What is justice? Whether it is defined as punishing and rewarding people according to their actions or as simply being fair, many of us have rather simple definitions of the word. Justice, however, is an idea that is far more complicated than it seems at first glance. A particularly good example of the nonsimplistic nature of justice is the movie The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight is an effective example of the complicated nature of justice because it uses powerful symbolic scenes to demonstrate the difficulty in finding justice, it uses characters as strong symbols for the various natures of justice and injustice, and it shows that the obviously just and unjust characters have striking similarities. The Dark Knight’s scenes provide many examples of the difficult nature of justice. Consider this situation: A group of civilians and a group of criminals are trapped on separate boats that are rigged with bombs.
Each group has the option to blow the other one up, and both groups are going to get blown up at midnight anyway unless one of the groups blows up the other. This is the scene that is at the climax of The Dark Knight, and it is one of the most effective scenes in the movie for displaying how the definition of justice can be muddled in difficult situations. Both civilians and prisoners are provided with the choice to blow each other up. If they do so, however, they would go against everything they believe in.
Murder has been considered immoral in nearly every society for many generations; it is ingrained in our core beliefs to not kill a fellow human being, even for most criminals. But is it just for a group of people to kill another group so that they themselves may survive? This is a question that is not easily answered; there is no obvious “just” action. In the end, however, no one killed the other. Both sides risked being blown up, stuck to their morals, and survived. In retrospect and with knowledge of the outcome, it is easy to say that not blowing up the other boat was the right thing to do.
But in the heat of the moment with people not knowing whether they will live or die – that is where justice gets complicated. The Dark Knight also contains some complicated, symbolic characters in addition to its scenes. Each character in The Dark Knight goes by a different creed, and these creeds show what the characters themselves stand for. Take Batman, for example. Batman is seen as the “good guy” of the movie. His actions and motives are guided by the need to be just toward others; he protects innocents and defeats bad guys, no matter the cost.
This drive for justice, however, also causes him to act above the law. In a similar corner as Batman is Rachel. Rachel is driven by the need to uphold the law. She does not like the idea of Batman, and instead feels that all actions should be performed entirely within the law. In the opposite corner is the Joker. The Joker is a man who wants to show people’s “true nature” through chaos. He takes heed to neither morality nor law. And then we have Harvey Dent. Harvey starts the movie as a great good guy, morally in between Rachel and Batman.
He operates within the law to take down criminals, but he recognizes that the law can fall short when it comes to justice. It is this latter belief that causes him to like the idea of the “vigilante” Batman. While each of these characters stand for something different, they aren’t as clean-cut as their creeds make them seem. Batman, the “good guy”, commits several rather heinous acts. Although these are means to an honorable goal, they still should not be overlooked. There are multiple occasions where Batman tortures victims in an attempt to gain information from them.
While it is understandable considering Gotham was turning into a social time bomb, it does raise the question of “how far is too far to be considered justice? ” In a similar violation, Batman uses cellphone signals to track everyone in Gotham in order to find the Joker. Even though this method was effective, it was an incredible violation of people’s rights. Is it really justice even if he had to violate everyone’s rights to achieve it? While Batman ended up destroying the device after the Joker was caught, the simple fact that he made and used it is still troubling.
Harvey Dent goes to even further extremes than Batman. Harvey starts out comparable to Batman, but on the “right” side of the law. Throughout the movie, however, he slowly descends into injustice. Todd Walters says, “The moral erosion of Harvey Dent is the most unnerving plot line in The Dark Knight. His fall from grace goes far beyond the psychological torture [caused by the Joker)” (44). Indeed, seeing such a great man fall is a form of disturbing separate from the Joker’s ruthless destruction.
Harvey, like Batman, goes against his definition of justice when he is overwhelmed with the time constraints imposed by the Joker and tortures a criminal in an effort to gain information. Unlike Batman, however, Harvey goes a step further into injustice. After the death of Rachel, the symbol for the law, Harvey loses half of himself – both physically and morally. His dependency on the law completely disappears, and his sense of justice becomes mangled. Feeling betrayed by the things he believed in so dearly, he turns into a villain himself – one focused on the “fairness” of chance.
So what hope is there for justice then? If the pursuit of justice requires us to do immoral things or to fall into injustice, how can people truly be just? There is no simple answer to this question, and that lack of an answer is at the heart of The Dark Knight. Even though the characters are symbols for their respective forms of justice and injustice, the scary part is how similar they all are to each other. Batman, Harvey (both before and after he becomes Two-Face), and Joker are all symbols for separate types of justice and injustice.
Batman and Harvey (before he becomes Two-Face) both believe in the fairness of justice; they believe that the bad should be punished and the innocent should be protected. Two-Face also believes in fairness. He believes that “the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair” (The Dark Knight). Essentially, Two-face takes hold of chance as being the ultimate fairness. Decision making based on chance doesn’t take people’s actions into account; it just decides randomly, and randomness is fair. After all, Harvey was an incredibly just man. And what did he get for it?
The death of his girlfriend, Rachel. Looking at the Joker, we can see that he also follows a definition of fairness when he says, “I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair” (The Dark Knight). So the Joker believes that chaos is the ultimate fairness. This is similar to Two-Face’s definition of fairness, but rather than relving chance, the Joker just “does” things depending to how he feels. The scary thing that this comparison shows is that both good and bad guys are relying on the same thing – fairness – in order to justify their actions.
In other words, fairness is at the base of both sides’ beliefs. While it can be argued that the creeds that sprout from fairness ultimately stem in entirely different directions, the fact that that Batman tortured his opposition and violated the rights of an entire city and the fact that a deeply just man such as Harvey fell into “injustice” due to the Joker shows that these beliefs are not as far away from each other as we would like to believe. So, if justice and injustice are neighbors to each other, this question must be asked – where is the property line?
Todd Walters argues that the line is based on the person’s intentions when he says, “it is tempting to establish a facile moral equivalence between them [heroes and villains] based on their unlawful behavior, which completely ignores their intentions” (43). So while it Batman’s torturing and rights violations do not necessarily make him a bad guy since he was doing so in order to stop Joker, the question remains – how far can someone go before their unjust actions begin to outweigh their just intentions?
Ultimately, The Dark Knight succeeds in complicating conventional definitions of justice through its complex scenes and characters. By the end of it, the movie leaves us with more questions about justice than answers. However, it is often said that knowing is half of the battle, and with the knowledge that justice is not always simple we can do our best to discover new definitions for it.