The Power of Knightmares

Remove the fantastic superhero elements and the high-concept action scenes, and what is left with The Dark Knight Trilogy is a surprisingly complex exploration of the nature of war, justice, and authority in the postmodern era — an extended allegory of America and American leadership during the War on Terror.

By George BallasSeptember 8, 2015

The Power of Knightmares

The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, will be mailed to subscribing LARB members in September. Click here to get your subscription today.


All who would seek to do her harm will know that America will not stand by and watch terror prevail. We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.

— Covert US operative, Afghanistan, February 5, 2002, from Bush at War by Bob Woodward

Gordon: There’s a point, far out there when the structures fail you, and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re shackles letting the bad guy get ahead. One day you may face such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did, to plunge their hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean.

Blake: Your hands look plenty filthy to me, commissioner.

The Dark Knight Rises

TO SAY that Hollywood has difficulty coming to terms with the post-9/11 world is an understatement. Fearful of alienating the moviegoing American public — whose renewed patriotism after the 9/11 attacks facilitated a two-front war in the Middle East and a no-front “war on terror” — mainstream Hollywood has tiptoed around these subjects. Melodrama and military action were acceptable; critical examination of what was happening was not. To protect box office grosses, it was safer to avoid asking the hard questions.

Hollywood delivered a stream of “day of the attack” films after 9/11, including United 93, World Trade Center, and Remember Me, which were as mawkish as they were macabre. As the War on Terror ground on, studios embraced a new type of war movie exemplified by films like Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty: cold and sterile human interest stories shot handheld in pseudo-documentary style.

Studios seemed to follow an unwritten rule when making movies about the post-9/11 world: “show, don’t comment.” Films steeped audiences in the gritty, unflinching details of the “what” and the “how” of events, without ever asking “why.” To this day, the conflicts of the post-9/11 era have not received the honest and radical treatment that Platoon, Apocalypse Now, or The Thin Red Line gave their subjects.

Unbridled escapism has defined mainstream film instead, and no genre came to dominate multiplexes in the 21st century more than superhero films. The superhero narrative best serves its escapist role when its protagonists substitute for failing real-world social institutions. The more acutely audiences perceive the failure of a particular social institution, the more popular the superhero who picks up the slack.

The first decade of the new century, bookended by a botched election at the start and a crippling financial crisis at the end, shook Americans’ faith in many longstanding public and social institutions. Given these shortcomings, it’s no surprise that a disillusioned public turned to superheroes for escape. These fantasies catered to audiences who want something simple and clear to believe in — something to look up to and forward to — but live in a world in which everything they used to count on has already let them down.

Of all of the superhero films released in the 21st century, the most popular and financially lucrative have been those based on Marvel’s Avengers. And it’s easy to see why. The Avengers are a veritable pantheon of morally righteous replacements for every failed institution of the 2000s. “Iron Man” Tony Stark is a billionaire defense contractor; Hawkeye represents the moral values of rural and middle America; Captain America, patriotism and the rank-and-file military; Bruce Banner, the promise of scientific and technological progress — the list goes on.

Because superheroes stand in for failed institutions, they can assume the moral authority of those institutions and act on behalf of the State with force that falls well beyond ordinary legal and ethical boundaries. Within the cinematic universe, there is no consideration of the legitimacy, implications, or unforeseen consequences of their action. “Don’t overthink it” is the implicit subtitle of this genre. It’s just narrative fuel for the spectacle, part of the fun. Audiences expect no less, and usually get no more.

But Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy proves to be an exception. The trilogy probes the question of what gives Bruce Wayne the moral authority to become Batman, an outlaw who is permitted to break the law “in the name of the law.” It’s a story of the tit-for-tat escalation of violence created when criminals and rule-bending authorities collide, which begins with vigilantism but ultimately leads to terrorism, impunity, and war. Remove the fantastic superhero elements and the high-concept action scenes, and what is left is a surprisingly complex exploration of the nature of war, justice, and authority in the postmodern era — an extended allegory of America and American leadership during the War on Terror.


Batman Begins, the first film in the trilogy, is set in Gotham City after a recent depression has left many residents unemployed and in crushing poverty — driven to crime “not by greed but by desperation.” Organized crime reigns. In the words of Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, the mob’s boss can “[flood] our streets with crime and drugs” with impunity as long as he “keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared.” She asks, paraphrasing Edmund Burke, “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”

Falcone, the mob boss, derives his power not from money but fear. He may have “half of City Hall bought and paid for,” but the money is merely the symbol of his power. What keeps the public officials in line is their fear of violence.

