I just saw The Dark Knight for a second time yesterday, at a discount matinee. I’d seen it before on the night it opened, but I enjoyed the chance for a repeat viewing from a vantage point better than fourth-row lower-left, and with an audience noise level that didn’t drown out the dialogue.

Then today, through sheer happenstance, I read a fresh consideration of the film in the New York Times by the always-thoughtful writer Jonathan Lethem, who had been secluded writing a book this summer and not seen the film until recently. He admits that he “felt disabled by the film, and demoralized”… and refers to other analyses validating his impression of it as a political work,

“…a defense of the present administration’s cursory regard for human rights abroad and civil rights at home, in the cause of reply to attacks from an irrational and inhuman evil.”

I don’t agree with that. There’s no question that The Dark Knight is, well, a dark film. It is in many ways a tragedy:  several sympathetic characters die, the villain is captured but unchastened, and the hero has his character flaws on painful display and ultimately has his public reputation ruined, forced to run from the law. My girlfriend left the screening in a dark mood herself, complaining that although it was well-made and gripping, it was also discouraging and depressing.

Personally, I think it puts these elements to good use. It elevates the material to a level seldom reached by super-hero movies (or, indeed, by very many movies at all these days), using it to explore difficult moral choices. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, turning a familiar villain into a genuinely unsettling agent of chaos, would be worth every plaudit it has earned even without the sympathy for his untimely death.

However, dark as it may be, I do not find the film as a whole to be an apology for fascism, or the current admnistration’s movements in that direction.

Some do. Lethem cites conservative writer Andrew Klavan, who not only sees but celebrates this interpretation, writing in (of course) The Wall Street Journal:

“There seems to me no question that the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight,’ currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.

…like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society… and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

‘The Dark Knight,’ then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. …

Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They’re wrong, of course, even on their own terms.

I disagree with Klavan, emphatically. He’s trying to take a work that actually embodies moral complexity, and twist it into a piece of simplistic propaganda. There is no doubt in my mind that director Christopher Nolan and his fellow screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer did not intend the movie as an apologia for George W. Bush.

And yet… and yet…

There’s no denying that those elements are there to be found in the material. And not only in this film, but in Batman as a concept, and indeed in super-hero stories in general.

The Batman is, undeniably, a masked vigilante. He works outside the law, routinely committing acts that would be violations of suspects’ civil liberties if perpetrated by any recognized authority. Even as he hides his own identity, he has little or no regard for anyone else’s privacy:  the cell-phone surveillance device in The Dark Knight, while certainly an allegory for Bush administration wiretapping in some respects, is hardly unprecedented in the comics, where the Batman routinely eavesdrops on all sorts of people, including his fellow heroes.

Much the same is true of most other super-heroes—even the noblest of the lot, Superman. While in his earliest days the character defended the “little people” against corrupt authorities and social oppression, he quickly evolved into a defender and protector of the social status quo, as did most of those who followed in his footsteps. And, at their most basic, they routinely solve problems by violence, taking advantage of the fact that they have more power than average citizens. The fascist subtext, the worship of power, the use of ends to justify means, is always there to be found, inextricably intertwined with the material. It was certainly there in this summer’s other big super-hero smash, Iron Man, in which a man whose life and fortune have made him a creature of the military-industrial complex uses the tools of that complex to take up arms against its corrupt and violent (and inevitable) side-effects.

So why do I, with my decidedly progressive, civil-libertarian politics, enjoy and defend these kinds of stories in general and The Dark Knight in particular? How is it that so many of the other comics fans (and writers) I know share political values not dissimilar to my own? There seems to be a paradox here.

Let us set aside the defense that we’re dealing with fantasy worlds where “good” and “evil” are far more clear-cut and unequivocal than in reality. It’s a distinction that Andrew Klavan (and George W. Bush) seem not to grasp, but it’s not enough; there’s more going on here.

I think a big part of it has to do with the parallel theme of hope, of optimism, of confidence in the ability of individual citizens (costumes and powers notwithstanding) to engage their world in a constructive, meaningful way.

That aspect is certainly present in The Dark Knight. One key plot element that unravels the Joker’s master plan is that he even as he stayed a step ahead of his direct enemies (the Batman, Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent), he underestimated the general citizens of Gotham. In the previous film, Batman Begins, Batman’s nemeses were convinced that Gotham City was too corrupted, and had to be brought down through fear and violence, while the Batman insisted that its people were still worthy of a chance at redemption. In this film they get that chance even more directly:  the Joker’s plot hinges on the assumption that they will be controlled (again) by fear, driven to act in “preemptive” violence against strangers, but they confound him when they refuse to do so and instead accept a greater risk to their lives by taking a stand on moral principles. The completely cynical (just like the completely naive) cannot imagine that anyone else would think or act differently than they themselves do, and therein lies his downfall. In this sense, if one seeks political allegory, it is clearly the Joker, not the Batman, standing in the shoes of the Bush administration.

Another distinction is the matter of accountability. When Bruce Wayne puts on the mask and costume, he understands that he is acting outside the law. As the film makes painfully clear throughout, but especially in its conclusion, he accepts that this prevents him from enjoying a normal life. He accepts the stigma and isolation that come from that decision. When he falls back on the cell-phone-surveillance plot device, the film makes it perfectly clear that this really is too much power to vest in any one man, that using it even once under dire circumstances is enough to alienate the trust of his allies, and that under no circumstances should it be used on a regular basis.

Perhaps most importantly, unlike Bush, he is not willing to sacrifice lives to achieve his goals… even to the point of being prepared to give up his mask and the status and power that come with it in order to protect innocents. In the film as in the comics, he refuses to arrogate to himself the power over life and death:  even the Joker, in the end, he captures but will not kill.

These distinctions, I think, are critical to why I continue to enjoy super-hero stories in good conscience, and in particular why I enjoyed The Dark Knight, which wove such distinctions inextricably into its themes. I do not like the Punisher; I do not like Dirty Harry; they and their ilk are closer analogs for George W. Bush, whom I also do not like. Were the Batman more like any of them, I would not like him. Thankfully, his view of morality is more… nuanced.

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4 Responses to “The Darker Knight”
  1. Andrew says:

    I truly loved the new version, I mean this guys was my childhood superhero, I grew up watching Batman capping bad guys, and now seeing him growing up along side really makes things intriguing.

  2. Scarlet says:

    Keep up the good work.

  3. michael says:

    I’ll be interested to see if your interpretation changes once you’ve read my book. At the very least, it should prompt a re-evaluation of the relationship between Right and Left presupposed by your reflections.

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