I decided to update a bit on my brother's blog on the latest movie, Dark Knight. Although I must said that the review is simple and interesting, I felt there is more than the simple illustration from the previous posting. But before we could first talk about Dark Knight, we must look at Batman Begin. The emergence of a vigilante, superhero character in the form of Batman due to the failure of the legal system, or a legal system that seen to be adequate, in upholding the established moral order of the day. The Batman's law breaking stunts could only be justified so long as they did not contradict the very moral rules which underlie his utilitarian goals.
The idea that the ethical is not always correlated with the legal is projected onto the character of Batman and his circle of trust. It was this conflict between law and morality which gave birth to Batman and all that he endeavoured to inspire.
One person embodying the conflict between the ethical and the legal – what could this inspire? Batman Begins ended by giving us a glimpse to the question while its sequel, The Dark Knight, started with an elaboration on the answer – more vigilantes, pseudo-Batman who wore hockey pants, who wanted to take matters into their own hands only to complicate things further for the real Batman. What was meant to inspire goodness backfired and began to spin out-of-control. The new layer thus introduced into The Dark Knight is that the concept of Batman with his rule-utilitarian approach must ultimately be something of a temporary measure. At the end of the day, the rule-of-law must be upheld as the only legitimate means to maintain and restore social order – it was Gotham City Police Department’s official policy, and also Rachel Dawes hope of seeing the day when Batman no longer need to exist (which Bruce Wayne conceded at one point). All these led to the creation of Harvey Dent as a symbol of this hope – the conflict embodied by Batman would be dissolved by the congruence which converged in Harvey Dent.
Now, all these merely set the stage for what is really the essence of The Dark Knight – the Joker. Most people would concur that this is a Heath Ledger movie more than anyone else. He so brilliantly slipped into the psychopathic character of the Joker and brought out the very gist of what his character stood for. If the existence of Batman was due to the inadequacy of the present legal system, the existence of the Joker would be caused by the inadequacy of the present ethical system. While Batman flouted law to restore the moral order in the name of rule-utilitarianism, the Joker defied all morality to threaten the very existence of this established moral order. When it was said that the Joker has no rules, it was meant in the most extensive sense to include both moral and legal rules. If Batman embodied the conflict between law and morality, the Joker embodied the very conflict of morality itself.
The many layers of on-going battles – material, power, strength – only camouflaged the real war beneath them all; the war against the established moral order of the day. The most formidable challenge posed by the Joker to Batman was to threaten him at the very core of his rules which underlie his utilitarianism. Christopher Nolan thoughtfully reconstructed so many real life situations to amplify the fact that our present moral order is inadequate to deal with the complexities of society and human life. Perhaps the most interesting of them all is the classical prisoner’s dilemma reconstructed in the situation of the 2-ships in The Dark Knight. In economics, the prisoner’s dilemma sliced the two concepts of ‘rationality’ and ‘optimality’ apart to arrive at the Nash Equilibrium. In The Dark Knight, the 2-ships-dilemma pushed to the edges our understanding of ‘rationality’ and ‘optimality’ to arrive at a Moral Disequilibrium (see Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?). The social experiment conducted by the Joker even defied his own expectations of human rationality and behaviour whereas the Batman could only resigned himself to a pathetic dualistic analysis of such a complex situation.
Who emerged victorious in this war? The answer needs no rocket science. Harvey Dent became Two Face in his descent to evil; Batman had to break some of his rules i.e. garnering too much power by the use and abuse of technology in order to capture the Joker. The hope of Gotham for congruence and convergence between law and morality could only be artificially upheld by a lie. The Dark Knight has traces of many contemporary issues, from the war on terror to the dangers of technology but the most relevant contemporary question which confronts us all is perhaps this – If you break the law, you are an outlaw but if you break the moral code, you are a freak – but really, are all the freaks out there immoral? If the solution to an inadequate legal system is a vigilante Batman, what is the solution to an inadequate ethical system?