The Dark Knight, the second installment of the new series of Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan and written by the director and his brother Jonathan Nolan, there is a great deal of talk about the power of role models and of the deep hunger that Gotham City has for a person in a position of authority who is unambiguously good. That person is usually Harvey Dent, the crusading and incorruptible district attorney, for however much the audience may prefer him to Dent, Batman is too dark a figure for the role. Indeed, the entire point of their take on Batman is that he is borderline psychotic.
Look at the final lines of the movie. Dent (Aaron Eckhart) becomes Two-Face, and Batman (Christian Bale) is obliged to kill him before he murders in cold blood the young child of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Gordon and Batman stand over the body:
Gordon: The Joker won. Harvey’s prosecution, everything he fought for . . . undone. Whatever chance Gotham had of fixing itself, whatever chance you gave us of fixing our city . . . dies with Harvey’s reputation. . . . People will lose all hope.
Batman: No. They won’t. They can never know what he did.
Gordon: Five dead? Two of them cops? We can’t sweep that under—
Batman: No. But the Joker cannot win. . . . Gotham needs its true hero.
Gordon (realizing that Batman is expressing a willingness to take on the burden of Dent’s guilt): You? You can’t—
Batman: Yes, I can. . . . You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things because I’m not a hero, like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be.
Gordon: No! You can’t! You’re not!
Batman: I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.
After this there is a kind of montage in which Gordon and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and others are seen taking actions consistent with this cover story, taking an axe to the Bat Signal, and so forth. In a voiceover, we hear Gordon speak of the fallen Dent: “A hero—not the hero we deserved, the hero we needed. Nothing less than a knight. Shining.” Then we hear Batman driving the point home, explaining what Gordon must do: “You’ll condemn me, set the dogs on me . . . because it’s what needs to happen.”
In the very final moment of the movie, Batman scampers off to his future as a pariah, while Gordon explains to his baffled son: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves . . . but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
So, in this very canny, complex action movie (the director of The Prestige and Memento seems incapable of a narratively direct movie), the duality is clear. Dent and Batman are both knights, but Dent is “shining” while Batman is dark knight. Dent is the hero Gotham needs/not deserves while Batman is the reverse. In short one might say (with just a jot of overreach) that Batman willingly takes on the mantle of everlasting infamy in order to save humankind.
The thesis pursued in this article is that this strong thematic aspect of The Dark Knight finds its roots in a short story by the labyrinthine Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.
The story in question is called “Three Versions of Judas” (“Tres versiones de Judas”), published in the influential 1944 collection Ficciones (English translation, Fictions 1962).
“Three Versions of Judas” is difficult to encapsulate and is worth reading in full. The story takes the form of an academic summary of the life of an obscure Swedish scholar named Nils Runeberg, who (we are told) was active in the first years of the twentieth century. Runeberg had been by training a theologian but by the end of his truncated life had moved sharply into heresiology, the study of heresy. Runeberg becomes interested in the contradictory figure of Judas, a traitor whose treachery enabled the salvation of humankind. Runeberg begins to wonder if the scorn bestowed on Judas is truly appropriate treatment for what is, after all, a necessary cog in the cosmological narrative; he ends by assigning Judas the role of Savior.
For Runeberg, given the scale of the salvation that is offered, the sufferings of Christ cannot be sufficient; as the narrator of the story summarizes, “To limit all that happened to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous.” If redeemed humanity is to last forever, so too must the infamy of the savior; hence Judas, residing in Dante’s ninth level of Hell.
But Borges is not quite done with his logical twists: if Judas’s infamy is to be complete and everlasting, his heroism must remain a secret. If the deep logic of God’s plan become known, then Judas becomes elevated as a Messiah and the punishment of being scorned on earth ceases to be fulfilled. Runeberg, having stumbled on the secret, cannot succeed in propagating it; his message must remain marginalized. Indeed, he recognizes in that marginalization a proof: “Runeberg intuited from this universal indifference an almost miraculous confirmation.” He has himself become a version of Judas; the second. The third is (I think) the narrator who is critiquing Runeberg. From there we can, if we choose, extend the status to Borges and, by extension, anyone who has read and absorbed the point of the story. One could see it as “Five Versions of Judas.”
Like many Borges stories, “Three Versions of Judas” is about scale, about the incomprehensibility of infinity. “Funes the Memorious” posits an infinite memory, “The Garden of Forking Paths” infinite universes, “The Library of Babel” infinite text, and so on. “Three Versions of Judas” posits infinite agony, infinite sacrifice, infinite divinity—limitless asceticism.
Here we can begin to see the outlines of the Dark Knight story. Like Batman, Judas, in this reading, willingly takes on the mantle of everlasting infamy in order to save humankind. Batman becomes the scorned one to permit a savior/hero to remain intact.
In a sense, The Dark Knight is actually the obverse of “Three Versions of Judas.” That is to say, the plots are very similar but the pull of necessity points in opposite directions. In “Three Versions of Judas,” Jesus exists only to allow Judas, the “real” savior, to come into being. The purpose of the entire exercise is to allow God, in the form of Judas, to take on an infinite sacrifice in order to redeem humanity. In The Dark Knight, the infamy of Batman is not the purpose of the deception; the heroism of Dent is.
So if Dent is the cover messiah and Batman the real messiah, who is the Joker—Satan? That seems to work. There is definitely something to pursue here, but teasing it out will have to remain an exercise for the reader.
Were the Nolan brothers aware of “Three Versions of Judas”? I have no way of knowing. But it is suggestive that the first spoken words of the movie are: “Three of a kind. Let’s do this.”