The fundamental relationship that these two films share is that of paired opposites: the Joker and Batman, Harvey Dent and the people of Gotham City, Mulder and Scully. Each pair consists of a person or a group who sees the opposite of themselves in another, and each pairing revolves around the question of belief. What is it to believe, what is worth believing in, and does – or should – truth be a part of that belief? Where does one find the strength to decide?
I Want to Believe hinges its argument about Proverbs 25: 2: It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.
Both these summer films explore this question in the context of faith, although not necessarily religious faith. Specifically, in discovering what it takes to break faith down, and what it takes to keep it. It is this search for what is worth believing in, and conversely, what that belief is worth, which links Dark Knight and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.
They take very different approaches, it’s true. Dark Knight is the quintessential summer blockbuster, explosions and gunfire and car chases and villains that are far larger than life and more interesting than the good guys (even when they have new and improved gadgetry). In comparison, I Want to Believe is a more traditional thriller – bleak landscapes, subtle clues, and nary am explosion in sight. No longer working for the FBI, Mulder and Scully don’t even have guns any more. Their weapons are their minds, and their respective abilities to believe.
Both films are fantastic.
If Dark Knight is unquestionably more uncompromising in its moral dilemmas than I Want to Believe, it is the subtlety of the latter that further helps to distinguish both films. The Joker is completely psychotic, a pure delighted evil, and Harvey Dent’s descent into his own darkness is slightly too abrupt to be believable. Evil is too back and white, in Dark Knight. In comparison, the paedophile priest in I Want to Believe is so repentant he has cut himself off from normal society and performed his own castration, and the murdering organ harvester does so to save his lover. Even the black market doctors comfort their victims before drugging them and dragging them to the operating table. Evil, in the X-Files, doesn’t plough through city streets in a hail of bullets. It sits across the table from you, swims in the same pool, worships at the same church – and its strength lies in the fact that you can never be sure that it’s there.
In Dark Knight, you are sure. The confrontation between Batman and the Joker is the cornerstone of Dark Knight, and it is so successful precisely because we can see in it the echoes of other confrontations, the archetypal confrontation with the Jungian Other. The most obvious recent comparison is Gollum’s split personality conversation in The Two Towers, except this time, the personalities are in two separate bodies. Stinker and Slinker share two faces instead of one, and neither, shown alone, indicates to the outside world the complexity of the personality beneath. The same thing occurs with Luke Skywalker and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. Darth Vader, like Harvey Dent, has the willing capacity to change. The others do not.
In fact, the only pairing in either movie that shows any possibility of – or acceptance of – distinct change is Harvey Dent and the people of Gotham. It’s no coincidence that as Dent is descending into his own capacity for evil, the Gotham citizens on the two evacuee boats are discovering their capacity for good. These two are in a balance – as one side goes up, the other goes down. But it is a false balance – Gotham City can improve itself because it believes in Harvey Dent, and Harvey Dent can stand up against the Joker only as long as he believes that Gotham City is worth his faith. When that belief is shattered, when Dent is confronted with his own capacity for darkness, and with the cowardice of some of the people who are also sworn to protect, he can no longer retain that belief, no longer keep his faith. He is forced into change, because he cannot continue as the person he was.
Neither the Joker nor Batman show any essential changes – the Joker is locked in Arkham by the end of the film, but is as mad and as bad as ever. Batman lives to fight another day, publicly shamed but using the same lawless tactics as he ever did. It is the public perception of the Batman that has altered, not his essential self or actions. Yet how a person can (or must? won’t?) change when confronted with their other self directly impacts on how they are able to confront external and internal darkness.
