Christopher Nolan is an exceptional filmmaker; within the Hollywood establishment, he is a kind of miracle. And as I argued in this essay, originally published at Taki’s Magazine in 2008, Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight aren't just action flicks. The implications of the films are quite radical in nature, and the themes Nolan is willing to explore are challenging to the prevailing Zeitgeist to say the least.
The most enduring superheroes—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America among them—were all born in the Lower East Side between 1938-1944. Their creators were almost entirely first-generation Jews. The current explanation for this phenomenon goes something like this: The artist's "double identity" as a Jew in America + adolescent power fantasy = superhero who wears a mask. In the words of one historian, “Superman was the ultimate assimilationist fantasy.” The Man of Steel, after all, arrived in the Heartland from the Hebraic-sounding “Kal-El”—sent to earth by his parents much like Moses in a basket—adopted an Anglo name, and became beloved by Americans, if never quite one of them.
There’s certainly something to this. And it’s also worth noting that the birth of the superhero in the years just before the Second World War announced the birth of America as a superpower. In 1940, Superman flew to Europe to battle the Nazis. In one amazing scene from Look Magazine, the Man of Steel held up Hitler by the throat, growling, “I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw.”
Whatever Lower East Side anxieties might be present in this image, what’s most remarkable is that Superman has becomes a symbol of U.S. dominance—“Truth, Justice, and the American Way” being not a bad summation of the rhetoric of Washington’s Cold War foreign policy. In No. 170 from 1963, Superman swooped into the oval office to take orders from Kennedy—“You wanted to see me, Mr. President?”.
But not all superheroes were created equal. If Superman is a Cold War liberal, then Batman is a right-wing populist. Like McCarthy, the Dark Knight’s enemies are domestic. If Superman is about “Truth, Justice, American Way,” then Batman is a scourge of an angry god. There’s even a sense that when the rich playboy Bruce Wayne donns his cape and mask, he becomes a criminal himself. I doubt Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, set out purposely to create an outright subversive figure, but then Batman seems pretty far away from any “assimilationist fantasy.”
Perhaps the best elaboration of the tensions inherent in the Batman character can be found in Frank Miller’s masterful graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986). The conceit here is that after spending a decade in unpleasant retirement, a fifty-something Bruce Wayne is driven to once again go kick ass on the streets of Gotham. But when the Dark Knight returns, he encounters none of the brightly dressed mafiosos of the original comic but instead a gang of teenage punk rock sadists, “the Mutants”—’60s counter culture with a gun.
Ruling the city is an effete liberal elite that offers the few remaining good people of Gotham barely a semblance of order. Among them is Dr. Bartholemew Wolper, a psychologist who’s been “rehabilitating” and subsequently releasing the Dark Knight’s archenemies, who, of course, quickly return to murder and mayhem. On television, Dr. Wolper refers to Batman as a “social fascist,” then as a “social disease.” Comissioner Gordon—Batman’s only real ally in law enforcment—goes into mandatory retirement and is replaced by the post-feminist Ellen Yindel, whose first act on the job is to issues a warrant for Batman’s arrest.
There is some hope in Gotham. Carrie Kelly, a young girl who eventually becomes Batman’s new “Robin,” decides to join the Dark Knight after listening to her baby-boomer parents prattle on about the caped “fascist” who’s “never heard of civil rights”—“America’s conscience died with the Kennedys.”
The ultimate villain in The Dark Knight Returns is in fact Superman—whom America’s folksy, patriotic president sends off to fight the commies, deflect a nuclear weapon, and finally bring down the ungovernable Dark Knight. At the close of the novel, Batman is so alienated from civil society that his only recourse is to, in fact, “go underground,” where he plans to train an army that might one day “bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers” [emphasis in the original]. The Joker being dead, one senses that Batman’s referring to the Wolpers, Yindels, and the rest of the Establishment.
Along with Art Spiegel’s Maus, The Dark Knight Returns established the “graphic novel” as a genre. It also had much to do with revival of the Batman film series in 1989, although it’s notable that these films completely dispensed with Miller’s social critique. In Tim Burton’s rendition, Batman is a brooding, Romantic hero, and Gotham looks much like something out of the 1930s, with the joker as a charismatic mobster accompanied by some goons fit for “Guys and Dolls.” When Joel Schumacher took over, the series became a bad joke, little more than a vehicle for stars to make a one-off as a colorful villain.
With Batman Begins and its sequel The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan has succeeded in laying out a new ground zero for the saga. Moreover, Nolan—along with his writing partners David S. Goyer and brother Jonathan—was given some leeway by the boys upstairs to make, in a sense, “graphic novels,” that is, serious reflections on the implications of the Batman character in light of the present. Both films were influenced by Miller’s Dark Knight in more ways than just the name.
