Posts Tagged ‘Realism’

Realism vs. Idealism: The Politics of ‘The Dark Knight’

August 11, 2008

There is nary a medium like film, that possess the uncanny ability to entertain and enthrall, to move, engage, provoke (thought, feelings, ideas, debate, passions), stimulate, question, answer, provide wake-up calls or flights of escapism, all in the same breath.

The Dark Knight belongs in such a heady pantheon. ‘Message movies’ can often be too preachy/pedantic and heavy-handed; blockbusters are typically stillborn and brain-dead. TDK manages to avoid both, espousing heavy logic and weighty themes while remaining fleet-footed and breathtaking. It’s already inspired me to much thought and contemplation (as anyone who’s read anything I’ve posted can attest to, i.e. no one). But I never thought it would lead me to question the nature – and meaning therein – of life.

It’s quite the weighty concept, so I shall try to explain what I mean. The core is in the dynamic of Batman vs. The Joker, two beings so alike yet so disparate, as well as in the crime-fighting triumvirate of Batman-Jim Gordon-Harvey Dent. In The Joker you have a rare character that is an absolute: no half-measures, no self-doubt or second-guessing; he believes in unbridled, unrestrained chaos. He has no real sense of personal gain, except to mete out his philosophy (which sadly has a degree of merit to it) to the unsuspecting, “civilized” masses.

Batman represents Order, but is by no means unconflicted. Seeking ‘Order’ as a vigilante? That’s a contradiction in itself. But in this character you find one of the great contradictions in modern popular entertainment, an embodiment of the uneasy marriage of Idealism and Realism. He believes in weighty concepts like Justice, Freedom, Honor, and personal codes; these make him an Idealist, because these concepts are really fabrications of a society that knows it has to aspire to be more than mere wild animals and cannot come to the realization that, on a societal scale, they are Subjective and humanly Unachievable. Only a Realist will dare admit how pathetically unmanageable humans as a species are, how basic traits can never be washed out, and how drastic measures must be taken to maintain some measure of Discipline, Harmony, and ‘Order’.

Batman’s voice of Idealism is the beautiful (in either incarnation) Rachel Dawes, the perpetual Assistant DA and his lifelong friend. Lucius Fox (aka head of ‘Q’ Branch) chimes in when Batman unveils a secret surveillance system so comprehensive it would give the entire Bush cabinet woodies for months. But this is Batman the Realist, as spurred on by uber-butler Alfred, his voice of Realism and the person that “knows him [best].”

When The Joker subjects Gotham to a crime wave designed to force Batman’s hand, Alfred advises him to “endure.” Endure, even as people die? Bruce Wayne baulks at this, not because of codes but conscience. Even Rachel can spot this. But ultimately Harvey Dent, an even more layered and complex character – who yells at Batman, “You can’t give in!!” – makes Wayne realize that there is more to Batman than “giving in to the whims of a madman.” Batman does what any person in a position of great power and responsibility must – he keeps his Ideals in check and faces Real World problems with Real World solutions. Debates and codes and ‘honor’ never solved anything by themselves.

Then there is of course Harvey Dent. Lt. Gordon goes as far as labeling himself a Realist (implying Dent is an Idealist), which is interesting because while they both start out that way, neither ends as is. Going above and beyond the call of duty (e.g. faking his death without his family’s knowledge for their protection) displays Gordon’s Realist tendencies. But he loses the plot after the disfigurement of Dent.

Gordon ditches a raid on the whereabouts of The Joker in order to evacuate every threatened hospital in the city and protect Coleman Reese, letting the Idealistic notion of the sacredness of every solitary life overhaul the very Real World answer to the city’s woes: capture (and kill) The Joker. When Batman wants time to precede a later raid on the Joker’s hideout, Gordon disagrees, wailing heartbreakingly, “We need to save Dent! I, need to save Dent…”

Back to Dent. He’s an Idealist par excellence. Nicknamed ‘Two-Face’ for the appetite he nailed dirty cops with, he believes in speechifying and Justice and Hope and Peace; in Nolan’s incarnation, the only character in the DC universe more Idealistic than Dent is the flying boy scout himself, Superman. He believes in Batman’s vigilantism, calling Gotham “proud” and admitting he would be honored to continue the crusade if he’s “worthy.” But he shows Realist tendencies worthy of mention. He alludes to Rome’s system of suspending democracy and handing control to one person in times of crisis, essentially supporting ideas like Martial Law and suspensions of freedoms in the face of grave threats. And later, when he defends Batman to a press conference (Idealistically, I might add), he gives a speech that sounds Idealistic but, at its heart is Realist (things get worse b4 they get better: “The (k)night is always darkest before the dawn.” I could so see G.W. saying that).

