Reconstruction Vol. 11, No. 4

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"I believe whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you...stranger": Discourses of terrorism and counter-terrorism in The Dark Knight / Barbara Wopperer

Abstract: Christopher Nolan's Batman film The Dark Knight was viewed by a wide range of commentators as a depiction of contemporary terrorism, pivoting on iconic villain The Joker. Perhaps surprisingly, a mainstream superhero movie has made an accidental (?) intervention in the ongoing discussion of counterterrorism and its ethical restraints. A close reading of various scenes in the movie reveals an upfront debate over means and ends, civil society and the state. Moreover, the moral discourse in The Dark Knight suggests a response to timeless ethical considerations rather than the more historically specific reference points of its recent admirers.

Keywords: Batman, The Dark Knight, counterterrorism, ethics, violence, torture

<1> After the horrifying experience of 9/11, the social and emotional disruption it caused expressed itself not only in political action, but also in social and cultural agitation. Not just the news media, but the whole entertainment business was affected by the event. Hollywood rescheduled: Action film starts were cancelled; films with escapist themes were rushed forward to provide an escape for the traumatized community. After that, though, a new agenda emerged as blockbusters began to promote war effort as a solution to the problem of threatened security.

<2> Collateral Damage (2002) and Big Trouble (2002) were moved to later dates because of a concern that terrorism might have temporarily lost some of its entertainment value, while the releases of Behind Enemy Lines (2001) and Black Hawk Down (2001) were moved forward, reflecting the fact that highly militaristic displays of patriotism, never entirely out of vogue, suddenly had newfound cachet (Markowitz 2004:198).

<3> After what the studios thought to be an appropriate amount of time had passed, the topic of terrorism itself reappeared on the screen: First films whose production had started before the attack were released – for example Schwarzenegger‘s Collateral Damage, dealing with the topic from an exceptionally limited perspective, not actually offering much insight on the phenomenon of terrorism. Since then the filmic discourse on terrorism has become broader; beginning in 2006 – about five years after the event – the first major films that deal with 9/11 directly appeared on the screen.

<4> Such films are not the only reaction to the events in 2001 and the subsequent "war on terror"; there are less obvious, at the same time more instructive discourses on terrorism and counter-terrorism in Hollywood films. A few years ago, this prospect seemed unlikely: for instance, the reader Film and Television after 9/11 (2004) lists a number of upcoming movies, as well as films already released after 9/11, and predicts that basically the same old cinema would continue to reign: "business as usual, […] an assembly line of factory-tooled genre vehicles that deliver predictable thrills to ever increasing unsophisticated audiences." (Dixon 2004: 14). It names a few of the movies we could then look forward to: "more installments of the James Bond series, Spider-Man II and III […] plus new adventures of Batman, Superman and other assorted superheroes and heroines" (ibid., emphasis added). Partly, Dixon was right: we did see the release of several of these films, including Batman Begins in 2004 and Batman – The Dark Knight in 2008 (as well as Spiderman II and III, a new James Bond movie and several other super-hero movies). He did underestimate, however, the potential of an officially mainstream, blockbuster, superhero-movie to combine action and thrills with a very subtle, yet broad political discourse on morals, tactics and terror. That is, as I shall argue, exactly what Batman became under the direction of Christopher Nolan.

<5> The second movie in Nolan’s adaptation of the Batman comic features the appearance of the Joker – a ruthless and at least supposedly mad villain – who terrorizes Gotham City with diverse threats. Initially hired by the Mob to kill the Batman, who has ruined business for them, he is ultimately out to prove the inherent badness of people. The tactics the Joker applies and the reign of panic and insecurity he inspires are easily comparable to terrorist tactics. The Gotham police force, justice system and the Batman alike have to find ways to deal with this exceptional level of chaos and fear; consequently they are playing out different strategies of counter-terrorism throughout the movie, while Batman is confronted with his own moral limits in his fight against the Joker. Thus, the movie not only becomes a sophisticated construction of opposing positions and a valid comment on world (and more specifically American) politics, but over and above that a philosophical discourse on politics and morals and consequently a very useful tool for discussing the workings of terrorism.

