The technical issues first. No chiaroscuro, but a pervasive, lumbering shroud of murk: action scenes seem to take place behind screen doors; the camera is only inches away from the actors’ faces. Gotham, land of spires and leering gargoyles, is downgraded to glassy downtown Chicago, the Second City looking as poor in the half-light as if it were the Twenty-Seventh. Heath Ledger is good, sure, perhaps the only actor taking any joy in the proceedings: but is he any better than Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow? He spends far too much time in the movie explaining himself and his cheerful anarchism, even though his point is that explanations are superfluous. “I don’t have plans,” he tells us, and neither do the filmmakers. The logic of the action is a joke without a punch-line: cars, trucks, motorcycles slam together and hundreds of gas barrels explode, all inconsequentially: the body count is a staggering thirty-six, but had a pile more been thrown onto the fire, the effect would have felt equally numbing, like $185 million being thrown at your head. Was the film edited? It’s hard to tell. The Scarecrow, villain of Batman Begins, appears early in the film to attempt a minor crime only to disappear in remainder, forgotten. Gotham’s mayor holds up a cigar cutter for an extended interview scene, but never cuts a cigar.
Few movies have been so adept at providing easy metaphors for their own incompetence. But The Dark Knight, while doing this, eagerly does more: it presents itself as not just a comic book movie (though it is decidedly that); it is also an allegory, as thick as the Divine Comedy, for the present condition of America’s debilitated relationship to the world. The movie’s “deep structure” is a way, then, of absolving its curious lack of levity and joy, the sort of quality that makes a comic book comic. But The Dark Knight, as nearly every film critic in America seems to agree, is not a conventional genre film. It desires the status of art. And so, watching it, you can’t avoid noticing how it lays out its purpose in deadly earnest. Its chaos is expensively calculated, and it is not at all benign.
To take it seriously is to come up against the sheer silliness of the conventions it has retained. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a billionaire who throws the most successful fundraisers in town, dates fantasy supermodel ballerinas with tremendous busts. (This is not how ballerinas look in the real world.) A languorous, overlong portion of the movie is devoted to Batman’s attempt—in a move made familiar by every second installment of a superhero franchise—to discard his suit and return to everyday billionaire life, so that lawful Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a mob-busting DA like Rudy Giuliani, can run things. But of course it turns out legal methods and due process are never enough to combat anarchic evil, and so Batman must return to fight, using criminal methods of his own. Before this can happen, we must watch Batman get a new Bat-suit, which Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) has engineered to be lighter than his first suit, though it looks exactly the same on-screen.
To fight anarchy is to lose one’s bearings, and to move one’s own soul dangerously close to evil. Ah, but such is the price of superhero-dom—or, as The Dark Knight would also like us to believe, the War on Terror. The Joker is repeatedly referred to as a “terrorist,” and he is made to resemble the men and women the United States calls terrorists. He captures police officers, tortures them, and then forces them to explain his own purpose on camera, much like the video of Daniel Pearl made by Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (KSM’s video, it should be said, was more professional). The Joker’s goal is to spread chaos amidst liberal civilization, to show the cultivated that their wealthy ideals can vanish when confronted by evil such as his.
And so the Joker, like other criminals in the film, is treated by Batman the way America treats terrorists: he is tortured. Intellectuals who favor the use of torture in the United States often reduce the ethical question to a hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist reveals he has a plot to blow up thousands of people in one hour, and the only way for officials to extract information from the lunatic in time is through ruthless physical violence. “Ethics 101,” Charles Krauthammer calls it. “Hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.” It doesn’t matter that, in a real Ethics 101 class, one would learn that legal ethics is not reducible to a childish theoretical picture; that there is not a shred of historical or present evidence on which to base such hypotheticals. (There are bombs in the real world, but they never tick.) Yet the real-world debate over torture is frequently reduced to this argument, because it has a terrifying simplicity to it. As in the scenario itself, the argument doesn’t even give you time to think: you are simply asked to decide, and your decision then becomes actual policy. When it is presented in something like real time, as it is in The Dark Knight, it actually functions as “Ethics 101” for the children who see the film.
