In two weeks, “The Dark Knight Rises” will be released. It is sure to be the biggest hit of the summer, but more importantly, it is the third and final film in the most politically-themed franchise in movie history. As we prepare for the release of the third film, let us take a look back at the political undertones in the first two Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies.
We live in a hyper-political age. There are a handful of channels on TV devoted exclusively to covering politics. Presidential campaigns are starting ever earlier in the cycle. And young people are more engaged in our political system now than they have been at any time since the JFK era. So it should come as no surprise to see more and more movies made by the major studios that come with heavy political undertones. Just this year, we had “The Hunger Games” and “The Lorax,” which incidentally were two of the highest grossers of the year. But while those films certainly have political subtexts, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – whose third and final film, “The Dark Knight Rises” will be released on July 20 – has been the subject of more political speculation than any recent studio efforts. The loudest voices to claim ownership over the film have come from the right, who view Batman’s struggle as an allegory for America’s righteous role in the War on Terror. In 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” Batman is faced with his toughest villain, an agent of chaos who seeks to disrupt the normal patterns of existence and expose our fears so that society destroys itself. To put it simply, the Joker is a terrorist, and Batman represents the American response to 9/11.
Some critics have even suggested that, in this political context, Batman is a stand-in for George W. Bush himself, who suffered criticism for the tactics his administration used to keep America safe. But a closer look back at both “The Dark Knight” and 2005’s “Batman Begins” shows that Nolan’s films are not polemics that favor one perspective over the other but are instead careful and unbiased explorations of American ambivalence towards the War on Terror. The films portray the neo-conservative perspective that supports strong militant action as well as that of the civil libertarian who worries that the cost of losing our personal freedoms outweighs the reward of defeating Al Qaeda, and in the end, nothing is clear, only that, to paraphrase the final words of the Joker, this war has will not be over anytime soon.
I. “The hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now.”
The superhero is a purely American creation. In the early 20th century, radio programs and comic books featured heroes like Zorro and the Green Hornet. These masked avengers had no superpowers, only superior fighting skills and a strong sense of justice. In 1938, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel, and a new kind of super-hero was born with a specific set of attributes: costume, cape, superpowers, and a secret identity. Batman, however, has always straddled the divide between these two eras. He has no superpowers, relying only on his personal fortune and his own skills to outwit the bad guys, but he did have the flashy uniform and secret identity. Because Batman is a regular human being and not an alien like Superman or a mutant like Aquaman, those who tell his stories have always used his persona as an opportunity to tell us more about ourselves. Superman only shows us what we idealize; Batman can show us who we are.
While most superheroes are in the business of fighting crime, Batman is often involved in fighting terrorism. The reason is thematic: Batman’s motivation is to conquer his own fear, which stems from the trauma of seeing his parents killed in front of him as a boy. It is the reason that he goes out at night to fight crime, and it constitutes an inner journey and struggle that has been evident in each of his incarnations in film, TV, and the comics. In Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” the best Batman film not directed by Nolan, the villains – Catwoman and the Penguin – are portrayed as victims of psychological trauma, just as Batman is. Catwoman is a put-upon secretary who is abused by her boss; the Penguin is a deformed child abandoned by his parents. Businessman Max Schreck, on the other hand, is the film’s only true villain; in his lust for power, he manipulates the Penguin into unleashing a crime wave on the city, the purpose of which is to oust the current mayor, so that Schreck can install the Penguin, his puppet, in his place. In this case, terrorism is a political tool. When Schreck and the Penguin discuss campaign strategy, Schreck even cites the Reichstag Fire as inspiration.
There is something quite bold in suggesting that agents of terrorism may be victims themselves, and if that’s what Burton was doing, he would deserve much credit for bringing such a challenging political notion to the summer multiplexes. But when looking at his full filmography, this kind of political boldness would qualify as an outlier. He is known for making movies sympathetic to the perspective of the social outcast (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”) but rarely with anything resembling a political context. Tim Burton’s movies are mostly exercises in style; the allusions to terrorism in “Batman Returns” were thematically relevant but incidental to the story’s reason to exist. But this is logical: in a pre-9/11 era, terrorism was not enough of our national identity to serve as the underpinning for major Hollywood film.
