Judgment and the Crisis of Legitimacy (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 3)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as mention of plot elements from The Dark Knight Rises, though not major spoilers.

I ended the last segment by remarking on the fundamental ambiguity about Batman’s vocation in relation to Gotham—is he still a vigilante, a private avenger, or has he really become somehow a public agent of justice?  As we shall see, this reflects a deeper ambiguity about Gotham itself—is Gotham a community capable of enacting justice, a community which Batman may represent in some way?

It seems like Batman wants to have it both ways.  He desires to work with Gotham’s formal structures of justice, yet outside them; he wants to have a free hand to beat up criminals who need it, but he draws the line there—he will not, like Ducard, take it upon himself to kill them.  He remains masked and hidden, waging his fight against justice in the darkness, rather than in the light of public knowledge, where true judgment must be enacted.  He wants to hang up the mask and cape,* but is repeatedly forced to take them up again.  He throws his support behind Harvey Dent because he is convinced that he is the hero that Gotham needs: “He locked up half the city’s criminals, and he did it without wearing a mask.  Gotham needs a hero with a face.”  Of course, this is somewhat disingenuous, as we know, because Harvey needed Batman’s help to do this.  Can the public order of justice then be sustained without resorting to the tools of the vigilante?  Can the private agent of justice genuinely serve the task of public judgment, or is he intrinsically in conflict with it?  It is this tension which the Joker takes advantage of, seeking to turn Gotham against the Batman, to force the agents of public justice to resort to private means, and to force Batman to break his self-imposed rules and embrace his vigilante role.  “Don’t talk like one of them—you’re not, even if you’d like to be,” the Joker tells Batman.  “To them you’re a freak like me.  They just need you right now.  But as soon as they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.”    Batman needs to drop the pretense—”You have these rules.  And you think they’ll save you.” “I have one rule,” Batman responds (which is not to kill).  The Joker answers. “Then that’s the one you’ll have to break.  To know the truth. The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.  Tonight you’re going to break your one rule.”

As it turns out, this prediction of the Joker does not quite come true (although Batman is forced to bend his rules almost to the breaking point in his fight against the Joker, resorting to a city-wide surveillance system that disgusts his associate Lucius Fox), unlike his predictions that Gotham will turn on Batman, and that Harvey, its White Knight, will break and abandon his rules.  But it doesn’t really matter in the end, for Gotham thinks that Batman has broken this one last sacred rule, and the people accordingly turn on him—the ambiguity between vigilante and deliverer is gone now, and he is nothing but a vigilante.  With this decision, as we have seen, Gotham loses the possibility of true justice—judgment according to truth.  But, really, how could Batman have been anything other than a vigilante?  How could he have ever been a genuine agent of public justice?

O’Donovan again provides us with helpful categories:

“Official judgment serves the public order in this much stronger sense of acting on behalf of the public. . . . To put our finger on this narrowly political role, we must single out its representative function: a political act with political authority occurs where not only the interests of the of the community are in play, but the agency of the community as well” (11). 

Could Batman be understood as a representative of the people of Gotham, enacting justice on their behalf as their agent?  The possibility is explored in a fascinating conversation early on in The Dark Knight.  Wayne’s date, Natascha, complains about that “the kind of city that idolizes a masked vigilante.”  Dent replies, “Gotham’s proud of an ordinary man standing up for what’s right,” to which Natascha answers, “Gotham needs heroes like you—elected officials, not a man who thinks he’s above the law.”  Wayne interjects, agreeing, “Exactly.  Who appointed the Batman.”  Harvey’s answer is intriguing: “We did.  All of us who stood by and let scum take control of our city.”  In other words, the abdication of the duly appointed authorities from executing the justice with which they have been tasked has left a void, in which the community’s agency devolves upon a private citizen of their own recognition.  To Natascha’s complaint that such an appointment is an abandonment of the procedures of democracy, Harvey answers, “When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city.  It wasn’t considered an honor.  It was considered public service.”  Rachel objects, “And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar.  He never gave up that power.”  Harvey concedes, “Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.  Look, whoever the Batman is, he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing this.  How could he?  Batman’s looking for someone to take up his mantle.”  

This conversation is enormously important for the film on a number of levels.  We have a dark hint of Harvey’s willingness to resort to suspend the ordinary rule of law in pursuit of justice, by which he ceases to be the hero and becomes the villain—though at the end, Batman quotes this line about himself, having taken Harvey’s villainy upon himself.  But although this prospect of an extraordinarily appointed public representative has a dark side, it is not rejected entirely; Nolan dangles the possibility before us throughout the trilogy.  If the role is to be legitimate, however, he must be a genuine agent of the city, filling a genuine void in which representative government has failed and the city is in dire need, and he must be ready to resign the role once the need is met.  

This, in short, leads us right to the narrative of The Dark Knight Rises.  


