The Dark Knight Trilogy and 9/11
Note: this piece contains spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, as well as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. If you haven’t seen those movies, I recommend seeing them before reading. You’ve been warned.
Now that some of the dust has subsided, and some time has passed since the release of The Dark Knight Rises, we should perhaps take a second look at its importance as a piece of pulp art in post-9/11 America. Many commentators have been speaking of how Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has changed superhero films as we know them. (James Berardinelli gives a good breakdown of this.) And although this is most certainly true, to me the larger importance of Nolan’s trilogy won’t be felt for quite a while, when the current reign of post-9/11 fears and anxieties have passed.
Despite the fact that those terrorist attacks took place over a decade ago, it is clear that as a nation, America still lives in the shadows of its brutal aftermath. Politically, even a president like Barack Obama, who is far more progressively-minded than George W. Bush ever could have been, and who studied Constitutional Law, has pretty much embraced the Bush-era ideology with regard to national security. Continued use of the Patriot Act, expansions of executive power in legislation such as the NDAA, FISA, as well as the ongoing existence and use of Guantanamo Bay, make it clear that the aftermath of 9/11 is pretty much here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
In order to grasp the larger scope of The Dark Knight Rises‘ political implications, however, we must look first at Batman Begins. Released in 2005, and rebooting the Batman franchise for WB after Joel Schumacher’s campy catastrophe Batman & Robin almost ruined the property, Christopher Nolan’s first foray into the Batman universe saw one major underlying theme at its core: fear. Coming on the heels of the re-election of George W. Bush to office, in many ways on the basis of peoples’ trust in his hawkish foreign policy and homeland security tactics, Batman Begins in many ways echoes the fear the American public itself had and continues to have. The climax of the film sees a shadowy terrorist organization headed by a shadowy leader, Ra’s Al Ghul, attempt to destroy Gotham city because, as he states, “Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” Gotham city can be seen as a metaphorical symbol for America as a whole. Gotham should be the “shining city on a hill” for all the world to see, but instead breeds hatred from the likes of R’as Al Ghul, believing it deserves destruction over salvation.
This is an ideology that arguably is not far from the conceptual basis found in other pulp media that taps into the post-9/11 zeitgeist, such as Fox’s 24, among others. Batman Begins, then, establishes Nolan’s Batman universe as a thematic parallel to the fears and anxieties America has in a world where we are constantly under the threat of some shadowy force known as “terrorism.” Nolan himself has stated that he never intended for his films to reflect these things as a core principle, but rather as a backdrop to the larger superhero aspects of his films. But regardless, it is near impossible to not read into his trilogy as such a reflection.
The Dark Knight speaks even more strongly to this. I wrote my senior thesis on The Dark Knight‘s political implications, especially with regard to issues of executive power and emergency powers. The Dark Knight uses many of these Bush-era issues as a backdrop to its superhero and crime-themed narrative. But it undeniably engages the legal and moral implications of the use of power. (The “classic” example at this point being Batman’s spying on Gotham citizens and the comparisons many writers drew to Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.) Released in 2008, The Dark Knight came on the eve of the election that can not only be seen as a referendum on the Bush administration, but that many believed would usher in a new era in politics. Whether that has actually happened (it hasn’t) it up for debate, but one point to remember is that at the time, it was the second biggest movie ever released in the United States, its box office only eclipsed by James Cameron’s epic, Titanic. Since then a few films have beaten its box office, but with the country’s mind consumed by the previous eight years, and the legacy of George W. Bush, it came as no surprise to me that the movie would do so well in the United States.
Let me just pose a simple question to ponder: without the multitude of political, legal, and moral issues the United States has struggled with since 9/11, would the themes and ideas espoused throughout The Dark Knight have resonated half as strongly? It’s possible, but I would argue that regardless of how well they were conveyed, separate from real world reflections, some of the power, influence, and importance of the film rests on its place within American political history. In this way, The Dark Knight exists not only as a piece of pop art with deeper political discussions in its backdrop, but as an expression of a specific time and place. Even if Christopher Nolan’s intention for Batman’s spying on citizens was not intended to be a metaphor for Bush’s warrantless wiretapping, it nonetheless brought that image to mind for viewers because of the time and place in which it was made and released.
