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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Dark Knight as Myth

            Through analyzing The Dark Knight as a myth we are able to glean information about our society’s unconscious. The mythical “hero’s journey” allows us to see how Batman is able to delve into our unconscious and show us that we need the presence of evil in order to understand and appreciate the presence of good. A “white knight” isn’t enough – our society needs a “dark knight” as well.
            The mythical form of the “hero’s journey” or “monomyth” as defined by Joseph Campbell includes several stages through which the archetypal hero must traverse. The Dark Knight features many of the elements of the hero’s journey, and Batman is able to successfully navigate through it. He goes through many of the specific stages, showing that this form is not only present in what our society considers traditional myth, but that films such as The Dark Knight are mythical as well. Of special importance in the analysis of the film is the hero’s boon, the ability that only he can bestow upon on humanity. In Batman’s case his boon is his willingness to be the image of darkness and evil. He is able to delve into the underworld and sacrifices himself in order to do so. He allows the image of a true hero to remain while he takes responsibility for the evil. The boon represents something our society needs, introducing the moral order of The Dark Knight – society does not believe in the existence of pure good, or good without opposition. There must also be evil there to contrast and fight against it. Batman is a hero because he is willing to be that image of evil. Society also is attracted to characters like Batman because he is revealed as a modern type of savior that is willing to sacrifice himself to rid the world of evil.
In this analysis, the idea of film as myth, as presented by Parker Tyler will be used. He believes films are not art, but myth or “imaginative truth” (Tyler 2). That which is symbolized by myth is a permanent human experiential legacy. Films have taken the place of traditional, ancient ideas of myth and magic because man no longer believes in those things. We have dismissed them by explaining them with science or as ancient ideas no longer relevant. Within films are actors and actresses that take on the roles of gods and goddesses, fulfilling the ancient need for such figures (Tyler 2). When we go to a film in the theatre, we are receiving psychoanalysis of our societal dreams. Films reflect the deep desires and needs inherent in our unconscious.
            Tyler brings this psychoanalytic approach into his study on myth, which will be the primary tool for analysis of The Dark Knight. The focus is on archetypes – a Jungian tool of psychoanalysis using the theory of repeating themes, characters, and myths that are found in every civilization and are embedded in the collective unconscious of the human race, often appearing in dreams. Everyone unconsciously recognizes the “hero” character predominant in myth, and the hero is an important archetype to analyze in The Dark Knight. The hero, or perhaps more important to this analysis, the “hero’s journey” or “monomyth,” is defined by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces(23). in the following way: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from the mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”
There are several stages to the hero’s journey, only some of which will be explored here. It begins with the “call to adventure” in which the hero is approached by a mysterious figure or event that causes them to enter a new world that can often mirror his unconscious (Campbell 46). This is followed by the “road of trials” which is a series of tests and ordeals with some sort of supernatural aid (Campbell 81). The hero then encounters the “goddess” which can be “whatever has seemed to promise joy” (Campbell 92). The woman, due to a realization from the hero, can then become “the symbol no longer of victory but of defeat” (Campbell101) and function as a temptress. Through all of this, the hero obtains the “ultimate boon” which is the power of the Gods, a power the hero must bestow upon the people he left at the beginning of the journey (Campbell 155). This journey is a structure of many myths, film not excluded. Also, Tyler mentions that myths such as the hero’s journey are often socially angled (5).

