Barbarians in Charge: Robert Joustra on The Dark Knight Rises

Robert Joustra, the senior editor of Comment magazine and a contributor to this book, emailed me this morning in response to my review of The Dark Knight Rises. If you’ve seen the movie and are thus not worried about spoilers, you might find his thoughts interesting, as I did:

Caution: Major Plot Spoilers Ahead!

Hi Jeff,

I enjoyed your review of The Dark Knight Rises very much. I think you hit it on the mark. I was struck on how essentiallyconservative these movies are: not in the ideological, but in the literal sense, “to conserve.” In each of the movies I had Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue open to the last chapter in which he admonishes us to “abandon the city” because “the barbarians are in the city”; that we wait for a new, “albeit very different, St. Benedict.” Some of the more profound moments in the movie are lost, as you say, to the unstoppable action. One such where the Commissioner confronts his second who retreats to his home, a man who eventually dies a heroes death, and tells him that “the city can only be saved from the inside.” That political polemic is something new: our dystopian Zeitgeist has now granted that the barbarians are in the streets, running the place. But now don’t retreat, take up arms, save it. The parallel in evangelical political theology in America played out rather cleanly in this. It works less well in other societies.

Ultimately, the Marxists, the Occupiers, and the revolutionaries are roundly discredited in the Dark Knight, and the conservation project goes on. But what you get so right is the question “why?” What are we conserving and why is it worth it? The perversity of a hero that sacrifices his life (or pretends to) for a city that, indeed, doesn’t deserve it is bizarre. Only the heroism, written through with 9/11 moments, of ostensibly emaciated police officers seems a moment worthy of redemption. But again, why? We conclude the League is wrong to invoke collateral damage on such a wanton scale, but we are not left with the impression their moral judgement of Gotham was essentially wrong.

Still, I’d show it to a political science class. It reflects, rather than invents, but as a reflection it’s honest enough with its plea for conservation, absent moral foundation. Conservatism, at least in that invocation, is probably finally bankrupt.

Thank you for a stimulating review!

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  • I’m still not sure what to do with this “why is Gotham worth saving?” question. Maybe my struggle with it is that asking it seems to presume the possibility that the people of the city could not be worth saving. I think the film just either (1) takes it for granted that they are, or (2) considers the possibility that they might not be as irrelevant. In other words, the film is working with an assumption here. And it’s a pretty fundamental assumption about the value of both human life and human institutions.
    Part of the assumption is that those, who take it upon themselves to decide when human beings are past the possibility of redemption, are always wrong. What kind of different assumptions would we have to assume in order to conclude that the city doesn’t deserve to be saved? I find this even more troublesome in light of believing in a Christianity that teaches that, in and of ourselves, there was nothing we’ve done to deserve God saving us.
    I also believe that asking almost any and every question that we can is worthwhile, but I sometimes catch myself forgetting what presuppositions have to be cast aside in order to ask certain questions.