Widely recognized as one of the best superhero movies of the past decade, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is also much more than an action movie. It's a brooding allegory about power, personal responsibility, and the politics of urban life.
Here are ten ways you can look at The Dark Knight.
1. Vigilante justice is not justice.
One of the recurring questions in Dark Knight is whether Batman can truly dispense justice to a city of millions, based entirely on his personal ideas of right and wrong. Bruce Wayne constantly questions whether he should be playing the role of Batman, especially when he's not acting on behalf of the people he's trying to save.
2. Sometimes we need to believe in a lie.
Dark Knight ends with Batman taking responsibility for the crimes Harvey Dent committed when he became Two-Face. Batman decides that Gotham City needs a "hero with a face" more than the truth. It needs Harvey Dent to remain pure, and for Batman to become a tarnished hero. Partly, he reasons, the city needs this because vigilante justice is not justice (see 1). But partly it's because people need hope more than truth. Whether or not you agree with his assertion, it makes for an interesting philosophical debate.
3. A hero who has not been chosen by the people, no matter how good, can function exactly like a villain.
Joker haunts Batman because, as he might say, freaks attract freaks. Dark Knight teases the idea that Joker is in some sense Batman's dark double: Joker isn't corruptible (he has goals loftier than getting rich, or even taking control), and he's fighting back against the same criminal elements that Batman targets. Joker's a vigilante for chaos, while Batman is a vigilante for law and order. Joker tells Batman that they need each other, and that Batman can't exist without Joker - and it's strongly implied that Batman agrees. Power that's exerted secretly, like Batman's, always seems to spawn a form of uncontrollable anti-power represented by Joker.
4. How do you fight back against a system without justice? You can create enough chaos to destroy the system. You can become a criminal. Or you can make every decision arbitrarily, based on the flip of a coin.
Possibly one of the most disturbing and heart-wrenching messages of Dark Knight is that, in a world without justice, there is no way to fight the system without falling into corruption, apathy, or worse. We see Gotham City's three pathways to power quite starkly in Dark Knight. The mob chooses to create organized systems of power based on crime and exploitation. Harvey Dent eventually becomes Two-Face, who embraces the randomness of the coin toss. And Joker just wants to destroy every system, whether criminal or justice. Batman, of course, has a solution that's no better . . .
5. Surveillance is the darkest power.
In the climatic moments of Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne does a hack on every mobile phone in Gotham that turns the mobiles into surveillance devices. Everybody in the city has become a surveillance camera. Batman knows he's gone too far, and he leaves control of his total information awareness system in the hands of genius inventor Lucius Fox, who destroys it after Batman catches Joker and Two-Face. This is also the moment when Batman realizes that he has become the bad guy, and takes on the mantle of Dark Knight. He has taken on the power of Big Brother. He has revealed the latent authoritarianism in Batman.
6. Crime and anarchy are not allies.
Joker, representative of chaos and anarchy, picks Gotham's criminal overlords as his first targets. He kills them gleefully, burns their money, and derides them for clinging to an organized system. But Joker will never kill Batman, because he sees in Batman the same disorganized chaos that's inside Joker. Batman has no rules. He destroys the criminal system, but when it comes to building up a good, just system for Gotham he has to rely on public servants like Harvey Dent. Batman is the chaos of good. Joker is the chaos of evil.
7. The road to fascism is paved with good intentions.
Dark Knight is about Batman's transformation from vigilante good guy to proto-fascist surveillance warrior. Perhaps more chillingly, this wasn't so much a transformation as it was a revelation of the two sides of Batman that Bruce Wayne always knew were there. Batman represents the tug-of-war between a desire for social justice, and a desire to assume unquestioned control of a society.
8. Idealism is easier to corrupt than greed.
Harvey Dent's journey is from idealism to vicious apathy. He cares too much about Gotham, and then he doesn't care at all. He falls much harder than the criminal overlords of Gotham do, losing his sanity as well as his social position, because idealism makes people more vulnerable than greed does.
9. Megacities are more important political entities than nation-states.
Gotham City, a megalopolis whose bridges and skyscrapers are borrowed from dozens of citiscapes, is a symbol for megacities all over the world. It's no accident that Batman seems only to exist within cities — when he travels to China, it's as if he's never left Gotham, because Hong Kong is just an extension of Gotham's massive buildings and narrow streets. The relationships between megacities are becoming more important than those between nation-states. Political life is contained within megacities. The struggle for power and justice are urban struggles.
10. Every hero has two faces.
The story of every hero (and every villain) in Dark Knight unfolds in the tragedy of Harvey Dent's tale. There is no goodness without corruption, no order without chaos, and no justice without crime. We can only hope for fictional stories of pure, untainted goodness to sustain us through the dark, ambiguous times.