To combat this, Bruce Wayne constructs the alter ego of the Batman as a symbol “for the good to rally behind and the criminals to fear.” But as Falcone makes clear, symbols aren’t enough. Batman must also become a brutal vigilante — hunting, terrorizing, and punishing the criminals that a corrupt justice system won’t. While Batman believes himself to be a force of good working for justice, he is, in fact, a criminal who uses violence to instill fear and compliance in his victims, much like an organized crime syndicate.

Batman’s violence counters the violence of organized crime but raises the stakes by marrying it to a symbol for criminals to fear. The combination of violence and fear is only effective in reestablishing law and order, however, when they have the implicit endorsement of the justice system. Publicly, of course, the police pursue the Batman as a criminal, but in secret the authorities work with him. Because of this tacit endorsement, we can’t think of the Batman’s activities as merely illegal. They are extralegal — he is an agent of the law working outside of the law. This is dangerous territory and sets off a series of ever-escalating confrontations throughout all three films.

By examining the network of relationships among Gotham’s various actors, we can see the structure of how the trilogy critiques a society acting outside its social limits in order to enforce those limits. The mob, with its own system of rules and code of honor outside of the moral and legal boundaries of society, uses its economic power to corrupt the justice system. Gotham retaliates not by purging itself of its corruption but by secretly relying on Batman to go even further outside the law to enforce order. This introduces to the landscape a previously unknown outside space, where actions are neither legal nor illegal — a new extralegal territory, provided it remains hidden, allows society’s political authority to act outside of its own rules in order to sustain those rules. But the territory, being new, is not fully understood by the people who act there.


Batman’s move outside the law appears effective, at least in the short term, in bringing organized crime back within the reach of the law, but the cost of doing so, the price for law’s complicity with Batman and for keeping it a secret, is the heart of the conflict of the second film, The Dark Knight. If Batman is how law counters the organization of crime, how will crime respond? Foreshadowing The Dark Knight, Gordon cautions Batman at the end of Batman Begins about “the escalation.” He says, “We start carrying semiautomatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds. […] And you’re wearing a mask. Jumping off rooftops.” In other words, is there a counterstrategy to the terrorizing violence of Batman? Does the extralegal territory that Batman opened extend even further, to a territory outside the outside, that is truly unlimited, that crime can resort to in order to fight back?

This was the ideological territory of the War on Terror after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the neoconservative view, it’s acceptable for a nation to act without regard to domestic or international law provided it does so in the name of liberty and democracy, and the details are kept secret. Their rhetoric was persuasive (at least in the short term) because it played to a renewed patriotism and sense of American exceptionalism that citizens had not heard in this country since the Cold War. But this ideology is also convenient. Platonic ideals like liberty and democracy can’t speak for themselves, so power speaks on their behalf. What happens when an opposing power exploits the same rhetoric? The fall of Saddam Hussein’s secular tyranny in Iraq opened the country up to multitudes of radical terror groups, each claiming the moral authority of their shared religion, and deploying tactics like public beheadings and roadside IEDs that were too extreme even for Hussein.

Where the first film established the rule under which Batman could fight crime, the second shows what happens when the rules are distorted and perverted. The Dark Knight turns the neoconservative ideology back on itself, revealing how merely opening up an extralegal territory of the Batman is enough to erode the moral authority that justifies not only Batman but also the justice system that uses him.

At the start of The Dark Knight, the Joker is simply a criminal who robs mob bosses. But after he gathers them together, the Joker turns their collective attention on Batman — described by the Chechen gangster as “the real problem.” But where the police and the mob see Batman as a simple vigilante, the Joker sees the true threat. “Batman has no jurisdiction. He’ll find [the mob’s banker Lau] and make him squeal.” The Joker understands Batman’s role as the extralegal force of the justice system, the agent outside the limits of society that sustains those very limits. And the Joker knows that Batman’s ability to operate outside of the rules that confine the police will ultimately doom the mob. So in order to challenge Batman, the Joker joins him in that outside territory. He shows him its true topology, its terrifying possibilities. If Batman terrorizes criminals, the Joker will terrorize Gotham.

The Joker is a decidedly postmodern terrorist, as evidenced by the two contradictory stories he tells about the origin of his scars. Both can’t be true, and maybe neither of them are. Contrary to the genre’s penchant for telling origin stories, the Joker’s origin is not only ambiguous but also forever unknowable. And that leaves the audience with the glaring unanswered question of what made this man a terrorist. This postmodern character makes him the perfect metaphor for the terrorism of 9/11 and afterward. As with the Joker, we have heard a great many contradictory theories about the origin and nature of terrorism and Islamic radicalism, all untestable and unverifiable. As the emergence of ISIS in 2013 demonstrates, none bring us any closer to solving the problem.

