7 things The Dark Knight taught me about democracy

Okay, the hype’s over. They’ve made their billion. (As I write this in mid-September, Batman remains the number-three movie in the country, having dipped below 4th place for exactly one of the last 60 days.) Our pulses have slowed and we can all take a deep breath.

And start overanalyzing. Finally.

Reading The Dark Knight as a raw 9/11 allegory would be “reductive,” said Manohla Dargis. Dick Cheney thinks he’s Batman, said Spencer Ackerman. Blame America first, said John at Cogitamus. “Isn’t the terrorism thing the whole reason the movie is good, just about?” said my buddy Quinn.

Just about. But terrorism per se wasn’t really the theme of this great Hollywood movie — just one of its circumstances. Like terrorism, the Dark Knight is actually about democracy.

Listen to Chris Orr in The New Republic, who called Gotham City “the most crucial character in the film”: “antagonists wrestle over the public mood like Victorian novelists over the soul of a virgin.” Watch how much of the action is mediated by TVs, screens within the screen, which show us Gotham as seen by its citizens.

Then think about these seven things the Dark Knight has to say about democracy in our hyperpowered age.

And, yes: Spoiler Alert.

1. Democracy doesn’t work… This is a contrarian and unpredictable argument, but in the film it’s unmistakable and it’s at the heart of the whole thing. The well-dressed commuters who vote overwhelmingly to murder hundreds of criminals on the next ferry show that secret ballots undercut social norms and divorce us from responsibility for our actions — give us a chance to whisper “yes” into a telephone, as Matt Taibbi once wrote of Iraq.

2. …without individuals… In the climactic ferry scene, redemption comes from unlikely, undemocratic leaders: the bald, cross-eyed, tattooed crook who fools a weak-willed guard into letting him save hundreds of innocents, and the equally bald bourgeois chicken-hawk who leads a “kill the crooks” movement but finally can’t move himself to kill hundreds of tattooed crooks when the people have put power in his hands.

3. …but individuals tend to be flawed… The embodiment of this undemocratic, republican ideal, of course, is the angelic Harvey Dent. “The public loves you,” Mayor Garcia tells him. It’s true: he’s not just good, but charming and beautiful. His mutilation into Two-Face resonates not only because of the twisted soul behind it but because we know that on a very practical level his political career is over — the old Dent was priceless not because he was incorruptible (Commissioner Gordon is, too) but because he was also blessed with the charisma to win the fickle love of the lightly informed public. (Dent’s political fall evokes the Joker’s story about his lovely wife leaving him after he mutilates himself for her.) This is how powerful symbols are, and how shallow.

4. …and tempted to use sinister means to achieve initially noble ends… Dent’s parallel is Batman, the vigilante who, like Dent, tries to use the hyperpower of symbols to inspire Gotham to resist evil. Unlike Dent, he operates outside the law, but his no-kill rule seems like a simple way to separate him from the real villains. But the Joker, driven like Bin Laden to harness the power of symbols for his own goals, finds a weakness: he threatens to kill someone himself unless Batman unmasks himself, a move that would (a) destroy Batman by forcing people to prosecute the vigilante, which would rapidly (b) persuade that ethical behavior is stupid, since without Batman the Joker and the mob would run rampant.

At first, Batman and Dent seem ready to keep their hands clean of death, obey the Joker, and allow him to wreck Gotham on their watch. Alfred (the Paul Wolfowitz of the film) advises against this. At Dent’s press conference, he and Batman decide Alfred is right. In order to smoke out the Joker, Dent lies to the public and claims to be Batman. It’s his first sin. Before long, he’s hijacking an ambulance and pushing a handgun into a man’s temple — until Batman catches him in the act. Then Batman makes a pact with Dent: Batman will do the dirty work so Dent can remain the inspirational leader the people need. But this is just for show; Bush has reached an agreement with Cheney, and both are now complicit. And Dent is learning to look at ends, not means.

This crossroads for Dent isn’t electoral, but only because we all know that story already. Dent is any politician who faces a moral compromise (in election season or another time) to gain greater power. He compromises.

5. …which leads ultimately to corruption, cynicism and the abandonment of principles… The Batman-Dent alliance fails. The Joker is one step ahead, and through good luck and a little far-fetched psychobabble he snaps Dent’s spirit, his greatest victory. But Dent isn’t the only one who breaks his principles: at the movie’s coda, Batman finally breaks his own rule, killing Two-Face to save an innocent boy and, what’s more, conspiring with Gordon to deceive the public into thinking Dent remains pure and Batman is now a serial killer.

