Dark Knight Politics

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Eric Alterman says:

p.s. I saw The Dark Knight yesterday afternoon, and I think it pulled off the neat trick of being both libertarian and fascistic, which is to say it is damn confused ... not bad, but not consistent either.

I'm not entirely sure that's right for reasons I'll go into in the spoiler-filled section of the post left below the fold. But for starters let me say that I think that a well-made film that, rather than being topical as such, instead chooses to deal with topical themes often doesn't really have a political "point of view." Instead, it makes everybody think about the present political situation but we'll probably reach different conclusions about it just as we reach different conclusions about the real world.

As for the film, I think Spencer Ackerman basically gets this right -- Dark Knight's Batman sees himself the way Dick Cheney sees himself. Batman understands himself as a reluctant warrior who would like nothing better than to retire and turn the city over to Harvey Dent. Batman knows that some of the corners he cuts to get the job done make him less than heroic. But Batman is proud to be less than heroic. In fact, Barman is more than heroic. Heroes and heroism are crucial -- crucial because the masses need inspirational heroes -- but the heroes need to be backstopped by folks who are hard enough to walk on the dark side and to accept the public's scorn.

But does that mean that the movie is saying that Cheney is right? Well I think that's complicated. I would say that one important reason Cheney is wrong, is that we're not actually faced with a Joker-style supervillain. Nor is the Bush administration genuinely made up of such self-sacrificing characters as Batman (who, e.g., could have selfishly chosen to save the love of his life and allow his rival for her affections to die but chose not to because he thought that would be the wrong choice for the city). Nor, for that matter, is the United States' position vis-a-vis Islamist radicals nearly so tenuous as Gotham's vis-a-vis organized crime. I think Cheney would look at the movie and say "see -- this is what we're doing." I look at the movie and say "see -- if you were fighting a comic book bad guy and you were a comic book hero then your policies would make sense."

Shifting a bit away from the issues of the day, though, one interesting thing about the film is what a difference it makes to rip Batman out of the context of the broader DC universe. The DCU's other anchor character, Superman, is far more powerful than Batman. And of course Superman's hardly alone in this regard -- Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, etc. all wield vast power and even lesser lights like the Flash outpace Batman by far.

In that context, Batman rather uniquely doesn't suffer from a substantial legitimacy problem. You don't look at Batman and say "no man should wield this much power" in a world where Superman can see through walls. It's those other guys who have legitimacy problems and Batman is one of the important checks on them -- especially on Superman, who specifically entrusts a kryptonite ring to Batman for that purpose. This does pose a "who watches the watchmen" issue explored in Tower of Babel and elsewhere, but in a basic sense we're supposed to be glad that Batman has so many gizmos not because we're naive about power but because in the context of all these super-powered super-heroes it's genuinely less threatening than such a person would be in the real world.

The movies don't bring this context up without getting explicit as to whether or not we're supposed to think of Batman as living in a universe that contains other super-heroes but the answer to that question ought to make a big difference to how you think about him.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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