“The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, is back on Netflix. By now, the ‘superhero film as x’ (e.g., ‘superhero film as thriller,’ ‘superhero film as psychological drama,’ even ‘superhero film as rom-com’) adaptation method has become so ubiquitous as to be a cliche. Nevertheless, back in 2008, Nolan was attempting something new under the sun. The filmmaker understood what generations of comic book writers — like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxanne Gay, authors of the new Black Panther comics — knew and know: that pop culture is not just escapism, but a pedagogical instrument as well. Thus, growing more ambitious with each film, Nolan adapted his three Batman movies into political treatises. Be advised: There are some light spoilers ahead.
The first film, “Batman Begins,” is a meditation on power: The film’s three antagonists each have different conceptions of what power means, and a maturing Bruce Wayne, Batman, adopts and discards their positions throughout the bildungsroman. The mob boss Falcone has the most primitive understanding of power: In an early scene, he boasts that he could murder Wayne in the middle of a restaurant, in front of city councilors and judges, and no one would dare bat an eye. Slightly more nuanced than the brutish Falcone, Scarecrow adopts Machiavelli’s line, claiming fear makes him powerful. In contrast, Ra’s al-Ghul finds theatricality and deception more convenient agents than gunpowder and dynamite: He plays the power behind the throne, the kingmaker in the shadows. The political lessons are rather obvious. Who has power: the politician or the crime boss who has bought them? Then, the next rung up. Who has power: Falcone, who bought the politician illegally, or al-Ghul, who bought the politician legally?
“The Dark Knight” is Hobbes’ “Leviathan” in theatrical form. The Joker is the antithesis of Hobbes’s Sovereign: anarchy made manifest. In response, Harvey Dent, “a knight, shining” in the crusade against corruption, plays the role of Hobbes’ Sovereign: The people abrogate all their trust, their hope, their faith and their authority unto him, under the condition that he will finally end the anarchy on Gotham’s streets. In an early scene, Harvey even name-checks the Roman office of ‘dictator,’ a unitary executive appointed in times of emergency, as a model for his own career. His girlfriend darkly replies that the last dictator happened to be a man named Caesar, echoing Miltonian criticisms of Hobbes. The film makes a strong case for the necessity of law, order and rules — even wicked rules — in order for society to function. In the film’s opening scene, a mob hack complains to the Joker, “Criminals in this town used to believe in things: honor, respect. Look at you. What do you believe in, huh?” Without reliable systems, be they however so corrupt, the City of Man burns.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is Nolan’s most ambitious film: an adaptation of Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” into theatrical form. Nolan is quite explicit about his project — at one point, a character quotes Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Dickens was Burke in novel form. Nolan is Dickens and Burke on the big screen. Released just a year after Occupy Wall Street protested impotently against a decadent financial system, Nolan’s film plays out Robespierre’s revolution in New York, complete with Dickensian show trials.
However, while Nolan may have been attempting something new in Hollywood, the explicitly philosophical angle with which he approached his Batman trilogy was simply an adaptation of the intellectually rigorous moral and political frameworks present in many superhero graphic novels. Vox columnist Dylan Matthews, riffing on an interview by Michael Schur, creator of “The Good Place,” once remarked, “Some of the most bizarre and vibrant short fiction in our culture can be found in the back pages of ethics journals.” Well, some of the most approachable short philosophy in our culture can be found in the folds of superhero comics.
These graphic novels, whose subscription models rely on repeat readers, push their creators to continually invent new ethical quandaries in which to situate their protagonists. By trial and error, we learn about the character of our heroes. By trial and error, we also play out lots and lots of short philosophical experiments.
After Christopher Nolan broke ground with his Batman films, Zack Snyder began a career of adapting superhero films into short philosophy, to varying degrees of success. His original entry in the genre, “Watchmen,” succeeded for the same reason as the early seasons of “Game of Thrones”: He had excellent source material on which to build. Based on Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” comics, the film pits absolute representations of Kantian deontology, determinist nihilism and consequentialist utilitarianism against each other, and lets the viewer decide — or, if you like, “decide” — which system to adopt. Snyder’s “Man of Steel” was less ambitious: a gospel for Superman, the secular Messianic figure. He continued this theme in “Batman v Superman,” complete with the Messianic themes of the adoption of a child from another world, the late ‘father-who’s-not-my-father,’ a mother who outlives her son, a childhood spent in obscurity and hard labor — Jesus was a carpenter; Superman was a farmer — and the move to the big city where the great trial of the Messiah will occur (Christ’s persecution in Jerusalem and Superman’s final fight in Metropolis). In a number of scenes, the Christology is embarrassingly blunt. Near the end, Superman is even speared in the side while standing, arms outstretched, in a crucified position. And, of course, after the burial comes the resurrection.
Superman and Batman in particular make for productive comparisons. It is widely known that Metropolis, Superman’s hometown, is New York by day; Gotham City, Batman’s haunt, is New York by night. But because of the circumstances of their comics, Superman tends to present a more liberal worldview while Batman presents a more conservative worldview. By “liberal” and “conservative,” I mean the lowercase-letter, political dispositions, not Democratic and Republican. Given the superheroes’ comparative politics, it was quite fitting that Christopher Nolan, perhaps the best conservative artist of our time, would adapt the Batman comics for the big screen. Of course, the contrast is not perfect — Superman is very much the ‘good Midwestern boy’ wrapped in the flag in a way that does not map onto contemporary liberalism very well. Nevertheless, the comparative political orientations of the Superman and Batman comics still present meaningful lessons about lowercase liberalism and conservatism.
