The Politics of Batman: The Dark Knight Of The Soul Rises

Jerry Bowyer
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Posted: Jul 20, 2012 12:01 AM

In The Dark Knight series, an elected official suggests that the city intends to arrest Batman. A female cop watching the television turns to a middle-aged detective and says something like, “The man says you’re closing in on the Batman.” The detective says that they’ve got some suspects, balls up a piece of paper and throws the wad up against a bulletin board which has photos of Elvis Presley, Bigfoot, and Abraham Lincoln. They are the political messages of the series in a nutshell:

1.      Elvis: Fame is powerful, useful and destructive. Mortal men can become immortal symbols, but they still remain mortal in reality.

2.      Bigfoot: Man is also a beast. He walks on two legs, but is he really different than an animal?

3.      Lincoln: Sometimes you have to lie, break the law and otherwise enter into temporary evils in order to do good. But it might not work for the long term and it might cost you your life.

The first film focused on the first theme. Bruce Wayne begins to conceive of Batman during his lessons about theatricality from the League of Shadows (so that you become “more than just a man” in the eyes of your opponent). The idea takes further form during his conversation with Alfred about the nature of symbols on the private plane back to America (as a symbol, he can be “incorruptible”). Bruce Wayne would not be able to rescue Gotham City, but some symbol into which Wayne could step might be able to.

Symbols have independent existence from the occupant of the symbol. This is all very 20th century philosophy and we would be surprised if Christopher Nolan did not have a reasonably thorough philosophical education. Modern philosophy is obsessed with symbols, or what they call ‘signifiers.’ This is understandable given the fact that for the most part, academic philosophy in the 20th century tended to give up on truth. What’s left after truth? The symbols that used to convey truth.

Bruce Wayne creates what we now call a personal brand. He creates a brand logo and it is literally written on the sky. Media gladly distribute and magnify the story, enhancing the fame. It’s a reality show. Batman is a Kardashian, but with a little less padding. Criminals are terrified of this image (Batman, I mean), which is inherently terrifying, and comes from a traumatic childhood experience in a cave.

The problem in the second film is that the Joker seems better at it. His personal brand is even more compelling. His mugging for the camera is more open and explicit. He covers himself in layers of makeup (another Kardashian parallel?). He captures hostages, videotapes their executions, and calls on Batman to reveal himself in order to avoid further death. He has a Masters in Marketing that trumps Batman’s MBA. The Joker succeeds and the city largely turns against Batman. By the end of the film, Batman is forced to surrender entirely to this inversion of his ‘approval rating’ and take on the persona of villain. The Joker wins the P/R battle. He (being a villain) is the better publicist.

The fact that the symbol is a splice of man and animal feeds into the series’ focus on the dual nature of man, especially in the second movie. “What’s with all the growling?” the critics asked. Answer: Batman growls (and so does the Joker, who barks, too) because Christopher Nolan is exploring human nature. Early in the movie a group of gangsters brings a pack of vicious Rottweilers to a drug deal. While the gangsters can’t seem to lay a hand on Batman, the animals actually manage to injure him. The beast, literally, is the only thing that can find the chink in his armor. The mindless, self-destructive beast is the only enemy he hadn’t prepared for.

The Joker is almost all beast: He admits that “I’m like a dog chasing cars” when he commits his atrocities. He unleashes (literally) a pack of attack dogs on Batman during their climactic confrontation at the end of The Dark Knight.  The Joker is perplexing to Bruce Wayne, who keeps trying to find ways to deal with the madman rationally. But the Joker defies all rationality. He tells fake origins stories about the scarring on his face which satirize the language of recovery and therapy, suggesting and then withdrawing the suggestion that he became who he is because of an abusive, alcoholic father. Critics have been puzzling over precisely who Heath Ledger (in the last role before his death) was channeling. I’d say that’s a complex question, but at least on one level he was mocking the whole modern notion associated with developmental psychology, that evil is the result of insufficiently loving parents. But what if the Joker is what St. Paul called ‘mysterium iniquitatis’, the mystery of evil, evil for no good reason?

This is precisely what Alfred suggests to Wayne when he says that some men are not subject to the normal human system of incentives,

Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.
Alfred Pennyworth: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: So why steal them?
Alfred Pennyworth: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

The meaning of the social experiment in the harbor is that man is more spirit than animal. Two ships, one named ‘Liberty’ and filled with innocent civilians, and the other named ‘Spirit’ and filled with hardened criminals, are both given radio devices which can trigger explosives stored aboard the other ship. The Joker’s goal is to ‘break’ the city’s ‘spirit’ (in Batman’s words), but the experiment fails. The criminals discard the trigger and spare the other ship. The citizens take a vote, deciding to destroy the other ship, but in the end lack the nerve to do so. Democracy doesn’t always give the right answer, a big theme for Nolan on the macro scale as well. Batman says the city ‘still has spirit,’ meaning that men, even criminals, are not animals. Joker, the only true beast/man stands alone.

