Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Night and International Politics

We comic nerds are suffering an embarassment of riches this year: Iron Man was excellent, Hancock was meh but passable, The Incredible Hulk was a fun two hours, and The Dark Knight is better than all of them. (Not as good as Wall-E, but that's apples and oranges.)

All the good stuff you've heard about The Dark Knight is true. Heath Ledger is (deservedly) getting much praise, but it's astonishing how good everyone in this movie is. Aaron Eckhart is excellent. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are given small roles that they both fill with incredible skill and subtlety. Maggie Gyllenhaal is great. Even Christian Bale, who I'm not really a fan of, didn't disappoint.

There's been a bit of criticism that in fact the non-Ledger actors don't pull their weight in this movie, but I think that misses the design: The Joker is such an outsized character, and played so perfectly by Ledger, that everyone else can only pale in comparison. This also, to me, added a layer of realism to the otherwise fantastical -- our protagonists are supposed to feel constantly at the Joker's mercy, totally unable to understand or cope with the senseless violence he deals out. In that sense, the Joker, not Batman or the other characters, really is the centre of the narrative.

I'm not surprised that the usual suspects are saying that this movie proves that America/Bush/the Pentagon needs to act outside the law because Bin Laden/Ahmedinejad/The Joker is insane and beyond reason. What surprises me a great deal is that I haven't seen progressives read what was an obvious message in the film: Batman has, in many ways, been a disaster for Gotham, and what Gotham needs isn't a hero in tights but better law enforcement.

To start off, I think this movie is one of the most inherently politics-free films I've seen. Not that it's not possible to view the film politically, but that it doesn't particularly lend itself to one political interpretation or another. Viewed in one context, you might (as Spencer Ackerman does) believe that Batman = Dick Cheney. But I think it's just as reasonable to see Dick Cheney as Harvey Dent, a lesson in what happens when our leaders betray our faith in them.

But once you view this movie in the context of it's predecessor (Batman Begins) things become a bit more clear: Before Wayne dons the Hood and Cowl, Gotham is essentially a proxy for the international system: basically one step removed from anarchy, with no effective monopoly on the use of violence. Wayne/Batman believes that if he can give people a symbol, that Gotham can restore itself. (A decent proxy for the American belief that Washington can be a guiding light to the world without actually cooperating with it on things like landmines, global warming, or child soldiers.) But of course, signs and the signified are read differently by different people. While Batman can give the people of Gotham a sign of hope, or at least justice, he gives the criminals a sign that the rules of the game have changed. This isn't me reading in to the text anything that isn't there:
GORDON: But there's a lot of weirdness out there right now... the Narrows is lost... we still haven't picked up Crane or half the inmates of Arkham that he freed...

BATMAN: We will. Gotham will return to normal.

GORDON: Will it? What about escalation?

BATMAN: Escalation?

GORDON: We start carrying semiautomatics, they buy automatics... we start wearing kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds...


GORDON: And... you're wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops... Take this guy... armed robbery, double homicide...

Inside the clear plastic bag is a PLAYING CARD.

GORDON: Got a taste for theatrics, like you...

Gordon hands Batman the bag.

GORDON: Leaves a calling card.

Batman turns the card over.

It is a JOKER.
A great way to set up the sequel, sure, but the wider point is that in a sense, the Batman could only ever invoke the Joker, or someone like him. At one point in the Dark Knight, Wayne asks Alfred "Did I bring this upon [Gotham]?" Of course he did, though we're not supposed to say that.

If you're the kind of person who's incapable of enjoying a film without filtering it through your own personal politics, rather than make you cheer the Dick Cheney's of the world, the two Nolan-directed Batman films ought to have you rioting in the streets. The outlaw use of violence, Nolan is saying, can only beget more outlaw violence. One agent outside the law can only invoke more agents of chaos. This is why I think Matthew Yglesias is getting something very wrong here:
I would say that one important reason Cheney is wrong, is that we're not actually faced with a Joker-style supervillain.
No, Cheney and his supporters are wrong because if you watch the film, it becomes clear that even if we were faced with a Joker-style supervillain, he's fundamentally not the problem -- Dent correctly diagnoses him as a wild dog set loose by others. The Gotham system is the problem, where mobsters and police pick sides based on the day of the week and their mutual enemies, when a psychopathic avenger like Two-Face finds himself executing police or mobsters based on the flip of a coin, and when the nominal forces of order are fundamentally impotent because that's how everyone wants it, all we can say is that Gotham feels awfully Westphalian. The solution is not more disorder (more extreme vigilanteism) but better law and order.

(I'm surprised this seems to have eluded Yglesias, because it's kind of exactly what his book is about.)

If you really wanted to read these films as a reflection of international politics (Is America Batman?) I think you have a dismal road ahead of you. Batman begins to realize that what Gotham needs is not a caped crusader, but a functioning law enforcement system. He begins seriously considering retiring the rubber PJs as Gotham's police and prosecutors become more effective. The lesson here is not exactly kind to the idea that breaking the laws of war and ignoring the expressed opinion of the UN Security Council is going to lead to greater peace and stability.

Moreover, if you read Gordon's "escalation" dialogue from the first film in the context of international politics, I think it's clear you have to say that 9/11 was only possible because of preceding American actions across the globe. That is, if you actually think America is Batman, than you have to concede that Bin Laden/Joker is at least partially the creation of the US government.

Which is why, once again, we really shouldn't be arguing about politics through film. The simple arguments are rooted in bad films, and good films give you arguments whose conclusions might surprise you.

1 comment:

Steve Muhlberger said...

A well-written commentary.