How Christopher Nolan made Batman grow up

by Leon Saunders Calvert Volume 14, Issue 8 / August 2010 28 minutes (6867 words)

Action films tend largely to be a genre aimed at a male audience offering identification with a protagonist who physically masters the world around him/her and feeds into simplistic omnipotent fantasy. For this reason a majority are simply puerile and few escape the confines of being just a ‘guilty pleasure’. The Christopher Nolan Batman films surpass genre expectations. They offer richness of character and ideas even if they appear to be superficially just action spectacles. I will argue that the films were successful both because of and in spite of the intelligence and thought which went into making them and the ideologies they explore, express and even exploit.

Both films meet, and in some ways set, big budget Hollywood standards in terms of technical production in everything from the score and sound to visual effects and cinematography, yet the filmmakers found a way to inject real emotional, psychological, political and moral significance.

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Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, aka Batman

Batman Begins

The re-launch of the Batman franchise by Christopher Nolan has brought two films which are clearly a result of the same creative minds, but whereas the first film is focused primarily on the personal, the psychological birth and evolution of a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime, the second is wider in scope looking at the existence of the Batman within a political and social context. Both films were critically and commercially well received but The Dark Knight proved to be so successful on both accounts that Batman Begins has almost been demoted to merely being a scene setter for a superior sequel. However, I think that the first film has significant merits that warrant examination as a work in and of itself.

Omnipotence/Impotence & The Search for a Father

The psychological plausibility that the film offers can be demonstrated best by treating the character of Bruce Wayne as a textual case study to whom we can apply psychoanalytic theory. One of the most interesting themes of the film is the exploration of omnipotence and the opposite side of the same coin, impotence, and how this feeds into Bruce Wayne’s development and thoughts about crime. Freud posited that all babies are born thinking of themselves as representing the universe. Children continue to fantasize about, and struggle to come to terms with, omnipotence (or the lack thereof) and true maturity in adulthood can be represented by an understanding of the real power one possesses, which is likely to be comparatively small but important, genuine rather than imagined or wished for, and partially malleable. In dealing with these issues whilst still a child, a person will project this sense of omnipotence on to their guardians, in part to help relieve themselves from the stress of the dangers of the world and this projection of power is usually focused most prominently on the father. Batman Begins presents Bruce Wayne as a child in very much this state of mind. The view of his father is as an entirely idolized paternal being (moral, wise, caring, strong, etc.). He is unable to grow out of this fantasy of his father’s perfection due to the immortalization of the image caused by the killing of the father and arrested development of Bruce’s omnipotence complex. This omnipotence and its twin, impotence, occupies Bruce’s view of himself (he blames himself for his parent’s death in a moving scene in which he declares his misplaced sense of responsibility whilst simultaneously being utterly powerless to stop it). Bruce finds a new father figure in the form of Ducard, who seems to offer him the solution of actual omnipotence by turning him into nothing short of a super being, and it is Ducard who recognizes Bruce’s omnipotence fantasy, “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things,” and actually addresses this directly. Ducard understands Bruce’s misguided but psychologically natural assumption to blame himself, “You have learned to bury your guilt with anger. I will teach you to confront it, and to face the truth.” Ducard tells him that not only was the death of his father not Bruce’s fault but that it was actually his father’s fault. The effect this has is to directly confront Bruce’s omnipotence fantasy, not by addressing him but by tainting the image of paternal perfection which sits behind this fantasy and is utterly intertwined with it. The truth content about this statement is questionable of course, blaming the victim of violent crime for not acting to defend himself successfully, but the power of this statement is to shake the foundations of Bruce’s arrested development in relation to his father, releasing the unconscious guilt associated with his father who was in Bruce’s mind omnipotent. This can then, in turn, liberate him, allowing him to disassociate himself entirely from the blame of the murder, and allow him to grow out of his omnipotence fantasy and begin to realize his true power which he can learn to master and indeed inflate in his enemies’ eyes through manipulation of his environment. This psychological growth also allows him to defy Ducard, his new mentor and father figure, and indeed Bruce’s true understanding of his well-honed powers and skills allows him also to save Ducard in the face of certain death, in some way atoning for his inability to do this for his actual father.

