Huh, this might be my catchiest title yet.
Look, I’m going to be upfront here. The Dark Knight is not a bad film. I first saw the film when I was 19 and 19-year-old me thought it was the bomb.
Even now, I don’t think it’s a bad film necessarily. Like, it’s a competent action film. But watching it now there’s something… troubling about it.
“I’m just a dog chasing cars,” the Joker says.
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with,” Alfred says. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Those are cool-sounding quotes. Like, Nolan knows what he’s doing when he’s writing. It’s no wonder 19-year-old me was blown away.
But, the thing is what those quotes are saying is quite simple.When the Joker says he’s just a dog chasing cars, he means that being a jerk is just in his nature. He’s just like that. And the world has people like that, Alfred says. Some people are evil and they can’t be reasoned with because their evilness comes from a rot at the core of their being. This is why you need people like Batman.
This a simplification. Of the world I mean. The world isn’t like this.
Look, I’m not saying psychopaths don’t exist, or that it’s not ok to have villains who are psychopaths and just evil. In fact, as far as inexplicably evil psychopaths go, Heath Ledger’s Joker is incredibly charismatic. But The Dark Knight wants to have a simple story about good and evil and also make a complex film that riffs on current events.
Let me explain. A lot of internet ink has been expended on how Batman is basically George Bush and the Joker is Al-Qaeda. I buy this. I’m on board with this. For you weirdos who don’t obsessively follow the deep comic book analysis sites, I’ll do a quick rundown but to be honest, I’m mostly basing this off Cracked again.
Actually, for those keeping track, this is the same article that inspired my very first blog post. I guess that article really blew my mind.
Anyway, the gist of this argument is this. Basically, the Joker is unpredictable and randomly blows shit up, like Al-Qaeda. Batman has the support of the government, like George W. Bush. In the end, a pivotal reason reason why Batman is able to catch the Joker is that he turns every phone into an echo-locating listening device, which is exactly what George W. Bush did to catch Usama Bin Laden. And for those really keeping track, yes, I did this exact joke structure in that first post as well. Uhh, getting back to the main point, there’s even a bit where Batman flies to Hong Kong to do a bit of extraordinary rendition. You know, like W. did.
So the film wants to say something profound about the world while also being a simple story of good versus evil. The effect of these two impulses is a message saying that the world can be reduced to a simple story of good and evil. And this is problematic.
What this does is that in the middle of these explosions, the film sends a message about how to deal with terrorists. This message tried to be the gray, morally complex thing that the film is aiming for, but it doesn’t actually work.
Think about the two most questionable things Batman does. He flies to a different country an extradite a foreign national and listen in everyone’s phones. To it’s credit, the film indicates an awareness, at least, that these things are morally questionable. Is it ok to infringe of privacy in the name of safety? The film asks. What about flying over to foreign country we don’t have legal jurisdiction and kidnapping a foreign citizen? Is that ok? Maybe they’re not ok, the film implies.
But then, when it comes to it answering these questions, the film comes down squarely on the side of “yeah, no, those things are totally fine, keep doing them.” Because doing the morally questionable thing is what allows Batman to win. In the end, making the tough choice is what saves the day.
Yes, it’s ok to invade people’s privacy in the name of security, but only if you feel really, really feel bad about it.
Also, another thing. This gets a little lost in all the explosions, but there’s another aspect of the film that is downright astonishing from a today’s perspective. Basically, the situation is that Gotham is a super-corrupt crime heaven. Harvey Dent’s plan to stop this is essentially to use a legal loophole and lock up all the criminals. Incarcerate them on a… massive scale. Incarceration en masse, if you will. I feel like think about this hard, we can probably come up with a catcher term.
Anyway, the film is 100% on board with this. It is the solution to the problem of criminality. Harvey Dent, the film assures us, is A Good Guy, at least until he turns evil. The film wants to leave no doubt about. He was One of the Good Guys. And massive imprisonment is what Harvey wants. He’s all about that. His entire plan for solving the crime problem in Gotham is “lock everyone up.”
And it’s kind of crazy to think about, but the whole dramatic arc of the film hinges on this one fact. This is why Batman takes the fall in the end, to allow the city to lock up all the criminals, because if everyone finds out that Harvey Dent turned evil, they won’t be able to lock everyone up. The film, super for real, believes that the way to solve the crime problem is to lock everyone up. I feel like this is a pretty snowflakey blog, so y’all should be clued in, but if anyone was wondering, mass incarceration isn’t great.
So, in a very 2008 way, the film wants us to consider the troubling dilemma, “is it ok to restrict liberties to ensure freedom and security?” But like the question raised by that other DC property, this is pseudo-dilemma. It’s the dilemma you pose if you have already decided on the answer. Because in the real world, it’s not at all certain that more intrusive surveillance actually prevents terrorism, and it is certain that mass incarceration doesn’t reduce crime. So the film pretends to be asking these Difficult Questions and tackling these Weighty Themes, just like Man of Steel, but the starting premises undercut any pretense of complexity. In this case, the starting premises are that increased surveillance is effective against terrorism and that mass incarceration reduces crime. If you couple that with the premise that some people are just evil for no reason then you have starting premises that are definitely going to lead to some places like fascism.