Philosophy, Morality, & Nolan’s Batman Trilogy: Evil, Ledger’s Joker, & Hardy’s Bane

Something I wrote was read by somebody in some form and I was asked to write a paper on it. I cowardly declined, despite being interested in the project. So, like a coward, rather than write the paper I have provided the initial draft of an online post whence came the offer and my cowardly decline:

Many movies are intended to be philosophical, or to have some “deep” meaning or message. Most of the time, I don’t find that part of the movie particularly interesting, even when I like the movie. The first of the Matrix movies, for example, has a philosophical aspect which is usually missed because 1) the blatantly obvious one (how do we know what’s real?) overshadows it and 2) not a lot of people are aware of work from Gramsci onwards relating to hegemony and how socio-political structures, cultural practices, and organizations (from academic communities to labor unions) continually and dynamically continue not only the view that they are justified from an external standpoint, but also from an internal one. A good deal of the language in the original Matrix shows that the “real world” vs. a fake one is less about whether we can know what is real and more about the “system” fooling everybody into thinking it is needed. In fact, it is quite reminiscent of Plato’s cave. Only a few are able to see the truth, and having done so they have trouble making those in the cave realize that they see only shadows of a false reality. However, “agents” in the movie have no parallel in Plato, but do in work on cultural hegemony. Those who “see” what the socio-cultural and/or political structures “really” are must be eradicated to maintain the system. I liked the movie a lot more before I had read Gramsci et al. And I never found the “how do we know what is real” part all that interesting either (that also hearkens back to Plato, and even more directly to Descartes and those after him). And for me, this holds true of most such movies: even if I like it, it isn’t for the message or philosophy. Instead, movies which may not intend to have any message, or at least those which are more about the story, characters, etc., than some underlying “deep” meaning which is meant to be abstracted and generalized apart from the story itself, are often (for me) much more…well, meaningful.

Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and in particular the second and third, are great examples of this. Although I find a lot of things interesting about the movies, perhaps the most intriguing is the questions these raised about evil. That will be my focus here, and a question I put to others. One reason I think these philosophical questions were not intentional is that I believe they arose more from the need to have a villain who could in some way follow Heath Ledger’s performance. How could any portrayal of any villain compete with the unbelievable acting, dedication, and character creation Ledger achieved? It was Nolan’s answer (or solution), not a desire to raise questions about the nature of evil, that was behind the philosophical aspects in the two movies. In simple terms, the question can be posed as such: who is more evil? The one who simply wants “to watch the world burn”, or the one who truly believes she or he is serving “true justice” and working for the “greater good”?