Following on from this, Bruce’s psychological development allows him to seek father figures who represent qualities of intelligence, dignity and kindness in the form of Alfred, Lucias Fox and Lieutenant Gordon. His search for a replacement father figure is ongoing but is now kept in check by Bruce’s own moral development and his understanding of his real father.

Crime, Fear & Justice

Batman Begins explores the debilitating psychological effects of violent crime on the victim and the mental strain and stunting repercussions of living in fear. “The killing of [Bruce Wayne’s] parents – a significant aspect of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie – is depicted in a clipped, almost perfunctory scene; instead we dwell on the killing’s aftermath.” [1] The film also explores various factors which cause crime, mostly focused on the social, poverty and extreme economic inequality (see below section on capitalism), and the psychological, fear. As Bruce’s father is quick to point out following Bruce’s fall and encounter with bats, “You know why they attacked you don’t you? They were afraid of you. All creatures feel fear…Especially the scary ones.” Violence, aggression and intimidation is viewed as a product of the projection of one’s own fears, insecurities and perceived victimhood. The finale of the film in which the narrows of Gotham City are caked in toxic weaponised fear gas, demonstrates this by having the inhabitants of the streets turn on each other violently rather than everyone cowering in the corner.

Despite examining these causes the film takes an unequivocal, zero tolerance view of crime and does not subscribe to the notion that because it might be partly a result of poverty and inequality that the criminals themselves are blameless and that instead the fault lies with the ‘system’. To quote Joe Chill, the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, who directly references this form of thinking in his speech to the court prior to his release from prison, “Your honor, not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could take back what I did. Sure, I was desperate – like a lot of people back then – but that don’t change what I did.” The approach to dealing with crime that the film most consistently appraises is expressed through the voice of Ducard whilst mentoring Bruce Wayne, “Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding…There are those without decency who must be fought without hesitation, without pity.” Batman’s central personal philosophy and raison d’être can be summed up in his own words, “To turn fear against those who would prey on the fearful.” As Bruce Wayne the child he came face to face with aggression, intimidation and violence, and the psychologically paralyzing effects of inaction and impotence have haunted him since. It is the antithesis of this to which he aspires and dedicates himself – to be able to be proactive and definitive when faced with an aggressor and to do this on behalf of those who are unable to. He immerses himself in criminal life to try to come to terms with criminal mentality, on the basis that knowledge reduces fear (“You’ve travelled the world to understand the criminal mind and conquer your fears. But a criminal is not complicated”), and his subsequent training with Ducard is geared towards having both the mental strength to overcome fear and the physical skills which allow him to change the balance of power in his favor, out-intimidate his opponent and wrestle control of the situation from the instigator and perpetrator of the aggression. “Wayne, consciously knits his neuroses into a weaponised identity so as to fight fear with fear. [This offers a] degree of psychological plausibility.” [2] It is little wonder that the working script for Batman Begins was given the name ‘Intimidation Game’. Interestingly this is the central tenet of a whole stream of reality-based martial arts which have become more popular in the last few years and which often incorporate pressure testing drills to simulate a real life, violent encounter to try to address the mental as well as physical strains of conflict.

One of the successes of the film in my opinion is the articulation, through the creation by Bruce Wayne of Batman, of the fear, perhaps particularly a male one, of the potential inability to act appropriately to defend oneself or loved ones when faced with the threat of physical confrontation. More than being a particularly male fear this may be even more specific to the members of the so called generation X which, as per Tyler Durden’s philosophy in Fight Club, have not been faced with a world war against which to test themselves so most remain untested their whole lives. “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives… Start a fight. Prove you’re alive… When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.” This is both a blessing (to have never to be in a position to be tested) and a curse, as we live in fear of potential impotence that may one day be revealed. Batman Begins taps into this angst and layers it with psychoanalytic overtones which are intertwined with this fear.

