The Ethics of Batman: The Dark Knight

DentI was relatively agnostic about the claims of brilliance accredited to TDK …

… until now. Having watched the film again, I am now a believer: TDK is an awesome film of pure awesomeness.

Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is stylish, exciting, atmospheric, and loaded with great acting. Ledger has been heralded for the Joker, and rightly so, but Bale and especially Gary Oldman as Gordon are equally excellent.

Beyond its superior blockbuster bona fides, TDK is a deeply philosophical film, and pays proper homage to the complexities of the DC comics.

Some thoughts on the ethics of Batman: The Dark Knight:

There’s an interesting shift in Batman’s ethics from Batman Begins to TDK. In BB, Batman challenges Ra’s al Gul’s rather utilitarian view that the end justifies the means. Ra’s intends to destroy Gotham in order to produce a greater good. Civilisations which have sunk as deep as Gotham must be destroyed, irradiated mercilessly like a cancerous cell. Batman cannot follow Ra’s, preferring a more Kantian view of means as inherent ends. There are rules and moral people do not break them.

Batman’s own view is challenged by Batman himself at the beginning of TDK, if not directly but by his own actions, implicitly. Batman is a vigilante and operates outside of the law in order to do good. This is why the Gotham PD is officially (although not by Gordon) pursuing the Batman. The dangers inherent in operating outside of the law are observed by Batman who has to deal not only with the criminals, but several copy-cat Batmen were are inspired by him and dress up to fight crime. Batman is not following Kant’s Categorical Imperative: if he is not willing for everyone to be a vigilante, he should not be one either.

It is perhaps because of this — the legal and moral chaos his own good actions threaten — that leads Bruce Wayne/Batman to champion Harvey Dent, the white knight DA. Dent offers a morality within the system, providing the hope for Gotham that Batman can never give.

Enter the Joker. The brilliance of Ledger’s character is that “Joker” is intended in a sense beyond the pantomimical. He’s a spoiler, with a goal to wreck not only what is good but also what is thought of as good, hence his cruelty towards Dent, the awful social experiment with the boats, and the relish with which he goads Batman to let people die for utilitarian ends.

The Joker wants to demonstrate that there is no morality. Certainly there are indications that he is right: Dent succumbs to the dark side and Batman is forced to shoulder the blame for Dent’s sins in order to allow the people their (failed) Messiah. (Batman evidently believes in Elder Oaks’s mantra: Some things, though true, are not useful.)

But it’s not all nihilism: people are good (cf. the boats). And Batman eventually returns to the rules which set him apart from Ra’s. He does not kill the Joker, preferring instead to hand him over to the law.

Wonderful stuff.


  1. I think Batman chose not to kill the Joker because the Joker was supposed to be in another Batman sequel.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree; TDK rocks.

  3. I liked that TDK got away from that awful surreal world that had enveloped both Batman Begins and the previous incarnations of the Batman saga, the fakery of Gotham. TDK seemed more in the real world. That all said, I did not enjoy the Joker at all. And not for Ledger’s fine acting but rather that the Joker was in the mind of the writer, whilst Batman and the cops never got that view, i.e. they never got to see the future, while magically the Joker was able to foresee everything the “good guys” would do and have a counter for it. I found that grating after the first few times that this occurred.

  4. Good review. TDK is a great movie, i’ve watched it multiple times and am not tired of it.

    Another example that illustrates your point is where Batman uses the cell phone network to locate everyone. Here he is also breaking an ethical boundary. Then ends justify the means.

    Here’s to hoping for another successful Batman movie. Just, don’t do Robin and please, don’t let Tim Burton or Joel Shumaker anywhere near it.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Don’t let our prior guest blogger know about this!

  6. I love the movie, and I enjoyed the review; thanks.

    “(Batman evidently believes in Elder Oaks’s mantra: Some things, though true, are not useful.)”

    Perhaps the line that evidences this the best is the voiceover (I can’t remember if it is Gordon or Alfred) while Batman rides into the night: “Sometimes, people deserve more than the truth.” I’m still mulling that one over in my head.

  7. Steve (5.)
    Who, me?

  8. I agree with James Bowman’s view.

    “Of course, the movie’s admirers won’t mind the comic book trappings, and that is their right, but even they must see that its attempts at seriousness are that much less serious for them. If everything else in the movie is unreal and belongs to the comic book world, how can we believe that the moral alone belongs to the real world? And such a moral! I have heard the convergence of Batman and the Joker compared to that between John Wayne and Lee Marvin in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But Ford was telling us that people want to believe heroism grows out of reason and law and civilization but that it really doesn’t. Instead, it is a throwback to the most primitive honor cultures before there were any law or civilization, which are things that cannot be contracted for. The Dark Knight tells us the opposite: that both heroism and villainy grow out of reason and law and civilization and that, therefore, these things are mere shams and subterfuges masking a Hobbesian reality devoid even of honor, in which man is a wolf to man and there is nothing to believe in but the individual Nietzschean will, either to good or evil. It’s the sort of thing that you have to be an emotional adolescent, steeped in his own anti-social fantasies, in order to believe.”

