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Obama/Wayne 2008? McCain/Wayne 2008?

July 25, 2008, 4:09 pm

Having failed in my attempt to compel Adam to discuss The Dark Knight in terms of Schmitt, Benjamin, or Agamben — the perpetual state of emergency and what-not — I was content to let the matter drop. But as a future professor of literature somewhere, preferably in the near future, I can’t let the conservative push to lionize Bush-as-Batman or the liberal push to demonize Batman-as-Bush stand. Both interpretations are naive inasmuch as they mistake the depiction of an issue for an endorsement of it.

The conversations on Unfogged about the impossibility of an anti-war film always annoyed me because they either 1) knighted those most likely to misunderstand the most basic literary devices — like irony — the final arbiters of meaning; or 2) devolved into polite-but-pointed accusations about who really loves watching people-bits scatter across the sky. In professional-literary-type terms, the conversations flat-lined somewhere between Fishian reader-response and crude Freudian insinuation. Needless to say, neither of these modes produces much in the way of value.

To return to The Dark Knight: although not immediately evident, the film is profoundly critical of the current administration and its policies. Its utilitarian compromises — the surveillance system, Batman in the box with the Joker — are criticized by sound moral agents as they occur: Lucius threatens to quit, Gordon breaks for the door. The problem, in both instances, is that neither Lucius nor Gordon has the authority or muscle to stop Batman. Their attempt to stop Batman from compromising his moral authority fails; and their failure leads directly to Batman’s debasement at film’s end. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

(Way ahead of myself, as I meant to note that one of the reasons I’ve written so much about The Dark Knight isn’t because I’m a fanboy — although I am — but because it’s a such a rare horse: a film as substantial as it is popular and can be discussed with an audience unaccustomed to literary analysis. It’s as if the world itself has done the reading.)

In Batman Begins, the formative event in Bruce Wayne’s life is the murder of his unambiguously good parents. To young Wayne, their commonplace death — nothing atypical about urban violence in impoverished cities — represents a radical wrong in the moral order of his universe. The depth of his belief in its wrongness is evident in the lengths he goes to combat it: the years of training, thieving, imprisonment, &c. It was all for naught. As Ra’s al Ghul said, when a city is so corrupt criminal organizations can infiltrate its highest offices, only a purging fire can set matters right. Nothing more unusual here than the standard revolution-as-social-reform, proceduralism-won’t-work line. Given the dystopia that is Gotham in the first film, Ra’s al Ghul is certainly right.

Wayne’s solution is quasi-proceduralist, inasmuch as he introduces a radical element within the extant social structure in order to provide Gordon, Dent, and Dawes time and space enough to prosecute via conventional means. (One of them, or possibly Batman, says as much in The Dark Knight.) Critical attention focuses on the opening bank heist and Ledger’s Joker — with good reason — but the Joker’s rise obscures the results Gordon and Batman have achieved since the conclusion of Batman Begins.

The first film closes with the Falcone mob shattered and an outsider, Ra’s al Ghul, defeated; but the other mob bosses and the ordinary violent felons still rule the streets. By the time The Dark Knight opens, Batman and Gordon have scrubbed Gotham shiny. I mean that literally: the exterior shots of Gotham reinforce the impression that the city is cleaner, possessed of an atmosphere light can penetrate. With Dent’s rise and a crippled mob, Wayne can said to have accomplished his original goal: create an environment in which proceduralism can adequately respond to elements aligning against the body social.

This isn’t the way most critics have viewed the film. The fashionably against-the-grain reading pairs Dent and the Joker as the film’s moral foils, but I insist on interpreting the film counter-counter-intuitively, with Dent a rough equivalent of Wayne’s father, i.e. a supremely benevolent personality of a sort that can only exist in a functioning society. Without Batman and Gordon’s efforts, Dent would’ve been so much piss in the wind. The Joker, however, is the unique product of a society whose stability is guaranteed by a man in a giant bat-suit. He is not, as Nezua would have it, a stand-in for terrorism writ large so much as a figure for the Malkin-esque fear that the bell that calls for prayer tolls for her: irate mullahs, public fatwas, endless caliphate, &c.

