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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Justice In Gotham : The Dark Knight Allegory

Batman is all over the digital media as Christopher Nolan's third installment- The Dark Knight Rises is set to be released in a few days. I found it quite interesting that the viral campaign started in April 2012, included a warrant and a wanted poster of Batman. It was an interesting way of engaging the audience, since The Dark Knight ended in an anti-climax (debatable)- Batman running from law. These posters let the fan pick up the bread crumbs and be ready with refreshed memory when it is finally released. They also served another purpose- reminding us that  this series can also been seen as an allegory* of an egalitarian or liberal, democratic city-state in the process of defining the concept of justice and the role of ethics,morality and philosophy in it.

 The Gotham city can be identified with any liberal city-states in the world which on a casual glance appear peaceful and prosperous but a closer look reveals the unhindered criminal activities and rampant corruption threatening to overthrow order and plunge the city  into decadence and immorality. Nolan's brilliance lies in his ability to seam multiple layers into the plot. In these two movies he has been able to weave action, breath-taking visual effects,human emotion, politics and philosophy.

In the first part, Batman Begins, we see a timid Bruce Wayne scared of bats, filled with guilt and anger at his parent's murderer, fighting his inner demons and transforming himself as a vengeful rebellious youth. He plans to kill the murderer in the court but a mafia-sponsored assassin beats him to it,but it is not the same thing. He has been killed to prevent him from revealing information and testifying against Mafia boss, Falcone. Bruce feels his parent's death is still not avenged. Disillusioned with jurisprudence system, he calls it broken when talking with his childhood friend and the then Deputy District Attorney, Rachel Dawes.

BruceMy parents deserve justice.
RachelYou’re not talking about justice. You’re talking about revenge.
BruceSometimes they’re the same.
RachelNo, they’re never the same. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. It’s why we have an impartial system.
BruceYour system is broken.1

Your System Is Broken

This is one statement that we are quite accustomed with. From terrorist attacks claiming hundreds of lives to burglary in the neighborhood our spontaneous reaction is to blame the system which allows these incidents to take place. Often when demanding justice we are actually seeking revenge, which brings us down to the same level as the criminals, the difference being we seek gratification through the law and its agencies. Justice is not about revenge, at least not in modern liberal democratic society like that of Gotham. When we seek the system to punish someone to gratify our thirst for revenge,the system ceases to be impartial, we lose the moral high ground. This may sound  too idealistic but the fact is it these ideals on which most modern states are founded. Moral high ground, or rather lack of it, is what keeps some people behind the prison bars and rest on the other side of the bars.

Why is it that criminals operate with more freedom than the police ? A criminal can kill a cop at whim or in cold blood but the cops cannot even slap the same criminal except in self-defense and/or restrain from fleeing. Does it sound unfair ? 
What needs to be remembered is that it is assumed moral correctness that gives the cops the authority to use force when necessary. It is society which gives the police the power to coerce to enforce law for the general good. It is assumed that when a traffic cop signals us to stop it is to prevent us from meeting an accident. Similarly, it is assumed that when a person is arrested it is for the sake of justice.Criminals operate outside the law, their use of force, however minuscule is not only unauthorized but also punishable.  Law enforcement officers represent order and as such get paid not only with money but also with respect. In return they have the responsibility to use the authority vested in them strictly in accordance to law. When using force there is a very thin line between justice and injustice .
Coming back to the movie, while Gotham follows this egalitarian concept of justice, an ancient group of vigilantes, from whom Bruce learnt martial, the League of Shadows, led by its legendary leader, Ra`s  Al Ghul adhere to a rather extreme form of retributive justice. Al Ghul is determined to destroy Gotham because of the crimes and corruption rampant in the city. Batman still has faith in the existing law and goodness in the people in Gotham. The clash between Batman and Ra`s Al Ghul during the climax can also be seen as representation of clash between the concept of retributive justice and the concept of justice as harmony. Ra`s Al Ghul is killed by the very mechanism he had set up to destroy Gotham, Batman stays true to his value system,by not killing anyone, but he doesn't save Al Ghul either.  

The Joker

In the next installment, The Dark Knight, a new character, the Joker emerges as the  nemesis of Batman. What makes the Joker so powerful ? 
The Joker is unlike any adversary Batman has known before. 
  • He is a diabolic genius who can plan three steps ahead : In the opening scene, his goons kill each other exactly in the sequence until only he is left as planned. [no, I kill the bus driver]. 
  • Has nothing to lose : Walks in to mob meeting with grenades strapped to his vest, provokes Batman to kill him and burns money [ You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength]
  • Is manipulative : manipulates mob bosses to hire him, he eliminates them, convinces Harvey Dent he had nothing to do with Rachel's death and gives two  different accounts of how he got the scars which indicate that both the stories were incorrect.
  • Has no rules : In fact, he calls himself an agent of chaos, his sole agenda is to bring down the established order,starting with beating Batman on ideological ground. [The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.And tonight you're gonna break your one rule ]
 Alfred assessment of the bandit in Burma applies in case of the Joker too.

