The Dark Knight: A probability game or a morality tale?

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Title: Batman: The Dark Knight
Director: Christopher Nolan
Language: English
Year: 2008
Critical Reception: Metacritic rating of 82
Psych Index: Social Psychology, Milgram's Experiment on Obedience, Evolutionary psychology
In Brief: Batman (Christian Bale) is on his way to be mythologized as the dark knight in his pursuit of a manic, psychotic serial killer who goes by the name of Joker (Heath Ledger). The city's righteous people (lead by Lt. Gordon, played by Gary Oldman, and an idealistic politician Harvey Dent, portrayed by Aaron Eckhart) try to prosecute all criminals related to the mobs in Gotham city. Batman, a. k. a. billionaire Bruce Wayne, shares a common love interest (Rachel Dawes, portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal) with Harvey, though he would rather see Harvey succeed him in his 'work' life as the hero of Gotham instead of his love life. It seems like the Joker does not have much of a clear motivation for Batman to take advantage of, and it drives our hero to the edge of his own moral box. There may be a method to his madness yet.

Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiment in the 1960s (Milgram, 1963) to investigate the extent to which ordinary citizens can forgo human compassion in the name of obedience. In this landmark psychological study, participants were told to give increasingly severe shocks to another person in another room (who was part of the research design). More than half of the participants administered the highest shocks on the generator, despite agonizing screams heard from the next room (you can check out the video here). The authors concluded that under the right circumstances, ordinary citizens can commit acts that could be construed as inhumane, a possible explanation for the behaviour of ordinary folks who sold out their Jewish neighbours during World War II. The study was not without controversies concerning both its method and ethics. Regardless, it served as a startling reminder of human capacity for cruelty when the context or social structure facilitated its process.

The Dark Knight's morality tale rests on a social experiment in similar vein, crudely conducted by its villain, The Joker (Heath Ledger). Despite his claim of being a non-schemer, his experiment is too deliberate and well thought-out to not be construed as a scheme. As often is the case with mythological moral plays, the dichotomy of good versus evil in the film is painted in broad, black and white strokes, with emphasis on symbols rather than literals. Even though the film clearly intends for Batman and The Joker to share more commonalities with each other in a post-modern effort to connect the two opposing sides, these two characters differ significantly in their view of humanity. Bruce Wayne (a. k. a. Batman, a, k. a. The Dark Knight - you know you're a mythical figure when you take on as many names as your multiple persona would allow) views humanity as basically compassionate and good, whereas the Joker sees people's true identity to be that of cowards who could be easily pushed to do 'uncivilized' acts out of selfish survival instinct.

The apex of the film's moral play culminates in the sequence at the end in which a boat full of criminals is pitched against a boat full of upstanding citizens. Each is given a choice to eliminate the other to survive. This dilemma is used as an artificial restriction to induce decisions that would then be ascribed to our basic human nature. While both Bruce Wayne and the Joker reach some rather simplistic conclusion about humanity, the Joker's betting hand may fare better in the game of probability. In Evolution Biology, altruism - defined as behaviour that benefits others at the cost to self - has been a puzzle all its own. To explain the evolutionary benefit of altruistic behaviour, Darwin (in The Descent of Man, published in 1871) in the early years believed that while an individual's altruistic behaviour may be disadvantageous on a personal level, it is perhaps evolutionary beneficial to the group (group selection). However, later on, Darwin would note the weakness of this group selection hypothesis: even if a group is composed exclusively of altruists behaving nicely towards each other, it only takes a single selfish mutant free-rider to bring an end to this idyllic existence. Considering the fact that the probability a selfish mutant will arise and spread is very high (due to the shorter individual's generation time compared to group's), the selfish tendency should soon dominate the group and out-live altruistic tendency.

Of course, kin selection (altruistic behaviour towards genetically similar individuals) would tip the balance of this trend. On a genetic level, an individual with genes that favour altruistic behaviour may behave altruistically towards individuals that approximate its genus in the immediate environment. Sometimes, this may result in altruistic behaviours towards neighbours rather than kins, since animals do not necessarily make conscious calculations to behave altruistically towards their kins. Furthermore, from Prisoner's Dilemma (game theory), it is predicted that individuals from different groups may still be altruistic towards each other, depending on their frequency of interaction and expectation of return benefits (the higher the interaction and expectation of return benefits, the more likely the altruistic behaviour is - this sets up beautifully for animals living in groups including humans).

In the film, these people on the two boats are, presumably, not related to one another directly. They may not expect to interact with or be the recipients of some return benefits from one another. It may make sense (according to the Prisoner's Dilemma game theory) for either boat to eliminate the other one, to take the first strike. However, humans are also ruled by things other than direct biological instinct (conscious thoughts and culture play a huge part in our own evolution). Moreover, we are not perfectly logical as a whole (psychological studies would tell you that we behave mostly via rules of thumb and deductions from past patterns), so it is possible that this may not be the first automatic choice. As seen in the film, the ordinary citizens take a democratic vote, and most vote for their own survival (the conscious, logical choice). Where the film takes a strange (from a psychological and biological point of view) turn is in the depiction of every last person refraining from acting on this logical choice. It is at once contrived and refreshing to have this much faith in groups' collective moral behaviour.

