The Dark Knight – Conservative, but also liberal, pacifist, fascist, nihilist…

It is far, far too hot today. As a result my brain has shut down and my fingers are typing this on autopilot, so forgive the overly-verbose prose style and higher than usual levels of sarcasm.

I don’t intend to post often about superhero films here – much as I love superhero comics, I’m far more interested in comics as a medium than in superheroes as characters, and I’m not especially interested in seeing, say, the new Hulk film. In fact, to the extent that the films have become more important than the comics (and the fact that most of the reports on ‘comic’ news sites about the recent ‘comic’ con have been about TV shows and films should say everything important about that) then I consider them actively pernicious, as they lead to comics which are nothing more than illustrated film pitches.

However, I do enjoy film as a medium, and I’ll always watch a new Christopher Nolan film, so you’re getting some thoughts about The Dark Knight.Before we begin, I’m going to state that I wasn’t as impressed by this one as the previous film – the take on the character of Batman is darker than I’d like, and indee Batman/Bruce Wayne is almost a supporting character. Having said that, and thus gone against the growing consensus that this is Citizen Kane but done right and with Batman in it, I will say that it is an excellent film, and almost certainly the best of the year. Just not the best of all time, or even the decade, and probably not even Nolan’s best.

Now, apparently it’s good form to mention the presence of plot points in the review, but frankly I think that if you’re going to read someone reviewing a film you should expect plot points to get mentioned. The film, however, isn’t really one that can be ‘spoiled’ – there’s no big twist (the goodies win) and most of the tension is built up by the moral choices the characters have to make, rather than by any great hidden secrets or surprise twists and turns – there is essentially nothing in the plot itself that isn’t predictable (and for those worrying if there’ll be another film, the stock plot here is ‘second part of a trilogy’ rather than ‘stand-alone sequel’ – there’s some heavy-handed dialogue that suggests the next film will feature Catwoman and Robin).

The rather startling thing is that for all the pyrotechnics, it really is a character piece. That shouldn’t really be surprising given the calibre of the actors involved, but we’ve recently seen Iron Man, for example, have some wonderful performances in the service of action sequences (not that there’s anything wrong with that – Iron Man was a very good film of its type). In this film, on the other hand, the big set-piece action sequences feel almost bolted on – they’re done very well, and well-integrated with the rest of the film, but you could tell essentially the same story with a tenth of the budget.

Almost everyone has praised Heath Ledger’s performance to the skies. I wasn’t quite as impressed – it was a good performance, but I doubt it would be *as* highly praised as it is had he not died. Still, it *is* the best thought-out performance in a film full of excellent actors. In particular, while nothing the Joker does is funny, the *performance* is a funny one – Ledger does everything with a comic timing that makes you think something funny is going on even when it isn’t. The voice he puts on reminds me very much of Christopher Lloyd, but more than that the physical mannerisms of the character *are* those of Jack Lemmon – in particular in his drag scene the Joker moves so much like ‘Daphne’ in Some Like It Hot that it must have been a conscious decision to model the performance after Lemmon.

While the film owes a *lot* to various comics, the basic plot is one that has been used in everything from An Inspector Calls to Stephen King’s Needful Things, but is probably most familiar from Westerns – a stranger comes to town and makes everyone confront their own choices and realise who they really are. As a result, every major character in the film becomes a moral actor – the choices almost everyone makes have very real consequences (the exception being Rachel Womaninrefrigerator’s choices, which have no impact on anyone’s life except that of Alfred).

What Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer have done is take that ur-plot, and then build it up using elements from various of the better Batman comics from throughout the last 70 years. So we have the Joker’s plot coming from the very first Joker story by way of The Joker’s Five Way Revenge, the central moral dilemma (and the look of a couple of shots) coming from The Killing Joke, and the characterisation of the Joker being lifted from Arkham Asylum. I’d actually be very surprised as well if here wasn’t some co-ordination between the Batman editorial offices and the filmmakers given some of the resemblances between parts of the plot and some of what Grant Morrison’s been doing, especially the Batman imitators at the beginning of the film.