<6> Nevertheless, Dixon does not seem to be the only writer to underestimate a mainstream movie’s potential. In analyzing The Dark Knight, lots of critics fell into the trap of making shallow deductions. Since the political content of the movie is hard to overlook, many critics jumped to the easiest interpretation: we have a villain who goes through almost every scenario of known terrorist behavior and once in the film is even called a terrorist, so that one has to stand for Al Quaida. Likewise, this terrorist’s powerful adversary doesn’t exactly adhere to the rule of the law, so he has to stand for America. (Consequently D.A. Harvey Dent the law-abiding fighter for the greater good – at least up to a turning point in the plot – could represent the United Nations.)[1]

<7> This essay closely considers The Dark Knight, aiming to show that not only does the movie address currently relevant themes and questions, but that it does so in a timeless, abstract and philosophical fashion. To that end, I will approach the movie both as a possible "window to the world" (Spencer 2008) that provides an account of political reality and as a subjective social and cultural construct, an intertextual statement on political and meta-political issues – and especially one that itself addresses the issue of construction. I shall try to show that we can profit from both a positivist and a post-structuralist reading of the movie and that either way, any clear cut comparisons with ongoing political actions in the real word are far too short sighted. Along the way I am going to contrast this position with other positions appearing in movies since 9/11.

<8> To achieve these proposed objectives, the essay first looks at the political issues and topics the film can be read as raising questions on, such as the limits of counter-terror measurements, the question of security versus liberty, and of torture and vigilantism. To this end I am going to focus on the figure of Batman, looking into actions of other characters as they come up. I am then going to examine the depiction of terrorism in the movie, mainly the dynamics of fear and terror the movie confronts us with. Finally I am taking a look at the film‘s construction of reality, focusing on the construction of the character of the Joker, and the question it raises about the process of construction and our reactions to it. In conclusion, I will review the qualitative difference between the value many critics ascribe to the film and the value it gains under a combined positivist and post-structuralist reading when it comes to learning about terrorism.

<9> As scholars such as Dan Lindley, Jose M. Sanchez or Robert Gregg point out, films can be used as "a springboard to discuss" (Lindley 2001: 663) "specific political themes" (Sanchez 1976: 94). The Dark Knight offers a lot of material relevant to the main questions asked in terrorism studies: the use of torture as a means to combat terrorism, the question of personal liberty and rights versus security, more generally speaking: the question of the appropriate means to react to terror. What a film can achieve is to bring these issues and questions down from the heights of an academic, moral-philosophical discussion by putting them in a real, or rather a reel scenario, by showing us - vividly - possible situations and the possible solutions to them. After exploring the film’s treatment of the question of the use of torture, the essay next looks into the question of the moral costs of security, ending in a final broader discussion about the supposed vigilantism of the figure of the Batman in relation to questions of counter-terrorism.

<10> There are several instances in the movie in which the question of physical abuse as a means to get information – or in one instance as plain revenge – is raised. Three non-villainous characters are shown using inappropriate violence in Dark Knight: Gotham’s D.A. Harvey Dent, an unnamed police officer and the Batman. The crucial scene addressing this issue [2] takes place after the Joker has been arrested in the attempt to kill or at least unmask Batman. Almost immediately after his arrest the police finds out that Gotham‘s D.A. Harvey Dent and his girlfriend Rachel – who also happens to be the childhood friend and love interest of Bruce Wayne, Batman’s "secret identity" – have been abducted. It is apparent that the Joker has played a part in this, so the police start questioning him. When he first pretends to be ignorant ("What did you do to Harvey Dent?" "Me!? I was right here." DK: 1:25:52) and then starts to play games, refusing to answer the question of Dent‘s whereabouts ("Where is he?" "What’s the time?" "What difference does it make?" "Well, depending on the time, he could be in one place - or several." DK: 1:25:44). The police commissioner leaves the questioning room and lets the Batman take his place; he starts to beat the Joker up, while the whole police squad stands outside and watches. Now this is clearly a constellation reminiscent of the (in)famous ticking bomb scenario (Wolfowitz 2002: 131): we have a captured terrorist, who has already hinted at the plan to blow up the missing persons, also introducing time as an important element himself, who is now tortured to get the whereabouts of the bomb. This scene has led many reviewers to assume that the film takes an endorsing view on the use of torture in this situation. It is also true, that we as viewers do not actually regard the Batman‘s actions as inappropriate. However, the use of torture is not presented as the solution to the problem. The information the Joker gives to the Batman is only the information he wanted him to have. It is not the information Batman needs to stop the bomb from blowing up nor is it the information needed to save both victims.

