Political interpretations of Dark Knight

First of all, Dark Knight is an amazing movie. Heath Ledger gave an great performance, and the storytelling was very well done. I also think that, while the movie can easily be seen to have political implications, they were not intentional, or at least not meant to be viewed as such. That said, the movie initially struck me as having the usual strong right-wing themes found in superhero stories, but after a bit of thinking and reading I think there’s an alternate interpretation.

I know superhero stories are often very right-wing, what with the whole vigilante/taking-the-law-into-your-own-hands thing. For example, the recent Iron Man movie: The story revolved around a superpower (Tony Stark) giving weapons to a small group of arabs, then seeing them kill their own people. Since the superpower had the means to stop what was happening, and since the situation was partially his fault to begin with, that superpower felt it was his moral duty to step in and get involved. Sound familiar?

Dark Night is more complex than Iron Man in almost every way, and its plot doesn’t boil down into direct symbolism as easily as Iron Man’s does. As I said above, I don’t think there’s an inherent political message, but I do think there are several possible interpretations of the movie that cast the actions of the characters in a political context.

The right-wing interpretation is based around the fact that the movie can be seen as characterizing the Joker as a terrorist, which in a sense would justify the current administration’s position that it is pointless to negotiate with terrorists because they’re so completely detached from reality with no logic, reason, or motive behind their action. This isn’t true, of course — terrorists aren’t like that — but some people believe it. There are many other elements of the movie that fit in nearly perfectly to this interpretation; the wiretapping of everyone in Gotham as a necessary evil in order to catch the Joker, etc.

This seems to be the popular analysis, but I think there are a few things that this interpretation misses. First and foremost is that the Joker would not exist as we see him in the movie if not for Batman. In a sense, the Joker of Dark Knight is a response to Batman’s existence. Previously, in Batman Begins, there’s a very telling conversation between Gordon and Batman, where they talk about escalation.

GORDON: But there’s a lot of weirdness out there right now. The Narrows is lost. We still haven’t picked up Crane or half the inmates of Arkham that he freed.

BATMAN:  We will.   Gotham will return to normal.

GORDON:  Will it?   What about escalation?

BATMAN:  Escalation?

GORDON:  We start carrying semiautomatics, they buy automatics. we start wearing kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds.


GORDON:  And you’re wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops. Take this guy; armed robbery, double homicide. Got a taste for theatrics, like you. Leaves a calling card.

This event fits into a wider view of Gotham and Batman that points to the conclusion that, in many ways, Batman has been disaster for Gotham. Wayne asks Alfred “Did I bring this upon [Gotham]?” The answer might be yes.

In an even larger sense, though, the Joker isn’t the problem. He’s described as an agent of chaos, inherently without direction, and that seems to be an accurate assessment of his character. There are bigger problems, more fundamental problems, that need to be dealt with. The Gotham that we see in the movie is only a few steps away from anarchy. Criminals rule the night. And as we are shown in the end of the movie, what Gotham needs isn’t a masked superhero fighting super-villains; what Gotham needs is a better police force, better law enforcement, a district attorney ready and willing to take on crime. Harvey Dent was what Gotham really needed, not Batman. The rouge vigilantes, the people who feel it is justified to break the law in order to get the bad guy, do damage to a society in the long run. Just as Batman brought about the Joker as we see him now, the international policies of the US government brought about the radical terrorist groups as we see them today, and the actions of the US do damage to the international community.

Of course, there are problems with this interpretation as well. The biggest, in my mind, is that it suffers from the same fundamental false assumption of the right-wing analysis. Namely, that the Joker represents terrorists. Terrorists have an agenda. They want something, and use violence as a means to get it. The Joker is more primal than that, and it does a disservice to the complexity of his character to write him off as a symbol for terrorism.

About probabilityZero

I'm a rather boring, geeky college student. Most of my time is spent at a computer, reading a book, or sitting in (mostly uninteresting) classes. My hobbies include reading, blogging, creating and running websites, creating amateur video games, arguing incessantly on discussion forums, and buying books on amazon.com because I'm too lazy to go to the library.
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16 Responses to Political interpretations of Dark Knight

  1. gene says:

    i disagree; this is an extremely liberal movie with examples left everywhere, villifying our administration and the rough but good choices they have made to protect us. I was a democrat up till 9/11 when i heard liberals say that america deserves this and that we could negotiate with terrorists. Not any more. Just like the joker in this picture, anyone that kills innocence cannot be negotiated with. The patriot act is a noble and correct move, and every american should have their conversations tapped if it ultimately saves their lives and prevents more terroist attacks. The liberal cause has become anti-american and in some ways condoning terrorism themsevles.