            The Dark Knight (Bale) is the story of Bruce Wayne and his continuing quest to rid Gotham City of evil. Bruce fights evil as the vigilante Batman, but the new District Attorney Harvey Dent fights evil in the public’s eye, the public hero of Gotham. Dent also happens to be dating Bruce’s lifelong love, Rachel Dawes. As Dent and Batman find success the Joker emerges, and he has no rules. He will kill anybody and induce chaos anywhere for his own amusement. In fact, he announces that he will kill people each day that Batman does not reveal who he is. Bruce decides to reveal himself with Rachel’s promise that when Batman is gone they can be together. Before Bruce is able to stop him, Dent reveals himself as Batman in order to draw the Joker out of hiding. Batman is able to capture the Joker and interrogate him, learning that the Joker has been able to kidnap both Dent and Rachel. He has placed them at two separate locations, rigged to explode in minutes. Batman takes off to save Rachel while the police go after Dent. However, when Batman arrives at the location he finds the Joker has pulled a switch on him – he finds Dent instead of Rachel. He helps Dent escape as the building explodes, causing severe burns on half of Dent’s face. The police were too late to save Rachel, and the Joker was able to escape from prison.
            Dent is now embittered toward the entire world. He refuses to allow himself to heal and is convinced by the Joker to exact revenge on those who were responsible for Rachel’s death. The Joker threatens that anyone left in the city that night will be under his control, though the bridges and underground roads are unavailable. Some people are evacuated onto ferries - one ferry is filled with criminals from the prison so the Joker cannot free them, the other with civilians. The Joker has placed explosives on each ferry. He also has given each ferry the trigger to the other ferry’s explosives, stating that if one ferry doesn’t blow up the other, both will explode at midnight. Through sonar GPS-type gadgetry Batman is able to track down the Joker and capture him as the people on the ferries decide none of them can be the villain, even at the risk of their own lives. They decide that they cannot kill the other people, they are willing to believe in good, and the Joker’s plan is thwarted. The Joker reveals that he has set the revenge-seeking Dent on Gotham and Batman now must stop him. He finds Dent at the place where Rachel died, holding Police Commissioner Gordon’s family hostage. After a struggle with Dent, both fall off the building and down a few stories, resulting in Dent’s death. Batman tells Commissioner Gordon to give him the blame and let Batman be responsible for Dent’s behavior so that the people of Gotham will not lose the hope they had in Dent’s goodness. Dent becomes a martyr and Batman takes on the image of the villain.
            In analyzing The Dark Knight the viewer is given the comparison of two possible heroes – Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne. Both receive a call to adventure in the form of the threat of the Joker, a diabolical terrorist. They venture forth from the common world, Dent as the District Attorney and Bruce as Batman. They are not normal people – one is an elected official, the other an extremely wealthy, ninja-trained vigilante. The mysterious world they enter is the world of the Joker – a freakish, underground crime world with no rules. The Joker will do anything to bring down Gotham, just to prove that he can. He personifies pure evil. He finds joy in the terrible, physically signified by his makeup or, as one thug calls it, “war paint.” Dent leaves behind personal safety to tackle the Joker. In doing so, he also sacrifices the safety of those he loves, especially Rachel. Bruce, on the other hand, takes measures to not endanger anyone but himself. He leaves behind his life as a normal person. He poses as a rich, carefree, selfish Bruce Wayne in order steer people away from thinking he is Batman. His true identity is entirely a secret, to the point where no one actually knows who the real man is, perhaps not even Bruce himself. He gives up Rachel in order to fight crime as Batman, and must watch her begin a life with Dent. They both leave their normal lives behind and enter a mysterious underworld as they accept their call to adventure.
The underworld they enter mirrors the unconscious evil side of themselves, as well as the evil side of society in general. At first Dent is most resistant to the evil, Gotham’s “white knight.” As Bruce states, Dent is “the face of Gotham’s bright future,” the hero Gotham needs. He is the best of those fighting crime. The Joker sees Bruce as something similar to himself, a “freak” that is very much aware of his evil unconscious. This is symbolized by Batman’s choice of costume as he fights crime. He is dressed up as a bat, a creature that in an earlier film Batman Begins we learn has terrified him since he was a child. He is aware of the terror lurking in his unconscious and uses that to terrify the criminals. It is this underworld that the heroes must traverse and rail against. It has the power to break them.

