This is a bit of a politically charged post that I had over at AdamantFire though I thought I would post over here as well, since it deals with The Dark Knight.  This isn’t my usual course of action, but considering the subject matter and that it’s an in depth look at the movie and what it means, I thought I would post it here.

Before I get to the substance of my post, it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of people out there who have had a shot at trying to discuss Batman on an ideological level, and among them are greater writers than myself (Matthew Yglesias and Spencer Ackerman, for example). But when Klavan’s analysis of the movie was brought to my attention, I could only shake my head. I feel that he completely missed the point of the movie. To be fair, Klavan doesn’t posit that the entire movie is allegory, but I don’t think you can take the character out of the movie as if it was a vacuum.

Andrew Klavan:

There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand.

See, this is only the third paragraph, and it’s already gone awry. The thing is, Batman isn’t vilified and despised for confronting criminals on their terms because that’s not what he does. He’s vilified in the beginning for being a vigilante, which is against the law, but the public comes to accept him and depend on him. His presence is a benefit, and people know that. There is a scene in the movie where Harvey Dent has almost snapped after an attempt on the mayor’s life and has kidnapped one of the suspects to interrogate him. He threatens him with a gun and flips his coin to see the fate of his victim. At that point, all we know is that Dent has reached the limits of the law, and that he might fall off the edge into the abyss of vengeance. When Batman stops him from making the biggest mistake of his life, we find out all of his threatening was for naught because Dent assumed something that wasn’t true.

Do you see where I’m going with this? In our world, Bush threatens and executes (not quite literally, but close enough), bandying about a gun with no Batman to stop him. In Gotham, Dent threatens and almost executes, bandying about a gun with the Dark Knight there in the nick of time to stop a fatal error. This is only reinforced by the rest of the movie after that point. When Batman has a chance to kill the Joker, he doesn’t. When Batman has a chance to end the life of the lead mob boss, he doesn’t. What Andrew Klavan misses is that Batman, unlike Bush, doesn’t push the limit because he knows it opens a gate that he cannot close. Take this passage from the graphic novel Under the Hood when Batman has the chance to kill the Joker once and for all:

For years a day hasn’t gone by where I haven’t envisioned taking him… taking him and spending an entire month putting him through the most horrendous , mind-boggling forms of torture. All of it building to an end with him broken, butchered and maimed… pleading – screaming – in the worst kind of agony as he careens into a monstrous death… I want him dead – maybe more than I’ve ever wanted anything. But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place… I’ll never come back.

Bush, with his pushing on the limits of constitutional law and international treaties, doesn’t understand that the limits were there in the first place to stop men like him.

But back to Mr. Klavan:

Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

We’re still in the third paragraph, people. This is what I was talking about when I said that the laws were in place to stop men like Bush. And to this statement, we can turn to Harvey Dent again. There’s a scene where Bruce Wayne is trying to figure out if he can trust Dent. When prompted about the caped crusader, Dent says that Batman is needed, and refers to the fact that old Rome, when faced with danger, would do away with all traces of democracy and appoint a single leader to lead through the “emergency.” To which Rachel points out that the last leader they appointed was Julius Caesar, and that “he never gave up that power.” Even after pointing that out, Harvey still holds fast to his belief that sometimes it’s the right thing to do.

Even Batman doubts himself every once in a while. Harvey Dent is more of a cutthroat than we believe he is. He is willing to offer up power to one man as long as it keeps people safe. Just like Caesar, this person may wield this power to himself, but at least there is no danger. To Klavan’s credit, Bruce Wayne nods at Dent’s sentiment. However, I believe this is only because Wayne knows he can trust Dent after he said those things – not because he necessarily agrees that one man should hold all of the keys.

Here again Bush is more Dent than Wayne. Bush has worked very hard to consolidate power into his position without realizing what would happen if and (probably) when it backfired. Now the country hates him, and will more than likely swing the other way in an election, taking power away from those he labored so hard to give it to. As has been said many times by now, the next president will have more power than ever before, and all due to the machinations of George W. Bush. He gambled the Harvey Dent way and is ultimately going to lose.

To drive that point home even more, there is a point where Batman has somehow managed to tap every cellphone in the city. Lucius Fox despises the technology, but Batman has made it something destructable and undoable, and is looking for something specific. When the Bush Administration did somewhat of the same thing, they cast the net so wide that it caught considerably more than it ever should have. Will wiretapping ever go away? Probably not. But Batman was able to do it without it becoming a conscious part of society, without infringing on the rights of others, and with a target in mind. No, I’m not saying it’s right. But there is definitely a difference. Bush may say the target is terrorists, but just how many can they say they’ve caught, and how many innocent people has he stepped on along the way?