<11> Furthermore, taking into account the unusual strength of the Batman and the comic book roles of both Batman and the Joker, standing outside of normal society, one could also argue that the equivalent to the use of torture in the ticking bomb scenario here would be for the Batman to mutilate or even kill his adversary. Instead the Joker never loses the upper hand during the whole scene; he is never actually frightened by Batman:

"There is not much time left, you gonna have to play my little game if you wanna save one: of them" (DK: 1:29:32) "You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength." "Don‘t worry, I am going to tell you where they are. Both of them." (DK: 1:30:11).

Torture – or more broadly defined, the use of physical violence – is not presented as a means to achieve one’s goals. The Dark Knight does raise the question of the use of torture and puts it up for discussion. Yet the film does not give a conclusive answer to it; if anything, it leans towards disapproval.[3]

<12> Another major theme from terrorism studies depicted in the movie is the balance or trade-off of security versus liberty. In the movie’s case it is exemplified through the use of surveillance: when the search for the Joker intensifies as the urban situation gets out of control, Batman introduces a rather disputable instrument to find him. Adapting a concept from his technical mastermind Lucius Fox, he turns every cellphone in Gotham into a high frequency transmitter/receiver, i.e. a microphone. Through Fox’s so-called sonar, he is able to access visual information about the entire city. While planning to employ means highly intrusive and illegal, Batman discloses this plan to Lucius Fox:

Batman: "Beautiful, isn’t it."

Fox: "Beautiful!? Unethical. Dangerous. You turned every telephone in Gotham into a microphone [...] with half the city feeding you sonar you can image all of Gotham. [...] This is wrong."

Batman: "I gotta find this man, Lucius."

Fox: "At what cost!?" [...]

Batman: "The database is [...] encrypted. It can only be accessed by one person."

Fox: "This is too much power for one person."

Batman: "That‘s why I gave it to you. Only you can use it."

Fox: "Spying on 30 million people is not part of my job description! [...] I’ll help you this one time. But consider this my resignation. As long as this machine is at Wayne enterprises, I won‘t be." (DK: 1:55:42)

Enabled to locate which building his enemies are in, the Batman combines structural schematics and surveillance to pinpoint exact positions of the Joker and his henchmen.

<13> Two things stand out as important in this scene. For one, it is the first scene in which Lucius Fox does not converse with Bruce Wayne, but with the Batman. In all the other scenes, while discussing Batman’s technology and plans, it was always Wayne talking to Fox. This represents a change of constellation because the Batman is not merely Bruce Wayne in costume, he stands far more outside of society and even humankind. Secondly, audiences see an initial distancing from the intrusive tactics about to be employed: it is not millionaire and man Bruce Wayne who is selling this idea, but the dark hero Batman; the one who has to do things normal humans should not do. With this move the film itself is subtly distanced from endorsement of surveillance as a political tactic. It is wrong, as Lucius clearly points out. Accordingly, the "sonar" is destroyed after it has served its purpose. It is not continuously used to keep an eye on people who are not yet suspected of anything. While the means of complete surveillance are presented here, their routine use is not encouraged.

