I went and saw the Dark Knight again. This time I went with my parents. My mom is a pretty devout woman with a decent artistic sensibility. Afterward she was still trying to process the experience, and it was good to get her take on things.
One thing she said that struck me: “Everyone says it’s lots darker than Batman Begins. I hate that. It’s not dark, it’s sadistic.”
In one sense, she’s right. It is sadistic. But the sense in which she’s right is incomplete. The Joker is sadistic, not the film. He is a twisted sadist whose mere presence should have given the film an R rating. But the film doesn’t glorify that evil, it exposes it. It presents a glimmer of hope and a dash of martyrdom in the face of such evil.
And what evil it is. The Joker embodies depravity detached from sanity and given free reign to deconstruct everything and everyone around him. And by deconstruct, I mean either blow up or bring to despair.
My mom had another point: “Won’t portraying that evil push some people over the edge?” Perhaps, but it is their choice to follow the siren song of evil. The film is structured in such a way to make it clear that there are many and profound negative consequences for allowing yourself to embrace that evil. Two-face dies, spiritually in his rampage and then actually. Batman, by way of contrast, has long ago learned to live with his grief and not succumb to the temptations of despair. The contrast clearly highlights that the evil is not to be trusted or embraced. Good clearly triumphs, to the extent that it can given the horrific, 9-11 scale circumstances.
I’m considering catching a third screening, partly to let it sink in one more time, and partly to see it in IMAX. And in choosing whether to, I do need to take some of my mother’s concerns into account. Art does affect us, powerfully, deeply, and there is a legitimate risk of responding improperly to art. And such art should play only a minimal role in our lives. One of my criticisms of the character of Father Ruiz-Sanchez in A Case of Conscience is that he didn’t read scripture or the divine office nearly as much as he read Finnegan’s Wake. Art was taking up an unhealthy chunk of his life, likely because he gave himself over to some aspects of the work that he responded wrongly to. But the work as a whole needs to be considered, not just the villain. And you can’t allow a work of art to push you over the edge.