Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Batman In The Movies - Debunking the 'Dark Knight endorses the Bush/Cheney doctrine' stupidity...

Once a narrative gets going, especially a juicy one, it's hard to put back in the bottle. In the last two weeks, the official talking point, both of righteous conservatives and allegedly offended liberals, is that Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight explicitly endorses the 'War On Terror' doctrine that Bush and Cheney have carried out for the last several years. Absolute nonsense, as you'll see below (it's long as it's a bit of a 'point by point' rebuttal). Basically, the film asks many provocative questions and dares to not provide every answer. But, in the end, it comes out in favor of humanity's basic compassion and capacity for hope, community and sacrifice as opposed to self-interest and selfishness.
Heavy SPOILERS follow -

At the heart of this current madness is the 'chicken/egg' fallacy. Since taking office in January 2001, and especially after 9/11, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have conducted themselves in manner suggesting that they believe themselves to be cowboy super heroes, be it Batman, John Wayne, or Jack Bauer, fighting the forces of absolute darkness. They believe in simplistic notions of good and evil, might and right, and the ends justifying the means. Thus, it stands to reason that some of their rhetoric would resemble the very comic book superheroes they attempt to emulate. It's not a case of Batman sounding like Bush, but rather Bush trying to come off as a truly heroic figure such as Batman to justify his unheroic policies.

But aside from words, the actions do far more to differentiate the two. Even Batman's vigilantism is presented as something that is selfless and meant to inspire the people of Gotham to feel safer and take control of their corrupt city. Batman does not kill and never harms the innocent. Yes he does walk that fine line in terms of being judge and jury. Any movie about a superhero must deal with that, but that doesn't make Batman a right-winger.

Even as a vigilante, Batman is primarily concerned about protecting the innocent, even at the expense of punishing the guilty (he always chooses saving a life over capturing the villain, as seen at least twice in the film). Bush and co are primarily concerned with punishing the (allegedly) guilty, even at the expense of not protecting and/or punishing the (allegedly) innocent. One could argue that this is the defining split in liberal/conservative ideology. Speaking in broad terms, liberals are more concerned with protecting the (allegedly) innocent while conservatives are more concerned with punishing the (allegedly) guilty. And Batman constantly goes after the people who are actually responsible for the crime in Gotham, be it The Joker or the mob, rather than choosing straw men to hold up as evildoers. If you use the logic of the Bush administration, after discovering the location of The Joker and the intent of his plan, Batman would immediately dash after The Riddler or The Penguin and punish them severely while The Joker ran free.

In fact, the one character acts in that nature, who becomes a true Bush-type vigilante is presented as a tragic villain. As Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face and rampages through the Gotham underworld, he kills purely based on the flip of a coin rather than rational thoughts of justice. He becomes so determined to kill 'the evildoers' that he takes his anger out on the children of his alleged enemy. Not content to wrongly blame Jim Gordon for the death of Rachel, Harvey Dent decides to murder Gordon's young children as a form of punishment. In fact, Two-Face spends the last act of the film attempting to murder everyone tangentially connecting to his maiming except the person actually responsible: The Joker. So Two-Face targets everyone except the one person truly responsible for his plight, and then chooses innocent bystanders when those targets don't suffice. Almost sounds like Bush attacking Iraq to avenge the aggression Osama Bin Laden and 19 Saudi nationals.

As for the picture being right-wing because the Joker is a motiveless killer, that's just a variation on a right-wing cliche (that liberals make excuses for every criminal and thus want to set them all free). Hell, James Gordon himself made a speech about that subject in an Ed Brubaker written issue of Gotham Central (a series that The Dark Knight cribs from heavily). Basically, Gordon acknowledged that it is fine to feel compassion for criminals who are simply messed up or make stupid childish mistakes, and we can certainly sympathize with their actions now and then. But in order for society to function, it still can't be completely tolerated, so off to jail they go. I don't recall Nolan feeling too much pity for Jonathan Crane or Ra's Al Ghul or Carmone Falcone in Batman Begins. That Nolan presented Joe Chill as a flawed and guilt-ridden human does not make him a tree-hugging hippie, nor does his presentation of The Joker as an soulless demon make him an advocate for the Heritage Foundation.

