Why was The Dark Knight so good?

Why was The Dark Knight so good?

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy has shaped Batman as a symbol of darkness, especially in the second installment Dark Knight. And in that film, darkness and brightness, evil and justice, they always go together. Batman, as a symbol of darkness, who fights against evil for justice, does things only the symbol of brightness like the police would seem to do.

In Dark Knight, Batman regards Harvey Dent, the new District Attorney in Gotham City, as the symbol of brightness, “the first legitimate ray of light in Gotham in decades”.

He admires Harvey’s actions against evil and protecting justice, but he still thinks of himself differently from the brightness. He says to Harvey, “You’re the symbol of hope I could never be.” (Nolan). In his opinion, although darkness can fight evil for justice, only brightness can bring people hope. However, I see something different from Batman’s opinion in this film. And in this essay, I want to argue that, it is Batman who brings hope to people in the darkness, and because Batman belongs to darkness, the hope he brings is more indelible than brightness does. 

The story of The Dark Knight happens in a corrupt city called Gotham where the people are in the darkness, losing their hope for a harmonious life. Gotham is a city full of gangs and violence. Many different groups of gangs smuggle drugs, rob and launder the money. They can get what they want by hook or by crook. And For this reason, Gotham has a new attorney, Harvey Dent, who is ambitious, tough and righteous.

On the face of it, it can solve many of the social security problems that had not been solved before, like bravely prosecute the criminals, but in fact, the most serious things have not been solved because many things are out of the government’s reach, for example, Lau, who helps the gang launder money, can never be arrested by legal means and government officials also couldn’t ensure their safety.

What’s more, corruption in the city has permeated all aspects of the system of the city. Years of painstaking work by the gangs in this city have eroded the city in many ways, even the public. People protest against the government for making social security worse and the police complain about the big loss of policemen. People are losing hope day after day. But they all expect the appearance of Batman. At night when the Batman light turns on, a robber stops robbing money and says, “I don’t like it tonight.”. 

Although he does not show up, his presence is enough to make people feel comforted. Like Gordon says to his detective that, “I hope he doesn’t. I like reminding everybody he’s out there.” (Nolan). In this chaotic and dark city, Batman means hope. 

Director Christopher Nolan (far left) and actor Heath Ledger (in make-up) filming a scene in The Dark Knight with an IMAX camera

Under the situation in Gotham City, Batman acts as extrajudicial police which renews people’s hope. Those people under the threat of gangs are law-abiding. They gain the benefits they have now from the law in some ways. They also believe that the law can guarantee their lives and can be used as a tool to protect them from being violated. The police act as a law enforcement force in the framework.

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During the last decades, the police used their powers given by the law to keep the society in order and to ensure people’s legitimate rights and interests. However, when cracks appear inside the system, some problems may seem to be difficult to solve through internal force. For example, gangs have ears and eyes in the government and police office by bribing people in important positions and threaten the safety of judges who are willing to give just sentences. Under this situation, people begin to fear and lose hope for the law. Even those powerful families in this city don’t stand out to combat those gangs. Because they dare not take that risk for breaking the law as long as the system hasn’t completely collapsed. They care too much about the benefits they have got from the current system.

Then Batman appears.

He is not afraid of losing anything, because he is only a symbol. He is above the law without any scruple. Furthermore, he uses illegal methods for catching and interrogating criminals, easily breaks criminals’ legs or wrings their necks at will. Under his influence, people can say “we don’t have to be afraid of scum like you” (Nolan). Logically, people won’t tolerate this sort of behavior and will fear to see him because what he does is also against the law. But on the contrary, people love this feeling of being “served” by Batman, the law is used to suppress man’s endless desires. By human nature, people are all willing to own some unrestricted power. If someone else owns this, they hope it is on their side. Therefore, Batman’s status as extrajudicial police satisfies people’s desire to have unrestricted power and more importantly protect their life in the original order. 

However, there are some voices that Batman’s existence as extrajudicial police lacks legitimacy.

Like one imitator of Batman asks Batman “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” (Nolan). Why can he be above the law and do things in his way, while the behaviors of others such as his imitators would be strongly resisted by Batman? At this point, I think there’s a fundamental difference between Batman and the others.