In Nolan’s reinvention, Batman Begins as the young Bruce Wayne abandons Gotham. Disgusted with the slippery city government that has released the murder of his parents in order to strike a deal, Wayne declares that the “system is broken,” “drops out,” and goes on a seven-year rampage around world—beating to a pulp every criminal in sight and becoming one himself.
In the wild, Wayne meets the mysterious Henri Ducard, who offers him admittance into a secret society that, Ducard insists, represents something much greater than the crude vigilante justice Wayne has been pursuing. Ducard is a leader of the League of Shadows, a collective in which “hatred of evil” is made an “ideal,” and which would teach Wayne to strike against criminals as something more than a man. Wayne joins, and it is with the League that he, in a sense, learns to be a Superhero, studying Ninjitsu as well as the “theatrical” means of stoking terror in the hearts of one’s opponent.
The turning point in Bruce’s training comes when Ducard demands that Wayne actually kill one of the low-lifes the League had picked up. Wayne demurs, “This man should be tried.” Ducard’s response: “By whom? Corrupt bureaucrats?” Wayne thus learns that the League’s purpose is not simply to execute criminals but whole societies that have grown decadent and are “beyond saving.” The League has, through the centuries, served this purpose, bringing down “Constantinople and Rome before it.” Gotham’s time has come, and Wayne is being trained to be its hangman.
Wayne rejects the League, fights his way out of its compound, and battles against it throughout the rest of the film. Much like Abraham looking onto Sodom and Gomorrah, he believes there are enough good people left in Gotham to warrant its rescue. But then what’s most important is that in Nolan’s reinvention, Batman’s origins lie not in some distant planet or ideal of Truth and Justice but in the nihilist, “anarcho-fascist” League of Shadows—Batman against Gotham.
What further separates Wayne from the League is that he actually hopes for a kind of reawakening among Gotham’s ruling elite. In The Dark Knight, Nolan personifies Wayne’s dream in the figure of Harvey Dent, Gotham’s crusading (and sometimes sanctimonious) new DA who goes after the criminal underworld with equal vehemence as does Batman. Wayne even learns that Dent approves of Batman and praises him for doing the job law enforcement should. Dent even puts his career in jeopardy to conceal Batman’s identity. In turn, Wayne begins to see Dent as Gotham’s “white knight,” a Batman who need not wear a mask and who would emerge from the political class—“I believe in Harvey Dent.”
As with Batman Begins, the ultimate villain in The Dark Knight is an active nihilist—the Joker, played manically by the late Heath Leger. Seeking neither money nor even notoriety exactly, the Joker’s objective to prove that, in their hearts, the people of Gotham are just as monstrous as he is. He starts by turning the criminal underworld against itself (not too difficult), then moves to destroy Gotham’s new hero, Harvey Dent, and finally enacts a series of “social experiments” in which he tries to bring out the utter depravity of the average Gothamite.
The Joker loses this gambit, and to the extent that The Dark Knight offers a happy ending it is this. The Joker does succeed, however, in destroying Harvey Dent, horribly disfigured his face and murdering his beloved Rachel Dawes. The Joker’s final coup is to release Dent from the hospital and inspire him to go on a revenge killing spree against everyone involved with Dawes’s murder, as well as those who failed to protect her. Wayne had hoped that Dent might become Batman without a mask, instead he becomes a kind Batman gone berserk, a Batman without ideals—pure revenge without justice. The real Batman is forced to bring him down.
The Dark Knight could have ended with death of Gotham’s DA—a story of the flawed hero who went bad. But then, Nolan has something much more complicated in mind. In the final stunning scene, Batman and Commissioner Gordon decide that a kind of legend of Harvey Dent should live on. Batman will be framed for Dent’s murders, Batman will take the blame, Batman will become the object of hatred of society and be hunted by the police. Harvey Dent will remain an immaculate “white knight.”
If Nolan isn’t willing to go as far as Frank Miller in broad cultural critique, he does, however, offer a view of the place of the hero in society that is no less tragic. Much like the character of Tom Doniphon in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Batman recognizes the necessity of the Big Lie—“I Believe in Harvey Dent,” “Print the Legend”—that gives the people something to believe in. Also like the “good outlaw” Doniphon, Batman understands himself as a hero beyond the law, as an exception that must eventually be replaced by politically legitimate leadership—a new Dent for Batman, Senator Ransom Stoddard for Doniphon. No “Superman”—no guided missile of the establishment—could occupying such an ambiguous position.
Hollywood is, of course, quite good at producing “Supermen”—the Jack Bauers and James Bonds who take orders from the Establishment. Christopher Nolan, however, has managed to create a character caught in the intersection between law, vigilante justice, and anarchy. It’s quite an achievement. And after all, not every hero has to be an “assimilationist fantasy.”