitute judgment, and neither does simple protest. This double aspect makes judgment subject to criteria of truth, on the one hand, and to criteria of effectiveness on the other. These criteria are not alternatives. Success on one front cannot compensate for failure on the other. A well-made judgment is a statement that is true, and as such a deed that is effective” (9).
The scene at the close of The Dark Knight, like the Crucifixion, is clearly a weighty moment of judgment, what O’Donovan defines as “an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context” (7). But it seeks to achieve effectiveness at the cost of truth and transparency, prospective justice at the cost of retrospective justice. As O’Donovan suggests, such a one-sided judgment cannot in the end be effective either, and The Dark Knight Rises confirms this tragic diagnosis. This ambiguity is one that we have been prepared for throughout the earlier two films in the trilogy, in which the tension surfaces over and over again between the demands of justice and the demands of truth. Gotham can tell the truth about its situation, but it cannot do anything about it: it can recognize that Mr. Chill is a murderer, but expediency requires that he be set free nonetheless; it can recognize that organized crime rules the city—everyone knows who Falcone (and then Maroni) really is—but it cannot do anything about it. Effective action against injustice, it seems, must be done in the dark. Hence the need for Wayne to don the mask, to hide his identity, to become “more than just a man” and fight crime under the cloak of darkness if justice is to be achieved. For all his effectiveness, however, the result is deeply unsatisfying. There is a sense that he is a vigilante, that the justice he brings lacks legitimacy. His identity and agenda remain hidden, and to this extent, the justice that he established remains tinged with doubt; perhaps it is an illusion that will quickly be shattered when he reveals his true colors. Hence the ease with which the people turn on him.
Nor is Harvey’s prosecution, White Knight though he may be, freed from such ambiguity. The painfully slow wheels of due process, of transparent courts of justice that must establish guilt beyond doubt before action may be taken against evil, are shown over and over to be insufficient against the sophisticated threats arrayed against them. Hence the need of collaboration with the Batman, who “has no jurisdiction,” and although bound by his own personal honor code, does not trouble himself with legal niceties. Over and over in the The Dark Knight, the guardians of justice are forced to work in the dark—literally and figuratively—in order to be effective. In one particularly chilling scene (at night, of course), Harvey dispenses with due process altogether, putting a gun to a criminal’s head and flipping a coin (a parody of “unbiased” justice to which I shall return below) to decide his fate, in order to get him to talk. The Joker mercilessly exploits this tension between their “code,” their “rules,” and their need to do what it takes to combat evil; Harvey eventually cracks, embracing a “blind” undiscriminating justice, and although Batman does not, his decision to establish justice at the cost of truth can be seen ultimately as a victory for the Joker, despite his insistence, “The Joker cannot win.”
In The Ways of Judgment, O’Donovan explores the profound difficulty which confronts the attempt of fallen human institutions to attain this unity between judgment-as-truth and judgment-as-action, a unity of which only God is fully capable. “It is, perhaps, the most fundamental of all political questions whether and to what extent judgment is possible. How are we so to pronounce as to establish? How are we to make the truth appear effectively? Of God it is said that “He spoke and it was done.” ‘God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’ The word of God carries the power of God within itself; to echo the old phrase from sacramental theology, it effects what it signifies. But can the human word effect what it signifies? Are we given to renew the life of human communities by a word of truth, or is this an unattainable ideal, from which we have to fall back upon the ‘messiness’ and ‘compromise’ of politics?” (13).
Accordingly “the exercise of judgment requires the coincidence of discernment and coercion” (14) This tension leads to the separation between “idealists” and “realists,” the former committed above all to the declaration of the word of truth, the latter to effective coercive action. (The irony in the fact that the so-called “realist” becomes, by his commitment to action, increasingly detached from fidelity to what is “real” in the sense of true, should not go unnoticed, and will be developed more fully below.)