There is often a lie told by male society that the issue around which this angst is focused, whether one will be able to do what is necessary when faced with confrontation, is representative of the ‘real’ person. Whilst the rituals of inauthenticity are dropped in times of extreme danger we should not be convinced that the real person is not who one is every day and that this is forever hidden unless confronted by an in immediate violent threat, or indeed that the real person is not represented by how one acts in other important times of need, such as comforting a loved one in bereavement or dealing with a threat which is real but not immediate and requires analysis and strategy rather than physical prowess to counter.

To illustrate this in the film, the split between Bruce Wayne and Batman is necessitated. Bruce creates for himself a superficial playboy personality which prevents him from being able to offer the kind of support required by Rachel Dawes in her everyday life beyond her limited (but important) need for protection from violence. This is most obviously demonstrated in her friendly but chastising comment to him as they meet in the hotel that he has just decided to buy, “It’s not who you are underneath that counts, it’s what you do that defines you.” By the end of the film Rachel recognises that all Bruce’s energy is devoted to ensuring defence and protection against physical aggression and has to tell him that they cannot be together until he is able to give Batman up. The devotion to conquering the fear of impotence requires too much of Bruce and he has to sacrifice being a ‘regular’ supportive person of the kind that she needs in a real relationship to continue to offer support to those in extreme circumstances. In other words, Bruce sacrifices engagement in a mature intimate relationship. This sacrifice is re-evaluated and put to the test in The Dark Knight.

Having carefully articulated the psychological factors which will lead to Bruce’s philosophy of out-intimidating aggressors, the film takes some pains to ensure that Bruce can differentiate himself and his actions morally from those he seeks to fight.

This is partly arrived at and explored through the notion of justice and it is Rachel Dawes’ character which is central to Bruce’s development in this area. It is she who invokes Bruce’s father, stating that he would be ashamed of Bruce when the latter attempts (and fails) to exact revenge for his parents death by killing Joe Chill. It is Rachel who is unequivocal that revenge and justice are never the same thing, clearly in direct contrast to the ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy of the right wing mentality. She acknowledges that while the criminal justice system is not perfect it is morally superior to simple retaliation and vigilantism. These are the teachings which Bruce takes with him to the Far East and which he invokes and allows him to resist Ducard’s philosophy.

Capitalism

As noted by Mark Fisher in his essay “Gothic Oedipus: Subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins,” [3] there is an undercurrent running through the film which takes a critical view towards capitalism. It is not fully articulated in the text of the movie but is worth exploring. It is implied that unrestrained capitalism is the cause of the inequality and polarisation of wealth distribution which is clearly a problem in Gotham City. The Narrows, an island in the middle of the Gotham River which is home to Arkham Asylum, represents the worst of the poverty stricken social underclass. The relationship between low income and crime is both assumed and stated throughout the picture.

