A One-Man Department of Justice
Batman as the American hero
Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
On the prisoner boat, the warden keeps possession of the detonator but, as time ticks by, he begins to eye it nervously. A small group of convicts who have been praying approach him and, with just minutes left, the leader tells the warden, “Give it to me and I’ll do what you should have done 10 minutes ago.” The warden reluctantly hands over the detonator, and the religious convict—to everyone’s surprise—throws it overboard.
Meanwhile on the civilian boat, the people take a vote as to whether or not they should use their detonator, thus killing the convicts and saving themselves. The result is a small majority in favor of blowing up the prisoners. But when the captain refuses to push the button himself, none of the other passengers is willing to commit the act either. With moments to go, Batman happily saves them.
What Nolan is saying in The Dark Knight is that our social order is far more fragile than it seems, and that even democracy is not sufficient to maintain it. Upholding the liberal order requires larger guiding forces—such as religion and natural law, as suggested by the ferry dilemma. And sometimes maintaining order requires illiberal actions, such as those undertaken by Batman.
“These people need you now,” the Joker lectures Batman. “But when they don’t . . . they’ll cast you out. Like a leper.” The Joker is right—by the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has become a public enemy, hunted by the police and disavowed by the authorities. Nevertheless, Batman accepts this burden precisely because he believes the city is worth saving. Even if the means of salvation are terrible.
Which brings us to Nolan’s final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. It begins eight years after the Joker’s reign of terror. Gotham is now healed as a city. Order has been restored; crime has dwindled; prosperity has returned; and Batman has retired. Into this fat and happy city arrives another terrorist, named Bane. Unlike the Joker, Bane doesn’t want simply to destroy the liberal order. He wants a revolution. In rapid succession, Bane assembles a small army, infiltrates Gotham, destroys the bridges and tunnels, and uses a nuclear device to keep the federal government at bay. He liberates the city in the name of “the people” and announces open season on Gotham’s elites.
What follows is an ode to conservatism and the free market: Important charities close down without businesses to support them. A kangaroo court is established to try the wealthy—and any dissidents who don’t like the new regime—for crimes against society. Citizens loot with impunity, and the men and women who don’t stoop to informing on their neighbors simply lock their doors and cower in the dark. At one point, a pair of characters stumble into a penthouse apartment which has been ransacked and turned into a flop house. One of them picks up a broken picture of a family, and notes sadly, “This place used to belong to someone.” Her friend cheerfully replies, “Now it belongs to everyone!”
Yet despite appearances, The Dark Knight Rises is not an attack on the Occupy Wall Street movement (the script predates the Occupy movement by nearly a year). Nolan is out for bigger fish: Reacting to the 2008 financial crisis, he asks, Can liberalism survive its own excesses?
In interviews Nolan says that The Dark Knight Rises was shaped in large part by A Tale of Two Cities. It’s worth remembering, however, that Dickens’s views on the French Revolution were complicated. He deplored the revolution, but held no brief for the ancien régime. As Orwell noted, “Dickens sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will follow.” Here is Dickens himself on the subject:
All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a spring, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.
This isn’t to say that Dickens thought the revolution was justified. He believed that the revolutionaries were savages and that the revolution itself was, as he says, a “monster.” He believed, as Orwell put it, “that the results are inevitable given the causes, but . . . that the causes might have been avoided.” Which seems to be Nolan’s view as well. At the beginning of Dark Knight Rises, we see Gotham’s overclass at a decadent party, hatching political schemes and behaving in a Bloombergian manner. Bruce Wayne notes that the city’s glitterati are constantly throwing “charity” events that serve no purpose other than feeding the vanity of the dilettantes who attend them. And so, when Bane comes to town the people of Gotham participate in his revolution with equal parts horror and glee.
But there is a catch: Unlike Madame Defarge, Bane has a hidden agenda, and the story of The Dark Knight Rises turns when it’s revealed that despite the revolution, Bane is going to detonate his bomb, wiping out the city.
What Nolan is driving at in The Dark Knight Rises are two deep truths. First, that however stable and pacified Gotham appears—and however good the fruits of the liberal order—we must realize that it is still part of the City of Man, imperfectible and subject to our inherent weaknesses. Liberalism is necessary, but not sufficient, for justice and peace. And left to run its course, it can create terrible chains of events. Nolan’s second argument is that the men who arise to command these events (Robespierre, Stalin, Bane) are not to be trusted. This is a deeply conservative reading of human affairs. And, not coincidentally, a perfect distillation of Batman’s philosophy.
All of which is why, if you believe that the Western project is the capstone of human experience, the apex to which our history has pointed—but that it is a structure which is neither inevitable nor immortal, and requires defense—then Batman is not just the hero for our age. He’s a hero for every age.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.