Pundits always read more political content into movies than filmmakers ever admit to putting there. Zack Snyder’s 300, for one, was labeled a pro-Iraq-invasion war whoop. This summer’s blockbusters have been a mother lode for fans of subtext. And popcorn movies are great vehicles for the transmission of ideas because, unlike overtly political films such as Rendition and Redacted, people actually go see them.
Iron Man offers a subliminal fantasy about American military technology cleaning up Afghanistan with surgical precision. WALL-E contains eco-fable overtones that conservatives have decried as a screed against consumerism. (Liberals saw it that way too — and loved it.) Even Hellboy II gets political, denouncing strip-mall mania as hordes of warriors take arms against modern civilization.
And now the Batman has swooped in. The Dark Knight may be the richest and most potentially subversive of all — a thoughtful, politically astute treatise about America’s image problems since the U.S. escalated the war on terror and invaded Iraq. In the bleak story line, a cell phone is used to detonate a bomb (shades of a real-life terrorist attack in Spain) and a crater left by a blast calls the World Trade Center ruins eerily to mind. The movie even includes a subplot in which (spoiler alert? Come on, you’ve already seen the thing, like everyone else on earth!) Batman secretly uses all of Gotham’s cell phones to track the Joker. Morgan Freeman’s character is so outraged that he resigns faster than you can say ”wiretapping scandal.”
It’s tough to miss the fact that it’s our hero, Batman, who’s often bending and breaking rules. The Joker and his increasingly emboldened gang are plainly terrorists, and Bruce Wayne justifies his own rough vengeance to trusty butler Alfred by growling, ”They crossed the line.” To which Alfred counters, ”You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan admits to letting the current political climate seep into the screenplay. For better or worse, this particular scene could be interpreted as a message aimed at President Bush: Think twice about telling terrorists to ”bring it on.” Because they will.