Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #9

Re: The Dark Knight (2008)

I saw The Dark Knight yesterday. It seems to me that the movie leaves us with this question: are we being invited to approve the lies perpetrated by Wayne and Gordon at the end?

The message preached overtly at the end is that sometimes a lie is “better than the truth,” and that people “deserve to have their faith rewarded” even at the price of a grave, pernicious lie. This doctrine is, quite simply, Satanic. Are we being invited to approve it? I fear that we are.

It would be nice to think that this is, rather, a wry comment on mankind’s inability to bear very much reality (as Eliot put it). But whereas the movie tries to champion “decency” over depravity, it shows no convincing sign of championing truth over lies. One character who means to tell the truth is Rachel, but her attempt to do so is thwarted after her death by Alfred, whom we are presumably meant to consider a wiser head. Likewise, Gordon’s objection to calumniating the Batman is overridden by the pragmatic Wayne who assumes the blame for murders he did not commit.

The fact that the film problematizes various immoral acts on the heroes’ part doesn’t satisfy me that it is really on the side of truth. Since Pontius Pilate, the world has done its problematizing of “hard” moral questions; it has done its bit of agonizing, then sent Truth to the wall (or, in Pilate’s case, to the Cross).

The attitude to “faith” at the end also chimes with what the modern world thinks “faith” is: an idea, even if it be a delusion, that people need to sustain them, irrespective of objective truth.

What do you think? Is the ending an indictment of how we are lied to, or we meant to approve the lies?

A priest

I think the ending of The Dark Knight is genuinely ambiguous and conflicted on the morality of the heroes’s final decisions. I don’t think it asks us to approve or to condemn them, only to understand them.

Your unsparing analysis of the world “agonizing and then sending Truth to the wall” is dead on — and, woe to us, it happens not just in the world but also in the Church. I don’t think there’s any question that we need more transparency from our leaders, both in the world and in the Church.

At the same time, there is clearly a place for not telling the whole truth, for judging secrets too damaging to be made public. When and where to draw the lines in this regard is a judgment call, and often enough, alas, it is made badly. But it needs to be made.

I don’t think the film itself is making Eliot’s wry point about our inability to bear very much reality, but I do think Batman and Gordon are motivated by such concerns, whether in this case rightly or wrongly. Countless movies end with the heroes going public with deep dark secrets in a grand moral climax. The Dark Knight is one of a few that raises questions about the limits of transparency.

Whether legitimate secrecy can include offering actual misinformation or lying, and if so to whom and under what circumstances, is another question. I’m not convinced that an affirmative answer to this question must necessarily be satanic. I know St. Thomas thought so, but I’m not sure he was right. The latest issue of This Rock magazine has an excellent article by Jeffry Mirus on the morality of lying that explores this territory. Again, even if lying can sometimes be morally justified, it doesn’t follow that this particular lie is necessarily justified.

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