One of the more asinine claims being made about The Dark Knight is that it’s a ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing’ film, because of presumed parallels with the ‘war on terror’. It’s entirely possible that the people making the film had that interpretation in mind (I know nothing of their politics), but I’d suggest that given that those fighting the ‘terrorist’ are portrayed as either spineless, amoral or psychotic, and that their behaviour leads directly to the deaths of hundreds of innocents and to property destruction on an almost apocalyptic scale, it is possibly not the pro-Bush rah-rah fest certain conservative commentators would suggest.

In reality, whatever their politics, the Nolan brothers (I’m discountiing Goyer’s influence here – his contribution seems from what I’ve read to have been to bring in elements from The Long Halloween, most of which is thankfully not visible in the finished film, though it serves as a framework for parts of Two-Face’s story) have far too nuanced a viewpoint to make propaganda for one side or another. The mistake the right-wingers have made is to view the film as a superhero film (to be fair, a reasonable mistake). Batman is the goody, and so if he spies on the whole city, that must be good, because the goody did it. (This thinking in fact explains a large majority of the right-wing commentariat’s opinions over the last few years).

In fact, for all its superhero trappings, this film is part-Western, part noir. Where it really excels is in its portrayal of chaos – it’s far more believeable that Gotham is being destroyed in this film than it was in Batman Begins. It’s a genuinely dark, scary vision. (I’d use phrases like ‘post-Katrina’ here if I was only slightly more of a fool than I am). The introduction of one minor random element managing to upset the whole delicately-balanced machinery of civilisation is all too plausible.

But its major theme, taken from The Killing Joke, is about what it takes to cause that chaos, and what it takes to make people break. For plot reasons, the film takes a slightly different line to the comic in its view on this – one bad day *does* manage to break Harvey Dent (SPOILER – he becomes Two Face. There, I’ve ruined it for you). Dent breaks because he’s too rigid, so when pressure is put on him he snaps. On the other hand, both Gordon and Batman compromise – they bend – and so they escape with their sanity intact, but at a huge cost (Gordon can’t trust the people he’s nominally in charge of, most of whom are working for the mob or the Joker, Batman is wanted for multiple murders and has lost the person who is, next to Alfred, his most important ally, as well as losing his love interest). You either try to fight corruption, in which case you break, or you try to compromise with corruption, in which case you become corrupt.

So the film for the most part has a bleak view of human existence – but a way out is shown by the boat scenes. I actually thought, in keeping with the rest of the film, that this literal ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ (but set up to make conflict, rather than co-operation, the rational solution) would end with the prisoners choosing not to set off the detonator, the ‘good citizens’ choosing to set off theirs, only for the Joker to have lied and have the ‘good citizens’ actually blow their own boat up. However, the film takes a less bleak view of human nature than either myself or most economists would take, and has both sides make an irrational choice, with a Batman-ex-machina to save everyone from the consequences of that irrationality.

So what is the political interpretation of that scene?
Maybe it’s a pacifist-anarchist film, suggesting that the only way to be good is to disengage from the whole process.
Maybe it’s anti-pacifism, showing that you can only choose to disengage from violence if you have Batman to commit it for you.
Maybe it’s a fascist film – the groups on the boat managed to show a strength through unity, and neither break nor bend, just like fasces.
Maybe it’s a wishy-washy liberal film – accept the compromises so long as you don’t have to see them.

Or maybe the film has a point of view that is nuanced, complex, and wholly unrelated to the real world, because the Joker and Batman aren’t real. Do you think it might be that? Actually, any political subtext seems to be at best tertiary after the aims of telling a story about three characters going through hell in their own ways and delivering action adventure that can be turned into cool toys.

The film isn’t perfect by a long way – there are far too many examples of characters giving long speeches about their place in the world, rather than just letting us infer these things from their actions, and these could easily have been cut. And Rachel Loveinterestgoboom is as much of a cipher as in the previous film, although at least this time she’s a cipher portrayed by a competent actor. But once again Nolan’s actually given us a film that’s as complex and interesting as some of the better Batman comics, and better than most.

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24 Responses to The Dark Knight – Conservative, but also liberal, pacifist, fascist, nihilist…

  1. Josh says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a bit now (the former “Don’t Worry About Countdown”), and I have to say I am quite impressed with your various analyses. I appreciated you pointed out the nuances in the (if any) political subtext in the film, as far too many reviews I’ve seen have attempted to stack the evidence in favor of one interpretation rather than the other (unsuccessfully in my opinion).

