Bruce Wayne is Gotham's richest man. A wealthy industrialist, one living off of government defense contracting, multinational mergers and acquisitions, and all the other concomitant returns to being a large capital holder. He's a 'playboy,' using women as sexual objects: using the ballerina to make Dawes jealous at dinner with Dent, using the entire ballet troupe as decoys for his escapade in Hong Kong, using three models as props for his appearance at the fundraiser dinner, and using Dawes herself, implicitly, as bait in his contest with the Joker. The Bruce Wayne character is irresponsible, destructive, wasteful—a natural extension of Bale's role as Patrick Bateman: the apotheosis of consumerism and finance capital in American Psycho—and yet the audience is compelled by the film's presentation to celebrate him. Nevertheless the brutality of his role, not simply as the Batman, but as the capitalist himself is revealed by his assistant:
Lucius Fox: Let me get this straight: You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who beats criminals to a pulp with his bare hands. And your plan is to blackmail this person? Good luck.
Lucius Fox, the Uncle Tom figure, legitimates, along with Alfred, the institution of slavery. Both are happy to serve, even though their disposable position is indicated to each by Wayne. The mass surveillance technology (a clear reference to current NSA wiretapping of U.S. citizens, as well as the long running Echelon program) is invented by Fox in the film. When Wayne sets up the illegal sonar surveillance system, he leaves it to Fox with Fox's own name as the 'self-destruct' code, effectively placing responsibility on his dependent, rather than assuming responsibility and therefore liability for his own creation. Likewise, before attending the press conference with Harvey Dent, wherein Wayne would watch with satisfaction as Dent unjustly takes the fall for Wayne's vigilantism, Wayne tells Alfred 'jokingly' that he might simply pin the entire Batman scheme on him. While presented as a joke, the context of the structural role of master-slave makes it clear to the analyst that such an action is by no means out of bounds.
Wayne uses his position as an Anglo-Saxon capitalist to marshal vast resources to develop military grade technology and materiel in the 'fight' against the 'gangs' in Gotham. Missiles, grenades, various projectiles, military or special-forces transportation methods (Fox borrows ideas from the CIA's assassination squads quite overtly, i.e. "Skyhook"), mass surveillance, and old-fashioned brutality are Wayne's stock-in-trade. All the while, he obfuscates his identity as the "Batman" in order to protect his position as capitalist, and to avoid public responsibility for his extra-legal violence. Of course, the actual Gotham police have no intention of arresting Batman for vigilante savagery, despite public acrimony over the rule of law.
Batman's existence and actions are all justified to the audience by the usual scare-tactics of 'security' and 'law and order.' But by simply analyzing the depiction of the 'gangs' of Gotham, we can see the actual message of The Dark Knight. The gangs do not represent criminal enterprises so much as they represent minority races: Chinese, Russians, African-Americans, and Italians. As anyone familiar with the history of so-called 'organized crime' in the United States well knows, ethnic minorities such as the Italian and Irish-American communities faced oppression, economic exclusion, and police brutality from the dominant Anglo-Saxon majority. The formation of organizations serving to protect the community and seek its interests in the face of racism from the Anglo-Saxon capitalists led to the characterization of these groups as 'organized crime.' Rather than being legitimate responses to organized violence from the dominant classes, 'organized crime' once labeled and accepted as illegitimate in mainstream discourse could be fought with the full force of state power. The Dark Knight serves to perpetuate the identification of crime with minorities and to justify the use of both state terror and vigilante violence against subaltern groups.
Gotham's White Knight, Harvey Dent, is a tall Anglo-Saxon blond crusader against the minorities, using the administrative and legal power of the state apparatus to engage in large-scale barratry against the lower classes. That director Christopher Nolan chose Aaron Eckhart (it would hardly do to let Billy Dee Williams reprise his role) for his "subtextual edge" is all the more revealing, considering Eckhart's prior role in the pro-corruption, pro-big business, faux satire Thank You For Smoking. Dent is initially constrained in his actions by needing to consider public opinion in future elections. Of course, Wayne, representing the power of capital, organizes a fund-raising party with his white trust-fund friends in order to buy Dent for Gotham, insulating him from public accountability through an unmatchable war chest for the now-incumbent. It could not be clearer how the movie brings the audience over to the side of the rich buying the law in order to oppress the weak.
