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Batman's Listening Post


"Listening Post" by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, photo credit: Fenchurch on flickr

I saw this exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art a few years ago, and then again at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. A scene in The Dark Knight reminded me of it. You're looking at a set of little text displays that scroll snippets from online chats. Each display also has a speaker, and the effect of little clicking noises in patterns all around you was mesmerizing.

SPOILER WARNING! Please don't read further if you haven't seen the movie.


(Second photo credit: dmd on flickr.)

The scene, of course, is the one where Batman busts out with his "cell phone sonar" monitoring system to illegally wiretap half of Gotham. FISA 2008, anyone? That is probably the most direct bit of political commentary in the movie (which I don't mind because it's an important issue); the rest of the movie comments on politics and ethics in subtler, more general ways, but it's still very much an allegory for the current state of our country.

The Joker is a low-tech terrorist. He doesn't unleash any giant lasers or even nuclear weapons. He doesn't put any hallucinogens in your water supply. All he uses are knives and big barrels of oil. It's scarier because it seems more real. It's also scary because Batman is all about high-technology. He has no super powers; all he has is training and lots of money. You can't out-tech Batman, but you can out-smart him. I've always found all the TSA regulations ridiculous because the 9/11 hijackers did it with boxcutters. I'm sure it wouldn't be hard at all to sneak a couple of ceramic knives through all the security checkpoints. High technology can't save us. (Plus, I'm not sure the use of big barrels of oil as weapons is a coincidence...)

The messed up part of this movie is that, in the end, Batman loses. Sure, he catches the Joker, thus satisfying the studios with a nominal "happy ending", but it's not like they hadn't caught him before. He'll just escape again to wreak more havoc. No, Batman tries to stand up for what's right; he tries to prop up Dent as the "white knight" and do things by the book. But, in the face of the Joker's attacks, he loses his way. He illegally kidnaps a bad guy to use in a trial. (Inadmissible evidence, anyone?) He tortures a mobster by breaking his legs. He loses his temper and starts beating up the Joker. He gives up his principals one by one.

A lot of people complained about how Jack Bauer constantly tortures bad guys to beat "the ticking time bomb". In 24, it often works. The ends justify the means. What's different about The Dark Knight is that the torture rarely accomplishes anything but rob Batman of his humanity. The Joker is still ahead of him every step of the way. Dent is defeated. In the end, Batman does not come out unscathed: He supposedly takes the fall for the crimes of Two-Face, but it's not really a stretch, because he's just as responsible for what ultimately happened. Batman has to leave in disgrace.

I'm amazed that Nolan basically turned Batman into a cautionary tale... Well, let's not dance around it: Nolan turned Batman into George W. Bush (but by extension the whole country that elected him). The brilliance of it is that we all want to like Batman. He's supposed to be the hero. But Nolan says that, even if we have the best of intentions, we still have to be careful. If we follow evil and act purely in reaction to it, we follow it to Hell.

If I have one complaint about this movie, it's that it doesn't really show us the alternative. If Batman stuck to his principals, would Harvey Dent still be intact? Would Gotham have been better off? Or would even more people have died? Was any of this avoidable? The Dark Knight paints a rather bleak picture of the state of humanity. This is not a hopeful movie, but then... these are not hopeful times.

See also my initial review and my second review.

Comments (1)

dude... why so serious?

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