6. …which would lead to a breakdown of society… With Dent out of the picture, Gotham loses its moral center, allowing the Joker to seize power. He turns Gotham against itself first by ordering and nearly achieving the murder of Coleman Reese, then by engineering the ferryriders’ dilemma. (Though he’s foiled in both by a few brave individuals.)

7. …unless the public is deceived into thinking that morality and heroism are possible. Batman and Gordon embrace this deception at the close. Batman needs to run because Gotham has to chase him. Gotham’s people need to be motivated against evil, because in the end, the actions of these few highly charged characters don’t add up to much in the vast mass of Gotham City.

Like Bin Laden, the Joker’s greatest power isn’t his ability to arrange the deaths of 3,000 civilians. It’s to inspire individuals he’s never met to ape his evil. And like the U.S.A., Gotham can’t save itself by killing the Joker — the Riddler and Penguin will always be behind him. Gotham can only win by convincing people everywhere to do good.

As portrayed in The Dark Knight, this is the tragic conclusion of modern democracy: it’s all got to be built on a self-serving lie about the nobility of the human race.

– posted by Mike


8 Responses to 7 things The Dark Knight taught me about democracy

  1. […] entirely persuasive, takes on what The Dark Knight has to say about democracy can be found at Geek Buffet. –Christopher […]

  2. Evan Torner says:

    Good post, Mike. As the billionaire film of the year and the result of an AOL Time Warner collaboration with MGM Studios (which owns DC Comics), however, Batman: Dark Knight is a pure product of the establishment. The boring Democracy of coalition building and committees is swept aside for the democracy of mass politics under a charismatic leader. A very appropriate film for an election year, but ultimately one that promotes what is collectively in the media’s best interest: democracy needs these self-serving lies about the human race’s nobility in order to sell film tickets, magazines, etc. as well as this country’s leadership to its very citizens.

  3. Roy Huggins says:

    I was totally with you up until here:

    it’s all got to be built on a self-serving lie about the nobility of the human race. Emphasis mine.

    Not to get all liberal artsy on you, but ideas like “the nobility of the human race” are constructions whether you look at them in a pessimistic or optimistic way. Since we can construct whatever view of ourselves we all want and can agree on, why not choose a kind of nobility that ultimately results in what I will refer to for brevity’s sake as ethical behavior? It wouldn’t be a lie. It would just be the current way of thinking.

  4. I myself, have entertained the idea that “Batman” represents George Bush.
    LOL ! Talk about “overanalyzing” ! Batman did the dirty work… Saved the
    city… And is hated by all. Maybe George Bush is whatever America needs
    HIM to be. A “fall guy” so to speak. That’s the job of any president… Of
    any democracy ! WOW. Deep. 🙂

  5. Mike says:

    Well, Daniel, I was really thinking that Batman is a better analog to Cheney. (See the Ackerman piece linked above for a better analysis of this, though.) But Bush works, too.

    Roy, your liberalartsiness is extremely clever, but I think I disagree with your application. Gimme a little more time to think about it.

    Excellent point about this being a product of the establishment, Evan. But I’m not sure I understand what you claim is in the interest of the corporate media: that they want us to think that deception is necessary because they’re already professional deceivers? If so, do you think that deception is necessary?

    And if you see this, Christopher, thanks for the link. I had to search all over the place to remember where I’d seen your line, but it was a great one.

  6. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Gah, I wanted to read this — but I haven’t seen the movie yet. Are all of the numbers spoilers???

  7. TheGnat says:

    To the last commenter: yes, pretty much. Go see the movie, it’s worth it (and I don’t even like going to theaters).

    Mike and Roy: I don’t think viewing the human race as good/noble is just a “liberal arts” construction. Shintoism is premised on the idea that all life, or existence, is inherently good, although we may perceive aspects of it as negative or positive to ourselves. But if one does not accept the notion of original sin that judeo-christian societies are based around, then one naturally arrives at a generally positive outlook of human behavior. For example, both linguistics and philosophy show that humans generally are truthful; language would not exist and could not function if they were not.

    Also, plenty of films have done what they wanted despite being funded by a big corporation. Anyone who’s listened to the director’s commentary to LotR has learned that management is incredibly…..dense.

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