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the dark knight joker burns pile of cash Warner Bros. Pictures

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Watching the world burn: The incongruous politics of The Dark Knight

Despite an obsession with ethics, Christopher Nolan’s superhero smash never gets it right

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On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.

Batman isn’t the star of The Dark Knight. That’s plain old conventional wisdom at this point. But Christian Bale’s foil, Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker, isn’t the star either. Not really. Nor is it Harvey Dent, Gotham’s white knight, or Jim Gordon, the archetypal honest cop, or Rachel Dawes, the doomed idealist, or Lucius Fox, the steady hand, or Alfred, the faithful servant.

The real star of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s cinematic superhero landmark, is the concept of ethical behavior — and the performance stinks.

Written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who’s currently taking an equally high-minded and heavy-handed approach to ethical issues in Westworld, The Dark Knight is fixated on the opposition between right and wrong, order and chaos, and hope and despair, all to a degree no other superhero movie as come close to touching. While most costumed-and-caped adventures are content to let such issues stay subtextual, with the superpowered slugfests between heroes and villains serving as a metaphor for these underlying conflicts, The Dark Knight spins them into the whole plot.

Who’s a better example for Gotham City to follow out of its long-standing hell of crime and corruption: Dent, an elected official who obeys the will of the people and observes the rule of law, or Batman, a self-appointed vigilante who follows no rules but his own? Who’s right about the nature of humanity, Batman, who wants to serve as a symbol to inspire the stifled good he believes exists within everyone, or the Joker, who wants to prove that all systems — from organized crime to democracy — are just pancake makeup applied to a scarred mass of nihilism and brutality? To stave off chaos, is it permissible to inflict order on the whims of one man?

I believe in harvey dent poster the dark knight Warner Bros. Pictures

The answers the film wants us to take away are obvious. Dent, not Batman, is the hero Gotham needs; Batman, not the Joker, sees the hearts of his fellow citizens clearly; even in the face of overwhelming danger, the power to stop it must be checked before it becomes just as dangerous.

These aren’t the answers that the film actually provides. By emerging just before the dawn of Barack Obama’s presidency, when the general consensus in America seemed sick and tired of the unending and overreaching War on Terror as it was of the terrorists said war was ostensibly designed to fight, The Dark Knight tapped into a national mood — the film repeatedly describes the Joker’s actions as “terrorism” — and sent the audience home with a positive message. But the film itself is a hopeless political muddle, constantly trying to have its liberty vs. security, order vs. anarchy, vigilantism vs. legitimacy cake and eat it, too.

The Dark Knight’s most obvious political analog to the Bush years is Batman’s deployment of a massive sonar network, which in the conclusion of the film, taps into every phone in Gotham City to create a realtime audiovisual map of the city and its 30 million residents. (It’s a really big city.) While the sonar system helps Batman track down and defeat the Joker, it horrifies his resident inventor Lucius Fox enough that he threatens to quit unless Batman disables it afterwards.

Yet the panopticon device is just a scaled-up version of technology Fox made and deployed himself, during Batman’s excursion abroad to capture a crooked Chinese financier. Let’s be clear: Fox intended for his spy-sonar gear to help Batman break into an office building on foreign soil, detect any and all threats, physically beat a small army of guards and cops so badly they can’t get up to fight him any more, and abduct a foreign national with the help of the international smugglers piloting his getaway plane. I don’t remember this going through rigorous judicial oversight, but maybe that scene’s in the director’s cut.

It feels extremely goofy to accuse characters in a Batman movie of hypocrisy, but the sonar scene makes it all but impossible not to. In addition to the Hong Kong raid, in which the device was used on a limited basis, Lucius has been perfectly content to help his vigilante buddy commit any number of crimes until now. Batman illegally assaults dozens of criminals on a nightly basis. He routinely beats and tortures them for information, or simply to get them to do what he wants. He uses military-grade hardware to run rampant across the city, causing what sure looks like millions of dollars in property damage and risking an untold number of lives. (To the franchise’s credit, no one actually dies, unlike what goes down in Man of Steel, but still.) In an earlier Dark Knight scene, he scans people’s audio communications for news about the Joker’s whereabouts — so listening to everyone in Gotham is okay, but the sonar thing is a dealbreaker?

the dark knight batman surveillance system Warner Bros. Pictures

Ah, but there’s the rub: It isn’t a dealbreaker, at least not right away. After expressing shock and horror at what Bruce has wrought, Lucius nevertheless agrees to use the device to help him catch the Joker, and spends the rest of the film doing so with great enthusiasm and efficiency. Indeed, the whole final act of the movie is practically an advertisement for how well this surveillance system works, and for the good it can do when employed by the right person for the right reason.

Bruce actually makes this exact point when he tells Lucius the device is designed so that only he, rather than Bruce himself, can use the thing. “This is too much power for one person,” Fox gasps. “That’s why I gave it to you,” Bruce replies, as if that’s an adequate response. Yet it’s adequate enough for Lucius, at least for as long as the plot requires it to be. When it comes to liberty versus security, “¿Porque no los dos?” is not an acceptable verdict.

