“There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past", goes the most Digg-able part of Andrew Klavan’s recent Wall St. Journal op-ed lolocaust, a piece people have been mostly quick to dismiss despite the fact that Batman does an end-run around an advisor to institute a comprehensive warrantless surveillance program and tortures a captive to extract the location of a literal ticking time bomb (a dramatically convenient scenario for which there is no real-world corollary, while we’re almost on the subject). How much power to circumvent all societal controls are we willing to surrender to (or have seized by) one designated hero, and how much do we or should we trust him to do the right thing with it, is the implicit and explicit question posed by Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, amid these and other unmissable namechecks to the current American political climate; the answer, which may not surprise you, is "the answer may surprise you."
I’m not saying that Nolan is or isn’t a right-wingnut — in interviews he mostly seems to think that his movie is Raising Issues and stuff. But there’s a real problem with Raising these Issues in a superhero movie.
And even if Nolan is coyly protecting the franchise by skipping the second half of the truth, about how his movie is also Offering Solutions, it’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that — every cause has its laureates, and The Dark Knight‘s thematic doubling and triple- and quadruple-parallel cutting is formally persuasive. But it’s in the service of a worldview, intentional or un-, that’s fundamentally bunk.
The first part first. If great power didn’t come with great responsibility, we wouldn’t have these durable archetypes, so the question of power that The Dark Knight is Raising isn’t really a question at all. Sometimes we need to state the obvious: Batman is a superhero. That means, whatever his pop-cultural permutations or "dark" reputation, he’s essentially a holy warrior (caped crusader) on our behalf, and that’s why he’s handed out with Happy Meals. If mistakes were made in his unchecked of said innate, bestowed and grabbed power; if the costs of his crusade were anything other than personal; if it was society as a whole, and not simply its designated cross-bearer, who was forced to Become Evil to Fight Evil — if the imbalance of power was misused or abused or even consequential in any way — then we’d be watching a movie capable of dealing with these questions in the currency of our times. But then we wouldn’t be watching a fantasy about a limitlessly resourceful masked man who does what the rest of us can only dream of doing.
The second part second: what the rest of us can only dream of doing is take our destinies into our own hands to do what’s right. Which is to fight what’s wrong. Now then. Apparently our desire to send Heath Ledger off with a bang is such that nobody even wants to speak ill of the poorly scripted role played by the dead. Ledger’s Joker is a snarl of idiosyncratic, counterintuitive choices, sure, an essentially contradictory and anarchic performance. A wild card, if you will. An agent of chaos. Which we know, because the Joker actually says, "I’m an agent of chaos." He believes in nothing — nothing, Lebowski!
Sorry, I’ve used that joke before. But, in my defense, how was I to know that coin-flipping Anton Chigurh wasn’t as plainspoken as movie killers could get about their symbolic function? Chigurh is "a character in a thriller" (per Ethan Coen’s dodge to then-undownsized City Pages film editor Rob Nelson), and so’s the Joker, but the order-versus-chaos genre-movie dichotomy (or Manichean allegory, per the less apologetically biblical Cormac McCarthy) is a white hat-black hat split that, to judge from box-office receipts and year-end polls and award ceremonies and thinkpieces and message-board splooge, we apparently find especially resonant during our war on the concept of terror (or, if you’re especially gung-ho, terror’s "war on us"). If so, these aren’t the blockbuster genre movies we need, but they are the blockbuster genre movies we deserve.
Because, dig: What does the Joker want? He’s an agent of chaos. A nihilist who believes in nothing. Anarchy in Gotham City. But he’s also gut-knottingly, irresistibly contemporary, to judge from the beard-stroking he’s inspired. The Joker’s a guerilla urban warrior. A "terroristâ¦ [who] wears a DIY suicide vest to a meeting of criminal warlords", per R.C. Baker’s fatuously credulous study guide in the current Village Voice. (And hey, didn’t anyone at the Voice think "DIY suicide vest" was a little redundant? Who do they think usually manufactures them?) He’s "violence and fearâ¦ Islamo-fascism", per Klavan. (I think; the word "Joker" doesn’t appear in his piece.) He’s "something [we] don’t understand", as Ed Tom Bell sighs. But I hope you don’t think I’m some lone crusader when I say that it’s inaccurate, irresponsible and immoral for The Dark Knight to pretend that what we’re up against is rebellion without a cause.