Heath Ledger plays the part of “The Joker” in a way that somehow makes him seem rational and insane simultaneously. He’s so leeringly devious, so rabidly brilliant, so vengeful and vindictive, but so needy … you just can’t take your eyes off him. He recognizes full well how much he needs the “good guy” as a foil.
Batman is, of course, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the wealthy socialite who appears to be simply a handsome bachelor about town, but is actually a vigilante crime fighter who enjoys a tenuous relationship with the local gendarmes. His identity is known only to his trusted butler (Michael Caine) and his former girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is now dating the handsome, dynamic new district attorney (Aaron Eckhart), having told our caped crusader that she’ll return to him when he is ready to hang up the black mask.
But it’s not as simple as just feeding his ego by being the mysterious evaporative hero. Batman understands that there are moments when he will have to sacrifice his own carefully-guarded reputation for the greater good of Gotham. His real crisis comes when he is confronted by his arch nemesis to reveal his true identity, or else innocent people will suffer. The Joker is Satan-esque not only in his personification of evil, but in his devilish capacity to turn others to The Dark Side. He loves chaos, mayhem, and violence, and breeds distrust, suspicion, self-doubt, and even self-loathing. Hapless mortals seem like so much putty in his powerful hands, which is why most of this film is indeed so dark. But after a while you hardly even notice that it’s comic book material because, as the genius of “Star Wars” reminded us, all struggle between good and evil is not only cosmic and universal, it is also agonizingly personal.
“The Dark Knight” is not uplifting. But it is mesmerizing. And Heath Ledger may very well win a posthumous Academy Award.
Questions For Discussion:
1) When have you participated in an intentional deceit for the greater good? (Hint: start with lying to your children about Santa Claus.)
2) Have you ever encountered someone so evil that you did not think there was any possibility of redemption or restoration?
3) Do you think it’s possible that a vigilante crime fighter could do more good than harm?
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.