~ Actor Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred in the Batman film “The Dark Knight.”
I did not see the film above when it was released in theaters around the country in 2008. I thought it was just so much kid stuff and didn’t want to waste my time.
I was wrong.
A friend called and insisted I rent the DVD and watch what he considered one of film’s more accessible morality tales masked in the garb of comic book lore.
The most interesting characters were The Joker and industrialist Bruce Wayne’s (Batman’s) gentleman’s gentleman, Alfred Pennyworth. These two figures advanced the story by fleshing out the motives animating the actors in this fictional tale of good versus evil – a concept dismissed as old-fashioned superstition laced with the toxin of moral judgment. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” say the new age moral relativists.
The Joker establishes an alliance with Gotham City’s criminal underworld that views the strange villain’s no-holds-barred methods as capable of eliminating the single person immune from corruption and intimidation – Batman.
However, The Joker is more interested in seizing his partner’s criminal enterprises. In a central scene, The Joker takes a cigar from the mouth of one gangster and tosses it onto a mountain of money, setting it alight, much to the horror of his nefarious partner. “All you care about is money,” says The Joker, “This town deserves a better class of criminal, and I’m gonna give it to ‘em. Tell your men they work for me now. This is my city.”
Power, not money, is the motive behind The Joker’s madness, and he is willing to kill thousands in order to attain it.
For me, the pivotal scene occurs between Bruce Wayne and Alfred. The butler recalls the time he and his British army compatriots hunted an elusive bandit that raided caravans carrying precious stones through the Burmese jungle.
“So we went looking for the stones,” says Alfred, “But in six months, we never found anyone who traded with him. One day I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”
“Why did he steal them?” asks a perplexed Wayne.
“Because, he thought it was good sport,” says Alfred, “Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Later in the story, Wayne asks Alfred, “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”
“Yes,” answers Alfred.
“How?” Wayne inquires.
“We burned the forest down.”
By April 1945, more than a few European cities were reduced to rubble; burnt down like that fictional Burmese jungle, forcing Hitler – a man of uncompromising evil – into a bunker with a pistol in one hand and a cyanide tablet in the other.
I thought of this last Friday after hearing the news of a mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. The alleged shooter identified with Batman’s nemesis The Joker and came to a screening of the “Dark Knight Rises” dressed as the villain. He emptied his weapons into the crowd of theatergoers, killing 12 and wounding 59.
Many will, no doubt, ascribe his actions to madness. That’s pretty much what they continue to say about Hitler. It’s much too frightening to believe that an act so destructive as a world war, genocide or a murder spree perpetrated in a movie theater could be the byproducts of evil.
Madness is the comfortable diagnosis we give actions that should remind us of the perpetual contest between right and wrong, light over darkness; that this moral struggle manifests itself in matters small and large.
Whether it concerns an atrocity committed in the dark of a Colorado movie theater or a man-made financial crisis, the singular theme is that evil “men just want to watch the world burn.”
Mr. Curmudgeon is a freelance writer living in Florida