    The role of the conflict between self-interest vs. compassion and the various other moral questions that arise in the film is something I found to be most interesting when viewing the film.

    Take for example the hospital situation. (spoiler) Would it have been morally legitimate, if the Joker could have been trusted, to simply kill the reporter for the sake of those in the hospital? The one for the good of the many, the classic Utilitarian problem.

    Or, moving past such obvious comparisons, the question of what motivates people. People reeled at Hobbes when they took Leviathan and his other writings on politics/morality to be based on an egoist theory of ethics. The idea that we didn’t have some real type of empathy or “moral sense” was confronted by responses from Hutcheson to Hume. Whatever your take on the debate, the question becomes interesting when you start to look at the hospital scenario from this perspective. Are people acting out of empathy for those in the hospitals, or is it simply for their own self interest and what they get from the relationships with those in the hospitals. Were any of the “potential gunmen” without a loved one in the hospital?

    While I should note I have some bias when viewing the film (I am currently teaching ethics during my time as a master’s student in a philosophy program), I think the film has great potential, given its popularity, to serve as an interesting intuition/thought-pump regarding these, and other, moral questions. (Moving beyond the typical “Is Batman a criminal or do the ends justify the means?” sort of questions.)

    Obviously this may be going a bit beyond what the Nolan’s were aiming for, but the film has some interesting illustrative scenarios for delving into some of the classic questions of moral philosophy.

    Okay, I am rambling, perhaps a bit incoherently at this point. I just wanted to thank you for keeping up an interesting blog. I hope you’re enjoying Final Crisis as much as I am.

  2. olsenbloom says:

    Thanks for the comments – I’m too tired to reply properly, but your points are all good ones.
    And I thought I was the only person who was enjoying Final Crisis – its critical reception has been rather poor, but I think it’s shaping up to be one of the best things Morrison’s ever done…

  3. Bubba says:

    …I’d suggest that given that those fighting the ‘terrorist’ are portrayed as either spineless, amoral or psychotic, and that their behaviour leads directly to the deaths of hundreds of innocents and to property destruction on an almost apocalyptic scale, it is possibly not the pro-Bush rah-rah fest certain conservative commentators would suggest.

    It seems to me that the movie broke from comics like The Killing Joke precisely in repudiating Moore’s view that Batman’s psychotic: he and Gordon are portrayed as truly heroic. And I have no idea how any action taken by Batman, Gordon, or Dent lead “directly” to hundreds of deaths or wide-scale destruction.

    (For that matter, I’m not sure Bruce lost Lucius as an ally, since the controversial gadget was clearly destroyed at the film’s end. Lucius’ ultamatum was “it goes, or I do,” and the gadget went.)

    I’m certainly skeptical of the claim that Nolan intended direct parallels between Batman and George W. Bush, but I think this particular response isn’t based on what actually took place on screen.

  4. olsenbloom says:

    I didn’t say *Batman* was psychotic – Dent is the psychotic in that list. But neither Batman or Gordon are portrayed as heroic, by any means.
    As for actions taken by Batman and Gordon, Batman dismisses the Joker as a threat and goes after the mob instead, and then spends a lot of time agonising about whether or not to reveal his ID. Meanwhile Gordon ignores Dent’s warnings about his staff, who feed the Joker the information he needs to kill people.

  5. Bubba says:

    If Dent is the psychotic in the list, what from those three choices describes Batman or Gordon? Which one’s spineless or amoral? I disagree strongly with the claim that neither are portrayed as heroic. They’re definitely and arguably misguided (particularly in their final decision vis-a-vis Dent’s legacy), but they do fight honorably in defense of worthy causes.

    And I know that Batman initially chose to go after the mob instead of the Joker, that he didn’t reveal his identity, that Gordon worked with cops who were investigated by IAD, etc. But in none of these examples do their actions lead “directly” to mass death or mass destruction. That adverb ignores the moral culpability of the Joker.

  6. olsenbloom says:

    Batman lets an innocent man be arrested rather than confess to his crimes, possibly at least in part out of jealousy. He also spies on an entire city, kidnaps people from other countries, and drops people off buildings, breaking their legs.