<14> Even more important in this respect though is the fact that Batman himself does not access the system. He does not – like Caesar did in his appointed role as sole leader – grow power hungry in his service of Gotham. Growing weary of service, he does not try to accumulate all the power for himself; rather, he hands the reigns over to the one person who truly does not want to hold them. Batman therefore acts according to Plato’s suggestion in his Republic, where he claims that philosophers should be made king, because they are the most capable – and also because they do not desire power. Once again, The Dark Knight addresses a question central to the discourse on terrorism/counterterrorism and leaves the assessment to the viewers.

<15> The two issues discussed above both fall under the category of counter-insurgency methods; the question whether or not their use is justified is one of the major issues in the study of counter-terrorism. By asking what costs are justified in singular situations in the fight against terrorism, we implicitly also ask what the general cost should amount to. According to his butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), Batman has to be the top of the line; things have to end with him and he has to endure what is necessary to assure that. (DK: 1:09:56) Alfred’s reasoning is that Batman "is not [...] a hero, he is [...] something more" (DK: 1:12:34). Others do not share this endorsing view however, they see the Batman as "an outlaw" (DK: 1:11:04) and as "a masked vigilante" (DK: 0:20:43) The question remains: what is the Batman? What is his status and what should his status be? Is he to be despised or admired? Does he cross lines that should not be crossed?

<16> In the most prominent discussion within the film of the Batman’s social role the above-mentioned comparison to Caesar is made. In the restaurant, Bruce and his date, together with Harvey Dent and Rachel, are explicitly discussing this matter. Harvey takes the position that the role the Batman fulfills is not a privilege; it is a service to his city. He draws a comparison with the traditional position of Caesar in ancient Rome: in times of need the Roman democracy was willfully put on hold and power placed in the hands of one person, which was not considered an honor but a service to the country (DK: 0:21:02). Even within this scene the view is not left undisputed though: Rachel immediately reminds us that the last of those appointed tyrants didn’t want to give up his powers, even after his job was done.

<17> Throughout the film the role of Batman is also discussed in less direct ways. The Batman is an outlaw. The film never falls short of pointing out that fact: he cannot show his face, he works at night, he works outside of – sometimes even against – the law. That is why he cannot be Gotham‘s hero, only its Dark Knight. In fact, the Batman himself is working to build up Harvey Dent by emphasizing over and over again that he is needed as the one who cleans the streets honorably and by means of the law. In so doing, he makes clear that he is not clinging to his powers; he isn‘t even actually taking justice into his own hands exactly; he does hunt down criminals, but he is handing them over to the police. Prior to the Joker, the Batman is not once trying to enforce justice on criminals: this part he strictly leaves to the police, the judges and D.A.s like Harvey Dent. Considering this, it becomes clear that comparisons critics have drawn between the Batman‘s actions and the actions of America after 9/11 are short-sighted: for Batman to be identified with the United States, to claim that his figure in the film justifies US actions, he would have to kill the Joker, break all the rules, never restrain himself. While Bruce Wayne claims at the beginning of the movie that "Batman has no limits" (DK: 0:13:31), the film itself is all about the fact, that he actually has: he has rules, which is the main quality distinguishing him from the Joker; he might not have outside restraints, but he more often than not restrains himself. The question, asked throughout the movie, what the cost of counter-terrorist actions is allowed to be, is answered ambiguously and leaves much room for discussion. But there is one line clearly drawn and it is drawn by the Batman: we cannot let ourselves become as ruthless and as possessed as the Joker. "I have seen now, what I’d have to become to stop men like him," (DK: 1:08:47) he tells Alfred; he is not willing to go that far. In the end that is the main message the film leaves us with, concerning ways to counter terrorism: The first crack in the Joker’s plan appears, when people don’t do anything: they just wait and try not to panic. They stick to their moral obligations. (DK: 2:11:09) In contrast, Harvey Dent – the one who comes to stop at nothing in his quest for justice and ultimately just revenge – is the Joker‘s greatest victory. If we stop looking closely and absolutely insist on drawing comparisons with America‘s war on terror, then Harvey Dent‘s maimed face fits the picture much better than the mask of the Batman.

