The Dark Knight is a crazy film. I mean that in the best way possible. I remember going to the theaters with Sam and my aunt when I was just in middle school. Those tense scenes of brilliant acting from all the actors and actresses were absolutely mind blowing. I remember leaving the theater not only wanting more, but totally blown away from the amazing piece of cinematic art I had just witnessed.
Often we watch movies and are so enamored by the story and powerful performances that we don’t really get across the themes and messages the film is trying to send. That is understandable as a film does not read like a book where you can get all the nooks and crannies from written word. We have to listen and see what is going on in the world that is presented to us, thus it can be harder to keep track.
I didn’t pick up on the themes of this movie until much later when I got older (I’m still young hahahaha) and began to understand exactly what Nolan was trying to convey to the audience with this film.
I am going to be discussing this film in detail. Thus, please don’t read on if for some reason you haven’t already seen The Dark Knight. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight… DO IT. DO IT NOW.
Here are, in my opinion, the central themes of The Dark Knight:
The Pain of Sacrifice
Often times in movies, the protagonist will make a painful choice. One that will entail losses that are necessary but brutally difficult to power through. In this film the two principle characters Harvey Dent and Batman both undergo traumatic loss with Rachel Dawes.
Harvey Dent and the Batman are both similar yet different heroes. Notice their eye color and hair color. Batman’s brown eyes and dark hair sharply contrast the blonde hair and blue eyes of Dent. Batman serves justice in the shadows while Dent serves justice in the light. Both want what is best for Gotham and will always be willing to pay the ultimate price to keep the peace and save the lives of others. Dent showed so by willingly turning himself in as Batman and risking his life. Batman showed so by, well, being Batman and also willing to reveal himself before Dent claimed he was.
Now consider this. These two heroes were planning to do whatever it takes to give themselves to a higher cause. But none realized the toll that being a hero takes on their loved ones. Both heroes forgot that sacrifice doesn’t just entail them. It entails all that surrounds them. And in the end they both didn’t think to consider Rachel in the Joker’s equation.
Thus comes the pain of sacrifice. The loss of Rachel and the nod to Caesar during the dinner conversation combined with the Joker’s philosophical ramblings (which we will get to later) are all motifs of this theme. The pain of sacrifice was so deep for Dent who only served the light and never saw the dark for what it was truly broke him and turned him into the very thing he sought to combat. For Batman, a man born from the ashes of the light and fostered in the dark, was hurting but the trauma of that pain was nothing new to him thus he stayed true to his ideals with Alfred’s guidance despite losing the love of his life and the man who was supposed to succeed him and make the city he loves a better place.
Harvey wished to impart this theme unto Gordon during the finale by making him feel the pain of sacrifice with his son. To inflict unto others the very pain he could not deal with himself. And after all is said and done and Batman saves the day, he still sacrifices his image to save Harvey’s and to ensure hope to Gotham and all its citizens. The pain of sacrifice is made by all heroes and to some they can move on and to others it is their downfall. Something beautifully illustrated in the film.
The Chaos and Brutality of Men
The Joker is the ultimate foil to Batman. Where Batman seeks to uphold justice and order the Joker seeks to reign chaos and discord. Throughout this film we don’t really get glimpses into Joker’s mind, but we do see why he does the things that he does and why he feels the way that he feels. This theme of brutality and chaos resonates greatly with the philosophy of the Joker. In order to better understand this theme I need to discuss what the Joker’s philosophy is. Let me digress.
Joker is an existential, nihilistic, anarchist, sociopath. A mouthful I know. Let me group all those terms together into a way it can easily be defined:
The Joker believes that plans are fragile. He believes that society is nothing more than a fragile plan and set of rules that make humans into beings that think they are better than what they really are. But at the end of the day we are all savage creatures and the only way to live is to be free and run in chaos as that is the natural order of things.
