Who’s crazier, the Joker or his admirers? Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel The Dark Knight has been compared to Hamlet, hailed as a work that “smashes [the Batman] legend into a million broken pieces,” praised as a film that refuses to “disguise from us the fantastic chimeras that dominate our real lives,” and singled out for “manag[ing] to handle grown-up subjects such as domestic surveillance with more frankness and honesty than our own real-life representatives.”
So what is all the fuss about? If you haven’t seen the film, here is a brief summary, with a few necessary spoilers. After the events of Batman Begins—which concluded with Bruce Wayne/Batman buying up and privatizing all the shares of his slain father’s company and teaming up with honest Lieutenant Gordon to battle crime as a wealthy corporatist playboy duce by day and a fear-inspiring vigilante by night—Wayne and Gordon are joined in their crusade against crime by new golden-boy D.A. Harvey Dent. The men form a “band of brothers” to crush the mob, but their plan goes awry when a madman called the Joker shows up preaching a doctrine of anarchic violence and absolute resistance to all forms of order.
The Joker gets himself hired by the mob to deal with Batman and Dent and complications ensue, some of them hinging upon Dent and Wayne’s homosocial erotic rivalry: Rachel Dawes, Dent’s new girlfriend, is Wayne’s long-lost love, and she spends her brief screen time torn between the two men, before being brutally dispatched in a glaring instance of the “women in refrigerators syndrome,” a sexist literary trope identified by feminist comic-book readers in which male authors kill, maim or de-power strong female characters as a woman-devaluing plot device.
The critics are evidently bowled over by the film’s “ambivalent” portrayals of high-tech adumbrations of warrantless wiretapping (when Batman rigs up a super spying system based on sonar readings from Gotham citizens’ cell phones to stop the Joker), superheroic enhanced interrogations (when Batman threatens to beat the life out of the hostage-holding Joker) and debates about the advisability of democracy itself when the barbarians are at the gates, to quote a speech from Dent recalling the Romans’ dictatorial practices. And indeed, as a tribute to the film’s supposed complexity, some critics believe the film to be advocating the suspension of democracy in a time of terror, while others see it as endorsing a liberal skepticism about leaders’ claims to free reign during a “state of emergency” which is often those very leaders’ own creation.
However, ideology in a fictional narrative does not always express itself at the explicit level of that which the narrative seems to support or reject; it works in more subtle and insidious ways, and often functions by exclusion. That is, a text like this film presents a menu of choices from which it then invites the viewer to select, and we can locate the trace of pernicious ideology not in the choices themselves but rather in what the authors choose to leave off the menu.
What’s on the menu in The Dark Knight? The same thing that’s on the two-party American political menu, year in and year out.
First we have Batman and Dent representing opposite poles of so-called democratic politics. Batman, operating outside the law to protect the defenseless people, represents a kind of Bush/Cheney figure, doing what he has to do for the good of the homeland. Dent, on the other hand, along with Rachel Dawes, who chooses to be with Dent in the end, is an idealistic but by-the-book type who is nevertheless pragmatic enough to collaborate with a vigilante like Batman if it’s necessary to get the bad guys. In other words, a post-political Barack star.
The film really tips its ideological hand in the Greek-tragedy-like arc of these iconic characters’ development: Dawes, the most liberal of all the “good guys,” dies at the hands of the Joker, while the liberal pragmatist Dent, scarred in a fire, abandons his ideals and embraces the Joker’s ethos of chaos—in other words, we are left in the cold embrace of Batman if we want to be secure.
But what of the Joker himself, with his advocacy of terrorism and chaos, his speeches lifted from the adolescent repertoire of might-is-right conservative anarchism à la Sade, Nietzsche, Marinetti et al.? As liberal-hawk ideologue Paul Berman showed in his 2002 Terror and Liberalism, a figure such as this can very easily stand in propagandistically for “America’s enemies,” hence Berman’s insistence, for example, that Palestinians constitute not an oppressed and exploited, diverse and divided group trying to resist its enemies in various ways, some more defensible or ethical than others, but rather that they are a fundamentally irrational, chaotic and lawless cult of death. Thus, the Joker offers only the wild, amoral, killing life beyond the protective (and expansionist) borders of “democracy,” aka corporatist imperialism.
The moral is as old, and as conservative, as Hobbes: we can live in a wild, murderous wasteland or a lawless, authoritarian police state. It doesn’t matter which of these options the film presents as more appealing or fun; all that matters is that no other options—e.g., left-wing anarchism, participatory democracy, decentralized communism, democratic socialism etc.—present themselves.
It will be objected here that the left-wing critic is rigidly ideological and tone-deaf to the visionary powers of art. But actually these charges would more accurately be leveled at The Dark Knight itself, with its airless, humorless, joyless rush through murkily-filmed scenes of tiresome mayhem and its clunkingly obvious characterizations. I’m not opposed to art, not even Hollywood art, and I’m not doctrinaire. For a nice counterpoint to The Dark Knight, see its underrated box-office competitor in the super-hero, comic-book sweepstakes, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Guillermo del Toro’s uneven fantasia at least relaxes its pace long enough for lyrical or idyllic moments that allow the audience space for reflection; also, while it can’t be taken for a feminist statement, it features powerful, heroic women characters who ultimately save the day. Finally, for all its silliness, Hellboy ends with its paranormal heroes realizing that the U.S. government, for which they’ve been working, ultimately opposes itself to the difference and diversity they represent, and they turn in their badges. Compared to The Dark Knight, this is radicalism itself—a sorry comment on our society.
But The Dark Knight is best understood not in the company of other blockbuster fare; rather, it should be placed alongside two recent popular and populist left-liberal books that can illuminate its themes. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explains that, over the last three decades, capitalists have gone on the offensive to defend and expand their holdings by exploiting, and in some cases, engineering catastrophes which so stun and demoralize populations that they find themselves unable to prevent their commons and their public treasuries from being transferred to private hands. Susan Faludi provides a cultural companion to Klein’s materialist economic history in The Terror Dream; Faludi shows how the American political class, including many self-proclaimed liberals, seized the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to reanimate the genocidal American frontier myth in which the lone, virile, violent male is called upon by a barbarian horde attack from outside to protect his dependent, virginal and powerless women. Thus the conquest of the material commons by capitalist elites requires ideologies of control that can best be summed up by the eternal right-wing cultural program: family, faith and fatherland.
Those who think this will all somehow magically improve after the election of the Harvey Dent-like Barack Obama, himself a two-faced authoritarian capitalist with a gift for co-opting progressive rhetoric, have another thing coming. Batman enhances his own material power by way of the Joker’s shocks to Gotham’s system, while the death of Rachel Dawes shows us why we need a hero—because if “we good men” do not control women, then “those bad men” will. And the baddest bad man, the Joker, reveals to us that freedom is a dangerous delusion and an insane temptation. It’s difficult to have much hope for a better future when audiences and critics are falling so hard for this example of Hollywood’s shock doctrine and its terror dream.