I’m not sure I quite comprehended, though, that I was watching a movie I’d be talking about for a decade.
“The Dark Knight,” the second and best of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, opened nationwide on July 18th, 2008. It went on to gross more than a billion dollars, becoming the 4th-highest domestic grossing movie at the time and a critical darling–so highly praised that, when it was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars that year, they changed the rules.
It transformed Hollywood, spawning a generation of high-end superhero epics and setting a template for superhero mythology as battles of ideas and worldviews you can still see in recent hits like “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman.” The movie also left legacies less beneficial–ever-escalating superhero events and “universe” saturation, as well as a self-serious tone which has sunk other franchises. (The effect I hoped for most–that it would inspire studios to stop replying so much on computer-generated effects to create action and suspense–never really materialized.)
As a political allegory, though–which it undeniably is–“The Dark Knight” leaves a less clear legacy.
At the time, it was both praised and condemned as a right-wing fantasy and an apologia for the then-unpopular Bush administration. Even many who loved it found themselves a bit uncomfortable trying to explain its message.
That “The Dark Knight” leads itself to scores of differing and contradictory interpretations is a bit odd, since Chris Nolan isn’t a filmmaker known for his subtlety–and the movie isn’t particularly subtle. If anything, Nolan can be criticized for laboriously and pedantically spelling his themes out. What confuses people, I think, is that the movie spends more time raising unsettling questions than arriving at satisfactory answers.
But the most confounding point is a pretty simple one–Batman isn’t always supposed to be right.
This seems obvious to me, but I can see how people resist it. After it all, “The Dark Knight” is a superhero movie, and in a superhero movie you normally expect the guy with the tights to be the one you agree with.
But Batman is no normal superhero. Since his creation as a pulpy combination of The Shadow, Zorro and Dracula, he’s always been a bundle of contradictions. (This is even an element of the 60s show, where Adam West played Bats as the straight man in an absurd act.)
Your takeaway from the movie may be that Batman defeats the Joker and saves the city by embracing strong-arm and illegal tactics–and since he’s the good guy, these clear Bush administration parallels are meant to defend its policies as choices by bold men willing to do what is necessary to sustain order.
Maybe this isn’t a wrong interpretation–but I submit that if it’s your only takeaway, you’re missing a lot of what the movie is about.
The most important line for understanding “The Dark Knight’s” moral framework may not even be in the movie itself. It’s in the last scene of “Batman Begins,” the prior entry, as Batman discusses his crusade with then-Captain Gordon.
Gordon asks about escalation, which perplexes Batman.
“We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds. … And you’re wearing a mask. Jumping off rooftops.”
Gordon then shows Batman a Joker card–a telltale for the latest Gotham villain.
Bruce Wayne wanted Batman to be a temporary act to jump-start the city from complacency. But he didn’t quite comprehend the Pandora’s Box he opened.
As much as it seems like it, the Joker didn’t descend onto Gotham from a black hole–all of Gotham, including its savior, played a role in his birth.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred tells Bruce as he tries to comprehend his new adversary.
Everyone remembers that line–but the one that comes right before it isn’t quoted as often.
“You crossed the line first–you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that the Joker is such a hypnotic and mesmerizing villain, it’s a bit hard to believe he needed any help in his plans to sow chaos. But he does–the Gotham mafia’s connections in the police department allow him to assassinate city officials, and its resources help him stage a coordinated assault on the man he believes to be Batman. A reluctant partnership with the Gotham underworld turns him from an annoying menace into an existential threat.
Even though this is stated in dialogue several times, it’s easy to forget as the movie’s plot speeds along like a bullet train. But’s crucial to understanding the philosophical underpinning of the conflict.
The Joker was enabled by Gotham’s wickedness and corruption, but also by the Batman’s disruption in order. It’s a scenario which easily recalls debates about blowback from the Iraq War in the early aughts–a comeupance some claim we’ve met with ISIS.
But however he came to be, the Joker represents a nihilistic threat that sends everyone’s moral compasses spinning.
Batman, already flexible in his standards, finds his sensibility stretched to the limit. He roughs up whoever he can find to get to the Joker, dropping one mob boss of a rooftop. While the Joker is in custody, he beats him within an inch of his life to reveal his deadly plan.
And when all of those techniques prove ineffective, he uses Wayne Enterprises to violate the Gotham citizenry’s privacy, arming every cell phone in the city with a sonar wiretap.
But, crucially, Batman is aware of the path he’s headed down. Awash in self-loathing from lingering guilt over his parents’ deaths, he views himself as irredeemable–but not Gotham. As the city’s dark collective id it’s his duty to probe the darker corners of reaction, to protect others from having to do the same.
When Dent, also fed up with the chaos, tries to muscle information from a Joker henchman, Batman stops him. And he agrees to give control of his wiretapping program to Lucius Fox, the man who threatened to resign over it, swearing it will be a one-time intrusion. (I bet he wishes he had kept it intact when Bane took over the city eight years later.)
The Joker uses deadly blackmail to try to get to Batman, publicly promising to kill more people every night until he reveals himself. Batman at first demurs, but as the bodies pile up and his methods run dry, he decides to give in–only saved by Harvey Dent’s last-minute decision to take the fall for him.
This arc could be seen as a simple parable about appeasing terrorism. But it takes on another dimension if one considers Batman responsible for this chaotic situation. He knew what he was getting into, but never asked the city if it wanted to come along.