Furthermore the ‘capitalists,’ or those characters that seem to define the ideology, to whom we have access in the film, particularly Earle, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, demonstrate a disregard for corporate social responsibility. Earle criticises the questioning of heavy arms as the cornerstone of the company and stresses that his and the boards’ responsibility is solely to shareholders, even at the expense of society. The function of the stock markets is implicitly undermined as we are invited to cheer at Wayne’s manipulation of the initial public offering of his company in which he miraculously ends up being able to afford to become the majority shareholder, “through various charitable foundations and trusts and so forth. Look, it’s all a bit technical, but the important thing is that my company’s future is secure.” However improbable this outcome, it is one that appears to defeat Earle and his market fundamentalist ethos. The implication is that Wayne Enterprises can continue the magnanimous route forged and fostered by the Wayne family now that it is not subject to the whims of public shareholders and is still effectively in private hands. Practically it also means that Bruce can continue to get away with using the company as his own personal R&D lab for Batman gadgets. Of course private, as opposed to state, ownership of companies, especially those providing defence, utilities and infrastructure services as does Wayne Enterprises, is a fundamental staple of capitalism. The film then does not offer a clear and outright criticism of capitalism itself in all its forms, although it can perhaps be described as critical of unfettered capitalism. I might argue that it is a particularly American notion to emphasise morality as being entirely personal rather than social. The US has a minimal, problematic and disdainful relationship with socially focused political history which means that criticisms of capitalism or inequality are addressed via reference to evil or greedy individuals rather than to a lack of a social or political infrastructure or welfare to which all (including capitalism and capitalists) should be subject as members of society. In this regard Batman Begins is a very American text.

The Dark Knight

On its release, a common piece of praise for The Dark Knight was that one would come out of the cinema exhausted. This was generally held to be partly because the film had a number of very exciting and superbly executed action scenes but also as a result of the emotional turmoil induced in the audience. The film plays out a series of moral conundrums and unthinkably difficult psychological choices which the characters must deal with and with which we struggle. Christopher Nolan has grown so expert at the filmmaking process that he is able to create the blend of visual imagery and musical score to create something mesmerising and almost hypnotic, much like Michael Mann, a conscious and stated influence on the director and film. The skilful manipulation of different story strands means that Nolan creates a climax in which the stakes and level of excitement could hardly be higher (Batman must catch the Joker, deal with his goons, save the hostages, battle the police who are unaware of the Joker’s double cross, and deal with the knowledge that two boats are rigged to explode and that Harvey Dent has kidnapped Gordon’s family, all whilst coping with the grief of losing Rachel and potentially alienating Lucias). This skill is also directed to addressing the ethical themes of the film, primarily the analysis of the clash of competing moral philosophies.

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The Dark Knight, like most mainstream American cinema, carries and supports a right wing ideological agenda. Batman operates outside of the law and outside of the bounds of accountability to the institutions and civilisation he serves. He is the individual hero who is willing to do the right thing, which is whatever is necessary to stop the enemies (the Joker) of the society he serves. The liberal politician, Harvey Dent, working within the law, using the social institutions to which he is held accountable, appears to offer the promise of a solution to the crime and security threats that plague the city. It turns out, however, that under extreme pressure his resolve is found wanting, his promises are empty and he is morally bankrupt and two-faced. The people, although they do not know it, need a hero willing to work outside the bounds of accountability or the need for popularity, and so they are lied to for their own good.

Whilst I believe the above analysis is essentially an accurate one we could find ourselves too easily dismissing the film, which does examine some interesting themes, because its basic ideological premise is found wanting. I will try to address some of these in this essay.

Mythology and Drama

I have always thought the claim that superheroes were the modern equivalent of classical mythology to be a suggestion which demonstrates more of a lack of understanding about the organic development of mythology than a useful statement. However there is certainly a sense of the epic and emotional quality of classical mythology in The Dark Knight. Nolan himself recognises this in interviews, “Superheroes fill a gap in the pop culture psyche, similar to the role of Greek mythology. There isn’t really anything else that does the job in modern terms. For me, Batman is the one that can most clearly be taken seriously. He’s not from another planet, or filled with radioactive gunk. I mean, Superman is essentially a god, but Batman is more like Hercules: he’s a human being, very flawed, and bridges the divide.” [4] A limited definition of mythology might describe such stories as the exploration of serious human and social issues through extreme characters and high drama. Certainly we can see parallels in The Dark Knight to the moral conundrums of Iphigenia or Antigone; Bruce Wayne’s turmoil as to whether to turn himself in to stop the Joker killings, the decision to save either Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes following the Joker’s kidnapping of them, the dilemma of the passengers on the boat whether to destroy the other vessel as per the Joker’s twisted game, [5] the emotional torture by Dent of Gordon as he asks him to choose a family member to be sacrificed, etc. What sets The Dark Knight apart from other comic book adaptations in its claim to characterise modern mythology is that it has a richness of ideas and nuance and ambiguity in its application to the real world. I will now look to explore some of these ideas and themes.

