Revisiting The Dark Knight

Revisiting The Dark Knight
If Christopher Nolan made a Right-Wing film does that make him a Right-Wing filmmaker?

Despite the monstrous hype, Oscar win and firm place at the top of IMDb movie culture, The Dark Knight (2008) is a deeply silly movie, it’s the kind of movie where when a helicopter is falling from the sky, a cop below exclaims “Okay, that’s really not good!” And it feels easy enough to just leave it at that. Nolan is such a good pair of hands, the pace is so rapid, cross cut within an inch of its life, Zimmer’s propulsive score never letting us breathe; it’s so entertaining you could almost ignore the right-wing politics. As with all superhero movies there’s a strong and understandable impulse to brush it all off as a pointless product of an infantile culture, but it is the culture we’ve got, and it seems unwise to let a film that really made sense at the time to more than just fanboys, a film of such critical acclaim, get away with so much.

The Dark Knight is often called the best Superhero movie and I think that’s right in so far as it’s the clearest expression of their implicit belief system, often just because it has a script which does not resist any urge to say something aloud: when someone tells Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), his face half-burnt off as he’s become the super villain “Two-Face”, that they thought he was dead, he responds sharply: “Half”, and the Joker (Heath Ledger) literally calls himself “an agent of chaos”. That vision of chaos, of evil—as Alfred (Michael Caine), a character who never fails to be the nastiest expression of the films right wing politics, famously puts it “some men just want to watch the world burn”—is that it’s not borne of anything, it’s a natural force that must be suppressed in an eternal battle (allowing for endless sequels), and if the law doesn’t take it seriously enough, then it’s perfectly justified for someone to take it into their own hands. When DA Harvey Dent is challenged for his support of Batman, he argues that he was appointed by “all of us who stood by and let the scum take control of our city.”

It’s not just anyone who can take it into their hands though, in the opening scene Batman (Christian Bale) ties up a horde of imitators along with gangsters, when they ask what the difference is between them and him, he can only make a quip about hockey pads. In the films climax Batman hacks into everyone in Gotham’s phones (?) to create this sonar map of the city, which he puts in the hands of the CEO of his company, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who expresses some doubts but ultimately accepts that this is what must be done, obviously invoking the Patriot Act and foreshadowing the Edward Snowden leaks from many years later, but with a libertarian bent. The people who should have these powers maybe shouldn’t be governments but capitalists, the Randian chosen ones, because don’t worry, they set this surveillance system to destroy itself afterwards; they would never keep it indefinitely. Somehow even less accountability will lead to this.

In this War on terror formulation, the Joker’s anarchy is equivalent, or at least fundamentally similar to Islamic terrorism; totally without history, just pure evil. Its view of all humans is pretty dim, as the Joker narrates many times: people are savages, they’ll “eat each other” as soon as the veneer of order falls down. This is pushed to the surface (and in this film, what isn't?) when by a convoluted set of circumstances there gets to be two boats, one filled with criminals and another filled with civilians, the Joker has given each a detonator that will blow the other up. Here the film takes a turn to the anti-democratic, as the civilians vote to blow the criminals up, whilst the head of one of the criminal gangs takes their detonator and throws it out the window. Not only did the civilians vote to do the wrong thing, but they’re also too cowardly to go through with it—no one will press the button—they need a benevolent better to do it for them, or in fact, to ignore their votes and do what’s really best for them.

Batman called Harvey Dent the best of us, so he’s above that riff-raff—he’s another of the born leaders—but even he gets turned, and into a psychotic villain who decides whether or not to kill by the flip of a coin at that. Harvey’s work as DA had got those criminals locked up in the first place and had given Gotham a new hope; he was a symbol and as with much right-wing thinking, the symbol is more important than any individual life. So Batman must, if not directly kill him—on that the film is ambiguous—symbolically so by taking the blame for his murders, his purity soiled. The Joker is proven so utterly correct that the only way to defeat him, to keep the savage masses from tearing everything down, is to keep this symbol of Harvey Dent alive, basically, to lie.

If we’re going to be charitable, which is hard with a script that so clearly lays its intentions out, there is some room for ambiguity. Bale’s portrayal of Wayne is not so different from Patrick Bateman, he is a totally empty presence, for all intents and purposes he does not exist; there is only Batman. But then again, could you really describe the personality of Jim Gordon? Either the film has created this compelling inversion of the Hawksian hero, not a man who is filled up, who lives through his work, but one who is emptied out of it, or between all the speeches and Nolan's razor sharp pacing there isn’t much room left for characterisation. And even the former is mostly an expression of the extremity of the ‘crime problem’, the world is so savage that to take the duty to fight against it takes your whole life, you must become nothing more than a symbol. Maybe its right to say this society is built upon a lie, but is so totally wrong about who built it, a natural formation of some cosmic battle between good and evil, between noble and savage, not by the very liars it holds up as heroes.

I can’t help but think a lot of this is lost on Nolan, to him it’s a film about cross cutting. At least The Prestige (2006) is as empty a technical exercise as he treats it, it is a film about the structure of a magic trick. Though it’s final monologue about doing it all to see a smile on the audiences faces, which was clearly important enough to Nolan to put in despite having no relation to the motivations of the character saying it, paints a portrait of a pandering populism that could be read as a quiet, tacit agreement. Even if Dunkirk (2017) found a snug place in the hearts of the British Right, it’s a little too uncharitable, I think the truth is something closer to negligence. To Nolan The Dark Knight’s right-wing speeches are just cool dialogue to go alongside the cool visuals and the cool music, in a way it’s not a political film, it’s an action film with politics. Politics are a signifier of seriousness and no more than that, they're just another tool to Nolan, another bit of tech, absorbed uncritically from the air around it. The air just happened to be filled with bilge and hate.


Notes

1 — It’s worth mentioned Wayne Enterprises tower has his name printed along the top, which in the faux New York of Gotham city, clearly invokes Trump.

2 — Heath Ledger deserves credit not so much for going so deep into the character, but for making such horrendous, literal dialogue sing.