Also used as ammunition is the idea that The Joker is an alleged stand-in for Osama Bin Laden, a wanton terrorist who kills indiscriminately and slaughters civilians on a whim. But the film shows quite clearly that this is not the case. The Joker kills only when he finds it necessary, and he only kills just enough people to cause panic in the city. In the course of the film, he kills slightly over 20 people, almost all of whom are cops, criminals, judges, vigilantes, or public officials. He does not explicitly kill a single bystander, even when left alone in Wayne's penthouse, because that is not part of his fiendish plan. He does not randomly blow up buildings and he does not randomly slaughter the innocent. The only time he even targets random bystanders is at the conclusion of the second-act chase scene, where he opens fire on random cars to goad Batman into using lethal force. Otherwise, the people that Joker chooses to kill are specific and intentional, with malice and forethought. Oh, and super villains have been videotaping their kidnappings and murders since the 1940s. Jack Nicholson's Joker did the exact same thing to an unlucky Smylax test subject in Tim Burton's Batman.

Further more, The Joker does not hate us for our freedoms anymore than Osama Bin Laden does. Whatever Bin Laden's motives are, The Joker simply wants to test his theory that people are generally selfish and evil and that when pushed, they'll turn on each other. One could fairly argue that Bin Laden's goal for the US is similar, to watch the country burn, but then one must acknowledge that in our current state, Bush has given Bin Laden exactly what he desired. The Joker is a much closer relative of the Zodiac killer (note how he mentions how few people he had to kill and how little destruction he had to cause in order to drive the city into panic).

Besides, in the end The Joker's experiment fails because the people of Gotham are shown to be unwilling or unable to be so self-centered that they would slaughter innocents to save themselves (as opposed to the stereotypical right-wing view that countless dead Iraqis are a fair price to save a few American lives). In one of the most emotional scenes, a hardened convict chooses to toss his ship's detonator out the window, potentially at the cost of his own life, rather than play a part in the shedding of innocent blood. In Nolan's world, criminals are not beyond rehabilitation and redemption, and thus Batman's mercy towards them is justified. Needless to say, Bush and co are not known for their mercy.

As far as Harvey Dent's cries about not giving into terrorism during the second act, let us remember that, immediately after 9/11, it was Bush who immediately closed the military bases in Saudi Arabia (which was one of Bin Laden's chief demands against the US). Bruce Wayne immediately wants to cave but is advised against it by Rachel and Alfred, two out of three of his moral compasses. Furthermore, Batman doesn't just want to quit because The Joker is killing people to expose him. Batman wants to quit because he doesn't want to become the type of man who would 'burn the forest down' to catch this madman. And, in the end, he doesn't have to. He does not kill The Joker and he still saves the lives of every person on the two doomed ferries. He even finds time to save the lives of Jim Gordon and his family. Yes, he has done things that maybe should be condemned, but he does them with a heavy heart, rather than a boastful chuckle.

Does this all mean that The Dark Knight is a liberal movie? Probably not anymore so that it's a conservative tract. In the end, Batman still tramples on the constitution as a matter of course (as he has done for seventy-years in the comic world). And yes, Batman commits an act of something strongly resembling 'extraordinary rendition' (the abduction of Lau from Hong Kong). It's more like rendition in the fashion that Clinton originally intended it when he (wrongly) allowed it back in 1998 (no torture, for one thing), but it still gave me the liberal heebie-jeebies. Although, one could argue, it is this extreme and illegal action that instigates the entire rampage by The Joker, since the mobsters overreact and hire The Joker out of desperation (and of course, Alfred warns him as it's happening). IE - Batman told them to 'bring it on', and they did in the form of a murderous clown. Whether or not Batman's actions resemble right-wing behavior, one would find it hard to argue that the film is championing this behavior, considering the blow back that occurs as a result. Again - questions but no solid answers.

