Jul 22, 2008

The year the superhero died

Hilzoy grapples with the constitional implications of The Dark Knight:
Batman acts outside of the law, but does so for what he – in his and our minds – believe is the greater good. When the movie starts, though, we learn that there are new copycat Batmans, trying out the vigilante’s hat for themselves. And what’s to stop them? After all, Batman doesn’t have any real legitimacy. Why does he get to dress up as a bat, while others can’t?

While these imitation Batmans are fairly harmless, the Joker is a far different story (Ledger/Nolan’s Joker, to be precise). The Joker – like Batman – is acting for his own reasons. And like Batman, he acts outside of the law. In short, the Joker is the ultimate logical implication of “the Batman” taken to its most extreme.

From here, you can see the connection to the problems with the unitary executive and Yoo-ism in all their glory. These people broke the law, but did it for subjectively good reasons (or let’s assume they did). Except for the US Attorney scandal, there’s no evidence that they’ve been breaking the law (torturing, spying, etc.) for naked political reasons.

But once the legitimacy threshold is crossed, it’s hard to see how Jokers won’t eventually arise. After all, if we can break the law to beat terrorists, why can’t we break the law if we’re convinced (really firmly convinced in our heads) that electing Democrats or Republicans will destroy the country?

Unbounded executive authority will inevitably be abused – and that’s frankly the main reason why we should be punishing people. We need to halt it before it gets out of hand, as it inevitably will – indeed, as it already has.

The movie wrestles with all this – although sometimes in a cheesy heavy-handed way. Batman for instance has problems constraining himself to acting “good.” And that’s, ultimately, what’s interesting about the movie – its rather dark implication that Batman causes more harm than good.

The movie is good — for the first hour and a half at least — with a glassy beauty and slow-building stealth that showed Nolan to be a keen student of Michael Mann's Heat. The score, in particular, is wonderful — building rhymically in the build-up to action and then cutting out altogether for the action itself: all you hear is the pelt of the bullets and the crunch of the bazookas. And they finally junked the batmobile for a fantastic new bike. I never got the batmobile. Who wants to see a superhero all couped up in an armor-plated car? Every time has to do something heroic he has to stop, park, undo his seatbelt, get out and then, if he's not too late, get stuck in. Not that Batman performs all that many heroic acts in the new moviel; at one point he even saves the wrong person. Together with Hancock, it adds to the sense that this is the summer of zero-sum heroism. It's the year the superhero died. Or at least sufferd a prolonged attack of doubt about the efficacy of unilateral action and the limits of unchecked executive power.

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