Josiah Lippincott 

Superhero movies are mostly garbage. The bloated Marvel franchise with its eye-rolling “snappy” one-liners, bloated CGI budgets, and sprawling storylines exemplifies the state of the genre.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, however, is an exception. His films rise to the level of art, dealing with serious themes like civilizational decline, the nature of a democratic people, and the question of tyranny and Caesarism. Even more than a decade after their release, these films retain their literary merit and provide a helpful artistic lens for thinking about our own political crisis.

Modern America is in a state of profound decline. Nearly half of the country believes, with good reason, the last presidential election was stolen. The last two years of COVID panic have brought economic upheaval, an endless state of emergency, and the complete politicization of medicine. Crime is up. Murder-rates have hit an all-time high in a dozen American cities this year. Inflation ratchets upward. The war in Afghanistan revealed that America’s military, “the most powerful in the world”, is a paper tiger incapable of winning wars against third-world tribesmen.

America’s basic infrastructure is breaking down. The blight of boarded up windows, riots, and feces mark our urban centers. Public brawls are now commonplace. So too are “flash robs,” in which gangs of urban youths stage orchestrated smash-and-grab hits on upscale stores from San Francisco to Minneapolis.

America, like the fictional Gotham, is a regime increasingly dirty and crumbling, her energy and youthful optimism spent. Such times of crisis bring out forces unseen and forgotten in times of peace. Nolan’s films explore those forces. Batman Begins, the first movie in the Nolan trilogy, introduces Ra’s al Ghul as the ostensible villain and the leader of the League of Shadows, a subterranean society that audits civilization, and intervenes in times of moral disaster.

Ra’s and the League represent the return of nature and the cleansing fire that sweeps away decadence. In the film, Ra’s al Ghul explains that the League of Shadows is a transhistorical force that always emerges in times of decline in order to put disordered regimes out of their misery. His plan, in the case of Gotham, is to destroy the regime through a fear-inducing airborne toxin. The people dominated by fear and despair will enter into a crazed orgy of violence that will tear the city apart and allow the survivors to start over.

Bruce Wayne – Batman – rejects this solution. He wants no part of the cleansing fire. Instead, he wants to somehow save Gotham from itself—to become the singular man of wealth and power, the prince who reforms the dying regime through sheer force of will.

Bruce Wayne’s rejection of the League of Shadows’ mission reveals, however, the problematic character of Batman as a hero. Ra’s al Ghul is Wayne’s mentor and teacher. He takes him in at his lowest point—as Wayne explores the criminal underworld in hope of finding answers for his parents’ murder—and trains him in the martial arts. What Ra’s wants most of all is for Wayne to serve as his right-hand man and lead the League of Shadows back to Gotham, to use his influence to lay waste to the entire corrupt system.

As a test of Wayne’s commitment to “true justice” Ra’s al Ghul tasks him to execute a murderer in front of the League. Wayne refuses. His pity takes over. The murderer, he says, deserves to stand trial. When Ra’s Al Ghul points out that a fair trial is impossible—corrupt bureaucrats will prevent justice from being done—Wayne merely shrugs his shoulders and doubles down on his principled stand against unsanctioned killing. Unwilling to participate in the execution, he goes further and saves the murderer’s life by attacking Ra’s Al Ghul and burning down the League’s headquarters.

Bruce Wayne won’t execute murderers but he has no problem betraying the men who took him in and trained him, killing some in the process. Problematic indeed.

In Nolan’s presentation, Ra’s al Ghul comes off far more sympathetically than one would expect. He is right about Gotham. The city is hopelessly corrupt. It’s officials, from judges to doctors, openly work with the mob. Violence is the norm. Bruce Wayne’s idealistic father tried to make a difference and got murdered for his efforts. When Wayne confronts Ra’s al Ghul later in the film, arguing that millions who would die if the League’s plan succeeded, Ra’s responds coolly: “Only a cynical man would call what these people have lives. Crime, despair: this is not how man was meant to live.”

Bruce Wayne ends up defeating Ra’s Al Ghul and foiling his plan, but at great cost. He preserves the corrupt and degenerate regime. His antics as the Batman manage to keep the regime limping along. His theatrical game of dress up attracts a new kind of evil, however.