It's true that Batman wiretaps every cell phone in Gotham in a desperate attempt to locate The Joker, but the film leaves the issue opened-ended. Yes, it's a ticking-bomb scenario, but it's strongly condemned by one of the film's chief moral outlets (if Morgan Freeman condemns something, most movie goers will believe him). Furthermore, unlike Bush's warrant-less spying, Batman does not keep copies of the phone calls, he does not spy on lawyers and political opponents (allegedly), he does not listen to the phone calls that are being monitored. When Lucius Fox discovers the machine, the audio is an indecipherable blur, with only the audio of The Joker himself distinguished amongst the masses. And, tellingly, as Gordon states in his closing monologue that 'sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded', we see Fox smile just a bit as he realizes that Wayne has programed the machine to destroy itself once its one-time use is finished. Point being, Batman knows damn well that what he is doing is wrong, but it may be necessary in this one case, in a manner which violates no one's privacy, since no one's phone call is actually listened to. It's still constitutionally awkward, but it's quite different than an illegal ongoing wiretapping program that collects countless random phone calls and stores them in a database for who knows what purpose.

And the finale of the movie brings about all kinds of questions, but it also exposes the fallacy of the whole right-wing argument in regards to The Dark Knight. In the end, Batman chooses to take the blame for Harvey Dent's murders so that the people of Gotham can still have their unwavering symbol of lawful justice and lawful heroism. On one hand, Nolan is stating that people desire symbols of people who do good within the law and within the system that has been set up for a civilized society (as opposed to Bush and Cheney, who brag about going above and outside the law in their pursuit of terrorists). On the other hand, it brings up the propaganda campaigns involving the fake rescue of Jessica Lynch and the false story surrounding the death of Pat Tillmen.

I'd personally argue that Batman's falling on the sword is unnecessary because the people of Gotham can be inspired by the selfless actions of the ferry passengers. Point being, The Dark Knight implicitly seems to endorse the idea that its ok for figures in authority to lie to people in order to make them feel better about themselves. Again, at the very least, Batman is making a sacrifice for the good of his city and as a way to make the criminal underworld afraid of him once more. Regardless of whether I endorse that decision, it must be acknowledged that it's based on the absurd notion that the criminals arrested by the squeaky-clean Dent would go free because he was kidnapped, brutalized, and snapped under duress.

But the biggest reason that The Dark Knight fails as an endorsement of Bush/Cheney is that Batman is actually successful at saving Gotham and he sacrifices for it. Batman loses his best friend and would-be lover, and he loses the trust of his business partner. Furthermore, in the end, he has lost the faith of the very people he strives to protect, choosing to forgo their love to protect their lives. While some argue that Bush and Cheney forgo the love of their constituents in order to keep us safe, the fact still remains that they have lost the faith only because they have failed in that duty outright. The Iraq war has left the Middle East in chaos, Bin Laden is still free, our country is going broke, and the average family is struggling like never before with such necessities as health care, food, and gas.

Batman is not Bush because Batman succeeds in his primary goal. He captures The Joker and saves countless lives without killing his enemy. Batman is not Bush because he makes sacrifices and pays horrible tolls for his quest, while Bush and Cheney have not only not sacrificed but benefited financially through their various business enterprises that have in turn profited from the various military engagements. It's a complicated, messy movie that wrestles with big questions. I don't think it completely aspires to any rigid political dogma. I'd argue that the film as a whole is a blistering bleak commentary on how we, as Americans caved into fear and irrationality following the 9/11 attacks (as The Joker states, we are only as civilized as circumstances allow us to be). But it sure as heck doesn't champion the unsuccessful and counter productive policies that make up the current 'War On Terror'.

Scott Mendelson


RockLobster said...

Great analysis of the movie. I think you did a brilliant job of debunking the right-wing myth that Batman is somehow intended to represent G. Bush and, in some insane stretch of logic, we should be proud of Bush's actions.

Razorgeist said...

Very well written essay. This was actually something that I had heard about and considered for a while but thanks for the refutaion.

Razorgeist said...

Very well written essay. This was actually something that I had heard about and considered for a while but thanks for the refutaion.

RockLobster said...

Great analysis of the movie. I think you did a brilliant job of debunking the right-wing myth that Batman is somehow intended to represent G. Bush and, in some insane stretch of logic, we should be proud of Bush's actions.