    Take that, you emotional adolescents!

  9. BTD_Greg says:

    Ronan, nice post.

    I think the tension between the three main characters is what drives the film: Batman as driven by moral imperetives, Dent/2 Face as a crusader who allows for random chance, and the Joker as a nihilist/anarchist. It’s a wonderful character study to hang a comic-book action-thriller on. Nolan is a very cerebral filmmaker. It’s nice to see.

  10. The ethical issues of the film are universal, but I saw TDK, more specifically, as an exploration of the ethics of the War on Terror with Batman as a stand-in for GWB. So many of the controversial aspects of Bush anti-terror policy are depicted in the film, from torture to surveillance, and Batman always goes the GWB route. Ultimately, the film is ambivalent about Batman’s choices. It doesn’t endorse torture or surveillance—Batman’s “enhanced interrogation” of the Joker did nothing to prevent Rachel’s death—but it sympathizes with the people who cross those ethical boundaries in a climate of terrorism-induced fear. Even the paragon Lucius Fox caved when push came to shove. Sure, he made fuss about the surveillance, but he caved nonetheless.

  11. TDK, seems to have been drawn right out of Kierkegaard’s Ether/Or, with Joker drawn out as the perfect Aesthetic artist. He sets up evil manipulation as pure artistic creation. No purpose in the crimes except for the diabolical beauty of his creation.

    At the end, as the clock ticks down and as the Knight of Faith (Batman) defeats the Joker it can be described right out of the text:

    “He has not fought with lions and ogres, but with the most dangerous enemy—with time. For him eternity does not come afterwards as in the case of the knight, but he has had eternity in time. He alone, therefore, as triumphed over time; for one can say of the knight that he has killed time, as indeed a man constantly wishes to kill time when it has no reality for him.” Ether/Or p. 81 (Bretall Robert, A Kierkegaard Anthology).

  12. Thanks for the post Ronan. I found that TDK featured some of the issues in Machiavelli’s The Prince. It explored the concept of a ruling needing “two faces”, and how a “good” (moral) person does not neccesarily make a “good” (effective) ruler. The mention of the Roman Republic and the limits of what a person should do to say that republic was interesting as well. It reminded me of the British and American constitutional debate, of how far you should go to save the system, and if the actions designed to save it will end up destroying it anyway.

    Thanks again Ronan for the great post about a great movie.

  13. While I can appreciate the philosophy discussed, and I appreciate the skill of the director and actors, TDK left me feeling awful. In fact, walking out of that movie I felt emotionally drained, physically ill, and spiritually wanting. I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly why, primarily because the feeling was bad enough I just wanted to be away from it, not analyze it.

    I’ve never seen horror or particularly violent movies, so maybe I’m just a wuss. But my reaction seems kind of strong. I’m a grown man who likes action and adventure movies. Why did I have such a reaction?

  14. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’m somewhat fascinated by Joseph Smith’s claim the Elias prepares for Elijah who prepares for Messiah.

    I like to think I see a dark reverse of this in TDK.

    The corruption in Gotham has created a world where nothing can be trusted and stability is illusionary and / or can only be maintained by violence. This is a dark Elias that has prepared the way for the Joker, who is able to use the laws governing Gotham to further undermine those laws and create a violent chaos. As frightening as the Joker might be, he is only preparing the way for an even darker order, call it Anti-Christ, a dark Messiah, under whom order is maintained but nothing good can thrive.

    This pretentious drivel has been brought to you by the number 7 and the letter Q.

    By the by, I disagree that the boat scene demonstrates that people are basically good. The majority of people on the one boat voted to use the bomb – a dark reflection on democracy. And the folks on the criminal boat pretty much all want to use the bomb. In both cases the situation is saved by a basically awful person who just does find it in themselves to bear the situation until Batman can come to the rescue. It is just a glimmer of goodness. I don’t think that the boat scene gives us great comfort for the next time a similar situation arises.

    gst, James Bowman’s view is wrong. TDK does claim that both heroism and villainy grow out of reason, but never does it fully give up on a good society founded on laws and giving a place for reason. That is why Batman is an ambivalent character. The real adolescent view is that reason and law are sources of goodness rather than needing to made subject to goodness. It is a typical contemporary view of people who think they are reasonable. ~

  15. Tom,

    but I saw TDK, more specifically, as an exploration of the ethics of the War on Terror with Batman as a stand-in for GWB.

    But Batman cannot be a stand-in for GWB, since GWB was an elected official who swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. That means that GWB should have been the ultimate law-abider, law-protector, and law-enforcer; not a vigilante who uses extra-legal means to carry out what he thinks is right, no matter the cost. That some view the President of the United States the same as a non-law abiding vigilante should be highly concerning to those who believe in democracy and the rule of law.

  16. Dan,


  17. >That some view the President of the United States the same as a non-law abiding vigilante should be highly concerning to those who believe in democracy and the rule of law.

    Yeah, totally should be. But it’s not!