    Gordon, meanwhile, accepts the corruption in his own unit, accepts working with a wanted vigilante, lets his family be lied to about his own death…

    These aren’t heroic actions, or honourable ones. They’re the actions of cowards. And it doesn’t ignore the moral culpability of the Joker to say that if Gordon had sacked the people under his command who he knew to be corrupt, they wouldn’t have fed information to the Joker and he wouldn’t have been able to do the damage he did.

    It’s overly simplistic to read *any* character in this film as being good or heroic, except maybe those on the boats – the best you can do is split them into characters who do bad things for good reasons (Alfred, Fox, etc) and those who do bad things for bad or unknowable reasons (the Joker, Two-Face etc), with most characters falling somewhere in the middle.

  7. Bubba says:

    I don’t believe the movie actually makes clear that Gordon knew his men were corrupt — he did ask Dent who was responsible for kidnapping him — and Batman’s actions regarding Maroni, for instance, were brutal, but I don’t think it’s fair to say he kidnapped and injured “people” as if he wasn’t quite deliberate in avoiding hurting random, innocent civilians to focus on mob bosses and their money launderers.

    Their decisions were not made in a vaccuum: they were, at least arguably, the best decisions in a very bad situation. To ignore the context of their actions to denigrate them as dishonorable cowards is to ignore the fundamental small-c conservative insight into real life, that there are no solutions to the problems of mankind, only tradeoffs.

  8. olsenbloom says:

    Kidnap and assault don’t somehow become moral actions if ‘good people’ do them.

    And I’m not ignoring the ‘no solutions, only tradeoffs’ thing – if anything, I’m emphasising it. But the point is that that kind of view (which I don’t think is an especially conservative one) is incompatible with the idea of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. And while those decisions may have been made for the ‘right’ reasons, what you actually have in the film is a set of people making decisions to take actions like tolerating corruption, torturing people for information (that they don’t have) and spying on an entire city; and those decisions having exactly the opposite effect from what they intended.

    You will note that the people in the boats didn’t compromise…

  9. Bubba says:

    It’s not clear to me that Batman’s interrogating Maroni and his spying on all of Gotham had “exactly the opposite effect from what they intended.” They were intended to stop the Joker, and at least the latter did have a role in accomplishing exactly that.

    I’m reminded of a point made at National Review Online, here.

    When confronted with the assertion that the Soviet Union and the United States were moral equivalents, William F. Buckley responded that if one man pushes an old lady into an oncoming bus and another man pushes an old lady out of the way of a bus, we should not denounce them both as men who push old ladies around.

    In other words, context matters.

    I agree that “Kidnap and assault don’t somehow become moral actions if ‘good people’ do them.”

    But that doesn’t mean those actions are always and in all cases immoral. Assault can be morally permissible — and even morally obligatory — in certain circumstances.

  10. olsenbloom says:

    And this is our fundamental disagreement. I can imagine situations where assaulting someone was the only choice available. I can imagine situations where I might theoretically assault someone (if I’d seen them hurting my wife, for example). I cannot imagine any situation where it would be the right thing to do.

    Your argument essentially boils down to ‘the ends justify the means’. In reality, I don’t think they do. And within the film, it’s at least arguable enough that my initial point (that neat comfortable goodie and baddie divisions don’t work in this film) still stands.

  11. Wyatt says:

    Hmmmm,
    I love that thou art so blind. If this is your so called “analysis” of the movie, then please, get me a job where you work, so I can outshine your biased attempts at movie reviews. Isn’t it interesting to write off clear cut parallels as “nuance” and “complexity”? Read your history, vagueness begets vagueness and so we are ground to a halt in the things that have become too vague. Let me enlighten you. The fact that you are writing and then arguing means that this isn’t just cartoon, all things created are an attempt to explain, or a direct explanation signifying that the creator knows the Truth. So to presuppose things like, “killing is immoral” or “harming is immoral”, begs the question, “by what moral authority do you make these claims from, because as it sounds, you make them yourself and I’m hard pressed to believe you if you cannot lay out reason and logic behind them. Please do not mistake my ad hominum for distrust in your claims, you just give no basis, and for that I will be merciless.

