Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Dark Knight and the Politics of Admiration

At the end of the most recent (and I think the best) Batman film, The Dark Knight, the caped crusader says, "Sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

Friedrich Nietzsche says something similar in On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life. People abuse what he calls "critical history" when they use to debunk everything that is admirable and noble, everything that might inspire people to heroic lives of great accomplishment. In every exemplar of the human race--a Washington, a Jefferson, a Lincoln, to use only American examples--there are certainly blemishes to be found. Though the nobility of these great men is true greatness, their faults are also true faults. But for the sake of inspiring people to live life most fully, Nietzsche warns against the abuse of historical investigation that "asks a thousand impertinent questions." If you make a public display of what these great men were in every ugly detail, people will cease to believe in the possibility of goodness and nobility and will no longer rise to the challenge of embodying those virtuous qualities. The world will sink through and through into bland mediocrity. I would add that this is especially a danger in an age when people have largely ceased to believe in God or do not set their sights as squarely as they should on the God in whom they do believe.

A film like Flags of Our Fathers (2006; dir. Clint Eastwood) takes the opposite approach. That film burrows irreverently and wrecklessly into the historical details behind the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. It reduces that dramatic declaration of victory at the end of an heroic and decisive battle to a staged photo opportunity. It paraded the heroes as shams and drunks. The premise is that if you burrow into the facts behind every hero you will find a disappointment. Everything we have been taught to admire is a lie. There is no greatness. There is no virtue. There is "nothing to kill or die for."

If someone had torn Lincoln's clothes off him as he delivered the Gettysburg address, or old Churchill's clothes off him (try not to think about it) as he delivered his Iron Curtain speech, everyone would have seen these men's blemishes and how ridiculous and ordinary they are underneath the lies that are their clothes. But that exposé would also have distracted us in each case from something genuinely praiseworthy in these men and their deeds, something human beings need, in their life together, for their flourishing. In such cases, what is ordinary--character flaws and unflattering circumstances--masks the extraordinary. And what we would have to admit, if we were forced to confront it, is not actually what is most important from a political standpoint.

Advocates of this debunking approach to history of course have their own heroes. Whereas they are quick to debunk George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and so on, they jealously protect names of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack well they should. But they should note that he who lives by the debunking spirit will also die by it, and the civilization we share will die in turn, and is dying.

I draw your attention to Andrew Klavan's insightful reading of the film in his Wall Street Journal article, "What Bush and Batman Have in Common" (July 25, 2008).

There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past. And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society -- in which people sometimes make the wrong choices -- and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

"The Dark Knight," then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year's "300," "The Dark Knight" is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans. Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror -- films like "In The Valley of Elah," "Rendition" and "Redacted" -- which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.

I offer this as a third take on The Dark Knight. In the end, Batman becomes a Christ figure. He is despised and rejected, taking to his own name the evil deeds of another, in order to save the city. Though Batman is the Dark Knight, the Bible offers Jesus Christ as the Crimson Knight, "clothed in a robe dipped in blood," leading an army of White Knights, "arrayed in fine linen, white and pure" (Rev. 19:11-16). We just cannot escape the power of that gospel message.

1 comment:

"Jeremy" Roh said...

Dr. Innes,
This is a very insightful perspective. I never thought about these two movies in the light of Nietzsche before.

Thank you,