“It is said, that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem in arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second; to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many, and their interest, must differ; and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice.”
– Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
“Much read in history and much practiced in the conduct of political affairs, Burke knew that men are not naturally good, but are beings of mingled good and evil, kept in obedience to a moral law chiefly by the force of custom and habit, which the revolutionaries would discard as so much antiquated rubbish. He knew that all the advantages of society are the product of intricate human experience over many centuries, not to be amended overnight by some coffee-house philosopher. He knew religion to be man’s greatest good, and established order to be the principal necessity of civilization, and hereditary possessions to be the prop of liberty and justice, and the mass of beliefs we often call ‘prejudices’ to be the moral sense of humanity. He set his face against the revolutionaries like a man who finds himself suddenly beset by robbers … Unlike the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, the French Revolution was intended to uproot the delicate growth that is human society; if not impeded, this revolutionary passion would end by subjecting all men first to anarchy and then to a ruthless master.”
– Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered
While Christopher Nolan’s films are bestowed with generous quantities of hype, one quickly tires of hearing summations of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego as merely a masked super-vigilante. A vigilante is one who undertakes the punishment and suppression of crimes that he believes the government has failed to punish or suppress. He exercises violent force outside of the law for these ends. Furthermore, the line between deciding to be a vigilante and fighting a vendetta is historically blurry. The punishment of “criminals” by secret societies of vigilante gangs is a phenomenon arising from ancient and medieval times. The Vigiles Urbani, “Courts of the Vehm,” the Gamurra, the Barracelli, the Vendicatori, and the Beati Paoli all involved acts of violence against perceived criminals. San Francisco’s “Committee of Vigilance,” started in 1851, beat the hell out of a number immigrants. The Montana Vigilantes in the 1860s hung (or lynched) a whole number of alleged bandits (including the local sheriff).
The most famous group of real life American vigilantes (with ghostly masks) are known as … well, the Ku Klux Klan. The most popular fictional vigilante in modern day pop culture is a bloody razor and scalpel wielding lunatic (with his own Showtime TV Show) by the name of Dexter.
The vigilante is a symbol of the failure of the law.
But director Christopher Nolan wasn’t just interested in making a film about a vigilante. In Nolan’s Gotham universe, “the League of Shadows” are the vigilantes in the story and Bruce Wayne calls them out for what they are early in Batman Begins. Alfred, ever the conscience of Batman, cautions Bruce that “what you’re doing has to be beyond that. It can’t be personal, or you’re just a vigilante.” “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification,” ironically says Henri Ducard. And Bruce Wayne, with everything he has, fights the vigilantes just as much as he fights the criminals. If Batman can be said to be a vigilante, then he is a strange one. Instead of suppressing crimes he doesn’t believe the government can suppress, he purposefully exercises restraint and delivers criminals to the doorsteps of the police station. Instead of acting as if he could decide society’s own laws, he acts for the existing laws of his city. Instead of acting the rogue who believes his government has failed, he acts the guardian who fights to preserve the tenuous grip that his city’s government has left in preserving the established order.
Nolan is also intelligent enough to know that there was another famous group of vigilantes back in history. They were called Jacobins and they rose to power in 1790s France. The resulting French Revolution was a bloody lesson in the nature of man. And it is the nature of man that informs one’s conclusions about the nature of power, government and justice. Nolan has already said that he helped write the script of The Dark Knight Risesintentionally informed by A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Political thinkers like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton distinguished the American Revolution from the French Revolution based upon philosophical differences on the nature of man. If you believe that human nature is fallen and corrupt, then you are going to make specific conclusions. I have repeatedly heard Nolan’s films criticized for their bleak and dismal view of human nature. But, I have heard less reflection on whether Nolan’s view of human nature is, in fact, actually correct.
One of my favorite film critics, Steven D. Greydanus finds Nolan’s films unsatisfactory for leaving unanswered the question of whether, due to the corruptness of the people of Gotham, they are worth saving:
“… Yet something crucial is missing — a major omission that lingers over the whole trilogy, a question raised ever more insistently in all three films, and at best left unanswered, if not answered negatively. That question is: Is Gotham City worth saving? Are its citizens fundamentally selfish and ruthless, or is there good in them? Offered a choice between darkness and light, which will they choose?”
In Nolan’s trilogy, we are given no evidence that the people of Gotham city are ever worth saving (other than the fact that they are, in fact, people), that their nature isn’t inherently corrupt, selfish and/or evil, or that they are capable of finding redemption on their own. How both Batman and the villains in each film view this question is important. I don’t think I’ve read a better summary of this than that of Lauren Wilford’s, in her impressive essay on Christopher Nolan’s films:
“… There are two types of evil people in Batman Begins: corrupt crooks (like drug lord Falcone) and merciless justice hounds (like Ra’s al Ghul). Their common weakness is a reductive view of human nature. Falcone sees people as pathetic and exploitable. Ra’s al Ghul sees them as depraved and irredeemable. Both characters see themselves as part of an elite that knows better. Batman’s mission is, then, populist: he fights for the sake of humanity at large, fallen Gotham a stand-in for a fallen world.