The Battle of Competing Moral Philosophies

At its core The Dark Knight explores and plays out the clash of competing moral philosophies held by its main characters:

•Joker – Nihilism: Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is one of a character obsessed with creating anarchy, a man hell bent on undermining the sanity and perceived values of others. He defines his ideal worldview as society and individuals in chaos and steers his will and actions to ensure the realisation of this. He wants to demonstrate that even those who consider themselves centred and upstanding really have a value system based on porcelain gods and are at heart, if pushed, animals subject to base and selfish needs, a Hobbesian world view. Despite his claims to the contrary, his attempts to create chaos and instil a nihilistic sense of morality in those he targets is extremely well organised. His dedication to his goal is unstoppable as he demonstrates his resistance to reason, negotiation, aggression and pleading throughout the film.

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•Harvey Two Face – Relativism: The disfigured Harvey Dent is transformed into a representative of an extreme form of relativism, where all alternatives have equal moral weight so decisions about life and death can and should be left to chance, the flip of a coin.

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Nihilism and moral relativism in extreme forms, which one might argue are really one and the same as true moral relativism is not really any kind of morality at all, are depicted as clearly negative and the key ethical philosophies against which our protagonist must fight. Bruce Wayne has no shortage of competing moral guardians opposed to the Joker and Harvey Two Face which he can turn to and must decide between.

•Batman – Vigilante: He questions himself and his own moral standing. He represents, after all, a vigilante ethos in which he acts and operates outside of the law, and as he tells Harvey Dent, this is not what he believes Gotham needs in the long term. Batman is not willing, however, to do absolutely anything at all in order to stop the Joker. Whilst he is tested, he does not break his ‘one rule’ – he refuses to kill the Joker in order to stop him. He does finally capture the Joker, saving his life in the process (as he did not do with Ducard in Batman Begins) and also preventing him from being killed by the police. This is an anti-capital punishment hero/vigilante – a challenge to the reading of the film as being uncomplicatedly right wing.

•Harvey Dent’s Naive Idealism Vs Gordon’s Realistic Idealism: Prior to his disfigurement Harvey is a political idealist. He respects and defends Batman, comparing his defence of Gotham to Julius Caesar in the Roman Republic, “When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service… You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” However, this idealism also brings him into conflict with Batman (“One day he’ll have to pay for the laws he’s broken”) and with Lt Gordon who shares a similar moral outlook but has a different approach in which he acknowledges the practical difficulties of idealism, telling Harvey, “If I didn’t work with cops you investigated while you were making your name at I.A. I’d be working alone. I don’t get political points for being an idealist, I have to do the best I can with what I have.”

•Rachel’s appeasement Vs Alfred’s uncompromising stance: The characters of Alfred and Rachel represent a direct conflict of ideas about how to deal with the terror wrought by the Joker. Whilst Rachel initially tells Bruce that he cannot give in to the Joker’s demands to turn himself in she later berates Bruce whilst in discussion with Alfred because he allowed Harvey Dent, Rachel’s partner, to falsely turn himself in as the Batman. In short, when pushed, Rachel represents appeasement when confronted with the demands of a criminal. Alfred, however, insists that Bruce must be willing to do what is necessary, “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.” He is critical of Bruce’s intention to give into the Joker’s demands and tells Rachel that “Perhaps both Bruce and Mr. Dent believe that Batman stands for something more important than a terrorist’s whims, Miss Dawes, even if everyone hates him for it.” Alfred’s philosophy can be summed up by his recital of his own experiences of dealing with a psychopathic killer. When Bruce recites his teachings from Ducard from the first film, that criminals are not complicated, Alfred retorts, “Perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand…A long time ago, I was in Burma, my friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never found anyone who traded with him. One day I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away. Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” When asked by Bruce if the bandit was ever caught he replies, “Yes. We burned the forest down.” Alfred represents an extreme philosophy of refusal to compromise about defeating criminals. This is really zero tolerance.