II. “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time.”
Nolan’s Batman trilogy does just the opposite. It exists to explore American attitudes towards the War on Terror and will likely be remembered as the definitive cinematic work on post-9/11 America. Nolan’s villains are agents of terror who want to bring down Gotham, the symbol of a greedy American empire. In “Batman Begins,” Batman battles the League of Shadows, a centuries-old secret organization who mission is to “restore balance” to the world by destroying empires when they grow corrupt and unsustainable. They claim to have sacked Rome and burned down London, and now they have set their sights on Gotham, an obvious stand-in for New York City. To be fair, there are clear differences between the League and Al Qaeda; one aims to institute a new value system as a theocracy, and the other simply wants to restore balance, but the methods the League uses are clearly written to evoke the 9/11 attacks. Instead of bombing Gotham into oblivion, which might have been the simplest solution, they instead turn the citizens on themselves by unleashing a poison gas that amplifies their fear – their terror. Their plan to unleash the gas involves crashing a city train into Wayne Industries, the biggest building in the city and a symbol of Gotham’s excess. It takes a narrow mind to recognize this storyline as anything but a direct allusion to 9/11.
But not every film that uses 9/11 imagery intends to make a political statement. The final sequence of “The Avengers,” for example, evoked the 9/11 attacks, but it was not an overtly political film. Instead, the images of that September morning have been so ingrained into our collective consciousness that they will naturally find their way into the myths of our time. When it comes to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, however, there are far too many references to the War on Terror, especially in “The Dark Knight,” for it to be accidental. It is clear that this is his subject.
“The Dark Knight” is a far more political film than “Batman Begins,” but at the end of the first movie, Nolan sets up his themes for the second. Batman defeats the League and prevents them from bringing down Gotham, but in the film’s final scene, Lieutenant Jim Gordon, Batman’s ally in the police department, worries aloud about “escalation”:
The subtext, and it is a subject that has come up more than once in our recent political discourse, is that, in fighting terrorism, America runs the risk of inflaming anti-American sentiment. Are we creating more terrorists by maintaining a presence in Iraq and Afghanistan? Specifically, is our use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and drone warfare destroying our image as peacekeepers and rallying more terrorists into groups like Al Qaeda? These are the questions that “The Dark Knight” has on its mind.
III. “You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain.”
As “The Dark Knight” begins, Batman has established himself as a force to be reckoned with, but he has certainly not won the war against Gotham’s crime syndicate. The mob has bought off half of the Gotham PD, and now there is a new villain in town, who seems to exist purely to respond to Batman’s efforts. As the Joker begins to rain chaos down on Gotham, its citizenry, desperate for answers, blames the Batman for provoking him.. Nolan here is representing the perspective among some Americans that we are responsible for the creation of Al Qaeda. In trying to police the world, we have brought terrorism out from its own dark corners. But it is clear that Nolan thinks that our cause is a just one; Batman, Gordon, and Harvey Dent – three very different types of crime-fighters, are the heroes of the film.
Still, when it comes to heroes, Nolan continually toys with our sympathies, especially when it comes to Harvey Dent, Gotham’s by-the-book district attorney. He represents the best that America has to offer, or at least the ideals that we imagine ourselves to possess. He is smart, brave, fearless, and committed to justice – “the symbol of hope that [Batman] can never be.” The Joker aims to bring him down because he is a symbol of all that is good in America. The Joker’s goal, as he explains to Dent in this chilling scene, is to show the world that their ideals are fantasies – that when the going gets tough, we will shed our façade of civility like an old skin:
When the Joker kills Dent’s girlfriend, he loses all sense of self and becomes Two-Face, the Batman villain from the comics. This is such a bold move for a commercial movie; Nolan spends two hours telling us that this character is a hero and then turns him into one of the Batman world’s most iconic villains. When the Joker brings the “white knight down to our level,” he shows us how much we need civility and competence in our government, and how, without it, people might descend into madness. This subtext goes beyond the War on Terror and speaks to the current widespread disapproval of Congress and the radical and reactionary political behavior that has sprung up the last few years. Without the “shining city on a hill” that Reagan spoke of, perhaps madness is in fact spreading throughout the country.
Nolan gives us several other sleights-of-hand when it comes to our heroes and villains. His aim here is to illuminate what Burton was getting at in “Batman Returns” – that what we call a hero is very often just a matter of perspective. Again, this is a bold assertion for a movie that addresses America’s role in the War on Terror, but there are too many instances of it for it to be a coincidence. In addition to Two-Face, there is also Mr. Reese, the Wayne Enterprises employee who discovers Batman’s true identity and threatens to go public with the information. We never know his true motives, but we are naturally disinclined to like someone who is willing to expose and hurt our hero. Yet immediately after we have vilified him, the Joker throws us a twist by offering a bounty on his head. All of a sudden, Batman springs into action, trying to save the very man who sought to bring him down. While Batman’s actions show what does separate him from the Joker – he is willing to save a man who wished to condemn him – it also highlights the aim of terrorism. It turns our world upside down, and in times like these, we sometimes struggle to know whom to root for.