After the loss of the X-Files, Mulder insists that he hasn’t changed at all, and of course he hasn’t. He’s still the same sunflower-munching, pencil-throwing, partner-ditching loner and loon that he always was, except now he has a beard and works at cementing the chip on his shoulder from a house stuck in the hinterlands instead of the FBI basement. Drawn out of his hideaway to assist in locating a missing agent, he quickly readjusts after a token sulk, and it’s same old, same old for him. In a remark which is superficially jarring to those unfamiliar with X-Files canon, Scully accuses him of looking for his sister all over again, and it’s true: Mulder may be older and supposedly wiser, but he’s on the same circular track that he ever was. He’s still searching for the truth, still wanting to believe that it’s out there, and has no problem jumping back into the routine of paranormal investigator. As usual, his search is externalised into a series of adventures that keep him at death’s door and allow him to avoid facing the toll his prolonged search has taken on him. “I’m asking you to look at yourself”, Scully spells out for him. “Why?” Mulder responds, clearly confused.
But if Dark Knight focuses more on the Joker than Batman, I Want to Believe is clearly Scully’s story. (It helps that Heath Ledger and Gillian Anderson are clearly better actors than their counterparts.) This is underlined by the structure of the film, which echoes that of the X-Files pilot, a decade or so back. Scully is now working as a paediatrician in a Catholic hospital, and her twin faiths – science and God – are on a collision course as she tries to introduce the idea of stem cell therapy as a course of treatment for a young patient. In one of the few self-referential clangers (the rest are more subtle, such as Mulder’s cell phone contact list) the hospital is called Our Lady of Sorrows – and while Scully has left the darkness and horror of X-Files far behind and wants them to stay there, there’s no denying that she’s still got more than her fair share of angst. Unlike her paired opposite, however, Scully has internalised her experiences on the X-Files, and pain drips through her every glance as psychosis drips off the Joker.
In the end, both films deal with the problem of belief differently. Dark Knight externalises it by consecrating it in an individual – Harvey Dent is presented to Gotham City as the person he wanted to be and not the person he became. While one has undeniable sympathy for him, it can’t be denied that the faith this engenders is a faith based on a lie; a lie that is deliberate and ongoing. Batman himself willingly cements his role as a public anti-hero in order to support this untruth. The question of faith, of belief, is resolved in favour of an external representation, one which has intrinsic value only because of a lie. Gotham City does indeed want to believe – but because there is no collective internal rock to stand upon, that faith must be externalised into something other than themselves, something other than a moral value. And if that faith isn’t true… the desire to believe makes it good enough and the resulting social conscience is based on a false foundation.
One wonders if the Joker isn’t laughing at that in Arkham.
There’s less to laugh at in I Want to Believe, if only because the problem of belief surviving darkness is dealt with in a different way. As Gotham and its three representatives externalise it, Scully internalises, avoids. But whatever answer she comes up with, she finds within herself. Mulder tempts her – Gollum-like, Joker-like – with the prospect of escape. In what is really a rather uncharacteristic outburst, he suggests the two of them ditch their responsibilities and get as far away as they possibly can. The prospect of a normal life… As the Joker tempts Harvey Dent to the dark side by destroying what he loves, Mulder unwittingly does the same to Scully by tempting her with what she wants. The price would be the pretence that it is possible to escape the darkness, both within and without. Gotham City may evade moral, individual responsibility by putting its faith in lie but Scully does not – she declines. The Batman may accept the lie in order to allow others to maintain belief, but Mulder does not. “I think the darkness finds us,” he tells Scully, and acknowledging the justice of this statement is what allows her to remain and face it; to continue to live at that tipping point where Harvey Dent could not keep his balance. He chose to let pain and loss of faith change him. She chose that the secession of pain and the prospect of false faith would not change her. For Mulder and Scully, the truth is still out there and it is in this that they put their faith. For Batman, truth is something to be buried, another casualty in a faithless world.
It is the glory of Dark Knight that it conceals the thing: but the truth is out there, and the honour those who want to believe is to search it out.
I Want to Believe had the misfortune to be coming out at the same time as Dark Knight, and Ledger’s incredible performace as the Joker. What may save it, however, is the fact that although these two films are dealing with similar questions they do it in very different ways, and their conclusions are diametric. In the end, the viewer’s ideological or moral preference may be what distinguishes between them. And that may be why even though I saw Dark Knight first, I went to I Want to Believe again.