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The Dark Knight and the Possibility of Political Judgment


“It is, perhaps, the most fundamental of all political questions whether and to what extent judgment is possible.  How are we so to pronounce as to establish?  How are we to make the truth appear effectively?  Of God it is said that “He spoke and it was done.”  ‘God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’  The word of God carries the power of God within itself; to echo the old phrase from sacramental theology, it effects what it signifies.  But can the human word effect what it signifies?  Are we given to renew the life of human communities by a word of truth, or is this an unattainable ideal, from which we have to fall back upon the ‘messiness’ and ‘compromise’ of politics?” —Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, p. 13.

The third installment of Christopher Nolan’s magnificent Batman trilogy has lost no time in becoming part of the raging circus of American political debate.  Commentators from both left and right have been quick to read a partisan agenda into the film, vying with one another in the absurdity of their claims.  While liberal commentators vented their indignation at the anti-Occupy Wall Street message of the film (which was written well before the Occupy protests began), Rush Limbaugh went so far as to assert that the villain Bane (created in 1993) was an allusion to Mitt Romney’s Bain, suggesting a sinister connection between Obama’s campaign managers and the filmmakers.  Ross Douthat, however, suggests a more sensible interpretation of the film as articulating something like an old-fashioned Burkean conservatism that has little in common with today’s American Right, “a belief that a compromised order can still be worth defending.”

Douthat’s reading, although superficial, is largely confirmed by a careful consideration of the profound reflections on justice and truth that Nolan has woven throughout the trilogy (and indeed, throughout several of his other films, especially Memento and The Prestige).  Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, I would suggest, is obsessed with the question: what are the conditions of possibility for political judgment?  Judgment, as Oliver O’Donovan has written in The Ways of Judgment, “both pronounces retrospectively on, and clears space prospectively for, actions that are performed within a community” and is therefore “subject to criteria of truth, on the one hand, and to criteria of effectiveness on the other” (9).  Although judgment must meet both criteria, very often in the world of politics, they appear to be in rivalry.  Truth-telling, in a world of fickle voters and predatory media, in a world of terrorists and hidden threats, can seem like a very unwise proposition, a luxury that must be dispensed with if order and justice are to be preserved.  This tension haunts Nolan’s trilogy, from the hidden identity of Batman himself, who must pursue justice in darkness, behind a mask, to the ethical and political dilemmas explored by The Dark Knight, as transparent public structures of justice appear impotent against the Joker, the “agent of chaos,” to the extraordinary twist at the end of that film in which Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders, becoming an outcast so that Dent can remain a hero, “the hero Gotham needs.”  With Dent as its symbol, its fallen hero, Gotham is to regain the faith and courage it needs to establish justice and fight crime and corruption, for “the Joker cannot win,” says Batman.  And indeed, so noble is Batman’s sacrifice here that we are tempted to think of it as a victory.

Yet paradoxically, the Joker has won, for he has demonstrated that effectiveness can only be attained at the cost of truth; as Batman says to Gordon “It’s what needs to happen.  Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough.”  “Justice” is secured in Gotham at the cost of truth, and this ugly compromise casts a long shadow over the opening of The Dark Knight Rises.  The film opens with our heroes, Gordon and Wayne, deeply conflicted about the lie they have told, alienated from the city they sought to save, and alienated from themselves.  Worse, the rotting canker of evil at the heart of Gotham that the Joker had sought to reveal has not been fundamentally addressed; it has merely been papered over by a stifling layer of law and order.  Rather than inspiring a real urban renewal, Dent’s so-called “murder” has convinced the public to consent to a draconian “Dent Act” that has locked up hundreds of criminals without parole, but has really only succeeded in driving evil underground—quite literally, as we soon see as the film unfolds.

Not only has Gotham not learned the real truth about their hero, but they have not accepted the truth about themselves which the Joker has exposed—that “When the chips are down, these people will eat each other.”  Throughout the earlier two films, Nolan explores the social atomism and the sharp divisions within Gotham’s society that prevent her from being a true polis capable of exercising true judgment.  At least three sources of tension are revealed, each deeply relevant for modern American society—(1) a rift between the desperate, helpless, and occasionally  resentful poor and the self-satisfied and out-of-touch rich; (2) a rift between ordinary citizens and criminals, who are viewed by their fellow Gothamites as undesirables “who had their chance” and now deserve to be locked away in squalid prisons; and (3) a deep distrust between the governing and the governed, with just cause on both sides—the citizens have little faith in corrupt and self-serving law enforcement authorities, and the authorities have little faith in a fickle and cowardly citizenry.  Each of these tensions remains unresolved at the outset of The Dark Knight Rises, and justice remains elusive, for justice requires reconciliation and truth-telling, and that is just what has been denied to Gotham.