You see, something bad must have happened to the Joker. We’ve heard all his stories in the film but they aren’t consistent (example 1 and example 2), but does it really matter what happened to him? He was once a law abiding citizen like us. But when he says that he’s “ahead of the curve”, it means that he is no longer bound by morals and rules because they failed him like they will fail everyone in their lifetime. The only difference is that the Joker took it as it was and broke free. That’s why he says that he’s an agent of chaos, because chaos is the only way everyone can be free and have a fair shot at life as opposed to rules and society telling them how to be.
The Joker saw Dent and Batman to be the ultimate examples of law and order. Which is why he sought them out. He wanted to watch the world burn for a reason. Because at the end of the day he is trying to prove a point. He burned all that money and killed Chechen by feeding him to his own dogs to prove a point. He made Batman choose between Rachel and Harvey to prove a point. He broke Dent to prove a point.
This Joker quote from the interrogation scene can sum up what his philosophy is:
“Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me. They need you right now. But when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper. See, their morals, their code… it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you, when the chips are down, these… these civilized people? They’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.“
The point Joker wishes to prove is simple, the brutality of mankind and how at the end of the day we are all just chaotic creatures who will revert back to their natural savage ways once something goes wrong which in turn ties back into the theme of brutality and chaos of men. When he threatens to blow up a hospital, people will kill and murder once they realize order has failed them. The robbers in the intro are definitely intelligent but they continuously kill each other for greed. When the prison warden contemplated blowing up a ship full of innocents he did so selfishly and even vice versa. Joker orchestrated these events to show how fragile morality is and how quick people are to throw it away when things “don’t go according to plan”.
The Joker hates the hypocrisy of men acting better than they really are. Which is why when he reveals his philosophy to Dent, the resulting existential crisis drives him mad and essentially turns him into the chaos and savagery the Joker is as well. The Joker broke Dent to show that even if he is that moral crusader, he is still as chaotic and brutal as he is, of course Batman being the pinnacle of morality and good ultimately resists the Joker’s ways. So it is up to the audience to decide whether Batman’s morals are right or the Joker’s. They are symbols of two opposite sides on the spectrum that constantly clash with one another. The Joker’s right, in this world maybe they are “destined to do this forever.”
The Sense of Duty
Batman does all that he does out of choice. He could’ve lived a comfortable life as a rich heir to Wayne Enterprise. No one forced Batman to beat thugs and to save lives. No one told Batman he had to stop the Joker. No one made Batman save the city from Ra’s Al Ghul plot.
Yet, in this film, Batman shows how he is the ultimate hero (not fanboy bias hahaha, Batman’s not even my favorite DC hero). He took it upon himself to find a way to beat the Joker. He took it upon himself to defend the police. When he found Dent, he truly thought he found a successor that can take the mantle and do things for Gotham he could never accomplish as the Batman. He didn’t want Dent to just replace him, he knew his limits as a hero. That’s what make’s Dent’s downfall even more tragic is that he was supposed to be that shining star for Gotham.
Batman acts and masquerades as a playboy. But in reality he is ready, willing, and able to fight crime and adopt the serious and stoic manner he’s known for at a moment’s notice. Even after all the pain of sacrifice he endured, he still managed to come back and save the day because it is his duty as a hero to do so.
When he stopped the Joker it was his duty to his morality to not kill him. Despite all the death and mayhem he had caused for what he believes to be right, Batman ultimately spares him and does not let his anger control him. He proved Joker wrong in that moment and showed to him that the duty he has to his city and to his moral foundations define who he is and there’s no amount of force that will shatter that. That is what makes this theme reflect so well, it is through the sense of duty that Batman has.
This is what makes Batman a great hero, a man who will never compromise to the threats of chaos and discord. A hero who will never kill and become the very thing he despised. A hero who will come from the brink of despair and do what is right because it is his duty to do so. A duty that wasn’t forced unto him, but a burden he will carry until the end.
The Dark Knight was an amazing film with so many complex themes. These were the best three that really stuck with me.
The superb writing and the brilliant acting are what makes these themes in the movie so strong and powerful. This movie will definitely stand the test of time as hands down one of the best superhero movies to date. It will be hard for the new DCEU to match this film thematically with its new movies.
Let me know what you guys think? Comments? Questions? Any other themes you think are pertinent?