The new, critically acclaimed Batman is smashing box office records. So the temptation is to be deliberately contrary and critically put the boot in but it's actually an intriguingly provocative though overly dense take on Gotham's Dark Knight. Heath Ledger's Joker is particularly beguiling and exuberantly anarchic. Readers of this blog though will be interested in the political under-current to the Dark Knight's Gotham vigilantilism especially as they are prevalent in the film.
What Batman actually is, cutting edge gadgets and car chases aside, is an allegorical tale of the fight against the type of terrorism with which there is no compromise. The Joker is Bin Laden, a man that sets society against its own philosophical foundations. His contention is that when spurred or afraid, we cut the constitutional and moral architecture of freedom from under us. How do we as a society respond to such a threat without definable end?
Well, vigilantism is one way around the legal niceties of such a threat is this film's contention though that is not a cost-free choice. Gotham's legal frameworks, combining corruption with cumbersome inflexibility, are inadequate to the task. It needs an extra-legal force, a Batman, who knows no limits, no borders (he apprehends a money laundering villain behind Chinese borders by attaching him to a passing jumbo jet), and little restraint. Batman's first mission is to break up a car park showdown between petty criminals (quite how Scarecrow who poisoned an entire city and sent it mad in Batman Begins is back on the streets is left unanswered but it is an apparent further failing of Gotham's legal process) and Batman clones. What legitimises this vigilante and not his copy cat do-gooders?
Not only do vigilantes spawn vigilantes but the horror of the film is that this super hero begets 'a better class' of villain. The Joker is Batman's shadow. Without Batman, there is no purpose to a Joker. Their masks are mirrors, good deeds are matched by bad. The Batman himself is one big moral dilemma. Well this Joker forces society to choose- hospitals or murder, unmasking Batman or terror, mother or daughter? How can human beings make such choices?
Then there is one of the political choices of our time, security or liberty? Many people have tried to define security and liberty as two sides of the same coin but that just will not wash. Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy, and Batman alter-ego plays up to the image of decadent capitalism but beneath it all is purpose with far more sinister consequences. Seeing the technological potential of a system that uses mobile phones to spy on each and every individual in Gotham, he shifts the boundary from freedom, decisively in the direction of security. What results is an organic, primordial panopticon. Every step in Gotham traced and tracked in the name of counter-terrorism. The end justifies the means.
Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is appalled and insists that this all-encompassing, roving CCTV is disabled. Presumably he sees the threat to liberty and privacy, the potential for the corrupt or distorted application of such a technology. Christopher Nolan, the film's Director, seems to be cautioning us about the consequences of defending our security without a proper consideration of our liberty. Unfortunately, at the same time a psychotic madman who wants to destroy society is running around Gotham, blowing up hospitals, corrupting the incorruptible, and murdering for theatre and fun. The choice is loaded and not in the direction of Lucius Fox.
Our minds might want to go with Fox, but our emotions pull us strongly in a very different direction. The worthy message is drowned out by a single adrenaline rush. An action thriller such as Batman is simply not capable of delivering such a textured message so it ultimately fails in its political mission, and perhaps does more harm than good. Surely, any technology available should be deployed against a madman like the Joker? Well, no, actually, but no one will leave the cinema with anything other than that conclusion.
So the politics of Batman are actually deeply unsatisfactory. That won't stop you going to see it. It is still a darkly provocative and brilliantly executed super hero flick. It just bites off more than it can chew. As a consequence, the final third of the film ends up in a bit of a mess. Hollywood blockbusters just can't carry the weight that Batman attempts to shoulder and nor should they. TV drama- The Wire springs obviously to mind- is far better placed to deal with these bigger issues. Political issues just don't seem to lend themselves to rational discussion while men dressed in bat outfits are fighting freaks in clown make-up trying to bring a city to its knees with a full array of pyrotechnics and wizz-bang gadgetry. That's just the way things are but thank-you Batman.
Post script: The Adam Smith Institute has discussed some of this also.