Vigilantism of the Few and the Many; the Darkness of Democracy in The Dark Knight

Posted August 14, 2008

The Dark Knight is the pre-eminent summer action-superhero blockbuster of 2008, and will probably soon become the second grossing film of all time, behind Titanic but ahead of Star Wars.  It also establishes the “re-envisioned” Batman franchise as the pre-eminent movie franchise of the second half of the current decade.  Politically, it takes up what the Spider-Man franchise left off, a story that starts from an account of present-day, urban, post-9-11 US political reality.  (In this sense these two franchises contrast interestingly with successful “fantasy” franchises during the same time-period: Lord of the Rings, Shrek, and Pirates of the Caribbean.)  But what does The Dark Knight have to say about this political moment?

Chiding The Dark Knight for promoting the vigilantism of the wealthy misses the point.  The connection with the War on Terror is more complicated than it seems at first blush as well.  The Joker is a terrorist rebel without a cause; a friend of mine also argues, somewhat convincingly, that the Joker is meant to represent a “fuck shit up” version of anarchism.  But it is not clear to me that vigilantism plays a big role in the ideology of the War on Terror, beyond the push for people to snoop on their neighbors and keep an eye out for funny-looking people and funny-looking packages – to be ever vigilant, and maybe be prepared to jump on one of these funny looking people should they try something funny on an airplane or bus.  But this is not an ideology that calls for the vigilantism of an exceptional elite, but rather a mass vigilantism and vigilance of the diverse but patriotic crowd and the working-class emergency worker, lionized in stories of what happened during the 9-11 attacks and immediately after in New York.  This vigilant, diverse, patriotic, united, strong but still very vulnerable, ultimately commonplace crowd was fictionalized for the movies most notably in the Spider-Man series, especially the first Spider-Man, released in 2002.  If you want a refresher on the politics of the crowd in Spider-Man, the World Socialist Website’s review may lack nuance – not an uncommon flaw on this site – but it does the trick:

As the crime-fighting rolls on, one begins to suspect that the movie is trying harder than usual to draw everyone into fighting crime. In one completely improbable scene, Green Goblin (the CEO Osborn’s evil monster persona)—who has been obliterating entire apartment complexes—hovers motionlessly as a crowd of people pelts him with stones, shouting something like “If you hurt one of us, you hurt all of us.”

Just in case we missed the subtlety here, for an instant the swoosh of an American flag fills the screen.

The relationship between the War on Terror and an exceptionalist vigilantism would be better illustrated by bringing this summer’s Iron Man into the mix.  Iron Man clearly shows that this relationship is about a fantasy, for example, of a “smart missle” that could kill the bad guys while leaving the innocents unscathed, and of a clarity of judgment and moral force which the viewer is encouraged to imagine in the super-hero which seems somehow lacking in even a sympathetic portrayal of the armed forces bureaucracy.  Iron Man and The Dark Knight both include extended meditations on this material – Iron Man struggles to fill his suit, morally, and the movie seems to shift from political critic to apologist in the process, while the closing scenes of The Dark Knight raise to a crescendo an extended thought-poem around heroism in complicated times.

The political climax of The Dark Knight takes place several miles away from the protagonist; it is another crowd scene, I would argue one that explicitly “re-envisions” the crowd scenes in Spider-Man.  It would not surprise me if this re-envisioning dialogue were intentional, but even if it is not, it certainly reflects ongoing preoccupations in the culture.

If the crowd in Spider-Man represented the can-do, embattled, patriotic, multi-racial workingclass solidarity people saw in post 9-11 New York, The Dark Knight takes a similar crowd and offers a different view of political human nature for 2008.  Two ferries are transporting people out of Gotham.  (In the use of ferries, here, Gotham resembles New York, as indeed Gotham traditionally has, though other aspects of Nolan’s Gotham seem more Chicago-esque.)  One ferry is filled with a cross-section of innocent civilians, while the other is full of prisoners.  In a nod to the Cold War, the scenario is one of Mutually Assured Destruction: the Joker has rigged both ferries with explosives, and arranged for a detonator to be delivered to each ferry which would trigger the explosives on the other ferry.  The Joker informs them that if one ferry blows up the other, he will let them live, but if neither ferry is blown up by midnight he will detonate both sets of explosives, destroying both ferries.