    “These aren’t heroic actions, or honourable ones. They’re the actions of cowards. And it doesn’t ignore the moral culpability of the Joker to say that if Gordon had sacked the people under his command who he knew to be corrupt, they wouldn’t have fed information to the Joker and he wouldn’t have been able to do the damage he did.”

    So when did Gordon compromise? In working with a known vigilante? Hmmm, so you put the laws of man above what is right and wrong. He wasn’t compromising, he was doing what was right, which I suppose you will say is subjective? As for Batman, he doesn’t ‘fess up for a few reasons: he is still needed because the city will burn without him, and he needs to draw attention from Dent. He didn’t let Dent take the blame, he took it for him and made sure the public would think he, the Batman, killed those people. Because, you see, people are sheep and the sheep need a scapegoat. The majority isn’t comfortable with the idea of death and murder and destruction, but the world makes sure it is always there.
    So yes, a point I will grant you, the ends don’t justify the means, but the means are justifiable beyond your definition of them. Each person must choose what they will do to another in circumstances unforetold, but the harming of another is only ever, bottom line, a physical evil. Beyond that depends on the circumstance. I would be curious to know, what will a man suffer should he break your “moral” definition, or will he at all? Just what and who does justify the means?
    As for the actions of Cowards, you are telling me that to fake your death to stay alive long enough to make a difference doesn’t trump the harms that may befall his family (emotionally, I presume.)
    You see, “the world turns evil when good men become complacent”. Sometimes “assault” as you call it, is needed in more circumstances than just your loved ones. There is a huge irony in that we think the world should “talk” and have “dialogues” but the truth is it won’t and never will, because too many people believe too strongly in too many things. So when conflict arises, the people who really get things done are the ones who “do”-In the words of the lovely Jane’s Addiction, “no talk, all action”.
    As for political parallels, they were quite clear, which is why they are recognized by so many, beyond mouthpieces, I’m talking people down on the street. You can cut this thing to bits, the parallels were there, and furthermore-that’s to be expected. I think above this, is the fact that it represented Truth, which history shows (with all the follies of man) is the way man should act. All cultures sing the praises of the Virtues, whether pagan or Christian. These abstracts and actions are the way “things ought to be” because without them, each man truly gets away with murder. Imagine if we all tried to “sort out” our differences. Men good and bad alike would soon be vying for control, because the talkers are left defenseless. Might should not make right, but it does make reality come slamming in your face, and that is the reason good people do “bad” things.

  12. olsenbloom says:

    *sigh*
    Wyatt, if you want a serious answer, then try writing in plain English, actually saying what you mean rather than rambling incoherently. In particular, archaisms, Capitalised Abstract Nouns, misspelled Latin tags and the misuse of the phrase ‘beg the question’ mean it’s impossible to actually get any real meaning from your post. Oh, there’s a general sense of your point-of-view (which is mostly that it’s sometimes OK to beat people up if there’s a ‘good’ reason for it), but you don’t actually make anything even approaching a logical point, or a point with any real-world referent, so I can’t actually answer you. Further posts from yourself or along those lines will be ignored unless these faults are corrected.

    And I’m not sure why you think your skills (or otherwise) at film reviewing would help you in a job where I work – writing film reviews is not actually an important part of a software test engineer job…

  13. Bubba says:

    Very briefly…

    And this is our fundamental disagreement. I can imagine situations where assaulting someone was the only choice available. I can imagine situations where I might theoretically assault someone (if I’d seen them hurting my wife, for example). I cannot imagine any situation where it would be the right thing to do.

    I believe that, as the phrase goes, “ought implies can.” If what would otherwise be “the right thing to do” isn’t actually an option, it’s not the right thing to do. Instead, the right thing is (at least) one of the options that are actually available.

    If all the options are bad to some degree or another, the morally obligatory option is the one that is least bad.

    It’s less that “the ends justify the means,” and more a philosophy of choosing the lesser of two evils. If those two are only options, then the lesser really is the good and moral choice simply because it’s the least bad one that’s available.

    If someone disagreed with that position — and it appears that we do — I could see how we would reach the wildly disparate conclusions that we have, regarding The Dark Kinght.

    Interesting essay, either way.

