***This article contains spoilers.***
There is no doubt Heath Ledger delivers a fantastic performance as the Joker and The Dark Knight is a very entertaining film, but its politics are very unsettling. The action opens in the midst of a crackdown on the gangs of Gotham. There are no hoodlums tripped up with batarangs left dangling from the rafters for police–at least in the beginning. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) and his police department insider, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), have been cooperating to freeze the assets of organized crime. As the two tighten the noose, the desperate criminals turn to a mysterious madman, the Joker, to intimidate the police and kill Batman. Up till now, there have been no significant casualties in the “war on crime,” but no one is prepared for the terror the Joker plans to unleash (and make no mistake about it, this Joker is very much a terrorist). As the action unfolds, both Batman and the Joker prove themselves willing to go to any length to uphold (in Batman’s case) or destroy (in Joker’s case) law and order. One discussion between Bruce and Alfred illustrates this point:
Bruce Wayne: I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight. But this is different. They crossed the line.
Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand. Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
It is important to understand what underlies both men’s “line crossing.” For the moment, let us assume the Joker’s personal account of himself is truthful and accurate. For a violent sociopath, the Joker’s pathology is surprisingly comprehensible and his motives consistent. As a young child, he witnessed his abusive father murder his mother. Later, his wife is disfigured when she cannot pay her gambling debts. With no money for corrective surgery, the Joker disfigures himself in a deranged act of empathy only to have her leave him because of his scars. Because of these experiences, the Joker is willing to do anything to prove the base nature of humanity including driving those society sees as its paragons of virtue towards inhuman acts. Certainly, his desire to rob those same people of happiness as his has been stolen also motivates the Joker’s sadism. However, the Joker perpetrates what Walter Benjamin might call a “pure violence”–that is, a revolutionary violence in opposition to the forces (both legal and criminal) that impose a particular social order.
By comparison, Bruce Wayne’s “line crossing” is completely inconsistent with his purpose. His personal tragedy drives him to assert law and order, but his brand of ‘crime fighting’ often flies in the face of it. When Batman tracks down Lau, the Chinese national who manages the crime syndicate’s money, he uses “1960s CIA technology” to abduct him from a sovereign nation in spite of international law for what is essentially a local law enforcement matter. (Does the phrase “extraordinary rendition” ring any bells, Christopher Nolan?) None of this alarms Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) who later agonizes over Bruce Wayne’s involvement in a sophisticated government surveillance project. Despite the film’s overt handwringing over FISA, Wayne Enterprise’s “unethical” technology is permissible in this one instance to capture a lone terrorist leader, the Joker. Nolan would assuage our liberal guilt with the duex ex machina that Fox will destroy the technology once the mission has been accomplished, but this disingenuous turn does not undermine the prevailing message that one person has the right to wiretap US citizens without warrant or legal justification. What offends me most is Nolan’s propensity to talk out of both sides of his mouth. The filmmaker permits Batman to use this surveillance (as well as the aforementioned “CIA technology”) but at the same time passes judgment on the government’s legally sanctioned activity. Debate the ethics of “domestic spying” all you want, but Bruce Wayne has no right whatsoever to wiretap. More importantly, Nolan sends a mixed message on the issue, inadvertantly suggesting that wiretapping may be okay in some instances. Pure and simple, he masquerades sanctimony as social criticism.
None of this, of course, is out of character for Batman or the Batman franchise. Throughout the comics (as well as film and television adaptations), Bruce Wayne has taken a snide attitude towards civilians’ right to protect themselves while committing his own unsanctioned violence, which undeniably is a personal response to his parents’ murder. After all, what gives Batman the right to do any of this? He is not an elected official, sworn law enforcement officer, or other agent of the state. He is an ordinary citizen. One of the film’s Batman “copycats” says it best when he tells him, “We’re no different than you are.” Batman quips, “I am not the one wearing hockey pads.” Translation: being a rich, white guy gives him the right–and nothing else. He may have specialized training (training mythologized as to be inaccessible to the everyday person), but the emphasis has been placed on his weapons and tools to differentiate himself from ordinary citizens. In fact, the same classist undercurrent is evident in regions of the United States where gun control is strictest and weapons permits are, by and large, reserved for elected officials, celebrities, and the rich. Some may have no problem with this decidedly undemocratic fact citing “safer” streets, but those people should remember that Wayne Enterprises is itself a defense contractor and his equipment has been reserved for military usage. His privilege alone gives him access to this arsenal (and attendant agency) that the Batman franchise implies ordinary citizens should not have.
One possible defense of Batman can be found in the work of Carl Schmitt, a prominent German legal scholar whose theories helped legitimize the Nazi regime. Schmitt believed that for government to be effective the head of state had the right to declare “the state of exception” in which the normal rule of law could be suspended in times of crisis that required immediate, decisive, and ultimately undemocratic action. Giorgio Agamben has critiqued this concept throughout history including the United States’ “War on Terror.” While Batman is not an actor within the state, he sets himself as a masked executive and his own ‘war on terror’ follows Schmitt’s theorization. The elected officials and law enforcement of Gotham have become party to the crime he sees everywhere, so Bruce Wayne feels justified in bypassing democratic process or legal channels. Harvey Dent promotes this position when he suggests that it is the “inaction of people like us” that authorizes his violence. [Edit: As reader "M" points out, Dent compares Batman to the Roman dictator who rose to power in times of crisis--an even more explicit link to Schmitt.] Yet again, we are met with a contradiction, because the Batman universe does not allow for the agency of the ordinary person. (The fact “people like us” consists of two lawyers, a member of the idle rich, and a ballerina–all white, of course–is a hilarious albeit accidental reflection of the American political system.) It is not simply that he acts in moments of crisis but also usurps democratic process. At the same dinner where Dent makes his declaration, Bruce Wayne establishes Harvey Dent as the ‘hero’ of Gotham through a cabal of plutocrats who agree to fund his campaigns “for life.” The persistent undemocratic theme fits perfectly with Schmitt’s politics–and, sadly, those on both the right and left who suspend civil rights in moments of crisis, both real and imaginary.
Nolan would whitewash all these facts with the fantasy that Batman is this “uncorruptable” agent outside the state who wants to restore order, but he abandons the needs of the community when it suits him. For example, he disregards the greater good to save Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) not once but twice and requires Lucious Fox to restrain (inconsistently, mind you) his own illegal activities. The only thing separating himself from any masked paramilitary is that he will not kill, which serves no other purpose than to create the illusion of restraint when there is none and fuel Bruce Wayne’s own self-satisfied moralism. The fact is that had he killed the Joker, a criminal proven dangerous in and out of police custody, in an act of legally justifiable self-defense the whole of Gotham would have been safer.
This is what makes Batman such a great foil for the other “masked” paramilitary of the film, the Joker. One represents a dictorial Schmittian politics, and the other represents Benjamin’s “pure violence” in opposition to any social order. While the Joker has the advantage of being consistent at the very least, the same cannot be said for Batman. In this sense, Nolan shares at least one of Batman’s flaws in his faux critique of “The War on Terrorism”: the most damnable crime of hypocrisy.