Sovereign Dictator on a Boat: Carl Schmitt and the Dark Knight

The so called “Crown Jurist” and legal philosopher of Nazi Germany, Carl Schmitt, once said, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”[1]. Not only is this true in the realm of real world politics, but also in the world of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and this essay will reveal the Schmittian nature of a particularly interesting scene in the film wherein we see the rise of a so called “Sovereign Dictator” on boat.

However, before one can jump into the analysis of Schmittian ideas in the film, one must first understand what Schmitt means when he talks of “the exception”. Schmitt considers politics to be made up of norms, that is, a set of laws to which the populace adheres and the state enforces. However, the world is not always normal, according to Schmitt, and such abnormalities e.g. terrorist attacks such as 9/11 or the Burning of the Reichstag in the case of Nazi Germany, require a form of suspended law in dealing with them. This “exception” from the legal norms is what, according to Schmitt, makes or breaks a sovereign (as per his definition)[2].

Another important point that must be noted lest we deviate from Schmitt’s true ideals, is that he thought the sovereign should have absolute power subject to no legal oversight, for such oversight would contradict the position of the sovereign who decides upon the exception. Basically, if there are legal constraints upon the sovereign’s power in times of crisis, then the sovereign has not fully suspended the legal norms and is thus, according to Schmitt, not a true sovereign or, as he likes to say, “Sovereign Dictator”[3].

While watching Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, one scene in particular brought out the little Schmittian in me. At 1 hour 59 minutes into the film, a scene begins in which there are two boats laced with explosives, as part of a social experiment set up by the so called “Joker”, and carrying different people. On one boat, convicts from the local prison (accompanied by police to maintain “order”); on the other, average people escaping a doomed island (accompanied by the military for some undisclosed reason, presumably, to maintain “order” as well. The catch: each group has the detonator to the other’s explosives.

So next, one might rightfully ask, “why is a sovereign dictator needed at all?” Well, according to Schmitt, normality is needed “[f]or a legal order to make sense…”[4] and this normality cannot occur via the existing legal channels because that reliance on the law in a situation of absolute abnormality leads to “…haphazard and unpredictable results…”[5] and thus one person must step up to the plate to help regain normality. This person is, in Schmitt’s words, the “sovereign”[4].

Here then, one could say “well, during the scene the police act as the sovereign dictators controlling the peoples actions ie. preventing them from blowing up the other boat, therefore this essay is telling us what we already know”, but to that I say nay. As per Schmitt’s definition of a sovereign dictator, the police on the convict’s boat and the military on the civilian’s boat could not be considered sovereign dictators since they are still working within the legal framework established by Gotham or, to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “…the sovereign decision cannot be guided by existing material law”[5] therefore there must be another sovereign in the scene.

As viewers of the film are aware, a situation of normality is in fact regained so thus the logical question becomes: “If the police/military are not the Sovereigns, then who is?” To answer this question one need only watch 11 more minutes where at 2 hours and 10 minutes a burly African American male convict (who’s facial tattoos remind me of Mike Tyson’s) steps up to the plate! This unsung hero, this “silent guardian”, this “watchful protector”, this “Dark Knight” transcends the rule of law, namely the prisoner-jailer mentality of power over the former by the latter, and takes control in an abnormal situation. This man reaches out, grabs the detonator from the guard who watches idly as the rule of law is broken and new system is formed, and proceeds to toss it out the window of the ship in defiance of Joker’s wishes for total chaos. This man who transcends the normal laws of a nation to impose a state of exception, that is to reiterate, a total suspension of existing laws, is the epitome of a Schmittian Sovereign Dictator on a small scale.

Thus, intentionally or not, Christopher Nolan included, through this scene, a very interesting point about sovereignty and the rule of law in abnormal situations.



1: Schmitt, Carl. “Definition of Soverignty.”Political Theology, Four Chapters on theConcept of Sovereignty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 5.Print.
2: Schmitt, Carl. “Definition of Soverignty.”Political Theology, Four Chapters on theConcept of Sovereignty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 5-6.Print.
3: Schmitt, Carl. “Definition of Soverignty.”Political Theology, Four Chapters on theConcept of Sovereignty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 11-12.Print.
4: Schmitt, Carl. “Definition of Soverignty.”Political Theology, Four Chapters on theConcept of Sovereignty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 13.Print.
5: “Carl Schmitt (Stanford Encyclopedia ofPhilosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, n.d. Web. 1Apr. 2013. <>

Helpful Links: Schmitt’s “Political Theology, Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty”

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