Alfred ....some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.2

For the sake of brevity I wouldn't go into a full character analysis or the unsurpassable performance by late Heath Ledger but it would be necessary to mention what the Joker stands for.   Joker's meticulous planning and flawless execution of devious plots frequently putting Batman and the people of Gotham in situations that tests their belief in their own value-systems. In a manner he provides a snapshot of how their world would be without law and order, without justice.

On the opposite end of the spectrum stands Harvey Dent, the District Attorney who fights crime strictly according to the rules. Despite the presence of corrupt officials within the police department spying for criminals, Harvey succeeds in nabbing a large number of criminals earning the title of Gotham's White Knight. Although,he is very much like the Dark Knight when it comes to fighting crime and putting justice before self  there are differences between the two on how they handle their split-personalities. Batman's tragedy lay in the past, it made a helpless Bruce Wayne become nightmare of criminals, Harvey Dent faces tragedy when he is in the best part of his life. Batman is definitely more equipped to handle mind games that the Joker throws, yet Harvey transforming into Two-Face is still a bigger defeat for Batman and Gotham. In his final scene, the Joker triumphantly reveals.    

Batman: This city just showed you that it's full of people ready to believe in good. 
The JokerUntil their spirit breaks completely. Until they get a good look at the real Harvey Dent, and all the heroic things he's done. You didn't think I'd risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fistfight with you? No. You need an ace in the hole. Mine's Harvey.
BatmanWhat did you do?
The JokerI took Gotham's white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!3

The Dark Knight

Harvey Dent's transformation threatens to undo everything he himself, Commissioner Gordon and Batman have done for the sake of justice. As the White Knight of Gotham, Harvey goes rather ruthlessly after Gotham's criminal, revealing an obsessive trait for fairness which turns him into a hero while working as the District Attorney but after his accident the same trait turns him into a psychopath whose every act,especially, murders, are dictated by chance (which he finds by tossing a coin ). Presuming him to be dead, Batman wants the public to remember Harvey as the hero they knew him as. With this, he also wants to keep the idea intact, that even a common person could become the hero and ensure justice if they were determined to. Batman is aware how wrong a message this would send to the people.
Batman: You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things. Because I'm not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people. That's what I can be. 
Lt. James Gordon: No, no, you can't! You're *not*!

Batman: I'm whatever Gotham needs me to be. 

Batman indicts himself to uphold justice

Batman You'll hunt me. You'll condemn me. Set the dogs on me.
                Because that's what needs to happen
                Because sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. 
                Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded

It is at this juncture Batman grows higher than any hero,both he and Commissioner Gordon realize that if the people get to know that it was Harvey Dent who killed those people they would lose faith on the system. Batman is no Godfather who runs a parallel system to provide justice, he dons cape to protect the existing system. However, what sets him apart is not just his willingness to sacrifice his life but also willingly bear the blame for misdeeds committed by others as long as it is in the interest of justice. Ironically, Harvey Dent's prophetic statement in partly in reference to the Batman, "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain", is fulfilled by Harvey himself when he transforms into Two-Face. Batman goes beyond heroism and villainy when he takes the blame for crimes committed by Harvey.
Lt. James Gordon: Because we have to chase him. 
James Gordon Jr.: He didn't do anything wrong.
Lt. James Gordon: Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight. 

* I have come across articles suggesting the movie may have been allegory of GWB's war of terror campaign.I find this view absolutely contradictory !. Liberal/humanist laws like that of Gotham is exploited by rogues, this is why Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman, so that stricter laws are not introduced and common citizens are not harassed because of a deranged psychopath's random acts. Seems they should make some room in Arakham ;)   


Subhorup Dasgupta said...

great work. loved the symbolism of the entire series. TDKR has disappointed many but it probably needs to be seen in the context of the saga and not as an independent work. your analysis is very thought provoking. thanks for sharing.

Danish said...

Thanks Subhorup, I haven't watched TDKR yet, but yes, its a trilogy and needs to be seen as one as was the case in The Matrix trilogy, LoTR etc..if you really like symbolism you should get your hands on the comic book Arkham Asylum

Danish said...

Thanks again and congratz to u as well...I have been completely out of grid last few days, so wouldn't have known if you hadn't mentioned it here :)

Danish said...

Thanks Sathyan, Vinita :)
Ironically, I had drafted this in April but never published until TDKR release came this close, so just gave finishing touch and published. You might notice patches ;)
And I would have loved to write a bit more on the Joker. Did you notice his opening dialogue "I believe, whatever doesn't kill you, simply makes you...stranger" is a distorted version of Nietzsche's quote...

Lazy Pineapple said...

BTW came here from Blogadda...your post has been selected for Tangy Tuesday pick...congrats..

Lazy Pineapple said...

wonderful wonderful analysis. You have gone in to the depths of the psyche's of all the characters and have given us the complete picture. There were a few points I had missed while watching the movies which I can now understand....brilliant...

Sathyan Reddy said...

Awesome Analysis and thoughts! Kudos!!