The parallel with Lincoln comes from the idea of bending the law in order to preserve its spirit. During the Civil War Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus to preserve the Union, and people argue to this day about the constitutionality of this action (even though the Constitution clearly allows for the suspension of habeas corpus in times of “rebellion or invasion,” and one would think that half the country taking up arms against the other meets that threshold).  It was, like the very existence of Batman, a temporary measure in response to a crisis, not a long-term solution. The same goes for Batman’s lie about Harvey Dent, whose two faces amusingly—but probably unintentionally—echo Lincoln’s famous rejoinder “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

Batman’s extralegal activities have more modern parallels, as well, in that he hijacks the city’s cell phones to spy on its citizenry, a sort of one-man supercharged Patriot Act. Though in keeping with the idea of temporary solution, he rigs it to self-destruct once the situation is in hand.

This concept is part of the meditation on the idea of the ‘useful lie’ that underpins nearly all of Christopher Nolan’s filmography: Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Batman Begins. Everything except Following, which I don’t know about because I just can’t sit through those ponderous, cheap films which future directors make when they’re still in college and which future critics say showed their promise early. I still watch movies for fun.

Anyway: Memento (and things get vaguely spoilerish from here) is about a man who tells himself a lie which is intended to give his life meaning and avoid a painful trauma, but which ends up causing him to unknowingly kill the only person who is telling him the truth. The Prestige is about a few lifelong lies that aid amazing illusions and bring fame and fortune, but lead either to wasted or lost lives. Inception is about using the power to implant a useful lie which leads to the breakup of a corporation which would have caused environmental degradation, or maybe it’s just a way to get a fat fee from a competitor. Each of these films has layers of ‘useful’ lies within various subplots of the film.

The theme is most conspicuous in The Dark Knight: Not only is Bruce Wayne living a lie (that he’s a shallow billionaire playboy) in order to foster the useful lie of the Batman, but there are mini-lies throughout. Rachel, the love interest, chooses Harvey Dent, the romantic rival, but Alfred lies to Wayne about it, hiding the letter which announces her decision. The climatic lie of the film is that Harvey Dent, the heroic DA turned psychotic villain, died honorably, leaving Batman to take the blame for Dent’s misdeeds. The city, Batman reasons, needs to believe in its hero, even though he died as a villain. But that leaves the city needing someone to blame. Batman takes the role of scapegoat (which is the ultimate allegedly useful lie role). The reason he becomes the villain, Police Commissioner Gordon tells his son, is:

Lt. James Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.

It’s all for Plato’s Republic, which is not surprising given that Nolan ‘read’ (British for ‘majored in’) English literature at University College London. Plato believed that it was necessary for the health of the polis (like Gotham) that the people be told myths which are socially beneficial but factually untrue in order to provide the ethical framework necessary for the good of the state. Ethics, for Plato and Aristotle, was a subdivision of political science. Ethics was the study of the creation of men who would tend towards the strength rather than the weakness of the social body. For Plato it was necessary that men of wisdom, philosopher kings, rule over the rest of the city, and that the system of myths be used to justify that rule. In other words, the Great tell lies to the Small because the Small are like children who can’t handle the truth.

The opposite side of that argument is taken up by Jesus of Nazareth (almost undoubtedly educated in Alexandria in the philosophy of Plato, which was very influential in the Jewish community in Egypt during the years when Jesus hid there). He tells stories which the Great have trouble understanding, but which the small, the anawim, the people from whom his disciples are drawn, are more able to understand.

“I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.”

If the New Testament is a little too retro for you, then cutting edge French intellectual literary critic Rene Girard makes the same point. You don’t build the polis on the lie of the scapegoat, not because it can’t preserve the polis for a time, but because any city that requires the scapegoating of an innocent man is a society which does not deserve to be preserved. Its foundation is rotten. Perhaps that’s why The Dark Knight Rises trailers are filled with images of Gotham collapsing into the earth. No spoiler here, just a prediction: the third film will show that the nobly intentioned useful lie fails. That no one man can live up to the symbol and that the city based on lies cannot permanently raise man out of the ground, above his bestial level.

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Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.