I’m a Batman fan. Anyone close to me would know this after just a couple of weeks. This is a character that, in various personas and scenarios, embodies the power of will, displine, justice and idealism. But I didn’t really become as much of a fan as I am until the recent slate of films that is about to culminate with next month’s “The Dark Knight Rises” (I’m totally reviewing it on this blog).
On my personal site I recently posted an article about the theme of fear and terrorism in Batman Begins. That film finely tapped the zeitgeist of 2005, placing the antagonist League of Shadows in a position characteristic of al-Qaeda. Bruce Wayne essentially is a one-man wrecking machine physically and philosophically, challenging the League’s absolutist view Gotham City has to be destroyed to cleanse it of its decadence and immorality. Wayne accepts Gotham’s moral dilemma but balks at supporting the city’s demise, rather investing in its redemption.
The Dark Knight is different. The first movie explores the immense physical challenge adversaries might present, but only scratches the surface when it comes to their mental impact. The Dark Knight is more familiar to Batman fans because it explores the comics’ criminal underworld and even includes that underworld’s utter annihilation after a crime war with Batman and the Gotham City Police. But the terror theme is visible in the second movie, in an even more explicit way than the first. In fact, the movie eliminates the element of ideology, laying everything bare and challenging the modern conception of terrorism. The Joker rises from petty thief to the modern paradigmatic terrorist: keeping law enforcement on its toes with constant attacks, bombs and hitting high-profile targets. The movie links crime and terrorism, making it extraordinarily difficult to say that a criminal is not a terrorist or that a terrorist is not a criminal. Defining it as a false dichotomy, one can wonder if we inhibit our ability to fight either by using separate definitions for criminals and terrorists.
Heath Ledger earned an Oscar for emulating that conflict between the two concepts. The character he played had to all at once be a hitman, drive a city into panic and be the philosophical antithesis to the title character. As Bruce Wayne tries to understand the Joker’s motivations, his crimes begin to hit harder and faster. His entire strategy is chaos; as a result, the city only fuels his momentum. Responses to his actions only generate more stress, more anxiety and more confusion for citizens and their guardians. By the end of the villain’s rampage, Batman alters the way he operates not just tactically, but philosophically as well. Rather than understanding how terrorists think, it might come down to how the victims perceive the chaos around them.
This is the true genius of terrorism, and the disconcerting theme The Dark Knight is getting at. By linking attacks together as a terrorist campaign instead of a group of isolated crimes, society is gripped. If one starts off small, any other act can easily surpass it and project the image of a decaying situation. From robbing banks, the Joker destroys Gotham’s downtown, kills its Assistant District Attorney and blows up a hospital all within a day. He follows this up with a bluff to attack the city’s bridges and highways, whose mere threat puts the city in gridlock. The city is thrown into a panic. In the chaos, citizens blame police, Harvey Dent and Batman, dividing and besieging the Joker’s rivals while he escalates his carnage.
It’s here that some people speculate the movie’s theme is the triumph of evil over good. Despite capturing the Joker, Batman and Gotham City have won a Pyrrhic victory. His entire ethic has been smashed. A token reference to evasive surveillance shows how the maniacal villain is finally tracked down. Batman’s personal limit, to never kill the criminals he’s fighting, is brought into question after the Joker continues his rampage following Batman balks at taking him out. Even the complete destruction of the city’s mob syndicate is a challenge to the philosophy of law enforcement, prosecution and due process of courts. It wasn’t the efforts of the District Attorney or Police Commissioner that finished off the underworld, but cold and calculated murder by the Joker and Two-Face. The moral strategies for justice and fighting crime, well defended and established in the first film, are thrown into disarray with the flow of events in the second.
However, the biggest question the movie brings up is the existence of Batman in general. Substitute Batman for any one of the new counter-terrorist agencies or military units and you have a very startling reality. By raising the fight against crime to the next level, he arguably escalates the showdown. Just the same, attacking organized crime or terrorist organizations invites escalating the conflict those villains want to perpetuate. David Goyer comes right out and calls the theme of the movie “escalation,” carrying over the allusion of Commissioner Gordon from the end of Batman Begins, “We use semi-automatics and they buy automatics. We start wearing kevlar and they buy armor-piercing rounds. And you are wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops.” He then describes the emerging bank robber, the Joker, whose true identity no one knows and whose brutality is certain. The Joker sticks it to Batman by blaming him for his own existence having raised the fight against crime to the next level.
Terrorism raises moral challenges for ourselves, not to abuse the powers society gives us in pursuit of its greatest threats. And if terrorism’s goal were to actually keep society off balance, it really does only take some “barrels of gas and a couple of bullets.” The movie logically brings us back to reality when fighting tactical terror: we might defeat the big guns, but the mere existence of the threat can be enough to put us off guard. For the ones on the frontlines, their psyches are the ultimate casualties.
The third installment of this movie, I assume, will continue to explore the exploitation of human fear by villains and the unconventional hero. The deeply personal approach to the theme is the saga’s brilliant stroke. I think after writing this I can justify expressing fandom for what’s about to be put on the screen. I can only hope this final chapter continues the brilliant depth of the first two films.