The War on Terror as Depicted by the Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) brings the War on Terror to Gotham through the character of the Joker, the embodiment of pure terror and chaos. The parallels between The Dark Knight and the War on Terror are unmistakable, Gotham stands in for New York City, the Joker’s attacks stand in for Islamic terrorists, and the Batman’s mass surveillance stands in for the government’s. Nolan makes ample use of both the imagery of the 9/11 attacks and almost ripped-from-the-headlines terrorist attacks are used to explore both the War on Terror and human nature’s darker aspects.

One notable moment in the film is the scene on the ferry boats as the passengers debate whether to trigger the explosives on the other boat. This is essentially reminiscent of a scenario commonly known as “the prisoner’s dilemma” with the added bonus of there being no least worst option open to both groups. The imagery of this sequence is unmistakable, it plays upon the imagery of the ferries and little ships which attempted to evacuate the victims of the 9/11 attacks in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. For those interested in this topic, I’ve found and attached a documentary about these boats and their crews narrated by Tom Hanks.

I found the Joker’s assassination attempt on the mayor to be most interesting. This is an issue which is considered by major politicians today, as is shown by the fact that Barrack Obama is giving a speech behind bullet proof glass at the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the attached clip. The Dark Knight’s omission of a similar device is interesting given this context.

A final aspect of the War on Terror which has informed The Dark Knight is the targeting of so called “soft targets,” places without large amounts of security and large numbers of people. The Joker’s bombings of hospitals were a clear example of this. This was a fear in the years before the film was released and has recently resurfaced. I’ve linked to an NBC article which explores this concept in greater depth. 

Finally, I’ve linked an academic paper on the relations between The Dark Knight and the War on Terror that explores this topic in more detail that I can in this blog.


  1. To expand on Batman as a parallel to government surveillance, Batman is a vigilante using seemingly limitless power to enact his justice when protecting Gotham. The question arises whether or not the people of Gotham can trust him with that much power and if the protection is worth it. In the real world, the issue is whether or not increased surveillance and a decreased level of privacy are worth the added safety that comes from it. In both cases, the issue lies in accountability. Although in the grand scheme of things, the intentions behind both Bruce Wayne’s Batman and the government’s surveillance seem good, there is not much standing in between them and the people if something turns bad. That possibility and conflict will always exist. Just like at the end of the film when Gordon speaks about the police hunting down Batman perpetually, there will always be resistance to increased government surveillance as a means of combating terrorism. At the end of the film, Batman is not a needed hero because he crosses lines and violates rules, but he is a deserved hero because he will fight tirelessly and selflessly for the city of Gotham. He may not be perfect but he is the best option that Gotham has after the failure of Harvey Dent. The same may be true for government surveillance.

  2. Thanks for sharing this! The boat lift documentary was a great clip. I had no idea the boat lift of 9/11 was the largest sea evacuation in history.

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