The Appearance of Evil in The Dark Knight

Todd McGowan’s The Fictional Christopher Nolan (University of Texas Press, 2012) makes the bold claim that Nolan is a “thoroughly Hegelian filmmaker”, implying the perhaps still bolder one that this is somehow significant. From this thesis, McGowan has produced a stimulating volume. It is perhaps a shame that McGowan was writing before the release of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the concluding film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy (and a film whose underlying ideology I analyzed in a previous post), as this would have spurred him to amend his argument regarding the previous film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight (2008).

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In certain respects, The Dark Knight Rises inverts its predecessor. At the very least, it renders what seems a reasonably coherent politico-philosophical stance in The Dark Knight rather ambiguous. So McGowan’s thesis is already critiqued by the film Nolan made after Dark Knight. So what is McGowan’s thesis re Dark Knight, the impatient readers asks. Well, McGowan sees the film as dramatizing the Hegelian contrast between  the Heroic Age and the Era of the Legal Order (124). The film posits the need for heroic exceptionalism to exist alongside the legal order. In this way, McGowan is able to draw parallels between the universe of Dark Knight and post-9/11 America. He  notes that some commentators saw the film as a straightforward paean to Bush-era foreign policy. For McGowan, of course, it’s not so simple:

The exception is a fiction or violation of the law that threatens to overrun the law altogether, and yet the law requires it. This is the dilemma that shapes The Dark Knight. (126)

In order for the legal order to contain this threat, then, the extralegal supplement of the hero must have the appearance of evil.

McGowan then goes on to make an interesting contrast between the western and the superhero film as exemplified by Dark Knight. In the classic western, such as Shane (1954), the protagonist commits a founding act of violence to inaugurate the law, but once the law comes into effect this same act compels the protagonist to disappear from the society to which he has belonged. In the superhero film, extralegal violence persists, and for this reason Batman can remain in Gotham, a liminal figure, outside the law but necessary to it.

If the reader has seen Rises, it will be clear that McGowan’s point has become extremely problematic. Rises does indeed follow the western scheme in which the hero performs a founding act of heroism and then leaves. So all McGowan’s theorizing about the nature of the superhero genre appears to collapse. But perhaps what the tension between Rises and (McGowan’s) Dark Knight demonstrates is that the latter is a more interesting film, and the former shows Nolan swapping innovative thought for outdated cliches borrowed from the western genre. One might regret that the interesting politico-philosophical consequences of Dark Knight were not followed up in the sequel. The law in Dark Knight is corrupt and compromised, a tool in the hands of self-interested capitalists and opportunist politicians. Rises allows the trilogy to finish on a note of europhic positivity when all is cleansed by Batman’s final acts of heroism. Nolan has already showed that such purity cannot last, and that corruption underlies the relations that humans build with each other. For a few moments in a movie theater, perhaps, Rises makes us forget that, but on reflection it is a less satisfying and thought-provoking piece than Dark Knight.

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