Monday, December 29, 2008

The Dark Knight and Unearned Guilt

I saw The Dark Knight on DVD the other day. Although I think it is a very good action movie, one of the underlying messages in the movie really left a bad taste in my mouth. For those of you who have seen the movie or do not mind plot spoilers, I invite you to read my reflections below.

::::::::::::::::::::: Plot Sequence Spoilers below ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Blaming Batman for that which he is mitigating
I did not like how Batman accepted blame for much of the mayhem that The Joker waged. Recall from the movie that the Joker demands that he will continue to kill innocents until Batman reveals his identity. While it is fairly obvious that the Joker is not going to relent in his nihilistic and sadistic on Gotham if he is appeased, Batman is nevertheless blamed by civilians, law enforcement, news reporters, the Joker and even his loyal butler Alfred for the civilians casualties and the chaos that ensue at the Joker's hand.

As a plot element, it is perfectly fine if Batman initially accepts such guilt only to later realize his error and to properly refute these unjust charges by the end of the movie. However, this realization never occurs. Instead, the movie ends with Batman accepting that he is responsible for much of the chaos in Gotham and concludes that it is his duty to continue to fight crime anyway even though much of the city blames him.

Harvey Dent does seem to protect Batman from these charges to some degree, largely through his actions of literally claiming to be Batman, resulting in his immediate incarceration. However, since Harvey Dent breaks down by the end of the film and embarks on his own killing spree, his moral defense of Batman is not portrayed as solid. After all, who is he to say anything on this matter? He literally transmogrified into a monster and starting slaying people in the name of a perverse concept of justice that is detached from reality.

Who is really responsible for the crime in Gotham city?
Batman is not responsible for the people who the Joker has killed. The Joker and his thugs are responsible for their own murderous actions. In fact, Batman was Gotham's only hope to stopping the Joker. Furthermore, blaming Batman is self-defeating for the residents of Gotham city, since the extent that Batman is blamed influences the extent that he has the incentive to stop protecting them from the ruthless criminals who used to run their city.

The movie suggests that Batman's existence "forced" the fearful mobsters to turn to a monster such as the Joker, since they had no other alternative to combat Batman. However, this ignores the fact that these mobsters want to exert just enough power that they need to bring Gotham city to its knees. Batman's existence certainly required that they accumulate even more destructive power to pursue their vicious ends. However, the goal of the mobsters never changed. If anything, this illustrates why organized crime should be eradicated swiftly and completely. Such crime families should never be allowed to fester, lest they seek to escalate their offensive capability.

If only Batman could also intellectually defend himself
I think The Dark Knight would be a better movie if Batman eventually realizes that he does not deserve the guilt that is imposed on him. Batman could have taken a defiant and principled stance, explaining to the world how he is not the cause of the crime but the exterminator of it. He could remind Gotham city's residents as to how miserable and crime-ridden the city was before he embraced the role as a crime-fighter. Batman could have identified the inspiration that he has given the city, including how even common police officers disguise themselves as batmen so as to both boost their courage and strike fear in the wicked. Unfortunately, none of this has happened, which makes the ending of the movie depressing rather than uplifting.

The world needs more heroes
Unfortunately, we live in an age where politicians are devoid of principles. If Barack Obama were running for mayor of Gotham City, he would insist on meeting with The Joker with no "preconditions" and leaving all options (e.g., appeasement, compromise, freezing his assets or a law enforcement crackdown) firmly on the table. John McCain, being no better, would saunter around as if he is somehow a tough guy since he would meet with The Joker with a few nominal preconditions. Furthermore, John McCain would probably divert millions of tax dollars to crackdown on some lesser crime family so that he can boast of his crime-fighting success because he is preventing that particular family from falling under the influence of the Joker.

Given these depressing realities, we can use definitely more movies where honest and incorruptible heroes triumph over evil while refusing to accept any unearned guilt. Overall, I still recommend seeing The Dark Knight as it is a very good action movie qua action movie. However, this theme of accepting unearned guilt is a stain on the movie that cannot be ignored and it did detract from my enjoyment of the film.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Doug: ". . . we can use definitely more movies where honest and incorruptible heroes triumph over evil while refusing to accept any unearned guilt."

I agree, but I wonder: What would be required in our culture to accomplish that? At a minimum, the producer would need objective principles--belief in rights, egoism, reason, and one natural, knowable world, at least implicitly. And those principles would have to be shared by the writer, the director, the actors, and the producer's bankers, as well as a viewing public willing to pay for it all. Those principles couldn't be newly adopted; they would have to be part of each person's subconscious.

I stopped seeing new movies years ago, but I do think that one sure indicator of a revival, a renaissance, or a revolution in objective values will show up in movies first.

