The Dark Knight Review: Theme

A lot of attention given The Dark Knight surrounds its thematic boldness. The Dark Knight stands out from the usual superhero movie with its brooding style and thought provoking moments. Or so it seems. A thematic analysis is important to cover when it comes to just about any work. I’d like to explore a few specific themes in The Dark Knight, such as vigilantism, Post-9/11 style, nihilism, and the tendency in the genre from campiness toward drama. Running down these themes will prove The Dark Knight as a moderately successful attachment to a whole world of themes and trends in cinema and less of a breakthrough than critics and fans believe.

As a student of philosophy, I’m inclined towards a discussion of the ethics which this movie is so concerned with. Vigilantism comes up again and again in The Dark Knight and other films. What never fails to bother me about assuming vigilantism as a theme for a work is that it takes the little brain teaser of taking the law into one’s own hands and makes it the Central Ethical Problem. Unfortunately there is no such thing in ethics or any field. Ethics breaks down, instead, in to meta, normative, and applicational fields rather than the brain teasers used as illustrations. Vigilantism doesn’t really deserve to be maximized to the extent of ‘is the only good that which is above the law’ if that can be said to be the maxim here. That's a question for something more limited--jurisprudence.

Personally, I also find the vigilantism problem kind of done to death. It is by happenstance that superheroes make up the majority of comics literature (a legacy the art owes to the comics code and niche readership early in its history) and the product of that generic dominance has lead to many uses of vigilantism as a theme in comics. Watchmen, for example has a lot to do with the quis custodiet ipsos custodes problem--who watches those that watch. Watchmen starts there and uses characters with omnipotence, cynicism, and moral codes to access a wider and more nuanced ethical spectrum. Watchmen also benefits from being a comic; adding a whole level of meta-critique by being in the form and referential to the form from which its themes come. Watchmen makes it clear how much more complex morality is, The Dark Knight just assumes the mantle of a simple thought experiment.

A movie that I like for dealing in a surprisingly reasonable way with vigilantism is The Boondock Saints. Unlike The Dark Knight, The Boondock Saints is pretty absurd and very paired down. It’s a small and obnoxious film that takes the ethics and runs. Here’s a movie about two guys righteously killing criminals. Without the bombast of The Dark Knight, I can enjoy the narrow purview in a much more satisfying way. The Boondock Saints doesn’t have much in the way of redeeming features and it doesn’t have any illusions. I like that. The Boondock Saints is a pretty panned movie, but it’s honest and not too big for it’s britches.

Either The Dark Knight could take the route of Watchmen and be a throughly contemplative work of literature, or it could take the route of The Boondock Saints and be a throughly disgusting piece of pulp fiction. But in either case The Dark Knight would basically cease to be. It’s really tied into its particular method and scope that is particularly unbecoming.

The other ethical solute to The Dark Knight madness is nihilism. I continually return to an analysis of nihilism in The Dark Knight. It’s a really dominating feature. I don’t like it. Again way too much is made of this particular moral position. Nihilism is portrayed as legitimately powerful despite the obvious, living counter example in Gotham. It’s a problem of maximizing one doctrine yet again, but this is the main struggle between characters and it doesn’t really make sense in this world. The Joker, it happens, is basically out to prove that people are fundamentally barbaric. Morals, laws, “rules,” are all a sham to be escaped. Particularly under interrogation, and in the second half of the movie, the Joker bandies about how useless and pathetic the “rules” are. Ignoring the Joker’s shift in priorities and his unlikely ideological stance for the moment, I’d rather examine nihilism on it’s own merits.

For instance, when someone says “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules,” one should be wise to the act. Replacing some rule ‘X’ with the alternative ‘no rule’ seems like submission to just another system. Moreover, when one discusses “sensibility” or is posing anarchy as the proper way we ought to live, it’s clear that such a system has as much face value as democracy or oligarchy or anything else for that matter. So when watching The Dark Knight the audience thinks to itself that Batman is losing his claim to Gotham’s soul, then consider this; Batman has a principally equal claim as the Joker. But really he has a better claim if one evaluates a position’s strength as plausible, useful, just, and consistent. Nihilism doesn’t score very highly in those categories as we shall see in brief.

It doesn’t really matter how shaky nihilism is in the case of this movie. The Dark Knight is a high powered retread machine when it comes to discussing these topics. Consider, for instance, a more internal issue with The Dark Knight. After all, this is a Batman movie and Batman as an archetypal character stands for justice and morality in the face of the various Jokers of his universe. Nihilism is kind of countered by the very idea that there would be a right and a wrong. Batman, as a living embodiment of that idea would would prove the Joker’s point wrong no matter what.

