The Politics of The Dark Knight

Much has been said about the political undertones both in The Dark Knight and in The Dark Knight Rises. Some on the Right have decried the movies for portraying conservative views toward crime and torture as being overly brutal, self-serving, and ultimately ineffective. A few on the Left have called the movies pro-fascist and have criticized their glorification of violent response to crime while creating a paranoid dream of what the Occupy movement could become. Even Rush Limbaugh has waded in with the rather ridiculous opinion that the character of Bane is a liberal conspiracy aimed at vilifying Mitt Romney due to the name being a homonym with Bain (as in the investment firm at the center of a small controversy right now).

So what is it? Is Christopher Nolan’s Gotham a violent, objectivist, conservative wasteland only Ayn Rand could love, or is Batman a secret liberal because he refuses to kill criminals and condemns those who would? Or are we missing the point trying to pin partisan values on a figure either side of the political aisle would be hesitant to embrace were he real?

The character of Batman has always been a delicate one when the topic of politics gets inserted into the world of comics. On the one hand, he is the epitome of the successful capitalist, but how he uses his wealth (outside his wonderful toys) is up for debate. Also, Batman is capable of brutalizing his victims as capably as any professional torturer, but he will not kill – nor does he believe any individual has the right to proclaim themselves judge, jury, and executioner.

The simple fact is, though, that comic book characters are more a commentary on the time period in which they are residing than they are consistently partisan. Pick out a period in which Batman or any other hero is portrayed, and you’ll find the popular values of the day reflected. Take the Cold War undertones in the later Christopher Reeves Superman movies for example. Is Superman political? He is (or was) for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but he also strives for world peace with the single-mindedness of an activist. Those movies of the eighties portrayed both the heady optimism of Reagan conservatism alongside the fears that we were putting too much faith in militarization. More recently, what do we make of Green Lantern’s coming out of the closet? Is it a sign that DC has picked sides in the “culture wars,” or is it just a reflection of our times?

Yes, comic books and their varied media adaptations sometimes do promote certain societal and political values, but those same characters may be on the opposite side of those same issues a decade later. If we can then strip our political preconceptions from Nolan’s Gotham (especially in light of his statements that he had no intention of promoting political values), then perhaps we can see a more valuable lesson in the Dark Knight trilogy, one of the dangers of extremism and escalation.

I should point out that there are minor spoilers beyond this point.

  • In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne turns to a group of extremists, the League of Shadows, to help him fight the rising crime in Gotham City. Their solution is one of destruction, which Wayne rejects. His solution is instead to escalate the war on crime in a way the police cannot. He hopes to inspire hope, which he does, but he also inspires the criminal element to escalate in kind, as Jim Gordon points out in the conclusion of the film.
  • The Dark Knight displays the result of the arms race between criminals and Batman, and the result is a completely unhinged psychopath named Joker. Joker becomes to the underworld what Batman is to the law. He is the one willing to go beyond normal means to stop a threat, and the battle between the two reaches a fevered climax that ultimately destroys Batman’s reputation and nearly plunges Gotham into irreparable despair.
  • The Dark Knight Rises brings escalation to a new level with the Dent Act, a law that gives the district attorney’s office and the police force unprecedented power and authority, a law that is creating an air of civil unrest in Gotham, and a law that is predicated on everyone believing a lie. Bane offers an extreme solution to the authoritarian state Gotham has found itself in. No longer is the war between vigilante and psychopath; it has grown to the point of tearing Gotham apart.

Yes, shadows of the Occupy Movement exist in Bane’s revolutionary rhetiric. Yes, there are shadows of the Patriot Act in Batman’s surveillance system in The Dark Knight and in the Dent Act of the sequel. None of this is the point, though. They are merely reflections of the time in which these movies were made, and those reflections will lose their power with time. How many people still understand the fear of nuclear war during the 80s that underscores the plot of  Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? No, the bigger message is not one of partisan values. It’s not about vilifying or glorifying one set of political ideals over another. If there are any political messages in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it’s this: extremism begets extremism, and we should always be wary of using escalation as a means to an end.

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