Interestingly, the other characters in the film that are shown to promote and condone Rachels’ position are ‘the people’ of Gotham in general with whom Harvey must defend his anti-appeasement stance. “Let’s consider the situation: should we give in to this terrorist’s demands? The Batman is an outlaw…But that’s not why we’re demanding he turn himself in. We’re doing it because we’re scared. We’ve been happy to let Batman clean up our streets for us until now…One day, the Batman will have to answer for the laws he’s broken- but to us, not to this madman.”

Beyond ‘the mob’ the only other characters to outwardly condone appeasement in the film are another woman, Barbara Gordon, who blames Batman for the apparent death of her husband at the Joker’s hands, “Are you up there? I know you’re there! You did this! You brought this craziness on us!”, and a rather weak man, Coleman Reese, who manages to find himself victimised even when he intends to act bravely by trying to blackmail Bruce Wayne and then reveal his identity on television.

•Lucias – Checks and balances: Lucias acts as less of a moral theorist for Bruce and the viewer but more as a watchful eye offering checks and balances to any extreme avenue Bruce/Batman may look to pursue. This is most evident near the end of the film when Lucias threatens to resign after being shown Bruce’s most recent R&D toy and can only be convinced to help Bruce on the condition that the surveillance machine is destroyed after it has served its purpose.

Morgan Freeman as Lucias Fox

•Utilitarianism – The film posits a challenge to any simple interpretation of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy that can be used as a guide to action. Utilitarianism might be crudely summed up in the following statement: the most moral action is the one which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people and the least moral action (or the most immoral) being the inverse of this. The Dark Knight explores the limitations of this by demonstrating the impossibility of predicting accurately the unintended consequences of actions (every decision that Batman, Gordon and Harvey make seems to end up being leveraged by the Joker to further support his vicious schemes). But also The Dark Knight suggests an interesting challenge to the very notion of utilitarianism, most obviously with the Joker’s plan involving the two boats. The utilitarian position would be to argue that the most moral action as a passenger on one of the boats would be to blow the other up as this will lead to a lower death toll than if they do nothing, in which case both would be blown up. The film suggests that such an act is inhumane, despite the advantage in numbers it yields on this theoretical moral tally, and celebrates the moral strength of the prisoner who refuses to play the game and throws the detonator overboard. The scene suggests that the only true moral course of action is that which will actually lead to the greatest loss of life. On the boat with the regular citizens, they vote to blow the other one up but when it comes to it no-one is strong enough to go through with pulling the trigger and we are invited to celebrate this. Strength of will, a theme at the forefront of both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, is problematised and demonstrated to not necessarily be a good in itself. [6]