The question stands, then: Is Gotham worth saving? And if so, for whose sake? … It’s implied that the people of Gotham, in their weakness, have let their city become corrupt; they have allowed evil into their world, a kind of original sin. But Nolan never ascribes malevolence to the whole. Gotham is fallen in a more Dostoevskian sense: people are, in general, weak, and desperation can push them into evil.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker also expresses this belief in human depravity: ‘Their morals, their code . . . it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.’ He spends the film bringing chaos to Gotham in an effort to break the city’s spirit …”
That Ra’s al Ghul’s brand of justice was without mercy was demonstrated in what finally broke his alliance with Bruce Wayne. “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share,” Ducard tells Wayne after he refuses the role of executioner. Wayne’s response? “That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.” Bruce Wayne insists on upholding a difference between himself and the criminal and between himself and the vigilante. “Justice. Crime cannot be tolerated,” declares al Ghul, “Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.” But understanding the criminal is one of the most important things about Batman. It is by understanding them that he can learn how best to stop them. But Ra’s al Ghul and the “League of Shadows” are willing to destroy civilization itself in order to stop crime, and as such, they are the perfect personification of the vigilante.
This is why Batman distinguishes himself from the vigilante by making himself an ally to law enforcement. He works outside the positive law by aiding those in government who are fighting for what’s right all in order to enforce a higher law. It is this higher law that the Joker denies. “You have these rules. And you think they’ll save you … The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.” The Joker considers Batman weak because of the rules he lives by. The Joker is the worst sort of criminal (and threat to civilization) because he doesn’t act for reasons of self-gratification, instead he just wants to see civilization fall. “Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? … It’s fair.”
The “League of Shadows” vigilante solution to evil is the end of ordered civilization deduced from the observation that law cannot solve the problem of the corruptness of mankind. The Joker’s solution is the end of ordered civilization deduced from the proposition that the distinctions between good and evil are arbitrary and meaningless to begin with. For the Joker then, there IS something he believes in – anarchy and chaos. This necessitates getting rid of any structure or regulation foisted upon us by oppressive institutions. His criticism of Batman’s or civilization’s rules are not new. They are criticisms that have been voiced by a whole collection of heavily influential real life philosophers. French philosophers, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, questioned the morality that they said was imposed by civilization. To these men, the perfection of society was to be achieved by the destruction of tradition and civilized norms. Combine these French philosophers with Friedrich Nietzsche, and you’ve got the Joker.
As a result of all this, the next interesting question that Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises gives us is – whether the film’s new villain, Bane, is the logical conclusion or consequence of both Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker?
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane’s rhetoric to the people of Gotham city is, shall we say, somewhat disingenuous. “Take control. Take control. Take control of your city,” he demands of the people. “We come as liberators to return control of the government to the people … Tomorrow you claim what is rightfully yours,” he insists. He smacks of Maximilien Robespierre or, even, Napoleon. He alludes to the brokers at the Gotham stock-market as thieves. He encourages the masses to revolt against the upper class. If you read Robespierre, he took his rhetoric straight from Rousseau, but used it for purposes that Rousseau himself never intended.
The fact remains, however, that Rousseau did write that the “first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Civilization “bound new fetters on the poor and gave new powers to the rich; irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, fixed eternally the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.” (He could be describing the state of Gotham city.) According to Rousseau, “Usurpations by the rich, robbery by the poor, and the unbridled passions of both … filled men with avarice, ambition and vice … The new-born state of society thus gave rise to a horrible state of war.” (from Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy, Volume VI.)
Combine Robespierre’s use of Rousseau’s philosophy with Napoleon’s use of Voltaire’s philosophy and the end result, according to thinkers like Edmund Burke, is anarchy leading into despotism. Burke was one of the first to argue that the French Revolution was the natural consequence of Rousseau. Rousseau may never have intended what happened in the French Revolution, but it still logically followed from his philosophical assumptions. These ideas – centered on inherent corruptness of civilization and the evils of private property – are the same ideas that Bane uses as the justification for taking over the city of Gotham. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan shows us a collection of images that Dickens described in A Tale of Two Cities, from the storming of the Blackgate Prison (the Bastille) to the carting off of the rich (aristocracy) by the plundering mob. This is the last and final evil that Bruce Wayne has to take on his identity of Batman again in order to fight. It is anarchy that directly leads to tyranny. The lines between where the despotism starts and the anarchy begins (and vice versa) are difficult to define, but this is not the justice that Wayne believes in. In fact, it is the destruction of everything that he does believe in.
So, thanks to Nolan, we now have a story where Batman, the superhero who everyone views as a vigilante devoted to working outside the constraints of the law, finds himself allied with law and order in defense of civilization. It is this paradox that makes The Dark Knight Rises so interesting.
I won’t suggest that Nolan’s exploration of this theme is perfect or completely coherent. The difference between Bane’s objectives, and those of the Joker, and those of the League of Shadows, are ill-defined. One of the most intellectual and thoughtful film reviewers that I read, Kenneth R. Morefield, has legitimately criticized the philosophical coherence of the film.
