2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
The Dark Knight of American empire
by Randolph Lewis
Hidden inside the childhood fable of The Dark Knight, the newest installment in the Batman franchise, is something very adult. Beneath its glistening surface of latex and metal, asphalt and blood, the film offers an unusually insightful and poetically phrased cultural critique. Along with the Iron Man, another blockbuster that subtly explores the price of empire, the new Batman is not simply "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," as The Wall Street Journal has suggested."[open endnotes in new window]
Some viewers might settle for the macho fantasy that warmed the heart of The Wall Street Journal, but I would argue that the new Batman film offers something more interesting: it critically explores the "end of empire," as The Wire creator David Simon described the recent U.S. conundrum in which our levees cannot hold, wars cannot be won, and children cannot be protected in an allegedly wealthy, advanced nation.
Buffeted by a weak economy, spiraling levels of national debt, interminable chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, and political scandals too numerous to mention, Americans are understandably yearning, perhaps unconsciously, for an assault on the status quo. "No one knows any longer how dark the night is," the German philosopher Ernst Bloch once wrote. The Dark Knight shows us this message with surprising insight. Since its release in the summer of 2008, the film has expressed a secret longing for radical change that goes beyond the normal boundaries of our political culture. Along with its teenage fantasy of bulging biceps and smoke-belching cars, the new Batman invites a second fantasy of rupture and revolution, mostly in the form of a leering sadist in faded clown make-up.
Much ink has been spilled on the splendor of Heath Ledger's final performance as the Joker, but it tends to trivialize his real accomplishment. His intense method acting did not result in a performance that is simply well crafted. Rather, his Joker has a raw political force of the sort rarely seen in U.S. cinema. This new Joker is an anti-capitalist culture jammer who weds sadism and anarchy in a grotesque synergy. The revolution will be televised after all, with the Joker hosting the final reality program of a culture in extremis. In fact, in the film, we see snippets of him in this role, almost literally, as he tortures wannabe Batmen for a TV audience.
While we should deplore the violence of the Joker, we can still celebrate his secret promise of rebirth. It is no accident that the Joker attacks our core institutions — banks, law enforcement, city government, and hospitals — rather than looking for quick cash. "It's not about money," he reminds us. "It's about sending a message." The Joker has mastered the spectacle of violence, and he provides a jolt of "shock and awe" in the heartland, as we see the real Chicago repeatedly seeping through the fictional Gotham. "I just do things," he explains, "I'm a wrench in the gears. I hate plans." Far from a terrorist with specific demands, the Joker demands nothing except mayhem. He is a grinning vanguardist for the coming anarchy: "See, I'm not a monster," he explains helpfully, "I'm just ahead of the curve."
For most of The Dark Knight, Batman seems baffled by his grinning nemesis. Yet his faithful butler, Alfred, relates the Joker to his own experiences at the end of empire. In Cockney cadences, Alfred recalls being sent with English mercenaries to catch a jewel thief in the forests of Burma. After failing for six months, the mercenaries discovered that the thief was simply tossing away the jewels. Confronted with a criminal who doesn’t play by the rules, the system lashes out with indiscriminate violence — by burning down the whole forest. Why? "Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money," Alfred tells his young master. "They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
The implication for Batman is that his "victory" over the Joker would require the destruction of Gotham, a scenario that would suit the Joker quite well: "Everything burns," the criminal mastermind says as he immolates a billion dollars or so. He is a rupture artist, eager to see the aesthetics of directionless chaos (which, interestingly, he imagines as an egalitarian playing field). "Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos," he tells the district attorney, Harvey Dent. "I am an agent of chaos! And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It's fair."
Throughout The Dark Knight, the Joker’s greatest contempt is reserved for "the rules" of bourgeois society: "I am not a schemer," he says, adding: "I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are." Cross-dressed in a white nurse's uniform, he complains, quite humanely, that "the rules" allow for a busload of soldiers to die but not for one local politician. "Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying," he says in disgust. In the spirit of Bakhtin’s medieval carnival, this exceedingly angry clown wants to reverse the normal order of things. By targeting politicians, cops, and civilians alike, the new Joker is bringing the war home, and soon the people of Gotham are chanting a new version of an old antiwar protest: "No more dead cops!"
Weary and uncertain after years behind the mask, Batman expresses little enthusiasm for protecting Gotham. If anything, this grim master of machines seems less human than the scarred maniac he opposes. Entombed in his expensive and deadly technologies, including a robotic car set on "intimidation," he is burned-out hero looking for an exit. The Dark Knight’s unsmiling Batman doesn’t "get the girl" (quite the contrary). And other than the company of his aged butler, he is alone in the shadowy urban space of Gotham. Even in his vast modernist armory or his glittering billionaire's penthouse, the new Batman seems sadly aware of this fact. In these moments, he is a lonely symbol of the United States' imperial isolation, a point that conservatives have overlooked in their reading of the film. Michael Caine, the actor who plays Batman’s butler, has explained it succinctly: "Superman is the way America sees itself, but Batman is the way the world sees America." (Is it any accident that the film hinges on the appropriate use of privacy-crushing surveillance technologies that even Batman cannot trust himself to deploy?)
