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Batman's War on Terror

Reviewed by Benjamin Kerstein

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
A Warner Bros. Release, 2008


The resurrection of the superhero movie has been an American pop-cultural phenomenon at least since the massive success of the X-Men and Spider-Man films in the early 2000s, but it has reached a new apex of popularity with the recent release of The Dark Knight, the latest installment in the long-running Batman franchise. Director Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated sequel to his 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins has already made close to one billion dollars at the box office worldwide and may well be on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Undoubtedly, the film's immense popularity is partially due to the success of its predecessor, the enduring popularity of the Batman character in both comic books and pop cinema, and the more prurient interest aroused by the premature death of Heath Ledger, who co-stars in the film as the Batman's perennial nemesis, the Joker. None of these reasons, however, are quite sufficient to explain the extraordinary success of The Dark Knight. There have been other films based on beloved comic book characters, such as 2006's Superman Returns, which have not been met with the same epoch-making enthusiasm, and superhero sequels are by no means guaranteed blockbusters in any case, as was demonstrated by the lackluster performance of Batman and Robin in 1997. More interestingly, The Dark Knight has been met with a degree of critical acclaim unprecedented for its genre. Even such highbrow organs as the New York Times and the Guardian, which usually treat comic book films and sequels in general as symptoms of the decline of Western civilization, have praised the film for both its artistry and its content. Some reviewers have even gone so far as to suggest that The Dark Knight represents a new maturity for the superhero genre as a whole—that what was once a ghetto for popcorn flicks is slowly becoming something like an art form. The always reliably middlebrow critic Roger Ebert went so far as to write, “Something fundamental seems to be happening in the upper realms of the comic-book movie…. The Dark Knight move[s] the genre into deeper waters… these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies, and hopes.” Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News summed up the phenomenon in fairly succinct terms: “This new Batman action-drama—‘action-adventure' is too slight a description—marks the moment superhero movies turned serious.”
Indeed, if any film is going to stake a claim for the comic book movie as serious cinema, it is The Dark Knight. It is not a great film, but it is unquestionably a work of genuine quality, made by a director of ambition and skill. But the most likely reason The Dark Knight has become a phenomenon, and not just another hit movie, is that beneath the standard pyrotechnics of the summer blockbuster, it is a surprisingly explicit allegory to our current age of terrorism, the challenge it presents to traditional ideas of heroism, and America's own ambivalence in confronting this challenge. In the film's deeply uncertain depiction of an all too human superhero, Americans are watching their own tortured and conflicted relationship to the war on terror laid bare before their eyes.
 
Batman first appeared in 1939, and the character has outlasted almost all of his contemporaries. With the exception of Superman, he is the oldest and most popular of the superheroes and a perennial favorite of American pop culture. Despite Batman's longevity, however, the basic underpinnings of the character have remained remarkably unchanged over time. Set in the mythical uber-metropolis of Gotham City, all the incarnations of the Batman mythos have chronicled the adventures of Bruce Wayne, a fabulously wealthy playboy who lives a secret life as a costumed crime-fighter. In his childhood, Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents at the hands of a petty criminal. As an adult, the traumatized billionaire channels his grief and rage by transforming himself into the superheroic Batman. Each night he stalks the rooftops of Gotham, battling criminals in a high-tech suit of armor which gives him the appearance of an enormous bat, the better to terrify the city's evildoers and recreate himself as a dark and silent guardian of the shadows.
In 1989, maverick director Tim Burton re-imagined the character in the first Batman feature film, launching a blockbuster franchise which died an ignoble death with the aforementioned Batman and Robin and was finally resurrected—or “rebooted,” as the current parlance goes—by British filmmaker Christopher Nolan in Batman Begins. That film retold Batman's origin story in a new and grittier style. Nolan's realist take—to the extent that any film about such a fantastical and in some ways inherently silly character can be called realist—on the Batman mythos has both returned the character to blockbuster status and given him a new lease on pop-cultural life.
To a great extent, the success of Nolan's take on Batman has been due to his own considerable talents as a director of visceral and kinetic genre films which still retain a measure of intelligence and subtlety. But it has also been a result of the care which Nolan and his co-writers have taken to emphasize the qualities that made Batman such an enduring character in the first place: While Batman is a superhero, he is not superhuman. He has no special powers and relies on high-tech gadgets and his own strength and wit to combat evil. More interestingly, there is a basic schizophrenia to the character—he is a human being who dresses as a giant bat, after all—which adds a layer of perversion and complexity to what would normally be a simple, heroic do-gooder. Moreover, unlike most of the classic superheroes, Batman is a relatively dark character: driven, tormented, and violent. He is more a Clint Eastwood-style vigilante than the clean-cut, all-American archetype represented by Superman, a contrast which legendary comics writer Frank Miller took to its logical extreme in his acclaimed graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, in which the two icons literally beat each other to a pulp. It is also hinted, and sometimes more than hinted, that Batman is at least slightly insane—perhaps just as insane as the demented villains he pursues. It is this aspect of the superhero which Nolan explores so effectively in The Dark Knight: his status as an exception to the norms of society, of law, and even of sanity, along with the dangers and temptations such an exception presents to a society in crisis.
 
