The act of charity that concludes Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the basic goodness of ordinary people. The Dark Knight avoids this ideological conclusion by identifying the moral act with criminality.
The Joker occupies the ethical center of the film as he breaks from the world of calculation. Here he has just blown up a hospital.
Batman wants to cede his position to a hero who doesn’t have to wear a mask.
Harvey Dent embodies the promise of heroism without a mask, but this is a promise that he will betray.
Dent feels no fear because he is certain of his own ethical purity. This certainty does not save him from turning into a criminal.
Early in the film, Harvey Dent’s coin serves as the objective correlative for his self-confidence.
The coin that Dent flips becomes two-sided after the Joker destroys his life.
Dent confronts Ramirez about her corruption, and he spares her life on the basis of a coin flip.
In the figure of Dent, we see the hero becomes a criminal when confronted with trauma.
Gordon and Batman decide to show only the heroic side of Dent and lie about his criminality.
Batman turns Dent’s face in order to indicate the decision to lie.
Batman takes on the image of evil and agrees to make himself into the target of the police. His exceptionality becomes criminal.
Gordon smashes the Bat Signal in order to indicate Batman’s new position in relation to the law.
When he takes on the image of the criminal, Batman transforms himself into the Dark Knight. This is the key ethical gesture of the film.
The only possible heroic exception involves a hero who adopts the image of evil. Otherwise, the exception multiplies itself and multiplies the injustice that it fights.
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man simply celebrates the exceptionality of its title figure.
World Court: The Dark Knight asks us to imagine George Bush pursued by the World Court.
The two ethical acts that culminate the film seem to mark a turn away from the critical edge that the film displays earlier and a capitulation to sentimental morality that sees the underlying goodness of humanity. One could view the end of The Dark Knight as a new version of the conclusion of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), where a mass eruption of compassion comes to rescue George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from financial ruin. In The Dark Knight, the people on both boats decide to accept their own deaths rather than take responsibility for killing the people on the other boat. But in contrast to Capra, Nolan complicates the ethical dimension of the acts. He begins by showing the utter immorality of traditional consequentialist or utilitarian moral claims. The civilians on the first boat begin by insisting on their moral right to destroy the group of criminals on the second boat. One argues for blowing up the other boat by claiming, “They had their chance.” If one group must die in order to save the other — this is the ground rule that the Joker establishes — then it is clear which group should live and which should perish. No one on the civilian boat argues for not blowing up the other boat, and it is clear that their arguments have nothing to do with morality and everything to do with their own survival.
What’s more, the film reveals the completely antithetical relation between the institutions of democracy and ethical action. The authorities on the civilian boat decide — prompted by an outspoken passenger and due presumably to their devotion to the ideology of democracy — to vote on whether or not to destroy the other boat. As the film shows it, the simple act of voting on a question such as this underscores its inappropriateness. But when the authorities count the votes and a large majority (396-140) votes to blow up the criminal boat, we see baldly that democratic procedures (such as the popular vote) have no ethical status at all. In fact, the secret ballot allows each subject to retreat from the trauma of the ethical decision rather than confronting it directly. The film shows one passenger writing out his vote and handing it in with great determination, while a shot of another reveals his emotional struggle with the difficulties of the moral issue. But the way that Nolan films these two passengers — and his entire treatment of the vote — is replete with irony. Both of these attitudes toward the vote serve only to illustrate the absurdity of voting on the decision to blow up a boatful of other people. The vote is an inadequate mechanism for approaching a decision of this magnitude.
The ethical act occurs not through the hastily put together franchise on the civilian boat but through the revolutionary seizure of power on the prisoners’ boat. During the crisis, Nolan focuses several shots on a group of large prisoners huddled together, appearing to conspire to take the detonator from the authorities on the boat who have it. The way that the prisoners are depicted accentuates their menace: they stare ominously at the authorities; they whisper to each other while staring; they maintain a determined grimacing expression. These visual clues, added to the fact that the film establishes them as dangerous criminals, suggest that they are planning to seize the detonator and blow up the civilian ship in order to save their own lives. But the film turns the tables on the spectator’s expectation.
