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Before Your Time
The Dark Knight: An Essay on Justice in the Age of Terror
See more reviews by Michael Karounos, Contributing Writer

Genre literature and film depend on four building blocks: plot, thought, character, and setting. These were defined by Aristotle 2500 years ago and are still the primary form of analysis. Plot is the action; thought explains the themes and ideas; character is the psychology of character; and setting is the psychology of space.

Methodology

The way I interpret movies is to identify the conflict (plot), the main idea (thought), the locus (setting), and then identify the archetypes (character) that inhabit the spaces and the conflict. One of the film theorists that I teach is Leo Braudy who coined the useful term “determinate space” to characterize a setting that pre-determines the genre: corral=Western; gothic house=horror; dark city street=film noir; space ship=science fiction, etc. I build on Braudy’s concept and develop the idea of determinate space as representing the space of rhetorical conflict which is also determined by the writer and the director’s point of view.

Mainstream media articles about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Iraq War, etc. are “determinate” spaces in that the conclusion, the “genre” of interpretation, is rhetorically pre-determined by the political perspective. In classical rhetoric, a one-sided argument is called “propaganda.” This is a technical and not a polemical distinction. Opinion without balance is an attempt to persuade not to inform.

Although this review is based on a single viewing, I think I’m on safe ground in stating that the theme of The Dark Knight is, “How does a just society deal with terrorism?” To answer that question, I take an Aristotelian look at the movie, passing by the self-evident nature of the plot.

Character

Batman. The protagonists of film noirs effect morally “good” results because it is their personal ethos to act in that way. But they don’t do “good” because they believe in the strict principle of the law. They are cynical about the law and know that it too can be corrupt (e.g. the corrupt cops in The Dark Knight). Batman’s mode of behavior can be described as a kind of “exceptionalism” which is a foreign policy concept applied to the United States and which the world condemns us for. (Read the snarky Wikipedia definition.)

Batman also acts as an individual corollary to Just War theory. Batman acts outside the law because his interpretation of illegal behavior and how to punish it is different from society’s. Batman breaks minor laws to punish greater crimes. That is what vigilantes claim to do when conventional legal avenues fail. These types of movies become popular when a writer/director reads the prevailing mood of the country as being different from the opinion of the talking heads. In the past these movies starred Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Steven Segal, and Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

The Dark Knight is arguing that vigilante justice, while illegal, is sometimes necessary to deal with criminal acts which are extraordinary. These are called “terrorism” and must be dealt with extra-legally (e.g., the Israeli hunting down of the Munich terrorists). The Joker’s random acts of violence, with no rationale other than to terrorize, are examples of such crimes, as is 9/11. Actions like that accomplish a political purpose: to create fear and disrupt the social order. Such actions are anarchic and nihilistic as, for example, in V for Vendetta.

Bruce Wayne/Batman’s quandary is most similar to Spiderman’s in that he wants to live a normal life, to love his girl, to be a functional citizen, but he is “exceptional” as a result of his extraordinary abilities. There is a phrase in the movie which is repeated several times (the old Hollywood “rule of three") about people “getting the hero they deserve, not the hero they want.” This theme of vigilante justice, embodied by Batman, is also illustrated by the guys who dress like Batman and by the misguided citizens who try to kill the accountant. The movie thus critiques vigilantism as an operative mode of amateurs, but it justifies vigilantism in the professional exception (Batman). Morally, this is an ambivalent distinction since a fantastic expedient must be created to deal with a real problem. Such an expedient highlights the inability of society to confront the problem in a traditonal manner.

Harvey Dent. The movie refers to Harvey Dent as a “White Knight” who represents the process of law and order. Dent wants to “arrest” the Joker. This character’s conflict climaxes when he wants to beat to a pulp one of the murderers of Gordon. This same conflict is illustrated by a police officer left alone with the Joker in jail who also wants to beat him to a pulp. Both of those actions are shown by the movie to be morally wrong. The law should not engage in what the movie calls “vigilante” action. That is Batman's territory.

