Posted by: Jeff | September 18, 2009

The Dark Knight, Reconsidered

The Dark Knight 2

This is a bit old hat, but I haven’t done a “movie” post in a while. Doing our conservative movies podcast got me watching The Dark Knight again. And seeing it now, after a bit of a hiatus, I’ve noticed two things.

The first is how remarkably good and remarkably flawed it is. As to the flaws, it has a hole where its main character should be. Not for nothing did critics observe that Batman is probably the fifth most interesting character in the film. It also rushes Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face, and it occasionally descends into the maudlin nonsense that is associated with lesser works of the genre. The concluding moments in which Gordon’s son arrives to play the well-trod role of the Uniquely Perceptive Innocent now drive me to almost total distraction. And as others have mentioned, if you sit down for a moment and logically consider what the Joker accomplishes over the course of the film, you realize that both the prescience and the physical productivity required would have been simply superhuman.

All that said, The Dark Knight remains a film of extraordinary ambition and craft that really does push the boundaries of its genre in a way no other “comic book” movie has. All the while juggling a huge amount of elements without losing its footing. To come across a two and a half hour movie which nonetheless feels too short is a rare thing, but The Dark Knight manages to be such a film.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that I missed, in the podcast, the central reason this is a genuinely pro-liberal film. Or at least a film my own left/liberal principles are in harmony with.

But first, why did so many see it as conservative? I think the main reason is the film does not shy away from the brutal consequences of principled or idealistic behavior, and it does this in a way that makes intuitive sense for an audience. There is a reason we refer to acts of love or of principle as “selfless.” We recognize that such acts always involve a self-immolation of some form; we strip ourselves of some good or open ourselves up to some vulnerability or risk in performing such acts. Terry Eagleton recently wrote that acts of self-giving friendship in some way mimic “the inner structure of dying.” Love, honor and decency are all rehearsals for death. Most people, I think, recognize this intuitively if not consciously. It’s why the conservative message of self-reliance, self-interest, and strength through violent confrontation has such appeal. It encourages us to skip out on the rehearsal.

For the most part, the film honors that intuition. As Joe observed, whenever Batman takes the high road, more deaths result. On torture, on pre-emptive war, on spying and all the rest of it, the American conservative will say, “We can’t do the right thing, because the right thing hurts too much.” The unobservant might think the film agrees with this dictum. Since most movies attempt to evade these truths, The Dark Knight can come off as conservative simply for acknowledging them. (Which isn’t to say it’s completely unflinching. Arguably, its climax, in which the two boats do not blow one another up and Batman saves them from being blown up by the Joker, is one point where the film ducks its own tragic logic.)

But that misses the key fact that, contra modern American conservatism, the message of The Dark Knight is “Yes, doing the right thing hurts. But we should do it anyway.” Acknowledging the truth of death’s reign is not the same thing as succumbing to it. Turning to Eagleton again, we cannot become truly moral until we have accepted our mortality. A life well-lived does not evade or postpone death (nor does it welcome it) but simply prepares to meet death well, whenever it may arrive. That’s what is conveyed the moment the citizens of Gotham choose not to sacrifice one another to escape the Joker’s bombs. And that’s probably the underlying reason that Batman seems secondary in this film, because it’s not really about him at all. It’s about a struggle between the Joker and the city of Gotham, in which the former tries and fails to destroy the moral core of the latter.

And that’s what makes The Dark Knight truly liberal, in my book. The Joker asserts that all human beings are cannibals, willing to drop their moral principles and “eat each other” at the first sign of genuine risk, cost or sacrifice. In the movie, Gotham proves him wrong. But out here in the real world, we spent the eight years of the Bush Administration proving the Joker right.



  1. Glad to see I’m not the only one who found the movie to be progressive and liberal in its ideology.

    It’s not my best writing, but I was so infuriated by the ‘oh, it’s SUCH a right wing film’ garbage upon its release that I ended up just ranting.

    To put it simply, if The Dark Knight were a pro-Bush film, Batman would have decided to give up going after The Joker and the half-way point and wage war on The Penguin instead because he was easier to catch.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. I think I let my inner amateur theologian run a bit wild in the last few paragraphs, so maybe not my best writing either.

    I like your point about Batman going after the Penguin, but I really like your assertion (in the post) that Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face is actually the better mirror for the actions and fate of the Bush/Cheney Administration. Hadn’t thought of that comparison before, and I think it’s apt.

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