Batman made his debut in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), cover art by Bob Kane

Even Batman is a human, not a god, but he is the most unlikely human dream to achieve. Batman calls Batman, not because of his strength, wealth, intelligence or parents being killed, Batman comes from the choice the little Bruce Wayne made in that dark alley that night his parents were killed. Batman is only a symbol and at the same time Bruce Wayne also exists but he never thinks of himself as Batman. So when someone decides to play Batman himself, he’s even further away from Batman. And there is an idea held by Daniel Boscaljon that can also answer this question.

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In his “The Flip Side of Justice: The Two-Faced Spirit of the Dark Knight”, he thinks that, “Although Batman’s willingness to transgress human law (engaging in violence, kidnapping, surveillance) might indicate an abrogation of the moral law, Batman does so as a way of ultimately securing law specifically, as his work against the mobsters signifies, law upholding property rights.” (Boscaljon 55). 

And besides his words, I also want to add that Batman is not a member of this system, the law is not made for him. The will he tries to be extrajudicial police is because he wants to keep this in order. So everything against the law looks the same in his perspective and it’s what he needs to prevent. His original idea is to inspire people, but not inspire them to break the law. So it’s his responsibility to prevent others from doing so. People have Batman to do things they can’t do to protect things they want to protect. 

The other reason Batman can bring people hope is that Batman is the only one that can sweep away the evil and fear brought by The Joker and renew people’s hope. Daniel describes The Joker as “absolute evil”. Among all the villains, The Joker is the cruelest and the most cunning one. He brought panic to the city and blocked people’s 

hope. He pursues extreme chaos because he believes that extreme chaos leads to extreme fairness. And Batman pursues extreme justice, he thinks that everyone can only get what they deserve. The Joker is also above the law like Batman. In creating chaos, he abandoned the rules of morality. And in pursuit of justice, Batman will also abandon moral constraints. Like in the end, he monitors everyone’s cell phones to find The Joker. The evil in The Joker is pure, without money or other purposes. That’s why he is different from those gangs and makes the situation trickier for the police to handle.

The Joker is the kind of person Alfred describes, who is not looking for something logical and he can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/KqEsr1ZwNr0?start=1011&feature=oembedMagic Kingdom

There must be someone as pure as him that can beat him (Nolan). The gangs are willing to work with The Joker and share him their money, the government tries to negotiate with The Joker and accepts some of his requirements. Batman is a symbol, he is single-minded and has no desire for anything else. So he has no weakness in front of The Joker. Only Batman can be The Joker’s rival. There doesn’t exist a compromise between Batman and The Joker. What Batman pursues is extreme justice, he also can’t be negotiated with. Only absolute justice can defeat absolute evil. 

The most prominent feature of Batman is not bringing hope to people in the darkness but keeping their hope indelible. Before Batman appears, Harvey Dent has brought people hopes. He is the new attorney in Gotham and without doubt the representative of legitimacy. Furthermore, he doesn’t need to hide his identity and he is always showing in front of the public. 

He can be the hero of Gotham which Batman can never be.

Batman agrees and he wants to find Harvey to take up his mantle. He thinks Harvey can be a “bright knight” that Gotham needs. But unfortunately, Harvey is a hero and also a “person”. His subjective will can be changed by external things.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight (2008)

The Joker sets a trap that kills the fiancee and burns half of his face.

Aaron Eckhart with make-up and motion capture markers on set. Below is the finished effect.

After that, The Joker comes to the hospital to share his values with Harvey. His inner thoughts and values change, Harvey becomes Two-Face. He begins to decide whether people should live or die by tossing a coin. Each person has two sides of the inner thoughts but others can only see one of them at the same time. Thus his bright image ceased to exist. Along with his bright image, it’s the hope he has brought to all the people in Gotham. Because the hero they admire is already defeated and falls.

However, Batman is not a person nor a hero. He is a symbol that doesn’t have to worry about his image being damaged. Even when he is incited by The Joker, he doesn’t follow his principles, save The Joker from being killed by him. Batman doesn’t need to spread his spirits like a hero and leading people. But he needs to endure everything that comes to him like darkness absorbs everything, even the light. Batman and darkness become one. He is the dark knight who coexists with darkness. And the hope he brings to people will remain as long as the darkness exists. 

Here is one thing that some people may have doubts about:

If Batman brings people hope from darkness, will he bring people hope even when this world is bright?