“The question posed by this divergence of views,” says O’Donovan, “has haunted political thought in the twentieth century. Is there in the nuclear core of human judgment a shortfall of reason, which generates an exertion of force to compensate for its lack? Or does reason reach all the way to express itself, where necessary, in forceful action? . . . The question may present itself in various guises: in terms of the practical fragility of human judgment, the insufficiency of propositions to pass over into action, the shame attached to force, the limitations on our perceptions of the truth, and our restricted capacity for constructive and forward-looking initiative. These different forms of the question are interrelated, constantly leading back to one another and to the theological root-question underlying them: can we imitate God’s unity of thought and action so that the reasonableness of a judgment will be sufficient to give it effect?” (15).
Deprived of assurance that it objective correlates to reality, the enactment of judgment becomes a mere projection of will, a will-to-power, a will to create meaning in what is perceived as a vacuum of meaning. It is this frightening prospect that the Joker confronts us with. The Joker tries to unmask the law and order of Gotham as a vain attempt to hold at bay the chaos and meaninglessness that is the only truth in the world. “I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer, I show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. . . . Nobody panics when the expected people get killed.” Gotham’s justice, he charges, is not really concerned about stopping evil, merely about maintaining a sense of normalcy, of seeking to reinforce a rational structure to the world: “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, everybody loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos.”
There is no ordered structure of reality for justice to correlate to, in other words. Justice therefore is perfectly arbitrary, and being arbitrary, unbiased and therefore fair, as the Joker goes on to say. Dent embraces this gospel of nihilism, declaring just before his death, “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what’s fair. You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You thought we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not break… you were wrong. The world is cruel. And the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.” This is the parody of the ideal of “blind justice”—justice that is not merely blind to any extrinsic particular considerations that would unfairly determine it one way rather than another, but to any extrinsic considerations whatsoever.
Now all this may seem like a bit of overstatement. After all, Harvey Dent has not really been converted into the kind of agent of chaos that the Joker is, has he? While he uses chance to determine whether his would-be victims live or die, the victims themselves are chosen on the basis of objective guilt. He is still an agent of justice pursuing the guilty, whereas the Joker simply does not care whom he kills. In pursuing the criterion of effectiveness, he has not discarded the criterion of truth.
Indeed, this plot twist—the fact that the Joker is able so easily to pervert Dent—seemed perhaps to many viewers the most implausible in the film. But perhaps it is not. For what changes decisively for Dent is that he ceases to be an agent of public justice, and begins seeking a private justice. So bitter is his grief at Rachel’s death that he ceases to care about the public order he is supposed to guard, and lets his tremendous passion for justice, that which had made him Gotham’s White Knight, become concentrated solely on the objects of his private vendetta. The fact that he can tip so readily in this direction suggests Nolan’s conviction of the fragility, the instability, of public justice—at which we have hinted already. Dent becomes an agent of revenge, which we have already been told in Batman Begins is “never the same” as justice: “Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. That’s why we have an impartial system,” says Rachel to Bruce.
But is this really fair? Why is revenge not simply bringing about effective judgment according to truth when the public system of judgment has failed? Bruce’s immediate counter to Rachel is “Well your system of justice is broken.”
In the next post, I will show how Nolan’s films wrestle with the question of the legitimacy of private justice in a world where public judgment has failed.
* The irony of this reversal is even more intense in the narrative of the film, because it is the second time such has been attempted. Earlier in the film, Batman has become a scapegoat, and the people are calling for him to turn himself in. Harvey, convinced that Batman is the hero that the city needs, forestalls Wayne’s attempt to reveal himself, and claims that he is the Batman. Harvey attempts to take the stigma of the Batman upon himself in order to protect the real one, and with him, the city. However, this is merely a temporary tactical move. Dent does not really expect people to believe him, and does not expect to have to maintain the fiction for long, seeking only to lure the Joker into a trap and trusting the Batman to rescue him. The later reversal, however, is intended to be permanent.
** As we shall see toward the end of this essay, The Dark Knight Rises does not leave these Christological threads hanging, but picks them up and carries them forward in very intriguing ways.