The leader of this group of prisoners approaches the authority holding the detonator and confronts him. A shot of the frightened look on the guard’s face shows how the prisoner intimidates him, not because the guard fears being overpowered but because he believes that the prisoner will force him to do what he wants to do anyway — that is, blow up the other boat. The prisoner upbraids the guard, “You don’t want to die, but you don’t know how to take a life.” After the prisoner says this, Nolan cuts back to the other boat, where a civilian proclaims, “Those men on that boat. They made their choices.” This crosscutting sequence appears to establish a kind of moral equivalency: though the prisoner is more straightforward about his willingness to kill in order to survive, the civilian partakes in exactly the same attitude. When the film cuts back to the prisoner’s boat, the prisoner makes his final argument before taking the detonator. He says,
These words put the final touch on the conviction that the prisoner plans to blow up the other boat, but instead we see him take the detonator and throw it out the window into the water, apparently destroying his own chance at survival. In a subsequent close-up, the civilian who had volunteered to press the detonator softly lays it back in its box.
Both the prisoners and the civilians act in a way that violates not only their self-interest (risking death by refusing to kill someone else) but in a way that defies all rational calculation. According to the rules of the game that the Joker established, if neither boat uses the detonator, both boats will be destroyed. Rejecting this wager requires rejecting the morality of calculation because according to any calculation of good ends, it will be preferable that one boat survives rather than both being destroyed. Here, Nolan reveals that a group of anonymous people are capable of a great ethical act, but what saves this depiction from becoming Capraesque — and thus perpetuating an ideological fantasy allowing the spectator to leave the film assured of intrinsic human goodness — is where he locates the source of the ethical act and what factors militate against it.
The source of the ethical act is not the popular vote (which goes 396-140 against acting ethically), nor is it the good mother trying to protect her child (who argues for blowing up the prisoners), nor is it the figures of authority (who come across as feckless, unable to decide one way or the other). Instead, it is the prisoner, the figure of criminality, who is able to make the ethical gesture. And ultimately the Joker himself acts as the source for the display of ethics that we see at the end of the film. By setting up an abhorrent ethical situation where he expects people to act in a calculating fashion, the Joker provides an opportunity for them to break out of calculation. He confronts them with the logic of their scheming taken to its endpoint, and this creates the possibility for a recoil from scheming, which is what occurs.
The Joker is the ethical center of The Dark Knight because he manages to challenge the hegemony of calculation that controls Gotham and to show that another world, a world where ethical acts are not part of a scheming calculation, is possible. Of course, the Joker does horrible things: he stabs a pencil through a man’s eye; he blows up a hospital; he kills countless people; and so on. By placing the Joker at the ethical center of the film, Nolan does not exculpate him for these deeds nor celebrate them. He shows rather that there is a certain necessary violence behind all ethical acts. They must violently wipe away the predominating world of calculation that underlies and pathologizes all obedience to the law. Though he is himself a figure of evil in the film, the violence of the Joker takes aim at the radical evil present in typical obedience to the law — the fact that we obey the law, as Kant notes, for reasons other than the law itself. The Joker’s evil provides the basis for any ethical heroism because it highlights and strives to eliminate the evil of calculation that defines the subject’s original relation to the law. He thereby constitutes the ground on which the ethical act can emerge.
The hero's public face
Just as The Dark Knight illustrates the inextricable relation between heroism and evil, it also undermines the idea of the hero who can appear as heroic. From early in the film, Batman proclaims his desire to step aside in order to cede his position to someone who can be heroic without wearing a mask. He sees this possibility in the figure of Harvey Dent. But the film shows that there is no hero without a mask — and, more specifically, without a mask of evil. As Slavoj Žižek puts it,
Without the mask of evil, good cannot emerge and remains stuck the calculation of interest; without the mask of evil, good remains scheming. This is precisely what Harvey Dent evinces, despite the promise that Batman sees in him for the perfect form of heroism.
