The Dark Knight: A Nightmare for Civil Libertarians, Game Theorists

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger as The Joker

I went and saw a 3 a.m. showing of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the wildly popular Batman Begins.  I’m still in the post-show awe that leaves you with little critical reasoning capabilities, so writing a review (especially considering my extreme lack of sleep) is probably not the best of ideas, but there are a few thoughts I had about the movie that I wanted to get down.

Like most people have said, Heath Ledger’s role as the Joker makes the movie.  Absent the haunting, surreal experience of seeing a ‘dead man walk’, as it were, Ledger obviously put in a huge amount of work for this role and it pays off handsomely (at least for Warner Brothers, maybe not so much Ledger’s family).  Instead of talking about Ledger’s role (which has gotten so much play in both blogs and rags that it’s almost irritating to see a role that is almost perfect debated to the point that it loses its lustre).  I’m going to mention a few political allusions that Nolan decided to write into the movie.

(some spoilers follow) There are several plot elements that struck me as puzzling (especially since the movie was made and acted out by a bunch of brits and aussies): Batman’s trip to Hong Kong, Batman’s new technological abilities, and several scenes in which the ‘regular people’ of Gotham show their loyalty to the government.

I’ll start with the first.  Batman’s foray into Hong Kong has been derided by critics as unnecessary and as more clutter to an already cluttered movie.  What happens?  Batman, in order to put half of Gotham’s criminals behind bars, has to somehow get a crucial witness out of Hong Kong and back in Gotham, where he can provide the necessary information that will incriminate Gotham’s underworld.  So what does Batman do?  He flies to Hong Kong (where this gangster is in hiding), and takes him hostage.  Then an unmarked C-130 flies over and batman (with hostage in tow) is whisked away back to American jurisdiction.  Extraordinary Rendition, anyone?

Next up: Batman’s ‘new technological means’.  Wayne Enterprises (apparently quite surreptitiously) develops a technology that, using a secret device implanted in all cell phones in Gotham–yes, all cell phones–allows him to ‘see’ (using some sort of sonar technology) all around the city.  He uses this to find the Joker.  Before Batman employs the technology, he lets his trusty ideologue Fox in on his secret (he needs him, apparently, to help him track these criminals).  Fox refuses to do this obviously unconstitutional surveillance, so he resigns.  Batman reassures him that it is “just for this one time”, and besides, gives Fox a code that will in the end cause the entire system to self-destruct.  What was that other thing that the government did that was going to get it in trouble but then didn’t because the Bush administration promised that it was for all the right purposes, and that as soon as the danger had passed, would be shut down?

All these themes fall under a more over-arching leitmotif that I think makes The Dark Knight both compelling and problematic.  It is the battle over human trust.  At one point, Ledger creates a massive Prisoner’s Dilemma.  And this is Joker’s great role: he question’s the people of Gotham–no, all humanity’s–social contract.  If we are shown that the veil that covers our animal savagery is altogether thin–as is Joker’s whim–then as Joker believes, humans will revert to their primordial insanity, and chaos will rein.  Batman apparently must stand diametrically opposed, and without giving too much away, he banks successfully on the idea that the rest of Gotham is the exact same way (something that I both philosophically and practically have a hard time believing).

I can recommend The Dark Knight to anyone, especially lovers of Nietzsche (who will find in Ledger both the perfect anti-hero, übermensch, and tragedy), giddy teenage girls (who will fall instantly in love with this 2-hour and 30-minute-long parade of chiseled jaws), and anyone who will be able to see Batman for what it is: a truly magnificant study of the age-old conflict: Hobbes v. Locke, Man v. Beast, Nature v. Nurture, etc. etc.  Who will hate this movie?  Game theorists.  In that sense, The Dark Knight is the perfect antidote to the liberal fascism that is Wall-E.  Civil Libertarians take cover, however.

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2 responses to “The Dark Knight: A Nightmare for Civil Libertarians, Game Theorists

  1. I noticed that you had written a post on Batman, and would like to throw my opinion into the fray, and here it is: Batman is awesome.

  2. Pingback: Couldn’t have said it any better myself… « A NEW NADIR

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