The Sum of our Choices: TDK in 2020 (Part 1)

Before you check the calendar and wonder if the year is 2008, I can assure you it isn’t: I have simply rewatched Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and want to talk about it. The Dark Knight & TDK Rises pose some very good, very relevant questions – relevant enough today to turn me into a late 2000s DC nerd for two blog posts.

In Part 1, I’ll talk about the middle movie, and Part 2 will cover the third. I originally intended this to be one post, buuuuut I got a little carried away. That’s the essay writer in me! I don’t think my thoughts are new, or original, but when you find yourself passionate about something, there’s no reason not to write it out in your own words. It’s not about being original. It’s about sending a message.

And what message is that, exactly?

Society

You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble… when the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.

The overreaching theme in TDK first seems to be the darkness of society. We see the mobs get away with bribing cops, hoarding money outside the country to keep it away from the law, and other mob-like actions like murder and theft. Harvey Dent, prominent do-gooder, slips from the legal realm of court to kidnapping and torturing mobsters to straight up murder. We see Batman create a massive monitoring system to track and listen to every citizen of Gotham, something not uncommon (and still sadly legal) today. Gotham has always been a dark place, but it gets darker still when the few good people fall into the same darkness as the villains.

I like TDK because it doesn’t shy away from showing how ‘good’ people like Harvey and Batman can do ‘bad’ things, even in the search for justice. Fox’s protests of the monitoring system are sympathetic to the audience: we know this is wrong because Fox’s morals are so strong, and we have to watch as Batman chooses to go forward anyway, choosing to put his hunt over the rights of the people he protects. Harvey’s murder spree is given the same weight as the crimes committed by the mob and by The Joker – and he only gets away with it because he’s dead.

So, with darkness everywhere, why does this movie still move me? It’s not because of the darkness, but what the movie does in spite of it. People can do the right thing, the wrong thing, or something in the middle, but they can always choose to go down another path. And that choice is not always one that leads to further darkness.

Killing is making a choice. Choose between one life or the other.

Harvey doubles down on his descent into darkness by kidnapping and attempting to murder Gordon’s entire family – all because Gordon still experiences love and Harvey’s girlfriend died. Gordon did not put her there, but Harvey holds him responsible anyway. He chooses to kill. He chooses his life over the others. Batman, on the other hand, chooses to step away. He makes good on his promise to Fox by destroying the monitoring system once The Joker is captured for good. It’s not that the wrongs are forgiven (the movie does end with Batman being hunted as a criminal), or that they’re forgotten (Gordon’s truth is the catalyst for Bane’s Gotham in Rises, but I’ll get to that next time). TDK says that people are more than one thing, one action. They are the sum of their choices.

The Joker

The Joker recalls a scary type of person today: the man ‘without a plan’ causing chaos, much like a horse in a hospital. There have been politicians like this before, and though I hope otherwise, there will be again – but to not talk about the similarities would be wrong of me.

The Joker insists he has no plan to both Harvey and the mobs numerous times. Alfred compares him to war criminals who ‘just want to watch the world burn’. He calls himself ‘a dog chasing cars’. A fixed point on an axis, and, therefore, an authority. But he has a plan. Numerous, elaborate plans. Backups to those plans if things fail.

You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight with you? No. You need an ace in the hole.

His danger resides not only in his willingness to do anything, but his ability to convince everyone that these things just happen. It’s not his fault Rachel died, even though it entirely was. It’s not his fault cops are corrupt, even though he uses them for his own ends. The Joker knows it’s simpler to believe a lie that protects you a little than to face the truth. He relies on this deception, and it’s hauntingly familiar to the way politicians take away rights and then say no, it wasn’t us, we’re the ones helping. Sometimes these things just happen. It’s not their fault.

The Joker also tries to drag everyone down to his level. To claim that everyone’s choices make them no different than him, no less violent, no better. Harvey falls for it, the mobs fall for it, and even Batman almost falls for it – that’s how good the lie is.

You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.

To watch a movie where the actual villain in my life is a villain on screen? Well, it certainly hit home.

Choices

The last element of TDK I want to talk about is the ferries. Ever since seeing the movie as a teen, the scene impacted me in a fierce way. Two boats rigged with explosives, one full of average civilians, one full of dangerous criminals. You can blow the other up to save yourselves. If you do nothing, you all die. It’s a play on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, with The Joker relying on the morals of the civilians or the cold-heartedness of the criminals to spread the chaos.

Simplistic or no, the act of the prisoner throwing the detonator out the window and showing their humanity while the ‘good’ people debate if it’s okay to kill a boat full of people because they did crimes (in a city where you can’t help but do crimes) changed me. It sent me on a course of realizing how many people think of themselves as good when they are nothing more than passive bystanders to evil. How we afford so much dignity to people who have done nothing to earn it besides ‘not breaking a law and getting caught’. How prisoners are demonized and treated as lesser people because of one choice – and why do we let that choice define them over every other one they’ve made?

When the time comes and the civilians can’t press the button, the movie gives us something precious along with those two ships: hope.

What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you? You’re alone!

The criminals are as much the sum of their parts as the civilians. That both did bad things, but both looked at the question of ‘what do we do next’ and chose something better than what The Joker saw. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Audience, and it’s worth fighting for. That people, individuals, can make choices that help others, that overcome. That a society can choose to put a collective good over individual desires, even if it’s corrupt, even if it’s made every bad choice along the way. When the chips are down, you don’t have to shrug and believe the easy lie that these things just happen. You don’t have to eat each other. People can have little a hope, as a treat, and it’s a treat both Gotham and the viewers really need.

In a franchise so dedicated to darkness, TDK reminds us that hope can still shine through. That we can fight for it no matter how far we fall. That there are those, like Batman, like the unnamed prisoner, who will do what’s right even after doing something wrong. They want to believe in something better.

The Joker, the world, the darkness and corruption don’t go anywhere. There will be Harvey Dents that fall and hurt and never receive punishment. There will be bystanders who value their life as more worthy based on bias and prejudice. These are the people that prove the politicians and the mob and every ‘it’s for your own good’ surveillance company know what they’re saying, and know it’s wrong. It might only take a little push to join them.

This city just proved that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.

But they can’t push us all.

Read Part 2 on Rises and its failure to continue this strong message.

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