Gotham’s Unsung Virtue

Last weekend marked the 10th anniversary of The Dark Knight. It goes without saying for anyone who has seen it that Christopher Nolan presents a cinematic tour de force. On an intellectual level, the film poses a fundamental question: how do we respond to chaos and evil? While The Joker’s effort to compromise Batman and his principles may steal the spotlight, another significant drama takes place among what appear to be the good guys. Batman’s fight with Harvey Dent reflects a more subtle battle between law and grace that threatens the hearts of men.

Besides the fact that they wear expensive suits during daytime hours, Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent are very much opposite sides of the same coin. Both are distinguished men who are passionate about their city and pursuing justice, but they go about it in different ways. Wayne maintains his persona as the young, reckless millionaire by day and the masked hero by night. He opposes established systems and social expectations by fighting crime in the shadows using his own means. Dent, on the other hand, works in the daylight and operates by the book from the moment we meet him.

The actions of both men raise questions. Gotham’s population debates whether the “caped crusader” should be regarded as a hero or a vigilante. Can such a man be anonymous and good? While Dent operates within a legitimate office, his zealous approach as district attorney also causes concern. Jim Gordon calls him Gotham’s “white knight,” but they hint at “another name” he earned while running Internal Affairs investigations. The point of contention, of course, regards the questionable officers in Gordon’s unit. “If I didn’t work with cops you investigated while you were making your name at I.A., I’d be working alone,” Gordon objects. Dent’s efforts to beat the mob threaten to break the entire system.

Dent’s cavalier, “make my own luck” approach in the courtroom conceals a faulty belief that good actions will naturally be rewarded with good outcomes. In other words, justice equals fairness. But the minute the Joker slinks into the mob’s kitchen, that ethical framework comes crashing down. With an “agent of chaos” on the loose, bad things inevitably happen to good people. The real question is how each of these heroes will respond when an unjustified tragedy takes place. Rachel Dawes’ death provides that opportunity for comparison. Both men loved her, and how they respond to losing her reflects the strength and validity of their convictions.

To be fair, Bruce Wayne had already learned how to accept the death of a loved one in Batman Begins. The hero we take for granted grew out of an insatiable desire for revenge. A combination of chance, mentoring, and personal choice turned that history of pain into a legacy of mercy and restraint. Wayne’s reluctance to kill a single farmer accused of murder lays the foundation for his efforts to redeem to the city known for its corruption. This doesn’t absolve the fault, but it does take humility for Bruce to say “I’m no executioner” and to acknowledge that justice in many cases should be based on more than the perceptions of one man.  “Justice is about harmony; revenge is about you making yourself feel better,” as Rachel explains. Batman repeatedly puts himself in a position to pursue something greater than his personal interest, and we really don’t expect any less from him.

Unlike Bruce Wayne, Dent’s philosophy is predominantly self-serving. Rachel’s death may test Batman’s resolve, but it becomes a breaking point for Dent as it rips the foundation from underneath his ideological framework. The Joker’s hospital visit illustrates just how dangerous that kind of individualism can be. If right actions should necessarily bring about a just and good outcome and bad actions the opposite, the established systems prove to be imperfect for achieving those desires. Dent becomes susceptible to pursuing those ends with a more radical form of individualism: anarchy. The Joker presents him with this premise that chaos is the only thing that is truly fair. Dent then masquerades as an agent of chance as he sets off on a personal vendetta for the unjust actions that shattered his world.

The film reads as a tragedy: it makes a point by showing the terrible extremes of an idea. Fueled by his own conception of what people ought to have done, Harvey Dent’s rage drives him insane because nothing can completely atone for the past, and nothing can fully satisfy the expectations he places on the world. What he is willing to do to a child shows that this self-righteous reaction to chaos and evil cannot be acceptable; it completely undermines the ideals he stood for at the beginning of the film. It is Batman’s ability to accept moral failings (just as Gordon does) and to sacrifice his life, reputation, and resources in the pursuit of justice that makes him so effective at bringing real transformation.

Harvey Dent may not be the most prominent villain in this film, but he does have the last word. His end reveals something essential about Batman because he is one version of what Bruce Wayne could have become. The characters never openly discuss mercy, but Batman would not be the hero he is without it. Mercy (or grace) allows a person to regard other people above himself, to tolerate the flaws of those who are moving toward goodness, and to counteract the destructive environment of our fallen world. It saves Gotham, it can save our world, and it’s certainly the unsung virtue in The Dark Knight.

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