The Bruce Wayne / Batman character then is presented in the film with the two evils of nihilism and moral relativism and the psychological torment with which we are asked to identify is in choosing how he deals with these threats. He is pulled in different directions by the other main characters, legal versus illegal, idealism versus realism, and appeasement versus victory at all costs. It is this turmoil, the difficulty of the decision making process, that we are invited to share. However, Batman’s wrestling with this has not gone down well with some critics who do not welcome the uncertainty and lack of moral clarity. David Thompson writes that “Batman is supposedly a creature of great purpose, but his moral logic is often unclear and confused, as when he’s repeatedly told that by “provoking” terrorists he’s responsible for the deaths of innocents – a lie which he apparently believes.” [7] I have sympathy with this view as in too much of today’s critical and analytical writing ambiguity is viewed as a good in itself. We should bear in mind that ambiguity for its own sake is the same as saying nothing. At no time in the film is it ever suggested that the Joker is anything but evil. His nihilist view of the world is clearly represented as abhorrent and utterly destructive to humanity. Whilst his nihilism may make him interesting and appealing in a Miltonesque manner the idea proposed by some critics that he represents a morally grey area is not supported by the film at all as he is never portrayed as anything other than a mass murdering psychopath. This is equally true of Harvey Two Face and his extreme relativist position of morality as chance. Once he takes up this philosophy he is clearly demonstrated to be a repugnant human being with no compunction about killing an innocent child among many other victims. So at a high level the morality of the film is quite clear –Batman is not responsible for the Joker’s actions and the Joker has earned no reason for us to trust that he will stop the killing. One might, however, have sympathy and identify with the sense of difficulty in reaching moral clarity in a way that is not primitive in its simplicity, and value the film’s reserve about providing simple maxims for how to act in extreme circumstances.

Political Allegory – The War on Terror

The Dark Knight makes very clear reference to contentious issues in our current state of affairs post 9/11 and policies in the era of The War on Terror. To list some of the most obvious:

•The representation of the Joker is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, aligned with our views and depiction of modern Islamic terrorists. He can’t be bargained or reasoned with, he bombs targets of social importance, he posts camcorder video’s of his kidnap victims on the air as they are forced to read out his messages and demands, and he targets his victims almost indiscriminately aiming for the maximum loss of life. Furthermore he claims that his actions of terror are simply a response to the extreme actions of Batman and he should not be held responsible. In fact the guilt for the Joker’s actions should lie with the person trying to stop him.

•Batman’s abduction of Lau from Hong Kong has been extensively described as a representation of extraordinary rendition. This seems to me to be not maintainable. Whilst Lau is unlawfully abducted by Batman and put into police custody in America it is clear that he is justly detained and interrogated, but not tortured, about his involvement with the crime syndicate and the Joker. We should be careful not to confuse extradition with rendition.

•However, Batman’s interrogation of the Joker, in which he locks the police out of the room and brings his full weight of physical force, to the joy of the victim, to beat information out of the Joker is indeed torture.

•In order finally to catch the Joker, Batman creates a sonar surveillance system which uses mobile phone signals to monitor all of Gotham City, a pretty extreme example of infringement of individual rights to privacy used in the name of gathering intelligence.

The Dark Knight addresses the apparent inevitable unpopularity of those who bring us into conflict with terrorists. The film presents the idea that power and the moral responsibility that come with it will lead to unpopularity as others do not possess the same moral strength as true heroes –“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. Being in a position of power and acting in good faith, having to make tough decisions – people will come to hate you for it partly due to their projection of omnipotence onto you and your inability to create perfection. True heroes are more than just heroes in the eyes of the people and can act without the validation of their accreditation. They can have the courage of their convictions regardless of popularity. Real heroes need to be willing to make brave and tough moral decisions which will make them unpopular

•The film’s final message is essentially one condoning governmental lies on the grounds that sometimes people deserve more than the truth. This strikes me as a very dangerous right wing concept: the idea that people should not be given the truth for their own sake or because they are too stupid or weak to live with or understand it. This undermines the very tenets of democracy such as the freedom of information and the press. The film’s ambiguous relationship with and representation of ‘the people’ as both weak (they represent the major force in favour of appeasing the Joker) and in need of being saved from themselves and their own weaknesses is reminiscent of Gladiator with its moral goal of the reinstatement of the republic contrasting with the contempt with which the mob is regarded by all the major protagonists. The people are to be pitied, reviled and scorned as just the ignorant masses, yet are also to be celebrated and respected as the vessel of democracy. This hits at the heart of the contradiction of democracy and lends weight to Karl Popper’s argument that at its most basic, democracy is not the rule of the people at all (which can lead to the majority abusing the minority) but rather a system of governance that allows leaders to be replaced by the people without bloodshed. It is best characterised as a system whose sole aim is to limit absolute sovereignty – limit it not just for the leaders but also for the people.

