Yesterday, Thomas Hibbs gave a praising review of Christopher Nolan’s latest achievement , The Dark Knight here on the First Things website:

With the record-setting release of The Dark Knight , his sequel to Batman Begins , Christopher Nolan . . . stakes his claim to be our most inventive and most philosophical filmmaker . . . . What makes Nolan’s latest film such a success is not . . . Ledger’s compelling presentation of evil, on which critics have focused their attention, but the way in which he uses that character to bring out the depth and complex goodness of the other characters in the film, including Batman. The title of the film is not The Joker but The Dark Knight .

New York Press reviewer Armond White has a darker perspective : ” The Dark Knight is not an adventure movie with a driven protagonist”; according to him, it’s no more than a “psychodrama in which Batman/Bruce Wayne’s neuroses compete with two alter-egos: Gotham City’s law-and-order District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and master criminal The Joker (Heath Ledger)—all three personifying the contemporary distrust of virtue.” He goes on:


We’re way beyond film noir here. The Dark Knight has no black-and-white moral shading. Everything is dark, the tone glibly nihilistic (hip) due to The Joker’s rampage that brings Gotham City to its knees—exhausting the D.A. and nearly wearing-out Batman’s arsenal of expensive gizmos . . . . This pessimism links Batman to our post-9/11 anxiety by escalating the violence quotient, evoking terrorist threat and urban helplessness.

But what White considers deplorable moral gray area, Hibbs considers Nolan’s strong point: his expert ability to highlight a novel angle of the hero’s burden.

Consciously making use of classic noir thematic and stylistic elements, Nolan specializes in the dramatic portrayal of quests for which there is no possibility of a traditional happy ending or a complete recovery of what has been lost. The best that can be hoped is, as [Al] Pacino’s character [in Nolan’s previous film Insomnia ] puts it, that we “not lose our way.”

A similar premise undergirds Nolan’s retelling of the Batman myth . . . . Batman Begins invests the backstory of Bruce Wayne’s embrace of the Batman persona with philosophical depth. Scarred and formed by witnessing his parents murder and the impotence of the legal justice system, Wayne crafts a “symbol” to intimidate evildoers. Batman’s quest to restore justice in Gotham is often hard to distinguish from the pursuit of raw vengeance. Thus, Batman himself is always in danger of becoming what he fights against; as Alfred (Michael Caine) warns him in the first film, “don’t get lost inside the monster.”

While White considers The Joker’s taunt, “What would I do without you? You complete me,” as a message that “confus[es] our sympathy” and indicates our “hero is as sick as his villain,” Hibbs finds it indicative of Nolan’s complex villain “whose amoral destruction has as its goal the discovery of someone at the other end of the spectrum, his complement.” Hibbs continues,

The Joker espouses a nihilist philosophy concerning the arbitrariness of the code of morality in civilized society; it is but a thin veneer, a construct intended for our consolation. If you tear away at the surface, “civilized people will eat each other.” . . . The Joker’s attempt to bring down the entire system of civilization has the scope and feel of terrorism; in fact, the film features many genuinely terrifying scenes . . . . [But] the film does not succumb to The Joker’s vision. It is not nihilistic; it is instead about the lingering and seemingly ineradicable longing for justice and goodness that pervades the film. As Batman put it in the original film, “Gotham is not beyond redemption.”

And although it comes as a small light in the darkness, I agree there was hope at the end: The Joker failed his final terrorist attempt to push civilian and prisoner hostages to “eat each other.” And our protagonist Batman distinctly attributes it to human hope in his concluding dialogue with The Joker, extending what’s considered heroic not just to icons like him, but to the average citizen who takes the courageous path.

If you haven’t already, you should check out Hibbs’ full review , as well as his latest book, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption .

Articles by Mary Rose Somarriba

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