Empire Looks Better in a Cape

The Dark Knight is “clearly one of the top conservative films ever made,” in the eyes of Breitbart, a news organization dedicated to satiating racists. (Shapiro) It identifies right-wing politics with a protagonist that “utilizes full scale surveillance, beats up a terrorist during an interrogation, and takes heat while doing it, all in order to save civilization from monsters,” placing the Christopher Nolan film at the center of authoritarian aggression-and delighting in it. Batman becomes a weapon of state authority against the Other, and does so while flouting liberal checks. Meanwhile, John Ip from the University of Auckland claims the film proves that “society ideally should not rely on heroic vigilantes, that the people themselves need to show resoluteness and courage, and that, in the long run, the law—together with the legitimacy it confers—is not a liability, but an asset,” arguing the film’s politics value civic virtue. (229) Ip refuses to valorize the vigilante, but rather finds the blockbuster’s hero in unnamed civilians who refuse to give in to their baser instincts while finding refuge in civic institutions. These views fundamentally clash- Breitbart’s demeaning of governing checks can’t be reconciled with Ip’s celebration of the rule of law. Each critic places a separate ideology across Batman’s shoulders, conscripting the movie into political service. But the film itself doesn’t buckle under the weight of varied political views. Rather, the movie accepts and promotes simplistic politics.

Simple, partially because it’s so familiar. Comic books and the accompanying film genre carry with them plenty of associations. Capes, chiseled chins and criminal masterminds ensure you don’t confuse it with anything else. When critics praise The Dark Knight as “the first superhero film that makes a serious bid to transcend its burgeoning genre,” they mean that it retains genre trappings while seemingly filmed with minimal access to sunlight. (Orr) Or, alternately, that the movie concerns itself quite clearly with its own importance. The Dark Knight refuses to accept being ‘just’ a superhero movie. Its plot is overlaid with overt political references.

After all, Christopher Nolan can be accused of many things; subtlety isn’t one of them. The Dark Knight exults in brash symbolism. Harvey Dent’s coin conveniently burns one of its two faces, and the camera rests, languorously, upon the altered side. Don’t you get it? Now he’s been turned into a different person, just like the coin has changed. The movie’s politics similarly shout to be noticed. I want to spend the next few paragraphs nailing down these images-not because of any inherent complexity, but because the sheer amount of effort devoted to the symbolism by Nolan.

First, let’s focus on the film’s animating force: Heath Ledger’s Joker. One critic came close to describing the essence of Ledger, who “seems less the creation of a living self than the annihilation of one, an exercise in the center not holding,” as he embodies an intentionally confusing evil. (Orr) The Joker’s aims to disrupt the established order for the purpose of disruption. He employs suicide bombers and continuously jerry-rigged (or, say, improvised) explosive devices, importing the tactics of the Green Zone to Gotham. Shaky, handheld videos of hostages unnerve, and proclaim a kinship of style with Osama Bin Laden’s video messages or hostage videos worldwide (take a look at the embedded image and video to see). Even when his violence doesn’t fit neatly within preexisting categories, it fits the understanding of terrorism as aimed at terrifying the populace. Dead bodies slam into glass, pencils pierce eye sockets-the violence is used for shock value, as ways to distinguish him from any other criminals. After all, he just wants to “watch the world burn.” In one unsuccessful attempt, the Joker impersonates an officer and launches an attack on an elected official. Of course, the infiltrator had a clear-as-day mark of his irregularity on his face. Not his skin color (this time), but the type of simple signifier that “extreme vetting” could notice. Harvey Dent names this threat accurately at the press conference-the Joker is a “terrorist,” which in America means a Muslim man. To make explicit what Nolan almost does, the Joker is a stand-in for Islamic terrorism. He’s the sort of caricatured enemy that “hates us for our values,” and delights in violence in pursuit of an anarchic ideology.

(watch through 0:21)

This screenshot comes from a hostage crisis with an ISIS-affilate in the Philippines.

This screenshot comes from a hostage crisis with an ISIS-affilate in the Philippines; clearly after the movie, but bearing a stylistic resemblance to the clip in a way all-too-many images do

Next, I’ll turn to the hero of The Dark Knight: Batman, the caped crusader (or is it Crusader?) and his attempts to save his city, his woman, and his moral code. The valiant fighter combatting a shifting order amidst moral decrepitude. Batman aspires to be omnipresent-the primary fictional invention of the movie allows Batman to hear and see everything. His retort to Alfred asking him to be more cautious is to proclaim his power, for “Batman has no limits.” The superhero’s attempts at control extend far beyond the city of Gotham; “Batman has no jurisdiction,” as he reminds us. Unlimited, across the globe, Batman wages a unilateral war on evil. Ring any bells? This distillation of Bush-era imperialism is enlivened by the movie’s portrayal of certain acts from the War on Terror. Batman drops a crime-lord from a building, snapping his ankles, so he can ask a few questions. He mercilessly beats the Joker. Torture is justified- it gets him the information he wants about Rachel and Harvey Dent. And with the Joker, there’s no sign we should even care about the torture. The recipient of the beating laughs through it. The irrational enemy doesn’t suffer pain like we do; they don’t need the protections we do, either. After that, we see Batman create an expansive surveillance system- through our cellphones- to save the city. While the movie was released before the Snowden leaks, knowledge of broad surveillance programs created under the Patriot Act already existed. The empire depended upon surveilling at home to monitor threats. Batman serves as a not-so-subtle stand-in for American empire post-9/11, and his violence should be understood as our own.