Hoolalu86 said...

Firstly let me get it out that I'm not a conservative or Bush apologist. But I think you miss the point here.

1) There's little debating that TDK wouldn't work on us the way it does if it hadn't been for 9/11 and the subsequent wars and security paranoia. There are multiple scenes that definitely invoke parallels to real-life events and personalities. Just because the metaphors don't fit perfectly throughout the course of the film, as you point out for "Bush = Batman", "OBL = Joker," doesn't mean we should pretend this film is completely disconnected from such things. When we see the hospital blown up it is similar to images we saw on the news, even if the parallels breakdown on second consideration of other elements, such as civilian causalities. There is something of a commentary on our times here.

2) The silliest part of the idea that TDK justifies Bush administration policies is the word "justifies." Even if one concedes that Batman is a stand-in for Bush this doesn't amount to saying a) that a US president SHOULD try to mimic the actions of a vigilante acting above the law, b) that vigilante-like policies work as well in real life in foreign policy and national security as they do against a single nutcase in a city in a film that needs to have the protagonist prevail, or c) that even if one thinks Bush should act like Batman and was justified in using Batman's actions as inspiration, that the attempts to implement such vigilante-like policies weren't hampered by corruption and incompetence. Why couldn't we say TDK is a study of ways of reacting to evil in democratic society, of course partly inspired by and evocative of Bush administration strategies post 9/11? This is not a justification, but it takes us to a place where we can understand, to some extent, why certain options were attractive.

3) if politics amounts to a battle between narratives, it's clear you want to fight the narrative that Bush = Batman. Possibly because you think it will cause people to side with Bush. This is fine on the level of political debate, but I thought this blog should be concerned with film analysis more than entering one side or the other of policy arguments about issues raised in film. If someone with a time machine arrived from 100 years in the future and told us that the judgment of history vindicates Bush policies, I would bet it would be on the basis of this "Dark Knight" narrative; that he did "what had to be done" rather than what was popular. I don't particularly like the idea that that may happen, but that's what a lot of conservatives think will happen. So what exactly is wrong with having a film that sort of fills out that case, even if the events in the film do not totally vindicate that case, just as a reflection of our times? To document that Bush-like attitudes were, and to some extent still are, prevalent in this society? Someone once said the mark of an intelligent is the ability to entertain an argument without accepting it. In some ways TDK is the argument for Bush. Or maybe it's Bush's fantasy of himself. As someone who Bush was a horrible president, I do not reject the opportunity to entertain the argument, or consider if it could have worked, or in what circumstances it could work, even though I am certain it has not worked in the real-life quasi-parallel.

If instead that time traveler comes back and tells us the world is largely at peace and Bush's actions are derided as misguided/corrupt/exploitative, I would imagine TDK could serve as a way to understand how those ideas were popular in Bush's era. It reflects the ideas and the mindset behind them in a somewhat sympathetic light, but doesn't endorse or justify them. Is this not the power of film, to bring to us experiences we would otherwise not have or understand? It seems narrow-minded to try to dismantle any notion that there is a connection between TDK and what happened during the Bush administration.

BigNoseDog said...

You didn't address the issue of torture. Conservatives think waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" are effective and should therefore continue to be employed. And they point to this movie in support of that. But if you look closer, you see it shows that torture isn't effective at all. The first time Batman tortures someone is when he breaks Maroni's legs. Does that get Batman the information he wants? No, because Maroni doesn't know where The Joker is. Later, Batman beats The Joker to get him to reveal the whereabouts of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes. And it works, or so Batman thinks. Turns out The Joker just told Batman what he wanted to hear, which is what most liberals have been saying about torture. If you inflict pain on me to get me to talk, I'm not going to be thinking about what's true. I'll just say whatever it takes to get you to stop, even if I know it's not true. So there you have two uses of torture, one showing that it's useless if the suspect doesn't have the information you want and the second showing that whatever information you do end up getting may not be reliable.

Witter said...

wow - what a bunch of idiots roam this planet - Thank GOD for the internet, it keeps them all home, reading crap like this


Related Posts with Thumbnails