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

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he 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.

Benjamin Kerstein is an assistant editor of


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