The most important artist for conservatives in this generation is Christopher Nolan. He is the only man to have acquired both prestige and popularity, to have advanced cinema technologically and offered memorable new forms of storytelling, and to offer conservatives a way of dealing with the technological and political problems of our times. If conservatives want to stop retreating from American pop culture, we should honor this man.
But before we can honor an artist, we must first come to understand his work and his intentions. This is unusually difficult because Nolan’s most elaborate work is the Dark Knight trilogy which concluded ten years ago with The Dark Knight Rises. On the one hand, the series received nine Oscar nominations, winning two awards. On the other, its protagonist, Batman, is a pop culture character, from a comic book no less, and therefore largely held in contempt by respectable people—it’s not high culture. At first glance, it doesn’t seem connected to our concerns with the realistic depiction of society and complex investigations of the moral travails of interesting people, epitomized by the 19th-century novel.
I would like to make the case that the Dark Knight trilogy, precisely because it is furthest removed from our expectations about sophisticated storytelling, is his most impressive achievement and the one likeliest to last. It’s true that he reached down to a lowly form of fiction, the comic book, but he uses it for the exalted purpose of restoring heroic storytelling to its proper place in the moral and political education of the young.
The Dark Knight
There is a reason Nolan’s name is better known, especially to young men, than that of any other director and his movies are loved more than those of other artists, whatever their successes or their intentions. Nolan was simply the first artist to understand that cinema is just about dead and the only thing that can save it is to abandon the taste educated by the novel for another more spirited and manlier taste, for the epic or the tragic.
Our popular storytelling is reduced to the Marvel TV show, with more episodes every year, each one doing little more than to advertise the next ones; and to the endless gossiping of prestige TV, where paltry attempts at psychology pass for a deep understanding of the problems of our society while offering the upper-middle classes the titillation they really desire. Nolan has instead championed a return to the fundamental questions of human affairs and dedicated his trilogy to a worthy subject, the origin of the laws and therefore of civilization.
Accordingly, Batman Begins (2005), Nolan’s first blockbuster and the movie that restored the Batman franchise after several embarrassments and even financial trouble, is a dead-serious attempt to show America a tragic view of politics, or the emergence of rule from madness and fear.
Gotham is an anticipation of our situation today, a corrupt city where the police are at best ineffective and at worst conniving with criminals. The politicians are even more impotent, and ordinary citizens are therefore at the mercy of the violent. No one will do justice, no one will punish the wicked, and it’s a question whether anyone even believes justice should be done. This is civilization in decay, which requires an unusual way of looking at the origins of the law. The urgent problem is the restoration of law and order—refounding, rather than founding a decent society.
Bruce Wayne is an honorable young man trying to face up to this decadence. He receives an education about politics not in Gotham, but on the far side of the world. Thus, he avoids the corruption he wants to root out. Part of the corruption of the city is softness, and therefore part of the education Bruce seeks (not entirely aware of his own intentions) must take the form of violence, since only harshness makes strength. Moreover, the corruption of the city involves blindness to the question of origins—no one knows how Gotham became a city in the first place. Accordingly, Bruce must recover a vision of history and politics undistorted by the arrogance of modern times—he must face the political discipline of antiquity.
This is why, in order to save Gotham, Bruce must become part of a military aristocracy of a conspiratorial character called The League of Shadows. But this is also why he must eventually destroy them, since their only solution to Gotham’s decadence is purification by fire. This sets up the contest between two forms of rule, that of Bruce Wayne, who becomes Batman, and that of Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League. Consent of the governed at this point doesn’t even matter; it’s merely a question of what kind of monarchy is best able to deal with catastrophe. Even more shocking than the aristocratic character of rule contemplated in the story is the basis of that rule—fear. Batman and his adversary are agreed that fear and violence are necessary to rule, to establish order, but they disagree about who should be terrorized—only the criminals, or everyone.
Here we see the beginning of political freedom, or the establishment of a republic. Batman’s aristocratic character naturally leads him to form conspiratorial friendships with men like Sergeant (later Police Commissioner) Gordon, and with his servants and confidants, the butler Alfred and Lucius Fox, who works for Wayne Enterprises and becomes a quartermaster and technological adviser. All these men of unusual talents share a commitment to law, which is at first only an agreement to act together. This equality among them is originally the preserve of the martial rulers, later to be spread to the people through a kind of education for self-rule. The most obvious starting point is getting rid of corruption in the police force, and then making men willing and able to put public matters above private matters, faith in freedom over greed or fear.