“I’ve been using the word ‘incoherent’ quite a bit this week in reference to both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. That word can connote to some ‘incomprehensible,’ or ‘impossible to make out.’ I’m using that term in a more narrow sense. The ideas that are touched at in these two films are ones that can be made out; Nolan and company are not merely speaking in gobbledygook. But the ideas, which are many, never cohere. I said to another critic after the media screening that the problem is not that Nolan has no ideas but that he has too many. It is also not the case that I find these ideas uninteresting, or even inherently less interesting than ideas prevalent in previous incarnations of the Batman. But as interesting as some of them are (and there are invocations of 9/11, the Patriot Act, well intentioned lies [the Iraq War?], post-Katrina tribalism, Occupy Wall Street as filtered through the quick descent to mob rule of the French Revolution, nature versus nurture, love versus fear, grief, friendship, ultimatums vs. service, etc. etc. etc.), Nolan is just too much of an intellectual and philosophical tease for my taste. Every time he would shine a light down some path or argument, I would settle in and my mind would race ahead, willing, nay anxious, to explore those big ideas, only to find myself brought up short by another argument, another equally big idea. Nolan, for me, became the philosophical equivalent of the tour bus driver whose job it is to make sure you don’t spend more than thirty minutes at the Sistine Chapel because there are still three more stops to make before we head back to the hotel …
… the Joker is very postmodern in his open mockery of the belief in traditional notions of certainty and rules. Note that the Joker doesn’t assault or deny the particular rules but the notion of rules themselves. He doesn’t say that Batman has picked the wrong principles or rules and that other rules or principles would save him, he claims that the very notion of rules/concepts/or principles is suspect. This questioning of all terms and definitions continues on into Rises. When Batman opines to one character that the people of Gotham City are ‘innocent’ the response is neither an affirmation or a denial, it is ‘Innocence is a strong word to throw around Gotham…’ I don’t mean to parrot some of my more conservative colleagues’ critiques of postmodernism (though I suspect this part will make some of them very happy) but the film (rightly I must acknowledge) demonstrates that when indeterminacy is the rule, all that really remains is rhetoric, and Bane’s character shows how easily rhetoric can be coopted, used, abused …”
Mr. Morefield is right that these films could have been better. I do see how a number of questions could have been explored with more depth. More connections could have been made satisfactory to a political science professor. The grand scope that Nolan attempts here alludes to so many different ideas that any thinking person is not going to be able to watch this film without feeling, to a certain extent, unsatisfied. But let’s take two thoughts under consideration.
First, leaving the viewer unsatisfied with a lack of answers is not necessarily always a bad thing. It can at times be a very good thing. Whatever is lacking in coherence in this film could have been aligned better by the director, but now, instead, such intellectual alignment is left to the viewer. While I may not like it, I’ll admit it that might be a good exercise in which to indulge.
Second, what Christopher Nolan is doing here is, when you look at the short-lived history of film as an art-form, manifestly something new.
While movies inspired by comic book superheroes are currently all the rage, here we have a director less interested in celebrating a superhero and more interested in the ideas behind his existence. Batman Begins was something of a revelation in film-making, not because it was a good film but because it changed our idea of what you can do with such a story. Nolan takes these ideas very seriously and then plunges them into an entertainment medium in a way no one has ever quite dreamed of before. It may not be as good as it could be, but it’s still an innovation that thinking people ought to support.
“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows …”
– Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
“Hang them where the world can see.”
Bane, played with an immense muscle-bound physical presence by Tom Hardy (Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is precisely the sort of villain that would rise to the top of any collectivist style revolution or philosophically motivated terrorist gang. If Ra’s al Ghul was vigilante justice personified and if the Joker was nihilism personified, then Bane is pure power personified. He has the strength to kill or crush anyone. If might makes right, then Bane is might. But he’s not just unreasoning and unthinking might. He is power taken to its logical extreme. And, according to thinkers like Burke, power unchecked and unrestrained is precisely the sort of power that means the end of ordered society. Bane literally and happily invites those he has overpowered to “experience the next era of Western Civilization.” Whatever financial power that capitalism or Ayn Rand may extol is no match for the all-consuming might of the mob that Bane (for whatever reasons are explained later) takes upon himself to appear to represent.
CEO: “I’m in charge.”
Bane: “Do you feel in charge?”
CEO: “I paid you a small fortune.”
Bane: “Does that give you power over me?”
The scenes in this film of the people rising up and plundering the rich (at Bane’s suggestion) are scenes that have been repeated so many times throughout history that they are countless. The upper classes, as Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) declares, have “been living off the blood and sweat of others for years.” Now, while economic exploitation does happen, this is how people, who neglected Economics 101, popularly view the nature of wealth. But, more importantly, this is how educated manipulators orchestrate the decline of civilization. According to the democratic purist, wealth is limited in nature and economic inequality is always a sign of injustice. Revolt from such domination is always the answer. The end result is a large number of passionately problematic ideologues. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” whispers the gleeful thief, Selina Kyle, “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
Nolan’s film does not deny that there is ever such a thing as economic injustice. But, since it is written while thinking in terms of the French Revolution (and therefore includes Rosseau’s view of private property), it is a cinematic demonstration of the consequences of certain ideas.
If the destruction of Western Civilization happened to be one of your goals, then the abnegation of private property would be (a) a necessary step towards such a goal, or (b) a natural consequence of it. In the midst of revolution, when Ms. Kyle begins to realize that something important has been lost, she looks at a shattered picture of a family. She then lingers over the idea that the mansion she’s in “used to be” theirs. Her friend’s reflexive “it’s everyone’s now” rings hollow. This is one of the paradoxes within political philosophy – attempting to take individualism and egalitarianism to their extreme leads, instead, to utilitarian collectivism. You can tell that Bane has collectivist streaks from his very first few scenes. He has inspired a fanatical devotion in his men that leads to their willing deaths at his slightest whim. He calls just about everyone “brother” in precisely the same way a KGB agent would call his prisoner, “comrade,” or a Jacobin assassin would call his victim, “citizen.” Every living person becomes simply a means to the end and the cause. “It doesn’t matter who we are. All that matters is our plan,” Bane confidently declares.
So Nolan takes all these ideas, linked, connected and even jumbled together as some of them may be, and uses Bane to represent them.
Bane is the end of civilization.
Bane is death to law and order, corrupt as it may be.
And then Nolan pits his hero, the Batman, against these vigilante/terrorist/Jacobin/modern/anarchist/ultimately despotic forces of destruction.
