The popularity of a superhero is directly proportional to how well they reflect the contemporary political-social dynamic. The late 1930s and early 1940s demanded an impenetrable fighting force – both in reality and through our pop culture. Superman dutifully responded to the call and the Man of Steel's popularity grew accordingly. But more recently, ambiguity has riddled the concepts of truth, justice and the American way. Superman's resonance now echoes hollow as culture explores the grayer areas of a previously black-and-white society – and standing firmly at the intersection of darkness and light is Batman. To say that Batman better reflects 21st century America than any other superhero is to suggest a hierarchy where none exists; and the themes within The Dark Knight make Batman relevant to his time – meaning our own. He does not transcend the abysmal society in which he's born from. He becomes part of it. While the spectacle of surreal threats in the Spider-man films entertains us, it is energizing - and dually unsettling - when a film in this genre takes us someplace unexpected, namely the world in which we live.
While not mentioned explicitly in the film, Joker is the prototypical terrorist – a chaos-inducing agent, who acts not because he doesn't know better but because he relishes in the resulting bedlam. He is decidedly Hobbesian, wishing for a return to the state of nature because, in that context, no one will be able to stand him down.
And Batman is a one-man Department of Homeland Security, complete with his own Patriot Act – a "Batriot Act", if you will. He is a creature that, to the public, looks and operates like evil, but who is in creed and deed a fully virtuous man. Despite straddling the line between hero and outlaw, Batman applies his power and influence judiciously. He does not kill – or run the Joker over with the Bat-Pod after being taunted to do otherwise; nor does he unnecessarily trample upon the civic liberties of Gotham's citizens beyond when an imminent threat has passed.
The connection between the film's subtext and the current political environment is not difficult to see. And on the surface, the film seems to subtly nod its head in agreement with the path set by the Bush administration. A July 25 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal details these parallels between Batman and Bush.
While that initially seems to be true, the issues are as nuanced and two-sided as Harvey Dent's coin. Batman swears his foes crossed the line, but Alfred counters, validly illustrating the slippery slope of escalation by saying, "You crossed the line first...And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand." Such is the nature of telling adversaries to bring it on. Batman also created an enormously powerful wire-tapping system and then immediately relinquished control, for its power was too great for a single individual to possess. While Batman can be certain that he will re-establish civil boundaries when the emergency has receded, one thinks that such a promise from the current administration would ring hallow.Another point where the parallel falls apart is the simple fact that there is a reason Batman needs to wear a mask and hide his identity - because he course of action is not one that can be taken by elected officials. There cannot be relative disregard by figures towards the public they are in theory serving by trampling on both civil liberties and mores. We expect our leaders to reflect Batman's morals and virtues, but not necessarily embrace his methods.
Regardless of political leanings or whether one thinks Dent serves as a warning about the folly of placing all their eggs in a basket held by a single white knight, what can be mutually agreed upon is that the film derives much of its success by serving as a mirror of the culture it is serving.
I swear, this is the last Dark Knight related post and after almost a month of seriousness, I will come up with something more light-hearted for next week.