Nihilism, Moral Relativism, and The Dark Knight

I admit I made a mistake: I rented The Dark Knight.  I watched roughly 2/3rds of it, but just wasn’t motivated to finish it.  I’m not into the creepy, dark crime dramas a la Goodfellas or Heat or The Departed.  One reason is that they are amorally ultra-violent.  A proponent of the film would say this indicates a moral complexity, but I prefer to see it as a moral ambiguity, questioning the existence of good, right, and therefore evil and wrong, not to mention a transcendent moral good and purpose.

Rather than showing right and wrong and emphasizing the differences between them, shades of gray are shown and discussed and explored.  A dark shade of gray battles the darkest black.  Or maybe it’s just two different shades of dark gray battling it out until the end.

Lest you think that I think this sort of moral relativism is new, in my opinion, it is not; it goes back at least as far as Hamlet, possibly Plato’s Republic, and has been all over the international cinema map for a while, with silent films like MacTeague, for instance, in the 1920’s, or Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns in the 1960’s.  I’m obviously not including a comprehensive list; what I am saying is that this sort of moral relativism is not new as far as entertainment is concerned, and that the source of this has been around for a long time.

Nihilism, to me, seems to really sum up the moral backbone of many popular works: life is pointless.  Admittedly, there is almost always some sort of purpose in these movies, but it is some sort of watered-down morality with barely any recognizable trace of good.

For instance, in The Dark Knight, Batman wants to stop the chaotic, unpredictable supervillain The Joker from destroying Gotham.  Batman has some code of ethics: he will not kill people.  But he’s not really a good guy: he will pro-actively beat, bruise, intimidate, torture (he unapologetically breaks a man’s legs in the movie), trespass, and lie (the final conclusion ends with Batman setting up a huge lie).  Oh, and he talks in a ridiculously unrealistic raspy voice (I know that’s not really pertinent, but it was a little too much for me in this movie).

Why does Batman do these things?  He does them because he wants to and because he can.  Ultimately, he feels he’s justified in doing them, but is he really?

From the Old Testament Law of Moses: “If any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Exodus 21:23-24)”  Notice that even in these harsh conditions, neither pre-emptive aggression is justified, nor is a disproportionate response sanctioned: a hand is not to be demanded for an eye, nor a life for a foot.

We remember that the Savior teaches:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of these turn not thou away.

Ye have heard this it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:38-45)

The Lord’s standard is different from the world’s: rather than be focused on retribution, aggression, or violence, we focus on giving and lifting and building others.  We are to love our enemies and do good to them which do evil to us, so that we can be Godlike.  We are not motivated by anger, frustration, aggression, selfishness, revenge, etc., but by love and concern for the welfare of others.



Filed under Mormonism, Personal, Social Commentary

5 responses to “Nihilism, Moral Relativism, and The Dark Knight

  1. Jodi

    I see a theme with posts about movies.:)

  2. I only watched a small part of this movie because I really didn’t have a desire to watch it all. The part I saw was, as you mentioned, Batman beating and torturing to get information. That bothered me. The ends don’t justify the means even when the ends are noble.

  3. Why all the Killjoy? I loved this movie, but I have to say I was quite perplexed to understand why Batman won’t kill Joker. Doesn’t he know that it’s better for one man to die than for a city to dwindle in an utter crime wave? (Did I misquote that scripture?) 🙂

  4. 1. Great McTeague reference, but the movie you’re thinking of based on Frank Norris’s 1899 naturalistic novel is Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), famous, of course, for being ten hours long before the studio hacked it – and all its subplots, bit parts, symbolism, and narrative continuity – to two and a half hours.

    2. Your post reminded me of an op-ed by novelist Jonathan Lethem published in the NYT last September in which we writes, “I couldn’t shake the sense that a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content.”

  5. plato04

    Thanks for the correction, Matt.

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