How can that not excite you, at least just a little? Bruce Wayne created Batman because of the principles that he believed in. Just like Bane represents certain ideas about us, Batman represents certain ideas about us also. Just like Bane says that “It doesn’t matter who we are. All that matters is our plan,” Bruce Wayne says that “Batman could be anybody. That was the point.” He means something by that quite different than Bane does.
So it is only a film director like Christopher Nolan who allows us to ask a question like this seriously – What ideas does Batman stand for?
In the first film of the trilogy, Batman Begins, it was established that he believed in justice AND mercy. The problem with the “League of Shadows,” as he saw it, was its adamant refusal to distinguish the guilty from the innocent and its absolute refusal to allow for any possibility of redemption. Mr. Wayne found that his city was run by criminals, and by judges and policemen who worked on the payroll of criminals. But his solution was not to overthrow the city’s government or destroy the city. Instead, he believed both the city and its government were worth saving from the likes of even those who understood what was wrong with it. So he worked “from within,” allying himself to the remnant in the city who still believed in justice. The Batman didn’t overthrow institutions like the Gotham City Police Department. Instead, he helped force the police department to do its job while putting a stop to other vigilantes who would have completely destroyed it along with everything else.
In the second film of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is confronted with a different sort of evil that he doesn’t understand. “Some men just want to see the world burn,” Alfred tells him. Chaos and anarchy are the inevitable results of tearing down the mores and rules of society. Without morality, people will, like the Joker says, simply eat each other. In order for civilization to exist, people must have principles or symbols or something that they believe in (upholding the moral law) that makes it worth living together as a community. Destroy law, destroy rules, customs, traditions, and authority, and you will foment the fall of any society into darkness.
Harvey Dent: “When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor. It was considered a public service.”
Rachel Dawes: “And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up that power.”
Harvey Dent: “Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Look, whoever the Batman is, he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing this. How could he? Batman’s looking for someone to take up his mantle.”
In the second film, it is made clear that Batman believes in rules and law (hence, no guns, no killing for him). He believes that his fight for the preservation of society can be taken up by another who always acts within the law. And, he believes in careful restraint in the exercise of power. The consideration of these ideas has been further promoted by the discussion and criticism that Bruce Wayne’s methods provoke.
I have been sensitive to the criticism of Batman as a hero ever since, years ago, I first read a review by Kevin Miller of Batman Begins. Miller identified what he believed to be a fundamental flaw with the character. He wrote:
“… [W]e need to jump ahead to one of the final scenes in the film when Lieutenant Gordon raises the question of escalation. He notes that the stronger Gotham’s forces of justice become, the more determined their enemies will become in response. ‘If we use Kevlar, they’ll use armor-piercing rounds.’ Batman isn’t too fazed by this, confident that no matter what the villains come up with, he can create something even more powerful to defeat them. This may be true, but it also points to an inevitable clash between ideology and methodology, ‘between goals and means’ a problem that plagues not just Batman but all superheroes …
Let’s set the question of entertainment value aside for a moment though and pretend that the world of Gotham were real. If so, the evolution of supervillains would be a natural response to the presence of superheroes. For instance, in Batman Begins, it isn’t long before the criminals of Gotham realize they need to make some drastic changes to their tactics if they hope to remain in business. It’s a simple market reality: The more powerful Batman becomes, the more powerful they must become. If Batman is stealthy, they must become even stealthier. If he develops technology to help him in his crime-fighting efforts, they must develop even better technology. If he responds to their actions with violence, they must respond with even more violence. If Batman becomes, in effect, super-powered; they must also become super-powerful. Thus, the escalation Gordon predicted will come true.”
Putting aside the reductionism in Mr. Miller’s logic, what he says about escalation has to be true about any use of military force in the history of mankind. The use of the sword against evil motivates evil to come up with something that can defeat the sword. Technological innovation has always been applied to violence. This is the world that we live in. So it comes as no surprise that Mr. Miller next applies what he believes to be a flaw in Batman to American military intervention:
“In this sense, Batman becomes his own worst enemy, because his very presence in Gotham assures that more and stronger villains will continue to arise. Rather than serve to stabilize society then, Batman actually becomes a destabilizing force instead. This is the clash between ideology and methodology I mentioned earlier: Batman thinks he can adopt the criminals’ methodology (except for murder) and yet still remain true to his ideology. But, as Gordon foresees, the best such a schema can do is forestall the inevitable mutually assured destruction of hero, villain, and society as a whole. Thus, we can finally see how the limit Wayne has placed on compassion truly does become his greatest weakness: By refusing to extend compassion to include his enemies, he doesn’t weaken them; he actually makes them stronger, thus compounding the very social problems he set out to solve.
Just think about the real world implications of this fact: Today, our primary response to something like terrorism is to hunt down and kill the terrorists. And why not? Surely a motley band of insurgents is no match for the technological and military might of the West. And yet, despite a global effort to defeat terrorism, the terrorists still manage to strike ever more frequent and devastating blows. Unthinkable. Or is it? Could it be that, like Batman in Gotham, the mere presence of such an overwhelming military superpower in our world is giving rise to the very thing that superpower was created to stand against? Like Batman, could the willingness of the West to adopt the methodologies of its enemies – war, terror, torture, etc. – actually be forcing our enemies to become more creative, more desperate, more willing to attempt bolder and more terrifying schemes because they see no other way of achieving their goals? …”
One of the premises of Mr. Miller’s complaint is that, even if Batman defeats one villain, another villain will always rise again from somewhere else. But such is the nature of evil. It is never-ending. “Now there’s evil rising from where we tried to bury it,” Gordon tells Bruce in the third film. In other words, there is a sense in which the use of violent force to stop crime, to stop exploitation, to stop the use of power for evil, is a battle that will not end. There is a sense in which law and order are always going to be threatened. There is a sense in which civilization is fragile and always teetering over the brink. This is one of the fundamental problems with human nature. So you could, of course, refuse to exercise force to stop the designs of evil men for the reason that there will always be evil men. I wonder what the consequences of that would be?
