The discussion between Taylor Marvin, Erik Kain, and Jamelle Bouie about Nolan’s Batman films is already superb. I’m not sure how much I can add to the conversation, but as a long time Batman fan I can’t resist. But first, a recap.
At issue is how exactly Nolan positions Batman within the context of Gotham and its ongoing urban decay. Is Batman working outside of civil society? Is he subverting it? Or simply responding to a system that is already in turmoil?
Marvin takes the following line,
“A vigilante, Nolan’s Batman is emblematic of a failed state: if Gotham’s legitimate institutions could guarantee stability, Batman would have no reason to exist. Similarly, unlike previous visions of Batman Nolan’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t fight crime out of civic duty; he does because he a deeply damaged individual incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships.”
Batman arises from the failure of civil society to make good on its promise of security, and once formed, is compelled to respond to violence with more violence. As Marvin explains, this kind of vigilantism is both a response to the state’s failure, as well as force that in working outside of that structure only serves to further destabilize it,
“Nolan’s Batman is one of the ‘good guys’ but he’s not “part of the plan”: his existence violates social norms and is destabilizing. It’s this theme of escalation — Batman’s violation of social norms draws the Joker’s more violent deviation — that dominates The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne’s motivations are noble, but violence outside of the state monopoly on force is always destabilizing. Nolan’s Batman isn’t a civic-minded champion: he’s a tragic hero.”
Kain points out that Batman’s actions are not always destabilizing, but largely agrees with the rest of Marvin’s argument,
“The arms race quality of both films is fascinating and important and yes, explicit. Gordon worries over it and Batman dismisses his worry in the first film. Then along comes the Joker. Harvey Dent is transformed into Two-Face. In the next film we’ll get Bane and Gotham truly will go to war. The violence only escalates.
Nolan leaves us with few other alternatives. Good people who stand up are killed. Without the Batman, Gordon is alone. Without something outside the social order – even something violent that breaks the government’s monopoly on violence – the state itself would be little more than a legal crime ring.”
Finally, Bouie weighs in, rebutting Marvin’s earlier point that Batman resides entirely outside of civil society,
“Thomas Wayne was a philanthropist who sought to improve Gotham and the lives of its most vulnerable citizens. This, more than anything else, is why Bruce Wayne donned the mantle of Batman. It’s not that he’s “incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships,” it’s that he wants to build a Gotham where his childhood loss is never felt by anyone, ever again.
Put another way—as we see with Ducard in the first film—vengence will only take you so far. You need a positive goal to keep striving. Bruce wants a better Gotham, which is why he’s willing to endure the hatred of his home if that’s what it takes to build the city into something durable.”
And this is crucial. Because for several reasons I think there’s a compelling case to be made for situating Batman not only within civil society, but as the fullest expression of it. The principle of handing over one’s individual claim to violence to the state, when taken to its logical conclusion, results in a police state. And that is in many ways what Batman symbolizes: a regime in which decisions are made unilaterally and enforced to their fullest extent.
We know from Batman Begins that Gotham is not a failed state yet, but certainly descending to that point with every passing day. After all, Rachel and the rule of law she symbolizes is still fighting the good fight. There is corruption, but also those who resist it. The body politic is fighting off external pathogens as well as combating those parts of itself which have already been infected.
At least in Nolan’s Gotham, Batman is not a direct result of his parents’ murder, but instead manifests only after Bruce’s failed attempt at personal revenge. And it is in part Rachel, an officer of the court, who helps turn him toward becoming Batman: Gotham’s night watchmen.
Batman is the logical result of a state whose legitimate coercive powers are no match for the chaotic and violent forces working against it. As Gordon notes at the end of the first film, “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar they buy armor-piercing rounds.”
Except that Batman is not just another escalation in the war between the state and those who resist it, he is THE escalation. In this arms race Batman is the omega, the end point. Like a country given over to martial law, Batman has no constraints save one: he can’t kill. Because that “one rule,” is all that separates civil society and he as its champion from the gangs, evil, and general chaos on the other side. This is why Gordon unleashes Batman on the Joker when Harvey goes missing. In “wartime” the gloves come off, and Batman, as the dirty hands of the state, can torture, brutalize, and commit intrusive acts of surveillance at will. The situation demands it.
Harvey argues this during a dinner conversation with Rachel and Bruce:
Natascha: But this is a democracy, Harvey…
Harvey Dent: When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.
Rachel Dawes: Harvey, the last man who they appointed the Republic was named Caesar and he never gave up his power.
Harvey Dent: Okay, fine. you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Batman is Caesar, and despite democratic dissent to the contrary, as when the masses call for Batman’s head, he won’t abdicate his title until the state’s enemies have been subdued. And in many ways, The Dark Knight serves as a fictional demonstration in favor of wartime powers and the suspension of liberal democratic norms when their very basis is being threatened.
Just as some have argued that Obama, if given a second term, would have enough time as well as the wisdom and prudence to roll back executive excess and de-escalate the War on Terror, Batman is the savior who not only takes on excessive power during wartime, but also demonstrates that he can relinquish it when the fight is over. When he has Fox destroy the Big Brother mobile sonar device used to locate and take down the Joker, Batman legitimate powers decline in proportion to the relative threat at Gotham’s gates.
This once again distinguishes the state and its arbiters from those they fight. Early on in the first movie, Bruce says, “The first time I stole so that I wouldn’t starve, yes. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong. And when I traveled… I learned the fear before a crime… And the thrill of success. But I never became one of them.”
Batman is the ultimate boogeyman, serving as the human embodiment of the promise to punish those who would commit transgressions. He is only one man, but as a symbol is able to serve as a mechanism for deterrence in the same way the threat of police force does. Between that and his close ties to both Gordon and Rachel, who either explicitly or tacitly endorse his actions, I have a hard time viewing Batman as a force residing outside of, or even contrary to, civil society. Indeed, the two great pillars of modern civil society and its renewal, public projects and corporate enterprise, are both inextricably linked to Bruce Wayne. The Wayne family is responsible for many of Gotham’s public spaces, and the corporation for much of the city’s industrial employment and economic growth.
Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that Nolan filmed the final movie partly in Pittsburgh, the epicenter for this cross between entrepreneurial industry and public philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie not only built a steel industry that would be the foundation of Pittsburgh’s economy for nearly a century, but was also responsible for CIT (now part of Carnegie Mellon), a massive library system, and several museums as well as investments in civic projects in other cities.