<18> Academic discourse on terrorism has always battled a major existential problem of its own: the problem of formulating a common concept of terrorism.[4] Like its "practical" counterpart, academic counter-terrorism must be able to answer such questions as who exactly is a terrorist, what makes a criminal, violent action a terrorist action, where to draw the line between freedom fighters and terrorists; or between "normal" criminal acts and terrorism. The main difficulty in trying to reach an agreement on a definition of terrorist actions, or on who to call a terrorist, arises through questions of the intentions of the criminal or the message sent through the violent action.

<19> To come to an agreement on when a criminal act acquires the characteristics which define it as a terrorist attack is not that hard. We could reach a consensus on the fact that if an action that deliberately targets certain objects or is conducted in such a way as to cause as much fear, insecurity and pain as possible then it is more than just a routine criminal act. "Terrorism is a violently and for some often mortally performative act that seeks to produce an effect, not only on those who bear the brunt of the physical attack but, more crucially, on a larger audience who witnesses the event." (Layoun 2006:46). An analysis of the movie The Dark Knight can actually bring us a little closer to understanding the nature of such events.

<20> Where, historically, little agreement has been reached is whether to condemn equally all terrorist action, regardless of its underlying intentions. It is the power of the discourse on terrorism in Dark Knight that strips the terrorism down to its bare core: it does not focus on motivations, beliefs and messages, so much as on the dynamics that the deeds of the Joker set in motion. It is putting into pictures the processes we read about in literature on the workings of terrorism. It doesn’t so much confront us with differing worldviews or beliefs as it does with the sheer force of fear and insecurity unleashed. To achieve this, the movie plays through virtually every scenario of terrorist actions imaginable and known, meaning the terrorism we get to watch is textbook:

"A major objective of terrorism is to create a feeling of hopelessness among the population. That is why terrorist perpetrators attack symbolic targets in a horrific manner, as the psychological impact will exceed the physical damage of the strike. The repertoire of horrific tactics used includes bombings, arson, assaults, hijackings, kidnappings, and taking and execution of hostages. [...] Horrifying video footage is either filmed by journalists who arrive soon after the carnage or homemade, [...] and offered to media organizations for broadcast or announcement on Web sites. None of this is senseless violence, as targets and methods of killing that are chosen will maximize the mixture of drama and dread and create acute feelings of insecurity within targeted countries and populations .(Picart, Greek 2007:265, emphasis added)

In Dark Knight we see all of this in motion: the Joker uses arson to kill a police commissioner, assaults the public throughout the movie, he hijacks cars and buses, takes hostages and videotapes their executions. He robs a bank, kidnaps and bombs: buildings, hospitals, boats, you name it: all the major tactics used by terrorists appear in one film. The motives offered by the Joker and their interpretation by other characters change throughout the narrative, meaning there is no rationalization from any identifiable belief systems. Instead, we can see the fear in motion, plain and simple. We can watch the city unravel; we can see the fear growing into panic as fewer and fewer places can be regarded as safe. But the Joker does even more: he includes the people, all inhabitants of Gotham into his 'little game' (DK: 1:29:32). Wanting them to turn from frightened bystanders to frightened actors, he turns them against the Batman by announcing a continuous killing spree until he unmasks (DK: 0:43:13). Next, the Joker turns the public into prospective murderers by promising to blow up a hospital if they don’t kill the lawyer who is willing to reveal the Batman‘s real identity (DK: 1:44:07). In his final coup he confronts the public with the ultimate moral decision when installing a bomb on two boats and threatening to detonate both at midnight. To escape this fate, one set of passengers can explode the other boat first, meaning the people on the remaining boat are going to live (DK: 2:00:56). By incorporating the targets into the actual action, we can see the dynamics of fear and what it does or might do to people much more clearly.