“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons.”
– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 15
The fact that the use of violence cannot solve the theological problem of evil is still not a coherent logical argument against the use of violence. This is where I part ways with Mr. Miller. There are still forms of evil that cannot be fought in our world without the use of violence. There are villains in Gotham City that will not be stopped without the force of Batman’s fist or Police Commissioner Gordon’s gun. There are terrorist groups that will not be stopped without the force of an accurate missile or a special forces take-down. There will be times when well-intentioned sanctions or diplomacy are going to have zero effect upon Scarecrow or the Joker or Bane. There will be times when violence is an ever temporary solution to a very specific and practical problem.
It is a dangerous and risky proposition to resort to violence. But it is the resort of a long historical line of men who have believed that evil must be stopped and that human beings are worth saving from temporal destruction. This is why the use of violence is a power that we want only in the hands of men who understand the dangers and consequences of exercising it – or even better, in the hands of people who don’t want to exercise it. Another illustration of this principle is when Nolan’s Batman took significant criticism from film critics for his use of a satellite Big Brother-like surveillance system to find the Joker in The Dark Knight. But Nolan made sure to show us that Bruce Wayne understood the implications of what he was doing:
Wayne: Beautiful. Isn’t it?
Fox: Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous. You’ve turned every phone in the city into a microphone.
Wayne: And high frequency generator/receiver.
Fox: Like the phone I gave you in Hong Kong. You took my sonar concept and applied it to everybody’s phone in the city. With half the city feeding you sonar you can image all of Gotham … This is wrong.
Wayne: I’ve got to find this man, Lucius.
Fox: But at what cost?
Wayne: The database is null-key encrypted. It can only be accessed by one person.
Fox: No one should have that kind of power.
Wayne: That’s why I gave it to you. Only you can use it.
Fox: Spying on thirty million people wasn’t in my job description.
Wayne: When you’ve finished, type your name to switch it off.
Fox: I’ll help you this one time, but consider this my resignation. As long as this machine is at Wayne Industries, I won’t be.
Bruce Wayne is willing to wield tremendous power to fight evil. But he recognizes its danger. He insists upon rules, limitations and restraint in its use.
We’ve all probably heard that the reason Bruce Wayne has been called the “Dark Knight” was because, to become Batman, he takes on what is essentially a suit of armor. But it’s about far more than just the armor. If we think back to the age of knights, we naturally think of King Arthur. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Arthur understood that armor was a personification and symbol of might. What Arthur decided to put a stop to was the natural state of man where might makes right.
The answer that Arthur built his chivalrous civilization upon, reached under the guidance of Merlin, is that might can be harnessed for right. Instead of allowing power to determine, by amoral natural selection, what is right, Arthur believed in a higher moral law that might ought to be used in order to uphold.
So really, we can look at Bruce Wayne as a modern day type of Arthur. He even has his own version of Merlin (between the wisdom and advice of both Alfred and Lucius Fox). He specifically looks at the tools of terror used by criminals – fear, darkness, violence – and harnesses them in order to use them for right. This is why he is called the “Dark Knight.” Darkness and fear are both forms of power or might.
This is also why, in this third film, Bane is the next and greatest threat that may just be the end of Batman. Bane is the villain who understands exactly what Bruce Wayne has done. “You think darkness is your ally; but you have merely adopted it,” Bane tells Batman, “but I was born in it … molded by it … The shadows betray you because they belong to me.” Bruce Wayne has tried to harness darkness to use it for good. Bane has been created by darkness. Consequently, Bane represents pure unadulterated power without restraint. Batman is one of the very few who stands to preserve the very restraints that Bane intends to demolish.
“… In the era of Transformers, where much of mainstream cinema treats its audience with open contempt, Nolan’s approach amounts to a moral stance, one that audiences have responded to – helping to explain the heart-in-mouth levels of anticipation among his fans for his new film The Dark Knight Rises …”
– Joseph Bevan
(A FEW SPOILERS AHEAD)
Let’s establish two further propositions.
First, we do not need to be merely dismissive of those who, from a humanist or Christian perspective, criticize the reasons why Batman is held up to be a hero. The Dark Knight Rises has generated a number of negative reviews by thinking men and women who genuinely take Christopher Nolan at his word, and consider seriously the implications of what Bruce Wayne does with Batman in the real world. Yes, most of us view him as a hero, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are legitimate questions about what he does and whether his methods are good or realistic.
Second, I will not pretend that my conservatism does not affect the way that I view this film. One of the basic tenants of conservatism, often brought into focus by writers like John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton, is the innate fragility of civilized existence. I do not view civilization as a collection of oppressive institutions foisted upon us by some created power construct in order to suppress the middle and lower classes. I do not think that social order, tradition, convention and custom ought to be tossed aside merely because they are corrupt. Human institutions will always be corrupt because of human nature. But human institutions are somewhat miraculous. In a world of disorder, destruction and chaos, the establishment of civilized order is a miracle, a candle of light surrounded by darkness, a little bastion preserving the recognition that, in spite of a world of selfishness and insatiable appetite, there is something called the moral law.
