Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: The Dark Ideological Knight

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Dark Ideological Knight

Here's some more Dark Knight, but maybe a different take on it than we're used to. Since we're in an election year, and all, it should've been expected that we'd start to see some political deconstructions of it. Super-hero comic books--or any sort of heroic vigilante fiction, really--have odd politics that can't be transferred directly into the real world. In comic books, readers have insight into the minds and motives of the heroes, and we know they are worthy of our trust. Although Batman might agonize over identifying the "right thing," we have full confidence that not only will he recognize it, he'll follow through to the best of his abilities. We'll accept actions from him--or from Superman, Spider-Man, or whomever else you might want to mention--that would otherwise be unacceptable. We know that they have a purity of motivation. In the real world, we know no such thing about those we consider heroes or, even more, those in positions of power who we don't consider terribly heroic. In the comics and the movies, we wonder when J. Jonah Jameson will stop using his newspaper as a club to attack Spider-Man. In the real world, if we had a faceless vigilante who called himself Spider-Man, I'd wonder when the authorities would start paying attention to the brave newspaper editor who was willing to confront the lawless threat or menace stalking our city.

So it's interesting when the pundits start to pull political messages out of The Dark Knight. Eric Alterman believes the movie

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.

Matt Yglesias takes Alterman on, falling back on his inner geek to argue that the situation isn't that simple:

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.

Of course, if you're interested in the plain vanilla reading of the film's politics, you can argue that Batman is a stand-in for George W. Bush. And the Wall Street Journal asserts that very point. Spencer Ackerman makes much the same point, but he doesn't see it as a good thing.


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