Throughout the beginning part of the film, Harvey Dent seems like a figure of pure good. The purity of his goodness allows him to never be nonplused. Even when a mobster tries to shoot him in open court, he calmly grabs the gun from the mobster’s hand and punches the mobster in the face. After the punch, we see Dent’s expression of total equanimity, even in the midst of an attempted assassination. This coolness stems from his absolute certainty that events will ultimately follow according to his plans. The rapidity with which Nolan edits together the threat from the mobster and Dent’s response minimizes the spectator’s sense of danger. The threat against Dent’s life disappears almost before we can experience it as such, which suggests that it lacks a quality of realness, both for Dent and for the spectator. The court scene establishes him as a hero whom one cannot harm. Ironically, the superhero in the film, Batman, shows himself to be vulnerable when he first appears in the film, as dogs bite him through his protective armor. This distinction between Dent and Batman’s vulnerability explains why the former cannot be an authentic hero.
In contrast to Batman, Dent’s heroism does not involve the experience of loss and is based on a repudiation of the very possibility of losing. Bruce Wayne adopted the identity of Batman after the trauma of being dropped in a cave full of bats and the loss of his parents, but no such traumatic loss animates the heroism of Dent. He is heroic through an immediate identification with the good, which enables him to have a purity that Batman doesn’t have. No rupture and subsequent return animates his commitment to justice. He can publicly avow his heroic actions because he performs them in a pure way, without resorting to the guise of evil. But the falsity of this immediate identification with the good becomes apparent in Dent’s disavowal of loss, which Nolan locates in the tic that marks Dent’s character — his proclivity for flipping a coin to resolve dilemmas.
On several occasions, he flips the coin that his father had given him in order to introduce the possibility of loss into his activities. By flipping a coin, one admits that events might not go according to plan, that the other might win, and that loss is an ever-present possibility. Though the coin flip represents an attempt to master loss by rendering it random rather than necessary or constitutive, it nonetheless ipso facto accedes to the fact that one might lose. Dent first flips the coin when he is late to examine a key witness in court, and the coin flip will determine whether he or his assistant Rachel will do the questioning. When Rachel wonders how he could leave something so important to chance, Dent replies, “I make my own luck.” It is just after this that the mobster tries and fails to shoot Dent, further suggesting his invulnerability.
Dent wins this and subsequent coin flips in the first part of the film because he uses a loaded coin, a coin with two heads. When it comes to the coin flip, Dent does make his own luck by eliminating the element of chance. The coin that he uses ensures that he will avoid the possibility of losing. The coin with two heads is certainly a clever device, but it also stands as the objective correlative for Dent’s lack of authentic heroism. The immediacy of his heroism cannot survive any mediation. Once loss is introduced into Dent’s world, his heroism disappears, and he becomes a figure of criminality.
The transformation of Harvey Dent after his disfigurement is so precipitous that it strains credulity. One day he is the pure defender of absolute justice, and the next he is on a homicidal warpath willing to shoot innocent children. One could chalk up this rapid change to sloppy filmmaking on Christopher Nolan’s part, to an eagerness to move too quickly to the film’s concluding moments of tension. But the rapidity of the transformation signifies all the more because it seems so forced and jarring. It allows us to retroactively examine Harvey Dent’s relationship to the law earlier in the film.
Dent becomes Two-Face after his injury, but in doing so he merely takes up the identity that police department had adopted for him when he was working for the Internal Affairs division. As an investigator of other officers, Dent earned this nickname by insisting on absolute purity and by targeting any sign of police corruption. Even Gordon, an officer who is not corrupt, complains to Dent of the paralyzing effects on the department of these tactics. On the one hand, an insistence on purity seems to be a consistently noncalculating ethical position. One can imagine this insistence obstructing the longterm goal of better law enforcement (which is why Gordon objects to it). On the other hand, however, the demand for purity always anticipates its own failure. The pure hero quickly becomes the criminal when an experience of loss disrupts this purity.
This first occurs when Gordon is apparently killed at the police commissioner’s funeral. In response to this blatant display of public criminality, Dent abuses a suspect from the shooting and even threatens to kill him, using his trick coin as a device for mental torture. Even though Dent has no intention of actually shooting the suspect, Batman nonetheless scolds Dent for his methods when he interrupts the private interrogation. This scene offers the first insight into what Dent will become later in the film, but it also shows the implications of his form of heroism. Dent resorts to torture because his form of heroism has no ontological space for loss. When it occurs, his heroism becomes completely derailed.
