I went with some friends last night to see an outdoor showing of The Dark Knight in DC. By now I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and find it ultimately way too drawn out and violent for my interest. I am also familiar with the critiques – particularly of the third film of the series, which I haven’t seen – that suggest that, despite its platitudes to “heroes we need, heroes we deserve” and the like, the underlying message is essentially status quo. Regardless, it was a good excuse to sit outside and see some friends. However, I noticed something in the film last night that I had never noticed before, and that I hadn’t seen mentioned elsewhere – the subtle legacy of colonialism.
What I noticed was a fairly minor plot point – a story told by Alfred to Bruce to reflect on the character of The Joker and the limits of Batman. The story goes like this:
A long time ago (during the colonial period or maybe just after? The exact time isn’t specified) Alfred was serving as an advisor to the administration in Burma. The administration was attempting to buy the loyalty of “tribal” leaders with loads of precious stones. However, they quickly learned that the stones were being stolen by a bandit as they made their way out of the city. After six months of investigation, they couldn’t figure out who the bandit was, his motivations, or his location. One day, Alfred was out in a village inquiring about the bandit when he saw a little boy with a ruby “the size of a tangerine.” It was then that he realized that the bandit was simply throwing the gems away. He wasn’t out for any rational purpose, he simply wanted “to watch the world burn” as Alfred so famously puts it.
Later, Bruce asks Alfred if they ever caught the Bandit. Alfred says “Yes,” and Bruce asks what it took to catch him. Alfred replies, “We burned the forest down.”
Think about this for a second, and ask who it was in this story who wanted to “watch the world burn.” The bandit was stealing jewels from a colonial administration that were being used to buy off the loyalty of native leaders – potentially he killed some of these colonial cronies in the process, but Alfred doesn’t mention that. After he stole the gems, he simply threw them away, leaving them for villagers and children to find. His intention might not have been benevolent, but in comparison to the response his actions were trivial, and potentially beneficial to the Burmese natives – hold back the colonial administration, and redistribute wealth at the same time. It was Alfred and his cohort who burned the forest, not the bandit. Perhaps that’s what the Bandit wanted all along – is that what Alfred is trying to suggest? Given the history of colonialism, and the evidence offered in the story itself, I don’t think it follows that this bandit was a mad man like The Joker. Instead, this story should make us reflect on the madness of colonialism and other oppressive systems – that they would go to such extremes to protect their power and hold on to a few precious stones – and think about who it really is who not only wants to “watch the world burn” but to actually burn the world to the ground.