But Harvey Dent’s character takes a turn in the end and verges into the immoral territory of revenge not punishment. That is the great theme of The Count of Monte Cristo where the scripture “Revenge is mine saith the Lord” is symbolically engraved on the cell wall. Similarly, revenge is the theme of Quantum of Solace. Bond becomes a rogue agent because the “system” (in this case, the CIA) enables terror. But revenge is always shown as a consumptive force, one which the Count controls, that Bond controls, and that Batman controls.

The two characters who do not control it are Harvey Dent and the Joker. There is an iconic scene after the explosion of the warehouse where the firemen are seen in relief dousing flames while skewed, steel girders are silhouetted against the night sky, a shot right out of the footage of the wreckage of the WTC. This symbolically ties the Joker to the WTC and by analogy to Islamic terrorism. The death caused by that explosion is what sends Harvey Dent over the edge: the law wants revenge. The desire for revenge is what makes the “law” (Dent) insane.

Joker. The Joker is a contemporary example of nihilism, someone who destroys for the pleasure of destroying. The Joker seeks revenge for a crime whose details keep shifting to reflect his delusion, until the details are no longer credible but just a figment of his imagination. His desire for revenge for a non-real action is his madness. There are four similarities between him and Islamic terrorists:

  1. he attacks innocent people
  2. he blows up buildings
  3. he disdains material things (especially money), and
  4. he yearns for death.

As concerns the latter, the two specific instances in which the Joker begs both Batman and Dent to kill him represent crucibles of character where law and vigilantism diverge. The Joker is the personification of terror as a senseless, motiveless, and insatiable force. Terror exists to terrorize.

Thought

The third most important category according to Aristotle is thought. The question in The Dark Knight is simple: are the murderous acts crime or terrorism? This is one of the critical jurisdictional and foreign policy arguments of our time. Some politicians objected to President Bush’s phrase “axis of terror” and called 9/11 a “criminal act” (e.g. Sen. John Kerry). They wanted to “arrest” the perpetrators. The philosophy behind the use of the word “criminal” is to de-stigmatize acts by an ideological group (Muslims). In other words, in such a world view 9/11 was an isolated action by criminals who happened to be Muslim. Most conservatives called 9/11 an act of “terrorism.” This is an ideological claim and ascribes the motive of actions to a philosophy, in this case, Islam. The rhetorical distinction between crime and terrorism is one of the issues which separate conservatives from liberals.

Setting


Society. The determinate space in The Dark Knight is urban, but it is not a gangster film. The style and the ethics of the movie is characteristic of film noir in which there is no true hero (e.g. Bogart in The Maltese Falcon). In the comic book by Frank Miller, Gotham is a morally corrupt and decaying city. This is a conservative idea because liberals believe that crime and criminals are not immoral but are caused by economic circumstances. In classic terms, conservativs believe that human nature is flawed; liberals believe that human nature is good but that society is flawed. The conservative view is psychologically (or spiritually) determined; the liberal is socially determined.

Even more extreme is the viewpoint of the hard Left which ascribes an inherent immorality to conservatives (because of their ideology), but never to criminals, to terrorists, or to Communists. Thus, Sen. Rangel and Rep. Kucinich call for President George Bush et. al. to be impeached and tried for war crimes. Oliver Stone makes movies about the evil military or about evil Republicans but never about Communism, which in a few decades exterminated 50 million people throughout the world. Liberals see conservatives as the enemy; conservatives see foreign terrorists as the enemy. All action movies hinge on this critical question: is the danger from without or from within? If it’s from without, chances are that it’s a conservative movie. If it’s from within, chances are that it’s a liberal movie and the bad guys are reactionaries in various government agencies.

Institutions. Institutions are integral parts of setting. In The Dark Knight, the institutions represented are:

  1. the police (Commissioner Loeb and Lt. Gordon)
  2. the legal system (Dent and Judge Surrillo)
  3. and the administration (the mayor).

