By Mark Hughes
As we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Batman film “The Dark Knight,” most talk centers on the film’s status in the superhero film genre and the iconic performance by Heath Ledger. But it’s worth remembering the film’s powerful reflection of our national debate about balancing social fears and security with our individual liberties and right to privacy, amid the so-called “war on terror.” It remains one of the most socially relevant and resonant action films of the modern cinematic age, and even more so specifically within the superhero genre.
“The Dark Knight” is among a group of high-profile films forcing us to consider the sacrifices and conflicting ideals civil society must confront in an age of anxiety about domestic terrorist threats and loss of individual autonomy. “Prisoners,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Rendition” are among those spiritual siblings to “The Dark Knight,” representing literal or analogous depictions of the rising national security state apparatus and how it has changed our culture forever. The best of such films also include themes about technology becoming both an existential threat to, and instrument of expression for, our security and our liberty.
I recommend watching a movie paring of “The Dark Knight,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Prisoners,” and “Rendition.” Specifically, I’d suggest watching them in that precise order, to achieve maximum impact. These films take different yet comparable paths to examine many of the same or conflicting ideas about terrorism, torture, privacy, abuse of power, and the painful choices we make or refuse to make, depending on if and when a given moment allows us to transcend ourselves and serve a greater good.
Does the greater good require us to violate our ideals, or does it demand we double down on living up to them? Do we take the easy path, or the hard path, and where does that path lead and any given moment? What are we willing to give up, and what is too precious to sacrifice in the name of either safety or liberty? When does our principled idealism have to give way to the truth about mandatory compromises to save civil society and our ideals from those who use them as weapons against society itself? Is it noble or foolishly selfish to keep our own hands clean and wave the flag of idealism, rather than get our hands dirty doing things to protect society even if society will damn us for it later?
These and many more questions are posited in each of the films I recommend you watch for this marathon on the anniversary of “The Dark Knight”’s release. And I hope everyone will participate in such a marathon viewing, to remind us all that these questions have not faded or lost relevance, even a decade later. Indeed, the relevance grows ever more obvious, and cinema has always been a great way for our society to confront our inner demons and major issues of the day together, in a church of pop culture where ugly truths and painful questions can be vocalized and portrayed in ways inviting us to let our guard down, internalize the themes and messages, and walk away willing to face the questions directly, with new insights and understanding of different perspectives.
Today, our nation faces a renewed crisis of conscience and existential threats to the very survival of civil society and democracy, if not eventually the survival of the world itself. The threat of terrorism was and remains very real, but larger threats have conspired and aligned against us both domestically and externally. So we cannot ignore the renewed importance of our debate about how we prevent and fight terrorism, without losing our fundamental liberties to authoritarians abusing those national security considerations as a means to grab power and undermine democracy.
It’s a testament to the power of cinema that it can play a significant role in how we visualize, consider, and ultimately address the most troubling questions about what sort of future we want for our country. “The Dark Knight” is one of several superhero movies proving comic book films are a valid part of artistic expression relevant to our national dialogue about who we are as a people, particularly with regard to waging war at home and abroad in the post-9/11 age.
The impotent cry of “keep politics out of superhero comics/movies” from certain corners of fandom is transparently absurd at face value, since of course comics have always been political and some of the greatest comic book stories are great precisely because of their social commentary and political relevance. Such is the case for superhero movies, and “The Dark Knight” proves it perhaps better than any other example from the genre. No reasonable viewer could watch “The Dark Knight” and fail to recognize its social and political relevance. How you interpret it is of course dependent on what you bring to the experience and how you perceive the world, but it’s also possible to interpret the film contrary to your own views, or to glimpse morally ambiguity within the story as well.
“The Dark Knight” might conform to your own views, or it might conflict with them, or it might conform to them in some ways while conflicting with them in others. Or it might all seem ambiguous and uncertain, the lessons hard to describe as either intentionally righteous or flawed and doomed to fail. What you get out of it can be radically different, even while certain aspects of the film have an element of objective truth to them, simply serving as mile-markers of sorts to keep our moral and intellectual journey honest.
It’s great when a superhero film entertains. It’s even better when a superhero film entertains and also informs. But it’s perhaps best when a superhero film entertains precisely because of how it informs. “The Dark Knight” is a terrific example of the latter, a film that is thrilling and transcendent because of how it informs us, how it challenges us, and how it makes us realize this caped crusader, this masked vigilante, this Batman, is a truer reflection of us and our world than we ever realized.
Happy anniversary, “The Dark Knight.” Of all the praise I could give you, I think the best is this: you mattered, and you matter even more today.