Nolan’s The Dark Knight instigates a prolonged attack on the police state in Gotham City. Though the Joker’s ultimate foil is Batman himself, his battle against the police and the larger government takes up much of the plot. In watching this caricatured clown take down a democracy, Nolan reveals to the audience that the state and the government will fail to protect its citizens.
Midway through the film, the audience believes that Capitan Gordon has died at the hands of the Joker. The villain literally hides among the police officers in this hyperactive scene. We—the audience—come to understand that evil could be, and is, everywhere. Once the Joker has been jailed, Gordon comes back in an ultimate scene of what we believe to be triumph. But this neo-noir manipulates us again, even Gordon cannot save us from the psychosis of the Joker as he places a bomb into the stomach cavity of a fellow prisoner.
Nolan and the Joker’s ultimate subversion of the police state and the government comes through the transformation of District Attorney Harvey Dent. The joker drives Dent to darkness—from a great white knight to a great dark villain. As Dent begins his crusade against the Gotham police force for failing to protect Rachel, another critical reminder of the police force’s failure to protect us, he finds solace within his heads vs. tails morality. The Joker tells Batman in his own final scene: “I took Gotham’s white knight and brought him down to our level.”
The Dark Knight depicts the consequences of anarchy, of a state without government or police or institutions. It tells us that we cannot trust the government, yet we cannot survive without it either.
The biggest question remains at large at the end of the film: is humanity ultimately good? Is the Dark Knight hopeful about humankind? In the boat scene that seems like a psychology experiment gone wrong, Nolan keeps us in suspense about the state of humanity. He makes the audience think about what we would do—weather we could push the button and kill another to save ourselves. Yes, this scene reads as ultimately hopeful, as neither boat kills the other.
But the film ends with Dent as the last villain standing as he hunts down Commissioner Gordon’s family. Dent’s transformation is particularly pessimistic about humanity—it shows us how very easy it is to be swayed by the dark. The Dark Knight may be hopeful about collective humanity, but it tells a much darker story about each of our own personal humanities. The film reveals a darkness within all of us. It is ultimately asking: who would touch the button? And within all of us, the film reveals an urge to do just that.
*It is critical to note that this film is obviously written by a White man and reveals fears primarily to a White audience. The police state and the government were literally designed to oppress—not to protect—people of color and particularly Black people in the United States. In this light, Nolan’s thesis, and my own analysis, read as frankly ridiculous. It is only White people who would need a film by a White man to tell them that the government does not protect its people, instead of listening to the very people themselves.
McGowan’s analysis speaks to superheroes’ positioning outside of the law; they become an exception to the law in order to differentiate themselves from evil—”In the context of legal order, the hero’s activity would become criminality, and there would be no way to differentiate it from evil.” The superhero undermines legal order in its very existence even while it attempts to support the law. He uses this framework to explain Batman’s decision in allowing Dent to die a hero and Batman himself to be branded as evil: “When he agrees to appear as a criminal at the end of the film, Batman avows simultaneously the need for the heroic exception and the need for this exception to appear as criminality.” Batman understands that without defining his exception as criminal, the multiplication of Batmans will only continue. That in a way, the very existence of Batman—of this exception to law and order—created the Joker.