The Politics of the Dark Knight

Superhero movies tend to be trite, even the best of them. Like the bold swaths of colored ink that fill comic book pages, it seemed such movies had to contain simple lessons and obvious conflicts. They were not serious movies, not even the best of them. Then came along “The Dark Knight.”
You will have heard that it’s good. You will have heard that Heath Ledger turns in such a performance as the Joker that his interpretation should now define the role. You will have heard that it’s a genuine dramatic film that just happens to star men in masks. All of this is true.

You will also have heard that it’s not a great movie. Occasionally stilted dialog, ridiculous rasping from Christian Bale when in Batman regalia, and tepid love scenes. Harvey Dent’s evolution isn’t satisfying and there are some ragged edges to the plot that leave the audience confused. The movie could have used a more ruthless editor. This is also true.

But putting aside it’s artistic merit, what you may not have heard is that this movie is one of the finest political commentaries written on the moral compromises we’ve made since 9/11. You can easily buy research paper around that topic and get all the information needed.

Are You Sure it’s Not Fascist?
There are those who will argue that not all movies have a political point of view, especially not fun summer romps, and ask the mocking question that the movie poses itself, “Why so serious?” But “The Dark Knight” makes no secret of its ambitions. From the crumbling building behind Batman in the publication posters to the overt reference to warrantless wiretapping, this movie is an explicit commentary on the times we live in.

“The Dark Knight” approaches its topic from all angles, widely spattering moral conflicts on the screen like buckshot. I would have sworn it had an obvious point of view. I came away sure that this movie is anti-torture, anti-vigilanti, anti-totalitarianism, but it makes its points so obliquely that reviewers are arguing about it all over the internet. The Wall Street Journal actually asserts that Batman represents George Bush who must ride off into that good night while leaving us with the shiny but secretly empty Obamican Hope. Matt Yglesias even thought the movie had fascist overtones.

Meanwhile, conservative writers whine,

“The film champions the antiwar coalition’s claim that, in having a war on terror, you create the conditions for more terror. We are shown that innocent people died because of Batman – and he falls for it. Here is a Batman consumed with liberal guilt and self-loathing. I wanted to scream: ‘No, you Guardian-reading freak, don’t you see? It’s the Joker’s fault, not yours.’ But I knew I would never reach him, for today’s heroes want to be zeroes.”
I left the movie quite moved by “The Dark Knight’s” demonstration of how terrorism seeks to undermine law, stability, and essential goodness. That terrorism works only when we let it make monsters of us. So I was shocked to find that my husband thought the movie was saying that evil was justified and necessary. Brilliant as my husband is, he is agreeing with the Wall Street Journal, and therefore assuredly wrong.
The constant refrain of the movie is “Die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” And I think the writers mean that literally. If you won’t risk your life for your values, then you’re not a hero. And if you resort to evil to fight villainy, then you’re a villain. Maybe you do have to commit evil to survive, but it’s still evil, it’s still illegal, and it needs to be. Even Batman knows this.

I think a deep reading of the movie demonstrates a pattern: Every time torture is employed it fails miserably and the Joker wins. Every time corruption is condoned, every time the rules are compromised, it creates an escalation in the violence. When Batman makes a selfish choice, it ultimately costs him badly because evil is one step ahead. The vigilantism exhibited by the citizens in Gotham, whether impersonating batman or trying to take matters into their own hands, goes badly awry and is roundly condemned by Batman himself. Moreover, some of the audience in our theater actually cheered when a hardened criminal shows himself to be more noble than the “security moms” in the other boat. In fact, if the movie had wanted to prove the Wall Street Journal’s point, then the entire boat sequence would have ended quite differently than it did.

Fight villainy on its own terms, and you’ll become a villain. You may find ‘safety’ but you’ll lose everything that matters to you, as Batman does. That’s the moral of this story; and I think no accident that Alfred tells Bruce Wayne “Some men just like to watch the world burn” then recalls that the way the English dealt with bandits in Burma was to burn it.

The Artistry
I admit that the messages in this film may be a Rorschach test because the writers show rather than tell. This movie doesn’t lecture you, it presents moral quandaries that make you draw your own conclusion. I think this is why it succeeds where other movies that have taken on our contemporary political issues have failed.

Best of all, the movie pulls this off not by upping the sensationalism, but by bringing the problems back to the real world. In comparison to other superhero films, “The Dark Knight” is CGI minimalist–and the Joker does most of his villainy with simple things like gasoline, bullets, and psychological games. Gotham no longer looks like a cartoon city; it looks like Chicago. And the real hero of this film is neither Harvey Dent nor Bruce Wayne, but an everyman, unsung and unassuming: Commissioner Gordon, whose basic decency derives from small flaws and ordinary courage.

Ultimately, it’s a brave film that nearly undermines the entire foundation of superhero legends in the process of making what is ultimately a grown up tale about the human condition and a haunting tragedy.