Some have argued that Batman is an allegory for neoconservatives, the folks who wanted to invade and occupy Iraq come hell or highwater under the pretense of fighting terrorism by spreading democracy in the Middle East. You could even go so far as to see Batman as Bush, a crusader willing to break the law because the institutions charged with enforcing them are too corrupt to do so themselves.
However, I think The Dark Knight’s politics are much more complicated than that. The Joker’s goal is to break Gotham’s heroes in order to rob the city of all hope. He is the criminal world’s answer to Batman, the anti-Batman if you will, dedicated to ensuring that vice, crime, sin and fear rule Gotham’s streets again. Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, labels him a “terrorist” and says, “some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
In a conversation over dinner, District Attorney Harvey Dent tells Bruce Wayne “either you die a hero or you live long enough to become the villain.” That sums up both the Joker’s goal and the theme of the movie.
Joker succeeds in corrupting Dent by getting corrupt cops to kill Dent’s girlfriend, Rachel (whom Bruce Wayne also loves). Thanks to Batman, Dent survives an explosion set up by the Joker but the left side of his face is horribly disfigured, and he takes on the name Two-Face. Two-Face goes on a rampage against all those he deems responsible for Rachel’s premature death – the corrupt cops, the mob boss, and eventually, Batman and Lt. Gordon. Instead of dying a hero, Dent becomes corrupt by violating his own principles and taking the law into his own hands in his desperation to stop the Joker. Even before his transformation into Two-Face, Dent threatened to shoot one of Joker’s goons unless he gave him information on the Joker’s whereabouts.
Joker’s attempt to corrupt Batman proves far more difficult. He tells the people of Gotham that he will continue murdering people until Batman takes his mask off and reveals his true identity. After he kills the police commissioner, a judge, Dent’s parents, and comes close to killing Dent and the mayor in broad daylight at the commissioner’s funeral, Bruce Wayne decides he can’t take it anymore and will reveal his identity. Doing so would destroy Batman’s mystique as a hero and make it impossible be a billionaire playboy by day, crime-fighter by night.
Dent beats Wayne to the punch and claims that he’s Batman, setting a trap for the Joker, who willingly walks into it. After Batman saves Dent and Joker is arrested, Rachel and Dent are whisked away by corrupt cops to warehouses on the opposite sides of town, bound and gagged, and explosives are set up next to them.
To save Rachel and Dent, Batman attempts to get their locations by brutalizing the Joker in an interrogation room after he blocks the door to prevent the cops from getting in to stop him. Later on, Batman taps the cell phones of every single person in Gotham (millions of people) and turns them into sonar devices so he can find the Joker’s location. This is where it seems like Batman is aping the Bush administration in the “war on terror.”
However, this is also where the analogy falls apart. Batman manages to stay true to his one rule, don’t kill anyone, and the cell phone spying system is immediately destroyed after the Joker is apprehended after Lucius Fox, Batman’s gadget-maker, threatened to resign. This stands in stark contrast to the open-ended nature of the so-called “war on terror” and the destruction of the very freedoms that Bush claimed to be protecting after 9/11. In The Dark Knight, there is no parallel to the administration’s exploitation of 9/11 to achieve its long held goals to invade Iraq and expand executive power at home.
Furthermore, the Joker is not simply a maniacal mass murderer hellbent on creating chaos for his own sake. He’s also something of an intellectual and a social critic. For example, he tells Harvey Dent:
Nobody panics when they expect people to get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
Throughout the movie, the Joker is constantly exposing society’s hypocrisy and forcing his victims to make horrendous choices to expose their “true nature.” He threatens to destroy a hospital if an individual isn’t killed within the hour, and sure enough, a mob forms outside the building to kill the man. Even a police officer assigned to escort the individual tries to shoot him because the officer is worried about his own wife who is in a hospital.
When Joker gives Batman the location of Harvey and Rachel, he lies about who was where, tricking Batman into thinking he was saving Rachel when in fact he was saving Dent. When people evacuate the city on ferries, Joker rigs them both with explosives, and tells each ferry that they have the detonators for the other ferry and that by midnight, if one group has not blown the other up, he will blow up both groups. (This is a modified version of prisoner’s dilemma.) He dresses hostages up as clowns and tapes machine guns to their hands in the hopes that police snipers will shoot them instead of his goons who are dressed as hostages, making the snipers guilty of judging books by their covers.
One of the most emotionally powerful and politically significant moments in the movie is the resolution of the scene with the people stranded on the ferries rigged with explosives. Heated arguments on each ferry amongst the passengers (one ferry is loaded with civilians, the other is loaded with convicts) climax with a vote on the passengers’ boat. The majority vote to blow up the prisoners but the most vocal proponent of blowing up the other ferry backs down at the last minute. On the prisoners’ ferry, a big, muscular black convict tells the captain of his boat to give him the remote detonator so that he can do what should’ve been done 10 minutes ago. Just when you think the prisoner is going to hit the button and save his boat, he throws the detonator out the window, goes back to his seat, and sits quietly.
When neither boat blows the other up, Joker is furious that he was wrong in his assessment of society’s “true nature” that people are at a basic level willing to cut each other’s throats if that’s what it takes to survive. The people on the ferries proved that they are just as capable of solidarity as they are capable of being greedy, even in life-and-death situations where the rational choice is to blow someone else up to save yourself.
Joker tells Batman, “you complete me,” and he isn’t lying. While Joker is funny, spontaneous, bloodthirsty, and not bound by any rules, Batman is humorless, predictable, and torn by acting outside the law in order to enforce it while at the same time adhering to a strict moral code. What they have in common is that they both don costumes, and they are both very driven, methodical loners, excellent at reading people’s strengths and weaknesses.
Given all this, it’s safe to say that the Joker is no bin Laden, Batman is no George W. Bush, and The Dark Knight is not the “War on Terror.”
The irony is that at the end of the movie, Joker does win, although not in the way he imagined. While Batman sticks to his moral code and refuses to kill the Joker, Batman tells Gordon to blame him for the murders Dent committed so that Gotham City can have an untarnished White Knight, a legitimate hero who played by the rules and put the bad guys in jail. Dent died a hero to Gotham while Batman lives to become the villain despite not breaking his moral code. He is the Dark Knight.