The Dark Knight Rises attests yet again to how Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicament of our societies. Here is a (simplified) storyline. Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, the previous installment of the Batman saga, law and order prevail in Gotham City: under the extraordinary powers granted by the Dent Act, Commissioner Gordon has nearly eradicated violent and organized crime. He nonetheless feels guilty about the cover-up of Harvey Dent’s crimes (when Dent tried to kill Gordon’s son before Batman saved him, Dent fell to his death, and Batman took the fall for the Dent myth, allowing himself to be demonized as Gotham’s villain), and plans to admit to the conspiracy at a public event celebrating Dent, but decides that the city is not ready to hear the truth. No longer active as Batman, Bruce Wayne lives isolated in his Manor while his company is crumbling ling after he invested in a clean energy project designed to harness fusion power, but shut it down after learning that the core could be modified to become a nuclear weapon. The beautiful Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, encourages Wayne to rejoin with society and continue his philanthropic works.
Here enters the (first) villain of the film: Bane, a terrorist leader who was a member of the League of Shadows, gets hold of the copy of Gordon’s speech. After Bane’s financial machinations bring Wayne’s company close to bankruptcy, Wayne entrusts Miranda to control his enterprise and also engages in a brief love affair with her. (In this she competes with Selina Kyle, a cat burglar Selina Kyle who steals from the rich in order to redistribute wealth, but finally rejoins Wayne and the forces of law and order.) Learning about Bane’s mobilization, Wayne returns as Batman and confronts Bane, who says that he took over the League of Shadows after Ra’s Al Ghul’s death. Crippling Batman in a close combat, Bane detains him in a prison from which escape is virtually impossible: inmates tell Wayne the story of the only person to ever successfully escape from the prison, a child driven by necessity and the sheer force of will. While the imprisoned Wayne recovers from his injuries and retrains himself to be Batman, Bane succeeds in turning Gotham City into an isolated city-state. He first lures most of Gotham’s police force underground and traps them there; then he sets off explosions which destroy most of the bridges connecting Gotham City to the mainland, announcing that any attempt to leave the city will result in the detonation of Wayne fusion core, which has been taken hold and converted into a bomb.
Here we reach the crucial moment of the film: Bane’s takeover is accompanied by a vast politico-ideological offensive. Bane publicly reveals the cover-up of Dent’s death and releases the prisoners locked up under the Dent Act. Condemning the rich and powerful, he promises to restore the power of the people, calling on the common people to “take your city back” – Bane reveals himself to be “the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99% to band together and overthrow societal elites.”1 What follows is the film’s idea of people’s power: summary show trials and executions of the rich, streets littered with crime and villainy… A couple of months later, while Gotham City continues to suffer popular terror, Wayne successfully escapes prison, returns to Gotham as Batman, and enlists his friends to help liberate the city and stop the fusion bomb before it explodes. Batman confronts and subdues Bane, but Miranda intervenes and stabs Batman – the societal benefactor reveals herself to be Talia al Ghul, Ra’s daughter: it was she who escaped the prison as a child, and Bane was the one person who aided her escape. After announcing her plan to complete her father’s work in destroying Gotham, Talia escapes. In the ensuing mayhem, Gordon cuts off the bomb’s ability to be remotely detonated while Selina kills Bane, allowing Batman to chase Talia. He tries to force her to take the bomb to the fusion chamber where it can be stabilized, but she floods the chamber. Talia dies when her truck crashes off the road, confident that the bomb cannot be stopped. Using a special helicopter, Batman hauls the bomb beyond the city limits, where it detonates over the ocean and presumably kills him.
