I just finished watching The Dark Knight, the new Batman film, and, like director Christopher Nolan‘s previous Batman film (Batman Begins), I couldn’t help but notice that it has strong undertones of neo-conservative and capitalist ideals. I don’t think I’m deconstructing the work too much — these themes seem to reveal themselves without digging too deep. In fact, much of Batman’s character as defined by the comics contain many of the same elements.
For example: Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, is, like his father before him, the multi-billionaire owner of Wayne Industries, a large, multi-national corporation. He lives a lavish, playboy lifestyle. Although his father lived humbly as sort of a compassionate conservative and philanthropist (establishing foundations that help the less fortunate), Bruce doesn’t seem to exhibit any guilt over his enormous wealth. In fact, his focus is not on solving the root causes of the crime and poverty that run rampant in the city of Gotham (jobs, health care, education), but rather to rid the streets of the criminals themselves. Bruce’s father, Thomas, is regarded, in Bruce’s mind, as somewhat naive in his approach. Before getting murdered by a street thug, Thomas peacefully and sympathetically surrenders his possessions to the thief while attempting to calm him down. This leads to Bruce’s/Batman’s soon-to-be mentor to proclaim (in Batman Begins), “Your parents’ death was not your fault. It was your father’s.”
This event causes Bruce to reject his father’s peaceful and sympathetic attitude in favor of a fearless and forceful one. He places responsibility on each individual to obey the law and takes the responsibility himself to enforce it. He sees the corrupt beauracracy of the government as being unable to deal with the problem of crime, so Batman embraces moral relativism by living outside of the law himself to combat the greater evils that plague the world around him. He elects himself as the paternal authority in charge of distinguishing right from wrong.
In both films, Batman’s enemies are referred to as terrorists and must be stopped at any cost. One of them, the Scarecrow, is a psychologist that represents a broken mental health system that gets in the way of justice through rehabilitation rather than imprisonment.
Another one of these terrorists, the Joker, is represented as irrational and barbaric in his methods (he uses knives and home made explosives) and lives without values or rules (quote: “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules!”) or even regard for his own life. This paralells the idea of the terrorist as being a character of pure evil that cannot be reasoned with and that will stop at nothing to destroy the values and ideals that we represent.
Because of this evil and sub-human nature, they cannot be dealt with using conventional methods. In The Dark Knight, Batman resorts to torture on numerous occasions as a method of interrogation to get the information he needs to thwart further attacks.
He also taps into hundreds of cellphones for surveillance purposes. Although he seems to regard this as a compromise of his values, Batman seems to view it as a necessary sacrifice.
In the end, Good conquers Evil (the sides are still clearly defined) and Batman disappears into the night, vesting power back into the hands of a government which is now able to deal with normal enemies using normal rules and tactics. Martial law is over and the benevolent dictator has restored order.
From The Dark Knight:
Gannon: I’m talking about the kind of city that idolizes a masked vigilante.
Harvey: Gotham City is proud of an ordinary citizen standing up for what’s right.
Gannon: Gotham needs heroes like you — elected officials — not a man who thinks he’s above the law.
Bruce (insincerely): Exactly. Who appointed Batman?
Harvey: We did. All of us who let scum take over the city.
Gannon: But this is a democracy, Harvey.
Harvey: When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor; it was considered a public service.
Rachel: Harvey, the last man that they appointed to protect the republic was named Caesar and he never gave up his power.
Harvey: Okay, fine. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were primarily based on the comic mini-series called Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, created by Frank Miller. In an interview about the War on Terror, Miller had this to say:
NPR: […] Frank, what’s the state of the union?
FM: Well, I don’t really find myself worrying about the state of the union as I do the state of the home-front. It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants … and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire. Mighty cultures are almost never conquered, they crumble from within. And frankly, I think that a lot of Americans are acting like spoiled brats because of everything that isn’t working out perfectly every time.
NPR: Um, and when you say we don’t know what we want, what’s the cause of that do you think?
FM: Well, I think part of that is how we’re educated. We’re constantly told all cultures are equal, and every belief system is as good as the next. And generally that America was to be known for its flaws rather than its virtues. When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good its done in the world, it’s kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally.
NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.
FM: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.
NPR: As you look at people around you, though, why do you think they’re so, as you would put it, self-absorbed, even whiny?
FM: Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason the Athenians and Romans were. We’ve got it a little good right now. Where I would fault President Bush the most, was that in the wake of 9/11, he motivated our military, but he didn’t call the nation into a state of war. He didn’t explain that this would take a communal effort against a common foe. So we’ve been kind of fighting a war on the side, and sitting off like a bunch of Romans complaining about it. Also, I think that George Bush has an uncanny knack of being someone people hate. I thought Clinton inspired more hatred than any President I had ever seen, but I’ve never seen anything like Bush-hatred. It’s completely mad.
NPR: And as you talk to people in the streets, the people you meet at work, socially, how do you explain this to them?
FM: Mainly in historical terms, mainly saying that the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.
NPR: Well, they did declare war on us, but…
FM: Well, so did Iraq.