The Dark Knight Revisited

Of all the dissenting arguments made against The Dark Knight, the most interesting revolves around the notion that Batman is presented, even willingly upheld, as a kind of authoritarian, reactionary, (neo)conservative figure in a film that fails to address the inherent fascism of superheroism. Abigail Nussbaum’s review of the film, and particularly the comments from her readers, offers a good example of this criticism.

The general idea in itself isn’t new. Alan Moore leveled the charge against superheroes through Watchmen, although he nullified his philosophical ambitions through the mechanistic determinism of his universe. (Without “free will,” choices, even moral choices, become meaningless. ) In The Dark Knight, the objection centers on the dichotomy of white knight versus black knight, with the underlying, problematic assumption that Gotham needs a saviour-hero, a philosopher king, a father-protector – even if that hero’s position is rooted in deception. “The idea that these people now need Jim Gordon to promulgate the lie of Harvey Dent's perfection in order to achieve heroism--which is what Batman comes to believe, and which not only motivates his choice to assume the responsibility for Harvey's crimes but also helps to determine the kind of hero he chooses to be--is downright offensive,” writes Abigail.
Unquestionably, the paternalism of the superhero is a problem that Watchmen, for better or worse, ushered into consideration, thereby launching a postmodern age in comic books. The idea that people need a strongman protector because of their inherent weakness – their inferiority, whether physical or moral – is distasteful on a number of level. Arguably, Superman is the most visible representative of this spiritual fascism. Although caped in truth, justice, and the (ahem) American Way, there is a messianic and obliquely warped Nietzchean connotation to a superpowered being who stands above mortal humanity as protector and noble ideal. Given that Superman isn’t even human, allegorically feeding the American self-image that immigrants are welcomed and encouraged to succeed in the US, we are confronted with the idea that the very best in physical and moral humanity must be both beyond human and other than human. Whether applied to Superman or other superpowered characters, what Abigail finds so distasteful is the most critical stress fracture of the heroic myth; the idea that humanity can’t, and shouldn’t, achieve greatness on its own. It’s like saying that aliens built the pyramids instead industrious and smart Egyptians. Mitigating this reading of superheroes, to some extent (and the discussion could be taken further), is the tendency of pitting superheroes against supervillains – threats no ordinary human could realistically face. It takes a Superman to battle a Doomsday, in other words, and we find that the cynical reading of superheroes isn’t entirely, or even necessarily, grounded in fascism either. When confronted with a super-threat, isn’t it heroic for a superhero to use his abilities to defend the innocent and materially helpless? How, in this respect, is a superhero different from a policeman or soldier empowered by law , training, and technology to repel threats beyond the ability of ordinary citizens?

By contrast, Batman is not a superhero – he’s a peak human being. Bruce Wayne as Batman starts on an even footing with the rest of humanity, undercutting the notion of a superior being beyond humanity. With the character’s psychology sourced in personal trauma and manifested in the form of a vigilante character on the edge of the law, his motives are more complex than simply protecting society. That he is referred to as a superhero reflects the iconic status he’s achieved in both comic book and mainstream culture. Still, the question remains: to what extent does the Batman mythos crack under pressure?

When we consider the copycat Batmen in The Dark Knight, we have to acknowledge the pitfalls of vigilantism – what happens when you take Bruce Wayne out of the Batman. Symptomatic of Gotham’s confusion in its confrontation with systemic corruption, their actions embody the notion that people must fend for themselves in the absence of workable law and enforcement. Of course, this kind of vigilantism is reactionary and blunt, neglecting the systemic causes of crime in favour of short-term, small-scale action against individual criminal acts.

What makes Batman interesting as a character is that, unlike clear outlaw vigilantes like the copycat Batmen or – to use another comic book character – the Punisher, Batman doesn’t represent a rejection of law as a means of justice. Frank Castle is judge, jury, and executioner; Batman is more like a police auxiliary, working outside the bureaucracy of law but within the spirit and intent of the law. His method is to capture criminals and collect evidence that the police can then use for arrests and prosecution. Often referred to as a great detective, Batman is presented as the kind of specialist investigator who can handle crimes the police aren’t equipped or trained to handle.

In this regards, Batman functions from a privileged epistemic position generally denied to the police. Where the legal and law enforcement systems are geared towards ascertaining innocence or guilt often after the crime occurs, Batman can gain knowledge of guilt and immediately act on it. For example, he hears of a robbery, shows up as the crime occurs, and foils it, whereas the police might have to investigate the crime after the fact using forensics and other means to identify the thieves, arrest them, and submit them to the judicial system. Or, Batman can simply spy on a gangster, get the information he needs, and act on it, whereas the police have to first demonstrate just cause for spying on said gangster in the firm place.

