This weekend, I went to see The Dark Knight. I’m very fond of the dark, edgy feel to the most recent Batman franchize. It does justice to the character and allows the stories to grapple with good and evil and the narrow line between them in a meaningful way. This is a sharp break with the campy television show from the 60s and a bolder direction than Tim Burton’s films in the 90s. Case in point: The Joker. In the 60s, he was not a serious villain at all. In the 90s, he was just your run-of-the-mill nemesis, clearly motivated by money and power. Neither of these incarnations poses a real threat either to the viewer’s imagination or to Batman. However, the new Joker is a truly terrifying entity.
It starts with his appearance; unlike the previous Jokers, whose expensive tailored suits, slick hair, and immaculate (though bizarre) clown make up showed them to at least respect boundaries of appearance, the new Joker is the opposite–wild, greasy hair, a darker and dirtier suit, and smeared makeup all point to a truly deranged mind. This is not your average bad guy.
But it gets worse. We soon learn that he’s not after power, money, revenge, world domination; none of the standard bad-guy motives apply. Nothing about him can be explained through reason; logic and rationality have no place near him. “Some men,” Alfred explains, “just want to watch the world burn.” And this is what is so terrifying about the Joker. It’s not that he kills indiscriminately–all villains do that–but that his ultimate goal is to create chaos by unraveling morality. And he has no regard for even his own life in this pursuit. Batman abides by only one rule–no killing–and so the Joker wants Batman to kill him. And Batman seems awfully close for a while.
The Joker’s greatest accomplishment in this film is the conversion of Harvey Dent into Two Face. Dent, The Joker tells Batman, is his ace-in-the-hole in his gamble for Gotham’s soul; by turning Dent, Gotham’s best hope for goodness, he expects to persuade the people that there is no good. Batman insists that Dent was the best of them all, but Batman is mistaken in this. Dent says, “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time.” This is the problem. He hoped to be decent, and decent is simply not enough to overcome true evil. He could handle the mob-bosses and normal criminals of Gotham, but they were just indecent people. Dent’s decency is powerless against The Joker’s evil, and he consequently falls victim to it and becomes evil himself. No, the only thing that can combat evil is goodness. Batman proves “incorruptable” as the Joker says because he strives toward goodness and sees and protects goodness in Gotham.
Maybe in the end, Batman’s adherence to only one rule is what saves him. Maybe he can maintain his grasp on who he is and what is important because his personal morality is guided along just one solid line rather than trying to pick his way through the tangled mess of moral and social laws. And his actions are always for the good of Gotham–never for himself–so he is not mastered by a sense of personal injustice. Maybe it’s that simplicity that saves him from the Joker. And maybe it’s a simplicity that we need to have too. Jesus gave only two simple rules to guide us: Love God and Love People. Maybe if we concentrate on just abiding by those two rules, we will remember ourselves and what is important and be saved from evil too.