<21> Consequently, in The Dark Knight the discourse on possible and commendable reactions to terrorism is not just conducted at the level of law enforcement (i.e. the reactions of Batman and the state) but delegated to each and everyone one of us. The consequences of terrorist acts, but also of our reactions to those acts, are all more or less played out here. We don‘t just see what fear does to the people: in the figure of Harvey Dent we also see what anger and resulting revenge will do. The film does not try and answer the question of where to draw the line between guerilla and terrorist; it does not pass judgment on any agent subject to his or her motivations. The dynamics of the Joker’s terrorism become clearer to us in proportion to the diminution of the Joker as a person; his faith, his motivation, interfere with the dynamics of the terror itself. When the Joker is incarcerated, they have nothing on him: "no matches on fingerprints, DNA, dental; clothing is custom, no labels, nothing in his pockets but knives and lints. No name, no other alias" (DK: 1:23:55). The Joker is all about the deeds, meaning those deeds – and what they set in motion – can be seen clear and unobstructed. In response, the question the film does address and the only question it answers is where to start stopping the terror i.e. where some sort of security might come from. "Security might well not be the absence of fear or of threat. There may be no such security [...] Perhaps security against terror hovers in [...] the alternative sense of security [...] the fulfillment of an obligation" (Layoun 2006: 62). According to the film the obligation lies with the people, with what they are not willing to do. We must not "drop our morals at the first sign of trouble" (DK: 1:27:55). We have to not push the button, we have to not kill the adversary, we have to not stoop down to the Joker‘s level. We have to be better than the world allows us to be. Otherwise, the Joker will not be a monster, he will just be "ahead of the curve" (DK: 1:28:57).

<22> We have seen how a movie – even a movie set in a unreal, comic-book world – can be a window to the real world, how issues of terrorism studies can be discussed with the help of The Dark Knight. In its treatment of terrorism we have already seen something more the film can do: it does not only show us terrorist acts and the reactions they cause, it also shows us the construction of the evolving dynamism of terror itself. Film accordingly – if we read it as a construction of certain realities or merely of certain stories – can open up the inner workings of our reality in a way the mere viewing of depicted reality could not do. By constructing different acts of terrorism, we get to the very core of its workings: not the one absolute truth about the phenomenon we call terrorism, but the rules inherent and at work in all different truths about it. Above all we see the fact that us and our reactions define a major part of terrorism’s truth.

<23> In a similar yet different fashion, by constructing the figure of the Joker in a thousand different ways he practically disappears, taking with him any notion of the typical terrorist that audiences might have brought to the movie. The film starts off with a quite simple characterization of the Joker: for at least the first 30 minutes all we see the Joker as is a criminal. Ruthless, brutal, and more than just a little crazy, but still a criminal with the well-known incentive of financial gain justifying his actions. Even the Batman falls prey to this fatal assumption: "Criminals aren‘t complicated, Alfred, we just have to figure out what he is after" (DK: 0:54:11, emphasis added). As the film continues, Batman (like his audience) gets to find out how true Alfred was, when he answered: "With all due respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don‘t fully understand." But even as it becomes clear that the Joker is not a normal criminal, that he does not care about money and that he has no rules, we still don‘t get one clear cut version of him or his intentions. We can, however, witness the construction of the Joker in all the terrorist roles politicians and the media are so keen to define. President Bush after the 9/11 attacks has been one of the most vigorous advocates of several of the usual stereotypes:

"One finds embedded in the rhetoric of President George [W.] Bush [...] a number of the theories about terrorism frequently cited but often rejected by criminologists. These theories include the perspective that terrorists can be explained either as nihilists out to destroy all of humanity, criminal social deviants motivated by base instincts, or uncivilized barbarians out to destroy civilized society for the sake of destroying it" (Kegley, 2003, 179); (Picart and Greek, 2007: 266).

