Batman is a Tool: A Review of The Dark Knight

(This was first published on my myspace blog, in a slightly different form. I hope you all find it annoying, brash, poorly articulated, with a sloppy, ill-defined and barely supported thesis, but kind of funny. Most of all, I hope that it inspires a few comments, which I welcome. Sincerely, Dana B.)

“Industrially produced fiction has become one of the primary shapers of our emotions and our intellect in the twentieth century…Although these [fictional] stories are supposed to entertain us, they constantly give us a secret education. We are not only taught certain styles of violence, the latest fashions, and sex roles by TV, movies, magazines, and comic strips; we are taught how to succeed, how to love, how to buy, how to conquer, how to forget the past and suppress the future. We are taught, more than anything else, how not to rebel,” Ariel Dorfman, as quoted by Norman Solomon in The Trouble with Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh

I’ll never forget the day in 1998 when a brave and noble film professor carefully explained to all of us fresh-off-the-farm college students how Batman’s big problem was not crime in Gotham City, but his unresolved Oedipus Complex. People laughed, peopled cried, people left the classroom in despair, disgust, and confusion, but I enjoyed up every word. Let me lay out his argument for you, as much as I understood:

According to Freud, most people go through a period in their young life when they wish to be the exclusive recipient of the opposite-sexed parent’s love, and sort of wish to “marry” that parent. At the same time the child resents the same-sexed parent’s interference, and has a desire to see that parent die. (See, just like Oedipus Rex, who kills his dad and marries his mom). BUT at the same time, the child knows that the same-sexed parent is powerful or nurturing and somehow necessary for the survival of the child, so the kid knows that it is unacceptable to want the kill the same-sexed parent. So, the poor, confused kid has to find ways of dealing with this tension, usually by shifting affection for their father/mother on to a more appropriate person, and it’s no big deal for most of us.

No big deal, unless you suffer a TRAUMA during this critical stage of development, like our hero Bruce Wayne. Film scholars who follow Freud, Jung, and Lacan like to point out that Batman is a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Little Bruce, you might remember, suffered the trauma of seeing his parents murdered. His childish rage at his father for not being a better protector for the family twists into a need to become a Super Protector of everyone. But usurping his father’s “role” in the family puts him in a psychologically incestuous position in relationship to his mother, one that he might have wanted, but obviously has to repress. But all of this REPRESSION of sexual desire for his mother also morphs into a repression of sexual desire for all women, which is why Bruce Wayne is completely incapable of having a mature relationship with a woman. Like Oedipus, the central question of the story is “who killed the king/the parents.” And, I guess if Batman finds out the truth somehow leads back to him, he’ll have to gouge out his own eyes.

It seems that Chris Nolan (dir.) was sitting in the same classroom, furiously scribbling notes. And when I made an attempt to watch Batman Begins last year and realized half way through that Nolan was intent on making a Psychologically Compelling and  Meaningful Movie, and therefore turned Batman’s Oedipal problems into the SUBJECT of his film rather than the SUBTEXT, I got bored and wandered off to take a nap. All of that belly-button gazing, all of that “personal growth,” was not only nauseating, but painfully dull. It’s not the fact of your psychosis that’s interesting, it’s what you do with it, as far as I’m concerned.

Given my intense boredom during the first film, I never would have watched the Dark Knight, and certainly not on opening weekend, if it wasn’t for the fact that Heath Ledger had one of the lead roles. And here, to the delight and boredom of all concerned, are my thoughts, based on only one viewing, of the film:

The first hour of the film left me squirming in my white-middle class guilt. Nolan is frequently lauded for “staying true to the original story and intent of the Batman saga,” but did anyone notice the blatant racism of Gotham City and Batman’s goals? The film opens with Gotham police and Batman’s quest to “clean up” Gotham city and shut down the “mob” (not “organized crime syndicates”, mind you, but the “mob,” a term I believe was deliberately chosen for its double meaning of “organized crime” and, you know, all of us poor slobs out here). The “mobsters” are running scared, and coincidently represent every ethnic group who is not of North Western European decent–Russians, blacks, Italians, etc. They receive help from a Chinese billionaire. Not inclusive enough for you? Well, I thought it odd that there was no Hispanic representation in the mob, until the end of the film when the cute latina cop gets bitch-slapped for her “corruption” and officer “Rodriguez (or it might have been Ramirez, I need to see the movie again)” is assumed to be an assassin because his mom is in the hospital or something. So I’d say the vilification includes just about everyone.

Don’t Anglo-, Franco-, and Germanic-Americans get up to no good, ever? Sure do, but the film is careful to visually mark any white trouble makers as different, so you know they are impure at a glance, but for the most part this mark is temporary, implying there is hope for redemption. Examples: The Joker is pure evil, so he wears a scar. His helpers could go either way, but when they’re up to no good they wear masks. Commissioner Gordon, Rachel, and Harvey Dent are all good, and you can tell right away because they are good looking, white and/or have good looking white children. When Harvey gets interesting/evil, he gets a scar. Batman is a morally ambiguous character, but he wears a mask because he can give up being bad anytime. The film suggests that the “mob” doesn’t need masks because their impurity and corruptibility is already expressed by their difference from they white hegemony, be it through the color of their skin, an Eastern European accent, or a rakish Armani suit.