“I have blood on my hands,” Bruce says while explaining his decision.
Batman clings to his code–he will not use a gun or kill–to ensure he hasn’t gone over the final edge. But this also doesn’t provide the moral grounding it should. When the Joker offers himself up to be sacrificed, Batman wavers, and leaves further deaths on his conscience.
The parallels to the debates of the Bush years, on warrantless wiretapping and torture, are too obvious to belabor here. But the movie doesn’t come to any reassuring conclusions. As we share the character’s rising frustration with the Joker’s chaotic reign of terror, we understand and often agree with their decisions.
And yet, those actions aren’t very productive. Most of the potential sources Batman roughs up provide empty answers. His wiretapping program locates the Joker, but it doesn’t appear he was really trying to stay hidden. It helps him save the Joker’s hostages in an unfinished high rise (the Trump Tower in Chicago, BTW), but leaves him blinded for a crucial moment which lets the Joker overpower him.
Maybe we’ve moved to the point where even acknowledging a debate over the lines we’re willing to cross to protect ourselves from apocalyptic terrorism is too much–although it certainly didn’t feel so then. (And it doesn’t really feel so now, with a president who promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS and to bring out interrogation methods “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”)
Nolan takes the central dilemma posed by “The Killing Joke”–but, thankfully, not its problematic gender dynamic–and refashions it as high-stakes, hyper-realistic allegory which is a perfect expression of its source material yet also comments on our modern challenges, and feels as relevant in 2018 as in 2008.
Are our morals, convictions, and ideals really worth a damn? Are they just illusions, and if they are, maybe they’re still worth fighting for? What are we willing to do to protect ourselves from terrifying, existential nihilism–and what does our decision say about us?
It’s been said that the superhero genre is inherently fascist, and it’s hard to argue that this is entirely untrue. Almost by definition, it distrusts civilian institutions and worships pure displays of power.
But he also provides a template to expose this archetype, and to examine these difficult human impulses. Frank Miller was clearly fascinated by Batman’s totalitarian side and probed it perfectly in “The Dark Knight Returns”–“the world only makes sense when you force it to,” Batman growls to Superman as they fight–before he slid into psychotic self-parody. Batman’s motives aren’t necessarily noble, and his results aren’t necessarily ideal–and this characteristic allows him to cut to the point in a way other superheroes can’t.
If “The Dark Knight” was accused of having a right-wing subtext, the critics of “The Dark Knight Rises” didn’t find its politics to be very subtle.
A re-telling of “A Tale of Two Cities” with masks and spandex, it recast the previously apolitical supervillain Bane as a modern-day Robespierre. The film was accused of being “fascistic” and anti-liberal, or in the words of Matthew Yglesias a “balls-out insanely rightwing movie.”
If only it was–it might have been coherent.
“Rises” was too muddled to have a clear political message–left, right, or iconoclastic. True, the villain disguises himself as a left-wing radical, promising Gotham freedom from its capitalistic oppressors. But since he’s making it all up–he’s actually an apocalyptic madman planning on destroying the city, and stretching the destruction out for unconvincing plot-related reasons–it’s hard to draw much of a message from his rhetoric. Nolan clearly believes the seeds of discontent which Bane reaps are legitimate, and the movie once again comes to the conclusion that Batman, alone, isn’t enough to save this city. While TDK focused your attention with a mesmerizing philosophical conflict, “Rises” gets too distracted by its own plot to get to much of a point. (And yet it’s still a pretty decent movie.)
“Rises” mostly serves to wrap up the Nolan franchise, yet the ending that will matter most to me is the ending of “The Dark Knight,”–ostensibly a cliff-hanger, but it seems more like a stake through the heart of the superhero conception.
Powerful, unsatisfying, challenging–it’s still, I contend, the most striking conclusion of a movie in this genre yet. Batman’s decision to assume blame for Harvey Dent’s crime, to ensure his campaign against corruption continues after his death, is made not just out of necessity, but as an admission that his crusade on crime has failed.
“Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded,” Batman tells Gordon.
It’s an approach “Rises” explicitly rejects–“Maybe it’s time we all stopped trying to outsmart the truth, and let it have its day,” Alfred tearfully pleads to Bruce. But the movie ends in a similar way, with Bruce faking his death–and the death of Batman–to move onto a next chapter in his life.
It’s a familiar theme for Nolan. Virtually all of his movies end with a main character indulging or perpetuating a lie–often a self-deception–to make life manageable.
In “Memento,” Leonard lets himself forget his discovery that the supposed murderer of his wife, “John G.,” has long been dead, and that he is actually the likely killer. In “Inception,” Cobb ignores the spinning top which would tell him if he were still dreaming or not. In “Dunkirk,” a character’s senseless death is re-imagined as a heroic sacrifice for his hometown newspaper.
Interestingly, “Insomnia” ends on an opposite note. Hilary Swank’s character tries to throw away evidence incriminating Al Pacino’s hero cop, her idol–but Pacino uses his dying breath to stop her.
Nolan is obsessed with how reality is a chaotic jumble of facts and circumstances which never quite fit, and maintaining ideals and convictions requires not just determination but willful ignorance–which doesn’t make it any less necessary.
And as much as we might like to turn to a heroic strongman to make sense of it all, that choice may bring us destruction, not peace.