(Note: There are no spoilers in this essay. The author made a sincere effort to avoid references or explanations that would spoil the film for those who have not seen it, but the below essay does address scenes beyond the midway point.)
Under the direction of Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight stakes out formidable ground as a definitive piece of film-making derived from graphic novels. A welcomed gritty and realistic successor to movies alternatively breathtaking and cartoonish, The Dark Knight delivers on every level – cinematically and narratively. Moreover, The Dark Knight provides an earnest and complex exploration of heroism, underscoring the ambitions and challenges a would-be redeemer bears when confronting evil. With the opportunity granted by the filmmaker to the moviegoer to interpret the film however he or she chooses, this author observes subtle references to America’s own struggle with terrorism in a post-September 11 world.
A key premise of the film is Bruce Wayne’s apprehension at continuing his vigilantism under the guise of Batman now that the citizenry and officials of Gotham have begun to reclaim the city for the better. Encountering individuals battling crime on their own, as well as an incorruptible district attorney in the form of Harvey Dent, Wayne considers hanging up the bat suit. However, Wayne cannot retreat to his mansion – complicating his departure is the appearance of the Joker, utterly psychotic and intent on eliminating Batman while reducing Gotham to chaos.
Throughout the film, Wayne/Batman continuously discusses his dilemma with Alfred, his manservant and confidant. In one exchange, Alfred, discusses his experiences with the British military chasing a bandit on the Malay peninsula, recalling how his unit’s attempts to bribe or cajole the bandit failed.
Intentional or not, the scene of the worldly Brit counseling his brash and powerful billionaire American charge symbolizes an important historical parallel, namely, the turnover of leadership and moral authority by Great Britain to America on the world stage after World War II.
Moreover, in the current war on terrorism, many thoughtful observers of the American effort have cited Britain’s success in defeating the Malay communist insurgency during the 1950s as a model for the U.S. to emulate in combating terrorists and insurgents worldwide. Indeed, LT COL John Nagl, one of the authors of the US Army’s counterinsurgency manual, had previously compared the British and American experiences in Malaysia and Vietnam, respectively, in his book Learning How To Eat Soup With a Knife, and concluded the shortcomings of the US military as a “learning organization,” unlike the British, would be a key limitation in such future conflicts.
The film does not infer the same critique because later on, Alfred admits the unit, in frustration, eventually resorted to burning down the entire jungle in order to take care of the bandit. In the Malay insurgency, the British stood up indigenous forces and countered the communist appeal by offering independence. Similarly, American leaders have readily recognized sole reliance on brute military force would be a mistake.
Nonetheless, the admission on the part of the knowing veteran to his powerful but unsteady superhero simply underscores the ambivalence even experienced leaders and decision-makers endured when facing similar challenges.
What the film is not ambivalent about is the indisputable wickedness of the Joker.
As the story elevates Joker from mob mercenary to “terrorist,” Batman and his allies wrestle with what tactics are permissible. Are traditional law enforcement techniques appropriate or should extrajudicial vigilantism and disregard for procedure be allowed? The debate occurs on many levels, within Wayne, allies Dent and Lt. Gordon, and even Gothamites themselves, who grapple with “getting their hands dirty.” In the film, Alfred settles the matter for the audience, asserting “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
The declaration sweeps aside the ambiguity inherent in technical definitions composed by social scientists about asymmetrical warfare or politically-motivated violence and its symbolism. Terrorism is indeed about asymmetry, politics, violence, and symbols, but the discussion rarely recognizes the willful violation of moral norms and coinciding psychological satisfaction the tactic brings to its perpetrators.
Annihilating the enemy may have part and parcel of the Allied campaign against the Axis, but the justification for incinerating Dresden and Nagasaki will be debated for generations; for Islamic extremists, annihilation of the infidel is a moral absolute. Mass destruction and murder are integral appeals of Islamic extremist recruiting, not Western militaries, which extol service to the nation. In this regard, whatever assumed possibility exists for persuading or deterring such enemies fades in the face of such pathology.
The Joker himself intimates as much. At the outset, Joker defines himself as a Nietzschean figure, proclaiming “I believe whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you... stranger.” When he kills his mob allies and burns the millions he stole from them, the Joker snarls mobsters are beholden only to money and Gotham deserved a “better class of criminal.” More pointedly, the Joker seduces Harvey Dent into going on a murderous rampage (“Introduce a little anarchy!”) after he’s left scarred from a rescue attempt gone awry. He convinces Dent to renounce his morality, arguing chaos is more “fair” and that Gotham failed his example.
