August 29, 2008
The Dark Blight
What the new Batman movie says, and doesn’t say, about the origins of evil.
by Skye Jethani
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, Batman!
I've been meaning to write a post about The Dark Knight for weeks, but between family vacations and working on the fall issue of Leadership, I've been swamped. I'm a big fan of superhero movies, and this summer I've seen a bunch - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and the latest installment of Christopher Nolan's fantastic Batman series, The Dark Knight. My companion to most of these comic book movies is a psychiatrist from my church who has a penchant for professional wrestling and shares my follicle failings. (I highly recommend watching fantasy movies with a psychiatrist - it's more fun than applying Freudian dream analysis to nursery rhymes.)
I feel no need to add my accolades for The Dark Knight to those already swirling around the web. (Check out Todd Hertz's review at CTMovies.com.) Instead, I want to discuss an interesting storytelling element of the film that may help explain one of the more mysterious elements of the Bible - emphasis on the word may. (Let's not take a movie too seriously or read overly spiritual themes into it. That only spoils an otherwise good the film and risks diminishing our faith.)
Batman's nemesis in The Dark Knight is the Joker, played by the late great Heath Ledger. Unlike earlier film depictions of the Clown Prince of Crime, Ledger's Joker has no back-story, no origin, no narrative arc. In The Dark Knight, we never discover what would drive a man to dye his hair green, paint his face white, smear a ghastly smile across his cheeks and murder people for the sheer fun of it.
In Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, is a mob boss who falls into a vat of chemicals that bleaches his skin, gives him a permanent grin, and loosens a few screws in his head. Nicholson's Joker is the product of an accident. This knowledge humanizes the character, and despite his evil behavior the audience retains some degree of pity for the villain.
Not so in The Dark Knight. Director Christopher Nolan says he intentionally avoided giving the Joker any back-story in his movie. "He's got no story arc," says Nolan, "he's just a force of nature tearing through [the film]." Co-writer David Goyer says there is no need for an origin for the Joker because, "He just is. He's more interesting without it."
Nolan says a back-story for the Joker "would reduce the character. It's more frightening because, in a sense, there is no mystery there.... He is exactly what he presents himself to be; which is an anarchist." Nolan describes the Joker as a "mad dog" - a description carried into the film when the Joker describes himself as a dog chasing cars - he wouldn't know what to do if he caught one.
How does this relate to the Bible? Well, Scripture is largely silent regarding the origins of the enemy and evil - the blight of sin that marks our world. We know how humanity rebelled against God and fell into sin through the deception of the serpent in the garden - but where did the serpent come from? If God created a perfect creation and declared all things "good," how and when did evil appear on the scene?
Yes, I know Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven (Luke 10:18), but even he offers no real back-story, no explanation. I am also aware of the apocryphal writings that try to explain the evil one's narrative arc and the popularity of such ideas with pop-evangelical fiction. But none of that changes the fact that scripture largely ignores the question - where did evil come from? Instead, the thrust of the Bible is focused on what God has done about it.
I wonder if the lack of a back-story for evil in the Bible is related to Nolan and Goyer's rationale for ignoring the Joker's back-story? Without an explanation or origin, God is emphasizing the utter meaninglessness and anarchy of evil. It cannot be understood; it cannot be rationalized. To do otherwise would be to legitimize its place in his creation or to create sympathy for an enemy that deserves none.
I recall sitting in a theology class in seminary where we debated the origins of evil. How could Adam and Eve even be tempted? After all, they were created in the image of God and completely pure. How did the serpent come to be in the garden? Why would God allow that?
After spending too much time debating these fruitless thoughts (which is the seminarian's specialty), my professor finally interrupted with his wisdom. "Never ask a question the text doesn't want to answer," he said. He was correct, of course. They are brilliant words I try to remember with each sermon I write.
Before The Dark Knight's premiere, comic book movie fanboys were all over the internet criticizing Nolan's decision to not include a back-story for the Joker. They wanted the film to be faithful to the comics. They wanted their questions about Batman's antagonist answered and expounded. Nolan refused because he had a higher goal than answering fanboys' questions - he wanted to tell a great story.
Answers to all of our questions about the origin of evil are not found in the Scriptures, which means that God, the Writer and Director of this cosmic drama, did not deem them necessary for the story he wanted to tell. Are we satisfied with that, or must we continue to contrive answers for ourselves? My guess is that Christians would find themselves in less trouble theologically, culturally, and politically if we stuck with the questions God has chosen to answer, and immersed ourselves in the story he has chosen to tell.