Within the dark and sometimes nihilistic context of Nolan’s films, we might wonder if the point of all this is to prove that the Joker is right, that claims to justice and truth are simply projections of our will to impose meaning an order on an absurd world, that the “the only morality in a cruel world is chance—unbiased, unprejudiced, fair.”  This line, after all, comes from the mouth of Harvey Dent, Gotham’s best hope for a transparent and effective justice system, after he has been converted to the Joker’s nihilistic creed and become a vigilante, pursuing justice now only as a means to bring order to his world turned upside down by grief.  We see in the corrupted Dent an echo of perhaps Nolan’s most memorable protagonist, Leonard Shelby of Memento, who lives within the prison of his own mind, afflicted by short-term memory loss, his life given meaning only by the blind quest to visit justice upon his wife’s killer.  In Memento, judgment is taken to its solipsistic extreme and loses all connection with truth, becoming a mere act of will.

Despite the darkness of Nolan’s Batman saga, however, Bruce Wayne’s story rejects the necessity of such a pessimistic conclusion.  Notably, Wayne begins (in Batman Begins) much like Leonard Shelby or Harvey Dent, committed to a “justice” that is more about filling the void within himself than renewing the community.  Rebuked by his friend Rachel Dawes, an idealist who throughout the films sustains her faith in the possibility of public justice, Wayne seeks to commit himself to a justice that is larger than himself, and finds himself seduced by a group called The League of Shadows.  The League, it turns out, is dedicated to a vigilantism writ large, a quest for an eschatological judgment upon evil according to “the natural order of things” that will take the place of the impotent pseudo-justice of “corrupt bureaucrats” such as those that rule Gotham.  In a decisive scene, however, Bruce rejects this too, committing himself to the finite, provisional, and imperfect justice that public structures can provide.

But this commitment is deeply ambiguous: as the Batman, 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 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.  Accordingly, while seeking to be a symbol to inspire the people of Gotham and thus in a real sense their representative, an agent of the public working on its behalf, he remains something of a vigilante, and is finally rejected as such at the end of The Dark Knight.

This tension between public and private, between representative and vigilante, is linked to the tension we noted above—Gotham’s inability to be a true community of justice.  Batman, it seems, cannot represent the people of Gotham and enact public judgment until they are truly a people, but they cannot be a people until they embrace him as a symbol, as their representative.  It is this symbiosis (which is the great paradox of political theory—does authority call a polis into being, or does the polis call its authority into being?) that The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly explores.  The villain Bane comes to enact the League of Shadows’s eschatological judgment upon Gotham, but first, in mockery of the sham commonwealth that Gotham had been, he forges the city into a parody of a polis, telling them the truth about Dent, setting the prisoners free and inviting them to band together to rectify injustices.  This new “justice,” however, is merely the inverse of what had preceded, and no true reconciliation has been achieved.  Only when Gotham awakens to the concept of a common good that needs to be protected can she transcend her division and impotence and this awakening coincides with her recognition of the Batman as her representative.  I will say no more, to avoid spoilers; I will close only by recommending that you watch the film, and you watch it with these lines from O’Donovan in mind:

“The people is imaginatively envisaged when and as its common good is in need of defense.  The idea of the people and the idea of the authority that summons it to defend its common good arise together. . . . In awakening our sense of ourselves as a people, political authority simultaneously awakens us to itself.  We become aware of an authority that commands us, not abstractly but in a concrete form, as ‘our’ government. . . . The representative bears the people’s image, makes the people visible and tangible, to itself and to others.  Yet the representative does not bring the people into existence, but simply makes it appear. . . . Representation . . . is founded in the imagination” (WoJ 154, 157, 161)


(This is an abridgment of a much longer essay, which you can find in four parts here, here, here, and here.)


Brad Littlejohn is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Edinburgh, where he is working under Oliver O’Donovan on the relationship between law, loyalty, and liberty in the thought of Richard Hooker.  He has written one monograph and edited another on the 19th-century movement known as the Mercersburg Theology, but his real passion is in the field of political theology, in which he has forthcoming book chapters on the role of Scripture in political discourse and on theological approaches to property rights. He blogs at www.swordandploughshare.com.

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