“Why So Serious?” Batman and the Intellectuals

August 12, 2008 | 5 books mentioned 8 7 min read

Reading Nikil Saval (my Stanford friend and colleague)’s review of The Dark Knight at n+1 today, I found myself of two minds about his take. I too had exclaimed angrily about the impossible bustiness of the whole troupe of Russian ballerinas Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) kidnaps on his yacht, and the befuddling reappearance of Cillian Murphy (villain psychiatrist from Batman Begins), as well as the almost unwatchable chaos that was most of the action scenes, and the manipulative gotcha “black criminals are human too!” scene. I had exclaimed about other things Nikil hadn’t mentioned – like why bother getting the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal to play just another insipid damsel in distress (albeit, weakly disguised as a “strong, independent woman”: she’s a DA! and she kicks the Joker in the balls while wearing an evening dress!)

But the meat of Nikil’s review was his reading of the Dark Knight’s plot as political allegory. I am a rather bad reader of allegorical plots and having been told in vague terms by many people that the political implications of this Batman were intense, I hoped my symbolic reading skills were up to the task. My reading of the plot as allegory went something like this: our country has been taken over by a demented clown who burns money and oil and whose motives are incomprehensible. As you can imagine, I was very disappointed reading thus – I thought that this was not a very useful or provocative take on the current state of the union. I had also been told that Batman “goes over to the dark side” in this movie, but as far as I could see, except for wearing the black he always had, he was still the good guy (we knew his motives remained pure). Never, not once, did he seem taken in by the thrilling chaos that the Joker was peddling. (I had had a vague image of Batman and the Joker a la Danny Aiello and Bruce Willis in the under-appreciated Hudson Hawk synchronizing a heist by both singing “Swinging on a Star” in the same tempo. Holding hands while causing mayhem together! What fun! Try pulling that plot off next time, Christopher Nolan!) Again, I was disappointed.

As Nikil’s review will show you, I missed rather a lot. The crux of the allegory and the moral ambiguity lies in Batman’s recourse to criminal methods to get the job of crime fighting done: his creation of a god-like surveillance system that violates the privacy of every resident of Gotham to find the Joker, and his beating information out of the Joker about the location of hostages and ticking bombs. In this, we can see the spectral reenactment of our own political situation: The US, which imagines itself as the world’s superhero, the champion of good, betraying its ideals (civil rights, the sovereignty of law, peace, justice) to defend these same ideals. Here was the genuine ambiguity and the interesting symbolic plot I had missed. As Nikil puts it “to fight anarchy is to lose one’s bearings, and move one’s own soul dangerously close to evil.” And this anarchy, of course, is terrorism and terrorists embodied in the Joker.

No matter what you might, in the end, think of Batman’s (or the United States’) ultimate moral affiliation after these adventures, Nikil’s plot reading holds. My being of two minds takes issue more with Nikil’s idea that The Dark Knight is somehow a propaganda classroom, manufacturing citizenly consent for US policy and reinforcing in even its youngest viewers “every conceit that this childishly self-regarding nation has about its mission in the world”:

And so the Joker, like other criminals in the film, is treated by Batman the way America treats terrorists: he is tortured. Intellectuals who favor the use of torture in the United States often reduce the ethical question to a hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist reveals he has a plot to blow up thousands of people in one hour, and the only way for officials to extract information from the lunatic in time is through ruthless physical violence. “Ethics 101,” Charles Krauthammer calls it. “Hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.” It doesn’t matter that, in a real Ethics 101 class, one would learn that legal ethics is not reducible to a childish theoretical picture; that there is not a shred of historical or present evidence on which to base such hypotheticals. (There are bombs in the real world, but they never tick.) Yet the real-world debate over torture is frequently reduced to this argument, because it has a terrifying simplicity to it. As in the scenario itself, the argument doesn’t even give you time to think: you are simply asked to decide, and your decision then becomes actual policy. When it is presented in something like real time, as it is in The Dark Knight, it actually functions as “Ethics 101” for the children who see the film.