The Joker isn’t a stand-in for terrorists, then, but what clenched conservatives assume terrorists to be — without plan, without complaint, without decency, without humanity — so to the “if you, like me, like Yoo” crowd, Batman’s response is eminently reasonable. Except, of course, it isn’t: on the one hand, Lucius and Gordon object; on the other, the Joker doesn’t simply want to see Gotham burn, he wants to know the identity of the man he believes to be his photo-negative. When he discovers it as Batman tortures him, his motives shift: now he wants to destroy not Wayne, not Batman, as it’s Wayne’s support of Dent that threatens to snuff Batman. There is a there there more substantial than the unadulterated nihilism.

His rage may be inscrutable, but it’s not baseless: he can tailor his formative myth to fit the fears of his victim because, it seems, he’s not invested in it. Both versions presented in the film involve a private, family trauma — were I psychoanalytically inclined, I’d say this means the truth either 1) involves a private, family trauma or 2) doesn’t involve a private, family trauma, i.e. he either picks at old scars or points in irrelevant directions. The truth is less important here than the compulsion it creates: unlike common criminals and mid-level mob lackeys, the Joker won’t scare and won’t quit.

The tension at the core of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns evinces itself here: only so long as Wayne is in peak physical condition will he be able to stabilize the social order. This stabilization is, to Wayne’s mind, a temporary fix to an structural problem whose solution is not, as we learn in both the graphic novel and early the second film, Batman-impersonators. In the graphic novel, Wayne unites his impersonator and leads an army of sycophants who paint their faces white and smear Batman’s symbol around their eyes. Sound familiar?

Miller’s Batman can rally an army comprised of people who, like the Joker, are a direct result of his actions, i.e. neither future Batman’s army nor the Joker can self-fashion. Billionaire playboy-cum-caped vigilante Bruce Wayne believes himself to be self-fashioned — What is the use of all those push-ups if he can’t even lift a bloody log? — but he is as much a creation of extraordinary circumstance as the Joker. Had he not been a billionaire scion; had he not fallen into a well as a child; had the well not been full of bats; had the feature not had bats; had his parents not been killed; had he shot Chill; had he not run away; &c. He incorporates the circumstances responsible for his transformation into Batman into his self-fashioned self, but in the same way Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. He is his own perpetually revised narrative of self. These revisions don’t trouble the viewer, as he or she is familiar with them. Were the roles reversed — were this a Joker franchise, focused on the particulars of his descent into arch-criminality — and a man in a bat-suit hounded the Joker’s every move, Batman would be equally inscrutable. All of which is a tedious, roundabout way of stating the obvious: just because we’re not told what’s there doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.

This post became unwieldy nine graphs back, so let me cut to the chase: Dent’s mental collapse shocks Wayne because he borrowed the faith he invested in Dent from his father’s stock, such that he sees what might have become had his mother died alone that night. In short, in Dent he sees the potential for rot everywhere, in everything, even his father’s cartoonishly unambiguous good. The Joker doesn’t factor into this equation. He is an agent of chaos in the diminutive sense: a mere agent, an irrational actor in an agency grown so large his actions exist beneath its perceptual threshold.

The people of Gotham would, of course, disagree, since the Joker’s the only visible foil — but this is only because Batman and Gordon decide to suppress Dent’s descent into Two-Face. Better the city believe in the machinery of conventional politics and condemn Batman for acting outside it than for them to believe even its shiniest cogs are corruptible. While Nolan criticizes the current administration’s commitment to total surveillance ad infinitem by limiting its purview to the current state of emergency, he does seem to embrace the neoconservative rationale of lying to the public for their own benefit. The public doesn’t know what it would mean to create a stable, pro-American democracy in the Middle East, and if the only way to do so is talk about uranium enrichment or al Qaeda connections, so be it — they’ll thank us in the end.

Only we don’t. Not in the film, at least. The final two minutes of the film are unsettling because, not in spite of our knowledge of the stakes. We know the consequences of these lies, and as Batman wheels off into the night, we can already imagine what’ll happen when Wayne somehow discovers the contents of the letter Alfred burned from Dawes; when the public discovers the new criminal mastermind, Two-Face, was once Harvey Dent; &c. Nolan prepares us for the private and public backlash against those who head-fake us because they care.

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