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A One-Man Department of Justice

Batman as the American hero

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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But once Bruce Wayne grows up and formally becomes the Batman, he realizes that justice is about more than nabbing crooks. It’s about fighting corruption and perversion​—​the twin forces of illiberalism. This is why great chunks of the Batman mythology deal with his partnership with Commissioner Jim Gordon and their attempt to cleanse Gotham City’s corrupt police force. It’s why one of Batman’s most enduring storylines is his quest to cure “Two-Face” Harvey Dent​—​a noble district attorney who becomes criminally insane after half of his face is disfigured in a mob hit. Batman doesn’t just want to arrest Dent, he wants to rehabilitate him. He understands that the institutions of liberalism can be corrupted; but he believes that, in order for the entire project to endure, it must be possible to purify them. 

The fact that these stories are set in Gotham City is not an accident. Batman is unthinkable as a rural hero​—​there could be no adventures of Batman in Smallville, Kansas (as there are for Superman)​—​and Gotham is the quintessential 20th-century American city. As such, it is both Western civilization’s highest achievement and a source of challenges to the liberal order. And Batman has a great deal to say about both.

The post-Cold War world has been defined by two events: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the global financial collapse of 2008. It is not an accident that the best two attempts of popular fiction to grapple with these calamities have been Batman movies.

Christopher Nolan has written and directed three films about Batman. The first was a disposable piece of entertainment, but the second and third, 2008’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which is in theaters now, are movies with big ideas.

Amazingly enough, The Dark Knight is the best exploration of 9/11 produced by our creative class. In it, the Joker arrives in Gotham City and his mission isn’t to steal money or gain power. He doesn’t even want to kill Batman. He simply wants to demonstrate how frail society’s mores are. “When the chips are down, these ‘civilized’ people will eat each other,” he tells Batman conspiratorially. “You’ll see. I’ll show you.”

And with that, he embarks on a campaign of terrorism designed to stampede Gotham’s citizens into forsaking democracy, abandoning their social norms, and striking bargains with evil. The Joker is the kind of foreign, illiberal threat that al Qaeda presented to the West, and the movie’s 9/11 parallels are explicit: In one scene Batman stands in the wreckage of an exploded police station where the set is arranged precisely to resemble the ruins at the World Trade Center.

At a superficial political level, The Dark Knight is a deeply conservative movie. It sides with the Bush administration on questions of torture, as Batman is forced to beat information out of several villains in order to prevent further attacks. It even gives an alibi to the administration on warrantless wiretapping: Batman designs a secret method of eavesdropping on the city’s cell phone network, and the device is a crucial tool in Gotham’s salvation.

These heresies were not lost on the left. The Dark Knight was a critical and commercial smash, and practically the only people in America who quarreled with it were movie critics who saw it as an exoneration of President Bush. New York magazine’s David Edelstein, for instance, complained that Bruce Wayne had a “smirk” with “a trace of Dubya entitlement” and that Batman employed “FISA-like surveillance.”

But at a deeper level, the movie was even more conservative. The question The Dark Knight asks is, Can liberalism defend itself from illiberal threats? And the verdict it renders is, No. Throughout The Dark Knight, Gotham City’s institutions​—​the police, the courts, the mayoralty, the citizenry​—​prove incapable of answering the Joker’s assaults. And bit by bit, the city descends into Hobbesian anarchy. In the movie’s climax, the Joker has placed bombs on two ferries. One is filled with citizens trying to flee the city; the other is filled with criminals being transported from the city’s jail. Onboard each boat is a detonator which, the Joker claims, is wired to the other boat. The Joker informs his victims that if, in an hour, one of the ferries hasn’t been destroyed, he’ll blow up both of them.

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