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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.

[Some spoilers]

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.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. M00se #

    An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.
    Robert A. Heinlein

    Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” – Mao

    Cliches exist because they are based in truth.

    January 17, 2012
  2. baltezaar #

    Excellent essay, though I would’ve loved to read more. You’re echoing something that’s been discussed and debated in various forums for the last four years: Nolan’s Batman – especially the one in TDK – is essentially a failure, and is actually making things worse in Gotham rather than better. TDKR may reverse that, of course, especially since it’s the end of this version of the character. But it doesn’t appear that even a triumphan Nolan Batman will win without great cost to himself and to Gotham.

    January 17, 2012
  3. Actually, this is how I’ve always viewed the film. It’s about the legitimacy of violence, and what kinds of powers we trust to use it. Notice how the Joker overturns all forms of authority within the film: banks, police cars, judges, hospitals, firetrucks. He takes every symbol of institutional good and literally sets it on fire.

    January 17, 2012
    • admin #

      @Madeline Ashby
      The image of the burning fire engine is especially striking. To me, its at that moment that the collapse of Gotham’s state authority is complete — nothing is safe.

      Taylor Marvin

      January 19, 2012
  4. Mark Williams #

    I cannot disagree more.

    Then again, opinions are the stuff of fiction, and Gotham City is clearly a fictional meme.

    The Dark Knight is, in my opinion, the classic conflict between order and chaos, and society’s need to maintain order in order to control fear. We each create the routines of our lives to grow the feeling of safe, and Joker assaulted that sense directly. It was not just that Joker killed and disrupted, it’s HOW he did so. The classic trilogy of his poisoning the Judge’s secret bottle of whiskey, the bomb in the lawyer’s car, while crashing the City elites’ penthouse party with a group of armed thugs leaves no place of safety..

    It’s not just that Citizen is in danger; it’s that the danger can come from anyone at any time. It’s not just the blowing up of two shuttle barges, it’s that a group of Citizens would choose to kill convicts in order to survive. In that choice, the Joker, agent of Chaos, would have won, pitting otherwise innocent individuals against themselves. Violence is always a tool for terror, not an instrument of sadistic pleasure.

    The Joker won when Harvey Dent fell to Two Face because he embraced the Joker’s form of anarchy and revenge. He lost when the Citizens in one barge, and the big bad tough Black Criminal in the other barge (easily my favorite moment in the movie) realized what Joker’s aim truly was… The destruction of SAFE and HOPE. When the Criminal throws the detonator out the window while declaring THAT was what the Guards should’ve done all a long time before, he was restoring order over fear.

    Order is created within the mind, a construct against random pain and suffering, battles fought with preparation, foresight and courage against fear, Citizen against evil. Batman does not surrender to the Dark Side of his own soul. Fear does not lead to anger, then to hate.

    In fact, Batman’s self-sacrifice at the end is about the ultimate state of Control. Batman can take it, so in order for the perception of Harvey Dent’s goodness to persevere, he invites the Law to chase him, unfairly but not wrongly, because an evildoer was necessary, the Doppelganger to Order, restoring balance to the City.

    It is as Ghandi declared… The powers of Darkness may prevail for a time, but in the end Good always prevails…

    January 17, 2012
    • admin #

      @Mark Williams
      That’s an excellent point. How danger can come from anywhere is one of the best parts about The Dark Knight, and what makes it so threatening to the audience. While anarchy and chaos is ultimately defeated — if only temporarily — its the Jokers ability to strike at all of our institution that’s so frightening.

      Thanks for the comment,
      Taylor Marvin

      January 19, 2012
  5. I don’t think Gotham, at least the way Nolan presents it, is a story of state failure:

    January 18, 2012
  6. aquariumdrinker #

    You write: “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.”

    Could you elaborate a bit? I’m probably not alone in not knowing enough about counterinsurgency to understand this point.

    January 18, 2012
  7. Okay, let’s all take a minute to live in the real world.

    Nevermind the completely unrealistic parts of the movie (sure, it feels real, but does it really make sense?). I mean, the Joker’s “plan” alone would require him to somehow know the police’s plan (okay, police corruption), who knew his plan (they got a lucky guess?), and he knew their plan (ummm…), and he would somehow have to blow up the MCU building without getting himself killed. And DA’s can’t press RICO charges!

    But all in all, I think you addressed the huge philosophical message of the movie nicely. Oh, accept for another form of violence: crime.

    It’s like this. Batman is operating outside of the system because Gotham City’s system is hugely corrupt. Kind of like Chicago. So Batman becomes “the Dark Knight” to try and combat the plague of Gotham City- crime, which is symbiotic with corruption. But I suppose that you could say that crime, or organized crime, anyway, is a cheap copy of order; “You give me your money, I won’t beat you up. That’s how things work between you and me.” In reality, it’s a virus, masquerading as order, which eats away at society like a termite.

    Anyhow, Batman’s goal is to “simply” get these criminals turned into the police by putting them in situations where they can’t possibly escape arrest (e.g., strapping Falcone to a spotlight, near a warehouse full of drugs with his prints everywhere, and a bunch of his thugs who probably spilled the beans about everything, not to mention all the other stuff he has stuffed in the back of that warehouse). Essentially, he’s working as a supplement to the uncorrupted portion of the system. Batman’s goal isn’t to serve in place of the system- his goal is to reinforce it until it is strong enough to survive on its own. In other words, he wants to be able to finish his job someday. That’s one of the themes of TDK.

