Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy about the superhero Batman is considered one of the greatest trilogies of all time; the films made over two billion dollars at the box office and have inspired many other superhero films, such as Black Panther or Man of Steel. The action scenes, performances, and music in the films were all praised by critics. But these reviews seem to avoid any criticism of the troubling messages conveyed in the trilogy, specifically messages of right-wing nature.

The politics of the themes of the second film (The Dark Knight) in relation to terrorism, torture, and surveillance are clear just from a summary of the plot, but they become particularly noticeable when viewed in the context of the time. The Dark Knight was released in July 2008, towards the end of George Bush’s presidency.

This was less than seven years after the September 11 attacks; six-and-a-half years after the PATRIOT Act gave the American government unprecedented powers to spy on its citizens; four years after the abuse and torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by the US military and CIA was revealed to the public; two years after the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that the military commissions used to try prisoners in Guantanamo Bay violated the Geneva Convention.

The film focuses on Batman’s struggle to defeat the Joker, a mass-murdering terrorist. Batman is willing to use extreme methods to fight crime. At the start of the film, he flies to Hong Kong, where he kidnaps a foreign national and brings him back to America in order to interrogate him, just as the CIA abducted hundreds of suspected terrorists across the globe in the years after 9/11.

“Batman has sacrificed people’s liberties (without their consent) in order to protect them.”

Batman must fight the Joker, who is portrayed as impossible to reason with (“Some men just want to watch the world burn”) – a very right-wing view of terrorism and crime.

Later, Batman – who is a billionaire businessman, not a police officer or elected official – is allowed to interrogate the captured Joker in a police cell. He is left unsupervised, and immediately tortures the Joker; he hits him, uses his head to shatter a mirror, and threatens to kill him.

The American right supported torture in the 2000s, while the left decried it as barbaric. However, the Joker later escapes, blows up a hospital and announces his plans to take control of the city of Gotham. Batman uses his company’s technologies to design a surveillance device that illegally spies on the entire city; this is shown to be necessary in order to find the Joker, whom Batman apprehends. Batman has sacrificed people’s liberties (without their consent) in order to protect them.

At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman falsely admits to being a murderer, in order to maintain the city’s faith in its justice system by hiding the crimes committed by District Attorney Harvey Dent. He is vilified by the public and hunted by the police, but the viewer knows that he has done what is necessary. Is Batman meant to represent Bush?

When the final film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, came out in 2012, Bush had been out of office for four years, replaced by Obama. Christopher Nolan nevertheless found new right-wing themes to discuss. In this sequel, Batman’s opponent is the terrorist Bane; Nolan’s target is the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“The concept of Batman (and indeed of any superhero) is inherently right-wing.”

Occupy Wall Street had been created less than a year earlier, and involved protesters camping out in New York’s financial district and demonstrating against economic inequality. Meanwhile, in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman must battle Bane and his army after Bane executes the mayor of Gotham, rules the city with an iron grip, empties the prisons of criminals (in a parallel to the Storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution), and literally kills the rich and powerful after show trials. The US military is shown to be powerless against this; Batman, of course, is able to save the city.

But perhaps all of this focus on the individual films is missing the point. Nolan certainly embraced a right-wing message, but I would argue that the concept of Batman (and indeed of any superhero) is inherently right-wing.

Batman is a rich and powerful businessman in a city with high crime rates. What would his options be? He could use his vast wealth to fund community programmes and rehabilitation centres. He could use his company’s resources to design new technologies to reduce poverty in the city.

He could use his influence to run for political office, where he would have the ability to invest in poorer communities and to change the police’s focus. What does he do instead? He goes around at night and literally punches criminals.

And we applaud him for it.