Realistic Idealism: Thoughts on The Dark Knight, Favre, and Tension

I’ve taken some time off lately, and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with two of my favorite activities – film and football. Like many Americans, I’ve been slightly caught up with the talking heads about The Dark Knight and the Brett Favre soap opera.

When the decade ends, we’ll look back and whatever we call the decade of the years 2000-2009 (what will VH1 call it when reviewing the decade- I love the…the oughts? The naughts? Ooh, how ’bout the naughties?) and say that it was the decade of superhero flicks. Spiderman, Batman, Ironman, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Elektra, Superman – all of them have made their splash in the last decade.

Warning – spoilers for Dark Knight ahead…

But what Nolan does in the Dark Knight was disturbing for many of my idealistic friends who love superheroes. I asked a few of them what they thought of the film, and many of them thought it was great…and then the “but” came in. And all of them typically centered around this big “but.”

“But why does Batman have to be sold out as the bad guy at the end? He’s the good guy – but why does he have to be sold out as the bad guy? It’s not right.”

The Dark Knight is a twisted tragedy that follows a superb script of chaos that, in a sense, is narrated through Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance of The Joker. The late Ledger plays the villain in a triangulation of characters between himself, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Batman. The hero that Gotham needed, the White Knight Dent, the hero that Batman couldn’t be – a hero with a face, is exposed through tragic circumstances as “Two Face” and dies a tragic death at the hands of Batman.

But only Batman and trustworthy Commissioner Gordon know this. Thus to preserve the ideal that Gotham has a need for a heroic face, Batman follows the advice of his confidant Alfred and becomes the scapegoat for Dent’s death and while still secretly serving as the hero, thus becoming the enemy not just of villains, but of all.

The tragedy for Dent is that his love, Rachel Dawes, dies and exposes that the Bright White Light of Gotham is tainted as well – and the reasons for Rachel’s choice of him over Bruce Wayne were ultimately flawed as well. The tragedy for Batman is not only that the love of his life, Rachel, is dead, not only that she rejected him wrongly for the two-faced Dent, but that the film ends with his rejection by those whom he sought to save and thus by necessity he must become the Dark Knight – the faceless hero who is pursued not only by the villains, but ironically also by those who consider themselves agents of justice.

Even Ledger’s Joker is tragic in a way that Nolan didn’t script through Ledger’s premature death.

The film is a tragedy – which is why my idealistic friends feel this sense of lacking at the end. Something isn’t right as you watch the film…because there is this looming sense that there’s no happy ending coming soon. Dent says, “The night is darkest just before the dawn,” but the dawn doesn’t come. The Joker is more right than not in his analysis of humanity. It’s a tragedy; and we Americans don’t like tragedies. We are waiting for “happily ever after” and you know that simply doesn’t happen in this film.

Personally, I love tragedies. It’s what I’m wired to undo – I love to expose wrong and bring right. I love Batman as a hero; he’s working out his pain that he’s experienced to bring justice because he knows he’s flawed and he’s trying desperately to replace himself so he can go back to being “normal.” But at the end of this film, Bruce Wayne has to become something he never intended to be, which is tragic.

I love tragedies – but I just don’t want to live one. Which is exactly what most Green Bay Packer fans are doing right now.

Rewind five months ago to my blog entry on Brett Favre’s retirement, and now we are in a saga of Brett wanting to return to football. If you reread it now, in light of what has happened in this soap opera of his return, and you can’t help but be slightly disillusioned if you resonated at all with what I wrote. (Yes, even Bear fans, you can sympathize if you try hard enough.) The idea of Brett riding off into the sunset was thought to be…ideal. All the commemorative editions of various magazines sold through multiple printings agreed as well. I watched the press conference with a friend on either side of me on this laptop, and all of us teared up as Brett broke down. It was the ideal end to an ideal player.

But apparently the ideal wasn’t real. Now Brett says he was pushed into retirement by the Packers organization, and has given the dirt through interviews on national television. But Brett himself went back on the tearful testimony he gave that he just wasn’t able to give 100% anymore.

What’s it going to be, Brett?

The Packers borrowed language from a bad break-up and said that they had “moved-on” and that Brett could even come back as a back-up if he wanted. When Brett called their bluff that the Packers would be willing to sideline him holding a clipboard for Aaron Rodgers, the Packers management is now dancing the classic management-CYA-scoot and politically posturing saying they were trying to “preserve Favre’s legacy” so as to not to be “burned in effigy” through the court of public opinion.


It’s a big ol’ hot mess, because public heroes are in short supply. It’s why we love superhero flicks – we want heroes in an age where we see so few. We want Brett to stay beyond the horizon in the sunset where he rode in March, we want Batman to be unmasked for his innocence and given his due as true shining hero, not the Dark Knight. But Nolan in fantasy and the Packers in reality are telling us that this just isn’t the way the world really works.

These stories, while seeming to be superficial, talking-head-type conversation at first, resonate with most of us who have seen the darker side of life. Sadly, most of us can identify where our hopes and dreams were stripped of their luster and the shine wore off through ever-increasing experience. It’s why we love children – because they often remind us of innocence and hope. Chesterton hit it right on:

“God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but he has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Sin and brokenness do lots of things – but I never thought they make us old. As we age, people we once held in high esteem, relationships we thought were perfect, organizations that we once thought were driven to do good – our experience tempers our hot idealism and we wonder how we should reevaluate our expectations and redefine our dreams.

We drove our dreams to be reality, but the reality was dirtier than in our dreams and we end up getting it on us on the drive. We look at ourselves and say, “what have we become?”

I know I’ve experienced this – growing up in a ministry family, an education family, a corporate America insider, an insider in the church, I’ve seen the dark side of what many see as bright lights shining in the darkness.

Which begs the question – what is realistic idealism? How does one live in the tension of the real and the ideal, or in theological terms, the now-but-not-yet? My favorite author Eugene Peterson says it this way, “How do I do it? How do I shed the fantasies of boyhood and simultaneously increase my hold on the realities of life? How do I leave the childish yet keep the deeply accurate perceptions of the child – that life is an adventure, that life is a contest?”

These questions seem rhetorical and ideal at first – but they are really real and do demand answers. The best questions seem to do both.

Normally I’d try to answer these type of questions, but I feel tempted today just to sit in the tension. Questions that are easily answered aren’t good questions. Feel free to offer answers as you like. No answers today – only questions.

1 Response to “Realistic Idealism: Thoughts on The Dark Knight, Favre, and Tension”

  1. 1 The Enigma of Failure: Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall – 1 « Less is More Trackback on July 11, 2009 at 4:54 pm

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July 2008

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