Perhaps no movie series has embodied the country’s anxieties and concerns about the post-9/11 world as much as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight (2008).” With the final installment of the trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises,” premiering this weekend, I watched the first two movies again. The common theme running throughout both is the continuing challenge of maintaining our values while fighting a war on terror against enemies who don’t follow any rules.
Clearly influenced by Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” comics of the 1980s, “Batman Begins” depicts a darker caped crusader than seen in either the Joel Schumacher films of the 1990s or the Tim Burton films of the late 80s. As Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) completes his training with Ra’s Al Gul/Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) in “Begins,” his mentor demands he execute a prisoner. Wayne refuses, saying he should be tried in a court. When Ra’s responds that “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.” Wayne retorts, “That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.” Hard to imagine a more succinct summary of the critique of the Bush/Cheney war on terror.
While Batman largely fights mobsters and drug dealers in “Begins,” he must also fend off the League of Shadows’ plan to destroy Gotham by spreading an aerosol that will turn everyone insane, spawning massive chaos. Though Jack Nicholson’s Joker plans a similar attack to poison the water in Burton’s “Batman” (1989), it came across as much more silly and comical than Ra’s Al Gul’s machinations in “Begins.” To stop the attack, Batman must prevent a subway train from hitting Wayne Towers at the end of the film. While watching the movie during its initial theatrical release in 2005, I instinctively thought of the scene as an allegory for a plane flying into the World Trade Center. Furthermore, Ra’s bizarre belief that the League of Shadows must destroy corrupt civilizations seemed similar to the anti-Western ideology of Islamic radicals.
Nolan and the writers make the connection between the war on terror much more explicit in “Dark Knight.” After Batman puts a lock on the money supply of organized crime, the mob turns to the Joker (Heath Ledger) to stop him. While Nicholson’s Joker is a mob enforcer who goes insane after Batman drops him in a vat of chemicals, Ledger’s is a pure psychopath with no known origins. He serves as a stand in for Osama Bin Laden, willing to attack any individual or institution, including judges, police commissioners, and even hospitals. The Joker’s behavior is similar to the strategy of the insurgents in Iraq, who routinely killed such officials during the worst years of the war. Indeed, the Gotham City in “Dark Knight” resembles the pre-surge Baghdad of 2006-07. Though Wayne believes he must understand the Joker’s motivation, Alfred (Michael Caine) warns him that “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” If the Joker has any concrete goal, it is turn the city against itself.
Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent debate how to respond to the Joker, who calls himself an ”agent of chaos.” When Batman tries to pump a leading mobster for information, he tells Batman that no one is going to betray the Joker for him because the caped crusader still has “rules” while the Joker has none. Indeed, the Joker tries to provoke Batman to break his only rule and kill him in cold blood. After an attempt on the mayor of Gotham’s life, Dent kidnaps one of the Joker’s minions and threatens him in order to obtain information, at the same time the nation was debating the merits of the Bush/Cheney policies regarding Guantanamo Bay and enhanced interrogation techniques. Batman tells him Dent can’t behave this way because he must remain the symbol of hope for Gotham.
Wayne himself creates a massive private surveillance system to spy on Gotham’s citizenry in order to find the Joker. Upon discovering the program, Wayne Enterprise CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) tells him it is “unethical” and “dangerous,” but will operate it once to find the Joker and then resign from Wayne Enterprises should it remains in use. The debate between Wayne and Fox is clearly a commentary on the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program and its expansion of government power during the post 9/11 years. Once Fox uses the system to help Batman capture the Joker, he enters his name into the computer as instructed by Wayne. It then self-destructs. “The Dark Knight’s” message seems to be that extra steps may be necessary to defeat terrorism in the short-term, but should not become permanent. Of course, civil libertarians have been disturbed by many of the new measures enacted since 9/11 because unlike previous conflicts with nation-states, there will be no definitive end to a war against stateless terrorist groups . Despite the election of Barack Obama and the death of Bin Laden, many of the new powers seem likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.
In the end, Batman captures the Joker without killing him, maintaining his code. After he is maimed and his girlfriend is killed during one of the Joker’s attacks, though, Harvey Dent goes insane and becomes villain Two-Face. Far more menacing than Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of the same character in “Batman Forever” (1995), he blames Gordon and Batman. Dent/Two-Face kidnaps and threatens Gordon’s family, barking at Batman, “you thought we could be decent men in a indecent time,” a clear reference to the dilemmas posed by Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Though he stops Dent, Batman takes the blame for Two-Face’s killing spree as the movie ends, in order to prevent Gotham from losing hope.
Both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” are excellent movies and among the best comic book films ever. From the previews, it appears that the final film will offer more commentary on the war on terror. Moreover, “The Dark Knight Rises” seems likely to reflect on the Great Recession as well, which had just begun when the last film arrived in theaters. I’ll report back next week after seeing the final chapter.