That being said, if the Joker is a metaphor for the terrorism of 9/11 and the attacks of the ensuing years, then the Batman of The Dark Knight is a metaphor for the unprecedented exercise of previously prohibited powers by the US in the name of fighting that terrorism. And, like Batman, the US didn’t open up this space haphazardly or on an ad hoc basis. It was a carefully thought-through stratagem.

The labeling of fighters as “enemy combatants” rather than prisoners of war to exclude them from the Geneva Convention and the use of “extraordinary rendition” by intelligence services to whisk suspected terrorists to offshore prisons and interrogation rooms are two examples of the deliberate and considered creation of the new extralegal space in which US forces and intelligence agencies could operate that was beyond the reach of both international and domestic law. As with the new tactics of waterboarding and drone strikes, this is brutality in the defense of civilization. So when the Joker observes that our moral code which usually governs how we dealt with threats was “dropped at the first sign of trouble,” he’s speaking the truth.

The Batman of The Dark Knight justifies the new extremes he utilizes to pursue the Joker the same way the US justified going outside of the boundaries of law to engage al-Qaeda — the exceptional nature of the threat. But the power to justify and use extreme measures belongs to whoever can declare this state of exception. The person who declares the state of exception in Batman Begins is not the city’s political or legal officials. It’s Batman himself. He establishes the “new normal” in which it is acceptable for a masked man in a cape to threaten, torture, and kidnap criminal suspects. As Gotham settles into the new normal, the Joker emerges to declare a state of exception of his own, escalating the terror and violence, forcing the Batman further into that extralegal territory he thought he understood.

The Joker unleashes a tide of terrorism and indiscriminate violence throughout Gotham, using television to reach the entirety of Gotham’s public — much like how the impact of the 9/11 attacks were amplified by live television coverage. The Joker makes it clear in his televised rants that he and the violence he has unleashed are “how crazy Batman’s made Gotham.” The Joker, as an agent of chaos, is seizing and subverting the sovereign power of Gotham by making terror the new normal, while simultaneous promising that if “you want order in Gotham, Batman must take off his mask...” Normalcy is the Joker’s to restore, not Gotham’s government.

Harvey Dent, like the Joker, sees Batman as the real threat — but not in the way the Joker does. Dent calls Gordon’s cooperation with Batman “a deal with the devil.” Earlier, when Batman offers to retrieve the banker Lau from Hong Kong (extraordinary rendition in action), Dent points out that he could have exercised his legal authority to prevent Lau from leaving. “If you’d have asked, I could have taken his passport.” In fact much of what Harvey Dent’s character does in the film is to point out that Batman and Gordon often take shortcuts around the law that are merely convenient rather than absolutely necessary. The Joker sees Batman as an existential threat to the mob; Dent sees him as the same but to the justice system. He questions whether the police allow Batman to pursue criminals in his own way simply because it’s easier, not because the situation is so bad that the normal rules no longer work.

Later in the Dark Knight, when the Joker’s terrorism has escalated to blowing up hospitals, Batman reveals to his partner Lucius Fox a technology that converts every cellphone in Gotham into a microphone and 3-D scanner. The result is a Panopticon, a tool that lets Batman see and hear any location in the city in real time. The device symbolizes the newly emerging surveillance state, enabled by CCTV, unmanned drones, and, most importantly, NSA collection of internet and cellphone data. Fox calls the device dangerous and unethical — a seizure of power at too great a cost. The power in question is the ability to project Batman’s extralegal force everywhere at the same time, at the cost of the very rights he is trying to defend.

Increased surveillance and encroachment of privacy rights are often the earliest of the extreme measures taken in states of exception. At the eulogy for the police commissioner killed by the Joker, the mayor reminds the public, “vigilance is the price of safety.” This is a perversion of the famous maxim “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” that neocons and pundits repeated to rally support for the conferral of new powers on authorities and new limits on civilian privacy rights under the Patriot Act. Replacing the word “liberty” with “safety” in such a jarring fashion forces the tradeoff to the forefront of our consciousness. It also brings to mind a statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Wayne’s Panopticon, like its real-world analogue at the NSA, threatens to deprive us of a right to privacy in the name of restoring normalcy to a society that used to consider privacy normal. The dilemma is that, on the one hand, Wayne’s device is not only morally wrong but also illegal. But on the other, the machine was vital to finding and stopping the Joker. Of course the film is structured to lead the audience to this conclusion, to accept that using the machine is justified in this state of exception.