Tim C said...

(Presumably, if you're reading the comments, you saw the main post's spoiler warning. There are not major plot spoilers in this comment, but be warned that minor ones may be found.)

Good analysis; Batman has always been a flawed sort-of-non-hero-superhero. I haven't read all the comics or anything of that nature, but as far as I know, this film is consistent with certain things that make Batman Batman - such as his rule about not killing anyone - which is quite annoying as this buys into the whole "don't sink to their level" load of codswallop (I think this is stated directly, either in this film or the previous one) while simultaneously failing to recognize the difference between the innocent and the guilty in terms of who has what rights.

I'd like to think that the makers of the film had "see what's wrong with this" in mind, what with portrayal of the injustices mentioned by Doug and their parallels in the real world (we wouldn't have terrorism if we hadn't done this or that to "deserve" it, for instance), but there's not enough evidence to warrant this interpretation.

As far as hero films go, I still prefer Flash Gordon (1980 version) - the film may be intentionally cheesy (and Flash isn't exactly a towering intellect about much, which is probably a good thing given what modern writers would probably have him think, a la Batman - I cringe at the thought of a remake), but the film portrays the hero, and justice, correctly.

Anonymous said...

"And those principles would have to be shared by the writer, the director, the actors, and the producer's bankers, as well as a viewing public willing to pay for it all."

Burgess, this is an excellent point, one which I came to myself some time ago. Many Objectivists want there to be life-affirming, egoistic movies that showcase rational values and ideas. But this is really an unrealistic expectation for our culture for all the reasons which you listed.

There are no people in Hollywood who hold fully rational ideas explicitly and who have the healthy psycho-epistemologies to make these movies. Plus, even if some heroic Roark-like film producer managed to break through and obtain the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to make *and market* movies today, how would the audience respond?

How would Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public who are hip-deep in altruism, pragmatism, and naturalism respond to rational/Objectivist themes explicitly presented in movies? My guess, and this is somewhat cynical, is that a Roark-like film director could make one of the greatest movies ever made and it would be shunned and condemned by the public at large.

Incidentally, this applies to any film adaptation of 'AS' that might be made today. How could they ever do that novel justice in today's world with today's directors and today's actors and today's Hollywood bankers? What would the audience reaction to a loyal 'AS' adaptation be? My guess is if someone actually were to somehow make a loyal treatment of 'AS', it would terrify people or at the least make them feel very uncomfortable. I don't think it would make money in today's world.

The sad reality is that there needs to be a cultural revolution before any of the art work that Objectivists want to see will or can ever be made. Even sadder still is that cultural revolution is not on the horizon and even if it were there is a very high probability that it will be drenched in much blood. The old expression always comes back to knock us back to reality: "Its earlier than you think."


Anonymous said...

Oh and one last point:

"I stopped seeing new movies years ago, but I do think that one sure indicator of a revival, a renaissance, or a revolution in objective values will show up in movies first."

This is brilliant and so true. Movies would be a *LEADING* indicator of a cultural revolution. Given today's movies, there is no such revolution anywhere in site. All that today's movies show us is that the culture is plunging into the abyss of nihilism.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I did not enjoy Dark Knight. In particular, I did not like the ending because throughout, I wanted Batman to be a hero.

However, there was one bright spot in the movie for me. That was where the people on the two different ferry boats were being manipulated into blowing the other boat up. But people on both boats had enough sense to win this Prisoner's Dilemma.

Andrew E. said...

Agreed. I'm fully capable of appreciating the roller coaster ride of special effects and well shot action sequences, but the Batman-sacrificing-himself-for-the-good-of-Gotham is of course unfortunate.
The thing is, I'm not so sure that this is really what people want, in the deepest sense. My feeling is, how could they want anything else when this kind of "the best hero is one who sacrifices" nonsense is all you get? It doesn't make it any less evil at its philosophical root, but still I'm not convinced of the supposed conscious effort whether by writers, actors or the film industry in general to "force" this kind of stuff on people.
I just don't think the counter argument has ever been given a fair shake. Most people don't even know it exists!!
I'm of course thinking of myself here.
Before I'd ever been exposed to Ayn Rand or any other similar thinker, my collection of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, etc., books was wide and deep. I was younger of course and truly *hated* corporations, and held deeply anti-American beliefs, or at least, what I consider to be so. It was almost by accident that I discovered Atlas Shrugged. After reading it, the effect was an almost instantaneous reversal of so many ideas I'd held dear. As an atheist, I imagine it's the closest I'll ever come to feeling "born again," in fact I'd argue that it's more real than the arbitrary religious kind.
I'd been searching for honest answers to certain philosophical questions in a culture with nothing but the leftist/christian morals of selflessness, sacrifice, humility and "community" to choose from. People like Noam Chomsky *seemed* like they were saying something subversive and more akin to what I was looking for. Sure, I thought I valued individual rights and I was anti-state, in my own juvenile way. But again, the level of exposure of leftist ideals eclipses most anything else. For myself at least, I had/have a scientific way of thinking wherein new and better ideas replace old or disproven ones. It reminds me of a quote, "A mind changed by new ideas can never regain it's old form." So true.
My long winded point is this: we can't get caught up in the idea that people who admire the anti-heroicism of the Batman movies or similar films are forever lost. They are not. People can change. I did. The left doesn't have a monopoly on things like, hope, patience and respect for potential. The biggest hurdle is just getting the message out, or so it would seem.

