‘The Dark Knight’ of the free will

By Adam English

Among those in the record-breaking crowd that appeared with money in hand to see The Dark Knight on opening weekend were me and three of my friends. The second installment of the new Batman series from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, which sold over $158 million in tickets the first weekend, set a new record for most money made in the first three days.

The Dark Knight is superior to Batman Begins in many ways: plot-development, suspense, action, effects and, of course, villainy. One cannot help but think that the premature death of actor Heath Ledger had something to do with the buzz surrounding the new film. But let that not take away from his performance. He played a wickedly unpredictable Joker.

As we pulled into the theater parking lot Friday night, my friends and I were engaged in a heavy discussion. Of all things that could be discussed before seeing a Batman flick, we were talking about free will. I have no idea how we got onto the topic, and I certainly could not have known how relevant our exchange was to the movie we were about to see.

Nick was saying that free will is tied to intention: knowingly choosing one thing over another. Free will is necessary because all of us are responsible before God for our actions. This implies that we somehow have a choice with regard to those actions. How can you be responsible for something you did not choose or something you were unaware of choosing?

Wes did not buy Nick’s argument that we can exercise real choice with eternal consequences. Wes contended that God had already made the greater choice – for forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. God’s choice was to redeem the world and not count our sin against us; any insistence on our part that we can escape or opt out of the love of God is illusory.

Choice is a key component of The Dark Knight. Every character is confronted by choices. Among the minor characters, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) must choose between two men. Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) must decide what to do with a certain letter. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) must decide whether or not to help Batman by using morally objectionable technology. And Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldham) must choose between aligning himself with the vigilante caped crusader or arresting him.

Among the main characters, Harvey “Two-Face” Dent (Aaron Eckhart) sees all choices as a matter of random chance, a flip of a coin. The Joker is a nihilist for whom all choices are absurd. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) walks a razor’s edge as Gotham’s unelected but semi-official vigilante, choosing to protect the innocent, do justice and (in his words) inspire goodness while trying to avoid his own personal vendettas and emotions. Bruce Wayne’s choice is even more complicated by his acknowledgment that vigilantism is not a good substitute for law and order, and if there was a way he could support the justice system without his bat suit, he would.

In The Dark Knight, more than a few characters – Batman/Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, Lt. Gordon, the mobsters, and the people of Gotham – are faced with impossible choices. The Joker revels in creating situations that force people to act against their moral commitments, against the law, against their better natures, and against their best interests. Director Christopher Nolan said in a Newsweek interview: “The Joker gets pleasure from taking somebody’s rule set – their ethics, their morals – and turning them against each other. Paradox is the way you do that — giving people impossible choices.”

At first glance, one might say that, through his macabre “games,” the Joker is the champion of choice and the true believer in free will. He certainly gives everyone plenty of choices to make. But, his choices are demented: choosing one life at the expense of another or saving oneself by ruining someone else.

The Joker is not after money, fame or even control. He says he simply wants to “introduce a little anarchy,” “upset the established order.” But, in a twisted way, isn’t this the triumph of free will – choice that has been unmoored from the safe docks of law and order and morality?

As it turns out, what the Joker offers is not freedom or even choice. The characters in the movie act most freely when they can get around the Joker and outwit his false “choices.” But when they cannot, their actions become involuntary. They act out of compulsion, fear and necessity. Even the Joker seems to be driven by an unrelenting anarchical agenda from which he derives no pleasure or relief. He is a prisoner of his own design, or perhaps his own madness.

The Joker has brought to life Friedrich Nietzsche’s dream and St. Paul’s nightmare. Nietzsche, that notorious 19th-century German challenger of Christianity, declared that moral systems of good and evil, noble and ignoble, right and wrong, were nothing more than human constructions, social conveniences and silly customs. Rules of ethics are no more true or absolute or eternal than rules of etiquette. They are manmade and arbitrary, and for these reasons should be consigned to the flames.

According to Nietzsche, humankind must forge ahead, beyond good and evil: “What is strong wins. That is the universal law. To speak of right and wrong per se makes no sense at all. No act of violence, rape, exploitation, or destruction is intrinsically ‘unjust,’ since life is violent, rapacious, exploitative, and destructive and cannot be conceived otherwise.”

Survival of the fittest. What is strong wins. But, the game is given away in the last line of this passage, “and cannot be conceived otherwise.” Why not? Who says? Here we glimpse the rigid determinism and unquestionable dogmatism that lies just under the surface of Nietzsche’s so-called liberation of the will. There is no place for any alternative to the unswerving law of nature. When Harvey “Two-Face” Dent becomes “liberated” and uninhibited, the result is monstrous. He looks and acts less than fully human, more like a rabid animal or a machine programmed for vengeance.

For Paul, the worst of all possible conditions is finding that “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). These are exactly the kind of options the Joker (and Satan) supplies: the kind that we can only hate. Sin, selfish behavior and disobedience to the law are not Promethean feats of free will but signs of slavery. According to Paul, disobedience, rebellion, and sin do not liberate us to “do whatever we want,” as we might suppose, but trap and imprison our wills. We become “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:17).

Freedom, according to Paul and the Christian tradition, is not something we naturally possess and exercise. It is not our right or ability. Rather, like life itself, freedom is a gift. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). And a little further, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).

True freedom is not being able to do whatever we want any more than it is a choice between two options. True freedom means finding out who we really are, what we were created to be, and who our true family is. It does not mean declaring independence from all things, severing all ties to kin and kith, breaking all rules, and striking out on one’s own. It means being redeemed: identified in the pile, picked up, cleaned off and given a home. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12).

The Dark Knight poses dilemmas of choice and free will well worth pondering. But the distance between Gotham and Jerusalem is considerable. In the world of Batman, choice is always tainted, plagued, tragic and maybe even absurd. In the free country of Zion, by contrast, choice is gift, adoption, recognition and surprisingly even love.

Adam English is assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.

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About Mark Kelly

Jesus follower, Bible reader, husband/father/son/brother/uncle, rider, hiker, snapshooter
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