But how then do we resolve our real-world dilemma? What if, as officials claim, an NSA-run surveillance state is effective in preventing terrorist attacks? So much of the public debate around spying, surveillance, and even the extraordinary powers asserted by the administration in the War on Terror, including waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” is focused on whether they are effective. But that avoids a difficult question: if the extralegal power is effective but we aren’t certain whether or how severe the threat is, do we exercise that power just to be safe? And if the answer is yes, then shouldn’t handing this much power to authorities be the kind of issue that we debate as part of the normal democratic process?


Plato argued in the Republic that certain foundational myths, or “noble lies” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos), were necessary in order for the members of society to set aside their individual interest and act in a way that orders and advances the community as a whole. Noble lies typically took the form of a belief in something that was either unknowable or demonstrably false, like a mythical national origin story or a privileged relationship to some ideal Truth or Justice.

The reason the Joker offers to end his reign of terror if the Batman turns himself in is because this unmasking will publicly expose the noble lie. Unmasking Batman would rob him of his symbolic power and reduce him to the status of a criminal. This would force Gotham to confront a very unpleasant truth: when crime and poverty overtook Gotham, they put their faith in just another criminal. But halfway through the film the Joker abandons unmasking as a means for casting the city into chaos because he sees Dent emerging as the city’s real hero. As a result, he focuses on corrupting Dent. Like Gordon, the Joker knows that “any hope of fixing the city lived and died with Harvey’s reputation.” By encouraging Harvey to avenge Rachel’s death, the Joker’s “little push” causes Harvey-the-hero to fall.

Batman and Gordon both believe in “the power of belief,” in the need for the city to have some symbolic rallying point (even if it’s a fabrication). So, in the wake of Dent’s death, they simply invent one. Gordon pins Dent’s crimes on Batman, the new villain, who leads police and society on a merry chase without end. The outlaw hero is recast simply as an outlaw, and the fallen idol, Harvey Dent, is put back on his pedestal — blood wiped from his shining armor. Batman delivers the justification for this: “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. […] Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”

Consider the level of deception and outright lying going on in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne kept the spying machine hidden from Lucius because he knew he wouldn’t approve. Dent lied to reporters, first about Lau, then about being Batman. Gordon lies to Dent about his working with the Batman. Gordon fakes his death, effectively lying to the public and his family. Rachel lies to Dent about her relationship with Wayne. Alfred keeps the truth about Rachel’s feelings from Wayne by burning her letter after her death. Gordon, Dent, and the mayor all lie to the public. Everyone manipulates the truth except the Joker.

Of all the characters in the film, only the Joker is “a man of my word” (a line he repeats twice). Everyone is trying to deceive everyone else, as the Joker mocks, “to control their little world.” But despite all the manipulation of the truth, all it takes is for the Joker to expose one lie, and Gotham spirals out of control. What Batman and Gordon are left with is a society in chaos that they believe can only be rebuilt on one more lie.


The final installment of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, attempts to address some of these issues, but the film is ultimately imperfect. Where the Joker of The Dark Knight was a terrorist without political or territorial ambitions beyond casting society into chaos, the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, Bane, is motivated entirely by conquest and destruction. If the Joker is al-Qaeda, then Bane is ISIS — terror in the service of territorial conquest.

The film has two primary themes: the power of belief, and class division due to economic inequality. Eight years have passed in Gotham City since the night of Dent’s death. The Batman, now seen as a murderer of two police officers and Harvey Dent, has disappeared. In the wake of Dent’s death, the Dent Act was passed. Analogous to the Patriot Act, the Dent Act “gave law enforcement teeth in its fight against the mob.”

The noble lie spun by Gordon and Batman at the end of The Dark Knight has become the inspiration for legislation that gave police expanded powers. The only difference between the situation at the start of The Dark Knight Rises and Batman Begins is that the police are empowered by the Dent Act such that the justice system can suppress the crime brought on by economic desperation. The critical difference is this: by making Batman the villain who killed the hero Harvey Dent, Gotham could pass the Dent Act, thereby capturing within the boundaries of law and order Batman’s formerly extralegal powers. What was once the domain of outlaws and vigilantes is now legal police procedure. The message is clear: the people of Gotham are more willing to trade their liberty for safety if a heroic narrative can be built up around it. An unfortunate aspect of true belief is that it can be exploited.

