The Dark Knight and the Legitimacy of Violence
By Taylor Marvin
So who else is excited for The Dark Knight Rises?
In preparation for the new movie I rewatched The Dark Knight. What’s most striking about the film is its thematic and conceptual differences from its predecessor, Batman Begins. At its heart Batman Begins is a fantasy movie — a good one, but whose ninjas, order of assassins based in the Himalayas, and foggily gothic vision of Gotham hints at a world more fantastical than ours. The Dark Knight, in contrast, feels disturbingly real. This reality is the film’s greatest achievement, and director Christopher Nolan knows how to use it. Why does the films’ evocation of dread work so well? Because the realism of The Dark Knight’s fiction gut punches us into believing it could actually happen: costumed vigilantes aside, Gotham’s social breakdown isn’t unimaginable in a northern Mexican metropolis.
It’s this social breakdown — the loss of government’s monopoly on violence — that’s the film’s central theme. Heath Ledger’s hyperactively schizophrenic Joker is so compelling because Ledger was an amazing actor, but also because he embodies an anarchic concept of state failure that’s deeply foreign to most audiences. The Joker’s insistance that “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” is disconcerting because it is true — in the absence of the social order guaranteed by government’s monopoly over the legitimate violence no social norms survive, or at least that’s what we fear. This motivation is compelling and disturbing because we fear that he’s right; that in the absence of a guarantee of social order successful individuals are those best able to employ violence, something most of us aren’t very good at. This vulnerability is disconcerting. Human psychology, and by extension society, is very careful to draw a line between legitimate and illegitimate violence, a distinction that rests in the concept of the state. Violence within the structure of governmental monopoly on force is psychologically acceptable; violence outside of it isn’t. The Joker knows this, and’s explicit about the distinction:
This is a compelling distinction, and numerous films have attempted to explore the disturbing ramifications of how humans behave when violence is legitimized: in the horror genre, notably 1971’s Straw Dogs. Of course, The Dark Knight’s central thesis is that social norms don’t break down in the absence of governmentally-imposed order. But this isn’t a happy revelation. The fact that one man can demolish governmental authority in Gotham and strain social order to the breaking point illustrates just how illusionary the foundation of order society — and our comfortable lives — rest on actually is. Commissioner Gordon and the impartial state authority he personifies nominally guarantees Gotham’s social structure, but can’t function in its absence. Only vigilanteism — by definition violence outside of state legitimacy and what’s, in the Joker’s words, “part of the plan” — can. While Nolan retains a positive view of individuals’ behavior in extraordinary circumstances, his depiction of the resilience of social norms that flow from the state’s security guarantee is decidedly more skeptical.
The Joker’s campaign to destroy social order in Gotham is an insurgency whose use of terrorism and the media to inspire panic are strongly reminiscent of the US’s recent COIN efforts. I doubt these illusions to modern counterinsurgency are unintentional: Michael Cain’s Alfred directly references British counterinsurgency in Burma (though the British colonial period in Indochina doesn’t seem to work with Alfred’s age). Despite his capture at the film’s close, the Joker’s insurgency meets its political goals by corrupting Aaron Eckhart’s DA Harvey Dent and demonstrating the fragility of Gotham’s political order. The Dark Knight Rises appears to continue with this theme, but brings the threat of insurgency closer to home. The trailer alludes to the danger of social unrest seeded by rampant inequality, and Tom Hardy’s Bane appears to harness anger within Gotham’s social structure — unlike the Joker’s external disruptive force — to again upend order. Christopher Nolan views anarchy with dread, and human behavior in the absence of state-imposed stability is the central theme of his trilogy. Batman’s position within this social order is unclear. A vigilante, Nolan’s Batman is emblematic of a failed state: if Gotham’s legitimate instituions could guarantee stability, Batman would have no reason to exist. Similarly, unlike previous visions of Batman Nolan’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t fight crime out of civic duty; he does because he a deeply damaged individual incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships. This completes the foil between Nolan’s Batman and Joker. Just as the Joker likens himself to a dog chasing a car that wouldn’t know what to do if he he caught it, Bruce Wayne’s personality becomes more and more invested in the construct of Batman rather than himself: ending his vigilante quest ends himself. The Joker knows this, even if Wayne himself doesn’t. Rachel does too:
When counterinsurgency forces — including individuals — invest their core organizational credibility in open-ended missions, their indefiniteness becomes self-fulfilling.
In previous entries in the Batman cannon the Dark Knight’s use of violence outside of the state monopoly is legitimate, though writers hedge their positon through Bruce Wayne’s obstinate refusal to kill (though I’m pretty sure a lot of the criminals Batman beats die in the hospital: as Archer fans know, getting knocked out is really bad for you). Christopher Nolan isn’t so sure of Batman’s legitimacy. Nolan’s Batman is one of the ‘good guys’ but he’s not “part of the plan”: his existence violates social norms and is destabilizing. It’s this theme of escalation — Batman’s violation of social norms draws the Joker’s more violent deviation — that dominates The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne’s motivations are noble, but violence outside of the state monopoly on force is always destabilizing. Nolan’s Batman isn’t a civic-minded champion: he’s a tragic hero.
Also, I really hope The Dark Knight Rises finds a way to not have Catwoman look ridiculous. Why does Batman get body armor and she doesn’t? And Hollywood: no one can fight in high heels.
Does anyone think Romney’s Bain Capital problem will get worse after Dark Knight Rises premiers this summer? I mean, come on — it’s like McCain made his fortune at Joker industries.