Which brings us to the real world. I’ve been reading the most fascinating book: The Coming Anarchy, by Robert D. Kaplan; who knew doomsday prophecies could be so page-turning? It espouses such controversial ideas (most of which I’ve supported since time immemorial) as the pointlessness – nay, the flat-out dangers – of exporting ‘Democracy’ to the developing world, the dangers of peace (and wanting it above all things; just look at Prime Minister Chamberlain’s shameless appeasement of Nazi Germany), and how Idealists debate and teach but Realists must rule. He largely defends uber-Realists Kissinger and Nixon while chiding them for often going too far. And of course, he wins true hero status with me by rightly placing the burden of guilt on the West for majority of the mess in the so-called Third World – from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and Latin America. It’s a harrowing, intelligent, fascinating read.

A Realist's Guide to Doomsday Prophesy

A Realist's Guide to Doomsday Prophesy

From what I can tell, Disaster brings about Realism, Debacle Idealism. WWI was a debacle that “delegitimized” war according to Kaplan (Kaplan points out that, before the 20th century, war wasn’t seen as a bad thing; think of all the things achieved through revolution and battle). This ushered in a phase of Idealism never before seen, which allowed such things as Nazism and Imperialist Japan and, eventually, the USSR to gain an oppressive grip on civilization. WWII was a disaster, a wake-up call, after the most old-school of Realists Winston Churchill had to step in and clean up Chamberlain’s mess (notice that this didn’t stop Churchill from later being ousted, though). The Cold War kept us on our toes, and for the first time in a while the world realized that sometimes, to keep Order and Sanity, you had to do the unthinkable, if it was necessary (that said, I still think The Cold War was blown hideously out of proportion by paranoia and idiocy).

The end of the Cold War made everyone realize just how stupid we were to exist for decades just a hair away from nuclear annihilation; this Debacle led to renewed Idealism, which in turn led to disasters such as the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. But these were still sufficiently far away to induce a lull, leading us to poo-poo such ‘drastic’ anti-terrorism attempts as those weighted against Osama bin-Laden and friends. Of course until the disaster of September 11th.

Harvey Dent, the ‘White Knight’ of Gotham and unflinching crusader, is “brought down to our level” with stunning ruthlessness by The Joker. Does he go off the hinge as in the old incarnations, becoming an outright evil criminal? Not at all – he remains a crusader, logically; what changes is his 180-degree swing from ardent Idealism to murderous Realism. He goes after the dirty cops and the mob – people responsible for his disfigurement and the death of his beloved. Then he goes after Gordon.

Why, you ask? It’s the battle between newfound Realism and newfound Idealism. But the irony is that Realist Dent is punishing Idealist Gordon for mistakes that Realist Gordon made (i.e. trusting a crooked police squad). Dent seeks to shatter Gordon’s belief system(s), and teach him a very cruel lesson that he learned at the hands of The Joker: life is cruel, hard and unfair, and it’s pointless trying to be “decent men in an indecent time.” When Batman points out he doesn’t want to hurt a child to get his point across, Dent answers that it’s “not what [he] want[s], it’s what’s FAIR!!” And that’s true. Because the world is an unfair place, where bad things happen to good people – regardless of what you believe. It’s the true “Chaos Theory,” because ‘true’ ‘justice’ or fairness can only come from chance: “unbiased; unprejudiced…fair.” In this sense Dent – like the Joker – tempers his ruthless Realism with a touch of Idealism.

Dent ends up taking a swan dive, and Batman takes the fall. This is the most crucial part of this thesis. Why does this happen? Merely to give us a deep, dark Empire Strikes Back-esque ending and set up a sequel? You vastly ‘misunderestimate’ this film. Batman has finally – after 2 movies – learned the only way to make grounds in a world that’s as broken, corrupt, and misguided as ours. You’ve got to be a Realist decision-maker, while marketing Idealist tendencies to a lost public.

Kaplan points out how most politicians thrive on selling an Idealistic image to voters, who love someone who stands for their belief systems. But who can actually – effectively – govern that way? Leaders are those able to make tough decisions everyday that we wouldn’t even dare contemplating in a game of ‘Would You Rather?’. It means often doing the unpalatable, for the greater good.

Churchill knew that, and Batman does now, too. Give the people something to believe in (in this case, Harvey Dent) but do what needs to be done if you’re in a position to take the punishment and repercussions. The perfect marriage of Idealism and Realism. Because too much of the former can in itself morph into an unsightly dose of the latter. Just ask Hitler, or if he’s out of reach, try The Joker.