NOTE: I considered posting a much more detailed analysis of the metaphysical lessons I found in The Dark Knight, but I wasn’t sure how to do it without building in a lot of spoilers. If anybody wants to discuss specific scenes, let’s do that in the comments section.
Critics and moviegoers have been raving for weeks about the brilliance of Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight — and rightly so. Ledger’s Joker is wonderfully creepy, swapping his predecessors’ Technicolor campiness for the unnerving darkness of a ruthless insanity motivated by nothing more nor less than evil for evil’s sake.
Although this Joker appears to be out for cash at the beginning of the film (the first time we see him, he is orchestrating a bank heist, and he later tells a roomful of crime bosses: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free”), it quickly becomes apparent that money holds no fascination for him, and he seems to exist for the sole purpose of enticing people to compromise their principles.
As Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred, explains: “Some men can’t be bought, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
What audiences will (or should) find most unsettling about The Joker is his disturbingly familiar mode of operation.
The Dark Knight shows no good guys — only guys, some of whom behave better than others — and it is in this atmosphere of relativity that The Joker is able to operate. Throughout the film, we see people tolerate and even embrace error in one form or another — greed, fear, anger, grief, apathy — and throughout the film, The Joker uses these lapses as a basis from which to manipulate his victims, leading them further away from Principle and turning them into agents of violence and destruction.
Whether they intended to or not, the filmmakers have created a powerful illustration of what Mary Baker Eddy refers to in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as “animal magnetism” — the sometimes hypnotic effect of error as it seduces human thought away from God, divine Principle.
Life, health, and happiness are based on a fixed Principle, Mrs. Eddy explains, and as long as man adheres to that Principle, he can’t be deprived of goodness. While another may attempt to harm us, those attempts can’t reach us unless we allow ourselves to waver from Principle, giving error room to do its dirty work in our thought. Once we veer from Principle, however, we open ourselves up to aggressive mental suggestions, leaving our thought vulnerable to the whims of error.
This point is driven home particularly well in a scene from The Dark Knight in which The Joker observes: “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow, like, a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics.”
In other words, society has moved the goalposts: “Thou shalt not kill” has become “Thou shalt not kill unless,” leaving people with nowhere to stand as they try to defend themselves against The Joker’s suggestions.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I know I have — I’ll allow someone to talk me into abandoning Principle ever so briefly, for what seems to be a very good reason, and before I know it, I’m inundated with requests to bend the rules for others. It can be pretty hard to put the genie back into the bottle when The Joker is in your face, demanding consistency.
Outrageous costumes and over-the-top special effects notwithstanding, I think The Dark Knight offers up a strikingly accurate depiction of what error is and what it does, serving as a cautionary tale to all of us who might be tempted to allow fear, greed, or self-will to guide our actions instead of waiting on Principle to open the right path and provide us safe passage out of whatever material circumstances seem to loom before us.