The dialogue between the Joker and Batman centers around their mirroring manichean views of human nature.  The Joker has arranged this situation to demonstrate to Batman just how selfish and degenerated human nature is.  When midnight arrives and no explosions have taken place, Batman tells the Joker that he’s wrong, and two boatloads of people have just demonstrated that the people of Gotham are ready to fight for good.

A sloppy viewing would accept Batman’s version of events here, but a little reflection shows otherwise.  The viewer, unlike Batman, has seen what has transpired on the two ferries, and there is little nobility on either side.  The innocent civilians represent US democracy at sea on a kind of Noah’s arc.  When the captain says he won’t use the detonator, the passengers insist on taking a vote.  The vote is lopsided in favor of detonation, but the ship’s crew hesitate to push the button.  The spokesman for detonation in the crowd is a balding, middle-aged white guy whose dress suggests he might be a mid-level office worker or a middle-manager.  When the crew hesitate, he takes the detonator himself, saying everyone wants this to be done but no one wants the blood on their hands.  However, once the detonator is in his hands, he can’t do it either.

Meanwhile, there’s no democracy on the ship of knaves.  The official in charge (who may be either a captain or a prison supervisor or both) is nervously fingering the detonator.  A prisoner walks up to him, accuses him of being weak, and takes the detonator, saying that he’s going to do what the official should have done a long time ago.  A reversal occurs here which may be a bit of a cheap trick.  There’s no doubt that this burly, tattooed Black man is going to blow up the civilians; but instead, he throws the detonator overboard, forestalling any possibility that his ship will commit such inhumanity.  He turns out to be the only character in the whole scene with a  humanist moral compass.  (One could critique this, however: this prisoner, in articulating moral rectitude loses moral complexity in a way that does not occur for the white middle-manager type; instead he becomes something of a stereotypical “noble savage.”)

The impact of this reversal jars the fourth wall for a moment; the viewer has been led along to identify himself as an anonymous soul on the civilian ferry, and has been invited to make the same racist and “law-abiding” assumptions about the prisoners that the civilians themselves made, when they assumed the prisoners’ ship would blow them up and voted overwhelmingly to blow it up.  Do Americans ever vote for inhumanity and un-solidarity, hiding behind representative democracy and the secret ballot?  Who voted for Guantanamo, or who allowed it to happen?

Batman subdues the Joker, and neither ferry is blown up, but this hardly constitutes the ringing philanthropy and morality Batman claims.  Instead, exhaustion, fear, indecision, and guilt have barely saved the day; the half-democratic dual arcs will disembark the people of Gotham, who will muddle through another day without destroying each other.

This dark view of the nature of the political animal seems about right for 2008.  Post 9-11 patriotism has given way to doubts about ourselves along with fears of the other.  An old order has died, but a new one cannot yet be born.


2 responses to “Vigilantism of the Few and the Many; the Darkness of Democracy in The Dark Knight”

  1. John B. Cannon Avatar
    John B. Cannon

    Yeah, I think you’re right that the crowd scenes (except for the prisoners of course) and the extras in general seemed very white – almost like a throwback to a 1980s film where “coloring” the city is an afterthought. And the choice of a white guy to be the sort of democratic everyman in the ferry scene is also indicative.

  2. Isaac Avatar

    Thanks for writing this. I’m embarrassed to say that I slept through a good 40% of The Dark Knight. So now, I have something smart to say if people want to talk about the movie at a bar. [My chronic sleeping through movies probably goes back to one former life, a cinema concessionaire; I learned to sneak into the theater to catch some shuteye]

    Of the parts of the movie that I did not miss, the ferryboat scene did seem to be the most morally/politically interesting. But overall I wasn’t super impressed based on all the hype this thing has been getting – the editing seemed pretty choppy, to me. My other question was, didn’t it seem like Gotham was awfully WHITE? Like you mention, most of the crowd scenes, press conferences, and definitely the cops…