Ra’s Al Ghul was a man with purpose. Brutal and harsh, perhaps, but his aim was, rhetorically at least, justice. The villains that appear in his wake have no such compunctions. The Dark Knight’s Joker is the pinnacle of this nihilistic evil. The Joker, like Batman, embraces the mask and symbolism.

In the words of Alfred, Batman’s butler, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker goes even further than Ra’s al Ghul in revealing the depths of Gotham’s degeneracy. The League of Shadows mission to bring cleansing fire to Gotham mimics the divine justice meted out on Sodom and Gomorrah. In the Biblical account, Abraham asks God to spare Sodom if he finds only ten men righteous men within its borders.

The Joker sets out to prove that no such ten men exist in Gotham. Everything is corrupt, even Batman’s own allies like Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.  A handful of Gordon’s officers turn out to be secret mob informants. The Joker leverages these traitors to help inflict such trauma on Harvey Dent, Gotham’s righteous avenging district attorney, that he turns into a murderous psychopath.

The Dark Knight ends with the main characters telling a series of supposedly noble lies to cover up Dent’s misdeeds. Batman and Jim Gordon tell the people of Gotham that he died a hero, not a maniac. Batman takes credit for the deaths Dent inflicted. Alfred burns the note from Wayne’s erstwhile girlfriend Rachel Dawes in which she reveals, before her untimely death, that she could never be with Bruce Wayne as long as he remained the Batman.

Gotham is so corrupt that its leaders feel that the only outright lies and propaganda can maintain a semblance of order. They do succeed, but again only at enormous cost. Batman defeats the Joker but must go into hiding. Again, the city limps on, spared of chaos and terror but at the price of a web of lies propping up the delicate peace that emerges in the Joker’s wake.

The most famous part of The Dark Knight is the ferry scene. At the film’s climax the Joker fills two ships, one full of regular citizens and the other full of criminals, with high explosives. He gives both ships the detonator to the other. In a twist of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the crews can choose to blow up the other ship. If neither one acts, then both ships will be destroyed.

Both sets of passengers refuse to destroy the other. It is a scene that Batman uses as evidence of the people of Gotham’s good character. But it is an ambiguous conclusion at the least. In the vote taken on the civilian ferry a vast majority elects to blow up the criminals. It is a lack of will that prevents them from acting on that vote, not diehard opposition to the Joker’s plans or principled unwillingness to commit murder.

Events earlier in the film make this point even clearer. At one point, the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital if a certain official isn’t executed. A significant portion of the people go wild in their attempt to execute the unfortunate soul. A mob attacks the building where he is held, another man attempts to ram the vehicle carrying him to safety, and even the police officer guarding the man attempts to murder him in cold blood.

Harvey Dent, at another point, (telling another noble lie) claims to be the Batman in order to comply with the Joker’s demand that the Batman reveal himself in order to stop the killing. The people clamor for the Joker’s will to be done. They are more than happy to betray the man who cleaned up their streets and kept the regime alive at the first sign of trouble. Nolan presents the people of Gotham as finnicky, prone to corruption and violence. They are happy to side with terrorists if it means eking out the smallest margin of security.

Compare this degraded populace to the one found In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, another film that deals with the problem of vigilantism and regime-founding. In that film, the people of the small western town at the center of the film have good instincts but no martial prowess. This is why they are dominated by the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valence. Batman’s Gotham is a fundamentally different kind of political order. The people have the use of force but bad character.

This corruption becomes even more clear in the last movie, The Dark Knight Rises. When Bane, with a reborn League of Shadows, returns to Gotham, he triggers a political revolution. Reminiscent of the French Revolution, the people, once liberated from the rule of law, immediately turn on each other in an orgy of violence and a brutal reign of terror.

It is noteworthy that Bane only manages to return because of a bumbling CIA. The American government proves powerless to disrupt the nuclear hostage situation he sets up. At one point, Jim Gordon listens to a speech by the American President saying he won’t abandon Gotham. Gordon points out, cynically, that this means the city is on its own.

Nolan’s presentation of corrupt institutions—from city to national government and extending to the national security state rings true, especially in our time.

