Now that THE DARK KNIGHT has slowly slipped from the #1 slot in the weekly box office race, perhaps time has come to discuss the film as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a box office phenomenon. In truth, the discussion has already begun, but the level of discourse has been sophomoric, even juvenile. Some observers have accused the film of being confused or fascist; others insist that it paints a positive picture of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror; at least one thinks it is being over-rated simply because it is a macho action pic. The very fact that the film could ignite this kind of debate is, in itself, interesting; the dark, dense, and sprawling narrative is so loaded with details that are not wrapped up into a neat bow that active audience interpretation is almost required to make sense of it. From my perspective, the two keys to understanding the film are Film Noir and the Western genre, which provide a foundation upon which the film’s narrative rests.
Not that the nation’s critics have necessarily noticed this. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Joanne Weintraub vaguely complains that the macho heroics of Batman outperformed the feel-good, feminine-friendly MAMA MIA; besides Heath Ledger’s justifiably praised performance as the Joker, she sees little difference in quality between the two films and seems to think DARK KNIGHT has earned unfairly high critical regard because “Guy Flicks” about men trying to save the world are perceived as being serious work, unlike frothy chick flicks such as MAMA MIA.
Weintraub is correct that THE DARK KNIGHT plays out its scenario in a male-dominated world, where the one significant female character (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel) is reduced to the stereotypical female roles of emotional anchor and damsel in distress. However, Weintraub overlooks three important points: 1) action films do not typically earn critical kudos; 2) DARK KNIGHT has far outperformed most typical action films; 3) DARK KNIGHT is far from being a typical action film.
WESTERN MEETS FILM NOIR
Despite its superhero trappings, THE DARK KNIGHT is more a piece of film noir, a style that typically uses hard-boiled plot lines laced with machismo. The true aesthetics of macho movie-making, however, have less to do with explosions and car chases than with how a man defines himself in a hostile, usually corrupt world. It’s the old story of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but in hard-boiled plot, unlike the Western, what a man’s gotta do is often not nearly enough.
THE DARK KNIGHT is really about the failure of the hero. Batman strives mightily, but the Joker outplays him on almost every hand. Even apparent small victories lead to defeat. Batman may capture the Joker, but the effect is like trying to stuff a genie back into the bottle: the madness has already been unleashed, and it seems unstoppable. The large-scale goal of redeeming Gotham remains elusively out of reach.
This is not the sort of stuff we associate with summer blockbusters. It’s dark and pessimistic, but not outright cynical, and I suspect that this quality – rather than the guy flick designation – is what has embedded the film in the public consciousness. THE DARK KNIGHT celebrates the struggle – the effort against all odds – even when victory is at best partial. The film refuses to sell out with an easy happy ending; it captures the tenor of the times in which we live, when our institutions and government have failed us, but it refuses to trade in the cheap cynicism of junk like THE MIST – which mistook cynical irony for profundity.
Moving on to the political perspective, we have the usually astute Eric Alterman stating:
I saw The Dark Knight yesterday afternoon, and I think it pulled off the neat trick of being both libertarian and fascistic, which is to say it is damn confused … not bad, but not consistent either.
Responding to Alterman, Matthew Yglesias writes:
…a well-made film that, rather than being topical as such, instead chooses to deal with topical themes often doesn’t really have a political “point of view.” Instead, it makes everybody think about the present political situation but we’ll probably reach different conclusions about it just as we reach different conclusions about the real world.
That seems about right to me. THE DARK KNIGHT appears confused to Alterman because it is not designed to endorse a clear-cut agenda, in which the plot works out perfectly because a character adheres to a certain set of prinicples (unlike, say, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, in which the naive scientist is killed off by the alien while the military defeats the invader). DARK KNIGHT does not preach an easy moral: “Do this and everything will work out okay.” Instead, the screenplay takes its premise and plays it out wherever it leads, with the characters scrambling to deal with an antagonist who is too clever for them, whose very philosophy challenges their assumptions and tactics, rendering them impotent. “Fascism” and “Libertarianism” are not actually endorsed by the filmmakers; the ideas are dramatically embodied by the characters and their actions.
For example, Harvey Dent, when discussing his mission to clean up Gotham, cites Julius Cesare, approvingly, only to have Rachel remind him that Roman strong-arm tactics eventually led to military dictatorship. Likewise, Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon believe that heroes are needed to save Gotham – and if Batman is not the quite right pill for the prescription, then Harvey Dent is; their belief, however, is contradicted by the narrative itself, although they never seem to realize it.
Yglesias is also correct that different people will read different interpretations into the material. Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman believes that THE DARK KNIGHT reflects Dick Cheney’s approach to foreign policy, with the Caped Crusader seeing himself as a reluctant warrior forced into action by an inexplicable villain. The difference is that Batman worries over the moral and ethical dilemmas that face him, whereas Cheney and company never doubt their moral righteousness, believing that the ends justify any means, however despicable.