The Joker is depicted as fitting each of these categories, only to demonstrate subsequently that he really fits into none of them. In several instances he is referred to as a social deviant, a "freak" (DK: 1:43:43), a "murdering psychopath" (DK: 1:38:42). In other contexts yet again he is more of the barbarian, the "mad dog" (DK: 1:58:29), "chasing cars" (DK: 1:48:12), acting on base instincts. As for the nihilist notion, that is probably the most insisted upon: the Joker even refers to himself as "an agent of chaos" (DK: 1:50:03), on a mission to upset the world. Alfred recalls his experience of tropical counter-insurgency, citing a Joker-like bandit he once hunted, claiming that "some men just wanna watch the world burn" (DK: 0:55:10). Each different version of "terrorism" is prompted by the actions of the Joker and codified in the explanations sought by the public, the police and by Batman. All of them are as misleading as they are mutually contradictory. We feel safe in seeing the Joker as the irrational, bloodthirsty, crazy terrorist that he is – only to learn that he isn‘t: To see him as a social deviant turns out to be the most fatal misperception possible. By convincing Harvey "Two-Face" Dent that he is just a mad dog acting on instincts, unable to forge a plan, the Joker signals to the viewer that he is conducting the most capable, meticulous and masterful planning even while confronting Dent. [5] The Joker reinvents his image, his intentions, even his background story: the source of his facial scarring is ever-changing, depending upon the person he is telling it to. When he tries sharing the story with his archenemy, the Batman finally takes the remaining, logical line of resistance: he does not care to hear it. Resisting the Joker means recognizing one is unable to neatly label him: standing up to the Joker most effectively requires sticking with your own beliefs and obligations, no matter what he does.

<24> The notion of the Joker as a nihilist is the most persistent one, because he does bring chaos, he does seem to enjoy it and he more often than not talks about destroying the people of Gotham. Yet when he explains himself to the Batman whilst incarcerated (DK: 1:27:49) – and also when he talks to Dent in the hospital – (DK: 1:49:57) some sort of moral belief system is introduced that does not square well with the completely nihilist identifications of the Joker taking place off screen. He is not out to just bring chaos for the hell of it. He does it, he claims, because of his fury at society’s hypocrisy; he is trying to show this to the world. Wishing to prove that people are only "as good as the world allows them to be" (DK: 1:28:32), he aims to show that they don’t panic "if things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying" (DK: 1:49:40). If we want to read these statements as comment on world politics, in these scenes even the villainous Joker is allowed his share of honest and disturbing critique of world affairs. He seeks to prove that everyone is essentially bad, or at least egotistic, while the Batman believes the opposite and tries to prove that.

<25> Coming back to the question of the social construction of reality, we find some sort of message too: the world is constructed through biased, individual stories. Some things are defined as acceptable, while others are called a problem. We can see the same effect at work when the naming of the Joker slowly changes from criminal (or murdering psychopath) to terrorist. It happens the first time when the word is ascribed to him in a public speech, to drive home a certain point: "Should we give in to this terrorist‘s demands?" (DK: 1:11:04). The way the Joker is referred to could also change the public perception of him; there is no way to know how much more – or less – panic his actions might have induced had he been named differently. Right at the beginning of the movie when the Joker was introduced, the film already made this whole point clear. The mafia man in the bank has only one question to ask the Joker as he lies on the floor, dying. 'What do you believe in?' (DK: 0:05:18), he calls out, urgently, because he needs to be able to place the Joker and wants a clear cut picture of this person. In response, the Joker laughs in his face – and in the faces who share his urge for a clear explanation, for the truth – by taking a cliché sentence, and turns it around:

'I believe, that what doesn‘t kill you, simply makes you - stranger.' (DK: 0:05:28)

There the film foreshadows in one sequence what it is going to do for the next 150 minutes: it takes all our preconceived versions of reality, truth and knowledge and deconstructs them into uncertainty, leaving us a lot less sure, but a little more enlightened.