And I take issue with this not only because, dunderhead that I am, the only childishly self-regarding conceit I came away from the movie with on my own was “our president is a psychopathic jester who is burning down our economy and must be stopped at any cost – damn the law.” No, I take issue with this because it means that there is no difference between art and life – that the moral and social rules and actions we observe and tolerate in comic books and novels foist themselves upon us as we read and work their way into our real lives. Saying that children who watch Batman are being primed to condone their country’s use of torture is like saying that reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels will make us kill our rich friends and assume their identities – or, at least, that we’ll approve of those who do.

This just gets what movie-going and novel-reading is about all wrong. I think most people go to the movies for escape – we get out of our own heads, away from our own worries, we suspend the real world for a while to move into a variety of different, often joyfully impossible, worlds. Here we find respite from our own lives. I also think the rules of genre are comforting. Real life-plots are unpredictable: We never know in real life when we’re walking into a chapter of personal tragedy, when things might take a romantic turn, when they’ll go Beckett-y or Kafkaesque, but if I rent, say, 27 Dresses or The Holiday, I have the comfort of knowing how it will go, even though I have the pleasure of not knowing quite how it will go. It’s soothing. And I don’t, unless I’m Don Quixote, get up from either movie and expect life to yield up to me the personalities or plots I just watched. Just as I don’t get up from Batman thinking that I wouldn’t mind seeing more terrorists water-boarded, even if, obedient student of the comic book genre that I am, I accepted whatever “the good guy” had to do to get the job done as “good” – which is probably why I missed identifying Batman’s “criminal activities” as such (“Yeah, but it’s Batman who’s spying on everyone. Now if the Joker, it’d be another story“).

Admittedly, this is part of a larger resentment and even anger I harbor against intellectuals at the movies – and indeed part of my somewhat perverse occasional campaign against taste and connoisseurship generally. Should Batman induce such anguish and demand such moral seriousness at it does at n+1? (“Why so serious?” as the Joker puts it.)

Although I agree with much of Nikil’s reading, I find in it something repellent (morbid, paranoid, despair-inducing) that I associate with the Leftist intellectual temperament. I have written before about Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Reflections on a Damaged Life and it is from Minima Moralia that I find the purest expression of this attitude that troubles and repels me:

There is nothing innocuous left. The little pleasures, expressions of life that seemed exempt from the responsibility of thought, not only have an element of defiant silliness, of callous refusal to see, but directly serve their diametrical opposite. Even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent “How lovely!” becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better… The malignant deeper meaning of ease, once confined to the toasts of conviviality, has long since spread to more appealing impulses… Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.

Adorno’s book is a long collection of fragmentary meditations in the same inconsolable tone as this one. And while I have moments of deep sympathy for his tragic worldview, his sense that everything in our world is broken and sinister and corrupting, I think, for myself, that to linger in this mindset for long would be devastating. I would kill myself. I continue to marvel that the anguished consciousness on display here managed to survive itself for 250 pages. There is something of Adorno in Nikil’s take on the Dark Night – that watching this movie – maybe movies generally? – can be dangerous and morally suspect: That we Americans are watching our crappy, multi-million dollar nation-affirming movies while the world we set on fire burns. We retreat into movies (becoming ever easier in this era of Netflix, iTunes, and pay-per-view), neglect the world, and become dumber for our retreats into escapism, thus less capable of fixing the world we fled in the first place. “History will record,” Nikil writes, “that, while a monumental catastrophe overtook the world financial markets and a new colonialism destroyed the lives of nations, the United States still found time and money to resolve in its films what it could not, for the life of it, perform in the world.”

Maybe History will. And maybe my logic is disgraceful and maybe I am deluded – or just weak (a junkie). The number of head pats, cheek pinches, and chin chucks I continue to get even now that I am almost 30 suggests that intellectual seriousness continues to elude me: but I love movies. And I defend them. They allow me to go into worlds that are more beautiful and make more sense than ours. Going to the movies, reading novels, is a kind of idealism for me, a longing for order and beauty that I will never find in this world. Maybe this isn’t morally justifiable, but it’s psychically necessary. Even Batman, flawed as it was, gave me a much needed respite from myself.

Is Batman the problem? Is Batman a bigger problem than is an impenetrable seriousness, than a relentless critical certainty that would seem sometimes to insist that despair is the moral highground?

