Justice’s Required Redeemer: On "The Dark Knight"

Note: Spoilers galore ahead. The movie is well-paced, incredibly dense, and very tense. Please do not ruin it for yourself if you have not seen it – this movie probably cannot be hyped enough.

However: if you can learn what justice is, why so serious about a mere plot?

for Peter Lund

1. Does justice require redemption? Batman Begins assumed this and ran into a problem: how do we know who the redeemer is? Ra’s Al Ghul’s anger at Gotham was perfectly justified, and it was sheer chance that Batman found one good cop – Jim Gordon – who was able to stop Al Ghul from killing him and then causing fear to annihilate the city for good.

Socrates would never demand that we look into necessary causes: those are divine matters, and those who look into the heavens for answers are most unnecessary when our concern is earthly. They would assert that justice is merely conventional anyway, a construct we use to keep ourselves from a more difficult truth. The joke’s on them: they have no clue what willing tools they are when push comes to shove, how ugly the truth actually is.

So that we start with a redemptive figure is more than fine: if that’s our opinion about the source of justice, it matters and needs to be addressed. But again, who is the redeemer? The Joker gets everything right, even when he lies. Jim Gordon says as much finally – the Joker wins, he drove whom he wanted to drive mad. The title is ambiguous enough that The Dark Knight could be Batman or Joker; the Dark Night which the movie takes us through, where even daylight is almost always a scene for murder and mayhem, is created by the both of them and only comes to rest when they’re talking to each other.

The Joker is wrong only on one thing, and it is “chance” that he’s wrong in a very particular situation about how low people will go. They go pretty low the whole movie, and can be trusted to go low consistently enough for chaos to reign. Is he the true redeemer of Gotham? The one that prophecies exactly what happens to Batman at the end?

2. There are three notions of justice in the film: Philosophic, Redemptive and Procedural. The movie engages the problems created by the tension between the latter two. No human can truly redeem. But a divine figure that does redeem makes human justice, procedural justice, look like a mess. It only looks like plans that can backfire, plans that don’t care for individual lives or the truly good.

The Joker’s contention is the Sophistic contention that academia and law schools thrive on, and the Presocratic contention still alive amongst many professional philosophers today: we only have procedural justice, faith in the laws. A redeemer can only uphold that, a redeemer is only human, and so redemptive justice is doomed to fail.

American Constitutionalism is procedural justice with a twist that keeps tyrants away. It makes no necessary, explicit provision for the redeemers we need each and every day – people who take bullets for each of us, people who go into towers hit by planes knowing they might not save anyone, let alone themselves, people willing to take the blame an angry mob can dish out now and throughout history.

3. So where does the philosophic conception truly come in? Is Batman a philosopher? Alfred? Jim Gordon? Lucius Fox? Dent? Rachel?

None of them are. Batman, Jim and Dent all believe that Dent can be made a redeemer within the procedural, and thus pave the way for a day no redeemer is necessary. They immediately overreach, it seems – they attempt to destroy all organized crime at once, but in doing so push organized crime to desperation. Joker is more than willing to teach men who they truly are; it is no coincidence he robs a bank with a school bus.

It seems strange that there is overreaching in eliminating the mob. Batman doesn’t kill people, and the mob’s concern about money and power limit them in truth – Harvey’s right when he speaks in the Mayor’s office about the mid-level guys being kept off the streets even if all the charges don’t stick against the bosses, if they don’t squeal. The mob doesn’t have the nerve Joker has – they have limits. So why exactly is the mob so desperate as to unleash Joker? Is it merely because they’re going to lose everything?

Alfred says the mob didn’t know what they were getting into, but that’s not entirely true. Joker clearly kills the low level thugs he uses to commit his crimes. He is clearly someone not afraid of anyone, and certainly not afraid to die. Any mob thug – any conventional bully – would shake at that. That’s the strength a criminal admires, the strength that Bruce Wayne confesses he doesn’t understand when he thinks criminals have incentives and can be caught that way.

What “undoes” Joker is cell-phone triangulation, the fact that he’s a messenger. And as pointed out above, it doesn’t really undo him. A voice cannot be caught.

3. The philosophic beginning is the overreaching. The fact is that Wayne, Gordon and Dent aren’t overreaching. Setting up Dent as redeemer is perfectly acceptable for citizens to do in a democracy: we elect leaders. We entrust others with justice.

Redemptive justice can lead us to say this is the sin of pride: you don’t get to pick your redeemer. But Alfred and Lucius Fox and Rachel are the people who doubt Batman. Rachel doesn’t love Wayne as much as she loves Dent, and Dent’s flaws become all too obvious at the end. Lucius Fox thinks briefly that Batman will spy on people forever if it is useful. And Alfred tells us that some people want to just watch the world burn, but confesses to have stopping the person responsible for teaching that lesson by burning a forest.

The flaw isn’t pride – the flaw isn’t believing in others and giving them pride. Rachel loves Dent mainly because she doubts Wayne, whom she first confessed her love to. Only Batman believes in Gotham: he has no second line of defense against people blowing each other up because the Joker set things up that way. His only true pupil is Jim Gordon, the Commissioner because Joker killed the last one, the head of police over a department filled with traitors.

