“Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years… Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance… You are defending a city so corrupt, we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure.”
Ra’s al Ghul asserts Gotham City’s inefficacy and impotence to his former protegé Bruce Wayne while his agents begin their operation to terrorize and destroy the city. The scene evokes two warlords, verbally sparring over disputed territory: on one side stands the legacy of Wayne, bypassing (and even scorning) the official authorities of Gotham but also adamantly maintaining the city “isn’t beyond saving… There are good people here”; on the other, (allegedly) a far older and more violent cult of cyclical destruction, who believe they are a necessary evil akin to “a purging fire” that is “inevitable and natural” (Batman Begins).
Their conflict eventually comes to actual blows, but the fact that the fate of millions hangs on the outcome of this single conversation confirms, at the very least, that something is truly rotten in Gotham City. What kind of society gives rise to a figure such as the Batman, and attracts the deadly attention of an international terrorist organization? And why does the audience implicitly authorize the Batman’s use of force in the fictional Gotham, where they would likely condemn such actions in any real-world American city?
Max Weber (1864-1920) contends in his essay Politics as a Vocation (1919) that the monopoly on the use of legitimate force is the defining characteristic of “the state.” Though this argument is ethically problematic given that, without modification, it essentially boils down to “might makes right,” it has since been used as a key criterion of the “failed” state — that is, a government that has failed in many or all of its basic responsibilities and whose legitimacy is therefore called into question. Though the criteria and even the term itself have evolved over the 20th century, modern definitions of the failed (or “fragile”) state still prominently include “the monopoly on the use of legitimate force” (Fund for Peace). Further, the concept has expanded to accommodate the existence of failed governments at a regional or municipal level — including, in our case, failed cities.
In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Gotham is a failed city-state according the Fragile States Index published by Fund for Peace. The failures of Gotham’s “legitimate” government have fractured the city into several warring factions — the primary combatants being the Falcone crime syndicate, the League of Shadows, and the Batman. As in the real world, the ordinary citizens, elected officials, and law enforcement of Gotham align themselves with every faction, but often have little real power in any of them. Though many of the FSI’s “Indicators” apply to Gotham, a few are especially relevant:
Economic Decline: Early on, Bruce’s father Thomas tells us “the city has been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times” (Batman Begins). Roughly two minutes later in the film, both he and Bruce’s mother Martha are dead at the hands of Joe Chill, an impoverished, desperate gunman. Six minutes (read: fourteen years) later, assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes lectures Bruce on how little has changed since his parents’ death:
“Look beyond your own pain, Bruce. This city is rotting. They talk about the depression as if it’s history, and it’s not. Things are worse than ever down here. [Carmine] Falcone floods our streets with crime and drugs, preying on the desperate, creating new Joe Chills every day” (Batman Begins).
The film uses Chicago’s multilevel streets to great effect here, as Rachel drives she and Bruce down to a lower street where poverty and vice are painfully evident. Fund For Peace lists “growth of hidden economies, including the drug trade, smuggling, and capital flight” as one of the warning signs of a fragile state; this indicator will become even more important in The Dark Knight Rises (FFP).
State Legitimacy asks, “Are federal and/or local officials considered to be corrupt?” and “Does the government have the confidence of the people?” (FFP). In Gotham, corruption is the status quo. Judges accept bribes from convicted felons, even to the point of becoming an accessory to murder; police detectives steal from street merchants and moonlight as low-level enforcers for the mob; prominent psychiatrists perjure themselves for money and torment their patients to ensure the secrecy of drug trafficking operations. As for public confidence, Police Detective James Gordon quips, “In a town this bent, who’s there to rat to anyway?” (His partner is the mob enforcer mentioned above.) Near the film’s climax, when Dr. Crane’s fear toxin has poisoned the streets and Arkham Asylum’s inmates run free among the general populace, even a little boy (representative here of Gotham’s poorer classes) recognizes it is the Batman, and not the GCPD, who will set things right: “Batman will save us. He’ll come” (Batman Begins).
Finally, and most importantly, External Intervention. As applied to nations, this typically refers to aid received from other countries or organizations in the form of economic assistance or military support. In Gotham, though, it is the Batman who intervenes: he is “an external actor… responsible for many government functions and not at the behest of the government” (FFP). The Batman stops crimes in progress, he secures evidence against the perpetrators, and presses the police department and the district attorney’s office to prosecute; in short, he enables Gotham’s judicial systems to function as they are intended. He is also the only one capable of combating Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows, who have “infiltrated every level of [Gotham’s] infrastructure” — especially, it seems, the city’s SWAT teams and riot police (Batman Begins). The legal authorities of Gotham are helpless against these invaders, while the Batman is not; in fact, he is the only one protecting whatever tenuous sovereignty Gotham’s legitimate government still holds. These factors seem to indicate that the “state” of Gotham City has effectively defaulted its monopoly on the use of force to the Batman, a state of affairs confirmed by the film’s final scene, in which Jim Gordon signals for the Batman from the roof of GCPD Headquarters.
Returning to the question of “audience authorization” — I believe most viewers would point to the above reasons for our implicit approval of the Batman’s actions, even if unable to employ the specific vocabulary; Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index simply gives us a framework for trying to explain Batman’s origins. Interestingly, the FSI seems to also strengthen the notion that Batman, more so than any other comic book hero, is as much a product of his environment as he is of his own personal trauma.
What the FSI clearly does not do, however, is give us any readings on the morality of donning cape and cowl and slugging it out with Gotham’s lawless underworld. “Legitimate” is already a slippery enough term without lighting the Bat-Signal. In subsequent posts I will examine Batman’s code of ethics, especially compared to Gotham’s police and judicial authorities.
Batman Begins. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.
“CAST Conflict Assessment Framework Manual (2014 Reprint).” CAST Conflict Assessment Framework Manual. Fund for Peace, 2014. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. http://library.fundforpeace.org/cfsir1418
Weber, Max. “From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Bahasa Melayu Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction, by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills.” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. (Open Library). Oxford University Press, 1946. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6498314M/From_Max_Weber_Essays_in_sociology.