For those who are willing to listen, The Dark Knight has a great deal to say about the perils of U.S. empire, but because of its commercial status, the film eventually tries to contain its own radicalism. Director Christopher Nolan might retain some of his "indy cred," but he is neither Dziga Vertov nor Jean-Luc Godard. The radical genie is unloosed to mesmerize the audience with its explosive force, but it is ultimately thrust back into the bottle before the closing credits. In the final reel of The Dark Knight, the film veers toward sentimentalism and comforting closure, as the Joker loses his bet against human nature and ends up lassoed by the caped crusader. Warner Brothers has action figures to sell, not revolutions to foment, and so the Joker must be defeated and the good people of Gotham must move forward with the status quo intact. Yet, no one celebrates, and Batman rushes into the darkness, scorned and unappreciated, where he can contemplate his Pyrrhic victory.
Boring old Batman might win the day, but ultimately he is Gotham’s real villain because his joyless victory brings nothing but another day of the unsatisfying status quo. Just as Milton scholars have complained that the God of Paradise Lost was never as compelling as Milton’s vision of Satan, The Dark Knight suffers the same fate. Grim-faced Batman is a snooze compared to the wild-haired Joker, who seems keenly aware of this fact. "Why so serious?" he taunts his self-righteous opponent.
In his armored suit and explosive armaments, Batman is a high-tech warrior who seems designed for Iraqi deployment. Meanwhile, the Joker is a vivid hybrid of Sex Pistol, Situationist, and Insane Clown Posse — all with the constricted voice of a Burn-era Marlon Brando. Not surprisingly, we miss the Joker when he is not on-screen: he is so terrifyingly alive, despite (because of?) his luridly theatrical violence. Schumpeter’s fans may wince, but it's exhilarating to watch the Joker’s creative destruction in our age of surreptitious self-loathing. The path to utopia goes through the Joker's dystopic rampage.
Like some punk-rock philosopher, the Joker provides the "revolutionary spirit" that can bring us to what Ernst Bloch calls a "radical disenchantment of mythological appearances," a state in which heroes are no longer heroic (that's the point of The Dark Knight's ending), a state in which we have "a total lack of illusions." The Joker’s real enemy is not the robotic-voiced Batman, for whom he has some sympathy and even warmth — it is belief itself. His assault on Gotham, and in particular his corruption of District Attorney Harvey Dent, is designed to undermine any faith in the system, its rules, or its heroes. In the theology of The Dark Knight, the Joker functions as a devil who despises faith more than the faithful, even explaining to his victims that his brutal temptations are more academic (to prove a point) than a reflection of personal animus.
Christopher Nolan must have been mulling over such thoughts when he was making The Dark Knight. Explaining that the powerful political metaphors in the film were fully intended, he said that "the idea of society breaking down" weighed heavily on him when he was writing the script and that he envisioned the revised Joker as "an agent for change." Nolan and his crew succeeded admirably. Perverse as he is, the Joker offers relief from our quivering life in "Blubberland," the depressingly soft and unsatisfying experience sold to us under the guise of the "good life." According to architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly, blubberland is where we find
"the track-suited, mind-numbed couch potato, the quadruple-garaged McMansion, the idealized fantasy life of the virtual-reality addict, home alone with a flickering screen in a darkened room."
Blubberland is the world that the Joker despises; it is the world of
"vast, glittering malls and dreary look-at-me suburbs interspersed with limitless acreage of concrete, asphalt and billboards."
It is also a state of mind in which more is never enough. Many-hued Dadaist with an eternal smirk, the Joker is the enemy of the bland, colorless, and unfeeling continuation of the status quo. With his appearance explicitly modeled on the Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten with a hint of Malcolm McDowell’s sociopath from A Clockwork Orange, the Joker is not just a devil but also a postmodern messiah who inveighs against the discreetly authoritarian order of late consumer capitalism in which brands and regulations have eclipsed the soul. It is a world that even Batman has grown reluctant to defend; the Joker, on the other hand, offers crazed salvation in a future shorn of dull certainties.
My reading of The Dark Knight owes a great deal to Ernst Bloch, who deserves more attention in media studies. As one of his admirers puts it, Bloch was a
"political philosopher of the irrational, hermetic Marxist, utopian, encyclopeaedist, process philosopher of our immanence in an unfinished world; a densely timed man who cannot be sifted quickly."
