Alert: Spoilers below. Read on at your own peril.
I have recently taken a break from blogging to pursue scholarship, and in turn took a break from scholarship to go see The Dark Night in our local multiplex. Nothing boosts one's credibility like a declaration against interests, so as a college professor it should earn me some trust to declare that this was one of many superhero movies I have viewed and enjoyed, and by far my favorite to date. Since seeing it, though, I have been distressed to hear commentators and pundits broadcasting the idea that this was somehow a "pro-George W. Bush" movie; that its latent message is to vindicate and defend our president from the short-sighted criticism of "the left." It has occurred to me that this movie will reach vastly more Americans and have far greater impact than any of the ancient Chinese texts I have been writing about all summer. Moreover, as someone who believes that the presidency of George W. Bush has been a disaster, I am loathe to yield The Dark Knight to his apologists. I thus hereby leap into the fray over how this text should be interpreted.
Part of what makes The Dark Knight so enjoyable is that it is undeniably very topical. The late Heath Ledger's "Joker" is an apt analogue of the terrorists who so dominate headlines today. I would thus follow the "pro-Bush" pundits as far as admitting that the film does encode some commentary on current events. In the film we see Batman and his fellow spirit Harvey Dent take a principled stand against terrorism that is publicly unpopular. Both men stand up for the idea that rules sometimes have to be bent in order to fight the forces that threaten the very social fabric itself, and both men suffer public scorn on that account. This is where "pro-Bush" readers draw a similarity between Batman and Bush, but this is where the similarity ends.
The metaphorical heart of the movie is a story that Alfred, the butler (played, in a brilliant piece of casting, by Michael Caine), tells Bruce Wayne about his days as a colonial official in Burma. There he encountered a bandit who committed murder and mayhem to very little purpose. Jewels the bandit had stolen were found in the possession of small children. "Some men," explains Alfred, "just want to watch the world burn." This principle, Alfred explains, is in operation in the attacks by the Joker upon Gotham City. In enlisting the Joker's aid Gotham's criminal underground has unleashed a force that they don't understand and can not control, and everyone is in peril as a consequence.
The moral of Alfred's story is delivered later in the movie, however, and is overlooked by anyone who seeks an enthusiastic endorsement of George W. Bush's presidency in this work of fiction. Bruce Wayne asks Alfred how the Burmese bandit was eventually caught, and Alfred replies, "We burned the forest down." Those who would read this as declaring that "sometimes harsh measures must be taken" are reading the text through a very phantasmal lens. Anyone who suggests that British colonial policy in Burma should be the role model for anything should read The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U. One does not have to seek that far outside the text to contest such a distorted reading, however. One need only remember that Alfred had described the bandit as a man who wanted "too see the world burn." In the end, therefore, thanks to the tactics Alfred and his comrades employed, the bandit GOT EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTED.
In The Dark Knight we see that, in their understandable zeal to arrest the Joker's nihilistic assault on Gotham, Harvey Dent and Batman come very close to burning the forest down. Harvey Dent applies torture to a deranged criminal in search of information, a tactic even the steely-eyed Batman finds reprehensible (draw your own connections to current events). The Batman himself violates the privacy of every citizen of Gotham by building an illegal surveillance system (ditto).
Though this tactic does, indeed, discover the Joker, it does nothing to foil the criminal's plans, as it was always his intention to be caught eventually. The Joker is shooting for bigger game than sowing mere terror, he is attempting to undermine people's trust in and decency toward one another, thus working to unravel civil society itself. By violating the privacy of his fellow citizens, Batman plays directly into his hands. In the end (though a few well-placed punches from Batman help), the Joker's plan is not foiled by high-tech surveillance or illegal torture. Rather, the Joker is defeated by ordinary citizens' refusal to be baited into harming one-another and by the integrity of Lucius Fox (the scientist portrayed by Morgan Freeman) in destroying the surveillance machine built by Bruce Wayne.
I will not go as far as "pro-Bush" pundits in declaring that this is an anti-Bush text. Like most admirable works of art it is thought-provoking and complex; attempts to reduce its message into neat formulas do violence to the text (as ironic as that may be to say about a "text" riddled with so many loud explosions). In the final analysis, every audience member has the right to take away what message he or she most perceives in the movie. On that score, one of the most significant moments in the movie for me was the point at which the Joker begins to burn the enormous pile of cash belonging to his underworld "employers." When they ask, amazed, why he would do such a thing, he replies, "My work only requires gasoline and explosives, and those are cheap." Taking policy advice from a comic-book movie is no doubt a stretch, but this is the principle I would distill from that screen moment: when faced with an opponent whose material needs are as small as the Joker's, invading another country will not seriously deter him.