<26> In the entertainment world slogans prevail, messages tend to be in-your-face; stories that sell best are plain and simple. So it doesn‘t come as much of a surprise, that (at least some) critics –– having watched The Dark Knight – drew upon the nearest comparisons, thereby simplifying the film’s political message and diminishing its discursive value. This essay has shown that when attempting a political, cultural and theoretical analysis of Dark Knight we can arrive at much more complex conclusions than if we just equate certain characters with global actors. There are of course ways to read the film as an affirmative statement on the war on terror, but that is just one of many ways to read the film. Above all the merit of The Dark Knight lies in its timelessness: because the film does not deal with short-lived political or religious beliefs but with general moral questions and inherently human fears, it can be a statement on our political time, but it can also be more than that. Furthermore, in comparison to other blockbuster films released between 2001 and 2008, there is a detectable turn away from content which pushes the war effort to content questioning it. This film has us rethinking "notions of global security that posit a single response to danger and terrorist threat: permanent war" (Martin and Patrice, 2006: 9). It is important not to cede morality to the destructive power of terror and there are manifold ways to achieve this. In the Batman‘s case it means lying about the death of Harvey Dent (and his becoming an avenging murderer), because that would have the Joker win after all. Why? In the words of Martin and Patrice "because terrorism is a tactic and not an enemy or adversary; it can never be completely eliminated, only managed and controlled" (2006: 5).


[1] For an example for this interpretation, see Rodek (2008).

[2] There is another scene in which the Batman threatens the Mafia boss, but as this does take place completely outside of the police‘s jurisdiction it is not really addressing the question of sanctioned torture, rather of the (self-)righteousness of vigilantism (DK: 1:06:00).

[3] When law enforcement officials use violence it is even more clearly condemned. Thus Harvey Dent threatens one of the Joker’s gunmen prompting the Batman to swoop in and remind him that he must not step out of the law because Gotham needs an official, law-abiding hero to clean the streets up in a proper way (DK: 1:07:47). As for the policeman who allows himself to be provoked by the Joker into aggression, he gets the immediate "reward" of the Joker forcing his way out of his cell after threatening him with a knife (DK: 1:20.42).

[4] E.g. for academic discussion on this subject see Boaz Ganor (2002), Austin T. Turk (2004), Bruce Hoffman (2006), Thomas J. Badey (1998), Alex P. Schmid (2004).

[5] Not only did he plan the timing of his own arrest, the Joker even planned for Batman to try and rescue Rachel, hence giving him the wrong address. The Joker is, more than anything else, a schemer and yet he presents himself as essentially disorganized: "Do I look like a man with a plan?" (DK: 1:48:10).

Works Cited

Dixon, Wheeler Winston, Film and Television after 9/11 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004).

Ezra, Elizabeth and Terry Rowden, Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Ganor, Boaz (2002) "Defining Terrorism: Is one Man’s Terrorist another Man’s Freedom Fighter", Police Practice and Research, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 287-304.

Hoffman, Bruce and Jenifer Morrison-Taw "A Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism", in Fernando Reinares (ed.) European Democracies Against Terrorism. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), pp.3-29.

Hoffman, Bruce, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) pp.1-41.

Layoun, Mary N. "Visions of Security" in Martin, Andrew and Petro Patrice (eds.), Rethinking Global Security: Media, Popular Culture and the "War on Terror", New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006), pp.45-66.

Lindley, Dan (2001), "What I learned since I stopped worrying and started movies: a teaching guide to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove", PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 34, No. 3; p.663.

Markowitz, Jonathan (2004), "Reel Terror Post 9/11" in Dixon, Film and Television after 9/11, op. cit., pp.201-225.

Martin, Andrew and Patrice, Petro Rethinking Global Security: Media, Popular Culture and the "War on Terror" (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006).

Picart, Caroline Joan (Kay) and Cicile Greek, Monsters In and Among Us: Toward a Gothic Criminology (Cranbury: Associated University Press, 2007).

Rodek, Hanns-Georg (2008) "The Dark Knight - Batman – der Blockbuster zum Krieg gegen Terror", Welt Online,, accessed 11 October 2008.

Sanchez, Jose. M. (1976), "Hollywood comes to class", Teaching Political Science, Vol. 4, No. 1, p.94.

Spencer, Alexander (2008), "Teaching Terrorism at the Theater", Conference Paper at WISC Second Global International Studies Conference, Ljublijana.

Wolfowitz, Alan M. "Should a Ticking Bomb Terrorist be Tortured? A Case Study in How a Democracy Should Make Tragic Choices", Why Terrorism Works (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pp.131-163.

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