IV. “I’ve seen what I have to become to defeat men like him.”
And this is Batman’s real dilemma. Although he saves the life of Mr. Reese, the victory is short-lived. Unwilling to break his moral code, he finds himself unable to beat the Joker, and the bodies of innocent civilians and policemen continue to pile up. To reflect this dilemma, Nolan references two of the most criticized post-9/11 American policies. After an attack on the mayor’s life, Harvey Dent captures one of the Joker’s henchmen and tries to beat some information out of him. This is the kind of technique that Dent would never have used at the film’s start – he was formerly a by-the-book district attorney – but desperation and fear have driven him to it. In this case, it is Batman who stops Dent from going over to the dark side, but by the film’s end, the tables have turned, and it is Batman himself who is willing to bend the rules. In perhaps the most explicit reference to the controversial methods used to fight the War on Terror, Bruce Wayne finds a way to use every cell phone in Gotham as a radar system, so that he can essentially see every citizen’s location. His confidante Lucius Fox objects, noting that “this is too much power for one man.” In giving voice to the objections of civil liberties advocates towards the warrantless wiretapping provisions in the PATRIOT Act, Nolan is being consistent in exploring all sides of the War on Terror. This story is about how far we are willing to go as a nation in order to defeat terrorism, and the PATRIOT Act is a big part of that story. Still, this is the one section of the film in which the political subtext rises too closely to the textual level. When I saw “The Dark Knight” on its opening weekend, the crowd chuckled audibly at the obvious reference to Bush-era politics. Nolan deserves credit for raising the issue, but he takes the easy way out. Wayne created the system for one use only, and he allows Fox to destroy the entire system after he defeats the Joker. Not exactly the same tack that the U.S. government has taken.
But lest we think that Nolan is espousing a liberal criticism of the War on Terror as fought by the Bush administration, he again gives credence to both sides by dramatizing a justification for using unethical methods, most of which are represented in Harvey Dent’s fall from grace. As the public and legitimate face of law enforcement in Gotham, Dent fights the War on Terror at first through conventional and legal means. When Dent falls, it is a failure for all those who seek to fight this war lawfully. It is a dark message, but Nolan seems to be endorsing strong, militant action operating outside of the law. The only thing that softens this message, however, is that while Batman does operate outside of the law, he has a strict moral code that will not permit him to commit evil. As “The Dark Knight” ends, Batman has taken on the crimes of Harvey Dent in order to preserve his reputation in death. Conservatives may have a point when they say that Batman is a stand-in for Bush, if Nolan’s perspective is that Americans actually want our country to do the dirty work of fighting terrorism, and that Bush became a martyr for the cause. Batman is willing to be hated as long as he can continue to police the city; Nolan’s view is that America should take its criticism and continue fighting this war around the world. Or, if not that we should, he is at least noting that we have.
V. “We burned the forest down.”
So do the Nolan films take a definitive position on the War on Terror, or do they merely serve as an exploration? The answer can only be found by examining how Nolan wraps up the story in “The Dark Knight.” Batman defeats the Joker but refuses to kill him, leaving him to presumably be locked up in the (if history is any indication) easily escapable Arkhum Asylum. But the bigger victory occurs in the film’s final sequence. The Joker rigs two boats with explosives – one filled with ordinary citizens, the other with prisoners. He gives each of them the power to blow up the other ship, which, he tells them, is the only way to save themselves; if neither side acts, the Joker will blow both ships. After a brief debate, neither side is willing to kill the other, and Batman captures the Joker, saving the day. If the very soul of America is what is at stake in the film, it is clear from this final sequence that Nolan thinks it still has a soul worth saving.
But because the Joker does not die, and there is no indication that Batman has really vanquished crime in the city, the central dilemma – whether Batman’s actions are really making Gotham any safer – remains unresolved. In this way, “The Dark Knight” only shows how inextricably linked the U.S. and Al Qaeda are, without providing a solution. This ambivalence is a sane and rational conclusion to a film that explores the effectiveness of the War on Terror, but it’s quite a risk for a summer blockbuster. We generally like our movies to do our thinking for us. But “The Dark Knight,” to its eternal credit, only raises questions. Will the War on Terror ever end? As long as America is policing the world, which Nolan seems to think is inevitable, will there always be terrorism? Or is that the U.S and Al Qaeda provide each other a valuable service – a counterpoint that helps us define ourselves? “The Dark Knight” explores these questions but provides only one ultimately unsatisfying answer: that, like Batman and the Joker, we “are destined to do this for a long time.” And that ambiguous ending perfectly encapsulates the reason this film is so damn good. It raises these important questions openly and honestly. It educates while it entertains. It asks us all to stop, take a breath, and hear both sides. Maybe, in crafting these elegant and thought-provoking films, it is Nolan who is the hero we need right now, if not the hero we deserve.
UPDATE: You can read my thoughts on 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises here.