However, we must pause before examining this film, for the first two films suggest an additional reason why Batman cannot be a genuine political agent.  And that is because Gotham must first be a genuine polis.  If he is to act as the representative of “the people,” they must first be a people, and not merely a mass of individuals.  This is yet another theme with which Nolan appears to be absorbed throughout the trilogy.  Although Gotham City is ostensibly a city within the United States (a fictional New York City), it functions symbolically as its own political unit; the outside world plays almost no part until The Dark Knight Rises, and then it is only introduced in order to display its irrelevance and impotence, and refocus attention more sharply on the political identity of Gotham itself.  Throughout, however, this focus serves to draw attention to the fact that Gotham fails miserably to be a political unit.  A contrast with the film Spider-Man is instructive here.  When the Green Goblin attacks Spider-Man, an ordinary citizen yells, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” and the crowd around him cheers.  This is clearly the opposite of Gotham.  Not only do they turn on Batman rather than rallying behind him when threatened, but more fundamentally, they do not constitute a community in the first place that could meaningfully adopt Batman as one of them.  

The villains in each film recognize this political dysfunctionality and seek to exploit it, turning the already-divided city against itself.  In Batman Begins, the strategy is to capitalize on the fear and suspicion the citizens already have of one another, and turn it into panic so that they have to do nothing but “stand back and watch Gotham tear itself apart”—and they succeed with one part of the city.  In the Dark Knight, the Joker voices the same conviction: “They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.  You’ll see—I’ll show you . . . when the chips are down, these civilized people . . . they’ll eat each other.”  He proceeds to try to make them do just that, first by threatening to blow up a hospital if they don’t kill Mr. Reese, and then by threatening to blow up two ferries—one full of ordinary citizens, the other of criminals under guard—if one doesn’t detonate the other first.  In the first case, the people do go after Reese; in the second case, the Joker’s plan fails, but only because no one has the guts to do the dirty deed—the ordinary citizens vote overwhelmingly to blow up the ferry with the criminals, but ultimately do not.  (There is a triple irony here, as the people, contrary to the Joker’s predictions, establish a sufficient political identity to vote on the decision, but, in line with the Joker’s predictions, choose to turn on their fellow Gothamites—the criminals—but, in the end, are too politically impotent to carry through on the decision they have made.)  In The Dark Knight Rises, these predictions finally come true, as Bane bursts into the city and proclaims a revolution in which the masses turn on the wealthy and powerful, and tear Gotham apart.  

A passage from O’Donovan captures for us Gotham’s failure to become a people. 

“To see ourselves as a people is to grasp imaginatively a common good that unifies our overlapping and interlocking practical communications, and so to see ourselves as a single agency, the largest collective agency that we can practically conceive.  A people is a complex of social constituents. . . To have identity as a people is to be able to conceive the whole that embraces these various constituents practically, as a coordinated agency.  When it is no longer possible to discern the constituent elements within the whole, each with its stock of tradition, its reserve of memory, and its communal habits of practice, then the whole dissolves before our eyes.  It also dissolves when it is no longer possible to think of these elements as acting, in some sense, together and for one another.” (150)


At least three sources of Gotham’s disunity, its inability to operate as a polis, appear to be given in the films.  The first is the divide between the rich and the poor, which haunts all three films.  In each, we see glaring evidence that there are in fact two Gothams, a gilded upper layer, which insulates itself and seeks to remain completely out of touch, and a dark and dirty underworld, in which most citizens find themselves hopelessly stuck.  Bruce Wayne’s parents, we are told, tried to take a lead in using their wealth to overcome the division, but could make little progress, and their own murder by a desperately hungry man on the streets appears to confirm their failure. We are told later that their murder finally galvanized the other wealthy Gothamites to take some action to improve conditions in the city, but it appears to have been a temporary reaction, stimulated by fear rather than genuine conviction.  By the time of The Dark Knight Rises, the gap has become wider than ever, and most of the wealthy are completely apathetic about the plight of the underclass.  Bane exploits this fact, attacking the Stock Exchange and declaring open class warfare.  Selina Kyle speaks for the brewing revolution when she whispers in Wayne’s ear: “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.  You and your friends better batten down the hatches.  Pretty soon you’re going to wonder how you could ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”  Of course, the irony is that Wayne has all along been seeking to use his immense resources for the rest of Gotham; in this he is continuing the legacy of his parents.  Indeed, it is at this point that the otherwise clashing vocations of Bruce Wayne and the Batman come together in their combined effort to make Gotham into a city that can stand on its own two feet: in The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne’s philanthropic efforts especially on behalf of an orphanage for boys are shown to play a decisive role in Gotham’s resurrection.**