The Joker seems to think that he and Batman are destined to struggle. I think not. With any real consideration, one would find that if there could be Batman the Joker is just lying. But somehow The Dark Knight doesn’t seem to recognize the obvious condition of a battle between nihilism and ultimate morality because Batman has to take the heat of being vilified at the end. It doesn’t follow, if Batman is moral that should be recognized without issue. A hero in opposition to nihilism would not deal with the things Batman ultimately faces in The Dark Knight.

I think that a movie that concerned the real condition of evil as a natural human trait might look something more like A Clockwork Orange. Actually I know that such a movie would look like A Clockwork Orange. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex is an innately evil character; content to rape and murder. This is a trait that he has to unlearn at the expense of his humanity. The perverse twist of A Clockwork Orange is that removing Alex’s tendency towards rape and murder is something of a rape and murder done unto Alex. His evildoing is innate but not worth denying him. Now that’s a scary thought.

My sense is that The Dark Knight doesn’t quite know what it’s doing. Thus it doesn’t know the best way to do it. Loath though I am to comparing the work of Nolan to that of say Faulkner, the high standing The Dark Knight seems to have among audiences and critics alike demands such a ridiculous consideration. Faulkner set his stories in the same fictional county again and again because he understood the dynamics of such a place and was capable of writing divisive social issues into a very realistic locale. He knew what he was doing and it shows in enduring works of affecting fiction. That’s not really the case with the themes in a Nolan movie. I would consider a Stanley Kubrick as equal to a William Faulkner in this art form. Nolan gives me no reason to be intellectually engrossed by the themes of The Dark Knight such as I understand them.


The Dark Knight also strikes me thematically as a particularly conventional movie for 2008. Most of the real greatest movies ever made have the timeless quality of being both of their time and for all time. Citizen Kane revolutionized film for its time, today we acknowledge it as a movie that hasn’t lost anything for bringing advancements in cinema though it is still the same Citizen Kane that came out in 1941. No, it doesn’t look like a new movie, but only a fool would call Citizen Kane dated. The same holds true for many of the other classics--2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, Raging Bull, The Maltese Falcon--these are movies that are greater than the time in which they were made. In forty years, critics will still be discussing 2001: A Space Odyssey like it came out yesterday but I think that The Dark Knight will take its place with the regular fare of contemporary cinema.

The Dark Knight is more timely than timeless. I mean it fits neatly and conventionally into the trends and styles of cinema today. I think that I can simplify this niche to two major areas; first, Post-9/11 cinema, second, a general trend towards personality and drama in movies that goes back at least 50 years. In these ways, The Dark Knight fails to strike me as something special and more as something safe. Unfortunately only time will tell, but I think that the studio system as it stands now provides close to enough proof of my beliefs about where The Dark Knight fits into the grand scheme of all movies.

For instance, The Dark Knight capitalizes on terror and despair as dominating characteristics. The Joker and Batman are both labeled as terrorists. The citizens of Gotham live in some kind of fear for their lives. The Dark Knight falls back on something of the classic method of saying “who would want to raise children in a city like this?” A clear appeal to the falsely assumed innocence and hopefulness of all children on the part of adults who see the dangers of our desperate world--the movie is alerting the viewer to despair. It’s not just The Dark Knight though. Harry Potter, Toy Story 3, indeed most American films these days feature an amount of despair that can only be described as topical. They’re all about a loss of innocence, decrying our dismal current situation and dependance on a feeble remaining, and unlikely savior. Hope or release from anguish comes at such high prices in these movies.

Right now we look at the above condition of values posited in cinema as a result of 9/11, clearly an event with its own (over emphasized) ends that coincide with cultural documents such as movies. There’s a whole style down to the cinematography that is the result of 9/11. The infamous shaky camera is supposed to put the viewer in the frenetic and poorly delineated War on Terror battlefield for instance. Watching The Dark Knight, it almost feels like Nolan doesn’t know how to shoot action as each character blends into the background and the motion blurs of a shaky camera. Movies in the past took pride and even great efforts in choreographing action so that it could be seen and understood, the tendency now is to obscure who is who and what is what as has been the case with combatants in the Middle East.

