Why So Violent? A Review of The Dark Knight

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Last night I got on the bandwagon and watched the new Batman movie. I thought it was so good that at times, my mouth was literally open in awe of what they had done with it. I was worried that the hype about Heath Ledger’s Joker had been somewhat based on sympathy, but no: While Jack Nicholson was a predictable nutjob, Ledger really made you think, "Yeah, if someone acted like that, his crew would be ruthless but utterly loyal, and he would soon be the undisputed crime boss in the city." When Ledger is in a scene, you can’t even consider anyone else. Even Batman’s heroics are interesting only insofar as you look to see, "How is the Joker going to react to this? Amusement? Respect?"

Now I have bent over backwards to praise the movie, because in what follows it may seem as if I’m being a stick in the mud. So I hope Batman fans will appreciate that I am not criticizing the character or the movie. But now onto my main purpose: I wish to critique a popular line of argument (epitomized in a Wall Street Journal op ed by Andrew Klavan) that "Batman is George W. Bush." We’ll see that this comparison is misguided for two reasons. First, Batman is infinitely cooler than George Bush (and that’s not really a criticism of Bush). Second, Batman really isn’t the assumed hero that these foreign policy hawks believe; Bruce Wayne is making a tragic mistake with his life.

One more disclaimer before we begin: There are unavoidable spoilers in this piece. I implore you, please do NOT continue reading if you haven’t yet seen the movie; I would feel awful.

"What Bush and Batman Have in Common"

To make sure we understand the context of my article, let’s reproduce some excerpts from Klavan’s op ed:

There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society — in which people sometimes make the wrong choices — and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

What Bush and Batman Don’t Have in Common

I don’t know much about Batman co-writer/director Christopher Nolan, but (unlike some who have been horrified by the WSJ op ed) I think it’s entirely possible that he wanted to take a stand on the current debates concerning "enhanced" interrogations, civil liberties violations in the name of fighting terrorism, etc. This doesn’t necessarily even mean that Nolan is a fan of George W. Bush; perhaps he is just tired of simplistic leftist criticisms. In any event, the plot device of Batman tapping everyone’s cell phone seemed rather blatant to me; unless avid fans can show me that this happened in the comics, then I think the war hawks are right to draw parallels in this regard.

But having conceded a smidgeon to Klavan, let’s step back and consider all the ways Batman is different from modern American presidents. (Note that I am following Woods and Gutzman, who argue in their new book that George Bush’s claims to executive prerogative are really nothing new.)

  • Batman uses his own money. All of the wonderful gadgets that Batman uses are purchased with Bruce Wayne’s personal money. Suppose that when Bruce Wayne explains his desire for a plane to help him "rendition" the foreign businessman back to Gotham, that Morgan Freeman’s character said, "You’re rich, my boy, but not that rich. That kind of technology is so expensive it would bankrupt even this company." Wayne thinks about it and says, "You know, we can’t let something like financing stand in the way of my mission to bring safety to the streets of Gotham. I’m going to go around and ask for donations from every employed person in the city, in order to raise an extra billion dollars per year. And hey, if some freeloaders don’t want to contribute, even though I’m doing this all for them, then I’ll kidnap them and bring them here to the Batcave as a lesson to everybody else." The crowd in the movie theater might think this was a bit odd, and rather uncharacteristic behavior for the caped crusader.
  • Batman fights his own battles. A rather important difference between Batman and American presidents is that Batman personally throws down with the killers and thieves. This is a large part of why he is so cool. Suppose Wayne told Alfred, "You know, you’re right! One of these days I am going to reach my limits. I am more useful plotting strategy here in the safety of my mansion. I’ll hire those Batman vigilantes to carry out my work." Again, the audience would be very puzzled by this. There could even be audible groans once the viewers realized Bruce Wayne was going to be safely ensconced in his fortress the entire movie.
  • Batman is very reticent in the use of violence. Batman bends over backwards to minimize the physical damage he inflicts on others, even the criminals themselves. As a rule he doesn’t use firearms (and his reason for this is much different from the Joker’s!), and the Joker himself remarks that Batman won’t ever (intentionally) kill him, because of Batman’s quaint morality. Needless to say, if Batman slaughtered all of the thugs he crossed during the movie — and especially if he accidentally killed all of the hostages wearing the masks near the movie’s end — the audience would be horrified. And if the Gotham newspapers declared, "Batman blows up elementary school, killing 340 kids, in effort to stop Joker!" many in the audience would agree with the vigilante’s critics, rather than shaking their heads at the ungrateful rabble.

Now let me acknowledge one area where Batman and American war presidents are similar, that Klavan neglected to mention:

  • Batman lies to the people he is serving. I personally was very disappointed in Batman’s instruction to Commissioner Gordon, that the public must never know the truth about Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne thought he was thwarting the Joker through this deception — the Joker had been trying to show that even self-righteous crusaders were capable of crime. And yet, in publicly praising a demented cop killer — and someone who would threaten a young boy with a gun in front of his mother — Batman and Gordon fulfilled the Joker’s worldview. Great film villains such as Ledger’s Joker, or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, are not simply mindless psychopaths. They see the hypocrisy of the power elite, and are amused at true heroes (such as Batman or Clarice Starling) who compromise their principles by working for such frauds.

Bruce Wayne Should Retire The Batman

Implicit in the argument over whether Batman is like George Bush, is the assumption that it’s good to be like Batman. Let me be the square who declares: Bruce Wayne is wrong to continue in his vigilantism. Of course it makes for a fantastic movie, and I certainly didn’t want him announcing his identity at Dent’s press conference.

Even so, if I found out my (billionaire and brilliant) son were The Batman, I’d have to have a serious talk with the boy. There is so much more he could do with his life, rather than spending millions inventing gadgets for combat, and devoting all of his free time to battling criminal gangs. To give a quick example, a savvy and bold billionaire could eliminate far more crime by getting Gotham to stop enforcing its drug and gambling laws. All of those mobsters who corrupted the police would fall away without black market revenues propping them up.

This is an important point. Batman is really a one-man "surge" in the War Against Crime in Gotham City. No matter how many criminals he puts away, the corrupt system will either release them, or even more unsavory criminals will replace them. This isn’t a tangential observation on my part; several of the criminals themselves remark during the movie that Batman has changed the dynamics of the black market landscape, and actually delivered a virtual monopoly in certain areas to the most ruthless criminals in their respective niches.

Conclusion

Although there are some undeniable parallels between Batman and American presidents, there are other obvious differences, and these are "deal breakers" in the sense that Batman would not be revered if he behaved in similar fashion.

More important, we must not let our enthusiasm for a fabulous movie obscure the fact that violence doesn’t solve problems, especially violence employed in conjunction with government officials. Other Christians would agree with me that there is really only one Man whom we should treat as a true hero, and He was anything but a rule-bending law enforcer.

Bob Murphy [send him mail] has a Ph.D. in economics from New York University, and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism. He has a personal website at ConsultingByRPM.com

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