The Dark Knight: Batman, Bush, and the American Conscience

new_dark_knight_batman_wallpaper_2I admit that when it comes to being able to take in the latest box office happenings I am often late to the party. Time and budgetary restraints mean that I usually take in recent films as they come out on DVD. Thankfully the lag between box office and DVD debuts are shrinking these days.

Last night I rented a few DVDs from my local RedBox display which included The Dark Knight, a film which my family saw this summer but which I was unable to take in. As a result of last night’s screening, although these thoughts are belated, I will share some of my reflections on the film for what they are worth.

In my view this is the best of the series of Batman films over the years, and while I have my appreciation for the way in which this character has been treated by different directors and filmmakers in the past, what I appreciated about The Dark Knight was the loosening of its moorings from the realm of comic books which results in its a context closer to the real world and its challenges. This different context is evident itself from the opening scene where Gotham City is presented less in surrealistic and comic book form and more akin to a large, contemporary urban environment, such as New York City. The change of context and scenery is significant in light of the background issue explored in the film, the global “war on terror.”

Of course, I am by no means the first commentator to see this connection to the film. A number of newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs have discussed the issues related to terrorism that are explored through Batman’s clash with the Joker, but in my reading of much of the commentary a couple of interpretive elements have been missed. Before I suggest these recall how The Dark Knight explores terrorism. In the past as Batman fought various bad guys they were construed as comic book villains pursuing their evil deeds within the context of civil criminal activity. With The Dark Knight this changes and the Joker is called a terrorist at several points in the film. Beyond this several elements in the film parallel contemporary debates over terrorism and its relationship to civil liberties. At one point in the film Commissioner Gordon turns his back and suspends the Joker’s civil rights during interrogation and brings in Batman to beat him into providing important information that can save lives. This scene parallels the cultural debate over definitions of torture in relation to perceptions of imminent terrorist attack. There is also question raised in the film as to where the Joker and his henchman are best kept imprisoned. This parallels debate over Guantanamo Bay and whether this facility can or should be closed with the new presidential administration. And finally, among Batman’s vast array of technological wizardry in this film, his final tool utilizes a form of sonar that taps into the cell phones of Gotham’s citizenry. This parallels the debate over privacy rights and wiretapping under the Bush Administration.

This brings us to a consideration of additional aspects of the film. Much of what I describe above has been recognized in other commentary, but two important and controversial facets are missing in my view. First, not only does The Dark Knight raise issues related to the contemporary ‘war on terror,” but it does so with the dramatization of Bush Administration policies that carry over into Gotham City’s fight against the Joker. Beyond this it seems to do so positively. To be sure the film wrestles with the ethical problems associated with such stances. There is recognition that such policies and actions enter questionable ethical ground that would not be considered if circumstances were not so dire. But the film’s leading “good guy” characters seem to support such actions and are willing to live with the ethical tension that surrounds them.

Which leads me to the second element of the film that appears to be missing in much of the commentary. The film presents “good” and heroic characters in an ambiguous sense. In this film Nietzsche’s saying that “He who fights monsters should look into it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the Abyss, the abyss also gazes into you” is realized in Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent, but most especially in Batman himself. The Dark Knight presents the kind of “monster slayers” that are fit for our post-Vietnam, post-modern, post-9/11 world, the kind of monster hunters Heather Duda speaks about The Monster Hunter in Popular Culture (McFarland, 2008), where the monster hunters live in a gray ethical area “where the battle is often with their own inner natures as much as with the ‘evil’ they fight.” In this way the heroic monster hunters frequently resemble the monsters they seek to destroy.

Considered in this light another aspect of symbolism seems to come to the surface in The Dark Knight. At the conclusion of the film Batman makes the decision to continue to be the outcast, taking the blame for killings he did not commit, and continuing to follow his controversial pathway in fighting Gotham City’s evil. Might Batman then be a symbol for post-9/11 America as a country under the Bush Administration, a country which lost its sense of national purity post-Vietname/Watergate and has looked into the abyss of terrorism resulting in a course of action in fighting terrorism that is controversial and yet its leadership has seemed willing to continue to bear that stigma as it hovers on the fringes as the outcast Superpower?

If my reading of the film has merit, and a positive acceptance of Bush Administration policies on terrorism serve as a backdrop for many elements of the film, then I am greatly surprised that it did as well as it did at the box office. True, the film is very well done on a number of levels, but given its apparent acceptance of controversial policies as a foundation for the film, and much of America’s opposition to such practices (at least in many opinion polls), the box office success of the film seems counter-intuitive. One of the strengths of fantasy films is their ability to serve as a space for the engagement of foundational and at times controversial issues. Perhaps The Dark Knight is the perfect film for this time in American history as it peers into its own soul, and this facet accounts for some of its success.

As this post is uploaded we stand on the verge of the inauguration of a new presidential administration. Although candidate Obama took a firm and critical stance on issues related to terrorism that included pledges to close Guantanamo Bay, end wiretapping of international calls, and eschew interrogation techniques like waterboarding, President elect Obama seems to have slowed down on following through on these campaign promises, perhaps even backed off from such stances. The messy realities of fighting real Jokers as President is more complex than running for political office. Time will tell whether the Obama Administration continues in the way of The Dark Knight or moves the nation into other pathways in a dangerous world. But it’s interesting that it took a popular fantasy film to help the nation move beyond its divisive rhetoric to wrestle with one of the major international challenges of the twenty-first century.

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