Batman: The Dark Knight – A Buddhist Perspective
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“Batman - The Dark Knight” film has the deepest meaning among the Batman movie series. It inherits the consistent theme throughout – that all the villains are portrayed as survivors with big traumas, and even Batman himself is no exception (in series III, in order to overcome his childhood trauma, Batman deliberately selects “bat”, his biggest fear, as his personal symbol). However, what is unique about “The Dark Knight” is not only its portrait of the impact of trauma on the mind, but its portrait of “forgiveness and reconciliation” in a deeper level. It also explores how one can get along with one’s dark shadow (the Shadow), and how one can accept and accommodate the regrets of oneself, others, and even those that are irreversible. Indeed, “The Dark Knight” has the most depth of meaning among all of the Batman movies.
The villain in “The Dark Knight” is the Joker. The movie provides a background on the Joker’s childhood. When the Joker was young, his alcoholic father lost his mind and stabbed his mother to death. After that, his father just turned his head back and told the petrified Joker: Why take life so seriously? And right after that he put a knife into the Joker’s mouth and made a big cut for ‘smile’…These painful experiences made the Joker feel that the entire world is in chaos, he can never believe in people, and that there are no values in life at all. The only right thing to do was to adopt a cynical attitude and expose all the false laws of society and moral conscience. After all, this world is a game of illusions. Therefore, by using the mask of the Joker to play with this fake world, it has become precisely the most normal thing in an abnormal world. The Joker commits crimes not for money (money is also part of the social construction), but repeatedly creates extreme life dilemma where there can be only one winner to live (for example, there is a scene in which the passengers on two ferries have to bomb each other so that only one of them can survive). This tension is intended to push people to recognize the ugliness of their selfishness so that they can agree with the Joker’s beliefs. This is also the Joker’s way to take revenge on his father: as he could not make his father admit to his own “sins”, he in turn pushes everyone else in the world to admit their sins. The more the embodiment of justice, the more the Joker likes to play with it.
Quite the opposite character of the Joker, Batman too suffered major trauma in the early years but he instead chose a very different approach to life. After his parents were killed, Batman inherited a huge business empire and lived with great abundance in his material life. His interest in wearing Batman gear and driving his ‘chariot’ to combat the bad guys one by one was in the role of “protector outside the authority”. Unable to protect his parents in childhood, now he can only hide his real identity and become Batman to protect the people of Gotham City.
In this respect, Batman and the Joker are not without similarities ─ both of them continue to remedy for their regrets from their early days in different ways. Unfortunately, regrets can never be remedied. The more one attempts to compensate for the loss, the more one will feel disappointed. This is also what pushes the Joker and the Batman to go even further towards the two extremes of justice and evil respectively. The butler of Batman (played by Michael Caine) can see this most thoroughly. He says that now that Gotham City has become a city of crimes, Batman himself should also be held responsible. This is because the Batman appears as a heroic savior who on the one hand induces the criminals to challenge Batman, and on the other hand makes the cornered criminals even more dangerous. .
In fact, the Joker knows better than Batman that they both have very similar personality traits. (The Joker in the end says to Batman ironically that in fact, they both need to go to a mental hospital). They both have to rely on their own masks to protect the helpless children in the minds. When a hero becomes a persona in order to meet the psychological needs of people, it will be reduced to a false illusion. Batman, of course, is obsessed with the pursuit of satisfaction as a hero. Another villain in the movie Two-Face also attempts to be a hero but eventually degenerates into a bad guy. Two-Face is originally Gotham City's Attorney General responsible for prosecution of gangsters and criminals. He has a strong sense of justice, and is willing to risk his own life to take down the criminals at all costs; and yet at the same time he is also quite conceited, and believes that that he can always control fate. He would even cross the bottom line and stop at nothing to intimidate the prisoners.
Although he represents the authority, he feels envious of Batman who wins the respect by combating the bad guys outside the authority. The yearning for Hero becomes his Achilles heel, as the psychologist Carl Jung said that hiding behind this persona in Hero is the dark shadow ─ when one tries to pursue the good and the beautiful at all costs, the dark side of the mind will also expand since the glory of the hero has completely blinded the eyes. This is like when one runs towards the sun, one can never see the long shadow dragging behind oneself.
Unfortunately, the Joker is able to see through the mental fragility of Two-Face. (In the movie, the Joker is also a symbol of the devil). The Joker has to turn Two-Face to become a part of the devil and therefore he arranges a series of traumatic events for Two-Face to experience, so as to break down Two-Face’s worldview.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed a concept called Tension between Virtue and Happiness. Simply put, it is when moral practices cannot bring happiness, they become the greatest tragedy in life, and these are also the roots of life regrets. The Joker deliberately kills Two-Face’s girlfriend while Two-Face tries to persecute the Joker, and Two-Face himself is also seriously injured with half of his face destroyed. When Two-Face finds out that his lifelong pursuit of justice has on the contrary made him lose his love in life, he becomes angry and confused.
The Joker takes the opportunity to turn Two-Face’s anger towards Batman and the police, and tells him that there is in fact no order in the world, and that he should not believe in rules and order. Two-Face finds that his pursuit of justice and social order has not been able to bring happiness for himself and his loved ones. Then by doing the exact opposite, he takes revenge against Batman and the police and he becomes a devil who relies on no order. Only the archangel Lucifer could descend to become the most evil of the devil.
Batman witnesses the changes of Two-Face and he understands the underlying reasons. The reason why the Joker chooses to challenge Two-Face is because Two-Face has the most sense of justice among them all.” Therefore, Batman’s heart is filled with compassion towards Two-Face. So when Two-Face dies in his vain final attempt at revenge, Batman is willing to take responsibility for all the charges and accusations against Two-Face. This is not out of his impulsive sympathy, but in fact, Batman has seen through the illusion of the hero image, and he is willing to let go of this illusive identity of hero. It is the first time he can see from the perspective of the people of Gotham City, and tried to understand their real needs instead of just doing heroic acts.
In a sense, for Batman this is atonement for Two-Face because they both make the same mistake – though sadly Two-Face no longer has an opportunity to take up and redress his own sins. However, Batman has become more aware of his dark side because of Two-Face. Therefore in the end, although Two-Face cannot remedy his sins, he can however help another person remedy the sins. Life is filled with regrets and only through acceptance, tolerance, understanding and learning from oneself, and each other, can we find peace in life.
As the movie title The Dark Knight suggests: Batman finally chooses to be a silent guardian in the dark - he chooses to live with his ‘dark shadow’ because he understands that as long as he silently guards, tolerates, and understands the shadows of himself and others, and learn from them, he will be able to live in reconciliation with himself and others. Only when everyone can live in peace with themselves will the world have real peace.
I would also like to dedicate this article to the actor Heath Ledger who plays the Joker in the movie. He passed away due to drug abuse shortly after the movie was completed. The pain in the fallen angel Lucifer’s heart was probably something that he could not bear. I therefore pray that the Joker can rest in peace. In this role as Joker, Ledger had made a great contribution in the history of acting.