All three films argue that belief is a more powerful motivating force than political or economic self-interest. The Joker tells the Chechen mob boss, “All you care about is money. This city deserves a better class of criminal.” Miranda Tate voices a similar sentiment, telling John Daggett, “You understand only money and the power you think it buys.” The cynicism of economic self-interest is opposed by the power of belief — and the commitment to a cause greater than oneself. This dichotomy not only motivates the characters in The Dark Knight Rises but also rings true to postmodern millennials looking for a cause in their own lives, particularly in the face of an anemic global economy in which unemployment has reached double-digit percentages. This is also the ideological narrative of ISIS and other radical groups. But the dichotomy may be a false one. It’s worth it for us to consider whether economic self-interest itself reflects deep-seated ideological beliefs as powerful as any explicitly religious or nationalist ones. Unfortunately, the films don’t take this up. Instead, The Dark Knight Rises runs with the theme of economic inequality as if it arose without cause or source, and uses it as the social precondition for the arrival of Bane and his revolution.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane brings about what he refers to as “Gotham’s reckoning.” Unlike the Joker, Bane’s acts of terrorism have a strategic purpose. Destroying all of the bridges and tunnels in and out of Gotham and revealing to the world his possession of a nuclear bomb serves to isolate the city from the outside world. Once this is accomplished, Bane’s physical acts of terrorism are over. He then relies merely on the truth to collapse Gotham’s noble lies and trigger the “reckoning.” All he needs to do to unleash real anarchy in Gotham is expose its noble lies for what they are. And he does this by reading a speech written by Gordon — the author of the lie in question.

Gordon’s confession to “build[ing] the lie around this fallen idol” of Harvey Dent triggers the downfall of the society the lie sustained. Unfortunately, the person trusting the people of Gotham with the truth is not the police commissioner who wrote the words, but Bane, an invader who took the city by force. He urges the people to reverse the injustice of the Dent Act by freeing the criminals imprisoned under it. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to vilify Gotham’s 1%: “We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you … the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere.”

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. With that speech, the film cuts to a montage of the city descending into chaos. Now that “the chips are down,” as the Joker put it, we see the civilized people of Gotham brutalizing and killing each other. In the ensuing chaos, we witness the power of no-belief, of disillusionment and resentment, in a city robbed of its central noble lies.

To its credit, The Dark Knight Rises does not succumb to the superficial pop-Marxism of Elysium or The Hunger Games. But it is worth asking if the return of normalcy in the eight years between the events of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises also means the return of poverty and the underclass. Or to take a more modernist approach, perhaps poverty and crime are unaddressed aberrations of an otherwise well-ordered machine, problems that with time and study can be solved and eliminated.

While the economic issues raised in the trilogy are lamentably left unaddressed, The Dark Knight Rises does leave us with a distinct perspective on the state of exception. As in The Dark Knight, Bane’s actions push Gotham into another state of exception.This time, Bane is the one suspending the rules, declaring that “for now, martial law is in effect.” Bane is the sovereign, and Gotham “lives under a warlord, like in some failed state.” Now all of society is outside the law and in the full light of day.

Gordon knows better than anyone how working outside the law in order to enforce it leads in the long run to chaos and anarchy. He used to think that “whatever chance [Batman] gave us of fixing our city dies with Harvey’s reputation.” But he only concluded that because he assumed that the people in the city need a hero to do the right thing. That thinking only led him to construct the elaborate lie that Bane ended up turning against them.

Now Gordon has an epiphany. “This only gets fixed from inside the city.” He’s realized all of the chaos stemmed from his tacit approval of the Batman’s vigilante tactics. What has happened to Gotham is as much his fault as Batman’s. Batman was always an outlaw, but Gordon made a conscious choice to become his accomplice. He’s not making the same mistake this time. If Bane is leaving the city to the people, then Gordon is adamant that the people themselves be the ones to take it back. Batman knows this too. Miranda Tate tells Wayne, “If you want to save the world you have to start trusting it.” And while Batman returns to stop Bane from setting off the bomb, Wayne also recognizes that the Batman, now a symbol of the danger of society operating outside of its own boundaries in order to preserve itself, has to go.


In the end, it’s always the ordinary people who suffer the consequences. Everything built on lies collapses with the return of the truth. Whatever power gets exercised under exceptional circumstances becomes routine under normal circumstances. The first two films pose the question of who will fight for society against crime, terror, and chaos, and Gotham answers with Batman. But this is the wrong answer. Allowing Batman to break the law — even to save it — only makes the city of Gotham an accomplice.

In the Dark Knight Rises, the question is posed again: who will fight for society’s survival? This time we get the right answer: the people. And that’s the meaning of the allegory of the Dark Knight trilogy. Whatever problems society has, the solutions are never to be found in some imagined “out there” where we can simultaneously hide the truth and hide from it. There is no outside we can escape to. No superheroes to save us or mythologies to shield us.

If the system is broken, it only gets fixed from within. By us.


 George Ballas is an attorney in Philadelphia.

LARB Contributor

George Ballas is an attorney in Philadelphia.


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