  18. TDK — Way overrated. It’s a huge messy pretentious violent dark film with a thousand-million twists and turns — with no room at all for real intrigue. Any meaningful “philosophy” to be found in the movie is incidental to 1) a machine-grinding plot desperately trying to force a story to happen and 2) whatever vestiges of the original comic books that are still present.

    And as a side note: Batman was no longer Batman when they reduced him to an armored ninja. Ridiculous.

  19. “Batman was no longer Batman when they reduced him to an armored ninja. Ridiculous.”

    When was Batman ever not an armored ninja? Are you pining for Adam West?

  20. Jack,

    violent dark film

    That speaks to many of this generation who cannot view the world except through this lens.

  21. Ok, I have to watch it again. I fall somewhere between those who left the theater deeply disturbed and those who completely “got it” I guess. You could say I was disturbed because there was so much to think about and I was never convinced I had a moral actor anywhere in the narrative. At one point or another, each of them said/did something that made me sick and that something that made me nod in agreement.

    Now I have to go back and try again. With this post as my Cliff Notes.

  22. Dan,
    I’m not the least bit interested in engaging you in a discussion that involves anything to do with GWB, torture, Republicans, government, or politics of any kind. So I’ll just make this one response and let you have the last word if you wish.

    That some view the President of the United States the same as a non-law abiding vigilante . . .

    I don’t know if you’re imputing this view to me or to the filmmakers, but either way you’re wrong to do so. Batman is a stand-in for GWB in that he faces similar ethical questions in the face of terrorism and makes similar decisions. Drawing that parallel doesn’t mean that I (or the filmmakers) believe that the POTUS is justified in acting outside of the law.

    As I said, I think the film is ambivalent about Batman’s decisions, and even about Batman’s existence and crusade. I don’t think it celebrates or unambiguously condones Batman’s actions. At best, Batman is a necessary evil. But it is also sympathetic to the plight of those who must fight terrorists. It’s a difficult problem with a lot of ethical gray area. A lot of us moral cretins feel that way. We can’t all have the moral certitude and righteousness of Dan the Good Democrat.

  23. hey man you brought it up, not me.

  24. Ronan, I think you’ve nailed why the movie was good. Excellent review.

  25. I prefer the Harry Potter film/book – The Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry was only able to get the stone because he didn’t want it. That is, he had become someone capable of handling its power.

    I think movies such as TDK offer less insight because they illustrate the use of “power” without the deep personal transformation that must accompany it. There is only superficial emotionality, “good”, and “evil”. Has Batman cultivated the required judgment, selflessness, compassion, humility, emotional control, respect for others’ values, and respect for community values?

    To me, Batman offers lessons that must be unlearned.

  26. The world deserves to know the truth. The world must know that even Harvey Dent was tempted and fell. He was as human as we all are. Yet the movie shows us that even the criminal can change and become the true white knight. My opinion is that it is a disservice to humanity to withhold the truth. The frailty of the human experience should not be bolstered by half truths. Umm, dude I sound weird, yet I feel this way.

  27. I really liked the movie. As mentioned above, the movie shed some of Gotham’s surreality. In contrast to all previous Batman movies, this Gotham was a light-flooded modern city of steel and glass. The “Batcave” was also an antiseptically sparse and clean industrial warehouse/showroom type environment that was, if anything, too well lit. And no more Georgian/Gothic hybrid Wayne mansion — we get an airy, transparent penthouse entirely surrounded by glass and sparsely furnished.

    Underneath this glossy and spartan surface lurks the darkness of Gotham’s moral decay and it is truly a place where crime and corruption hold sway. Like many doomed empires in need of saving, Gotham is corrupt at its core. This is where the comic book motif comes back in — because it is a comic book, we don’t have to watch real life play out on the screen; instead, we get fiction and something to think about in that pretty little package of our armed ninja deus ex machina.

    Of course there is the superficial irony that Gotham’s “Dark Knight” is its savior — and one of the few incorruptible good guys (along with Rachel, Gordon and Fox), and its “White Knight” is corruptible through the promise of position if only he can get things to go his way. The desire for reputation and position outweigh moral sense, even though the ultimate goals the White Knight desires are worthy (the elimination of the criminal core of Gotham). There is a constant “feeling” in the movie that Dent would be willing to cut corners to get the bad guys; unlike Batman, though, Dent has to do so while maintaining appearances. Ultimately, Dent’s true character as two-face is revealed when a tragedy in his own life topples him and he joins the ranks of Gotham’s villains, blindly seeking revenge.

    Batman, by contrast, does not break like Dent does. Batman is flexible and can accommodate difficult truths, such as the arbitrary influence of chance in people’s lives. Dent looks to chance as he flips his coin but breaks when it doesn’t go his way.

    In giving Gotham its White Knight, Batman gives it hope. In fact, what I primarily took from the movie was a sense of hope — I thought the medium really worked to get that across. It is a glum hope, a melancholy hope, but in this feeling the movie sheds its comic book nature in favor of a dose of realism after all. In real life, there usually isn’t a deus ex machina (although some have been fortunate enough to benefit from one), just a constant, melancholy hope.

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