Galileo Blogs said...

I disagree that great works of art cannot be made in today's culture. I have seen and enjoyed one of them, "Dae Jang Geum," a Korean mini-series. I reviewed it on my blog here:

This kind of work is not possible in this country, but it was possible and did happen in Korea. I attribute it to the good aspects of Confucian values extant in Korean society (and Asian culture, generally). Yes, there are very bad aspects of Confucian values such as the worship of ancestors and extreme loyalty to family, and these aspects are evident in this series and in modern-day Korean life and art.

However, the good qualities are: worship of learning and hard work. The author of Dae Jang Geum takes this much further and presents a truly intellectual hero. Jang Geum is the one and only female physician to the king (a real-life historical figure). Her mind is that of a scientist, in 15th century feudal Korea. If that seems impossible, you're wrong. Her character is believable and incredibly inspiring.

Great works of art are exceedingly rare in today's culture, but they do exist. Even Atlas Shrugged was published only 51 years ago, amidst a culture that had already degenerated quite a lot due to altruism. (Admittedly, it was still far better than today's culture.)

I expect to see occasional good and great works in the years ahead, and as proper philosophical principles become more widely accepted (assuming that happens without an intervening Dark Age, which is my assumption), the number of these works will rise *in tandem* with the improvement in philosophical principles.

We do not have to wait for the philosophical revolution to see great new art. It is happening even today, despite the bad premises all around us.

The fact is, our society is not completely corrupt. Good values do exist, and occasionally they will show themselves in great art.

Cheers everyone, and Happy New Year!

Chuck said...

Adding on to the possibility of great art today, as noted by Galileo Blogs. In spite of everything mitigating against it, people still have some untouched area in their mind, in their philosophy, that admires an unbreached heroism.

Not only is Jang Geum a truly Romantic heroic character, but that television series was wildly popular all over Asia, and everywhere else it has been shown - and for all the right reasons. It was the highest rated tv show ever in Korea. I remember seeing an interview of an extended family in Zimbabwe, of all places, and the family members were very articulate in their admiration for Jang Geum's fight for justice and for her own goals. The tv station in Zimbabwe, in fact, due to popular demand, showed reruns of Dae Jang Geum instead of the Olympics that were scheduled to be shown earlier this year.

And there are fans of Korean drama here in America, where Dae Jang Geum was also very popular.
( )

Give people heroes, real heroes, and they will respond positively.

Andrew E. said...

"Give people heroes, real heroes, and they will respond positively."

Summed up the point I tried to make with infinite efficiency!

And for the sake of clarity, my secondary point is that it's too easy to point out what's wrong with the world, too easy to become cynical and hopeless.

After I was exposed to the fundamental ideas of rational self interest, I felt liberated not cynical and angry at the world. I had found the answers I was looking for, and near accidentally - itself a scary thought, for what if I'd never discovered them? Having said that, I'm still as cynical as they come. I just have to check myself every now n' again.

Tenure said...

To further back up what Galileo Bloggs said: why should an adaptation of AS necessarily fail? By that logic, surely the book should have failed as well? The mostly poor reviews should have put people off, and the the book should never have made any money.

I think people do want to see heroes, and will pay money to go see them, and will enjoy it. As AR pointed out, good fiction is written in a way that it can be appreciated on a number of levels, from the superficial "Good guy beats the bad guy", to its fundamental, philosophical ideals. No, not everyone will like it, even on the superficial level, but I don't think everyone will reject. In fact, I'm willing to bet such an adaptation would do very well at the box office.

Anonymous said...

The ending of Batman Dark Knight was NOT the ending of the Batman trilogy, in the same way that the ending of the Two Towers was not the end of the Lord of Rings Trilogy, or if Atlas was made into 3 movies following the book, the ending of the 2nd movie...

Get my drift?

The purpose of the ending and the issues raised (and unresolved) is to see how Batman solves them in the 3rd movie.

Then we can pass a proper judgment on the 2nd film when viewed in the context of the trilogy.