Born in 1885, the son of a Jewish railway official in the city of Ludwigshafen, Bloch moved in intellectual circles that included Simmel, Lukács, and Benjamin. In 1918, he published The Spirit of Utopia, a "mystical and prophetic work" that blended "messsianism, socialism, and ideas of unrevealed spiritual truth" as it weighed the concept of utopia. After time in Zurich, Vienna, Paris, and Prague, Bloch fled the Nazis in 1938, moving to the United States for ten years with his family. During his U.S. sojourn he composed The Principle of Hope, a marvelously eclectic and sprawling work, both intimidating and inviting, that reads like a wild blend of Marx and Emerson. Equal parts poetic and philosophical, Bloch’s vision was inclusive in the extreme, taking in subjects that ranged from fairy tales to religious mystery, detective novels to utopian dreams.
As a poetic Marxist with an interest in the psychological, Bloch, as one writer has noted, has "an eye for the utopian gleam in phenomena as varied as the circus and the fair, the popular novel and the fashion accessory," all of which come together in The Dark Knight.For Bloch, radical hope could be found in the most conventional text, from the wild west novels of Karl May that fascinated Hitler to enduring pieces of folklore. Bloch imagined popular culture as a place for daytime dreaming, where utopian hopes could compete with the sober complacency that weds us to the status quo. For Bloch, perhaps, Batman lets us dream of revolution for a few minutes before returning to the familiar softness of our lives.
When not viewed skeptically for his sometimes acritical support of the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Bloch is sometimes disregarded as an impenetrable, almost occult, system builder very much out of synch with the postmodern temper. Having fled the Nazis, Bloch had a guarded appreciation for U.S. culture (he was initially excited by its "very humanistic ideology)." However, his psychologically-inflected Marxism eventually led him to reject budding postwar U.S. consumer culture and return to Europe, where he became a leading philosopher in East Germany. In his most famous work, The Principle of Hope, he complained about the smallness of capitalist business culture with a very American metaphor:
"The graceless Babbitt has ruined everything, the courage of the struggle as well as the gaiety."
Whatever the Joker is, he is not small. He mocks the courage of the status quo (police who evinced cowardice) as well its gaiety (in his ruined clown make-up). He is upright, un-cowed, implacable to a degree that is unnerving, a shark among minnows, the one man in the film who stands outside of capitalism. "Not everyone today can be characterized as a fearful bourgeois," Bloch pointed out. And those who do not cringe in fear (quite understandably) are left in terminal ennui, like the über-capitalist of Wayne Industries himself, the billionaire Batman. Only in the United States would a mythic figure, a superhero, be a billionaire industrialist in need of Zoloft. Like those he begrudgingly protects, Batman is a prisoner of the system who yearns for something more. Bloch once wrote that for "capitalist reasons" the United States had become "the land of very limited human possibilities." Only the anti-capitalist Joker offers relief in the world of The Dark Knight. He is the catalyst for change, a vision of cathartic violence, a demon whose hell we must step through in order to truly live again.
Many viewers will comfort themselves with safer interpretations, but at some level The Dark Knight is speaking to a weary and agitated part of the U.S. psyche that is desperate for change. A Batman movie might seem an unlikely place for such utopian visions, but Bloch reminds us how much radical possibility is embedded in even our most commercial entertainment. One part of our cinematic daydreams is "just stale, even enervating escapism," but the other part is "provocative" and "does not accept renunciation."
Bloch began his magnum opus with a series of questions:
"Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we waiting for? What awaits us?"
Perhaps unconsciously, we no longer look to mythic heroes like Batman and their clumsy imitators in our political system, but to villains like the Joker for the hope that change is possible. We may not be aware of our desire for transformation—it may be stuck in what Bloch calls the "Not-Yet-Conscious" — but our inner longing for something better can find resonance even in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Bloch, Ernst. "Disrupted Language, Disrupted Culture," Direction, December 1939, 16-17, 36.
Bloch, Ernst. Literary Essays, trans.Andrew Joron. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope: Volume I, trans. Neville Plaice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope: Volume III, trans.Neville Plaice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995.
Farrelly, Elizabeth. Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.
Geoghegan, Vincent. Ernst Bloch. NY: Routledge, 1996.
Hudson, Wayne. The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
Kellner, Douglas, and Ryan, Michael. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Kellner, Douglas. "Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique," online at
Klavans, Andrew. "What Bush and Batman Have in Common," July 25, 2008, A15:
Nolan Christopher, "Q+A Director's Chair," Entertainment Weekly, August 1, 2008.
