Posted by: Ken Brown | July 19, 2008

Self-Interest and Sacrifice in The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight. Image copyright Warner Bros.

Relentless. From the opening bank heist on, The Dark Knight never lets up. There is no climax to this film, just a series of emotional peaks, each more terrifying than the previous. With hardly a moment’s pause—even the Joker gives little comic relief, though Morgan Freeman drops a couple zingers—the flawless action builds uncontrollably to a breathless conclusion as Gotham falls to the brink of confusion and terror. This reboot makes Tim Burton’s Batman seem like a light-hearted farce.

It’s being said that The Dark Knight is as much a crime drama as a superhero movie—and it is—but it’s also a terrifying psychological thriller, reveling in misdirection and reversal. At the heart of all its turmoil, of course, stands Heath Ledger’s Joker, compared to whom all previous supervillains look like sissies. Easily stealing the show from Christian Bale’s Batman, his truly wicked sense of humor and casual disregard for human life makes you believe that absolutely any horrific conclusion is possible.

Jeffrey Overstreet calls him “one of the greatest portrayals of the devil I’ve ever seen” and I must agree. But if Satan is said to be disguised as an angel of light, this greasy clown is what he must look like underneath: appallingly ugly, brilliantly misguided, unpredictably deceitful, delighting not only in chaos but corruption. The Joker doesn’t just want to destroy goodness; he wants to make it impossible. In forcing one terrible choice after another, he dares you to choose evil even while you try to prevent it. He creates fear not just to terrify, but to dehumanize, to make the most horrific sacrifice seem defensible, even necessary. He has no plan, he tells us, but he clearly has a goal—to win “Gotham’s soul,” to ensure that no one is left innocent. And he nearly succeeds.

But he doesn’t succeed, and that is why the film does. Set over against this horrible evil are three men in particular. New District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is tough on crime and puts a wholesome face on justice. Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman at his best) is a tested cop and a family man. And, of course, Bruce Wayne and his Batman are a mystery, simultaneously a playboy and a vigilante to the world, but few know his true identity; in fact, it’s questionable whether even he does. Together these three attempt to restore order to Gotham, and their triumphs and failures form the real heart of the film and keep it from collapsing into nihilism.

Through them, The Dark Knight takes pains to emphasize that even “the best of us” can fall, but it also recognizes the grandeur and complexity of human nature. At one point it is suggested that Harvey Dent is the hero the city wants, a “white knight” they can believe in, while Batman must be more than a hero, a “dark knight” who can make the hard choices that no one else can. What precisely this “more” means is never quite spelled out, but in contrasting these two kinds of heroes (and both Dent and Wayne waver between them), the film seems to be suggesting two very different possibilities. One alternative retains the appearance of selflessness but hides a spreading moral ambiguity leading to the rejection of order for chance and self-interest, as the sacrifices of others are accepted as necessary to defeat evil. Such compromises, made by several characters at various points in film, could suggest that true evil, unmasked and unhinged, cannot be defeated without taint, even if one may appear the selfless hero on the surface.

But the film offers another alternative, a self-sacrifice which embraces the appearance of evil rather than its substance. To face the consequences of the sins of others is seen to be the only true answer to overwhelming evil. In short, if the Joker’s goal is to create a dilemma where the most attractive option is to “do evil that good may result,” several characters reject the appeal of self-interest and choose good even if evil may result. Too much is lost for any tidy dénouement, but in its melancholy conclusion, The Dark Knight suggests that to truly be “more than a hero,” one must be strong enough to take that fall and survive it, to courageously choose the right and noble even at great risk, to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. This is the only ray of hope in the darkness of unrestrained evil.

The Dark Knight is rated PG-13, but it pushes the limit of the rating with intense and gruesome (though bloodless) violence. Do not make the mistake of the several people at our showing who (inexplicably) brought young children—every one of them left part way through with a crying and terrified child.



  1. great review! and i’m jealous – our sitter can’t make it this weekend, ack. i’m looking forward to seeing, though!

  2. Thanks Carmen! There’s sooo much more to this movie that I want to discuss, but I couldn’t without huge spoilers. It’s not a perfect movie, but it does a whole lot of things right.

  3. Nicely done, Ken. Thanks so much.

    I’m thunderstruck by the number of reviews that seem to miss how Nolan has dealt with these themes. They seem blinded by their own political over-sensitivity, and they’re jumping to all kinds of conclusions that fail to take into account the story that this movie tells. Does Batman represent Dubya? Oh no! Is “I Believe in Harvey Dent” some kind of veiled jab at Obama-mania? Save us! Is Lucius’s decision a condemnation of federal wiretapping? Say it isn’t so!

    Thanks for your thoughtful, level-headed interpretation.

  4. I’m planning on seeing it on Thursday night. Good review.

  5. Thanks Jeffrey, and I agree about the political aspects of the film. It certainly explores some serious post-9/11 issues, but it is in no way ham-fisted or one-sided about it. For instance, if Lucius’ decision is to be taken as a condemnation of wire-taps, the fact that the invasion of privacy worked (and saved lives) could be taken to prove the opposite. In truth, the film raises the question without forcing an answer, which (as I see it) is precisely what a great film should do!

    And Bird, definitely see it; you wont be disappointed!

  6. Wow …

    I was never impressed with the previous run of Batman movies, but this intrigues me. Thanks for the review.

    It does seem like parents should spend a little more time checking movies out before bringing kids, doesn’t it? I’ve often wanted to ask, “Are you kidding?” on the way into a movie …

    Anyway, I also wanted to confirm that I got your post for the Christian Carnival. Thanks.

  7. Yeah, the original Batman was decent, but certainly not one of my favorite movies, and all the rest before Batman Begins were terrible (though I did always enjoy the old-school TV show, if only for the campy humor).

    Anyway, I was shocked when I saw people bringing kids in, but thinking back I do kind of understand it. I mean, it was opening day, no previous comic book movie has been close to this dark, and this one had been advertized and rated just the same as all the rest, so it’s not surprising that some parents who don’t bother checking into such things might not have realized what they were getting into. Still, have a little sense, right? I mean, when the movie posters show the scariest clown you’ve ever seen, surely it doesn’t take much thought to realize it might be too much for a 5 year old.

  8. Isn’t the PG-13 rating enough to show that it’s too much for a five-year-old? I’ve never heard of a PG-13 movie for kindergarteners, and there’s a good reason for that.

  9. Jeremy,
    You sure would think so, but quite a few people seem to think that if it’s allowed it must be ok. I guess that would be the flip side of the fundamentalist claim that if it’s wrong it shouldn’t be allowed…

  10. Ken,
    I have been cruising the net for reviews such as the one you have put up and I’ve enjoyed it immensely… I think you are right on. Particularly with regard to the self-sacrificing acceptance of the appearance of evil. I have heard much criticism over the “noble lie” that ends the film as a playing off of truth against justice, but I had a hunch that there was something more going on here and you’ve managed to fill it in for me. On a second viewing, I’m even more convinced this is the case.
    If you get the chance, I have posted some more developed thoughts about the movie’s themes on my own blog:

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