There is something fragile about civilization and I think that The Dark Knight Rises gets this insight. There is something about its preservation that seems to go against the odds. No ordered civilization can be established without self-government of some sort – without self-control and restraint. Good government and good public servants can be good because of the restraints that they demand be tied to the exercise of power. Thus, as the defender of his city, as the defender of social order against the forces who intend to destroy this order, Bruce Wayne’s Batman is also fragile. The rules that he believes in are his weakness because they are so easy to break. The villains break them. He is always going to be tempted to break them. And, as long as he attempts to protect them, delicate and insubstantial and idealistic as they are, he is putting himself in danger of being broken along with them.
The fragility of any established order is illustrated in the ending of the second film. Harvey Dent, the “white knight” district attorney, was supposed to be a symbol of goodness that could replace Batman’s tenuous grasp on trying to fill the same role. But, at the direction of the designs of the Joker, Dent fell and was potentially irredeemably corrupted. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dent’s predisposition for making and enforcing his own justice got the better of him and helped turn him into a monster. To alleviate this tragedy, Batman and Commissioner Gordon agree to lie to the people of the city about both Batman and Dent. In doing so they protected the symbol they both believed could be used to inspire the goodness necessary to preserve order in the city.
But lying to the entire city was another form of exercising power. And, as it is a theme of all three films, the exercise of power can be used to accomplish both good and evil (sometimes in spite of the intentions of the one trying to wield that power). The clean energy project that Bruce Wayne invests into is also illustrative of this same idea. Clean and cheap energy is a form of power that can be used for good. The intention of its invention is so that it can be used to help, save and feed people. But both Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne also understand the immense power that that kind of energy could give someone. This is why they decide to guard against it being placed in the wrong hands.
The tragedy of Gotham City, and the tragedy of man, seems to be that there are far more wrong hands than right hands. Corporate greed is not ignored by Nolan. There are rich politicians and CEOs who are corrupt and unjust. They are one of the reasons events like the French Revolution happen in the first place. They do not understand or care about the idea of limits, or checks and balances, or the inherent corruptibility of power. “A save the world project is worth investing in,” Wayne’s new potential love interest, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), tells a CEO, “but you only understand money and the power that it buys you.” So there is no good reason to think that Bruce Wayne isn’t trying to fight a lost cause. It is almost as if he were trying to fight human nature itself.
“You fought the decadence of Gotham with all your resources, with all your strength and with all your moral authority,” Ra’s al Ghul says to Bruce Wayne. “The only victory you could achieve was a lie.” This is every reason for Wayne to give in to despair. In fact, he is constantly verging on the edges of despair and defeat throughout the entire film. When it looks like everything is being torn apart, what is left? What reason is there to go on fighting against the inevitability of the works of wickedness in man? Are those willing to stand up for what is good so few in number that his hope is unrealistic?
Let’s take a short moment to recognize the quality acting delivered here by Christian Bale. If Bale has one outstanding talent, it is his understated capacity to appear as if there is an inner strength (or even inner rage) always just below the surface of his apparent imperturbability. With the role of Bruce Wayne, Bale imperceptibly makes this inner something seem like it is occasionally weakness, doubt or fear. Whatever it is that that he appears to be suppressing, you are often unsure whether it’s stable or unstable. “You have a practiced apathy, Mr. Wayne,” Miranda tells him. It’s true. He often pretends to be what he isn’t or to not care for what he does care for. Bruce Wayne’s personality could almost be solely defined by his pretensions. “Who are you pretending to be?,” Selina asks him. He smiles, and we are unsure if that is the smile of a sensible man or of a lunatic, “Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire,” he answers.
Remember, early in the first film, he took Rachel’s advice closely to heart – “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” His pretensions result in his actions. His actions are motivated by the few truths that he believes he has discovered about good and evil, mercy and justice. But, his actions do not always accomplish what he intends. He is painfully aware of the escalation that fighting evil can cause.
Bruce: “Did I bring this on us? On her? I thought I would inspire good, not madness.”
Alfred: “You have inspired good. But you spat in the face of Gotham’s criminals. Didn’t you think there might be casualties? Things were always going to have to get worse before they got better.”
Bruce: “But Rachel, Alfred …”
Alfred: “Rachel believed in what you stood for. What we stand for.”
Adding to the exploration of these themes, Nolan introduces us to a few other new characters representing ideas that have been built upon the ideas of the first two films.
Under Nolan’s direction, Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married, Get Smart) turns in a performance that will probably become one of the film viewer’s favorites of her career. She plays Selina Kyle with a lightness and grace that is … let’s say – languorously lethal. Ms. Kyle (Catwoman) is a mercenary thief with acrobatic skills and impressionable charm. She is both a potentially devastating adversary and a valuable ally for Batman. But she stands for nothing but herself, and for that reason, while she is impressed by him, she doesn’t understand him. What Batman does, and the risks to his own survival that he is willing to take, makes no sense to her point of view.
And yet, his loss is her regret. She has a past that she is trying to wipe clean – to redeem. That is the purpose of her theft. But Bruce Wayne is the only one willing to tell her that he believes she is better than what she appears to be. He challenges her to stand for and to care for something other than herself. If there is any good still left in her, Batman is the one interested in bringing it out. But this is not an easy change of heart to make. Believing in a cause which could mean self-sacrifice is utterly foreign to her character.