The repeatedly invoked contrast between Batman and Harvey Dent as potential pathways out of the darkness for Gotham is equally murky when subjected to scrutiny. For one thing, the idea that the only people capable of saving a city of 30 million souls (again, it’s a really big city) are either a billionaire or a prosecutor — or perhaps a cop, in the form of Jim Gordon, as a third option — sounds torn from Democratic National Committee talking points rather than a realistic examination of how social change comes about.

Beyond that, Batman’s deep involvement in Dent’s career erases any meaningful contrast between the two of them. The mobs and gangs — apparently the only form of crime to exist in the world of the film, which makes all the heroic plutocrats and police officers make a bit more sense — are easy for Dent to roll up because Batman has them running scared. Batman literally hand-delivers Dent’s star witness in his racketeering case, the aforementioned Chinese businessman, to the GCPD with absolutely no legal authority to do so.

I know, I know, it’s a Batman movie. So what if he’s the one capturing the crooks? And I’d agree, if it weren’t a Batman movie that kept acting like there was a huge difference between the Dent and Batman models of justice. The movie keeps shouting at us that there is, to the point where it ends with Batman deliberately torching his own reputation in order to save that of Dent, who went on a killing spree while deranged with grief over the death of Rachel, the woman both he and Batman loved. (Why Batman is the only possible fall guy for Harvey’s killings in a city that just lost its collective mind for 24 hours is a mystery.) It wants us to believe in Harvey Dent, as his campaign slogan goes, but backs out of doing so itself.

Which brings us to the ostensible ethical heart of The Dark Knight: the climactic Sophie’s Choice sequence. The Joker has rigged two ferries — one full of everyday citizens, the other with prisoners being evacuated from prison — in Gotham Harbor with explosives, and presented each with a detonator that triggers the bomb on the other ship. He issues them a choice: Unless one ship blows up the other by midnight, he’ll blow them both up himself. Fortunately for Batman’s view of humanity as fundamentally decent, neither ship pulls the trigger, and the Joker never gets the chance to do it himself.

Now, one look around you today, in a country where millions of people cheer the imprisonment of literal children in concentration camps, is enough to get you to take the Joker’s side on the question of whether humanity is as ugly as he is. But let’s put that aside; superhero stories have every right to be optimistic, even if that optimism’s a bit cockeyed, since the triumph of good over evil is baked right into the premise.

The real problem with the sequence is completely internal. The decision on the prisoner boat is largely removed from the prisoners’ hands — first by the gun-toting corrections officers who, as is virtually always the case with law enforcement in the Nolan Batman films, are the emblem of righteousness and order in a world gone mad; then by an apparent prison ringleader who awes everyone into stunned silence by, uh, being tall and scary-looking?

But on the ferry full of Average Joes and Janes, the decision does get made — and they decide to blow up the other boat! The passengers take a vote and “kill the other guys” wins by a landslide. It’s only the personal cowardice of the passengers, none of whom are willing to personally flip the switch, that prevents them from going through with it. Without realizing it, Nolan is making the Joker’s argument here, not Batman’s: People will absolutely be as ugly as the Joker, as long as they don’t have to get their hands dirty while doing it.

the joker the dark knight ending Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Yet earlier in the film, people do exactly that. Before the boat sequence, the Joker issues another threat in an attempt to tear at Gotham’s moral fabric: Unless somebody kills a dude from Wayne Enterprises who claims to know Batman’s secret identity, the Joker will blow up a hospital. Before you know it, angry mobs form outside the building where the poor sap is doing a spot on the local news, baying for his blood. A cop damn near blows Commissioner Gordon’s head off with a shotgun in order to take the dude out. Some random guy in a truck tries to plow into the police vehicle in which Gordon and the whistleblower are traveling, saved only by the timely intervention of Bruce Wayne behind the wheel of his Lamborghini. (Justice: brought to you by Lamborghini!)

In other words, the Joker is right about everyone being willing to terrible things — again, as long as the plot depends on it. When Nolan requires the opposite, the opposite happens.

Perhaps The Dark Knight’s real crime is that it cares too much. Other superhero movies can coast through the genre’s inherent contradictions — heroic weapons manufacturers, unaccountable intelligence agencies saving the world with super-soldiers, vigilantes standing up for what’s right by beating the shit out of people — simply by, y’know, not bringing them up. A little lip service to the pros and cons of the superhero racket is all they need to look smart and serious before returning to the real purpose of such films: treating people to a fun couple of hours at the theater or in front of the TV screen.

But credit for addressing these difficult issues only gets Christopher Nolan and company so far. If you ask these questions, you can’t fudge the answers. You don’t need sonar lenses in your bat-cowl to see that despite its reputation, The Dark Knight does exactly that.

Sean T. Collins has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Esquire, and Vulture. He and his partner, the cartoonist Julia Gfrörer, are the co-editors of the art and comics anthology Mirror Mirror II. They live with their children on Long Island.