But Batman’s still not a philosopher, not even close. The issue of pride is what allows us to jettison the “redemptive” complaint and move to the deeper issue of what makes people tick and how things work. Once we see that pride is what connects the cops and the criminals, we understand that Alfred was correct, but maybe not for the reason he spoke. It isn’t because criminals are desperate over money and power that makes them turn to savaging the city, or because they’re going to go to jail once and for all. It’s because they’re desperate simply, from their very inception. What Wayne, Gordon and Dent tried to do is what all of us have to do. This is the requirement for living in the merely human realm – we need redeemers, and their pride cannot always be the same as their humility.

4. What makes the movie tragic but not nihilism (quite frankly, a rarity for Christopher Nolan) is that Joker is an honest Presocratic. He’s the philosophic core of the movie, and perhaps even a philosopher himself. One that writes with blood.

Our establishing shot is a building with black windows. One of Joker’s thugs breaks the window, reveals the light, and fires a rope across the expanse to the mob bank. From the roof he uses a cell phone (or cell-phone like device) to disable the alarm.* Joker, of course, plans for the murder of every single one of his goons and helps kill several of the bank’s patrons. It is no coincidence that the one who disables the alarm is killed when the Truth almost becomes clear.

Batman in action against a Chinese accountant: he breaks into the dark building in China at night and knocks out all the guards. A cell phone like device within the building disables the alarms. The windows are smashed in their entirety as Batman brings the man to justice – he’s flying away from the cops that the accountant has bribed.

The final battle between Batman and Joker is atop a dark building at night where Joker has regular people dressed as his goons, taped and roped up such that the cops have every incentive and duty to fire on them.

The only scene where light prevails of these three is the darkest of all. Joker doesn’t have to kill all his goons: all of them are happy to do that to each other.

5. I suppose I have to address Joker’s actual speech. Very well: the multiple stories he tells aren’t merely an excuse to kill, they’re an excuse to kill with a knife. In the holding cell he is emphatic that he uses a knife to see people as they truly are. What’s interesting is how bombs and bullets are used – as tests for others mainly. Not just the end scene, but the hospital threat, his goons attempting to kill the mayor, his escape from the mob meeting, and of course the scene where he and Batman fight in the open.

Batman calls him out on his scars and the tests, saying that all aren’t as sick as he is, but truly underestimates the power of the knife. It doesn’t seem philosophic that one’s words should be a weapon, but all philosophers use elenchus. Arguments need to be refuted and the character of their user revealed.

There’s only one time the Joker lies outright and can be caught (his lies to the mob bosses and Batman are part of his plan). Every other story could be true, and given the character of Gotham previously, probably is true. He only lies with Dent in the hospital room. Btw – it is no coincidence that Dent is associated with hospitals, betrayed by hospital bills. The issue is whether or not he cares to heal or needs to be healed; does asserting “you make your own luck” admit of a need for healing? Or that he might make mistakes? That – not pride simply, but a much more narrow contention – is his deepest fault, and why he’s susceptible to the reality of fear which creates both Batman and Joker.

In the hospital room, Joker says he never makes plans: this is the baldest lie, but one that demonstrates an exceptional truth. He has Dent – whose character he knows he has broken – put a gun up to his head and dares him to pull the trigger.

The Joker doesn’t care if he dies: the point is proved. The very rules that constitute procedural justice are just a plan, an attempt to take control. If one truly wanted to take control, “rule a city,” one would be in essence seeking justice but not necessarily making plans. Given that his rule of fear does depend on everyone else reacting badly, the Joker is the opposite of Batman – not The Dark Knight, who must obey and be what people need, but the Dark Night, who truly rules no matter what.

Additional notes: *I would appreciate it if someone confirmed whether it was Joker or another who broke the window to start the movie. I would also like to know who exactly that “another” was.

There are plenty of metaphors within the movie even in the action: take note especially of “tripping” as an attack, and who is most adept at that. Socrates defends Odysseus as liar, and demonstrates lying is necessary for rule. While we can exempt Joker from being like Odysseus, why must we also exempt Batman and the Commissioner?

And yes, in case you’re curious – I only saw this movie once as of this writing (edits for clarification: 9/05/08).


  1. I can’t say for sure who exactly broke the window, but the Joker was the man you see from behind, holding his mask, who gets into the SUV at the beginning.

  2. Yup, what he said- and so it’s highly unlikely that he was supposed to be the guy that broke the window. He just rode right in with the rest of them.

  3. I watched the movie twice and I believe Joker was the third man behind the vehicle driving to the bank. Since, inside the bank he was the one who shot the bank manager. :)

  4. Oh, you’re critique looks salivating. I am forcing myself not to read this. I’ve bookmarked it.

    Three more weeks before I can see it…:(

  5. I haven’t seen it yet either, so I will also bookmark until after I do. I can’t believe how much hype that the movie is getting! I have always enjoyed Heath Ledger, so I’m really looking forward to it, as is my husband.

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