A Wall Street Journal essay comparing Bush to Batman in The Dark Knight has gotten a good deal of attention both positive and negative. It’s inevitable that conservative commentators will attempt to read conservative messages into popular movies, as they view it as a way of demonstrating that the people are with them. By turn liberal commentators are happy to read liberal messages in movies, not in the name of populism, but a sense of artistic vindication.
Since Batman is the story of a vigilante who dons a mask to fight crime while cooperating on and off with the police, it’s naturally going to be more given to a conservative reading than a liberal one. While Batman has been written from a liberal perspective, the politics of the average comic book writer being what they are, the character and setting are naturally more given to a conservative interpretation. And this is a problem for superheroes in general, because aside from having them exclusively fight Neo-Nazis, Big Corporations, the Religious Right and a Neo-Con government, making a superhero liberal takes more work than making him or her naturally libertarian or conservative.
Many movie critics have described The Dark Knight as a post 9/11 movie, which it might be, or simply influenced by America post 9/11. But the important thing to understand about The Dark Knight is that it lacks an ideological agenda, either Democrat or Republican. It takes place in a version of the real world where all actions have consequences and there are no perfect solutions.
The Dark Knight focuses on blowback and escalation, as a product of Batman taking the war to the mob. An anti-war reading however would have to argue that Batman was wrong for putting on the cape in the first place and that the status quo where the mob ruled Gotham was preferable. And that’s a hard position to defend. The Joker is a consequence of Batman’s war on crime as Gotham’s war becomes a clash of symbols. The Dark Knight references CIA extractions, blowback, rendition, surveilance, abuse of power and all those things, but it views them as tragic yet inevitable products of the escalation that occurs when you take on a fight of this magnitude.
Read from the standpoint of middle eastern politics, the mob can be viewed as the Saddam Hussein like dictators while the Joker is the new breed of terrorists dedicated to seeing the world burn. Batman represents the more ruthless darker tactics of Bush’s War on Terror while Harvey Dent represent the more “noble” criminal justice campaign against terror of the Clinton Administration. But Dent like the Clinton Administration has a dark side that makes him no different really than Batman, Bush. The tactics that enable him still rely on illegal and questionable measures.
The question that would really move The Dark Knight into one political category or another, is whether Batman’s actions are ultimately necessary or not. I suspect most viewers will answer that they are, since Batman is the hero. A minority might agree with Bruce Wayne’s regrets and argue that Wayne should have kept off the batsuit and tried to fight crime by fighting social problems, but a conservative rejoinder would be that fighting organized crime attacks the cause of many social problems, including drugs and prostitution and poverty.
The conventional Batman tries to do both, using his wealth to help people as Bruce Wayne and promoting Dent, while fighting organized crime by night. This can be read as the two sides of America, the dark that uses killing, torture and imprisonment to fight threats while the light dispatches foreign aid across the world. One can’t really exist without the other. In The Dark Knight, it isn’t only Harvey Dent who has two faces, but Batman as well. Harvey Dent’s noble public image was an unrealistic veneer just as Bruce Wayne’s is. His results came about through Batman’s darker tactics. Standing in between them Commissioner Gordon meditates the extremes on behalf of the city of Gotham and sacrifices a real hero, Batman to give the city an unreal hero, Harvey Dent. But despite the public war with Batman, covertly Gordon relies on Batman, just as America under any administration must rely on covert and darker tactics to see its way through the dark night.
It isn’t that Bush is Batman. Every US President must be part Batman, part Dent and part Gordon to do his job.