American scholar Lee Harris identified the same delusions and temptations in Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History. In this book, Harris methodically lays out the philosophical and moral precepts of liberal civilization and the manner in which Islamic extremism is just another “fantasy ideology,” a grotesque attempt to re-order human society along totalitarian lines in the same vein as Nazism and communism. In The Dark Knight, the Joker too exists in his own moral universe and there is no opportunity for constructive dialogue.
In one sadistic gambit, the Joker takes over and cordons off the city, setting the stage for another parallel to America’s challenges in the current conflict.
As part of a “social experiment,” Joker permits one ferry filled with citizens and another with incarcerated felons to leave. Once at water, he announces each set of passengers has a detonator which will blow the other ship up; if neither ship explodes within fifteen minutes, both ferries will be destroyed. Setting each ship’s passengers against the other unleashes a torrent of raw emotions and dread. The innocents, weary of crime and terror, are more than ready to vote for the convicts’ ship’s destruction; meanwhile, the felons appear poised to overpower the guards and make the decision themselves.
Disclosing the outcome would spoil the movie, but the dilemma mirrors America’s difficulties keeping Iran in check.
As Iran, the “outlaw state,” determinedly pursues nuclear weapons, Israel, the only democratic state and sole “good citizen” in the region, moves closer to launching a preventive strike. Restraining or unleashing Israel would prove catastrophic for America’s interests in the region, while appeasing or even protecting Iran are equally loathsome options. The film’s decision as to how the passengers would respond is thought-provoking and is consistent with ongoing debates.
Balancing Joker’s gleeful malevolence is Batman’s stoic righteousness, even to the point of his likely ostracism from Gotham. As the dark knight in the film’s title, Batman is contrasted with Harvey Dent’s “white knight,” who unlike Batman, is sanctioned by the public to wage war against crime. As Gotham’s “silent guardian,” Batman must lurk in the shadows and get his hands dirty when upstanding citizens cannot.
This version of Batman is derived from graphic novelist Frank Miller’s unsentimental reinvention of the story. Miller has made no secret of his unconditional support for America in the war on terror, and in this regard, one could observe a resemblance between his conception of a hero and the current principals leading the American war on terror.
In a recent interview with Maxim magazine, Miller described a hero like Batman as he envisions him. Interestingly, some of the virtues he identifies are practiced by current American leaders and are the basis for the extensive criticism leveled against them.
The hero fights dirty: In the film, Wayne appropriates his firm’s technology to establish an unprecedented level of surveillance over the city. Similarly, Bush and Cheney have defended their interpretation of constitutional war powers in the face of tremendous opposition. Warrant-less surveillance against overseas threats and waterboarding are and remain controversial tactics employed by the administration.
The hero does nothing small: Batman’s quest for vengeance evolves into an effort to embolden upstanding citizens in Gotham. By the time President Bush delivered his second inaugural, he had transformed the war on terror into a campaign for democracy around the world.
The hero sacrifices everything: Batman must accept the death of innocents, even those close to him, in order to defeat the Joker. In the current war on terror, America has lost almost 4,000 men and women. Confounding enemies who believed America would take flight at the first instance of heavy casualties, the nation has instead recognizing the importance of the fight, accepted these losses and persevered.
The hero is hated and misunderstood: In the end, Batman is reviled and hunted. So too is President Bush. After becoming the first president in sixteen years to receive a majority of the vote, albeit a narrow one, he is exiting office with one of the lowest approval ratings in modern political history. His administration is derided as a fiasco, even though his administration has presided over the liberation of two nations and has protected the country from another mass-casualty terrorist attack.
History shows a hero’s path can be a tumultuous one. In The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, American historian Victor Davis Hanson explores the achievements of Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton. While each was an exceptional general who accomplished great things on behalf of their nations, each was at one point despised for their endeavors. Their ready recourse to moral justifications and unwavering confidence in their cause’s righteousness was controversial and alarmed those uncomfortable with such ideological fervor.
So too has the Manichean worldview of the Bush Administration. While now tempered by the challenges endured in Iraq and the turn to diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, the Bush Administration may go down as one of the more ideologically inclined presidencies in history.
And, in the manner of one of Frank Miller’s protagonists, just as heroic.
President Bush has been castigated as a “total failure” and an unrepentantly polarizing, but his predecessors (Lincoln and Truman come to mind) have as well, and his critical but controversial decisions have preserved America’s future at crucial junctures.