21st Century Films

When Mass Surveillance is Necessary: The Dark Knight (2008)

the-dark-knight-poster-12In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a terrorist. To find the Joker, Batman (Christian Bale) asks Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to monitor the cell phone communications of the citizens of Gotham without their knowledge or consent. The film suggests that mass surveillance is necessary when there is an imminent threat from terrorism.

Although it is never stated in the film, the Joker is a terrorist. According to the FBI, domestic terrorism is defined as acts “intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”1 The Joker’s acts of terrorism include assassinating public figures, kidnapping, blowing up a hospital, firing weapons at unarmed civilians, and inciting the public to kill a civilian. The Joker describes himself as “an agent of chaos.” As a terrorist, his political aim is to overturn the political order in Gotham and create a state of anarchy.

When the Joker places explosives on two ferries, there is an imminent threat from terrorism. If the Joker is not caught, the people on the ferries will die. To locate the Joker, Batman asks Lucius to engage in mass surveillance. Although Lucius feels that it is “unethical” and “wrong”, he decides that saving the lives of civilians justifies a short-term violation of the Gotham citizens’ right to privacy. Batman and Lucius agree to use mass surveillance on one condition: When there is no longer an imminent threat from terrorism, the mass surveillance will end.

Mass surveillance can be used for good or evil, justice or injustice. In The Dark Knight, Batman, the “watchful protector” of Gotham, uses mass surveillance for good: to catch a terrorist. The U.S. government has also used mass surveillance for good. According to the National Security Agency, mass surveillance has helped thwart 50 “potential terrorist events” around the globe since 911.2 However, in a country without a fair justice system, mass surveillance could be used by the government to punish citizens who are not guilty of any real crime. The danger with mass surveillance is if the government is no longer the protector of the people like Batman, but becomes the enemy, like the Joker.


  1. “Terrorism 2002/2005,” F.B.I., accessed June 1, 2016, https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005
  2. Sean Sullivan, “NSA head: Surveillance helped thwart more than 50 terror plots,” Washington Post, June 18, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2013/06/18/nsa-head-surveillance-helped-thwart-more-than-50-terror-attempts/


  1. I just found the whole subject interesting in the film itself for the point on how difficult decisions must be made for the sake of a greater good. Even if we may not agree with such decisions, even though it might put as odds with our favorite heroes, it’s enough to make us understand how our justice system is not always as fair as we’d like to think it is. If our superheroes have to make the unfair decisions as well on such occasions, it reaffirms how realistically dark and gritty even our superhero genre would become thanks to The Dark Knight trilogy.

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  2. Fortunately, mass surveillance in the U.S. ended in 2013 because we have a fair justice system. Also, it was very farsighted of our leaders to use the word war (as in War “On” Terror…state of emergency…emergency powers) in a judicious, non-cynical, non-venal sense. Otherwise, such a war could have been infinite. But thankfully the War “On” Terror is also now over. All of it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

    Kinda like that feeling of comfort I felt upon learning that 2 Intelligence Company operators “work as professionals in the business community” in Toronto. Of course, that quote is from Wikipedia so it surely can’t be true in any way. 🙂


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