The film clearly shows the actions undertaken by Batman yielded results and it has not taken much for many critics to view The Dark Knight as a clear statement of support for Bush’s policies in “The War on Terror”. [8] Others have interpreted the film in completely the opposite light, suggesting that the parallels drawn between Batman and the Joker refer to parity between Bush and Bin Laden. [9] Certainly the brand of terrorism seen in the film is represented as a crime to be dealt with by police rather than a war to be fought by armies.

Let us acknowledge that the support for the unaccountable hero who operates outside of the law and who condones lying to the people is an unfortunate and dangerous idea for the film to have proposed. It may hold a degree of emotional weight within the skilfully woven narrative structure but we can unequivocally reject it as one which is unrepresentative of the values of democratic society and an un-useful ideology for addressing the problems of terrorism and extremism. However, this should not undermine the importance of The Dark Knight’s challenge to appeasement. It a mistake made by many in modern liberal democratic society to support the notion that to be tough on crime, immorality, terrorism and totalitarianism is somehow synonymous with being right wing and that to be liberal is to be soft. David Thompson is representative of this overly simplistic view when he writes that “for much of the film, we have something close to a Guardian-reading Batman.” [10] My political sympathies lie with the likes of Paul Berman, Andrew Anthony, Martin Amis and of course, Barack Obama, in that the so-called liberals must not allow there to be an identification between unambiguously fighting evil and neo-conservativism. We should not be looking to find a moderate middle ground between the extremes of tolerance and immorality, “many liberals appear to labour under the impression that their duty is to find a position equidistant between the two,” [11] we should understand that tolerance does not mean being tolerant of intolerance. We who live in a democratic society should recognise the superiority of our political institutions and the philosophy on which they are founded and articulate this for ourselves and for others. It stands above all other forms of social organisation and the notion that only the right wing wish to stand up against those who threaten it, whether from within or without, cedes the moral high ground to those who should not occupy this space exclusively. I might suggest instead then that Batman’s dilemma and decision not to appease The Joker in The Dark Knight, should be viewed as equally representative of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bernard Kouchner and Vaclav Havel as it is of Bush and Cheney.

Endnotes

1 Edward Lawrenson. Sight & Sound. July 2005. Batman Begins.

2 BW. Time Out London, Issue 1817: June 15-22 2005. Batman Begins.

3 Mark Fisher. Image Text. Gothic Oedipus: subjectivity and capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

4 IMDB.

5 Mlawski. Overthinking it, July 24, 2008.

6 Fenzel. Overthinking it, July 30, 2008

7 David Thompspn. Culture, Ideas and Comic Books.

8 The Editorial BoardThe New York Times.

9 Anne Thompson. Variety.

10 David Thompson. Culture, Ideas and Comic Books.

11 Anthony, Andrew, The Fallout – How a Guilty Liberal Lost His Innocence, p. 271.

Other reviews:

Spencer Ackerman. The Washington Independent, July 21, 2008. Batman’s ‘Dark Knight’ reflects Cheney Policy.

Adam Nayman. Reverse Shot, Issue 22. Strained Seriousness.

Scott Mendelson. Mendelson’s Memos, July 29, 2008. Batman in the Movies.

Andrew Klavan. The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2008. What Bush and Batman have in common.

How Christopher Nolan made Batman grow up

Leon Saunders Calvert works in a financial information media company in London. He has a BA Hons from the University of Essex in Philosophy and Literature, including film studies, and an MSc in International Management from the University of Reading. He believes that the study of philosophy and culture can be fundamental to providing us with a better understanding of the world we live in and the ways in which it can be improved, rather than undertaken as a kind of intellectual workout, as is so often the case. Leon has published reviews in Film International and The Film Journal.

Volume 14, Issue 8 / August 2010 Essays action filmscience fict