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.**