The mythological character of the comic book conceals this monarchic and aristocratic politics only up to a point, the problem of the politics of competing princes. The rationalism of rule without consent—imposing order without allowing for the chaos of democratic disagreement, popular passions, or ignorance of the diplomatic, administrative, and martial arts—runs into the problem of a civil war among aristocrats. Once Batman and the League fight over Gotham, this brings up the possibility of terrorizing the population. The superior powers of the aristocrats are not necessarily good or even human. They are impressive, but are they admirable?
Punitive Justice and the Problem of Competing Rights
Aristotle tells us in the Politics that outside the city, only gods and monsters dwell, hinting that self-sufficiency of body and mind isn’t possible for us human beings. We are ensouled beings and need each other to arrange our affairs together reasonably. The challenge we face is that we have little guidance about how to do it, or at least, we do not feel the strength of arguments the way we feel the strength of violence. Some disagreements must be decided violently and thus justice is a perpetual problem for us. The League of Shadows attempts godhood, to overcome mortality through organization, but achieves monstrosity, reducing men to brutes. Batman solves this problem by running terrible risks to his own sanity, only to learn in the aftermath that his education for rule isn’t complete.
Batman’s personal rule and his idea of political freedom for Gotham both seem viable solutions, so it seems at first a strange accident that Joker should emerge in The Dark Knight (2008). This new danger confronts a newly beautiful Gotham, ordered by prosecutor Harvey Dent who puts the fear of the law in the souls of criminals, with the silent backing of Batman, through Gordon. Instead of republican government thriving through strong, impartial institutions, we get terrorism, an attack on public confidence that undermine public institutions through private life. Joker seems insane—not just to ordinary citizens who fear him and are even revolted by his look and his behavior—but to organized criminals as well. But Joker necessarily emerges once Batman exposes organized crime as only a fake aristocracy, ultimately vulnerable to force as well as to argument.
The conflict between Batman and organized crime is best understood in light of Joker’s statement: This city deserves a better class of criminals! Joker agrees with Batman that if an aristocracy is nothing but money-grubbing, it isn’t an aristocracy at all, however violent. So he burns a mountain of money and he completes Batman’s destruction of organized crime. Joker prefers disorganized crime on the philosophical argument that chaos is true to being in a way that law or morality—even a gang of thieves needs some justice or they’d rob each other—is not.
Compared to the League, which presented itself as noble, Joker presents himself as ignoble, on the philosophical argument that the truth is ugly and facing it squarely is the only freedom available to human beings. He believes in this freedom as much as the League believed in the freedom afforded by moral purity. Both also agree that terror is the only way to deal with people. But they wanted to purify the decadent, hoping to save the rest. Joker might call this mere moralism or naivety. He wants to use terror as a test. Those who prove their strength in face of chaos, beginning with Batman, can join him in making a new future. Mocking the scientific jargon and Progressive hopes of our social scientists, Joker announces that he’s not a monster, but merely ahead of the curve. Mocking liberalism’s promise of safety and happiness, ultimately, he claims to be Progress incarnate, the newest and most powerful thing.
Gotham, once it becomes a city of law and order, suddenly, because of Joker, moves from injustice against the many ordinary people who are weak and peaceable, the victims of the brutal, to injustice against the few, the proud, and those who want to use their rare powers to rise to the top. This creates the possibility of an anti-political elite represented by Joker, who wants to prove the strength of rationality by bypassing the law altogether and destroying anyone less intelligent than he is. This is what makes him most terrifying, and Batman’s allies suffer at his hands accordingly.
Self-government and Revolution
This series of confrontations, which includes arguments about the dangers facing republican government, naturally leads to The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the most sophisticated political vision of the trilogy. By now, Gotham seems to have rid itself of both Batman and his enemies. It’s almost the America we know— without heroes and dedicated to nothing but egalitarianism, since there’s no one left who considered himself above the law. There would seem to be no more political or philosophical disagreements. Instead, Progress assures that there is also no more room for storytelling, because there’s nothing interesting left to say. Even Commissioner Gordon has to retire, since he is a remnant of an old world, where there were heroes and law enforcement required extreme measures. Yet Nolan considers a new threat, the rise of revolutionary politics, destroying law and order in the name of human equality, the ultimate threat to reason and the caricature of justice.
Batman is older and weaker, having suffered the wounds of his heroism, indeed he seems a broken man in body and spirit. Gotham doesn’t seem to need him, its police force finally seems to embody and encourage the public-spiritedness necessary for republican government. Even if they could use him in his broken state, he’s now public enemy number one, wrongly accused of Joker’s crimes. Someone must always take the blame, since human suffering is unceasing and unpredictable. The bat is still a symbol of fear, though people might decide it’s relegated to the past.