This is only further compounded by his use of the Joker as the main antagonist of the film. Embodying pure chaos and anarchy, the Joker assaults Gotham and its people with escalating acts of terror. Aside from tapping into Americans’ fears of another attack on U.S. soil, it taps into the ideological concept of “terrorism” in the minds of many Americans. Nolan employs imagery frighteningly similar to imagery well-known to Americans. For example when the Joker captures a Batman impostor and tortures him on TV, it clearly evokes times in which terrorists beheaded Americans on TV for the world to see, among other things. Furthermore, the scene in which the Joker hides in a crowd of police officers without his makeup brings to mind the idea that these terrorists could be anyone around us. Fear surrounds us; chaos becomes us.
The numerous parallels between real world politics and the themes of The Dark Knight Trilogy only continue in The Dark Knight Rises. Although Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan have stated that they used Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a major influence on the film’s thematic content (and this is clear even to those with a passing knowledge of the novel), it is also impossible not to draw correlations between America’s current politics and some of the meatier issues at work in the movie. One major plot point concerns the “giving of Gotham back to the people,” code for essentially tearing down the wealthy. Selina Kyle embodies this theme of class warfare, stating at one point, ”There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. 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. ”
In many ways, since the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, a deep discussion on wealth, income, and the class divide has been taking place. Movements like Occupy Wall Street have forced the issue of “how much is too much?” into the spotlight, and the Republican Party’s pick of Mitt Romney as its preference for President makes it clear that these are issues are in the front of the minds of Americans. Again, whether intentional or not, the film inherently evokes themes and ideas closely related to the politics of today. Whereas the Joker burned his millions of dollars, caring little for its conceptual or real-world value, Bane, the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, attacks the Gotham stock exchange. Money is power, and those without money hold very little power.
We see these parallels even more starkly in the overall trajectory of Gotham city’s arc in the film. Take the Dent Act and Blackgate Penitentiary; how can a law that allows the indefinite detainment of prisoners, and a place where those people are held, not bring to mind The Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay? Or the number of police officers trapped in Gotham’s sewers mirroring the number of dead in the 9/11 terrorist attacks? And if that were not enough, many of the aerial shots of Gotham are shots of New York City, including a prominently featured (and still under construction) Freedom Tower.
But the film doesn’t stop there, bringing Americans’ fears of terrorism on U.S. soil to their logical extreme by turning Gotham in an anarchic state overtaken by Bane and his henchmen. Where Batman Begins spoke to the fear in the very possibility of an attack, and The Dark Knight brought such fears to light, The Dark Knight Rises takes all of the previous chaos, fear, and despair, and compounds them to a “worst case scenario” place. If Batman’s existence in The Dark Knight is legitimized by an arguable state of emergency in Gotham, there is no longer room to argue in The Dark Knight Rises.
Interestingly enough, The Dark Knight Rises comes four years after The Dark Knight, once again putting it on the eve of the American Presidential election. And although the threat of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil is not as deeply rooted as it once was, the “War on Terror” continues nonetheless. The effects of that are still felt; despite the fact that the themes of this year’s election are focused mainly on the economy, and not on homeland security, the ongoing effects of the legislation and executive action in the interest of protecting America are frequently felt.
However, it leaves one asking the question of how this trilogy of Batman films will be seen in the future. Their importance to a specific time and place in American political history seems clear, but their lasting importance is up in the air. Certainly people will remember them as “game changers” for the superhero “genre,” and that much seems undeniable. But a deeper importance lies in the fact that, whether in the backdrop or not, Nolan’s Batman films are strongly rooted in the larger discussion of post-9/11 American politics.