The second is the divide between the citizenry and the criminals, so sharply pictured in the ferry dilemma that the Joker creates.  On the one hand, you have “innocent” ordinary citizens, on the other, people who “made their choices.  They chose to murder and steal”—criminals who are now serving their time in crowded and frightening prisons.  The citizens have little sympathy for these men; they certainly feel no sense of camaraderie with them as fellow Gothamites, as they vote by a nearly two-to-one margin to detonate them.  In the other boat, however, one of the criminals persuades his guard to hand him the detonator, implying that he will use it, as the guard wants to but dares not, to blow up the other boat, but then throws it out the window.  Clearly not all of these criminals, at any rate, have lost their humanity.  However, Gotham does not learn the lesson.  At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, we learn that their response to Dent’s “murder” was simply to lock away more Gothamites in prison, and for longer.  The “Dent Act” has shut away hundreds and taken away any opportunity for parole.  The city is not interested in reconciliation or restoration, but instead perpetuates an “us versus them” mentality.  The result, we learn, is that crime has not been abolished, but merely driven out of sight, underground.  Gotham is soon brought to regret its unwillingness to try to reintegrate criminals into society.  When Bane declares his revolution, he begins it by breaking open the main prison, which he identifies as a symbol of oppression.  The freed prisoners stream out and lead other violent-minded Gothamites in a murderous rampage, and even set up a “court,” a mockery of justice that sentences without trial anyone who is wealthy or an agent of the law to death.

This last point leads us to the third great rift in Gotham’s society, which prevents it from being a genuine political community: the rift between the governors and the governed.  This is the most decisive of all, for if the people see their authorities not as representatives but as oppressors, then the political unit has broken down.  Throughout the first two films, the governing structures of Gotham suffer from a crisis of legitimacy (hence Dent’s recognition that Batman has been “appointed” by the people to fill the void of leadership).  The ranks of law enforcement are rife with corruption from top to bottom, and its leadership seems to suffer from warped priorities—more eager to protect their own image and jurisdiction than to fight crime.  Thus their first instinct in Batman Begins, when Batman catches Falcone for them and gets them the evidence they need to prosecute, is to go after Batman, not Falcone—”No one takes the law into their own hands in my city,” the police commissioner growls.  In The Dark Knight, there is a temporary truce, it seems, but the police force quickly shows itself more eager than anyone to get rid of Batman when he becomes a liability—”No more dead cops!”  This obsession is taken to the point of absurdity in The Dark Knight Rises when Gordon’s lieutenant, temporarily in charge while Gordon recuperates in the hospital, calls off the police from chasing Bane and his thugs, right after they have raided the Stock Exchange, and tasks them all to capture Batman instead, because of the personal glory such a capture would bring him.  Moreover, there is a mutual suspicion between police and populace, which the Scarecrow’s hallucinogens succeed in escalating to the point of open conflict in Batman Begins, and which results, in The Dark Knight Rises, in law enforcement personnel being considered public enemies in Gotham after Bane’s revolution.

(It is perhaps hardly needful to draw attention to the pointed lessons that each of these three divides holds for America today, a country with the world’s highest incarceration rate, extremely high economic inequality, and a complete breakdown of trust between citizens and government.)


So it is that at the end of The Dark Knight, and the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, the most fundamental untruth that Gotham has told is not about Batman, but about itself.  O’Donovan tells us, “As well as appropriate predication, however, true description implies a reflexive contextualization.  A further truth comes into the picture, which is the truth about the community that judges; and only by taking that truth into account can we attain a satisfactory discrimination of innocence and guilt” (19).  The ugly truth about Gotham, which the Joker unmasks, is the same as the ugly truth about Rome that Augustine unmasks in his famous City of God Bk. 19: It cannot be a commonwealth, a people, for a people is defined as “a gathered multitude united by consent to ius [right, or justice] and common interest” or as “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.”  There is no commitment to justice in Gotham, nor any unity around a sense of common interest, nor a common object of love that serves to orient them.  It is merely a collection of individuals, ready to “eat each other” when the chips are down.

How then can Gotham become a true polis, in which the public exercise of judgment according to truth is a real possibility?  It is this question to which The Dark Knight Rises dedicates itself, and it is to a systematic consideration of the lessons of that film that I will turn in my final installment.

* Or does he?  Another recurrent tension is that, in embracing the role of the Batman, he has sublimated, but not renounced, the anger that first set him on the path of vengeance.  The question is repeatedly asked, and not resolved until the end of The Dark Knight Rises, whether he can truly move on and let go of this alter-ego, or whether he needs it forever as an outlet for his childhood rage.

**Needless to say, the facile assertions by commentators on both left and right that The Dark Knight Rises represents a right-wing apologia for power and wealth, and an attack on the Occupy Wall Street Movement (which Bane is taken to represent, although the script of the film was written well before the OWS movement) is extraordinarily oversimplistic, ignoring just how dysfunctional Nolan shows this economically-stratified Gotham to be.  Ross Douthat’s balanced assessment of this issue comes quite close to my own.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s