Clark Kent, Superman, is a farmer’s child from Kansas who makes a solidly middle-class income as a journalist. Meanwhile, the biggest villain in the Superman universe is billionaire Lex Luthor, a tech CEO who uses his endless wealth to aggrandize himself at the expense of the voiceless. But in addition to class consciousness, the Superman comics introduce intra-species consciousness. Superman is an alien with superhuman abilities: In order to maintain parity, his opponents also have to be superhuman beings from other worlds. Therefore, because of the circumstances of the comic, every human character in the Superman series is inherently heroic. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and the soldiers of the U.S. Army are all ordinary human beings fighting against gods from other worlds: The fact that they fight at all represents the best of which humanity is capable. Superman is the protector of the powerless, always punching up against the powerful. Moreover, because Superman is an alien, he is an immigrant not just to America, but to our world. And, because Superman is an alien, he can only operate within the bounds of human consent. This means that Superman has to work in cooperation with governmental bodies like Congress or the United Nations. Although there are conflicts, on the whole, in order for Superman to succeed, the government must succeed as well. Therefore, the Superman comics generally offer government and collective action favorable treatments. Finally, because Superman himself is one of many representatives of space-faring civilizations, we know that humanity will eventually progress to intergalactic capacity. The Superman comics thus adopt the view of Whig historians that the course of human history runs, generally speaking, along an upward trajectory. In American political discourse, this liberal position is most famously encapsulated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” More recently, Whig history has been championed by classical liberals like Steven Pinker in his hit “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”
Conversely, the fundamental premise of the Batman comics is blatant aristocratic apologia. As King Sarpedon explains to Glaucus in the “Iliad,” the powerful merit wealth and honor because they lead their people in moments of crisis. Bruce Wayne is a billionaire philanthropist who tries to save his city, the child of billionaire philanthropists who tried to save their city. Not only does Mr. Wayne generously share his wealth with society’s underprivileged, the Wayne Foundation’s wealth is a necessary instrument for Batman to fight crime. It is little surprise that in the animated film “The Dark Knight Returns: Part Two,” wherein Batman fights Superman, the former is presented as a Randian hero. The rivals’ first interaction even takes place at Batman’s pastoral cottage — Wayne’s attempt at an “Anthem”-esque escape from government control.
More importantly, Batman is a human being with no special abilities. This means that, in order to develop exciting plot arcs, Batman’s enemies must also be human beings of roughly equal ability. Because all the characters in the Batman story are human beings, the operating principle of his villains is to reveal the inner rot inside the human heart by either corrupting Batman or corrupting the citizens of the city he so loves. In fact, perhaps the single most important lesson of the Batman comics is the inherent fallibility of man and the wickedness of which we are all capable. Because corruption plays so prominent a role in the Batman stories, we often witness the ineffectuality to which centralized government is sometimes prone. To paraphrase “Federalist 51” — and invert the initial sentiment, were the government able to do its job, Gotham would have no need of Batman. In a world of such staggering corruption, only individuals acting in their private capacity can accomplish good. Finally, Gotham’s plot arc explicitly rebukes notions of ‘progress.’ Despite the heroic self-sacrifice of the Wayne family, Gotham falls into depression after depression — each moment of economic success only a temporary reprieve in cycles of stagflation. Our caped hero crusades through one dark night after another, but Gotham will always need a Batman. Even after 25 years of Bruce Wayne’s protection, the city never gets any better. In fact, it often seems to get worse.
From 2005 to 2012, Christopher Nolan presented political and moral philosophy to hundreds of millions of viewers in an extraordinarily accessible fashion. Much like George Lucas used the “Star Wars” prequels to write liberal political theory in a moment of conservative dominance, Christopher Nolan used “The Dark Knight” trilogy to write conservative political theory in a moment of liberal dominance — his most explicitly conservative films were released in 2008 and 2012. And after Nolan demonstrated what a superhero movie could be, the entire industry, not just Zack Snyder, built on his success. “Logan,” the 2017 conclusion to the Hugh Jackman Wolverine franchise, marketed itself as a Western. “Black Panther,” perhaps Marvel’s best film, was a Genesis-style, brotherhood tale in Hollywood form. Snyder’s “Batman v Superman” was a gods-and-men epic in the style of the “Iliad.” Netflix’s discontinued “Daredevil” series was as Boston Irish Catholic as the Dropkick Murphys. It was a show about piety and faith in the costume of a superhero show. (Disney, please give Liz Bruenig the rights to a new Daredevil/Punisher series! I would pay to watch that!) Likewise, “Jessica Jones” was really a psychological drama. These experiments were the products of artistic necessity, given the superhero film’s total financial dominance in our current cultural context, but they were only made possible by Christopher Nolan’s ambitious attempts to expand the boundaries of the genre.
In 2020, the Library of Congress voted to preserve “The Dark Knight” in the National Film Archive for its aesthetic, cultural and historical significance. But even without the Congressional stamp of approval, anyone who has ever watched the movie knows that it is a treasure for the ages. In “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan not only reinvented the superhero genre, but also produced what is still the best entry in that genre. As long as people watch movies, Nolan’s “Dark Knight” will endure.
Timothy Han | firstname.lastname@example.org