Looking at Batman as a Western Hero: ‘The Dark Knight’

With the recent release of the The Dark Knight Rises, I want to take another look at Nolan’s second Batman film. The Dark Knight, like many superhero movies, follows the generic conventions of the Western. As Robert Warshow says in his  article, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” Western plots are mostly about preserving the law on a frontier town. The Western hero is on the side of law and order, but he frequently has to resort to violence and even killing to protect order. This complicates his hero image and makes him morally ambiguous—much like Batman. The Western genre, which once comprised a major part of Hollywood’s film output, is now barely produced. Perhaps the Western is not gone, but instead reimagined in super hero films.

The Dark Knight strikingly parallels John Ford’s 1961 Western, The Man who Shot Liberty Valence. Following the typical Western plot line, Liberty Valance explores chaos versus order in the frontier. Ransom Stoddard—the equivalent of Harvey Dent’s character—is an Eastern lawyer hoping to bring order to the small Western town of Shinbone. When Stoddard first arrives, he encounters the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (the equivalent of the Joker), who teaches him “Western law.” Tom Doniphon (Batman) represents the quintessential Western hero, hoping to preserve order and oppose the chaos that Valance’s “Western law” represents.

Stoddard fiercely opposes Doniphon’s reliance on violence to deal with the threat of the outlaw. However, a final showdown between Valance and Stoddard forces Stoddard to draw his gun and fight back. Initially, it appears that Stoddard kills Valance and is thus a hero. However, Doniphon reveals that he—whilst hidden in the shadows—killed Valance in order to save Stoddard, who cannot shoot a gun. Yet, Doniphon gives Stoddard credit for killing Valance, which allows Stoddard to become a senator in the United States government and bring statehood to the old West.

While Stoddard assumes the role of hero at the state convention, Doniphon leaves and ultimately fades away in Shinbone’s history. It is important to see here that Stoddard did not kill Liberty Valance, because if he did, his role as a hero would be tainted by violence. Stoddard is able to retain his moral code, and assume the persona of a powerful leader because the people of Shinbone believe Stoddard defeated Valance. The Hero is no longer needed now that Valance’s threat has been neutralized and the people of Shinbone have a law abiding leader in Stoddard. In fact, after Valance’s death, Doniphon stopped carrying the gun that is so essential to the Western hero’s image.

This basic plot mirrors Gotham’s own struggle between the powerful villains and law and order. The new DA, Harvey Dent, hopes to clean up the streets of Gotham by using the law to incarcerate the criminals that have come to overrule the city. While Batman is somewhat glorified at the beginning of the film—“the criminals are running scared”—his actions are constantly called into question. Batman finds the laws that he strives to protect restrictive and often violates them. He violates extradition laws, kidnapping the criminals’ accountant. He tortures the Joker in the name of order. Just as Stoddard questions Doniphon’s approach, Dent also opposes Batman’s vigilante tactics. Batman, though fighting to protect Gotham, is positioned against the law, so the people of Gotham begin to wonder if Batman is actually adding to the chaos.

Other vigilantes masquerading as Batman ask him, “What gives you the right? What is the difference between you and me?” The difference is that Batman fights because he must. The Western hero’s very existence is tied to disorder. Even in the face of defeat, the Joker cackled that he and Batman were destined to “do this forever.” Whether it’s with the Joker or another criminal, Batman will always fight for order because it defines him. Once the anarchic threat that the Joker represents is eliminated, Batman becomes an irrelevant character. Batman is forced to leave behind his superhero identity; he can no longer wear his bat suit—just as Doniphon can no longer carry his gun.

At the end of both Liberty Valence and The Dark Knight, we discover that Doniphon and Batman respectively save their civilization from the threat of savagery and chaos. These two characters understand the importance of order and choose to defer their own heroism to protect the image of the law through both Stoddard and Dent. While the Westerner and the superhero are exciting, they are not stories of purity or even stability. Batman claims that “the truth is not good enough, sometimes people deserve more.” This quote mirrors the famous quote from Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” These two heroes cannot take credit for their victory. It is violence, chaos, and the fact that they work outside the law that vilifies Batman and Doniphon. The Western hero cannot be reintegrated into society because of his use of violence and his moral ambiguity. Neither Batman nor Doniphon can be a leading figure in the rebuilding of order in the aftermath of the chaos they participated in. Traditionally, the end of the Western marks the Westerner riding off alone. Just as Doniphon leaves Stoddard to accept the glory, Batman too must flee into the darkness because his transgressions are too much for society to bear.

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