Batman movie trilogy promotes public servants, UIC scholar says

Public servants have long been portrayed in popular culture as bumbling or corrupt. But a few films — including the “Dark Knight”¬†Batman trilogy ¬†– present more nuanced characters that challenge Americans’ dim view of government workers, says a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In a paper that will appear later this year in the International Journal of Organizational Theory and Behavior, Sharon Mastracci, associate professor of public administration at UIC,¬†contrasts the Dark Knight trilogy’s characterizations of beleaguered Police Commissioner James Gordon and idealistic District Attorney Harvey Dent. The two illustrate a “classic debate” over the use of administrative discretion by public servants, particularly first responders, in following professional norms rather than bureaucratic rules.

Funeral Scene from "The Dark Knight Rises"

Police Commissioner James Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) speaks at the funeral of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who was killed after becoming the villain Two-Face.

“The human characters in superhero stories are of special interest because we see ourselves in them. Their depiction as ineffectual or corrupt can be acutely damaging,” Mastracci says.

Film is an influential medium, Mastracci says, because of its vast audience, longevity, and visual versatility — which allows it to dictate a perspective more persuasively than other art forms.

“Films that resonate do so because they delineate fault lines in a changing cultural landscape. The ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy has resonated internationally, and public servants are central to its story.”

Batman stories change from one decade to the next, she said, with darker and lighter characterizations of public servants reflecting the mood of the times. Whereas earlier Batman tales used Commissioner Gordon simply as a foil to move the story along, the new trilogy explored his back story, motivations and methods.

“I trace Gordon’s evolution across media — television, graphic novels, and film,” Mastracci said. “In this trilogy, Gordon develops alongside Batman, but also in contrast to Harvey Dent. Gordon does the best he can within a corrupt system, while Dent adheres to rules strictly. Dent doesn’t approve of the police’s collaboration with Batman, while Gordon accuses Dent of investigating officers to make a name for himself.”

Mastracci says the trilogy’s verdict on public service is “mixed.”

“Gordon, the flawed, rule-bending, expedient public servant, survives. The absolutist, law-abiding hero, Harvey Dent, is ultimately undone by his absolutism. Once one rule is broken, none are upheld.

“To the extent that these images represent contemporary society’s preferences, they suggest ambivalence about concentrated power and the idea of a faultless champion.”

Sharon Mastracci

In a previous paper, published in Rutgers University’s Public Voices, Mastracci analyzed TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer as public servant — a character licensed to kill for the protection of the public. Mastracci concluded that the show demonstrated the understanding that public service can exist outside the public sector, and that social capital is a legitimate, powerful weapon.

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