It sounds strange to say a superhero movie constitutes a serious comment about the War on Terror. But that’s what The Dark Knight is, and it is understandable if people find themselves unnerved by its apologies for sweeping police powers or a vision of justice framed in starkly militaristic terms.
In what follows, I want to address those concerns not so much because of the film but because of the film’s thoughtfulness. It seems to me that it approaches hard questions with especial sensitivity. Then I want to go further, as this country has been deranged in large part because of the War on Terror. (This is Spencer Ackerman’s thought, which will be detailed in his forthcoming book. Follow him on Twitter and preorder his book.) Is it possible to see in the way The Dark Knight treats the subject what has created our present predicament? I submit the film’s presentation of political problems does not map cleanly onto our problems, but there are moments of insight. Still, it’s impossible to envision the Joker telling Batman that he should drink bleach to cure COVID-19 or that wearing a protective face mask makes him less of a man because the Joker is not an idiot. He doesn’t take his instruction from the television or a pulpit which wishes to broadcast above all things.
The film opens with the force and shock of a window being violently shattered. We are then shown who shattered it: a man in a clown mask, calmly readying his cable gun for his next action. He and his fellow robber slide down a cable from that high window to the roof of a bank. It doesn’t look like either have the slightest hesitation as they fly from building to building.
We’re introduced to other murderous clown criminals, a ground team. They also move with military precision. They enter the bank and spend a few seconds surveying the situation. Then they set to work quickly. One fires a small machine gun burst in a location which will echo, freezing everyone inside. Another moves to the opposite side of the bank, flanking the customers and staff.
The clowns demonstrate impressive technical expertise. About two minutes after the smashed window, the bank’s alarm is down. The “alarm guy” is immediately murdered by his fellow robber, who skillfully drills through the vault door. The vault unlocker is murdered by the one who moved to keep the customers and bank staff in line. Even the getaway driver, who runs over that last clown and shows no awareness of what happened to his fellow robbers, makes his entrance on time.
One might see the robbers as a parody of capitalist culture. Later in the movie, Joker jokes about his organization being “small” but having “potential for aggressive expansion.” I grant there is a critique of capitalism here, but don’t believe it alone does full justice to what we’re watching. The United States of America has teams of soldiers who can execute complicated raids in mere minutes. It’s useful to ask what the robbers feel they are accomplishing. Each one wants as much money as possible; the silent implication is that each believes they deserve the largest share possible. Each is skilled, capable, and has practiced his craft. We are seeing soldiers of a sort at work–it’s much easier to think of the robbers as soldiers if we recall the phrase “spoils of war.”
Joker is emphatically not one of the clowns he encourages to kill each other. The deaths of the clowns are near bloodless; the bank in which most of the action takes place is a rich, elegant interior. When Joker reveals his scars and patchy makeup in order to say “whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” the effect is jarring. He reveals his scars for a specific purpose. The bank manager whom he’s wounded has watched all the other clowns murder each other and loudly proclaims that criminals once stood for something. That they had “honor” and “respect.” Joker’s reveal and comment shut down that discussion completely. Nothing like it ever explicitly happens in the film again.
What the film does engage is the problem of assuming power and the psychic costs of violence. Its hero, Bruce Wayne, only comes to awareness of the problem in stages and in the end does not fully understand it. His partial understanding is still awesome and most necessary. In the scene introducing Batman, fake volunteer Batmen who want to take their city back try to attack Scarecrow and a Chechen gangster during a drug deal. Batman has to stop the fake Batmen from shooting guns, protect them from the dogs of the gangster, and apprehend who he can. The scene is heavy on the toll being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne. He gets bitten by at least one of the dogs; he hits a wall while trying to attach himself to a moving van; he stops Scarecrow by jumping from a high level of the parking garage onto that van, using the weight of his suit like a wrecking ball.
