At a superficial political level, The Dark Knight is a deeply conservative movie. It sides with the Bush administration on questions of torture, as Batman is forced to beat information out of several villains in order to prevent further attacks. It even gives an alibi to the administration on warrantless wiretapping: Batman designs a secret method of eavesdropping on the city’s cell phone network, and the device is a crucial tool in Gotham’s salvation.

These heresies were not lost on the left. The Dark Knight was a critical and commercial smash, and practically the only people in America who quarreled with it were movie critics who saw it as an exoneration of President Bush. New York magazine’s David Edelstein, for instance, complained that Bruce Wayne had a “smirk” with “a trace of Dubya entitlement” and that Batman employed “FISA-like surveillance.”

But at a deeper level, the movie was even more conservative. The question The Dark Knight asks is, Can liberalism defend itself from illiberal threats? And the verdict it renders is, No. Throughout The Dark Knight, Gotham City’s institutions​—​the police, the courts, the mayoralty, the citizenry​—​prove incapable of answering the Joker’s assaults. And bit by bit, the city descends into Hobbesian anarchy. In the movie’s climax, the Joker has placed bombs on two ferries. One is filled with citizens trying to flee the city; the other is filled with criminals being transported from the city’s jail. Onboard each boat is a detonator which, the Joker claims, is wired to the other boat. The Joker informs his victims that if, in an hour, one of the ferries hasn’t been destroyed, he’ll blow up both of them.