Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Dark Knight: A Philosophical Concern

I liked a few things about the latest Batman movie, but I have some serious issues with it.

The best part of the movie was Heath Ledger. He was brilliant and chilling, and brought a memorable level of intensity to the film. I commented on a friend's blog about how Ledger topped Nicholson's Joker. I should qualify that. This was a totally different film, not nearly as cartoonish as Tim Burton's vision. Nicholson was absolutely perfect in his role, and Ledger was perfect in his. Neither one's performance would have worked in the other's film.

Anyway, the Joker wasn't the scariest character in this film. That honor goes to Gotham's mayor, played by Nestor Carbonell (a.k.a. Bat Manuel). What was with all that eyeliner? I was half-expecting him to come out as a Rocky Horror fanatic halfway through the movie.

Okay, seriously, I have some major qualms with The Dark Knight. It could have been a profoundly unsettling and challenging movie. Instead, it pandered to audiences' confusions about the foundations of morality, offering a rather dumb and wholly unacceptable "solution" to superficially sate the philosophically lost.

If you have yet to see The Dark Knight, I should warn you that the rest of this post contains plot spoilers.

Let's try to overlook the many logical absurdities of the film. Let's not wonder why a huge skyscraper in the middle of Hong Kong would require its visitors to check their cell phones, and why out of all the thousands of people who must have visited that building, there were only two cell phones in that small drawer. And let's not wonder how a cell phone could take out the electricity in an entire building by remote, and why it would have to be in a drawer in the lobby of that building to do so. Suffice it to say, pretty much everything to do with cell phones in this movie was ridiculous.

And what about that guy who had a bomb so obviously sewn into his belly? Don't they have metal detectors and strip searches in the Gotham police station?

There's lots more. Like, the whole thing about Gordon (Gary Oldman) faking his death to protect his family. That was shameless Hollywood manipulation. Gordon was never even targetted by the Joker, was he? Even if he had been, he certainly wasn't a target after the Joker escaped from prison, and he didn't act like one, either. When the Joker was free to blow up hospitals, Gordon (now Commissioner Gordon, a title more likely to make him a target) didn't even put a single officer on guard to protect his family. No, the filmmakers abandoned logic for a cheap way to set up Gordon's family-in-crisis bit at the end of the movie. Shameless.

And how about the guy who discovered Batman's true identity? All he discovered was a connection between Wayne Enterprises' R&D department and Batman. That's hardly evidence of Batman's true identity.

Okay, so The Dark Knight was severely lacking in the logic department. Fine. This doesn't make it impossible to like the film. It's just really annoying, especially for a film that so clearly wants to engage our critical faculties.

More importantly, the film failed to deliver on all three of its main characters. Batman's character was barely developed in this film, and how it was developed is problematic (see below). The Joker's character was not given a satisfying climax or conclusion, mainly because he was too easily caught and then just left hanging . . . literally. (I wonder if there was more about the fate of the Joker, and it got left on the cutting room floor because of Heath Ledger's untimely death.)

And the coin-flipping Two-Face, while cleverly developed, was similarly shorted in the end. Two-Face should've become a serious threat to Batman, and his reign of terror should've lasted longer. (And he should've had something to keep his left eye moist, but that's not as important.)

Now, as serious as these flaws are, I want to go beyond mere cinematic complaints. Ultimately, this film bothers me on philosophical grounds. The problem is, The Dark Knight plays on its audience's failure to understand morality, offering only confusion and insult, not wisdom or insight.

Much of the world is of the opinion that morality is a faith-based phenomenon. It is believed that science and rationality only allow us to view the world as a cold, meaningless place ruled by chance. Any hope for love, compassion, and humanity are said to be outside the province of reason. Thus, religious and "spiritual" beliefs are called upon as necessary forces for the good of civilization, regardless of whether or not they offer truth. (Or, some say they offer a different kind of truth--the kind you feel, not the kind you should think about.)

This anti-rational view of morality is untenable. It just doesn't work. When we abandon reason, we abandon morality, because morality is based on the very possibility of rational justification. If you cannot rationally justify your behavior, you cannot call it moral.

Morality is part of human nature. It is born from our need to negotiate within our communities. It is the system whereby we judge and establish trust and honor. This process is based on physiological instincts, not faith or idols, and it does not require lies or fabrications to sustain it. It only requires that we nurture the hard-wired desire to negotiate and work together. Love and compassion are involved--not as ideals to be fabricated through myth, but rather as biological processes nurtured through human interaction.

The Dark Knight, however, would have us believe that without faith in idols, we would have no morality. We would coldly act according to chance alone, like Two-Face, with the toss of a coin. Or, worse, we would destroy the world with sinister jubilance, a la the Joker. This insulting view of humanity makes a mockery of morality.

Consider the absurd logic of Batman's choice at the end of the movie. Batman wants to protect the image of Harvey Dent, so the public doesn't discover that Dent turned into a psychotic killer. Apparently, civilization is so fragile that, if we didn't have icons like Dent to worship, we would lose our grip on humanity.

Are legitimate role models so hard to come by, we need to fabricate them to maintain the delicate balance of civilization? No. Profoundly, no.

So now we have a Batman who is willing to lie to protect the reputation of public figures, thereby forfeiting his right to the public's trust.

Was Dent really so special, anyway? Sure, he can punch out mob witnesses and win over Batman's girlfriend. But we are left to wonder how Dent earned the name "Harvey Two-Face" to begin with, and why it wasn't so hard for the Joker to push him over the edge to homicidal mania.

No public figure is so important for the good of humanity that their image is worth preserving at the expense of the truth. It is an insult to reason to claim that any particular image, let alone the image of a district attorney of highly questionable character, is required to sustain the moral foundations of society.

Perhaps in the next installment, Batman will understand this. Fortunately, civilization does not hang in the balance.