“To live in society is to form a diversified understanding of human character, of its capacities for good and evil.” – Solomon Asch, p. 6, 1952
Let me first say that I love The Dark Knight (2008). I have watched it at least once a year since 2015 and have incorporated it in my Moral Development course since 2016. Therefore I would be kidding myself to believe that personal bias has not influenced my more academic approach to the film.
My bias notwithstanding, as I reflect on the film’s significance on its 10-year anniversary, I believe its popularity and acclaim can partially be explained by the thematic parallels between the film and everyday social life. Before discussing these parallels, two caveats are in order. The first is that as with many pieces of art, many interpretations of its meaning(s) is(are) possible. Therefore, the following theory I will present—Social Domain Theory (SDT; Turiel, 1983, 2002) —is just one of many that can be used to analyze the film. The second is that the connections I will draw between the film and SDT are very broad, as an in-depth discussion of this topic is beyond this blog post’s scope. In what follows, I will draw parallels between the film and SDT by primarily focusing on three of the film’s main “characters”: Gotham City, Joker, and Batman.
Gotham: The Dark Knight’s Main Character
A main idea behind SDT is that beginning in childhood, individuals form distinct domains of social judgments. These domains originate from three kinds of qualitatively different social interactions: interactions about moral issues (e.g., harm and justice), interactions about conventional issues (e.g., laws, rules, and norms), and interactions about personal issues (e.g., wants and interests) (Turiel, 1983, 2002). Although these domains are distinct, they can and often interact (e.g., moral beliefs about harm can influence laws against murder).
SDT’s (Turiel, 1983, 2002) notion of distinct domains related to differing social interactions suggests that a primary purpose of any collection of individuals—family, society, nation, etc.—is to figure out how to coexist in a way that accounts for individuals’ differing considerations. Enter Gotham, depicted in The Dark Knight as a city rife with fear, crime, and corruption. These characteristics of Gotham are most clearly reflected in the city’s legal system and through its depiction of lawyers, judges, and law enforcement officials. Given the legal system’s emphasis on regulating social interactions and maintaining social order, it is an example of the conventional domain. Moreover, it is the film’s depiction of the legal system’s inadequacies and the different responses from the Joker and Batman to these inadequacies that make Gotham the most important character in the film. To understand Joker and Batman, we must understand the features of the city that influenced their motivations.
Joker: The Personal Domain Gone Horribly Wrong
A purpose of conventions is to regulate interactions between and behaviors of individuals, each with their own wants and desires. Generally, most people effectively balance their personal considerations with conventional ones, thereby maintaining areas of personal jurisdiction while also respecting and adhering to the laws, rules, and norms of society. In the case of Joker, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
I argue that one of the reasons why Joker is such a compelling villain in the film is because of his response to conventions. A self-described agent of chaos, Joker is anti-convention (“The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules”) and his appeal to self-interest at the expense of convention is demonstrated multiple times throughout the film. His rejection of convention is evident in his dealings with agents of the legal system (e.g., killing the judge and commissioner, willingly getting arrested), criminal organizations (e.g., Maroni telling Batman that Joker has no rules, burning all the money he received from crime bosses), and ordinary citizens (e.g., telling different people different stories about the origins of his scars, the ferry scene). Moreover, Joker consistently uses people’s self-interest to further his agenda, whether those manipulated are law enforcement officials (e.g., Ramirez) or criminals (e.g., bank robbers).
Batman: The Moral Domain on Steroids
In addition to individuals having understandings related to personal and conventional matters, they also have understandings related to moral matters. Like Joker, Batman acknowledges the inadequacies of Gotham’s legal system. Unlike Joker, however, Batman understands that the law is a core feature of society and that Gotham is best served by having principled public officials. Until this is achieved, Batman serves as a “stopgap” of sorts, stepping outside of the law in order to better uphold its promises to its citizens.
Whereas Joker appealed to personal considerations in response to Gotham’s legal system, Batman appealed to moral considerations—namely protecting the welfare of and receiving justice for Gotham’s citizens. In addition to risking his life to prevent Joker from destroying Gotham, other examples of Batman prioritizing the welfare of Gotham’s citizens include stopping Harvey from torturing someone for information (“you are the symbol of hope I could never be”), agreeing to turn himself in so the Joker would not harm anyone else (“…I’ve seen now what I would have to become to stop a man like him”), allowing Lucius to destroy the invasive surveillance technology after it was used to catch Joker, and taking responsibility for Harvey’s crimes to preserve his reputation as Gotham’s hero.
Consistent with Weston’s (2013) claim that superhero narratives offer tools for thinking about society, I believe that although the characters highlighted above are fictional and highly-exaggerated, at their core each appeals to a realm of social interaction relevant to everyday social life: interactions that pertain to conventional, personal, and moral matters. Just as heroes and villains are often understood in terms of defining characteristics (see Allison & Goethals, 2011), I argue that they should also be understood in relation to the societies in which they live. By shinning a spotlight on Gotham’s legal system and Joker and Batman’s responses to that system, The Dark Knight demonstrates how a superhero narrative can have a little something for everyone (parental discretion and one’s potential concerns over the film’s content notwithstanding).
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. NY: Oxford University Press.
Asch, S. E. (1952). Social Psychology. NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Turiel, E. (1983). The development of social knowledge: Morality and convention.
NY: Cambridge University.
Turiel, E. (2002). The culture of morality: Social development, context, and conflict. Cambridge University.
Weston, G. (2013). Superheroes and comic-book vigilantes versus real-life vigilantes: an
anthropological answer to the Kick-Ass paradox. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 4, 223-234. doi:10.1080/21504857.2012.682624