The Dark Knight

I saw the new Batman movie yesterday and, once again, I marvel at how Christopher Nolan and his writing partner brother have reinterpreted the superhero to comment on contemporary issues.

In Batman Begins they rewrote the cornerstone of the Batman story by having Bruce Wayne's father shot by a crim who was then assassinated outside court, like the way Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby after appearing in court for shooting US president John F Kennedy. At the time I couldn't understand why they'd want to make Batman a metaphor for the president but after the second film I got an idea.

Batman is the most flawed of the well-known superheroes, a vigilante prone to excessive violence in some of the more adult graphic novels like Frank Miller's Dark Knight. As Bruce Wayne he's a playboy with wealth and power who acts like he's living up the bachelor lifestyle. As Batman he thinks he's above the law, able to act where authorities are unable.

The presidential comparisons continue in The Dark Knight when Bruce Wayne arrives at a party triumphantly stepping out of a helicopter in a moment that reminded me of George W Bush's 'mission accomplished' press conference.

One of the best things Nolan added to the Batman story was in the first film when Bruce Wayne's father explained his charitable actions as noblesse oblige, the French term referring to the honorable and benevolent behavior required of persons of noble birth. It took the idea in Sam Raimi's Spiderman movie that "with great power comes great responsibility" and used it to give a little bit more credibility to the motivation for becoming a masked crime fighter. I also liked how he made Batman a ninja because they've also been whitewashed as freedom fighters.

In the new film The Joker makes terror videos where he humiliates hostages before killing them and gets the footage screened on the news to terrorise the citizens of Gotham City. Batman uses extensive wiretapping and undertakes an extreme rendition that would do the CIA proud. And there's a bit of the War on Terror in how passengers are held hostage.

I guess the idea of using a JFK reference points to this heavily idealised president as being the model by which all those since are judged.

Anyway, I'm going to rewatch the films and think about these comparisons further. They're good fun and the sounds are also fantastic.

PS - I just did a search and see Andrew Bolt has already viewed Batman in a similar light and, as much as I don't want Batman to be Bush, I think it's great to see moral ambiguity in an onscreen hero - especially in an American film.

PPS - I think Andrew Bolt makes a very convenient and self-serving argument. For a start, in rewriting The Joker's role in the Batman story, it's not so clear to say the two are representations of Osama Bin Laden and George W Bush. Where's the scene where it's revealed that Batman's father profited from supporting The Joker earlier in his criminal career?

If the two characters are different sides of the same coin, it's because the Harvey Dent character shows they are still the same coin. The film goes to great lengths to show that it's human nature to perceive this good/evil binary and clearly shows that Batman is losing his moral ground and becoming a criminal. This is why Batman must run at the end and Harvey Dent is made into the hero - it's the simple explanation that the people of Gotham need to get on with their lives and act like humans.

Humanity is a very thin veneer on an animal that still responds to base instincts that are now given the guise of modern trappings. (Adam Curtis' documentaries The Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self cover the two themes I've raised here brilliantly and are thought-provoking and highly recommended viewing.)

It seems to me that Andrew Bolt's criticism of Tony Coady exemplifies this need for complex actions to be shown in a good versus evil light. Yes, bombing Japan helped end the war but I'd guess that there would be many people who still view this action as "an act of terrorism far greater than any single act of terrorism since by non-state actors". History is written by the victor and personally I think the US, like Batman in The Dark Knight, is struggling to maintain the moral high ground in the War on Terror because it's obvious that they have had a role in creating their enemies. After all, the US provided Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons and funded Osama Bin Laden when it suited their national interests. It also suited their national interests to create the fiction that these two figures were working together as part of the so-called 'intelligence' used to justify invading Iraq.

If there's anything to be learned from Batman it's that people want simple narratives with a good guy and a bad guy when reality is much more complicated. I'd guess that Andrew Bolt knows this all too well.