In this underworld, Dent and Batman go through their “road of trials.” Batman’s supernatural aid comes in the form of his high-tech tools he uses as well as the presence of Alfred his butler and lifelong friend. Alfred takes on another archetypal figure – the mentor, or wise old man. This archetypal character is often seen as one who teaches the hero using supernatural gifts. Alfred possesses years of experience which Bruce does not have. He has an outlook on life that he helps Bruce see. He understands what the purpose of Batman is and the Joker’s motivation. He relays a story to Bruce about a thief he encountered in Burma and compares him to the Joker, saying that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” It is this understanding that lets Batman combat the Joker’s acts. Dent’s supernatural aid seems significantly less, perhaps coming in the form of Batman himself or in his double-headed coin. Dent seems to be almost above the need for supernatural aid, standing primarily on his own with an awareness of his evil unconscious. He “makes his own luck” using the coin that always lands on heads. He knows the outcome and has control of his situation. At one point, Dent mentions to Commissioner Gordon the name that people called him earlier in his career – “Two-face.” He is entirely aware of the dark side of himself and has seemingly overcome it, now considered by Gordon and others to be Gotham’s “white knight.”
Next in the hero’s journey comes the encounter with the Goddess, which in this instance is Rachel for both Dent and Bruce. She represents the promise of joy for both men, their chances at normal lives and happiness. She acknowledges that Bruce has made her his “one chance at a normal life.” She is also the only promise of lasting joy in Dent’s life. The two men’s responses to the woman as temptress following their encounters with her determine the heroism of each. Dent goes insane after Rachel’s death and loses all heroism. He refuses to let go of her, for she represents life. He turns into a villain, succumbing to the evil unconscious he spent so long traversing through and seemingly rising above. His coin now has one tarnished side, mirroring his physical and psychological condition, and he gives in to that dark side, using it as a weapon of decision as to who lives and who dies. Dent does not survive his road of trials, and thereby does not obtain the ultimate boon which he could bestow upon the people, ridding their society of crime.

Bruce, on the other hand, realizes the importance of his overall task and that though Rachel promised him happiness he cannot give up everything he and Dent have fought for. He successfully navigates the road of trials, sees and resists his evil unconscious, and obtains the ultimate boon as he takes responsibility for the vengeful actions of Dent. His boon is the ability to be the villain. He can be the darkness without giving in to the darkness. He can be the one that takes the blame, the image the people fear, and he can bestow that gift upon the people of the normal world.
The myth, in a dream-like way, when analyzed represents our social atmosphere at the time of its creation. It shows what our society is concerned about, what we need as a people. How then, does The Dark Knight represent the unconscious need of its viewers? A hero is needed. We are given two options: a white knight and a dark knight. The outcome of the film does not leave us with one, but with both. The white knight is left appearing as the image of good. Dent is given a hero’s funeral even though he ended as a villain. His villainy would destroy the hope of the people, because he is the image of the hero we need.
We are also left with Batman. Batman is the image of darkness and in the end is left with the responsibility of the evil. It’s not enough to have simply Dent as a hero – we need an evil presence as well, perhaps in order to see the good, this evil must be present. Analyzing Batman’s boon in this instance is especially revealing of the moral order of the film. The boon is a gift that our society needs in order to better itself. Batman’s boon is his ability to be the appearance of evil. Therefore, we can conclude that what our society needs in order to become better is the appearance of evil. We need someone to be the image of evil so we can understand the good. If good is present, how can we know unless it has something to fight against? It is the same idea humanity has encountered throughout time – how can you know sweetness when you’ve never tasted bitter? The white knight cannot appear good unless he is placed next to someone who is evil, someone he can defeat or fight against. It is this relationship between good and evil that drives the film. The Joker only exists because Batman and Dent exist. The Joker says to Batman, “you complete me.” It is the actions of Dent and Batman that create a market of sorts for the Joker. The better they are, the worse he is. Good and evil have a symbiotic relationship.
Campbell mentions that after encountering the fabulous forces a decisive victory is won before the boon can be bestowed by the hero. The decisive victory in The Dark Knight is perhaps not good over evil, but the pervasive nature of evil. Evil does not win, but it does not lose either. It is still present in the world, and Batman must take responsibility for it. In the film, Batman looks at Dent who lies dead after the fall from the building and turns his head so that the unburnt, untarnished side doesn’t show. He says, “The Joker cannot win.” The Joker doesn’t lose – Dent became the villain the Joker wanted him to become. But Batman will not let him win either. That evil is not eradicated in the film tells us something about our society – we know evil is never gone. The decisive victory of a hero is not decisive in that evil will be forever gone. That is impossible. The victory is that goodness will never stop opposing evil in whatever way it can. The epic struggle of good versus evil is not singular. It does not happen once. It happens every day, everywhere, which is why it is a recurring, archetypal struggle in our dreams, thoughts, and films – all mythical in nature.
Batman realizes he can be image of the evil – that evil is inevitable. Quoting Dent, he says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” He recognizes the need for an evil presence in order to have the presence of good and takes responsibility for that. Constantly throughout the film Dent and Batman are compared – not only in action but in other ways. Dent is unmasked, while Batman never reveals his face. Batman works in the darkness of night, while Dent works primarily in the light of day. Batman always wears black, and even has dark hair. Dent is blonde. He is rarely pictured in darkness until the end when he has turned over to evil himself, while Batman is always emerging from the shadows. Dent is often focused on as something attractive. Gordon remarks that “Our boy looks good on the tube.” Dent’s appearance is very important. His good looks are hopeful. He is a “ray of light” in Gotham – a handsome, noble, crime fighter. Even though Bruce Wayne is also good looking, society sees him as a selfish kind of conceited good looking man, one whose image is not hopeful but indulgent, discouraging, and embarrassing. Batman’s image inspires fear in not only the criminals but the citizens as well. He goes outside of the law, hides in the shadows, and never wants to be seen. Just the visual images of these two men is enough to single one out as an image of good, and one as an image of evil, without even noting their actions. Batman uses his image as a strength. He realizes, as Alfred his butler states, that “even if everyone hates him for it, that’s the sacrifice he’s making. He’s not being a hero. He’s being something more.”

