The Dark Knight & Tapping The Cultural Zeitgeist

To borrow a line from Bela Lugosi: “Beware! Spoilers Aplenty!”

After finally getting around to seeing The Dark Knight the other night, I formulated my own li’l theory as to why this film has become the box office phenom it has, as opposed to the seemingly countless other blow’d up REAL good comic book movies that serve as fan boy Viagra. What Nolan has done with a Batman/Joker battle is frame it in the terms of post 9/11 America – if you have a battle between civilization and anarchy, to what degree do that civilization’s defenders have to break their own rules to stop the anarchist?

In what becomes a key scene late in the film, Joker explains to Harvey/Two-Face how everyone on the civilized side “has a plan” and how people go wacko whenever things do not conform to some set plan. The three main defenders of law & order in the movie each have their own plan to clean up Gotham and restore the rule of law: Batman’s plan is that of a self-appointed vigilante – he personally takes on the criminals with all sorts of expensive weapon/toys at his disposal simply because he can and because he wants to and is willing to. Crusading D.A. Harvey Dent’s plan is to smash the mobs with RICO and the courts, though he’s willing to turn to Batman to snag an important witness basically by kidnapping him from foreign soil. Eventual Commissioner Gordon’s plan is to rely on cops he trusts (a shrinking commodity in corrupt Gotham) and play good cop to Batman’s bad cop – turning to Batman to act outside the law while Gordon looks the other way. Even in the end, when Batman takes on the role of hated scapegoat for all of Gotham’s ills in order for people to go on believing in Dent before half his face burned off (amazingly no flies pick at it) and he went nuts, Gordon and his cops “pursue” him as pure kabuki theater, all to keep the public snowed as to who the heroes really are.

Joker’s plans are to create anarchy, to turn the tide against the gradual strengthening of civilized law and order that he feels Batman’s vigilantism began. The allusions to Al Qaeda are repeated throughout the film: Joker leaves video messages where he kills hostages, including one where he kills one of the numerous copycat Batman wanna-bes after unmasking him. The image of Joker dangling the rubber mask in front of the camera unmistakably evokes the iconography of the decapitation videos posed online by Al Qaeda. This thought is planted in our heads early in the film, and as we watch how Joker’s minions seem to be everywhere, how no one can be trusted, and how his goals are basically to instill fear at a level where everyone turns on each other in a Hobbesean all-against-all, the comparisons between Joker’s goals and Bin Laden’s become very similar. Joker is called a “terrorist” more than a criminal throughout the film as well. When Bruce Wayne opines to Alfred about the Joker’s possible motives, Alfred explains to him that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Ironically, when Bruce asks Alfred to finish his story on how Alfred and his British troops dealt with a similar bandit in faraway jungles, the answer winds up being “We burned the forest down.” Does Batman have to destroy Gotham City in order to save it? Jeesh! Perhaps Oliver Stone will direct THAT version.)

Joker’s sadistic “social experiment” finale between the two ferry boats also becomes a metaphor along these lines – we have one boat of good citizens, one of criminals – set against each other in a twisted extortion to see if one will kill the other in order to save themselves. Will good kill bad or will bad kill good? The Joker’s motif throughout the movie is to force people into that position – every corrupt cop is revealed as the victim of a blackmail, or a threat to someone they love – clown-masked “henchmen” are actually hostages themselves, forced to become SWAT targets, etc. Joker wants people to turn on each other, to see just how much they are willing to let others die and suffer just to save their own individual ass. It’s similar to his explanation of why he prefers using a knife, so that his victims “reveal who they really are” by dying slowly. So, who is willing to sacrifice themselves to save civilization? Joker says no one will if he can dictate the circumstance – Batman acts and believes otherwise, and is proven right in the end when both boats, despite coming up to the edge, cannot bring themselves to commit mass murder (with a great small role for Tiny Lister!) What if one boat was filled with Daily Kos/Code Pink Leftos and the other with Ann Coulter/Religious Right Conservatives? Now THAT would have been interesting to see – cutting between people fighting over who gets to press the detonator on each boat, never mind debating whether or not to do it! Now before you say “sink ’em both and save the rest of us,” for a more sobering comparison, think of one boat full of Sunnis and the other full of Shia after Joker has blown up the Golden Mosque in order to prevent a civil society from taking root. Then the eerie comparisons between the movie and the current state of the world become more significant.

