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Choose either “

The Dark Knight

and the Evilness of Evil” (Cocksworth) or “The Exceptional Darkness of

The Dark Knight

”(McGowan — only first 3 ½ p.); read, annotate, and analyze.

Craft an introduction that catches the reader’s interest and previews the topics to be discussed. You can either state your claim here or forecast what your claim might be.

Next, address the “they say” — summarize your chosen article efficiently in around 200-300 words. Summarize specifically highlighting the main claim or subclaim you will be responding to and the reasons/evidence that apply. Please use a few direct quotes to illustrate your summary. This should be at least two to three meaty paragraphs in length.

Volume 120 Number 11 Pages 541–543
© ThetAuthor(s),
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DOI: 10.1177/0014524609106841
The Dark Knight and the Evilness of Evil
By ashley cocksworth
School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh
The problem of evil is a recurring cinematic motif. However, in the theatres as much as in theology, evil is
often misunderstood. Its peculiar ontology (as neither created nor divine) and its problematic presence (as
defeated yet hostile) makes evil conceptually hard to speak of. Surprisingly, then, the latest Batman movie,
The Dark Knight, offers a very good (or rather, very evil) account of wickedness that aims not to ‘solve’ the
problem of evil but to expose wickedness in all its savaging awfulness. This article will discuss some of the
issues that stand behind the account of evil proffered by Batman’s archenemy and Gotham City’s agent of
chaos, the Joker.
Augustine, evil, wickedness, theodicy, ethics, The Dark Knight
vents of unrestrained violence demand at
  least some sort of explanation, or so
   our modern selves have led us to believe.
However, sometimes an attempt at the explanation
of inequitable wickedness is as problematic as
the problem of evil itself. Those seeking comfort
in this explanation tend toward oversimplifying
evil thereby producing an account that inevitably
trivializes evil. To help prevent such tendencies, it
is important to rethink the evilness of evil and a
framework for doing so can be found in the latest
Batman movie.
The Dark Knight (2008) is the second instalment
in Christopher Noland’s series that aims to retrieve
the darkened Batman mythology that was crudely
lost in Joel Schumacher’s pantomimic renditions of
the nineties – Batman and Robin (1997) and Batman
Forever (1995). The latest movie competes with the
menacing eeriness that we saw during the Burton era
(1989–92) without falling into Burton’s (trademark)
over-theatric surrealism.
In this movie, billionaire Bruce Wayne’s vigilante
alter ego, the Batman, finds himself defending Gotham
City’s liberty against a new class of criminality,
the Joker. Unlike the comic insanity of previous
incarnations, Heath Ledger’s Joker emerges as a
psychopathic madman, a self-confessed ‘freak’ and
overall a very different sort of villain indeed. His face
caked in flaking white paint terrifyingly exaggerates
his horrific scars which have served to immortalize
the Joker as a hideous yet thrilling villain. The Joker’s
character was so wicked and Ledger’s performance
so convincing that, in the wake of the actor’s tragic
suicide, the audience is left wondering whether
Ledger, by immersing himself into the depths of the
Joker’s psychotic disturbance, became himself one of
the Joker’s victims. Behind the theatrics and costume,
though, the Joker is a very interesting character.
He is of interest for at least three broad reasons:
(i) his interrogation of Gotham City’s moral order,
(ii) his defiance of stereotypical villainy and (iii) the
inexplicability of his evilness.
(i) The Joker deliberately tests the audience’s
moral assumptions about the ‘good’ and the
‘bad’. We can see this clearly in the Joker’s ‘social
experiment’ in which the Joker takes hostage two
ships that are trying to flee his campaign of terror.
The first harbours Gotham’s ‘sweet and innocent
civilians’, and the other, the city’s ‘scumbags’, the
murderers and thieves. What the Joker aims to
prove in the siege is that Gotham’s ‘moral code
. . . drops at the first sign of trouble; these civilized
people will eat each other’, he tells Batman. To
prove his point, the Joker demands the sacrifice of
one ship for the survival of the other. On the ‘bad’
ship, the criminals dismiss the choice to murder
the other ship as an impossible decision; their only
choice is to destroy the detonator. The ‘good’ ship,
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the expository times
however, reverts to a standard democratic vote
to settle the dilemma and the anonymous vote
favours the murder of the criminals, ‘who’, after all,
‘have had their chance’. But at the eleventh hour,