Another of my favorite film reviewers, Jeffrey Overstreet, did not like this film. But there is something about his criticism that I find very important to understanding Nolan’s film. Overstreet writes:
“… I had the pleasure of seeing this film in the company of a theologian — Dr. Jeffrey Keuss … In his own egomaniacal fashion, guns blazing and fists flying, [Bruce Wayne is] determined to become Gotham’s savior, overcoming evil on his own strength, ‘taking on the sins’ of others like Harvey Dent, putting his life on the line to save his city. Ultimately, he is making himself the sort of deliverer that Jesus’ own followers wished he would become. His revolution is achieved with violence rather than love. And it achieves only postponements of destruction, not the defeat of death itself. When the end credits rolled, Keuss’s first observation was this: ‘We still believe that Judas was right.’
Indeed. As the cheering crowd made clear, the savior we’ll celebrate is the one who puts on the best fireworks show, who unleashes hell against those we have judged, who gives the rest of the guilty Gothamites another day to revel, the wages of their sins postponed and forgotten until another supervillain emerges. The cycle of violence will continue. The rich and heartless will remain rich and heartless. The middle class will stay angry and covetous. The poor will remain neglected …”
Overstreet is not alone in his objection to the idea that Batman represents violence as an answer. The idea as I understand it is that Judas wanted Christ to lead Israel in a violent overthrow of the Roman Occupation. It’s a temporal answer that did not address the root problem of what is wrong with the human heart. But this is a truth that we must be careful with in application. We could easily level the charge that “they believed Judas was right” at the feet of the leaders of the American Revolution but, in doing so, we would be missing something. You can believe what Christ said and still believe that there are temporal things worth fighting for. Law, order, justice and civilization are temporal things. Bruce Wayne is not leading a revolution, he is defending against a revolution. During the French Revolution, those who most outspokenly advocated for eternal rather than temporal answers (in the Catholic church) were quickly murdered by the mob without a second thought.
Bruce Wayne is not a savior in the sense that he can change human nature. Instead, he’s just a man fighting to preserve a few of the things that the better parts of our nature have built. Another way of answering this objection is to look at the segment of the film where Bruce is held in the prison. Climbing out of this prison is not something most of the other prisoners ever bother to try because it’s impossible. He tries to climb out the first time using his strength, but he fails. He tries to climb out a second time using his anger, but he fails. Another prisoner tells him that his problem is that he doesn’t fear death. He hasn’t feared death for a long time. But, as Bruce realizes, he does fear death. He fears a meaningless death in that prison. He doesn’t mind dying in and of itself, but he fears dying for nothing. That, not his strength, not his anger, is what underlines his passion to return to Gotham. Dying in the prison would be meaningless. Dying for the people of his city, on the other hand, would give his death value. This is not the point of view that Judas believed in.
Bruce: “I’m not going to die in here.”
Prisoner: “Here. There. What’s the difference?”
Yet another criticism that I’m hearing of this story is that both Christopher Nolan and Bruce Wayne are pretentious. They presume that society is rudderless and lost and in hopeless need of strong-willed heroes to save them. Another term that is used to describe this presumption is fascism. There were actually people who watched this film who, because, at the end, most of the good guys were wearing police uniforms fighting against the mob/revolutionaries without uniforms, found the climax infused with “fascist undertones.” Andrew O’Hehir writes:
“… It’s no exaggeration to say that the ‘Dark Knight’ universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It’s simply a fact. Nolan’s screenplay (co-written with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and based on a story developed with David S. Goyer) simply pushes the Batman legend to its logical extreme, as a vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society. Maybe it’s an oversimplification to say that that’s the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much. Whether you think Nolan is endorsing or condemning that idea, or straddling the fence with a smirk on his face, is very much up to you. But if ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is a fascist film, it’s a great fascist film …”
One often runs into the danger of oversimplification when attempting to describe one’s reaction to a film. I get that. I struggle with it myself every time I write about a film. But let’s try and keep our expectations in check. Batman is not the solution to fallen human nature and never pretends to be. He is a lonely figure fighting against the consequences of fallen human nature – a fight that we are stuck with for as long as this world remains. If you think the idea that people are generally lost, rudderless, and easily swayed by the passions of the mob is a fascist idea, then please go back and read the Federalist Papers. To say that the film’s celebration of his fight is fascist is ignoring every hard won lesson that Bruce Wayne has had to so carefully learn and preserve. Ross Douthat writes:
“… Without digging too deep into why O’Hehir’s characterization of fascism’s supposed ‘purest form’ manages to distill away just about every defining aspect of fascism as it actually existed, let me just submit that a genuinely ‘fascistic’ Batman movie would have concluded with the Caped Crusader using the chaos wreaked by terrorists and revolutionaries as a justification for setting aside Gotham’s existing political institutions and ruling the city by fiat, with Wayne Enterprises merged with City Hall, the bat signal emblazoned on every public building, and the collective will of the public channeled through the superior individual will of Il Batman (and his successor, Der Robin, presumably). And the fact that Batman does not seek such power — that he serves anonymously, vanishes in times of peace, and generally has more in common with a batsuited Cincinnatus than with a would-be Caesar — illustrates one of the crucial differences between a fascist understanding of a Great Man’s role in history and a more conservative understanding of the same …”
I fail to understand what is offensive to the idea that society needs unique and special leaders. In his book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, Russell Kirk wrote that the establishment of civilization rests upon “three doors of normative perception: revelation, custom or common sense, and the insights of the seer.” (pg. 34.) Our traditions, institutions, customs and common sense have been explained and held up to us by “seers” or “leaders” in history. Kirk suggests “that at the beginnings of civil social order, some individuals – men whose names have perished – discovered the truths that we now call custom and common sense. Hume’s men of strong sense and delicate sentiment …” These leaders are rare and they see things that most of us do not. We do need them. “A few men mysteriously endowed with a power of vision denied to the overwhelming majority of us have been the Hammurabis of our moral and political and literary codes.” (pg. 37.) “We accept such men of genius as authorities because we recognize, however imperfectly, that they see farther than you or I see.” Thus, we “have assented to the truths exerted by these prophets and poets and philosophers. You and I see as in a glass darkly – the riddle of a mirror; but those few men of vision see something of the real nature of things.” (pg. 38.)