Now, others like Andrew Klavan have also picked up on this motif in the film, though Klavan lets his own politics bend his theories a bit as to what the characters represent. I don’t think they represent individual people so much as they represent plans, methods and ideologies. Gordon’s method is familiar to us – someone who stands for upholding the law who will turn to extralegal methods to get the job done – and if that job is done, the public won’t ask how. Poll the public on what interrogation methods are permissible if they lead to actionable intelligence and you’ll see Gordon’s method in action. But who would be willing to perform the waterboarding? Well, now we’re talkin’ Batman, but since this is a movie and Batman is the good guy (never mind that you could easily diagnose Bruce Wayne as a psycho, or “freak” as Joker correctly identifies) Batman will never perform these methods on the wrong guy, or get carried away with his self-appointed power. After abusing some Lucius Fox technology to literally spy on EVERYONE in Gotham City, he enables Lucius to destroy that technology once the job is done, and as this happens on screen, we are told how such actions “restore our faith,” which I guess is what everyone who hates The Patriot Act and FISA roaming wiretaps is waiting for. Is the job done yet? You make the call!

Like I said, everything happening in this movie evokes the debates America is having with itself since the real possibility of an anarchic threat against those facets of civilized life we take for granted (mostly unfettered civilian mobility) appeared in our lives. But it’s Harvey Dent that becomes even more interesting here – even before becoming Two-Face, he’s flipping a loaded coin to decide some issues and protecting Batman (and hence Batman’s methods) even at the cost of his own reputation and career. Once he has been scarred, once he has lost enough in his life to throw away his rulebook and take the law into his own hands, he begins by hunting down those actually responsible for his personal tragedy but then carries it too far in paranoia by going after Gordon’s family in the end. In this way, Harvey shows us the danger of taking the Batman path – it seems only Batman is truly good enough on the inside to handle it – Batman will not break his own rule of never becoming what he fights, something that the Joker consistently tests him on, whether by standing in the path of his magic Batcycle or his surprise when Batman stops his death fall from the abandoned office building in the end.

So Batman is willing to carry the burdens of others’ wrongs while never giving in to personal revenge. I’m sure there’s a “Batman-as-Christ-figure” academic paper out there someplace taking that particular angle to its logical ends, but I’m not in the mood to ape it right now.

Even the labelling of Batman as the Dark Knight plays into this, since Dent is labelled the White Knight. They are like the two sides of Harvey’s coin – both interested in the same thing, but which method to use? Should we flip the coin as Harvey does in the end once one side is burned and creates a chance for a different result, much like Harvey himself? Are we as a society flipping the coin after we’ve been burned too? Nolan cuts back and forth between Batman and Dent similarly to the way he cuts between the decision making on the ferryboats in the finale – switching from “light” to “dark” until they meet somewhere in the middle.

So if you ask me (and you didn’t) there’s a lot more going on in Dark Knight than superheroes fighting supervillains. Much the way that you can learn about America’s mood in World War 2 by watching Casablanca or our mood in the Cold War by looking at Manchurian Candidate, what Nolan has accomplished here captures America’s mood in the early years of this century – we are within an often contentious debate over how we are supposed to defend civilized society itself, and this movie reflects many of the darker aspects of what we must face within ourselves. Good God, a movie about a guy in a rubber bat mask chop-sockeying criminals dressed like evil clowns, and dare I say it… it’s an important film! Who saw THAT coming??

Let’s lighten things up a bit with a reminder that even earlier versions of Batman played around with the idea of “dichotomy.” Two-Face has NOTHING on Adam West!

Now, Cesar Romero turning Gotham’s water supply into strawberry jelly…. THAT’S a threat even Nolan is afraid to put into his supposedly “realistic” film. Until I see the UN dehydrated again, I think I’ll be sleeping like a baby at night.

Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb…


3 thoughts on “The Dark Knight & Tapping The Cultural Zeitgeist

Add yours

  1. Brilliant analysis of the film – most reviews I’ve seen have praised the film without really getting at what makes it so great; it’s nice to read an analysis that gets beneath the surface.

  2. Thanks! I’m amazed (especially with my advancing senility) how much of the film stuck in my brain after a single viewing.

    I also keep thinking how the film presents Alfred as an invisible hand of sorts behind Bruce/Batman, pretty much raising him after mom & dad get blown away in the last film, and in this chapter reminding him of why he’s invested so much of himself & his trust fund into titanium Batsuits and wacky weapons, and also urging him on with an argument of why we need a good man to make the sacrifice of willing to be despised for doing the right thing by unsavory means. Bruce Wayne jokes that if he’s caught, he’ll blame the entire thing on Alfred – but there’s an air of truth to that, isn’t there?

    Though every time I see Michael Caine, I can’t help thinking about some interview he gave years ago where he was basically asked why, as such a wonderful actor, he’d make indefensible crap like Jaws The Revenge, and he stroked his chin a bit and simply answered in that wonderful accent: “I wanted a Jag-u-ar…

  3. Nolan seems to have pegged Caine as his go-to guy when a mentor figure is called for (see also: The Prestige). It’s very difficult for Wayne/Batman to go wrong when he has both Caine and Morgan Freeman keeping him on track…

    The Dark Knight is definitely a film that sears itself into memory, and there’s a lot to think about.

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