Ackerman’s view overlooks the Western element of THE DARK KNIGHT’s plot. Batman is a little bit like a gun-fighter in an old Western: his existence makes sense because he exists in a world where law and order do not keep violence at bay. The Western celebrates the exploits of brave men who shoot fast, but the Sheriff or Marshall who faces off with the Bad Guy in a showdown is ultimately trying to put himself out of business. The goal is to tame the Wild West, so that justice may be administered in the courtroom by a judge and jury, not in the middle of the street with guns blazing.
Batman is not a gun-slinger, but he serves a similar function; his actions are justified by his lawless environment. Gotham may not quite be a frontier town, but it is so corrupt that a legitimate lawman like Jim Gordon cannot successfully do his job. In this context, where organized crime has infiltrated institutions intended to protect citizens, it becomes necessary for Bruce Wayne to wear the cape and cowl, acting outside the law. Nevertheless, Batman ultimately serves the law: he works in close alliance with Gordon, counterbalancing the unfair disadvantages handicapping the policeman.
With the advent of Harvey Dent, however, Batman seems obsolete. Dent is not just out to catch low-level street thugs: he wants to prosecute the big fish; in doing so, he plans to wipe out the corruption undermining Gotham, and unlike Bruce Wayne, he can operate in daylight, with his face exposed to the public. In other words, Dent fits the role of traditional hero; he represents what Batman has been fighting to achieve – the rise of a more peaceful form of civil authority – a legal prosecutor who can replace the violent gunfighter. If Dent succeeds, Gordon and the rest of the police force will be able to do their jobs, and Batman can go back to being Bruce Wayne – the equivalent of the gunfighter hanging up his six-shooter.
That Batman would like to do this is in no doubt; rather than cling to power, Wayne is eager to retire. Unlike the Bush administration, it is clear that Wayne does not anticipate an unending war that will permanently justify an expansion of his powers. In fact, in a subplot that riffs off of the domestic spying issue, Batman deliberately puts his surveillance power in the hands of the one man who objects to it morally, and Batman also provides him with the code that will self-destruct the device when its purpose has been served. This is precisely the opposite of the Bush-Cheney approach, in which crisis and emergency are not only embraced but deliberately prolonged as a an excuse for maintaining a grip on power. (Have you seen George Bush trying to rescind his expanded wiretapping powers – without warrants -or trying to permanently codify them into law, along with the help of Congress?)
BATMAN = BUSH?
Going a step further – or more accurately, going off the deep end – the Wall Street Journal posted an opinion piece by mystery novelist Andrew Klavan entitled “What Bush and Batman Have in Common.” Klavan is so specious in his reasoning that he does not warrant a line-by-line take-down (in spite of its reportorial excellence, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has long been a joke); however, it is interesting to see the simple-minded conservative arguments trotted out as if they were philosophical first principles to be accepted without debate. Klavan believes that THE DARK KNIGHT has made a fortune because it is a conservative film, but he offers a lament in the guise of a rhetorical question, asking why conservative values “like morality, faith, self-sacrifice, and the nobility of fighting for the right” appear only under the guise of fantasy.
The first part of the answer to the question is obvious: morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right are not conservative values by any stretch of the imagination. The second part of the answer is almost equally obvious: fantasy films offer a venue for artists to expound upon ideas that are open to interpretation, so that audiences with different viewpoints can read what they want into them; to a large extent, this is the essence of popular art – creating something that can be enjoyed by everyone. The third part of the answer may be less obvious, but it is equally important: if your world view makes sense only in the context of a movie about hobbits, fairies, or superheroes, you probably should not try to apply it to the real world.
Typically, Klavan’s distinction between moral relativism and moral absolutism is not well defined. What it amounts to is: if we do it, then it’s right, because we’re the Good Guys. Consequently, things that are wrong on some occasions may be right on other occasions (i.e., when we are doing them). This hardly qualifies as absolutism. In fact, it is almost a dictionary definition of relativism: it all depends on circumstances, and we’re willing to break a few rules and do a few bad things, because it’s not quite as bad as some of the consequences would be otherwise.
THE DARK KNIGHT plays with the idea of how far one is willing to bend the rules in times of emergency, but for the most part the film is a depiction of Batman’s failure to defeat the Joker with these “get tough” measures. The film invites us to cheer when Gordon, a police officer, allows Batman, a vigilante, to interrogate the Joker, because we know Batman can kick his ass in the way that the official police could not, but the effort proves a total failure. The audience may enjoy a vicarious thrill at Batman’s extra-legal measures, but taking off the velvet gloves is useless against the Joker’s brand of villainy; getting down and dirty only plays into his scheme, such as it is.
AGENT OF CHAOS
The problem is that Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent underestimate and misunderstand their opponent, treating him like a conventional criminal – which he is not. The Joker does not have a conventional criminal agenda (the accumulation of wealth and power) because he knows these things are ephemeral. To the wounded Dent, he claims to be an Agent of Chaos, and I cannot help believing that this is a deliberate reference to Norman Spinrad’s science fiction novel of that title. Agent of Chaos is a sort of alternate spin on the dystopian novel as exemplified by Orwell’s 1984, in which the power of political oppression seemed undefeatable; Spinrad, unlike Orwell, tells us that chaos ultimately wins out over order. In the novel, the forces of chaos are represented by an anarchic organization (a contradiction in terms, perhaps) called the Brotherhood of Assassins, who seek to undermine the prevailing political establishment, which is corrupt and deserves to be destroyed.