Perhaps this myth tells us that our society no longer believes in happy endings, in a world of pure good. We feel the constant threat of terrorism and evil in our own lives, and in order to believe in goodness we must also have the evil there to fight against, to scorn. We know that there is an evil underground in our world – we are aware of that more every day as we read the newspapers and watch the news. However, we are unwilling to see the true source of evil, or recognize the evil in ourselves. The only kind of true hero we can believe in is the one that is willing to confront that evil head on and perhaps even become a part of it for the good of society. Gotham is an every-city, a fictitious place that could be a double for practically any large city. The events that take place there are applicable to everyone. And, like Gotham, our society is in a state where it needs a hero like Dent, not one like Batman, though we deserve Batman – a purely good hero. By showing us the potential a real hero has and what a real hero should look like, the film shows us what we should be striving towards. It gives us hope that though we are still in the thick of terrorism and rampant violence, one day it will all be over. There is hope, and Batman’s sacrifice brings us one step closer.
All of these traits define The Dark Knight as a myth. It’s use of the hero archetype, which can also be found in other superhero films featuring heroes such as Iron Man, Spiderman, Superman, and others, give it the mythical feel. Myths reveal something about our society at the time they are made. In this case, they feature characters that save the people from the evil of the world. Viewers love these films because they inspire us, they give us a savior. The human race has embedded in its unconscious a need for a savior, a person who can come in and rid our world of our sins. Batman rids Gotham of crime by sacrificing himself and essentially atoning for the society’s sins. It is an imagined form of the truth that we do need a Savior, that we have one who did sacrifice himself for our sins. Myths are easier or imaginative ways for humans to explain the need they have. We feel as if there is no way we can possibly pull ourselves out of the mess we’re in. Someone else must help us.
Parker Tyler’s theory of film as myth uses what he calls a “psychoanalyticmythological” approach, meaning that film takes on the role of myth in working as a form of psychoanalysis for the society that creates it. Myths are often constructed of what Carl Jung referred to as archetypes, one specifically defined by Joseph Campbell as the “hero’s journey.” Through analysis, it has been shown how The Dark Knight exhibits the stages of the hero’s journey through the character of Batman. His successful completion of the journey allows him to bestow a boon on society – the boon of his appearance as evil. He takes responsibility for the crimes of Harvey Dent and becomes the image of the villain. This concludes that our society has a psychological need for both good and evil. We only feel safe when we can see them both. One without the other has no significance, or seems unreal to us. It does not make the impact that the comparison of good and evil does. The Dark Knight presents Batman man as a sort of savior that leaves society with hope.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2008.

The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale. 2008.

Tyler, Parker. "Preface." Tyler, Parker. Magic and Myth of the Movies. 1947.

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