Batman proudly claims Hong Kong's skyline as his own

Batman claims Hong Kong’s skyline as his own

With the dual structural supports for the politics of The Dark Knight in place, the rest of the symbolic framework can be sketched in. Like, for example, the geopolitical hints created by character’s nationalities. The mob coopted by the Joker prominently contains “the Chechen”. The quintessentially American Wayne Enterprises almost enters into a major business relationship with a Chinese company-but doesn’t, because China’s accounting is rigged. Nolan takes care to dismiss Hollywood’s other geopolitical bogeymen. The USSR exists only as a small-time cog in a criminal machine and China’s rise depends upon a willful suspension of disbelief. The real threat comes from Muslims. If nothing else, the film argues for its own existence, for its fictionalized account of a social threat as most deserving your attention.

The story’s symbolism continues. Like, for example, the technological wizardry of Lucius Fox. He describes his plan for extracting Batman and Lau as inherited from an old CIA plot, and that’s probably a good way to start understanding him. He creates new technologies for Batman, like a new suit. What changes are made to Batman’s armor? It becomes more flexible in response to new threats. With a military now asked to fight asymmetric threats, the movie’s focus on armor carries the paradigmatic shifts of the armed forces. Fox, then, doesn’t just stand-in for the CIA; he’s the director of a vast national security apparatus. In this capacity, he reconnoiters abroad, and controls surveillance at home. He even intimidates an admittedly-craven whistleblower. If Batman fights for American empire, Lucius Fox sits at the helm of its bureaucracy.

More time could be devoted to this symbolism. Harvey Dent as the false hope of elected officials; the wizened Alfred representing his own country and its faltering empire; the unnerving clown masks, which substitute for the visual shorthand of brown faces with beards. But I’d like to address some of the critic’s views of the film’s politics, put them to the test of the movie’s persistent symbolism, and see the consequences.

First, let’s explore John Ip’s view of the movie as a testament to civic virtue. He accepts the War on Terrorism motif, but sees the movie’s relationship to Bush-era human rights abuses as reflecting negatively upon them. His qualms are too legalistic to accurately deny the movie’s political goals. Ip claims the overseas capture of Lau “cannot be interpreted as any kind of endorsement of the Bush Administration’s practice of extraordinary rendition, because…it is not that kind of rendition,” which imposes a knowledge requirement on the layman in the theater. (216) Distinguishing between the legal terms ignores the imagery of the vigilante traveling overseas to snatch a criminal away for prosecution at home. The only unusual aspect of the capture is the inverted nature of certain imperial escapades of the past; this time, empire entered under the guise of corporate interests, instead of the other way around. Ip next dismisses the film’s use of torture as providing little useful information. While true, the characters don’t blame the torture for this as much as they blame their inability to act sooner. The film doesn’t indict the torture; instead, as discussed above, it ignores its potential for real pain. The injured mobster continues a conversation despite his shattered ankles. The Joker laughs it off. Torture should be ignored, because even the Batman can’t cause all that much pain. Ip similarly addresses Wayne Enterprises cell-phone based mass surveillance, claiming it differs in type from the actual War on Terror and thus can’t be understood as a defense of the same. Part of the strength of the film’s endorsement comes from its dissimilarity to real actions. Rather than bear the burden of advocating mass surveillance, it defends a specific, fictionalized instance. After all, the stand-in for our national security bureaucracy doesn’t even want the surveillance. Someone in a position of power will look out for us, because authority figures abide by the audience’s moral standards.

(note, as an aside, the way the complex debate over surveillance is reduced to less than 80 seconds)

Other critics attempted to identify the film’s central premise. Like, for example, one argues that its “less a film about good versus evil than about order versus chaos.” (Orr) That broad claim ignores the way the film merges the two. The film’s evil is chaos. The Joker substitutes sewing chaos for a fleshed-out ideology. Even his backstory is murky- he always tells different stories about he received his scars. Nothing can explain the Joker, as the movie reminds us. Islamic terrorism lacks history, and thus a motivating purpose. The Joker can’t be traced back to anything at the county jail-not fingerprints, DNA, a single prior identity. Viewing the Joker in this light vindicates us of any possible role in creating the monster society must deal with.

Orr also posits that the “film [is] about politics by other means,” which necessarily evokes von Clausewitz’s famous formulation: “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Complete the circle and say it with me: The Dark Knight’s about war. Not just any war, but a Huntington-esque clash of civilizations. The War on Terror can’t be rationalized. Instead, it pits the impenetrable mystique of the Other against the just empire. As much as I dislike claiming this, Breitbart’s analysis rings true. When it claims Batman “save[s] civilization from monsters,” it accurately diagnoses the film’s biggest fear: America subjugated by Islam.

I want to jump to the end of the film. After Batman sacrifices his reputation for that of Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon’s son points out plaintively that Batman “didn’t do anything wrong.” The child seems to be voice of reason. Empire just saved everyone, and it’s sent to hide away (in its luxurious mansion). The movie’s sense of outrage isn’t derived from shattered bones but from the morally immaculate empire being scorned. The Dark Knight seems to answer most of its own questions, but leaves this one hanging. Why don’t you defend empire? After all, Nolan spent the previous two hours and thirty-two minutes doing the best he could. American empire needs you; will you answer the Bat-Signal?


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