The Dark Knight: Alternatives to Reformist Politics

Dark Knight Poster

Dark Knight Poster

The Joker stole the show from the Bat in the latest installment of the Caped Crusader’s story. But let’s turn our attention back to the hero, or rather heroes of the story: Batman and Harvey Dent – and what they tell us about the nature of contemporary politics.

The Dark Knight is a send-up of starry-eyed reformism, represented here by the noble crusade of a Harvey Dent. He is the idealistic district attorney, determined to clean up the streets of Gotham, but corruptible enough to fall to the Dark Side. He turns bad guy, kills a few people in cold blood, and falls to his own death.

The message is clear: reformism doesn’t work, especially if there are malevolent criminals like the Joker around. Do gooders like Dent are corrupt(ible) too, even if they’re also the most righteous of the populace. Given the timid nature of reformist politics these days, which doesn’t really go far enough, this stance has something to be said about it.

Certainly, the popularity of the Dark Knight testifies to the enduring legend of the Caped Crusader, but its phenomenal box office performance may also spring from a sense of cynicism, disillusionment, if not fatalism. Evil and the lawlessness are simply unchangeable and intractable, forces that the Harvey Dents of the world simply can’t do away with, whatever their good intentions.

Batman and Commissioner realize how alarming Dent’s turnaround will be. Both men know that Gotham’s citizens will lose hope once they see the sham that was Harvey Dent. And so Batman agrees to take the fall. He makes this noble sacrifice to preserve the people’s faith in Dent’s goodness. And this, for the movie, is Batman’s heroic stance. He becomes the scapegoat, the pharmakos, much like Oedipus and Philoctetes of classical Greek tragedy.

But we viewers know the truth, unlike the poor citizens of Gotham, who will blunder around their lives believing in reformism. The picture is not very encouraging. If reform is simply a sham, a necessary illusion, won’t this merely heighten our cynicism and disillusionment with it and the world?

Even so, we are reassured by the movie that there is a Batman out there who will keep fighting, even if he has to become an outcast to do so. And here we’ve come to the issue of alternatives to reform, new ways of envisioning change. In the fantasy world, it’s the Dark Knight. But in the real world, who will it be? Revolutionaries may fit the bill, since, like Batman, they are criminals and rebels, hunted down by the very society they are trying to change. But if the world today has lost its faith in the left, and reformism is a sham, where now do we find the spark for change?

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