Finally, the Joker. He and his actions are referred to, in several places, as "terrorist." In the post-9/11 environment, the message that the viewers are supposed to receive could not be clearer. Whereas Robert Pape has convincingly demonstrated that so-called 'terrorist insurgencies' are rational, political responses to occupation by democratic imperialist nations (see: Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism), Nolan's The Dark Knight uses the Joker to equate terrorism with irrationality, insanity, and purposelessness. The U.S. media has consistently ignored, downplayed, or cast doubt upon the political interests and objectives of the groups utilizing 'terrorist' tactics, and the Joker represents another salvo of propaganda attempting to de-politicize 'terrorists,' such that the claim that "they hate our freedoms" can prevail over actual substantive foreign policy issues of contention.
The Joker: Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don't have a plan. ... You see, nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If I told people that a gangbanger was going to get shot, or a busload of soldiers was going to get blown up, nobody would panic. Because it's all part of the plan. But tell people that one tiny little mayor is going to die and everyone loses their minds!
['War on Terror' emphasis added]
It's not the inherent corruption of having broad and unchecked powers that tears Harvey Dent down to Two-Face, but the 'terrorist' the Joker that does so. Oppression of minorities is normal, routine, even celebrated, whereas his "good-guy-gone-bad" narrative (rationalizing his murderous hateful behavior) is brought on only by terrorism. The defense of Bush administration war crime 'slip-ups' is inherent in the blaming terrorism rather than intoxication with power in the narrative of Harvey Dent to Two-Face.
The Joker: I took Gotham's white knight, and brought him down to our level.
Consideration of the Joker's "social experiment" with the two explosive-rigged ships provides further insight into the racial dynamics presented to the filmgoers. The classic prisoner's dilemma is presented here, but notice the roles provided for the audience to identify with: the mostly white 'normal' citizens on one boat vote overwhelmingly to destroy the other boat of prisoners; the mostly minority boat instead dispenses with their detonator, turning instead to prayer and passive acceptance of what they perceive to be inevitable death at the hands of the white citizens (i.e. religion as opiate).
Finally, the blatant equation of homosexuality with terrorism could not be more obvious in the casting of Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger as the Joker. Given the homosexual themes rife within the Batman & Robin dynamic, and the derision that both Nolan and Bale treat the idea of Robin making an appearance in the rebooted ultra-masculine Batman series, one might consider the homosexualizing of the villain in terms of 'projection.' That is, that aspect that unnerves both the director and the leading man about the hero of the film series has been projected into the subtext of the Joker's portrayal (following the Jungian sense of the shadow archetype).
The movie ends, of course, with the police cover-up of Dent's war crimes and the diversionary, designed-to-fail pursuit of Batman—the pair's 'white collar' crimes will never see lustration much less prosecution. The Bat-Signal is destroyed in an act of theater act covering up the entanglement and complicity of the state in extra-legal vigilantism.
- Capitalist hero using military-scale violence against minorities
- Treating women as objects justified
- Slavery legitimized
- Mass surveillance justified
- Equation of minorities with criminals
- Law serves the rich, white
- Terrorism reduced to apolitical, irrational
- War crimes in fight against terrorism portrayed as tragic, excused
- Religious legitimation for execution of minority criminals
- Police cover-up protects public from inconvenient truths about the violence inherent in the system and the lies upon which their 'heroes' are constructed
No wonder The Dark Knight has broken record after record in today's America. It celebrates a system of white, capitalist dominance, minority oppression, and the legitimate militarization of society against 'insane' terrorists. What could give greater comfort to the 'silent majority?' What could return greater profits to the capitalist investors into The Dark Knight?
Let us be clear then on what The Dark Knight is. It is not just an entertaining, albeit dark, story presented with high production value and as much gritty realism as a comic-book movie can sustain. It is also part of the ongoing cultural production and reproduction of the structural imperatives of the capitalist system—a system that relies (despite the exhortations of Adam Smith) upon monopolizing finance capital, subjecting the power of the state to capital, the creation of criminal classes out of any minority group that can be ascriptively labeled, the reproduction of internal racial inequality on an international level, and the legitimation of violence in keeping the lower classes divided, subservient, and 'irrational.' The proffering of The Dark Knight as a propaganda piece need not even be conscious on the part of Nolan or intentional on that part of the movie's investors. Their roles are structurally determined by the ideas that constitute mainstream discourse: our prevailing conceptual categories determine how we think about social order and what images, arguments, and interpretations stand out as salient. The Dark Knight produces in its viewers the spontaneous consent that sustains the prevailing order. Make no mistake, this is not an argument of 'false consciousness,' because the people are not being misled—the facts are plain to see, but presented in a way the legitimizes them, providing security of identity to individual Americans fearful of an escape to freedom.