There is no reason (other than an oversimplified democratic egalitarianism) to find this idea offensive. Every society needs men and women of vision. Some will occupy the roles of prophets or seers (like Merlin, or like Cicero, or like Alfred) and some will fill the role of men of action fighting for the ideas explained by the seer (like Arthur, or like Cincinnatus, or like Batman). These are the people who inspire us. These are the men who, if any group of revolutionaries want to bring the downfall of civilization, must be eliminated. When Bane’s rebels begin fomenting chaos in Gotham, Commissioner Gordon is number one on their hit list.
“Does it depress you, Lieutenant, to know how alone you are?” the Joker asked Gordon in the second film. This is because Gordon is one of the very few who refuses to be swayed by the corrupting powers around him. In the real world, this is a unique trait. They are a small minority, but, in order to destroy ordered society, men like Batman and Gordon have to be eliminated.
I said earlier that Batman inspired Selina Kyle to start thinking about what she valued that was greater than herself. But Nolan gives us a few other characters whose reactions to Batman are also instructional.
First, Matthew Modine plays Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley. He is one of the regular people of Gotham City who has believed the lie about Harvey Dent. He’s decent, willing to do his job, and willing to do what’s right up to a point. But, like many of the rest of us, there is also a point where he can be discouraged. When everything looks its darkest, he loses hope. There are times where trying to preserve our admittedly corrupt society just seems like a pointless and futile exercise. Gordon tries to appeal to what Foley knows is his duty and to persuade him to keep fighting, but to no avail. It takes something more than that. Something has to appeal to Foley’s heart – to inspire him to stop thinking about only himself. That something is the unlikely and against-all-odds appearance of the symbol of the Batman.
Second, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake is another piece to the heart of this story. Blake thinks for himself and thus sees through the lie at the end of the second film. But even though he disapproves of it, that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t believe in the ideas that Batman and the mythologized Dent stand for. Both Gordon and Wayne recognize in Blake another defender of law and order that they can rely upon. Blake is valuable because he recognizes both the injustice of the city’s institutions and the reasons for preserving them. Bane’s forces also recognize in Blake another man who they will need to kill. For Blake, the Batman is a symbol of what is still worth preserving in a fallen world. It is Blake’s passion and vision that make him one of the few persons in the city capable of filling a very special role – a role that even Harvey Dent couldn’t fill.
For civilization to fall, the defenders of civilization first have to be defeated. In spite of everything, it is Batman’s influence, and the ideas that he represents, that ultimately make Foley and Blake two more of these last line defenders.
Admittedly, Bruce Wayne is a tortured soul. He is imperfect, prone to self-doubt, ever in danger of being corrupted by the power that he exercises, and always trying to keep the line between justice and revenge substantial. He has loved and lost. He’s emotionally damaged. And the ideas and symbols that he holds dear seem as vulnerable and breakable as he is without his suit of armor. Even with his suit of armor, he’s still putting himself in danger of being destroyed. Yet, in spite of it all, because he believes certain things are true, he has created the Batman – a symbol that itself has been tarnished by lies, but a symbol he uses for right nonetheless. One of the most thrilling scenes in The Dark Knight Rises is when he decides to finally fill this role of the Batman again. The lights start going out. Virtually invisible mechanical tools are shot through the air. A blur of force rushes past the police car. And evil is suddenly going to be confronted with something strange and different – something that isn’t easily outwitted and doesn’t back down. When a man is willing to die to himself for something greater than himself, the result is often powerful and inspiring. This is the fundamental idea that Christopher Nolan has captured in his Dark Knight trilogy. Batman represents an idea that is greater than Bruce Wayne. If the forces of darkness prevail in battle, and if Bruce Wayne dies, the idea of the Batman won’t die. It can survive even if he can’t.
Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the Dark Knight may be impossibly tilting at looming and circling forces that are too powerful ever to be finally destroyed. Human nature will still remain corrupt. But that alone isn’t a good reason for him to stop fighting.
All this is why I believe Batman is a symbol worth celebrating. He’s a modern day symbol of Arthur’s idea that, instead of might making right, might ought to be used for right. “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?” Rachel asked Bruce early in Batman Begins. She sounds suspiciously like a person who had been reading Edmund Burke.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Volume VI: Modern Philosophy – From the French Enlightenment to Kant. 1960.
Cranston, Maurice. “The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies,” HistoryToday, Volume 39: Issue 5.
Douthat, Ross. “The Politics of The Dark Knight Rises.” The New York Times. July 23, 2012.
Greydanus, Steven D. “SDG Reviews ‘The Dark Knight Rises.'” National Catholic Register. July 19, 2012.
Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. 1967.
Kirk, Russell. Enemies of the Permanent Things. 1969.
Miller, Kevin. “Review of Batman Begins.” June 16, 2005.
Morefield, Kenneth R. “The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012).” 1MoreFilmBlog. July 19, 2012.
O’Hehir, Andrew. “The Dark Knight Rises: Christopher Nolan’s evil masterpiece.” Salon. July 18, 2012.
Overstreet, Jeffrey. “The Dark Knight Rises (2012).” Looking Closer. July 20, 2012.
Wilford, Lauren. “Bleakness and Richness: Christopher Nolan on Human Nature.” The Other Journal. April 17, 2012.