The Dark Knight, unlike many summer blockbusters, is actually an astonishing movie -- a stunning fusion of craft and entertainment, which manages to be both gripping in an edge-of-your seat fashion, and philosophically interesting. It's a violent film in which none of the brutality is played for the audience's pleasure, and although it's a comic book story, it takes place in a world that feels authentic -- one of phone books, champagne glasses, and real crime happening to real people.
However, it has been difficult to find interpretations of this new Batman film that delve beneath the surface sheen of sexy black vehicles and leather tights, or the morbid fascination with the late Heath Ledger's performance (admittedly extraordinary -- and so obviously based on Tom Waits that that growly-voiced minstrel deserves the Oscar too, even though he's not in the movie) as the Joker. For most people, The Dark Knight simply tells an archetypal story of a hero who loses (or mislays) his own soul in the attempt at bringing justice to the world. Gotham City in this film feels like many Western urban capitals -- oversized, noisy, with a slightly sinister edge, and the site for a battle of wills between criminals, local government, and the police. The citizens watch in horror as the newly-anointed godfather of the most ethnically diverse Mafia in cinema history plays games with their lives, and they rely on the man in the cape with the really cool gadgets to "clean up the streets." Mix in some typical comic book stuff about good guys and bad guys being two sides of the same coin (almost literally, in the case of DA Harvey Dent), a couple of spectacular action sequences, a love interest, and there you have it: the blockbuster hit of the summer.
But The Dark Knight is much more than this. It's one of the most politically interesting (and provocative) films of recent years -- but it seems that only The Wall Street Journal has noticed. Only half-marks to the WSJ, I'm afraid, for although they recognize the fact that this film relates nothing less than the story of the "war on terror," they go on to suggest that it is a "paean of praise to President Bush." I beg to differ, for although it's impossible to tell whether or not the movie is pro-neocon without getting inside the head of co-writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, just because Batman does something doesn't mean we're supposed to like it.
Oh Batman, Oh Batman, how shall I compare thee to a Fox News Talking Points memo? Let me count the ways.
The film takes place in a world where ordinary rules don't apply. There is an irrational evil threatening the good people of Gotham City/New York/USA, in the form of the Joker/al Qaeda (never mind the fact that those who claim to speak for al Qaeda do not generally present their political aims as anything other than rational). Mainstream methods of law enforcement (jury trials, accountable policing) have failed to prevent acts of terror, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Early on, Batman travels to Hong Kong and kidnaps a criminal banker, carrying out a rendition so extraordinary it involves putty explosives and an airplane with a human scoop attached (he gets the idea from his mentor, Lucius Fox, who himself says he got it from an experimental CIA program from the 1960s). Questions of prisoner abuse and the use of torture are raised explicitly -- with the Joker waving a bat-mask in front of the face of a terrified captive in a manner that can only evoke the images of Abu Ghraib; Batman beating a suspect into revealing the location of -- wait for it -- not one, but two ticking bombs; and the judicious placement of dozens of men in orange jumpsuits being ferried from an island jail. Beyond the allusion to the post-9/11 icons of Iraq, waterboarding, and Guantanamo Bay, The Dark Knight also manages to take in the relationship between the U.S. and China, where, lest we forget, the political class is currently engaged in discussions about how to manage America's decline.
But ultimately this film is about society's desire for a scapegoat. "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," say at least two of the characters, and it climaxes with Batman on the run from the authorities because people have started to blame him for what is wrong with their lives. In this regard, the film ends on a note that either satirizes or endorses the view that George W. Bush has been a shining hero, defending the free world from masked evil. I tend to think that the film comes down on the side of the angels rather than the hawks, in the way it raises the prospect that violence meeting violence produces only more violence. Indeed, the most hopeful and heroic act in the whole story comes from one of the men in an orange jumpsuit. But these things can be read a number of ways, and I could be wrong. In fact, I'm pretty sure that in spite of the film's extraordinary quality, the politics of The Dark Knight are so subtle that this movie will be a great comfort to President Bush in his retirement.
Dr. Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com and co-presents "The Film Talk" podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com