Batman is power. Bruce Wayne tells us that “Batman has no limits,” and it is clear he enjoys the thrill of pushing himself to become Batman. Maybe more importantly, he understands morality primarily by trying to be Batman. This can be a trap. Asked by one of the fake Batmen why he alone can act as a vigilante–“What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?”–Wayne’s answer, “I’m not wearing hockey pads,” does not inspire confidence. Truth be told, he’s right on a deeper level. What Bruce Wayne properly speaking wears is a mask for the sake of inspiring a greater good. To that end, he has rules. He will not take a life, not even Joker’s at the end of the film. But Wayne can’t explain this in the least to the fake Batmen; he can only complain to Alfred later that people aren’t being inspired the way he hoped. At the least, he could have explicitly stated that he doesn’t use guns.
Moreover, he fails to credit what he actually has inspired. The fake Batmen take punishment during the busted drug deal that Batman would have taken. One of them is hit with a direct dose of Scarecrow’s drug. It isn’t hard to believe this was meant for Batman himself. Further, because the dogs jumped on one of the other Batmen, Batman escapes the brunt of their attack. When Joker kidnaps one of the Batmen and mockingly asks why he’s dressed that way, he tells Joker that Batman is a symbol that he doesn’t have to be afraid of scum. One might say this is too crude, but it’s effectively Bruce Wayne’s own rationale, where he confronts his fear by actively fighting it.
Bruce Wayne’s incomplete understanding isn’t attributable to a simple character flaw like “greed” or “lack of maturity.” The problem is near the same as the small time crooks Joker hired and encouraged to kill each other. When Batman retrieved Lau from his fortified skyscraper in Hong Kong, what struck me was how he flew from building to building, how he too disabled alarms, how he had a getaway vehicle. In short, he ran his own bank heist with military precision. But when Gordon had previously asked whether the Joker, who did set up his own men to die, should be a priority, Bruce Wayne answered that they could get the entire mob and Joker could wait. The callousness toward the lives of “small timers” is gross and unjustifiable, though somewhat understandable. It is true the mob is plenty murderous and a lot of lives could be spared or improved if it collapses. But it’s also true that Batman’s infatuation with his technical expertise has led to a narrowmindedness which reduces justice to a matter of a mere plan. Since his and Gordon’s plan was to take down the mob, stick with it, even if bodies are piling up elsewhere. This mirrors the Joker’s exact complaint to Dent later in the film–no one cares if a “truckload of soldiers” dies if its part of the “plan”–and it inspires Dent to embrace his hatred and kill without remorse.
I don’t know if “pride” is quite the right word for what I’ve been describing. It has connotations of “sin” which mark the bearer of pride as needing redemption. I think that’s more likely true of the small time crooks, even though Batman should not have been as cavalier about their deaths. I don’t think the problem Bruce Wayne is dealing with is simple in the least. He is trying to be his best with Batman. If he doesn’t have significant accomplishments as a vigilante, if he doesn’t become a symbol, a legend, what is it all worth? One might say it was presumptuous to assume so much power in the first place, but that ignores the hand he was dealt. Batman is a most necessary aid to the one good cop, a cop who doesn’t seem to judge his fellow cops. Batman, as initially conceived in the Nolan trilogy, is an attempt to give back to Jim Gordon.
The entire film moves at a frantic pace; nearly everything is a response to the Joker’s plans, his attempt to push Gotham into madness. His methods are quite literally terrorism. Assassinations of prominent officials; videos in which hostages are tortured and killed on camera; continual public threats so as to keep others on edge.
It is notable that Batman’s attempts to torture Joker–and Maroni, for that matter–do not work. After Joker has been punched quite a few times in the interrogation room, Joker just laughs that much more. Batman clearly wants to hit him more but holds off. The Dark Knight does evince some skepticism about the efficacy of torture.
Where the film delves into far murkier territory is with regard to police powers and surveillance. Are the “lightly irradiated bills” Batman has given Gordon good for privacy and civil liberties? Obviously not. And should Batman be listening in to a host of conversations or using the entire phone network to track one criminal? These are gross abuses of power. The film gets around this by giving us a Batman who is singular in purpose and “incorruptible,” as Joker himself says. He has the device most destructive of liberty self-destruct once its use has been served. One can also argue that the drug money of the mob gives them far too much power. They have bought a good portion of the police force, and the Joker only unleashes a remorseless, murderous intent already within the mob. That Gotham city’s mob sits on tens of billions only underscores the scope of the problem: there isn’t anything beyond their corruption or their desire to dominate others.
