The Dark Knight just got to 300 million in sales in record time (ten days) and is number seven on the list of most discussed movies of all time (and still climbing, I would guess). The day after seeing it with Carl, my fourteen-year-old son, he asked me a question about it, and the question made me realize that at the conceptual center of the movie there is a theological concept that Paul Tillich put at the center of his theology. Since I am an unabashed Tillich fan, I thought I'd make the connection for you, with Carl's help. (He has a much better recall of the movie's details than I do.)
First, the theological concept: existential estrangement.
As Tillich updated his theology for our time, his concept of existential estrangement (EE) replaced "sin" as a means of describing our feeling of separation from God--and I am simplifying here. To make the point that EE is universal in human experience, he describes it as resulting from the impossibility of doing all the good we want to accomplish when we are limited in knowledge and time and talent and resources, etc. As a result we all live compromised lives--lives that leave a gap between the good we wish for and the reality of our lives: estrangement.
But what if there were an accelerator for EE that made you confront the gap between your ideals and the reality of your life not by the accumulation of many small compromises over the long view of life, but with dramatic immediacy? The role of the Joker in The Dark Knight is precisely that--and it is played by Heath Ledger in his last role with such effectiveness that the movie already has people talking about the Oscars.
The movie's primary protagonists--"the bat man," as he is referred to in the movie to emphasize that his identity (as Bruce Wayne) remains hidden, and Harvey Dent, Gotham City chief prosecutor--are left contemplating the compromises they need to make to catch The Joker. And in a statement that sounds like EE on steroids, Dent says, "Either you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Describing the way that happens to Dent and Wayne/Batman in the movie would turn an action movie into dull reading, so here's the film trailer.
It is particularly interesting that at the movie's end Dent, who was unequivocally heroic in the public's view, has both turned him into a villain and died, while "the bat man," who was already compromised in the public's view, must take the rap for Dent so that Gotham still has its hero and can keep its faith alive. Thus, by completely sacrificing his already compromised reputation, "the bat man" keeps Gotham from a moral cynicism that could plunge it into chaos. He thus becomes Gotham's moral savior by becoming its completely estranged hero--its dark knight.
Of course Eastwood's Dirty Harry character long predated The Dark Knight in that respect--as did Shane and too many other westerns to count--but nowhere is the concept of existential estrangement depicted so effectively and so centrally as in this, apparently, most popular movie ever.