Another terrible threat from the past resurfaces, however: The League of Shadows. Since people who believe they are beyond evil are not likely to fear intelligently, it proves to be shockingly easy to prepare the downfall of Gotham from its underground. Since America seems to be in charge of the entire world, it proves very easy for a foreign threat, indeed ancient, to arrive in a new guise in the heart of our commercial empire. Batman himself, though he makes a spirited effort to repair his weaknesses with technology and to investigate the new threat, finds himself not merely overmatched, but despised as a fraud among warriors.
Without Batman, Gotham easily falls prey to Bane, a new antagonist who embodies ruthlessness and calls on fanaticism for service, against people too soft to make either preparations or sacrifices. In his victory, he reveals that The League cannot easily be defeated, and modernity cannot completely overcome the ancient, conspiratorial ways of life built on secrecy and treachery. At the same time, he reveals a remarkably astute criticism of America.
Bane’s victory is built on a twofold attack on the American middle-class way of life, from the top and the bottom. He corrupts business elites who are little better than the organized criminals Batman had once faced. They act without violence, largely, but their use of superior technology and conspiratorial knowledge leads to such a difference between rich and poor in Gotham that they cut themselves off from the love of the people, or even their respect. They are powerful only to the extent that money buys power.
But of course, if money is the only difference between people, there is no real difference—money isn’t virtue or vice. Further, the more money matters in people’s lives, the less can they aspire to independence. Independence of mind and spirit was of the essence for someone like Batman to appear. The wealthier Gotham gets, the more its rich and poor are opposed to each other. Although people don’t much believe in a public good or community, nobody has the freedom to take a comprehensive view of Gotham to detect its weaknesses, much less deal with them.
The other part of the attack on Gotham is the corrupting of the poor, those who are desperate enough to feel that they are above the law, too, in a strange way resembling the rich. In the underground, Bane finds willing or unwitting accomplices to help destroy the police force and therefore put an end to lawful order. This achievement depends on the use of technology, which shows something perhaps as dangerous as the divide between rich and poor. Gotham is divided between those who master technology and those who are ignorant of it. Exploiting this difference, Bane manages to turn the highest achievements of modernity against the people.
Suddenly, we are helpless before the spectacle of the French Revolution unfolding its Reign of Terror in Gotham, where criminals and demagogues, thugs and hysterics not only despoil the rich, but debase the middle classes. The former Commissioner, Gordon, is thrown out of his office, considered almost an enemy of the people rather than their protector. Left-wing politics shows up in its full tyrannic ambition, revealing an egalitarianism that is no longer defined, much less limited, by either law or mercy. These have been transformed into their opposites, cruelty and tyranny, by a complaint against the real injustices of Gotham which conceals much greater future injustices.
Bane thus reveals there is a kind of arrogance in the middle class’s ignorance of danger, neither organizing to defend property and decency against a criminal underclass nor honoring great men on whose virtues it might come to depend in a desperate hour. Ignorance of danger is not Progress, or even civilization, but a new form of decadence, and it is easily exploited by giving power to envy and resentment until they reveal a hatred of humanity, since the human condition is inseparable from suffering, mortality, and unwisdom.
It is against this shocking ugliness, a city brought to heel by a tyrant, that the heroism of Batman finally reveals itself. If previously the trilogy suggested that defeating terrible threats would suffice to solve the human problem in Gotham, now it offers a humbler attempt to rescue civilization, correcting triumphalism by an acknowledgment of the limits of institutions as well as heroes. Gotham is a danger to itself once it becomes peacefully prosperous, because it is divided when it comes to wealth and to technology to the point where it lacks coherence, but not enemies.
Good fortune is no more identical with virtue than bad fortune, nor is political freedom ever free of the need for caution and daring, as embodied by institutions and heroes. Justice is never fully installed, circumstances can always threaten even good arrangements, and the troubles of our nature never cease.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman faces more suffering than before and seems much more aware of his limits. His nobility therefore shines the brighter and so also does the dignity of politics, the sacrifices people make on behalf of Gotham, essentially fighting off barbaric enemies who have humiliated the pride of its civilization.
Fending off weakness and the rejuvenation of institutions under the threat of corruption is the great political difficulty of our times and Nolan directs his considerable talents to dramatizing it and offering America hope that’s been tested by hardship. This is a moderate defense of heroism and a prudent warning about the terrors of egalitarianism, which we have unwisely ignored, in the films of the most prophetic artist in America.
It’s time to revisit his work and try to understand our troubles through this mythological fiction that almost rises to the dignity of tragedy. We can learn from its becoming seriousness and consider again the foundations of law and justice, the requirements of citizenship and institutions that foster virtue rather than undermine it, and the difficulty of acquiring political knowledge and finding the right way to act in unhelpful circumstances.