The Dark Knight, the second installment in the revived Batman series, has broken many box office records. The Batman franchise is one of the most popular in U.S. history, whether in comics or graphic novels, the beloved, campy TV series of the 1960s, or in the various films made since.
The film revolves around the rise of the blond-haired Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s new district attorney–the “White Knight” who’s put the city’s criminal gangs on the defensive. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has rallied Gotham behind Dent, despite the official police position that Batman is a vigilante, and thus a criminal.
Gotham’s mobsters turn to an articulate psychopath, the Joker (Heath Ledger), who tells them that Dent is a distraction and their real nemesis is Batman, whom he pledges to kill. But the mobsters get more than they bargained for with the Joker. He has a larger agenda.
It’s here that the film starts to take an unsavory turn. The Joker proclaims that Gotham deserves a better class of criminals than simply ones motivated by “money.” His goal is nothing less than to overturn the “establishment, ” in effect, a war on civilization. The Joker sets out to wipe out the good leaders of Gotham City–in order to draw Batman into a trap. He then threatens to blow up buildings hoping to produce chaos and bring everyone down to his level of moral depravity.
The Joker, first described as a “freak” in the film, is soon called a “terrorist.” Some reviewers have described him as an “anarchist.”
To try to understand this incomprehensible evil, Wayne turns to his English butler-assistant Alfred (Michael Caine). Alfred recounts his struggle as a colonial officer in Burma with a bandit who cared nothing for the precious stones he stole, but only for the mayhem he wreaked. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred declares. He reminds Wayne that Batman can make the decisions others can’t make–a straightforward appeal to vigilantism.
“We thought we could be decent men in indecent times,” shouts out Dent. Gotham’s “White Knight” begins to turn black. After his face is disfigured, Dent morphs into a full-fledged mad killer, fulfilling his prophecy that if you live long enough you become the villain.
Batman pursues the Joker, using the vast wealth of Wayne Industries to turn every cell phone into a surveillance device. He later turns his attention to Dent, who has gone on a killing spree of “good” and “bad” cops. In the end, police chief Gordon and Batman agree to cover up Dent’s crimes.
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IF A lot of this all sounds a little familiar–it is. It is straight out of the reasons used to justify all of the unsavory aspects of Bush’s “war on terror”–assassination, kidnapping, torture, ripping up the constitution. “We have to work the dark side,” Dick Cheney told an interviewer shortly after 9/11.
As Bale says of the Batman character, “This apparently lightweight superhero–originally this spoofy, kitschy, campy character–we’ve actually managed to turn that around. [The analogy of the war on terror] is absolutely one that I read into the script immediately.”
Christopher Nolan, one of the screenwriters, said in an interview: “[W]hat you’re always trying to do is tap into people’s view of the world we live in…But I think if you try to do that in any conscious political sense, you’re going to be somewhat violating the terms of the type of entertainment you’re trying to make. What we’re trying to do…is to be very unconscious in those associations. To just write a world that seems relevant and frightening and inspiring and just has a power over us.”
The question is, what does any of this mean on the big screen? Does it produce a searing criticism of today’s government policies, obviously, in a fantasy setting, or does it give them a pass? I think The Dark Knight does the latter.
I don’t believe that Nolan and Bale are right-wingers; I think they are fairly typical liberals in the film industry. The problem with that is that they accept much of the same framework for looking at the world as Bush and Company.
When asked by Newsweek if there is a parallel between Gotham and Baghdad today, Nolan responded positively: “Well, where I suppose I would see a parallel is the threat of chaos, which is something we very much deal with in this film.” This threat of “chaos” has produced torture chambers in Baghdad and Chicago.
I moved to Chicago in June 1993. Shortly beforehand, Jon Burge, a Chicago police commander, was fired for overseeing the systematic torture of dozens (possibly hundreds) of mostly African American men for two decades. Burge lives in comfortable retirement in Florida while many of victims continue to languish in prison. It has long been rumored that Burge owns a boat called “The Vigilante.”
I say this because these issues are never very far from my mind, particularly, when watching films set in present-day Chicago, or, in this case, its mythical version as the new Gotham City. I can’t help but judge a film by whether it truthfully deals with these issues, especially if the film revolves around the role of police and vigilantism.
It is here that, despite having a few liberal pangs, The Dark Knight not only fails to truthfully deal with these issues, but embraces the worst sort of right-wing vigilantism packaged in some of the best filmmaking available in Hollywood.
JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.