the democracy fails to produce an individual to
follow through the detonation. Although both the
‘good’ and the ‘bad’ refuse to facilitate the Joker’s
depravity, the prisoners end up looking slightly
more virtuous. In other words, the ‘good’ are not so
good after all and are only separated from the ‘bad’
by a very thin and faint line of morality. Here the
filmmakers are using the Joker to force the audience
to confront and question the very structure of our
self-constructed and self-preservatory moral system.
In fact, the Joker aims to completely rid Gotham of
all such moral categories by proposing to replace
these empty categories with a sadistic anarchy;
‘the only sensible way to live in this world is
without rules’, goes the advice of the most senseless
character of the movie.
(ii) Having disrupted the audiences’ moral
assumptions, The Dark Knight uses the character of
the Joker to illustrate that evil is a highly complex
concept. For instance, the Joker is portrayed in
such an evil and senseless way because there are no
external motivations that can explain his criminality.
By claiming complete unconcern for the pursuit of
the rational and material rewards that drive the
average villain, the Joker defies the category of
stereotypical villainy. To name a few examples, the
Joker has no interest in climbing the echelons of
Gotham City’s underworld; hence the unabashed
betrayal of his criminal entourage in the opening
scene of the movie. At another point, he even burns
a stockpile of stolen cash, which is the classic tenet
of comic criminality. The Joker’s motivation, then,
is simply to cause boundless terror and chaos for no
reason other than for the sake of terrorizing. ‘Some
men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money
. . . some men just want to watch the world burn’,
said Alfred (Batman’s butler and moral conscience)
with characteristic poignancy. Moreover, the Joker is
not content with just burning the world for the sake
of burning the world, he actually wants to sit back
and watch the tortuous burning and smell the sizzling
flesh. This is why the Joker’s weapon of choice is a
knife and not a gun.
(iii) The Joker remains so wicked throughout the
film not only because his actions are inexplicable
but also because the origin of his evilness remains
unknown. At various points, the Joker is asked of the
origins of his distorted face. Whilst Jack Nicholson’s
Joker previously accredited this to an accident in a
chemical factory and botched plastic surgery, the
Joker of The Dark Knight produces conflicting
answers: child abuse, self-mutilation, etc. This
serves only to indulge and tempt the demands for
explanation from the people interrogating the Joker
who unbeknown to each other are led to believe
that they hold the key to his insanity. Furthermore,
against the convention, the Joker of The Dark
Knight remains nameless. In the 1989 version, the
Joker was named Jack Napier and like most other
archenemies in the superhero genre, such as Lord
Voldemort in Harry Potter, Napier had murdered
the parents of the protagonist. Noland, however,
refused to place the Joker within any sort of wider
narrative arch. He refused to satisfy the fanboy’s call
for description because without an explanation, the
Joker appears ever more irrational and menacing.
Even Batman has to be reminded by Alfred that
‘with respect, maybe this is a man you don’t fully
understand’. This is not because Batman can’t but
because the Joker actually defies explanation.
Indeed, contemporary culture has been increasingly
obsessed with finding the root cause of evil, as if
to say ‘Well, there’s your problem!’ and as if an
explanation is in anyway comforting to those on the
suffering end of evil. It is thought that if an attempt
is not made to explain evil then the full reality of evil
is denied. Since the work of Leibniz, theology has
been tempted to frame this explanation around the
enterprise of theodicy which attempts to (dis)solve
the problem of evil – i.e. how to account for the
presence of evil in a creation created good by a
Creator we know to be good and omnipotent
– along logical lines. In this way, and this is
the real problem of evil, evil is treated as an
entirely explainable phenomenon. However, once
explained, evil has to occupy a specified place in
the created order thus permitting evil to operate
under the alibi of goodness (as all things created,
according to the writer of Genesis 1, are good).
Evil becomes naturalized, domesticated within the
orderliness of creation and written into our system;
under these conditions, the full evilness of evil is
However, a close reading of the Genesis saga
illustrates an important refusal to account for how
or why the serpent was present in the Garden of
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the expository times