I do not see the film as an endorsement of the Patriot Act. I see it as engaging this counterfactual: if someone were incorruptible, and that someone saw a judge and police commissioner get murdered, a mayor nearly get assassinated, a number of cops and civilians die, an explosive assault on a jail, a DA get murdered, and a mass evacuation of hospitals, all accompanied by terrorist threats and hostage videos, then maybe that someone would create a device to track the terrorist causing all that havoc and have the device promptly self-destruct. A lot rides on the integrity of Bruce Wayne, and he doesn’t disappoint. By implication, those without this sort of integrity need to steer clear from even conceiving such measures. I also see this. There are plenty of Punisher skulls among certain factions eager to continue the War on Terror, so much so they have trouble recognizing the citizenship and full humanity of others in their country. But this Batman, while certainly no civil liberties advocate, is far too humane a figure for them. The essential point is this: he doesn’t kill. (You could rightly argue that he should be a lot more concerned about keeping people out of jail and far more sensitive to what he has in common with murderous psychotic freaks, but that’s another argument entirely.)
Why does the Joker want to break Gotham? The two stories he tells before he’s about to slash Gamble and Rachel Dawes to death have a key commonality: the feeling of being nothing but collateral damage. Whether it was an abusive father slicing up a mother then turning on a child, or a marriage gone terribly wrong, he voices terror at being neglected, at being good for nothing except receiving pain. The film has him recruit those with a tenuous grip on reality–Batman in the most derisive tone calls one a “paranoid schizophrenic”–and it is abundantly clear that the war to make Gotham’s streets safer occurs with little or no regard for who gets hurt in the crossfire. Joker sees Batman as the ultimate joke. Someone empowered by the law yet beyond it, someone empowered by schemes and plans and somehow finding dignity. This is not the case for 99.9% of Gotham; “the soul of Gotham,” what Joker declares he’s fighting for, would be a lot more honest if it simply embraced “madness.” Gotham’s extreme class inequality, even prior to the third movie, creates the problem that Bruce Wayne can violate all the laws he likes in the name of a greater good while those wearing hockey pads can draw inspiration and still get arrested and murdered.
Joker experiences a most existential terror. Justice is nothing but people making plans for him, and if that’s the case, why not come up with crazy terrorist schemes that work and call that justice? Can’t be much crazier than dressing up as a bat to fight crime. His disciple is Two Face, whom he turned from “I make my own luck” to “the only thing approximating fairness in the universe is random chance.” Two Face’s attempt to hurt Gordon at the end of the film can feel shrill–we all know the death of Rachel Dawes was a loss for him and Bruce Wayne–but the complaints he speaks there demonstrate the deeper problem with trying to make Gotham lawful. Two Face feels like he was lied to, and he’s absolutely right. It’s Gordon’s cops, the ones he wanted to get off the force, who betrayed him and Rachel Dawes to the mob. He feels that the burden of pain landed disproportionately on him, and it’s notable that Bruce Wayne doesn’t angrily yell at him, but looks at a man blown half to pieces and says he’s not the only one who lost.
The project to make Gotham lawful and just requires more than a powerful police department and DA willing to stand up to the mob. It requires enormous sensitivity. What of people who were corrupt cops because they had to pay hospital bills? What about schizophrenics unable to get help? What about orphans like Bruce Wayne? What about criminals who wanted to steal something but got their face smashed in by Batman? It’s the fact that sensitivity can’t even be addressed–everything is “you’re either lawful or you’re not,” “you have or you don’t”–that makes the Joker’s and Two Face’s anger potent. It is in this spirit that Bruce Wayne decides Batman deserves to be hunted, that a continual war against crime is unsustainable. But this does nothing to address the very real injustices and losses people have already suffered. It isn’t entirely clear Bruce Wayne can articulate the sufferings of others, though he’s far more aware of them by movie’s end.