Just when I thought Gotham City and its drive to “clean up” the town (what ever THAT means, given the fact that Gotham is all steel and glass and tidy as can be) was just too grim to bear, along comes my darling Heath as the Joker to liven things up a bit.

This is also where the film tries, really tries HARD, to become a Meaningful Movie and really Say Something Important about our times. The only question is whether Nolan is trying to defend the current system, which has resulted in the most unequal distribution of resources in our country since the 1920s, or whether he is accidentally defending the status quo by pandering to our higher ideals while undermining them with fear.

Joker and Batman are always opposites, and we can search for meaning in the film by focusing on what particular traits that the director picks to express that opposition. Psychoanalytically speaking, Joker represents the Id and Batman is the super-ego, and the conflict is a kind of general neuroticism, and I’m getting bored and wandering off again until the Joker, god bless him, starts mocking those of us in the audience who love Freud and tells us to look for meaning elsewhere. The Joker does this by telling the story of how he got his scar, a device in movies that lets you think you know more about the character’s back story and psychological makeup. The Joker in the Dark Knight mocks such an approach by telling the story of his scar differently every time. He does not use personal history to establish his identity, which is funny because Bruce Wayne is sooo tangled in his own history that he is inseparable from it.

The most obvious opposition between the two is economic. Bruce Wayne loves to shop, and he has a very particular aesthetic. Everything is black or silver, minimalist, and shiny. There is a LOT of screen time given to Wayne’s desire to acquire a different, if not really better, set of bat armor. We watch him fondle his shiny, bat shaped, ninja stars at one point. And when confronted with a task, he finds the most high-cost, high-tech solution possible. His consumer behavior has allowed him to establish not one, but two identities, both defined by items, but kind of light on ideas or values.

Meanwhile, when the Joker is taken into custody, the police note that they can’t establish his identity based on finger prints, SS number…or BRANDS on his CLOTHING! They point out that his clothes are hand made and actually give us a close-up of his vest to emphasize the point, as if knowing how to sew is in itself evidence of weirdness and evil. In an earlier scene, the Joker takes pains to point out that his iconic purple suit is, in fact, second-hand, which visibly disturbs the previous owner. The Joker also takes a very low-tech, hand-crafted approach to all of his mayhem, with very effective results. How the cops intended to establish his identity by his clothing brand is beyond me…but cinematically, these are clues that Nolan is trying to make a film about distribution of wealth.

So, for a while I was thinking that maybe Chris Nolan was the bravest filmmaker ever–taking an American pop-cultural icon and pointing out that he is a tool of the uber-wealthy, a nostalgic throw-back to those bad-old days of feudalism, when most of my ancestors were no doubt toiling for some quasi-protective pimp of a “lord” while allowing him first dibs on virgin peasant brides and offering up young men to die on the front lines of various Crusades and petty skirmishes. I mean, the film is called The Dark Knight, Nolan spends the first half-hour of the film pointing out the general racist tone of official Gotham policy, Bruce Wayne is wealthy and spends his money on fancy armor, “protective services,” and the like but doesn’t seem to have a dime to part with for hospitals (more on this later) and or anything really useful for people, and he seems to think he is somehow entitled to Miss Rachel: the parallel is not that difficult to draw.

Not convinced? Consider the kind of employees Bruce keeps around and their brand of advice. When Alfred (who is apparently some sort of ex-British special forces guy) tells the story about the Jewel Thief, what are we supposed to learn? Batman is supposed to learn that the Joker is not motivated by monetary profit in his crimes, but creating a parallel between this parable and the Joker sets the Joker up to be a sort of Robin Hood character–after all, who was hurt by the Jewel Thief’s crimes? Only the exploitative foreigners who were mining Burma for profit. And who was harmed by the British response to the Jewel Thief (which involved burning down an entire forest)? The local people, and the entire environment they inhabited. So, one can infer from this odd moment in the film that Batman’s efforts at law enforcement may be more harmful to the general public than helpful, that his laws work only to protect an exploitative economic elite class, rather than helping the little guy, and that his so-called selfless action is actually designed to protect his economic status. And this explanation also falls neatly in line with his Oedipus complex, wherein the real criminal that Batman/Oedipus seeks to annihilate is himself.