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. Emily- This is great. I find myself (perhaps this is a male thing) tending to agree a bit more than you do with the proposition that despair is the moral high ground…it's just not a moral high ground I'm strong or consistent enough to occupy. (Perhaps it's reductive to say feel about intellectuals the way you feel about movies: I love them, and I defend them.) That said, Saval seems to have gone for what you persuasively argue is Batman's elaborate head-fake. The allegory, if there is one, is almost entirely unreadable, and, where it's not, it hopelessly muddled (the panopticon is bad, but we can trust it in the capable hands of Morgan Freeman, but only this once?) It seemed to me more like Nolan wanted credit for the grandeur of allegory, throwing in terms like "terrorist" or "dark side" here and there, without actually being bothered to map the thing out. Although your tongue-in-cheek version – "Our country has been taken over by a demented clown who burns money and oil and whose motives are incomprehensible" – is almost enough to make me reconsider.

    This points to a larger weakness of the movie, about which you and Saval seem in agreement, and about which everyone else has been mum: It's not that good. It operates at an impressive scale, but one it can't even remotely manage. And Christian Bale is boring, and does that weird thing with his teeth, and is asked to deliver great swaths of exposition and speechifying in his muppet voice. Which isn't to say we're damned for watching and enjoying it. But take away Ledger's phenomenal joker and Oldman's touching Chicago moustache, and I'd take the easy (but precise) allegory of Wall-E or the more hilariously pseudo-moral Iron Man any day.

  2. Emily,

    Thank you for this. I'm glad someone is willing to stand up against that review. I enjoyed the movie (though I do not think it is a "good" movie – maybe that's another discussion right there) and have felt not good about myself since reading n+1's review. Like Garth, I feel that the allegory simply isn't cohesive enough to make any sense – and thus I have a hard time getting too riled up about it. Is it wrong to say "It's a popcorn flick" and move on. That's what I want to do here.

  3. I like the reading that the movie suggests allegory without having gone about it seriously. I was talking to my sister last night (who runs in rather conservative circles in D.C.) and she was talking about someone reading Denton/Two-Face as Obama. So, no, DK does not have the transparency of the Faerie Queene. More of a Rorshac test.

    And we all agree that the movie was a disappointment. Heath Ledger being the exception for me. But Nikil is right that his performance is no better than Johnny Depp's as Jack Sparrow. Or, I would add, Marlon Brando's in the Missouri Breaks.

    As for despair as the moral high ground: I don't think it's just a male thing to believe in it. I do too sometimes. Sometimes, though, it seems defeating. It seems too much. It seems like poison and paranoia. Life is good sometimes and Adorno is wrong.

  4. My reading of the film– which seemed clear to me at the time but is apparently quite debatable, since others don't seem to see it this way– is that the fundamental premise of the exceptional hero (as in, exempt from the usual social contract) is flawed even when aimed towards positive ends. The point of the Dark Knight isn't that chaos eventually mandates Batman (which n+1 seems to suggest), it's that the presence of one monolithic dispenser of justice ("the decider", anyone? unilateral action?) breeds– indeed, necessitates– a resistance, which is what then puts everyone in such a pickle… the ethical dilemmas inside the film are less important than the one that frames it. This Joker is treated as an almost logical outgrowth of the prevailing condition, which (whatever the movie's merits as 'art' or 'entertainment') is reasonably applicable to our nation's present status on the world scene. Batman brought this one on, and the problem isn't that the rebel has taken over the country but that the Crusader has (allegorical enough): too much moral hegemony located in any seat of power begets us not the heroes but the villains we deserve. How's THAT for taking it too seriously?

  5. In this case I don't think a charge of over-intellectualization against n+1 is fair. As the article itself says, The Dark Knight and its more mainstream reviewers don't want to settle for being mere escapism–this is a comic book movie with pretensions to art-house seriousness. So it's hardly inappropriate to give the movie a serious attempt at interpretation. Besides, the allegorical aspects of the movie had already been scoped out by The New York Post and some conservative blogs who saw it as a justification for the current administration.

  6. No–not inappropriate to give the movie serious critical attention.

    I just think the movie's ability to create certain moral beliefs were exaggerated. And I took issue more with the review as an instance a particular intellectual attitude–a mournfulness or world-woe that I find confusing and often disturbing.

  7. Personally, I'd rather watch 2 1/2 hours of terrorists being water-boarded…But that's just me…

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.