What makes Batman work both as character and concept results in part from our own privileged position as readers/viewers. We have access to information that Batman’s co-characters do not, and the consequence is that we can trust Batman not to abuse the power he has taken on for himself. By understanding his motivations and witnessing his own private doubts, we trust that Bruce Wayne has the self-discipline needed to stay on the right side of the line – and away from the fascist, authoritarian tendencies fashionably ascribed to superheroic characters.

Also vital is the way in which Batman’s actions justify our trust. The best example from The Dark Knight comes when Batman creates a mass surveillance system – a key plot development fueling the notion that the film advocates police state solutions – but turns it over to someone who doesn’t want to use it and willingly (even gladly) destroys it after its intended use. It is our trust in Bruce Wayne and Batman, mostly from our privileged meta-fictional position, that allows us to distinguish Batman from mere vigilantes and fascists. But can characters within the stories can achieve a similar trust? Should they? Therein lies the rub.

Into the discussion comes the Joker, who is a very different kind of antagonist than we’ve previously seen in Batman movies. In Tim Burton’s Batman, thug Jack Napier falls into a vat of chemicals and becomes a Joker who is, essentially, nothing more than a theatrical thug with grander ambitions for murder and destructions. Nolan’s take presents the Joker as a force of nature. Despite the irritating tendency of wrongly equating the character with anarchy, this version of the Joker is a terrorist whose motive is chaos and whose method involves manipulating individuals into moral dilemmas rigged as catch-22s. He pushes buttons, in other words, and gleefully watches as ostensibly good people are corrupted. Crucially, conceiving of the Joker as a terrorist highlights the importance of symbolism in his actions within a film that attaches great importance to the power of symbols. The Joker aims to create fear by destroying not just stability and justice, but the hope for stability and justice. He acts on the assumption that without some sort of moral center, the glue that binds society into a relatively ordered state will disintegrate. Harvey Dent, as an effective instrument of justice in a corrupt city, is a prime symbol of hope and a potent moral center in a legal system otherwise gone awry. But the Joker aims even beyond that, to the very idea we have that people are fundamentally good or, at least, decent. The entire scenario of the ferries and the explosives is an attempt to demonstrate the Joker’s thesis that chaos ultimately reigns in the human heart. By exposing this chaos and forcing people to confront their own chaotic natures, the very possibility of a workable, cooperative social order would be destroyed. Without the ability to trust in human relationships there is no possibility of community and society.

In a film also concerned with the notion of escalation – bringing guns to knife fights – the Joker represents an escalation not simply in terms of force but also in terms of ideology. The film acknowledges that Batman’s devastating effectiveness against ordinary criminals makes it possible, in an evolutionary sense, for a breed of supercriminals to arise. Yet the Joker isn’t a greater force in a material sense. He doesn’t bring bigger guns or more destructive superweapons. Instead, he represents an ideological escalation that is as lateral as it is vertical. The film noir tragedy of The Dark Knight, then, arises from a mismatch between threat and weapons, new problems and old solutions. Whereas Commission Gordon and Batman aim to use the traditional methods, mostly rooted in brute force, to neutralize the Joker, these methods are precisely the fuel that propels the Joker forward. One gets the impression that the Joker doesn’t mind being beaten up or possibly killed because this is precisely the sort of interactions he wants in the world he envisions, where the stronger destroy the weak, the weak find ways to make themselves stronger, and raw power is the only possible mode of communication. Essentially, the Joker disrupts the relationship between ends and means; Batman and Gordon find themselves in a reactive position using an irrelevant model of threat and response. Forced to use increasingly extreme measures, they end the Joker’s reign of terror but ultimately become trapped in a web of symbolism. I suspect that had Batman been a Zen monk, he would have fared much better.

To return to Abigail’s criticism, the decision to take the blame for Two-Face’s murders doesn’t make sense when read as heroism achieved through deceit or, as Abigail later comments, as a decision to be a hero based on the premise of saving Gotham’s citizens from the truth instead of empowering them to “think and make informed decisions.” Is that really the key decision that Batman makes? The rationale that Dent’s reputation has to be preserved for the sake of preserving faith in the justice system’s ability to handle rampant crime isn’t illogical given the circumstances and the role of symbols in gluing society together. Why should Gotham’s citizens trust the social order if the very guardians of an already fragile order are corrupted? If, for example, you believed your local police to be corrupt and in league with criminals, would you dial 911 if you saw your house getting robbed? Would you trust the badge of your local police? Arguably not, because the police has lost its symbolic significance as a force for protecting the public. However, much like Alfred’s decision not to reveal to Bruce Rachel’s decision to marry Harvey, there is something unquestionably icky in the notion that the truth can sometimes do more damage than a lie, and the slippery slope from a lie protecting the greater good to a cover-up of serious abuse is very steep indeed. Ideally, the truth should be a force for good and justice. That Batman and Gordon can’t make the truth work represents the inadequacy of their philosophy and approach.