The Joker makes an astute observation that falls in line with group psychology concerning altruistic behaviour: people's 'good', noble, compassionate behaviour is facilitated by some predictable structure. When thrown under chaos, anxiety and most probably fear may lead people to engage in 'bad', cowering, self-interested behaviour - not in all cases, but the probability that someone in a group might behave as such is quite high, considering our diversity. The Joker obviously banks on the very real probability of just one individual to behave in such a way in chaos to draw conclusions about the defect of humanity. His premise / view of the world would then be affirmed, illogically, from a highly probable scenario (just because one person's selfish act can determine an outcome for a group does not mean the person represents the whole group - this biased mentality is unfortunately assumed by many individuals who would go on to terrorize groups based on some individuals' behaviour). Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, acts on his faith that nobody would try to survive at the cost of another, even in the face of the high probability that someone would. The fact that the film favours the hero's betting hand to make a point, even if there is an extremely low probability of such a scenario (nothing is completely, absolutely improbable), reduces the believability of the situation. It seems like such a strenuous stretch to make in order for this morality tale to work. The filmmaker does not seem to trust the rather logical conclusion that even if the outcome turns out to favour the Joker's bet, it does not mean he is right in his assumption about humanity. It may have been too complex to translate to the screen clearly and cleanly, but it would have been the more probable and logical conclusion.

It is unfortunate that in this morality tale, such broad strokes are made concerning human behaviour, reducing humans (or, more specifically, the mass) to a group of like-minded two-act individuals. Diversity and variability are perhaps too complicated to figure into a mythological tale (and this is, if nothing else, a story concerning mythology). Comments regarding chance and probability are muddled, even if their symbolic representation is as simple as a coin. Harvey Dent, the symbolic two-faced, pretends to allow chance - or fate - to play a role in his decisions. He controls his decisions, with or without an external force (the coin acts as the same external agent of pretend-fate, even when one of its side by chance changes its complexion). In the film, it is neither fate nor chance that determines outcomes, as Dent would try to convince others; it is all about our control imposed on external situations.

The film resembles something of a pseudo-intellectual exercise, though it is successful in appearing serious at its task. There is an elegance to how duplicity and dichotomy play out repeatedly in the film. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight films, on a meta level, cinematically reflect the villains that test its hero. The Dark Knight ultimately falls somewhere tonally alongside Two-faced character than either Batman or Joker, though it could be argued that this is essentially the product of these two latter characters' fusion. Unfortunately, Aaron Eckhart does not have the acting chops or right presence to convey a convincing transition (not that the script allows it). Maggie Gyllenhaal lacks chemistry with both her lovers; her portrayal of Rachel Dawes is simply too measured and understated for this hyped up tale. It does not help that the film calls for her to be nothing more than a plot device. Christian Bale is serviceable in his role, even though he is at times overshadowed by Heath Ledger's Joker. The late actor's performance benefits from the feel of the film, which is built around his manic, yet melancholic figure.

There are some rather beautiful shots and camera work (the Batman flight is quite exhilarating, as is the scene in which the Joker enjoys the air in silence while driving a police car). The tension is as taut as the string that takes down the police helicopter in the most exciting chase sequence in the film. However, there is not enough time allowed for the more dramatic moments to fully develop, thereby decreasing the emotional impact of the film. The fights leave much to be desired, though the action sequences are quite thrilling (it must be said that the bat two-wheel is the stuff bikers' dreams are made of). The film clearly aims to be taken seriously as a dramatic entry in the comics-turn-films genre; it fails to completely be convincing in depth, but it is still an admirable effort yet.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67(4), 371-378.

Thoughts in point form:
- View on humanity - good vs. evil
- Idea that people behave well when there's structure and when things are going according to plan
- lack of chemistry between lead actress and both Bale and Eckhart
- morality of the film rests on the two boats not blowing up - flimsy
- does not leave enough time for dramatic moments to sink in, thereby decreasing its emotional impact significantly


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7 Response to The Dark Knight: A probability game or a morality tale?

September 24, 2010 at 7:33 AM

Could be the top post that I have read this year!!


September 25, 2010 at 8:15 PM

I am wondering what Byron says about that...

September 26, 2010 at 4:04 PM

I am glad you said that!?

September 27, 2010 at 1:37 PM

This is the most amazing page that I have read all year!

November 25, 2010 at 1:38 PM

Thanks for an idea, you sparked at thought from a angle I hadn’t given thoguht to yet. Now lets see if I can do something with it.

November 25, 2010 at 3:36 PM

Thank you all. I commend you for digesting all of that. You must've really loved the film!

December 30, 2010 at 10:03 PM

My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!


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