Film & Philosophy: Nietzche & The Dark Knight
Updated: May 21
Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “In as much as in all ages, as long as mankind has existed, there have also been human herds (family alliances, communities, tribes, peoples, states, churches), and always a great number who obey in proportion to the small number who command.”
In other words, people have always found solace and comfort in creating societies of common alliances, laws, and beliefs. People cannot rule themselves due to human tendencies and individual desires, ruling classes and the institutional control of a select group of people are needed to create a functioning society of men and women.
Police presence is prevalent throughout Gotham City, and within The Dark Knight itself. It seems as though a small number of people are at liberty and granted the right to decide what is ethical and unethical, moral and immoral. Before the arrival of the Joker, it seems as though Dent, Gordon, and Batman have the role of protecting members of their community from corruption and unlawfulness, as if they are the only ones who know what the people of their society needs. What is interesting, however, is that none of these individuals adhere to the human herds mentioned above, as if they are acting alone.
What differs between them and the actions and ideals of the Joker, who too acts alone, is a common goal to act for the benefit of their community. In this sense, Gordon, Dent, and Batman are figures leading the ‘human herds’ and command civility amongst their citizens.
Nietzsche writes, “call it the moral hypocrisy of the commanding class. They know no other way of protecting themselves from their bad conscience than by playing the role of executors of older and higher orders (of predecessors, of the constitution, of justice, of the law, or of God himself), or they justify themselves by maxims from the current opinions of the herd, as "first servants of their people," or "instruments of the public weal.”
In other words, those who are granted with the role of protecting and regulating society often have to go against their own rules set forth. This contradiction is only determined as being ‘good’ or ‘evil’ depending on the resulting efforts of such actions.
This distinction between moral hypocrisy and means of command can be seen in the actions of Batman versus Harvey Dent. Batman acts as a vigilante, seeing himself as above the law and about moral ethics. Although Batman’s actions are questionable, often using violence and extreme measures during interrogations and such, he does so for the benefit of his community and to make Gotham City safer. Harvey Dent, representing the city as District Attorney and the laws put in place by higher orders, abandons his duty to the law.
No longer tied to civil laws or the benefit of the community, Dent’s killing spree represents and abandonment of societal duties and acting as a rogue individual. Despite the two varying motives and actions, both Dent and Batman act as individuals working against a system of laws civility. The difference lies in who they serve, as Batman serves the people and Dent only serves himself.
Nietzsche writes, “How much or how little dangerousness to the community or to equality is contained in an opinion, a condition, an emotion, a disposition, or an endowment—that is now the moral perspective, here again fear is the mother of morals.”
In other words, a community is only as functional as the individuals within that community. If the motives, intent, or beliefs stray from civilized society it becomes dangerous for all in the community. But who is to say which motives, intent, or beliefs are morally right or wrong, if not for the laws put in place by often corrupt institutions.
Moral perspective and the ambiguity that derives from this are present in the Joker’s chaotic being. The Joker acts alone and in his own vision, with the freedom of not being tied to the laws of Gotham City or alliances with anyone. His ultimate goal is to ‘turn the city into chaos’, however that is necessary. Because of this, the Joker’s ability to kill who he wants, give ultimatums to rescue ferries of prisoners and civilians, and blackmail members of the government are proven successful in theory.
One man’s twisted and immoral opinions and disposition put an entire city at risk. This counters Nietzsche’s views on the role of the community being controlled by a ruling class, as one man’s divergent thinking in such a community can undo an entire society of laws, systems, and morality.
Nietzsche writes, “It cannot be effaced from a man's soul what his ancestors have preferably and most constantly done: whether they were perhaps diligent economizers attached to a desk and a cash-box, modest and citizen-like in their desires, modest in their virtues.”
In other words, a man’s actions in life are not solely his doing, but are a result of his upbringing, life experiences, and how these things affect his moral vision of the world. Simply put, we are a result of nature and nurture endured throughout life, and our actions are a display of these facets.
Bruce Wayne grew up with an endless supply of wealth and comfort, as his father was a gifted doctor and philanthropist. His mother was a famous socialite who eventually gave to charitable causes and philanthropies as a reflection of her moral character. Witnessing his parent’s murder at a young age shaped Wayne’s moral and ethical philosophy growing up: he continued to have a reputation of being a playboy, and eventually went on to own Wayne Enterprises, all the while questioning how people can be so cruel as to kill a child’s parents in front of him.
Upon developing the persona of Batman, this concept of nature and nurture, of endless wealth, and of questionable morals are present in the way he protects his city. While Batman’s actions may be questionable with his constant use of violence, manipulation, and threats, his actions are ultimately a reflection of his parent’s desires to help others with the resources they have been given.