This “ticking bomb” scenario occurs twice in the film. In the first scenario, two lives are at stake—Harvey Dent’s and his girlfriend’s, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The Joker is beat up to get the information. In the second, two boatloads of people are at stake, but the situation is marginally more complicated. Reproducing a version of the “prisoner’s dilemma” from game theory, the Joker has placed two explosives on two boats leaving the city. One contains convicted criminals; the other contains regular white-collar Gothamites. Each boat can save itself if it chooses to destroy the other boat. I trust I’m not ruining anyone’s future viewing if I point out that neither boat destroys the other, though members of each group are sorely tested. In a manipulative move, the filmmakers have a large, scarred African-American prisoner stand up and angrily demand the detonator. We are supposed to think, “Oh, ah, this man is angry and black and wants nothing more than to kill whitey. The other boat is doomed!” But of course, our illiberal suspicions are baseless: he tosses the detonator out the window.
The effect is startling, but achieved vulgarly. The means by which Batman finally finds the Joker (who, of course, has his own detonator on the chance that his plan fails) involve a massive surveillance system that he has set up in his cave, which tracks Gotham’s citizens through their cell phones. Morgan Freeman, frightened by the criminal potential of such an illegal machine, agrees to use this method only once, after which he insists on resigning.
Of course, this extreme method works. Everything works. In a digression, Batman is forced to travel to Hong Kong to capture a Chinese banker, who is helping to swell Bruce Wayne’s trust fund by using the international mafia. The Hong Kong excursion is leavened by beautiful shots of our superhero bat-gliding amidst skyscrapers, but the scene’s essential point is that corrupt Chinese capitalism must be treated like terrorism—and so the banker is “renditioned” back to Gotham. Again, it works.
The point, though, is not that you need to think about these things; no teenager (or film critic) who views the film is likely to pick up on the allegory. But they will surely get the message, as they get it from so many lesser attempts than Batman. The ideological work is done by presenting these scenarios as mere games, such that they easily seem to repeat themselves in actual political life. That they mirror so perfectly the Bush Administration’s logic in justifying its wars and vast security apparatus would suggest that some apparatchik paid off the filmmakers to make the case again to the people. But, of course, nobody paid anybody off. The filmmakers, free citizens, stood up and produced the propaganda themselves, at their own cost, and for their own benefit.
The Dark Knight does not provoke profound debate about our methods and purposes. It spectacularly affirms them. “We don’t get the hero we need,” Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon says, with Niebuhrian wistfulness, “we get the hero we deserve.” Nor do we get the comic book movies we need. But that is because we will never get them. There is a sense that these films are harmless and merely to be indulged; that we must love the forms that our film industry deems “popular” as much as we love our country. This disgraceful logic is ensuring that such forms are becoming the only ones available. Every summer brings comic book spectacles that attempt new heights in extravagance and waste. Each time, the distinction between what might be authentically popular forms and those that win us over through sheer monetary bulk and grim “seriousness” is further mystified.
The great scandal is that a common delusion persists over the seriousness of films like The Dark Knight, which is usually invoked in the same breath that someone will say, defensively, “Come on, it’s only a comic book movie.” This paradox gets at the heart of what is wrong with The Dark Knight, and films like it. Comic book films are not flexible adult forms, designed to provoke thought, but inflexible teenage forms, designed to elicit consent. Their fundamental constants—the crushing loneliness of feeling outcast, the performative fakery of adult life (cf. billionaire with busty ballerina)—serve to buffer every conceit that this childishly self-regarding nation has about its mission in the world. And if the superhero movies then insist on humility to accompany our international audacity, then so much the better. Nothing smoothes the task of empire more than the feeling that you are doing it humbly. History will record that, while a monumental catastrophe overtook the world financial markets and a new colonialism destroyed the lives of nations, the United States still found time and money to resolve in its films what it could not, for the life of it, perform in the world.