    The Joker, he calls himself an “Agent of Chaos.” He sets a firetruck on… fire, robs a bank, blows up a hospital, and crashes Bruce’s penthouse party (by the way, how could they honestly say that this penthouse was the safest place in Gotham City if it was also one of the very same places that the Joker attacked?). But there’s a problem here. Take when the terrorists performed the heinous events of 9/11, like flying airplanes into a handful of important buildings. And let’s not forget about them sending anthrax-filled envelopes to various people.

    But what happened? Did society break down with no Batman to save it? Were the people scared, fleeing the city? Well, of course everyone was in a state of panic, but society didn’t break down. There was no Batman to “cause” this terrorism. Saying that Batman causes people like the Joker to show up is like saying that the police cause crime. He’s there to deter crime, not attract it. If Batman wasn’t operating in Gotham City, the mob would still be in control. The classic villains might not have been as prominent, what with the mob there to overshadow them and all, but they would still show up or maybe not. The point is that there are so many contributing factors that “changed things” that it is completely nuts to try and pin all of the blame on Batman.

    And remember, we’re taking a moment to live in the real world here, which, in closing, will require us to see two things; first, in the real world, the prisons work. People don’t go escaping from them every day. If they do, then it’s either a very poorly secured prison or they are very, very good escape artists, both of which are fairly rare in this day and age, but especially the latter. The point of this first observation is that if Batman gets a criminal, even one like Joker, arrested and locked up, he’ll go to a real mental hospital with real security, and he won’t escape. He’s feared and hated by every single person in Gotham City, and no one’s going to give him a break. Heck, he might even be sent to a regular prison, depending on whether he can be judged as “guilty but mentally ill” or even not mentally ill at all, where it’s almost a given that he’ll be beaten to death by his fellow prisoners. The same prisoners that he tried blowing up on the ferry.

    The second observation is that the ending of The Dark Knight does not make any sense. Okay, so Batman wants to take the blame for the murders performed by Harvey Dent, or else “the people will lose hope.” I’m sorry? The people will lose hope? And what, cry a lot? Run through the streets hollering like mad men? Commit mass suicides? Maybe. But people will get their hope back. I mean, the Joker and the mob are gone now, right?

    The point of this observation is that the citizens of Gotham City are not all little children. They’ve seen corruption, they’ve seen of strife. And after the League of Shadows terrorist attack, they’ve seen it all. Besides, the majority of Joker’s crimes only targeted the wealthy and the higher-ups, not the lower class (that’s the majority. I still remember the hospital and the ferry).

    And even if they were little children, what exactly is the point of demonizing the only hero you have left (Batman), in order to support one who’s dead, and therefore not much good (Dent), which completely forgets good ol’ Commissioner Gordon? Why didn’t he just take credit for saving the day and then say “Oh, Bats was there too. He’s a cool guy. And Harvey Dent went nuts, but hey, we saved the day.” Someone even says in the new trailer for “The Dark Knight Rises” (laziest title ever, by the way) that Gordon is “a hero”! And for the record, do you even know the name of your local DA?

    My point is, The Dark Knight, while offering a compelling, impressive sounding philosophical argument, is still offering one that just doesn’t make sense, and isn’t helped by the movie’s poor portrayal of how things like the legal system work. By the way, how, did Joker get into Bruce’s penthouse without someone saying, “Holy crap it’s the Joker! Someone call 911!” And how did he escape so quickly?

    January 23, 2012
  8. I think some of these comments are incredibly naive. That doesn’t mean they are not interesting.

    -Take when the terrorists performed the heinous events of 9/11, like flying airplanes into a handful of important buildings. And let’s not forget about them sending anthrax-filled envelopes to various people.

    But what happened? Did society break down with no Batman to save it? Were the people scared, fleeing the city? Well, of course everyone was in a state of panic, but society didn’t break down. There was no Batman to “cause” this terrorism.-

    The “Batman” was the United States Military and Central Intelligence Agency. When you go all over the world, killing people and destroying the fabric of the lives the lead, this has ramifications. Do you think 9/11 happened for no reason? Just because? Or simply because some religious nuts got pumped up? No. That’s painfully ignorant and uninformed.

    Sadly, it remains a core belief within out government and military which means these actions are destined to be repeated and the resulting consequences as well so.

    The original concept is sound. Escalation.

    March 28, 2012
  9. Here is the latest Dark Knight Rises trailer #3

    May 3, 2012
  10. I can’t stand waiting for the 20th.

    June 14, 2012
  11. Matthew Colston #

    Batman in the technical sense makes the criminals he fights. Joker on the Dark Knight was a result of the criminal syndicates being backed into the corner by the bat. He was the catalyst. Without the bat, not Joker, that means no Two-Face. Harvey Dent was Gotham’s greatest and only hope, and even though the Batman and Commissioner Gordon covered it up, they both knew it was true. Gotham needed someone who could go against the criminals in a legal system. Gordon hunts the Bad Guys, Dent prosecutes, it would have been simple. But Joker appeared.

    June 25, 2012
  12. admin #

    @Matthew Colston
    No Batman, and Gotham would have stayed “normal” – violent and decaying, but without the macabre criminals Batman’s presence drew. Again, this comes back the Nolan’s theme of violent, irredeemable escalation. Thanks for the comment.

    -Taylor Marvin

    June 26, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Dark Knight and the Breakdown of Social Order - Forbes
  2. The State of Nolan’s Gotham : Introduction to International Relations
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  4. Anarchy, State, and Batman — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen
  5. Batman, Vigilantism, and the State | Law and the Multiverse
  6. Batman Update! | httproductions

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