The Dark Knight picks up precisely where Batman Begins left off: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now well into his clandestine campaign to clean up Gotham City, which has suffered from years of crime, corruption, and neglect. In this quest, he is secretly aided by his faithful butler and surrogate father, Alfred (Michael Caine), and police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Wayne hopes that Gotham's new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) will prove to be the “white knight” the city requires to return to its former glory, which will render Wayne's secret life as Batman—Gotham's “dark knight”—unnecessary. This fragile state of affairs is shattered early in the film by the appearance of the Joker (the late Ledger, in a much celebrated performance), a thoroughly deranged psychopath who launches a campaign of terror against Gotham City, threatening and assassinating public officials and their family members, setting off bombs in public buildings, and deftly using the media to strike fear and despair in the hearts of the citizenry.
As the full dimensions of the Joker's plan begin to take shape, it becomes clear that his terrorism has no rational, comprehensible motivation. It is, rather, a form of psychotic performance art: The Joker is determined to demonstrate to Gotham City that chaos is the natural state of things and that the laws and norms of society are powerless illusions. Ironically, the Joker's insanity is born of his conviction that he is, in fact, the only sane man on earth. “The only sensible way to live in this world,” he declares, “is without rules.” This ruthless nihilism presents Batman and his allies with a menace they can neither understand nor control. The Joker fears nothing, wants nothing, and cares about nothing. As Alfred sagely tells Wayne, “Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
The allusion to the horrors of our current age is fairly obvious, and it is not limited to the film's dialogue. The Dark Knight is laden with the iconography of the war on terror: The Joker is repeatedly referred to as a terrorist. He makes videotapes of his victims which are eerily similar to the horrendous videos of jihadi beheadings and other atrocities which have become so depressingly familiar in recent years. He manipulates the media in order to engage in psychological warfare against his opponents. He destroys buildings and landmarks that are promptly swamped with rescue workers and firemen in images chillingly reminiscent of the apocalyptic scenes at Ground Zero. He deliberately targets and murders innocent people indiscriminately. He makes use of human shields, booby-trapped bodies, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers similar to those employed by Iraqi insurgents. At one point he even appears as, quite literally, a suicide bomber, with several grenades hanging from his coat.
Even more compelling is the film's depiction of its characters' reaction to terrorism. Though Gotham City is defiant at first, the escalating violence soon leads the citizenry to despair and defeatism. As their usual methods fail one by one, the police begin to resort to increasingly aggressive and potentially dangerous tactics, such as torture, endangering innocent people, and deceiving the media and the public. Even the honorable Harvey Dent uses violent coercion to get information from a suspect. Batman himself begins to wonder if he is capable of defeating an enemy as indifferent to death and destruction as the Joker without breaking his own personal code, which forbids him to kill. In the end, he uses a city-wide surveillance system—which fundamentally violates the basic right to privacy of every citizen of Gotham—in order to find and subdue his adversary. Ultimately, the film seems to be asking the central question of confronting terror—the “Guantanamo dilemma,” so to speak: At what point do the exceptional methods required to fight terrorism become a threat to the society which employs them in its own defense? Can the norm be preserved in the state of emergency without destroying it?


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