Rickey, Carrie. "‘Dark Knight' Glimmers through Gloom," The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 18, 2008, W5.
1. Andrew Klavans, "What Bush and Batman Have in Common," July 25, 2008, A15: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121694247343
5. Ernst Bloch, Literary Essays, 309. Although Batman is no longer heroic by the end of the film, Gotham’s elites still conspire to create necessary illusions for the masses. This incomplete demythologization allows for the apotheosis of Harvey Dent, whose failures are hidden from view (and indeed, assigned to Batman, who becomes a sort of “sin-eater” for all of Gotham).
11. As a bibliographic aside, I would direct the reader to several secondary sources that I found helpful. The best guide to Bloch is Vincent Geoghegan’s Ernst Bloch (NY: Routledge, 1996), which breaks the subject into five parts: “Life and Concepts,” “Culture,” “Religion,” “Fascism and Marxism,” and “Natural Law, Utopianism and Nature.” Also useful is Wayne Hudson’s The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), one of the earliest critical appraisals of Bloch’s work. Hudson’s chapter on “Marxism and Utopia” (Chapter 2: pp. 21-67) is of particular interest. Finally, the translators’ introduction to Bloch’s The Principle of Hope: Volume One contains useful biographical information as well as astute critical commentary on themes such as “Bloch and tradition” and “The Style of ‘The Principle of Hope.’” See Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight’s introduction to their translation of The Principle of Hope: Volume One, pp. 3-20, which leads the reader to the precipice of Bloch’s own writing. Because few readers have the time to read the three volumes of The Principle of Hope in their entirety, it should be some comfort that these books reward even a desultory approach to their immensely varied contents.
Volume One is distinguished by poignant chapters on “What Is Left to Wish for in Old Age” and “What the Mirror Tells Us Today,” as well as sections on Marx, the Ku Klux Klan, dreaming, and medical utopias. Volume Two continues Bloch’s encyclopedic approach with examinations of art, opera, poetry, and philosophy, while Volume Three deals with technology, social change, and the promise of the future, especially if we embrace the generative power of utopian longing. Readers should also be directed to an equally fascinating, and perhaps more accessible, volume called Literary Essays that ranges across a vast landscape including film, advertising, wine, Wagner, Venice, Spengler, and the Strasbourg Cathedral. Readers in film studies will find his short pieces on cinema of particular interest: “Significant Change in Cinematic Fables” (59-62), “On Music in the Cinema” (156-159), and “The Musical Stratum in Cinema, Revisited” (159-162). However, it is important to note that many of Bloch’s non-cinematic writings also have relevance to scholars working in visual studies, and for this reason, I offer the above suggestions only as starting points.
13. For Bloch, cultural production is always "simultaneously describing, satirizing,
undermining and hoping," as Vincent Geoghegan puts it in Ernst Bloch (NY: Routledge, 1996), 65. The best introduction to how Bloch “accentuates the positive, the utopian-emancipatory possibilities” of cultural texts is in Douglas Kellner’s excellent article, “Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique,” available online at
Kellner (and Michael Ryan) also wrote one of the first (and still best) books on the politics of popular film: Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988). I am grateful for the work of Doug Kellner, which has been foundational for my own writing over the past two decades.
15. The story of Bloch’s U.S. exile and eventual return to Germany is a little more complicated. During his decade in the United States, he suffered from cultural isolation, political suspicions, and professional disappointment. Despite Adorno’s support, the left-leaning philosopher was unable to secure an appropriate position at an U.S. university. Although Bloch eventually obtained U.S. citizenship in the late forties, he returned to Germany in 1949 with high hopes for his new academic position in Leipzig. Yet his homecoming was marred by political attacks. Bloch had been initially celebrated as a central voice in German philosophy, but he soon fell out of favor with the ruling state party of the GDR. His ideological troubles prompted him to move to West Germany in 1961, and for the remainder of the sixties he served as a popular mentor to students at Tubingen university. A major theorist of the utopian impulse, which he saw as a propelling force behind socialism, Bloch died in 1977 at the age of 97. In the three decades since his death, his work has gained some admirers outside of philosophy departments, but film studies and media studies have been slow to appreciate his relevance, even though his work speaks eloquently to many issues in visual studies. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight’s introduction to The Principle of Hope: Volume I, ix-xxxiiix.
20. For more on the “not-yet-conscious,” see Geoghegan, Ernst Bloch, 34. On another point, Bloch argues that "'America' will disappear only after it has been completely discovered — meaning that the revolutionary path goes straight through capitalism, not around it" (Literary Essays, 309). Despite the noisy commercial trappings of The Dark Knight and the blandishments of The Wall Street Journal, a Blochian interpretation suggests that the revolutionary path might run straight through the film.
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