Remarkably, all the prominent people associated with these institutions are represented as brave people with integrity. Even more remarkably, these three components reflect our constitution’s arrangement of power: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Liberal movies always locate the threats to society internally, in our own government. Conservative movies locate threats to society externally, outside our government. Seven Days of the Condor, Bourne, Mission Impossible, etc. are liberal; The Transformers and Fantastic Four are conservative. In The Dark Knight, the forces of corruption are external, symbolized by ethnic identifiers: Russian gang, Chinese gang, Italian gang, and even an African-American gang. These groups are portrayed by the movie as “external” threats to society. They are, in that sense, all “foreign.”

However, the Joker is unique because he represents an “idea” (an ideology) and not an identifiable “tribe” that commits crimes. As such he is amorphous (hence the mask) and more dangerous than a mere criminal. His mask itself serves the rhetorical purpose of both appearing ridiculous as well as disguising motive. On the one hand, people on the left might say “What you fear is preposterous,” i.e., a “joke.” On the other hand, people on the right might counter that the image of a “joker” may seem preposterous, but the damage is real and the motive (ideology) is insane. Consequently, conservatives would argue, one can’t wait and do nothing nor can one reason with such an enemy. That is why the movie portrays the arrest of the terrorist as a failure. You can’t “arrest” an idea.

Random Observations

The movie is against torture because, presumably, fanatics don't give reliable evidence. While fanatics may or may not give reliable evidence, normal criminals do, an argument the film avoids. The movie is also against spying (the sonar room), and in that sense reflects liberal/libertarian objections to elements of The Patriot Act which authorize wire-tapping. The film also intriguingly presents a variation of the philosophical problem, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, in the form of two ships of passengers, one of which contains actual prisoners. It shows that the first moral decision is made by a criminal who refuses to become a terrorist, hence reinforcing the movie’s distinction of the two. More problematically, the scene also shows that the average citizen comes much closer to becoming a terrorist by blowing up criminals who are guilty of crime, but “innocent” of terrorism. It is a complex scenario which can also be read as arguing the type of moral equivalence commonly found on the Left: we are no different than terrorists. David Koepp, the scriptwriter for War of the Worlds, says in several interviews that the Martians are meant to represent the American military in Iraq. That is moral equivalence.

Thus, in The Dark Knight both “ships” of society, one criminal, one civilian, are portrayed as equally capable and equally culpable in determining the lives of the other. However, this is a fallacy because everyone knows that the “ship” of society doesn’t really work like that. There is a qualitative difference between criminals and emotional citizens: one perpetrates crimes; the other responds to them; one breaks laws; the other makes laws. Jurisprudential mechanisms are meant to protect us from criminals, not to permit criminals to dictate the legal terms of their citizenship on an equal basis.

To sum up these quick thoughts, the movie is similar to Live Free, Die Hard in that it straddles the line between conventional liberal and conservative ideas. In Live Free, the danger comes from a renegade insider, but the institutions themselves are portrayed as having integrity. In The Dark Knight the conventional law enforcement mechanisms of society are intact, but they are not capable of combating the insane behavior of terrorism.

What is needed is a “dark” knight, not a “white” knight (Harvey Dent). When confronted with insane actions, white knights themselves become “insane” and behave extra-legally, endangering the trust and the order of society. “Dark” knights, because they are outside society, and because they, too, are a little insane, are the only ones who can combat the terrorists without disrupting the normal functioning of society. Viewed metaphorically, the movie seems to argue that virtuous methods are impotent against evil and that society needs a “white” knight to keep order in times of peace, and a “dark” knight to restore order in times of war.

The Dark Knight is so immensely popular because it is clear to everyone, two weeks after the tragedy of Mumbai, that we are presently at war and have been at war with the same idea for hundreds of years.

Michael Karounos is an assistant professor of English at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. He has a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and reviews movies as a ministry to model one way for Christians to interpret film.


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