Batman's Take on 9/11 Era Politics? Drop the Fearmongering

Editor's note: Contains spoilers.

One of the "biggest" ideas of the year, according to James Fallows writing in the Atlantic Magazine, is the End of 9/11 as a metanarrative for American politics. For a growing domestic and international constituency, it is no longer tolerable for the very invocation of those events to warrant overriding every principle of American democracy. That moment of thoughtless panic has passed, and appears now to have been a dream of madness. Casting aside principles in the name of the "war on terror" -- to "work ... the dark side, if you will", as Dick Cheney put it -- is now being recognized as the path to becoming the very evil we feared.

One of the most potent confirmations of this maturing zeitgeist is the overwhelmingly positive critical and public reception of Christopher Nolan's stunning new Batman film The Dark Knight, which, in its careful use of 9/11 visual tropes takes the viewer on a sometimes traumatic but ultimately redemptive and humanistic journey towards a truly post-9/11 ethic.

Many reviewers have already noted that the film is commenting on the "war on terror," and audiences were surely meant to revisit their own painful memories of 9/11 by the chilling advance posters for the film, which feature Batman standing before a skyscraper in which a gigantic flaming gash in the shape of a bat has been blasted. Cues evoking 9/11 build from the opening frames, which propel the viewer into a dark swirling cloud of smoke and then to an aerial shot flying us towards a glass building, through to a series of escalating depictions of urban chaos and destruction. Buildings implode, thousands of people flee Gotham city on foot, and at one point Batman broods in the foreground while firefighters struggle to contain fires amid twisted steel columns. Unlike any other superhero film ever made, The Dark Knight is set in a world of realism we -- sadly -- know only too well.

This realism is significantly owed to the actual urban locations of the film. Previous incarnations of Gotham City were either fascistic sets improbably dominated by statues or fanciful computer-generated creations that never succeeded in convincing us; here, the on-location shooting in downtown Chicago and Hong Kong goes a long way to grounding viewers and thereby preparing them for the moral arguments to come.

The morality play of The Dark Knight is driven by Heath Ledger's astonishing performance as the Joker, who is not so much a character as he is a force of unknowable, abstract evil. By positioning the villain this way, screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have made the Joker the very incarnation of a Manichean view of morality: he is not an evil set apart from oneself that can be destroyed, but rather as a potentiality within oneself that must be resisted by our predisposition for good.

What makes The Dark Knight so remarkable is that it frames this resistance to evil with nuanced debates about the natures of human moral agency and decision-making.

In an early scene, when Batman's alter-ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), discuss the merits of having one strong man take responsibility for defending society against evil, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) reminds them that when Rome made that choice, it resulted in a dictatorship. For all his wistful temptation for Roman absolutism, however, Dent is a morally principled man who doggedly works within the legal system to put criminals behind bars. So certain is he of his own moral compass that he makes a show of flipping a coin to make crucial decisions -- a coin which is later revealed to have two faces. Wayne admires Dent for his principled, public and fully legal stand and is himself tempted to forsake the lawless vigilantism of Batman and make Dent alone the public face of justice in Gotham.

Between the unaccountability of the Batman and the deontological morality of Dent lies the consequentialism of Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), a veteran cop whose situational judgments and actions in a corrupt, complex and dangerous environment are criticized by Dent, who once ran an Internal Affairs investigation against Gordon's precinct.

With this moral triad at its core, the film then proceeds to metaphorically -- and not so metaphorically -- demolish the methods, moral vacuity and false ontology of the "war on terror."

First, Batman practices some "enhanced interrogation techniques" on the Joker, only to learn that he was being manipulated by the Joker all along, with fatal results. Then when Bruce uses an advanced and secret project at Wayne Industries to turn every cell phone in Gotham into sonar-based surveillance devices, his partner in Bat-tech, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), is appalled, swearing to resign if the machine isn't destroyed. While they agree to use the mass "unwarranted wiretap" just once, successfully pinpointing the Joker and what appear to be his henchmen in a skyscraper on the waterfront, when Batman arrives in advance of the S.W.A.T. team he is horrified to discover that despite its sophistication his technology was incapable of distinguishing hostages from terrorists, something of which only human presence and judgment is capable.

Next, we see the abandonment of Dent's "constitution." The Joker destroys Harvey Dent by disfiguring him and killing Rachel. Traumatized, grieving and seeking revenge, the formerly principled Dent kills five people, including two corrupt cops, but not before flipping his lucky coin -- which by now is as burnt on one side as he is, thus surrendering all his moral choices to an external force: sheer chance.

But it is in the film's gut-wrenching climax that reveals the supposed existential crisis of the "war on terror" for the cruel and dehumanizing proposition it is.

Fleeing the chaos of Gotham city, two crowded ferries break down in the harbor: one filled with ordinary citizens, the other with convicts clad in Guantanomo-esque orange suits. Each ship's crew discovers the boats are filled with explosives, as well as provided with a gift-wrapped detonator. Over the intercom, the Joker reveals the nature of his "social experiment": the detonators are for the other ship's bombs. If the passengers don't blow up the other ship, he'll blow up both of them at midnight.

For 15 agonizing minutes, the passengers argue amongst themselves and the ship's authorities, who are themselves paralyzed but increasingly tempted to destroy their sister ships. The prison ship is held in particular contempt by some of the passengers, who argue that the men on that boat "made their choice" of lawlessness and may therefore be sacrificed -- in other words, it is best to kill them over there before they kill us over here. Unable to make the final fatal decision, the authorities on both boats abdicate responsibility and turn the detonators over to their passengers -- who ultimately refuse to kill out of fear. In the end, the simple recognition of shared humanity and the insistence on retaining one's own moral agency are shown to be the most heroic acts of all.

At the same time, however, Gotham City's moral leaders are undone. Dent is killed by Batman, who then convinces Gordon that, to preserve Gotham's "constitution" -- the public image of Dent and all he stood for -- Batman and all he stands for must instead accept culpability for Dent's crimes. Unilateral, lawless and unaccountable vigilantism are now publicly discredited. The final scenes of the film show Fox turning his back on and walking away from the machinery of surveillance while Batman flees into the night, chased by police and dogs. Gordon, surrounded by press and members of the public then grimly takes an ax to the bat-beacon, cutting off the state's recourse to vigilantism.

Without either Dent or Batman to intervene on their behalf, Gordon and all of Gotham -- and by extension, the audience -- are left to face a complex, dangerous and interconnected world as a community of individual moral agents, guided by Dent's principles of law, fairness and justice -- as well as their own reclaimed humanism. Even in the face of incomprehensible, implacable evil, The Dark Knight reminds us that these are our only anchors, for without them we betray both them and ourselves.

America may still have that chance. At the moment, however, its Constitution has been mauled, and politicians of both parties long ago surrendered their capacities to stop an illegal war and the looting of the nation's wealth. Now, however, The Dark Knight warns against both abandoning our principles out of fear, grief and hatred, as well as abdicating our moral agency to external authorities -- both of which comprised the hallmark moral syndrome of the years following 9/11.

That audiences and critics have embraced this film gives one hope that the days of uncritically turning to leaders promising to save us from our fears are at an end. As James Fallows says, the 9/11 era is over.

We are all Gothamites now.

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