According to this question, The Joker has said to Batman, “They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.” (Nolan). Yes, people need Batman when there is evil. And it is evil that makes Batman complete. Because whenever evil rises, Batman will appear on the opposite side. For other superheroes, their missions may include helping people rebuild their happy life. But Batman is only responsible for bringing people out of the darkness. And Batman certainly represents darkness. So when people couldn’t see darkness, people also couldn’t see him. He will disappear with the darkness.

More importantly, in a way, Batman is meaningless in brightness. A bright world needs a hero to lead them like the millionaire Bruce Wayne more than a man with a black costume and can do nothing. Douglas W. Texter says in his “Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman” that, “Batman can’t be at all seriously viewed as a folk hero because he doesn’t come from the folk or even understand the people for whom he ostensibly fights.” (Texter 131). Despite whether Batman understands the people or not, at least, he is not from the folk. So he couldn’t be a hero like other superheroes leading people to come to a good life.

This is the limit of Batman. And Batman knows it.

Batman surrounded by his enemies, art by Alex Ross

In the movie, he is trying to find a day when Gotham no longer needs him and find a man who can take his place at that time. Leaving this world when it’s bright, that’s also his mission.

Batman lives in the fictional world produced by DC Comics, but the hope he brings can extend beyond his world. In “The Function of the Superhero at the Present Time” written by Sean Carney, the author says that the function of superhero is “double-voiced”, “it describes both the function of the superhero qua character in a fictional world and also the social function of the superhero, its social symbolism, within the reader’s world.” (Carney 101). I agree with Sean’s idea of the function of the superhero. So I think, for Batman, the ability of his darkness to bring hope to people is not restricted in Gotham City.

In a sense, the hope his darkness brings to people in the real world is also significant. After the 9/11 attack, many Americans adjusted to a society with fear and distrust for the security of life. But many efforts made by the government to raise people’s hopes for national security seem to be in vain. Jeffrey K. Johnson writes an article called “Terrified Protectors: The Early Twenty First Century Fear Narrative in Comic Book Superhero Stories” and he says that, “The decade continued with talk of the U.S. military conducting torture and ever depressing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Declarations such as ‘they hate us for our freedom’ and the ‘axis of evil’ only served to heighten feelings of fear and push Americans towards increased terror and paranoia.” (Johnson).

A sign of the film’s pre-release at Coliseum cinema in Barcelona, Spain

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Those military actions and declarations should be positive factors, but they didn’t bring positive hope to people as expected. They defend justice and fight against evil by doing dark things in the name of brightness. And after the war, it’s still war. In this endless reprisals, people couldn’t see hope. People fear they will be reprisals by terrorists. In the movie Batman, Batman also fights evil. In Gotham, there is a corrupt government that couldn’t protect its people. And in the real world, we have a powerful government but it couldn’t give us enough comfort and let us have hope again. Unlike national military forces, Batman always represents the darkness. It gives people hope that they wouldn’t be afraid of darkness. Because in the darkness you can’t see, there is Batman, there is hope. Nolan’s Batman comes after 2000, and hope is what they can give to the readers’ world. 

Among all the superheroes, Batman is the closest one to us. On the one hand, he doesn’t have any super power, on the other hand, he is a dream that ordinary people can never achieve. It is always easier to be inspired by our peers. He tells us that it is never god, who has mercy on the world, creating justice, but someone who fights against injustice. We want him to fight for us, but I don’t want to see him showing up. Because I don’t want our world to fall into darkness. Even when we are in the darkness, don’t be afraid if we can’t see him. Maybe it’s “because he’s busy” (Nolan).

Jim Gordon as he appears in Batman (vol. 3) #3 (July 2016). Art by David Finch.

Why was The Dark Knight so good? Written by Liqiang Luo

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Works Cited 

Boscaljon, Daniel. “The Flip Side of Justice: The Two-Faced Spirit of the Dark Knight.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, no. 14, 2013, pp. 44-64.Carney, Sean. “The Function of the Superhero at the Present Time.” Iowa Journal ofCultural Studies, no. 6, 2005, pp. 100-117.

Johnson, Jeffrey K. “Terrified Protectors: The Early Twenty-First Century Fear Narrative in Comic Book Superhero Stories.” Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present, vol. 10, no. 2, 2011.

Texter, Douglas W. “Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman.” Foundation, vol. 44, no. 120, 2015, pp. 129-131.

The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan, performances by Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, and Gory Oldman, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008.

Why was The Dark Knight so good?