Almost forgot that Andrew’s still talking:

And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society — in which people sometimes make the wrong choices — and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

Right about now, it’s obvious that Andrew and I are totally ideologically different. But aside from that, this is where he is most correct in the entire piece. He’s right that Batman sees the world in black and white, but he forgets that the Joker steadily chips away at this resolve. The Joker’s bad, yes, but Batman sees every man as having an understandable motive. The Joker must want money, power, fame – something that other men want, right? Yet we learn quickly that the Joker is not just another man, and that his motives aren’t those of other men.

Klavan is consistently striking the same spot with the hammer, but he is completely missing the nail. Batman learns that his perceptions of the world cannot be definite, and that Batman may be “incorruptible” as the Joker calls him, but he is still learning that the world is not in black and white. But there is something else here that Klavan overlooks in order to make his point.

There is a scene when the Joker has rigged two ferries to blow – one carries criminals from the prison, the other carries normal citizens. They’ve been given the detonator to one another’s ferry, and they have to hurry in case the other ferry decides to save itself and blow up the other. To try and not spoil it, I’m going to quote MightyGodKing’s “One sentence review“:

There are many reasons to see The Dark Knight, many of which have been repeated elsewhere many times over, but I will merely say this: any movie starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman which trusts one of its most powerful and emotional moments to Tiny Lister [article], and makes it work perfectly, is a movie that is a cut above.

Meanwhile, Joker and Batman are trading jabs. The Joker says that one of them will blow the other up. Batman (who we assume knows who are on the boats) says that he’s wrong and that nothing is going to happen. The Joker is betting that human nature is violent, while Batman is betting that people are good and will do the right thing.

I won’t say who’s right in this battle of philosophy, but who wins isn’t the point anyway. In this scene, the Joker is betting on instinct, a “better-you-than-me, guts-over-brains, feral cat in a corner, life on the line, survival autopilot” kind of instinct where anything goes. He’s also betting on paranoia to aid his plans. The Model Citizens constantly assess that their lives are worth more than those of criminals, and that since they are inherently the scum of the earth, they will detonate the bomb first. They work themselves into assurance before they even begin contemplating the actual deed. Yet the Joker didn’t account for the societal programming in each Model Citizen. For crying out loud, the Model Citizen Ferry even takes a vote on whether they should detonate the Criminal Scum Ferry, and they still waffle.

Shocking Bottom Line: In this scene, Bush most resembles the Joker. Bush has been betting on paranoia, raising threat levels, constantly reminding that Al Qaeda is right behind you, provoking gut responses by saying our children are in danger. The Joker sees the world as most like himself when it’s in its most primitive form – fragile, shallow order on indestructable, deep chaos. While I don’t think Bush is chaotic, I do believe that this may be how he sees the world. After all, he is the closest we’ve ever come to an outright evangelical president, and many conservative evangelicals believe that the world is an evil place. What is more evil than absolute chaos?

Am I overreaching and becoming too psychoanalytical? Perhaps. But think of this: if Bush were a betting man, and he were placed in that situation, would he have faith that they would do the right thing? Or would he bet on one or the other as the most likely to detonate first? Considering how the world sees men in orange jumpsuits, I can guess who he could have bet on.

Yet this is where the movie turns real world logic on its head. The fact that the scene goes the length to point out there is redeeming value in everyone, even criminals, shows that it wasn’t trying to make allegory for anything the Bush Administration has done. When you believe in absolute evil (which is debatable whether Batman does or not), and that people cannot be redeemed, or that when they are reduced, they will choose not to redeem themselves, you become rigid in a fluid world. The Bush Administration, and even conservatism in general, are the rocks in the river. They believe once a criminal, always a criminal. But there are flaws in this worldview. As with the deathrow inmate who tries to prevent children from taking his path, or the prisoners who (some of which) were just in the wrong place and the wrong time, seeing the world as inherently evil and stubbornly making decisions on this non-fact is dangerous and hardly without consequences. Even Batman consistently believes in the redeeming value of criminals, as Jason Todd, one of Batman’s Robin sidekicks, met Batman while stealing the hubcaps off of the Batmobile.

Non-Shocking Bottom Line: Andrew Klavan doesn’t get it, but he tries really hard anyway.

The rest of the article devolves into “crazy liberal Hollywood needs to let more conservatives direct,” as if Chris Nolan was card-carrying member of the RNC (he may well be, but I don’t think anybody really knows that). If you want to see what people say about the rest, I suggest going to see MightyGodKing’s post “Well, if Dick Cheney’s the penguin…” Matt Yglesias responded to the article as a whole here.

(crossposted at adamanthenes.blogspot.com)

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