  14. Wyatt says:

    Oh, no need to sigh, Olsenbloom,
    Your house, your rules and so I humbly accept two of your corrections: begging the question and ad hominem. Yet the article still stands, archaic and unanswered. What matter, I read and think more than talk and write, and so as I learn to write, I will accept any corrections of mere grammar.
    As for your insistence on not being able to understand or answer the post, let’s not kid ourselves. If I, a sane and reasonable being wrote in a sane and reasonable manner, what is there not to understand? Furthermore, we both sit behind a screen to argue, make the best of it man! You and I both know their is no weight in arguing against slightly marred grammar (feel free to pick apart the rest). I agree that it should be learned and applied well, but if it lacked so much as for you not to understand it, that reflects on you. Again I say, do not hide and answer the questions at hand. I will not take the time to pick apart your runtogetherwords and “goody/baddy” childishness (as well as your redundancy in the breaking and snapping of Dent.) If you argue that I am archaic, I say you are a modern. Let’s not get bogged down, shall we?
    You see, as I clearly stated before, I am questioning your moral compass. In the case of the boats, you state both sides make an irrational choice. It was clearly not irrational. If we are to assume that economics motivates man, then it might be irrational, but something else runs man altogether: the belief in being subject to a higher power, a greater good. Call it what you will, it is the paradox that the Natural is less real than the Supernatural. It is only irrational to the person who does not see the end game. Even Aristotle argued that to live virtuously was better than living selfishly. Batman says the statement that makes the parallel I am trying to show, “people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Those who made the “irrational” choice were trusting that the “higher power” would save them. They probably weren’t thinking so much of Batman as of the Afterlife and God at that particular moment, but all the same, the parallel remains, God wants all the love, but can take all the hate that we pile up on Him. If a vote was cast and one or the other agreed to blow the ferry up, imagine the culpability on the souls of the survivors, they chose the rational. Finally, if you dismiss my post as rambling and incoherent, I say that is cowardice, if this is for whoever shall read, then answer me!!!

  15. olsenbloom says:

    “If I […] wrote in a sane and reasonable manner, what is there not to understand?”
    Quite. It’s not your atrocious grammar that’s the problem. It’s the fact that you consistently use words with no real-world referent, which in turn makes it literally impossible to have a meaningful conversation about whatever it is you’re trying to say.

    “Those who made the “irrational” choice were trusting that the “higher power” would save them.”

    Exactly. Irrational.

    However, since you are clearly incapable of seeing the difference between my views and those I claim are expressed in a film; since you are also clearly incapable of writing in plain English; since you have yet to actually express anything approaching a coherent opinion, and since you cannot write a paragraph without insulting me, then I fear we have nothing more to say to each other.

    In so far as you appear to have any point whatsoever, it appears to have been expressed rather better by ‘Bubba’, with whom I disagree, but who has at least stated a viewpoint with which I am *able* to disagree, and who has done so clearly and without attacks on my character. Until you learn to do the same, please stop clogging up the comments here with this piffle – I (and I hope the few readers I have) am interested in signal, not noise.

  16. Wretched says:

    i don’t know, it sounds like that guy might have a point.

  17. olsenbloom says:

    Odd that you’d think that, what with you living so close to him. Maybe the two of you should hang out…

  18. Wretched says:

    i mean, with all respect, there is a lot of stuff in what he said taht made sense to me.

  19. olsenbloom says:

    Such as?

  20. Wretched says:

    i don’t know, that stuff about batman taking the blame for harvey. thats kinda of courageous, right

  21. olsenbloom says:

    Except firstly that it’s ‘Batman’ rather than Bruce Wayne that takes the blame – all he has to do is take off the mask and voila! No Batman any more – and secondly that that decision is made at the *end* of the film, which means it’s made after Batman’s character has been changed by events. It also means that that decision, unlike the other ones in the film, has no in-film consequences.

    And I never claimed that Batman didn’t show courage in the film – clearly all that fighting heavily-armed people, driving through explosions etc would require courage.

  22. Wretched says:

    yeah, he does take off the mask, but he is still is the same man he’s gotta live with those consequences in his public life even if its in his head

  23. Wretched says:

    and also, either way he is mask on or off gotham needs him right

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