Law and Order: The Morality and Politics of ‘The Dark Knight’

Though it has plenty of action in it, “The Dark Knight” is less of a summer action blockbuster movie than a realistic crime drama. The movie is getting praise in the press for its complex themes regarding crime and violence. Most critics are mentioning the movie’s subtle treatment of issues like law and order and good versus evil, with at least a couple critics mentioning “The Dark Knight’s” allusions to the issue of Western Civilization’s battle against terrorism.

Few critics, however, have said much about what the movie’s actual viewpoint on these topics is. Director Christopher Nolan says in the production notes to “The Dark Knight” that the movie’s “underlying theme” is whether legal authorities, in fighting evil, can bend the rules of the justice system without breaking them. The movie seems to answer that question in the affirmative, especially if lives of innocent people are at stake or if the integrity of the justice system is being threatened with destruction.

While the ending argues for moral relativism (the belief that there are no objective and transcendent moral absolutes but that all rules of morality are relative to groups, situations and individuals), there are some media-wise points that could be made that some moral values are higher than others. For example, Jesus Christ says that it is not a violation of the Sabbath laws to save the life of an animal or (better yet) a human being on the Sabbath Day of Rest, because protecting life is a higher moral value that takes precedence when there is a moral dilemma regarding the Laws of God. In other words, it is okay to lie to the National Socialist Gestapo officer about the Jews you are hiding and protecting in your attic or cellar.

That’s not all, however, that the movie says about the question, Can you bend the rules without breaking them?

Throughout the story, Batman, Lt. Gordon and D.A. Harvey Dent struggle with the issue of vigilante justice. Thus, Lt. Gordon uses Batman’s efforts outside the official legal system to bring evil criminals to justice. And, he decides that he can trust Harvey Dent and use his legal office to finally put some of the top criminals in jail.

To their chagrin, the chaotic Joker introduces a wild card into the deck, driving Batman and Harvey Dent to the edge of actually breaking the law. The tragedy of the story is that Batman pulls back from the edge of this abyss but Harvey Dent goes mad and does not. Ultimately, the movie upholds the justice system, and rebukes to a degree Harvey Dent’s rampage of revenge and deadly, uncontrolled vigilante punishment.

That said, the movie is a bit murky at the very end. This may lead to some confusion, but that is why moviegoers always should be very cautious about what they take from any movie, including so-called documentaries or non-fiction films.

Violent crime continues to be a huge problem in the United States, especially in our urban areas. In fact, it could be argued that the situation has gotten even worse in our cities. Perhaps the best we can hope from “The Dark Knight” is that it may generate some new thinking and renewed efforts to stop crime among our political leaders, many of whom have violated their oath of office to serve and protect innocent legal civilians and their families.

This is not a movie for children or young teenagers who may pick up scripts of bad behavior, however, though they probably will flock to the movie. Parents must take a strong stand, therefore, and not let their children and teenagers succumb to media hype. BATMAN BEGINS, the first movie in this incarnation of the caped hero, is a much more moral and much better scripted, acted and directed movie.