Eden; it was just inexplicably and absurdly there
(Gen 3:1). If evil claimed createdness then evil would
be good, therefore, evil must be decreative of that
which God does create. This is why the topic of
evil can never become a theological topic because
evil, by definition, is entirely anti-theological and
destructive of the very intentions of creatureliness;
hence its absence from the creedal confessions.
Evil, then, cannot become an alternative principle
that is waged in a spiritual battle against the good
and can therefore be marginalized as something
that only others do. Rather, evil, according to the
Augustinian tradition, is the distortion and privation
of the good. Therefore, it is highly significant that the
Joker takes on the appearance of a clown. A clown
is, of course, an image that we usually associate
with happiness, laughter and joviality but the Joker
disrupts and distorts the good connotations of the
image he bears. It is equally significant that the
Joker identifies the scars on his face as indicative
of his depravity. Collectively, these two elements
of the Joker’s existence illustrates that because evil
is not created, it is not something that can boast
an independent substance of its own; rather, evil
is that which distorts an otherwise good. Evil is
the perversion of something that is good, or put
differently, evil is the scars to the Joker’s otherwise
scar-less face, but (to avoid substantiating evil with
ontological features) it is not the face itself. In an
important sense, we all bear the scars of evil; we
are all universally implicated in evil as the entirety
of humanity was somehow seminally present at the
Fall. Darkness descends over the whole of Gotham:
‘You can all be like me’, the Joker seductively temps.
This temptation is confirmed in the Joker’s eventual
corruption of ‘the face of Gotham City’s bright
future’, District Attorney Harvey Dent. This is an
important qualification to what could be seen as a
problematic, yet over simplistic, dualism between
the good (Batman) and the evil (the Joker). It would
be tempting to identify evil as something that the
demonic other does; the evil would be the Joker,
his terrorists, our neighbours, but not actually us.
This culture of blame fails to account for human
responsibility and neglects the pervasive reach of
In short, if one could either identify a motivation,
fit the Joker into a category that could contain his
wickedness, or even name him then the Joker would
not be all that wicked; he would possess the qualities
of the generic comic book bad-guy – which are all
scary, but not terrifying and not corrupting, not
really evil. Here we can mention Harvey Dent who,
after a tragic event, becomes another of Gotham’s
criminals, ‘Two Face’. Unlike the Joker, however,
Two Face’s villainy is accounted for: it is the product
of an accident and defined by a broken heart.
From start to finish, however, the Joker appears as
thoroughly and wickedly evil; the last we see of the
Joker is of him hanging upside down in a position
that alludes to the upturned cross, the emblem of
The Dark Knight protects the evilness of evil by,
firstly, refusing to account for origins of the evil
represented by the Joker, and secondly, by ensuring
that the Joker’s evilness is not an independent
phenomenon, but is rather a privation of the good.
And consequently, the Joker is truly terrifying. By
protecting the evilness of evil, The Dark Knight
teaches an important lesson to our violence-obsessed
culture, namely, evil is not something to be trivialized
or glorified. The Joker represents the return to
non-being and the very ending of his humanity;
hence he is unnameable. Therefore, there is a real
ethical dimension to The Dark Knight. It asks a very
important question that shifts attention from the
language of theodicy, which is predicated on the basis
of an unavailable metaphysical appropriation of the
components involved in the theodicial equation, onto
actually facing the horrendously beastly presence of
evil. The point is that by beginning to rethink the
evilness of evil, we begin to learn how to respond
to evil and where to place our hope. We cannot
hope in someone like Batman, who although is
motivated by the good, arrives at the good via a
morally ambiguous and violent route, and at points
even Batman needs ‘saving’; neither can we hope in
our-evil-selves. Rather creaturely hope is placed in
Jesus Christ, the central character in the drama of
resistance against evil who rehumanizes humanity
and initiates not an explanation of evil but its very
elimination through the restoration of the good. The
Christian narrative culminates in the restoration of
the entirety of humanity to a position of goodness in
which all scars, no matter how deep, will be healed
and forgiven.
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