That corruption doesn’t come out of nowhere either. There is something wrong with the people, the demos, out of which the regime is formed. The minute the power of the state disappears, the apparent peace that characterized the time between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises disappears. One begins to wonder if Gotham might actually deserve the nuclear hellfire that Bane and his master, Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, wish to visit upon it.

There are rays of hope. In the last film, Gotham’s police fight back against the terrorists and even prevail in armed conflict. A cowardly character, a minor official who serves as Jim Gordon’s right-hand man, displays a change of heart and dies fighting for the city.

Perhaps the Sodom standard of ten good men has been met after all. But one must admit that this is, ultimately, is a low bar.

The series concludes with Bane’s defeat and the threat of nuclear holocaust avoided. Bruce Wayne finds a wife and passes on the Batman mantle to an heir. The city honors their caped crusader in public, recognizing at last the service he performed for them.But in the end, the need for the vigilante prince, for Batman, remains. Gotham needs a man beyond the law to maintain order even after everything Bruce Wayne has done.

Caesarism makes an explicit appearance in the films. Harvey Dent defends the Batman in the second film. He argues that the people, standing by while “scum took over the city,” have appointed the Batman as their real leader. Dent goes on to compare the Batman to the dictators that the Roman people appointed to defend their regime in times of crisis. Rachel Dawes points out that the last dictator, Caesar, ended the Republic and replaced it with the empire.

Nolan’s films, and their conclusion, is an implicit endorsement of the turn to one-man rule. In times of profound degeneracy and corruption, when the scum takes over, the only solution is the prince. Machiavelli says something similar in The Discourses on Livy in Book III Chapter I: “Thus this good [the rejuvenation of the law] emerges in republics either through the virtue of a man or through the virtue of an order.” And, it turns out, the virtue of an order also depends on the virtue of singular men or princes.

Even in Republics, Machiavelli acknowledges that there is always a need for dictators and princes. John Locke in The Second Treatise echoes this thought. In one of the most influential defenses of republicanism and the separation of powers ever written, Locke provides a surprising endorsement of “prerogative” which he calls the power of the prince to do the public good where the law is “silent” and even “against the direct letter of the law.” The good prince, Locke says, cannot ever have too much of this power.


Dictatorship, of course, has serious flaws. Machiavelli, Locke, and Nolan all know this, and make the problems thematic in their work to various degrees. But all agree that there is a time and place for it. Regimes in decline where the people’s character has become corrupt enough simply cannot retain their democratic character and protect the public good at the same time. Vigilantes and Caesars become inevitable. Either that or the cleansing fire.

Returning a corrupt regime to its former glory is no easy task. At a certain point, the Ra’s al Ghul solution no longer appears as harsh as letting a regime survive. In Solzhenitsyn’s novel In the First Circle, a GULAG prisoner named Spiridon prays for the nuclear bombardment of the Soviet regime if that means the vicious tyranny will be obliterated. He is willing even to die in such a strike to ensure the destruction of the USSR’s monstrous evil.

A fate similar to Nolan’s Gotham potentially presents itself in our own political situation: dictatorship or hellfire. Which way Western Man, indeed.

Decent men may fervently hope that it will not come to such a choice. But in a time of decline, this binary may become inevitable. There is, of course, a third option: the complete rule of scum. The inmates of Arkham Asylum running the West for decades on end, maybe even centuries. The Soviet Union lasted seventy years before it finally imploded. Enough time to ensure the death of millions. The possibility of a beneficent Caesar died with the Tsar, who was brutally murdered by Communist revolutionaries. Nuclear hellfire (in the form of American warheads) never materialized. Instead, despair, decline, and murderous cruelty reigned supreme until they finally burned themselves out.

Nolan’s Gotham is ultimately only a regime in speech. Our reality is different. Outside the coastal urban epicenters of power, the character of the people remains decent and strong. The principles of the American founding, though under assault for over one hundred years, still maintains a powerful hold on the people. Perhaps this is a sign of hope. Maybe we can yet avert a more fundamental political crisis. One must certainly hope for such an outcome. But it will take great courage, foresight, and prudence to find our way out of this decline.

Such virtues are always in short supply, but especially now. It should be the foremost task of every conservative establishment to find them again, wherever they may lie. Now is no time for distractions. We must act if we wish to save the republic and find a way forward. Nolan’s artistic vision serves as a powerful warning as to the consequences of failure.