Monday, May 21, 2012

The Dark Knight and the Bush Endorsement Myth

Okay, this is something that's needed addressing for, well nearly four years now, and as much respect as I have for Devin Faraci as a nerd culture columnist, I feel that his recent article on why the Avengers has been so resonant with audiences has quite a few mistaken assumptions and/or interpretations regarding The Dark Knight.

So let's just clear that up, shall we?

It just isn't. It's not pro-Patriot Act. It's not Pro-torture. It's not pro-conservative/right-wing nutball propaganda. In his column, Devin Faraci states - correctly - that a good deal of The Dark Knight's huge cultural success had to do with it reflecting/satisfying a certain "feeling" of the American people. Much like Spider-man and The Lord of the Rings enjoyed unexpected popularity explosions because of their post 9/11 timing and the need for good vs. evil escapism, triumph of the common person over insurmountable odds, etc. This has more or less come around again in the wake of the financial collapse in 2008, which in turn helped the decidedly old-fashioned and unapologetically pulpy Avengers strike a similar chord this year (which Devin details in the same column, and there he's right on the nose).

But the truth is that Batman was paving the way for that.

Batman in Nolan's films is portrayed as being both a champion of the people and a consummate idealist. Unlike even the good-hearted and square-jawed heroes of Marvel's recent films, he absolutely refuses to kill. Do the bad guys deserve it? Maybe, but that's not his call. Are the police and the judicial system incredibly corrupt? Yes, but it's still the job of society to determine guilt and punishment, not one person exercising absolute authority. Do you begin to see the problem of fitting this into a defense of a president known to support/practice outlandishly powerful executive privilege, violation of civil liberties in the name of the "greater good," detention without cause, and torture?

Now, when this argument is brought up, the classic defense of the "TDK = Patriot Act Endorsement" theory is composed chiefly of two things: 1) Batman tortures the Joker by beating him during the interrogation, and 2) Batman performs countless illegal wiretaps using his Sonar Network in order to find the Joker in the third act.

But here's the problem: the movie condemns both of these acts.

Firstly, Batman's beating of the Joker is played (and commented on by the Joker himself) as a significant character flaw - a mistake. Batman's being driven to the edge, the only reason he'd contemplate this sort of outright abuse as opposed to the fear/intimidation that he usually employs to coerce information from criminals. But more importantly, it doesn't work. Batman's "torture" of the Joker is shown as completely ineffective, being both what the clown wants/expects, and having no outcome on getting the information about where Harvey Dent and Rachael Dawes are being held by the Joker's men. And when he's given an answer, Batman is so overwrought with passion that he fails to think about how he could be manipulated with this very information, resulting in a tragic outcome.

Secondly, Lucius Fox - a man who acts alongside Alfred as a moral guide for Bruce during both of Nolan's films - comes right out and says "This is wrong" concerning the Sonar Net. That he will not be a part of any organization that controls it. Even if Batman is using it to track a known target (rather than listening in on people merely "suspected" of doing something wrong), even if he has the noblest of intentions regarding how he uses this power, it's still power that no one should have. This is not implied or hinted at, it is explicitly stated. Multiple times. And if you're using Morgan Freeman of all people to voice this opinion, you can be damn sure it's meant as a weighty one.

All this, combined with the film's third-act insistence that all people - even convicted criminals normally outside the protection of society - deserve to be treated like human beings rather than sacrificed for the "good people" paints a very clear picture of the movie's TRUE message. Which is this:

"There is room, and need, for good men even in a bad world."

You need look no further than Dent's lament that "We thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time" to see how vehemently The Dark Knight imparts this truth. Batman is the decent man in an indecent time. In a world fraught with corruption, when those with power use it to crush those with nothing, when most of the "good guys" are "only as good as the world allows them to be" there is still room for someone who will stand up and say "No! The world deserves better than that."

That is what people responded to. In a time before the financial collapse of 2008, the self-doubt and confusion surrounding the government's reaction to 9/11 and the global threat of terror, even the gray area surrounding Bush's election in 2000, people relished the myth of Caesar rather than the reality - the picture of someone with power but ready to hand it over. Of someone who could realize just how dangerous it was. Of someone who - time and again - refused to sacrifice their nobler principles and ideals in the name of the "greater good."

Because it reminded America that those ideals ARE the greater good.

That is why, far from an endorsement, TDK is actually a fairly scathing indictment of Bush policy. You just have to pay a little attention to really hear what the film is saying.

Or, you know, simply remember that Batman didn't start carpet-bombing districts of Gotham that he thought might be hiding the Joker.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo!

    I've always viewed The Dark Knight as a film that delivers it's message not by scolding us and telling us what we should do, but by holding a mirror to society and watching the characters ultimately suffer/fail as a result of their actions. Batman does indeed represent the values of treating those who deserve punishment with respect in accordance to the laws. When he does cross those lines, he falls for it.

    In fact if Batman/Dent/The Law represent the Bush government as many claim...well Batman crosses lines that result in the death of his lover, Dent falls from grace, and Gordon fails to stand up to corruption within his ranks because he was 'trying to fight the mob' which results in the deaths of the innocent and aide of the evil. Doesn't exactly scream "Go-Bush!" to me.

    I find it hilarious that in the wake of The Avengers, everyone who praised The Dark Knight for being a 'smart superhero film' is now scolding it for not being simple and pure fun as The Avengers with Pro-Obama messages. I say this as someone who really loves the film...but The Avengers wishes it had much going on beneath the surface.