This hospital theme keeps presenting itself: the cute Latina cop can’t pay her mom’s medical expenses, the assassin whose mom is in the hospital, and the Joker blows up a hospital. Now, it is established (nay, BEATEN INTO OUR THICK SKULLS) that the Joker and Batman represent a kind of inseparable dualism (see the scene where the Joker is hanging upside down and he and Batman have this long discussion about how they are psychologically incapable of doing away with one another, a place where Nolan spoon-feeds the subtext of the film to the audience like an erudite film professor teaching Freud at a cow college). If Bruce Wayne’s strict no-kill rule (valuing human life above all else) allows the Joker (and his complete disregard of any human life, including his own) to thrive, then other strict Bruce Wayne/Batman values will find an equal and opposite expression through the Joker. Example: Batman’s need to have his objet d’amour up on a pedestal and untouchable (an over-valuation of the purity of womanhood) actually results in the lovely Rachel being blown up by the Joker, a way of saying that Batman’s almost Victorian attitude toward women will ultimately result in their victimization and destruction. The Joker also blows up this hospital specifically, but how this translates to into one of Batman’s values is less explicit, since we never see Batman with a reverence toward nurses, doctors, anatomy, or what-have-you. The only thing Batman seems to give a damn about are cool, tech gadgets, and my best guess is that the movie subtly wants us to think that an emphasis on medical technology over actual medical care is damaging to medicine in general, but another viewing of the film would be necessary for me to back that up, I could be just spewing nonsense here.

Though Nolan seems to spend a lot of time revealing that Batman is THE problem, not the solution, to Gotham’s problems, he also spends a lot of time undermining any possible alternative. Four examples:

1. The movie is explicitly critical of mass-movements. The film shows many ordinary citizens adopting Batman’s vigilante approach to crime fighting, and thoroughly mocks them. Their failure is basically explained as a lack of resources and discipline: the mass-movement is characterized by a lack of impressive gear, less access to information, and flabbier abs. It is implied that Batman’s brand of elite heroism is not possible without an unequal distribution of wealth, and that the people would be better off  passively waiting for Papa Bat to protect them.

2. The good name of anarchism is besmirched. Now, it is obvious that I am about half in love with the Joker. His folksy approach to mayhem is very appealing to me, and Heath Ledger’s performance is a rare bright spot in this clunky film. But I do find his complete disregard for life a bit unnerving. And at one point he says, “Ahhhh, Anarchy!” as if that is his ideal, and further confusing anarchy with chaos in the minds of the audience. Anarchy does not mean chaos, it means without a ruler. It does not imply chaos, and certainly does not imply violence or death. Ok, ok, anarchists damage stuff sometimes and are a general nuisance, but generally they only damage STUFF, not people, get it? An anarchist will trash a building in order to incite the violent response of the police in order to make their point that the state values property rights over human rights. The movie promotes further misunderstanding about the nature of anarchy, therefore using fear and confusion about alternative views to prop up the status quo.

3. That super-creepy cell phone sonar bit. The cell phone sonar machine is creepy. But the film puts Morgan Freedman in charge of it, so we know everything is going to be alright. Casting Morgan Freeman is no accident, I assure you. I am sure Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington would have been excellent in this role, but Morgan Freeman got it, and here’s why: the man has built a career playing the wise and completely moral and authoritative older gentleman, including playing God himself in Bruce Almighty. His role is a reassuring one in The Dark Knight. He is the wise hand behind all of that intrusive eaves-dropping technology, our reassurance that it is all being used for the greater good. This is a particularly timely and relevant moment in the film because our own government’s reliance on phone tapping is undergoing much scrutiny. I would also say the inclusion of this sequence should make it glaringly apparent that even this rather banal cultural product do transmit messages about how we should think about the world, messages that we should make an effort to identify before we allow them to be absorbed.

4. At the end of the film, Nolan has the gall to paint Batman as someone who is being unfairly hunted down by the people, that his sudden lack of popularity is due to the fickleness of the public rather than his own particularly virulent strain of b.s. and oppression. Cry me a river, Batman.

The most annoying thing about the movie is not its politics. Nolan gets so wrapped up in his quest to make a Meaningful Movie that the whole thing suffers artistically. Instead of inviting the audience on a journey of intellectual and artistic discovery, I felt like the film was a droning tour guide dragging a reluctant class of third graders through a postage stamp museum. “And here, students, is a 1975 stamp commemorating racism! And here is a rare, unpopular stamp depicting Dr. Freud smoking his famous cigar!” Yawn. Sure, there’s enough there to write a little essay about, but is doesn’t add up to anything interesting and it wasn’t very fun.

My conclusion: See The Dark Knight if you loved Heath Ledger, but drink a strong pot of coffee before you do and keep your fists up at all times.




2 thoughts on “Batman is a Tool: A Review of The Dark Knight

  1. Interesting, verrry interesting. Damn, that is a whirlwind tour through a dark night in Gotham and pretty much strips the slick finish off the finery of Chris Nolan’s flashy film. I’d love to see the Freudians and Lacanians debating your salty insights about Batman’s psychosis. The whole film seemed a psychotic affair to me and I am almost turned on to spend another $9 just to see the evil sewer’s waistcoat close-up. Maybe “sewer” is an odd word, maybe “sew-er”
    I took a look at thelostpuppet’s site, hoping to see a “take” on Dark Knight, but it’s a maze to negotiate for one cyberspatial imbecile like myself. I wondered if the lostpuppet had been hand-sewn.
    That a terrific quote you open the essay with. –David

  2. Thanks for the comments David and Lost Puppet. I haven’t looked at thelostpuppet’s website because every time I try to, I get an “invalid url” screen. I guess you aren’t the only cyberspatial imbecile in the room, David!

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