Before condemning them fully, however, some context is necessary. In The Dark Knight we see a Batman early in his career. Unlike the Batman portrayed in the animated series, the outstanding animated film Mask of the Phantasm, or even Burton’s films , Nolan’s Batman is not a calm, calculating, relatively unflappable character. Although he has come to terms with the grief over his parents’ death, he hasn’t shed his rage. This emotional volatility makes him vulnerable to the Joker’s manipulations. With this in mind, one can appreciate the significance of Batman ultimately not crossing the line to murder, even though he has the opportunity and the decision could be easily rationalized. Tellingly, the Joker himself recognizes Batman’s incorruptibility. It ‘s in that final confrontation between Batman and the Joker that we find the real crux of Batman’s arc throughout the film, a reinforcement of Batman as a character we can trust to hold true to the idea of morality even in an environment that demands uncomfortable compromise. The decision not to kill the Joker, not to give in to a thirst for revenge, is arguably the story’s key milestone. That his symbol is tarnished by accepting the blame for Two-Face’s murders is, of course, ironic.

Nevertheless, the film never treats the idea of a vigilante dressing up as a bat as anything other than a dysfunctional solution to the problem of Gotham’s corruption, as evidenced by the great hope Harvey Dent personally holds to Bruce Wayne for setting Batman aside. Even on a conceptual level, Batman can only be a tactical response, a finger in the dyke, a stopgap – his actions cannot work towards addressing the root causes of Gotham’s corruption and rampant crime, unlike a District Attorney who represents a social effort to deal with injustice. The whole effect of the film, then, is to repudiate the need for Batman, whose very existence is a compromise on the social order and the reliance on morally compromised solutions such as deceiving the public about the truth. If Batman’s capacity for heroism, although meaningfully heroic on one level, is fundamentally subject to doubt in terms of his role in society, then I have to question whether it makes sense to view the movie, as Abigail does, as an argument that “Gotham's need for a hero is spiritual rather than practical.”

It’s also worth noting that the decision to perpetuate the lie of “Harvey Dent, White Knight” is merely the resolution of the film’s plot, not the beginning of it. Setting aside the issue that, as viewers, we are under no obligation to agree with characters that we nonetheless find fascinating, the film ultimately takes no stance. The question is left open-ended as to whether the ploy works or not. In fact, as we speculate about the final part in Nolan’s trilogy, one has to suspect that if Batman is to gain the status of a legend with the capacity to inspire good, the truth about Harvey Dent will have to come out eventually. At the very least, it would be hard to imagine Batman going mano e mano with major villain Bane without the truth of his reputation coming into play as they battle it out in Gotham.

In the end, films like The Dark Knight are open to interpretation precisely because they don’t actually take a firm philosophical position on their own stories. This is where the risk of confusing the film’s artistic intent with what we, as viewers, bring to it increases. To wit: Just because a character states an opinion, doesn’t make it a true message the film is hoping to deliver to audiences. Nor does a character’s decision to act a certain way automatically carry a moral imprimatur because of that decision.

Of course, when it comes to what the characters actually think it helps to turn to the text, beginning with Commissioner Gordon closing out The Dark Knight with this melodramatic speech –
Because he's the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now. And 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.
Earlier on, he discusses with Batman the decision to take on the blame for Harvey’s murders. From a transcript at imdb.com:
Batman: 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, not like Dent. I killed those people. That's what I can be.
Lt. James Gordon: No you can't! You're not!
Batman: I'm whatever Gotham needs me to be.
[We cut to a funeral for Harvey Dent]
Lt. James Gordon: Not the hero we deserved but the hero we needed
[Gordon is shown on top of Gotham Central. An axe is in his hand. He is being watched by an assortment of reporters and police officers. The next lines are heard in voiceover]
Lt. James Gordon: They'll hunt you.
Batman: You'll hunt me. You'll condemn me. Set the dogs on me.
[Gordon takes the axe to the bat light]
Batman: Because that's what needs to happen.
Batman: [Alfred is shown holding the envelope from Rachel. He lights it on fire and watches it burn] Because sometimes the truth isn't good enough.
[We see Lucius Fox type his name into the sonar machine. The machinery around him sparks and the sonar screen fades out. Lucius smiles and walks away]
Batman: Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
To say that Gordon believes Gotham needs a spiritual protector like Batman and not a practical protector like District Attorney Dent is one way of reading it. But another way is that Gordon is being cynical, however much his admiration for Batman glosses over it. After all, if Dent is the hero Gotham needs – someone who represents justice within a functional system of law & order – but Batman is the hero the city deserves, then we return to the implication that there is something very rotten indeed in the city of Gotham for it to deserve a vigilante dressed as a bat. The question is: shouldn’t Gotham deserve the hero it needs? And that, along with the decision Batman and Gordon make to conceal the truth, highlights the tragic, film-noir character of the film. Far from presenting us with an idealized portrait of heroism, whether that ideal is fascist or not, the film presents us with a moral no man’s land with characters struggling to do the best they can. The rest is interpretation, and the fact that so many perspectives can be extracted from The Dark Knight highlights its achievement as a film.

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