Rachel's death and his own disfigurement introduce traumatic loss into Dent’s existence. Nolan shows the ramifications of this change through the transformation that his coin undergoes during the explosion that kills Rachel. The explosion chars one side of Dent’s two-headed coin (which he had earlier flipped to Rachel as he was taken away to jail), so that it becomes, through being submitted to a traumatic force, a coin with two different sides. The film indicates here how trauma introduces loss into the world and how this introduction of loss removes all subjective certainty.
When Dent as Two-Face flips the newly marked coin, the act takes on an entirely new significance. Unlike earlier, he is no longer certain about the result of the flip. He flips to decide whether he will kill the Joker in the hospital room, whether he will kill Detective Wuertz (Ron Dean) in a bar, or whether he will kill Detective Ramirez (Monique Curnen) in an alley. Of the three, only Wuertz ends up dead, but Dent also kills another officer and the criminal boss Maroni, along with some of his men. This rampage ends with Dent holding Gordon’s family hostage and threatening to kill the one whom Gordon holds most dear. Dent becomes a killer in order to inflict his own experience of loss on others: he tells Gordon that he wants to kill what is most precious to him so that Gordon will feel what he felt. Dent can so quickly take up this attitude because his heroism has no place for loss. When it occurs, the heroism becomes completely undone.
After Dent’s death, the film ends with Batman accepting responsibility for the killings performed by Dent in order to salvage Dent’s public reputation and thereby sustain the image of the public hero. Gordon and Batman believe that this gesture is necessary for saving the city and keeping its hope for justice alive. When Gordon says, “Gotham needs its true hero,” we see a shot of him turning Dent’s face over, obscuring the burned side and exposing the human side. In death, Dent will begin to wear the mask that he would never wear in life. A mask of heroism will cover his criminality. As the film conceives it, this lie — that purity is possible — represents the sine qua non of social being. Without it, without the idea that one can sustain an ethical position, calculation of interest would have nothing to offset it, and the city would become identified with criminality.
But the real interest of the film’s conclusion lies with Batman and the form of appearance that his heroism takes. It is as if Batman takes responsibility for Dent’s act not to save Dent’s face but to stain his own image irrevocably with evil. He remains the heroic exception, but his status changes radically. In order to guarantee that Dent dies as a hero, Batman must take responsibility for the murders that Dent committed. With this gesture, he truly adopts the mask of evil. In the closing montage sequence, we see the police hunting him down, Gordon smashing the Bat Signal, and finally Batman driving away into the night on his motorcycle. As this sequence concludes, we hear Gordon’s voiceover say,
As Gordon pronounces the final word, the film cuts to black from the image of Batman on his motorcycle. The melodrama of this voiceover elevates Batman's heroism, but it does so precisely because he agrees to appear as evil. This gesture, even more than any of his physical acts of courage, is the gesture of the true hero because it leaves him without any recognition for his heroism. For the hero who appears in the form of evil, heroic exceptionality must be an end in itself without any hope for a greater reward. When the exception takes this form, it loses the danger that adheres to the typical hero. The mask of evil allows the exception to persist without multiplying itself. By adopting this position at the end of the film, Batman reveals that he has taken up the lesson of the Joker and grasped the importance of the break from calculation. Dent, the hero who wants to appear heroic, descends into murderous evil. But Batman, the hero who accepts evil as his form of appearance, sustains the only possible path for heroic exceptionality.
In an epoch when the law's inadequacy is evident, the need for the heroic exception becomes ever more pronounced, but the danger of the exception has also never been more apparent. Declarations of exceptionality abound in the contemporary world, and they allow us to see the negative ramifications that follow from the exception, no matter how heroic its intent. Audiences flock to superhero movies in search of a heroic exception that they can embrace, an exception that would work toward justice without simultaneously adding to injustice in the manner of today’s real world exceptions. In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan offers a viable image of heroic exceptionality. As he sees, its form of appearance must be its opposite if it to avoid implicating itself in the injustice that it fights. The lesson for our real world exceptions is thus a difficult one. Rather than being celebrated as the liberator of Iraq and the savoir of U.S. freedom, George W. Bush would have to act behind the scenes to encourage charges being brought against him as a war criminal at the World Court, and then he would have to flee to the streets of The Hague as the authorities pursue him there. In the eyes of the public, true heroes must identify themselves with the evil that we fight.