  2. Lee says:

    Bear in mind one other reference; Dent was a character who, in the public eye, was the white knight, and had done much to rid the city of its criminal element. In the end, there was the cover up of Batman and Gordon to hide Dent’s corruption. In essence, view this as what one tries to do good to protect the citizens; had it become public knowledge that Dent went on a killing spree, everything he had done right would come undone.
    There are lots of people who harp on the government for keeping secrets (I’m steering clear of the conspiracy theories on this one), but in fact, would it not be better to protect the citizens from certain knowledge?

  3. Neal says:

    I agree for the most part with your idea of this being based on right-wing philosophies but I do see some left-leaning arguments as Gene stated. I do think that by making Batman into the scapegoat to protect the notion of Harvy Dent’s idealism goes with the right-wing wish that all of the Iraq war disaster will turn-out in the future to be the wise choice that will make the world safer but that by covering up the truth of the corruption of the Bush administration, Haliburton, KBR, Abu Gharib, torture, etc… we are only diminishing our ultimate freedoms. What do we as Americans have to be proud of morally when what we believe of ourselves to be pure and of good intentions turns-out to be ugly and false when we finally begin to understand what we gave-up to achieve it.

  4. Yvette says:

    In the article a huge thank you all for the cause, a lot of people are using

  5. Troy says:

    Nice article but I do have a comment to make. The Joker does indeed have structure to his chaos as problematic as that may sound. His ultimate goal is to show that the planning of life and all the subtle aspects of life mean nothing in the face of chaos. It is his goal to show this to Gotham. Batman cannot foresee the problem, yet he can only deal with the problem as it arises. What we need in society is a way to deal with issues via government/politics before chaos ensues.

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  13. abhishek says:

    to me some of the simple , direct and strongest messages of the dark knight were
    1.If so called authority have to remove crime or criminilas ,first clean up your own system that is make it honest.i think rarely any “system” can claim of this,
    2.a criminal is not born from his mother’s womb. there are always some reasons behind this as is clear from joker’s tortured past.
    3.a criminal is also a human being and not a bug which you have to kill with a pesticide.
    4.the system makes and breaks bad forces for its own profit.
    5.the strongest message is perhaps probably “good and bad will always exist togather”.It is not possible to totally “uproot” evil as is planned so meticulously by Harvey dent and Jim gordon

  14. mike says:

    To me the ending makes it quite clear. If Harvey Dent is the hero that Gotham needs, but Batman is the hero that Gotham deserves, then the ends justifies the means. The joker is a poor representative of terrorists because terrorists have concrete grievances, not simply a tortured past. This movie tries to be clever but it’s really just a POS. The morality of vigilantism aside, Batman for the most part used to be an apolitical story of good against evil. This movie tries to be more than that, and fails miserably. I went into this movie expecting an entertaining escape, and what I got instead was a pseudo-intellectual diatribe of freedom and individuality. The writer could not of written the ending without the belief that freedom isn’t free and that the ends justifies the means. Commissioner Gordon and Batman used to be united in their incorruptibility instead are now united in their ability to justify their corruptibility out of their own moral superiority. Since Nolan picks and chooses which aspects of the comics he uses and doesn’t use, one cannot justify his decisions as purely an attempt to set up how batman became batman. He had a clear political message that he was molding into this script; which is fine, but I don’t have to agree with it.

  15. Dustin says:

    Good read but I disagree with the part about “what the city needs is better law enforcement.” The movie ended with batman (conservative in wanting to stop “terrorists”) taking blame for the damage of the city (i.e irag, afgan, and even America) but sticking around anyway because he is good for Gothom. Thats the message I get. In nutshell “we (right wing) are not afraid of the critisism as long as we know the people are safe”.

  16. AJoker12000kmFar says:

    Then I think there’s no chance for you Americans to see the ‘sonar system’ being shut down. Soon the government will control all of the people’s daily life, unnoticedly, in the name of the ‘act’. And when there’s no more ‘terroists’ in the rest of the world, they’ll turn to anyone like you and every word you type on the net shall coincide their political correctness or… thrown into the flame under the sign: ‘Protect the National Security’, haha.

    The key point is: you gave them power to eliminate those hazardous activists, but would they give back to you when everything is settled down? From the past 10,000 years of human civillization history can we see the answer is definitely ‘no’. It’s the same no matter what kind of form of government is.

    “That’s the point, you have to make a choice.” And we might see the outcome of it this year…HAHAHAHAAA

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