It is not simply an academic question, nor a trivial one. We have seen in recent years more media attention on apparently random acts of violence with no apparent motivation other than to kill as many as possible. I’m not necessarily equating any of these (and certainly not all of them) with Ledger’s Joker. However, Bane does have readily identifiable equivalents in the 20th century. Foremost among these is Hitler. The question then becomes one of intent vs. result. If I truly believe that I can bring about A Brave New World in which everyone is better off, and (in true Machiavellian form) am willing to sacrifice many, many lives (even my own) and cause much suffering so that at the end everyone is better off, am I so bad? Am I worse than someone who causes less harm, less suffering, less death and destruction, but who does it simply because they enjoy it? Ledger’s Joker epitomizes the latter type of evil. He does have a goal of sorts: show that “when the chips are down” or “you introduce a little anarchy” to reduce civilization into a state of nature, humans are really “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish” animals. But this goal is far more the result of a personality of “pure evil” (words used to describe Bane) than it is to serve some purpose. To see this, we have only to look at anarchists like Emma Goldman or those following the French revolution who embraced the idea that without political and cultural shackles a natural fraternité among men (I’m using terms of the time, so pardon the sexism) would create an ungoverned egalitarianism. That’s more “traditional” anarchist thought: “imagine no possessions”, no religion, no countries, just the people (hoi polloi), and a “brotherhood of man” “sharing all the world”. This is most certainly not Ledger’s Joker. He embraces a Hobbesian view of humans, while at the same time adopting the anarchist solution. In doing so, he rejects the only reason anarchists have really been anarchists at all- that humans are naturally good and it is only the socio-cultural institutions, religion, etc., which causes problems. His anarchism is not designed to show that people can do without order, but is a love of chaos. He wants to see people suffer, panic, in pain, desperate, and tearing each other apart. That to me is about as close to “pure evil” as one can get. Which is where Bane, and in particular Bane’s response to being called “pure evil”, is so illuminating. He states “I’m necessary evil”. His goal is to serve “true justice”, to “restore balance”. He pretends, after taking over the city, to believe in serving hoi polloi. He pretends to give the city “back to the people”. His anarchism, though, is far more of a lie than is Ledger’s Joker. Like Ledger’s Joker, Bane knows that chaos will ensue. But unlike Ledger’s Joker, his intent is never to simply cause chaos but to eradicate a corrupt city and to restore “balance”, creating a better world. His commitment is to a cause; one he is willing to die for. And this cause is, as far as its desired outcome is concerned, noble. Humanity (he believes), can only survive if there exists a group of people willing to be that necessary evil for the greater good. There is no question that Bane, like Hitler and so many unfortunately historical examples, does far more damage than does Ledger’s Joker. Looking at the results, it is clear who is worse. However, just by concentrating on the outcome, one has adopted much of Bane’s philosophy! To focus on the outcome is not wholly Machiavellian, in that one is not ignoring the means. But it is a trap which is too easy to fall into given a sufficiently significant outcome. Changing the situation makes this clear. Instead of mass slaughter with “good” intentions, imagine someone who tries to save another by giving CPR but has misread the unconscious individual’s vital signs and accidently kills them because their heart had not stopped. Thus, by trying to create a pulse, this would be good Samaritan actually destroys a pulse that was there already by damaging the heart. A tragedy? Yes. Evil? I don’t think so. There’s a reason we use phrases like “she meant well” or “well, at least his heart was on the right place.” It’s because we recognize that people often do things with the goal of helping others or bettering some situation, only to make things worse.

This does not describe many who, like Hitler, committed atrocities with at least part of the goal being the creation of a better world. For one, I don’t believe that Hitler’s attitude towards those he deemed “lesser” (and therefore somehow dangerously “polluting” the human race) was the result of rational reflection but of irrational prejudice. It is important to understand that by rational I refer only to the validity of the logic behind a particular political philosophy (or really any philosophy). By way of illustration, let us apply this definition to the League of Shadows (both in the first and the last movies of Nolan’s trilogy). Their goal is to restore balance, and their belief is that this is both desirable (even necessary) and involves the destruction of cities that become too corrupt. In order for their conclusion (that they must destroy such cities) to be “rational” in the sense I refer to here, we need not say anything about the truth of their various premises (or beliefs) motivating their conclusion. We need not agree that cities which are too corrupt should be destroyed, or that there is a balance which must be preserved at all cost, etc. Validity (and therefore rationality) here is limited only to whether or not, granting their initial beliefs or premises, their conclusion follows from it. Under the assumption (and ignoring whether it is true) that there is a balance necessary for the human race to continue (and that this itself is desirable), and further that this balance can only exist if certain cities are destroyed after becoming too corrupt, is it then logical to destroy such cities? If so, then this is “rational” in that (and only to the extent that) the conclusion is logically valid once the premises are granted. If, then, we grant (for the sake of argument) that Bane’s basic motivating beliefs are true (all that talk of balance and corruption and the necessity to destroy cities in order to restore a balance required for the survival of the human race), I would say his actions are defensible. Of course, I don’t believe his motivating beliefs are true, and therefore do not agree with the soundness of the argument behind his actions. However, as I said above, we frequently characterize people’s actions as “good” (or at least not bad or evil) based upon what the intended outcome of their actions was, rather than the result. It seems irrational to make this understanding of good, bad, right, wrong, etc., contingent upon particular outcomes. This would mean that in some cases, we judge actions based on intended outcomes, while in others we ignore this, but without any logical reason. This is not to defend the idea that Bane (or those like him) should be deemed agents of good. Far from it. What I am more interested in is comparing the “necessary evil” Bane describes himself as with the type of evil Ledger’s Joker represents. The former is more destructive in results, but the motivations are to create a better world, even to save it. The latter is simply motivated by a love of destruction, chaos, panic, pain, and general misanthropy. So which is “the worse evil”? That represented by Ledger’s Joker, or that by Hardy’s Bane?

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