In this concluding section, I want to focus on how The Dark Knight can and cannot speak to our present situation. It does depict a more or less militarized police force working with a super solider of sorts. It depicts a terroristic threat which gets even Jim Gordon panicked (witness how eager he is for his snipers to shoot those dressed as Joker’s henchmen).
Yet it also backs away from the idea that extreme militarization solves everything. Batman stands down at the end of The Dark Knight. He wants to be hunted, he wants the city to have a symbol of justice tied to what is legal, not extra legal. In the third film, the authoritarian, draconian measures we learn were passed in Harvey Dent’s name do not necessarily follow from the story of The Dark Knight. More than once in this film Alfred says the mob was pushed too far, and the inequality leading people, including cops, to become criminals is evident to the audience and not endorsed by any of the main characters. I do believe, as I’ve outlined above, the possibility for a richer discussion of justice exists by film’s end.
Where we are now as a country is a combination of factors: 1) white supremacy as a potent force in US politics 2) a culture of grift and grifters indulged by American evangelism 3) the War on Terror and its attendant habits of dehumanization 4) incredible concentrations of wealth which by their very nature shatter democratic processes. I think it is quite remarkable that The Dark Knight can speak to two of these factors with insight. I think I’ve said plenty about dehumanization. It’s time now to speak of Bruce Wayne as a potential reformer.
This is where things get tricky. Nolan’s trilogy indulges the notion that Bruce Wayne depends on being Batman, and it is true he does not put in the work of being Bruce Wayne. Most of what we see of Wayne in The Dark Knight is a pose. Sleeping during board meetings, acting like a boor in front his Russian ballerina date, pretending to Jim Gordon that he was trying to beat a traffic light instead of intentionally ramming a potential killer.
The only time we see him vulnerable is with regard to Rachel Dawes, but he barely talks to her anymore. He’s possessive, but his love for her is complicated. On the one hand, he doesn’t deal with rejection or loss well. She’s a childhood friend and he’s obsessed with the memory of his parents. On the other, they’re both passionate about justice, and he does feel like his extralegal endeavors are meant to complement the work she and Jim Gordon do. He’s imagining her to be someone she isn’t, and while this has unmistakable overtones of “Bruce Wayne needs to grow up” about it, I’d be lying if I said imagining people to be something they’re not had nothing to do with love.
One of the things that’s striking about our ultrarich, the billionaires at the very top, is how little they know about anything. By this I don’t mean they can’t speak about problems. They certainly have views about space travel, what city is giving them the best deal on their HQ, employee productivity, and testifying before Congress. Bruce Wayne contrasts favorably with them. He does care about his city, and it goes without saying that he believes destroying organized crime will improve the lot of all Gotham’s citizens.
But a vague awareness of “if this is gone, your life will improve” isn’t much different in spirit than “we’re both devoted to the same cause. We must love each other, right?” There’s a lack of attentiveness to individuals. Wayne doesn’t really pay attention to Rachel Dawes or any of the numerous women he parties with. In the third movie, he begins to address this deficit. It’s a little detail, one easily skipped, but when he emerges from the pit he’s been trapped in, he makes sure a rope is thrown down for the other prisoners to climb up.
To see others as individuals is more than listening or even embracing their causes. It’s attention to how they become who they want to be. Throughout the trilogy, Bruce Wayne pays this sort of attention to his enemies. His ninja training is primarily from Ra’s Al Ghul; when the SWAT team tells him to stand down, he borrows a move from Joker, who threw Rachel Dawes out the window to get away. Knowing all the SWAT are tied together by a cable, he throws one off so they all dangle by a cable from the building.
I would imagine if someone could learn so deeply from their enemies, they couldn’t possibly shatter democratic processes. The truth is, though, that Bruce Wayne has a lot to learn about being a good citizen despite the amount he gives. And if that’s true for Batman, alarm bells should be ringing continually regarding those sitting on piles of money who have never thought of sacrificing for others, but think others should be sacrificed for their sake.