Similarly there is less delineation between characters; every hero has something in common with the villain. There are two poorly described trifectas of characters in The Dark Knight (having only one would be better); Batman, Gordon, Dent on the one hand and Batman, Joker, Dent on the other. The movie suggests that all these characters have traits somewhat in common. Batman might be a villain to protect a greater hero--corruption. Gordon is an officer of the law who cannot seem to win--incompetence. Corrupt an inefficient officials and officers purvey in Gotham. As a Chicagoan, I respect corruption in government and backstabbing good-guys, but it doesn’t help make anything more potent thematically here. Reason being, in movies these days, there never seems to be any totally good character. Movies these days reek of America’s half-hearted belief in our ability to legitimately get things done as we watch our empire crumble.

Order, in The Dark Knight and other Post-9/11 works, is always restored at great cost. It’s almost as if we the people have to submit to the negative and perverse side of justice. Maybe things don’t workout perfectly, but the totemic sense of owning up faith and legitimacy in favor of order isn’t the case either. Batman goes to great lengths in this movie and takes on powers that maybe he shouldn’t; surveillance over all of Gotham for instance. Fox tells Wayne that it’s wrong. But this is the price of justice and we have to submit to it, or so it seems.

Submission to the vigilante or to the unlikely but willing hero seems also necessary in so many Post-9/11 films. In the case of The Dark Knight the cops get pushed around by Batman who realizes things that they don’t. If we are to be saved or have justice done we have to accept that the one Batman is a better choice than the many cops. Batman is flawed, he is one that the people should probably not have let stand in the place of real justice, but now that he is there we have to submit to his rule as it were. This at least is how Harvey Dent lays out the position of Batman to Wayne, Rachel, and the Russian ballerina. I can’t help but feel that there would be some alternative.

Already we’re seeing films that are moving on from the Post-9/11 despair era in favor of a failure of capitalism despair (something I expect to see slightly more of in the upcoming Dark Knight Rises). Both will eventually seem somewhat dated; products of their times. No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood on the other hand will, I think, stand the test of time far better than these films that are so rooted in their time and place. So many Post-9/11 films have hedged their success on tropes such as shaky camera, confusing lines of plot, and disillusioned characters that they’ll cancel each other out and look dated. That doesn’t happen to the very best pictures.

It’s very limited, now-only applicability isn’t the only thing that will drown out The Dark Knight in the long run. People were really taken with the bleak image of Gotham that Nolan presented here. While Nolan has done things a little different from previous takes on Batman, it’s the style and design of the director rather than something new to cinema. Movies have been getting “darker” for years as studios, directors, and audiences have become more accepting of more explicit violence, language, and to a lesser degree sex. The Dark Knight is really no different in this regard from any number of movies that came before it and certainly lesser than the real trailblazers like A Clockwork Orange or Bonnie and Clyde.

When The Godfather came out, it was a whole new look and attempt at showing gangsters in cinema. It was more realistic and gripping because the subject matter had never been presented in such a way before. However, what was new in 1972 has been repeated here in The Dark Knight with really only the spin of despair and epic convolution that modern movies tend towards.

For Batman, the real departure came in 1989 from Tim Burton who added a different stylistic approach from Batman’s last adventures on the silver screen. Burton really flew in the face of Adam West as Batman and the cheesy Gotham he inhabited. Sure, looking back Batman (1989) looks like a movie from the late 80s. Surprise, it’s a movie from the late 80s. But rather it looks like how any Batman made at that time by that director would look like after the influence of such films as Taxi Driver or The Godfather.

There is a departure in the history of Batman’s portrayal in film, but it is not between the 1990s films and now so much as it was between the 1960s films and what is still now. The departure has been from the campy appearance of the 60s towards the grit we see today. A broad trend through all genres. Superheroes is not the only genre to which this applies, I think that westerns serve as a good example too as audiences moved from the classic black-hat/white-hat, technicolor sunset westerns of yore toward the brooding westerns such as Unforgiven.

Thus The Dark Knight is not so revolutionary. It’s still on the bandwagon that pulled out almost 50 years ago. Movies didn’t have to move this direction but they have. Eventually they will take on other appearances. In either case The Dark Knight isn’t doing a whole lot that I haven’t seen before or am unaware of. I’ve been watching movies my whole life and I know the game. I really don’t see this movie standing up years from now because it will look so particularly like other movies of it’s time and place.

I think that Marvel Studios is the one really reinventing the genre right now. Truly, cinema has never seen a franchise put out like The Avengers has been. It has been less a change in the way the movies are made, how they look, or what they are about so much as it has been about marketing and profiting from a uniquely designed franchise. I’m sure all the other studios are feeling the heat of Marvel’s success in this form. But the fact remains that The Dark Knight is not on that forefront of cinematic breakthroughs that would suggest a top placement in the pantheon of great works of cinema.