Seen from this point of view, the Joker bears some similarity to the revolutionary title character in V FOR VENDETTA – another trickster outwitting powerful establishment forces. The difference is that in V FOR VENDETTA, the corrupt, Fascist establishment clearly deserved to be brought down by any means necessary. Gotham, on the other hand, is not so far gone that it is necessary to destroy it in order to save it. Batman, Dent, and Gordon all hope they can weed out the bad elements while leaving the essential structure intact: they do not want to destroy the existing order; they want to replace it with a new and improved version.
What the Joker seems to know (although he never states it outright) is the lesson that Spinrad taught in Agent of Chaos: the tendency toward entropy – toward chaos – will ultimately overwhelm any social order, which is always temporary in nature. Batman, Gordon, and Dent may fight to replace Gotham’s corrupt system, but their victories can be at best temporary.
What makes the Joker so dangerous is that he is not trying to create a social order of his own; there is no Master Plan to unravel because his only aim is to make things unravel. His agenda, if he has one at all, is to corrupt the forces that are trying to save Gotham.* This goal becomes most obvious in the character of Dent, the fair-haired golden boy who represents the legitimate, official counterpart to Batman’s vigilantism. Dent is the guy who theoretically can accomplish what Batman is trying to do. However, the Joker throws a monkey wrench into the works, turning Harvey toward evil – or at least destroying his sense of justice, so that nothing is left but a will toward revenge and a belief in the random, arbitrary nature of events – hence his reliance on a flipping a coin to decide who lives and dies.
The film forshadows Dent’s transformation into Two-Face with a scene where he threatens a helpless, mentally deficient suspect with a gun; the scene reminds the viewer that even the best of us has a dark side that can be dangerous if it goes unchecked. The message is that the world cannot depend on “heroes,” who are merely human and may fall from grace. We must depend upon principles. There is no force strong enough to police everyone all the time; people themselves – the public at large – are the ultimate source of a stable society. They don’t need to be saved so much as they need a fair shot at not being sand-bagged by evil forces, whether common criminals, uncommon criminals (like the Joker), or organized criminals.
The point is made quite dramatically in the the dilemma the Joker forces upon two boats in Gotham harbor, each rigged to blow up if the passengers do not blow up the other boat first. This is the Joker’s way of proving a point – that self-interest will override morality in a crisis – but it turns out to be the one genuine defeat he suffers in the film. The “heroes” who save the day are not Batman, Dent, or Gordon; they are two men on the boats who (for different reason) either refuse or simply cannot bring themselves to push the button. Batman doesn’t do it. Harvey Dent doesn’t do it. Jim Gordon doesn’t do it. Just two guys who find themselves in a bad situation but make the right decision.
A RAY OF SUNSHINE IN THE NOIR
It is here, only here, that THE DARK KNIGHT finds a small glimmer of hope. Yes, the Joker (who manifests an unspoken death-wish) concedes defeat in his attempt to force Batman to kill him, but the real victory belongs to the anonymous populace. The Joker – like another unidentified criminal mastermind, the pseudonymous John Smith in SEVEN – is trying to teach the world a lesson; like other examples of oracular evil (MANHUNTER’s Hannibal Lektor, MR FROST’s title character, the Gemini Killer in THE EXORCIST III), the Joker offers a dark but compelling philosophy filled with both cynicism and insight; the combination is designed to evoke despair, but inspite of all his best effort, a flicker of human decency defeats him.
That the victory belongs not to Batman is made clear in the key image of the film: while Batman dangles the Joker upside down from the side of of a building, the camera revolves 180-degrees until his face looks right-side-up in the frame. In effect, the camera has adopted the Joker’s frame of reference: Batman has not turned him upside down; the Joker has turned the Batman’s world upside down.
This is not the sort of resolution that yields an easily digestible “moral to the story.” And the film provides a final turn of the screw in the form of a plot twist regarding the demise of Two-Face, in which Batman and Gordon make an ill-fated decision in order to preserve Dent’s heroic image. Even after all they have seen and experienced, the two men still place their faith in a worldview that (they should now realize) has been rendered topsy-turvy. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, they refuse to render Dent “that justice which was his due,” instead perpetuating a comforting lie, allegedly for the public good.
If THE DARK KNIGHT has anything definite to say, it is that a handful of men working in secret and without accountability are not the answer to the world’s problems; however well intentioned, their efforts are doomed because the chaotic forces at work in the universe are too big to be controlled. Real hope rises from the bottom up, not from overlords who make decisions on our behalf. Moments of heroism may arrive in unexpected places, but the mantel of hero is no guarantee of success. Batman cannot save us; we can only hope to save ourselves.
- Judging from his actions if not his words, the Joker also hopes to commit “Suicide by Batman,” but this may be considered part of his agenda to corrupt the forces of good in the film.