Batman is now celebrated as a hero whose sacrifice saved Gotham City, while Wayne is believed to have died in the riots. As his estate is divided up, Alfred witnesses Bruce and Selina together alive in a cafe in Florence, while Blake, a young honest policeman who knew about Batman’s identity, inherits the Batcave. In short, “Batman saves the day, emerges unscathed and moves on with a normal life, with someone else to replace his role defending the system.”2 The first clue to the ideological underpinnings of this ending is provided by Gordon, who, at Wayne’s (would-be) burial, reads the last lines from Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some reviewers of the film took this quote as an indication that it “rises to the noblest level of Western art. The film appeals to the center of America’s tradition – the ideal of noble sacrifice for the common people. Batman must humble himself to be exalted, and lay down his life to find a new one. /…/ An ultimate Christ-figure, Batman sacrifices himself to save others.”3
And, effectively, from this perspective, there is only one step back from Dickens to Christ at Calvary: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:25 26) Batman’s sacrifice as the repetition of Christ’s death? Is this idea not compromised by the film’s last scene (Wayne with Selena in a Florence café)? Is the religious counterpart of this ending not rather the well-known blasphemous idea that Christ really survived his crucifixion and lived a long peaceful life (in India or even Tibet, according to some sources)? The only way to redeem this final scene would have been to read it as a daydream (hallucination) of Alfred who sits alone in the Florence café. The further Dickensian feature of the film is a de-politicized complaint about the gap between the rich and the poor – early in the film, Selina whispers to Wayne while they are dancing at an exclusive upper class gala: “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.” Nolan, as every good liberal, is “worried” about this disparity and he admits this worry penetrates the film:
“What I see in the film that relates to the real world is the idea of dishonesty. The film is all about that coming to a head /…/ The notion of economic fairness creeps into the film, and the reason is twofold. One, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire. It has to be addressed. /…/ But two, there are a lot of things in life, and economics is one of them, where we have to take a lot of what we’re told on trust, because most of us feel like we don’t have the analytical tools to know what’s going on. /…/ I don’t feel there’s a left or right perspective in the film. What is there is just an honest assessment or honest exploration of the world we live in – things that worry us.”4
Although viewers know Wayne is mega-rich, they tend to forget where his wealth comes from: arms manufacturing plus stock-market speculations, which is why Bane’s stock-exchange games can destroy his empire – arms dealer and speculator, this is the true secret beneath the Batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian topic of a good capitalist who engages in financing orphanage homes (Wayne) versus a bad greedy capitalist (Stryver, as in Dickens). In such Dickensian over-moralization, the economic disparity is translated into “dishonesty” which should be “honestly” analyzed, although we lack any reliable cognitive mapping, and such an “honest” approach leads to a further parallel with Dickens – as Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan (who co-wrote the scenario) put it bluntly: “Tale of Two Citiesto me was the most sort of harrowing portrait of a relatable recognizable civilization that had completely fallen to pieces. The terrors in Paris, in France in that period, it’s not hard to imagine that things could go that bad and wrong.”5 The scenes of the vengeful populist uprising in the film (a mob that thirsts for the blood of the rich who have neglected and exploited them) evoke Dickens’s description of the Reign of Terror, so that, although the film has nothing to do with politics, it follows Dickens’s novel in “honestly” portraying revolutionaries as possessed fanatics, and thus provides
“the caricature of what in real life would be an ideologically committed revolutionary fighting structural injustice. Hollywood tells what the establishments want you to know – revolutionaries are brutal creatures, with utter disregard for human life. Despite emancipatory rhetoric on liberation, they have sinister designs behind. Thus, whatever might be their reasons, they need to be eliminated.”6
Tom Charity was right to note “the movie’s defense of the establishment in the form of philanthropic billionaires and an incorruptible police”7 – in its distrust of the people taking things into their own hands, the film “demonstrates both a desire for social justice and a fear of what that can actually look like in the hands of a mob.”8 Karthick raises here a perspicuous question with regard to immense popularity of the Joker figure from the previous film: why such a harsh disposition towards Bane when the Joker was dealt with lenience in the earlier movie? The answer is simple and convincing:
“The Joker, calling for anarchy in its purest form, critically underscores the hypocrisies of bourgeois civilization as it exists, but his views are unable to translate into mass action. Bane, on the other hand poses an existential threat to the system of oppression. /…/ His strength is not just his physique but also his ability to command people and mobilize them to achieve a political goal. He represents the vanguard, the organized representative of the oppressed that wages political struggle in their name to bring about structural changes. Such a force, with the greatest subversive potential, the system cannot accommodate. It needs to be eliminated.”9
However, even if Bane lacks the fascination of Heath Ledger’s Joker, there is a feature which distinguishes him from the latter: unconditional love, the very source of his hardness. In a short but touching scene, we see how, in an act of love in the midst of terrible suffering, Bane saved the child Talia, not caring for consequences and paying a terrible price for it (he was beaten within an inch of his life while defending her). Karthick is totally justified in locating this event into the long tradition, from Christ to Che Guevara, which extols violence as a “work of love,” as in the famous lines from Che Guevara’s diary: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.”10 What we encounter here is not so much the “Christification of Che” but rather a “Cheization” of Christ himself – the Christ whose “scandalous” words from Luke (“if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes even his own life – he cannot be my disciple”(14:26)) point in exactly the same direction as Che’s famous quote: “You may have to be tough, but do not lose your tenderness.”11 The statement that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love” should be read together with Guevara’s much more “problematic” statement on revolutionaries as “killing machines”:
“Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machines. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”12
Or, to paraphrase Kant and Robespierre yet again: love without cruelty is powerless; cruelty without love is blind, a short-lived passion which loses its persistent edge. Guevara is here paraphrasing Christ’s declarations on the unity of love and sword – in both cases, the underlying paradox is that what makes love angelic, what elevates it over mere unstable and pathetic sentimentality, is its cruelty itself, its link with violence – it is this link which raises love over and beyond the natural limitations of man and thus transforms it into an unconditional drive. This is why, back to The Dark Knight Rises, the only authentic love in the film is Bane’s, the “terrorist’s,” in clear contrast to Batman.
Along the same lines, the figure of Ra, Talia’s father, deserves a closer look. Ra is a mixture of Arab and Oriental features, an agent of virtuous terror fighting to counter-balance the corrupted Western civilization. He is played by Liam Neeson, an actor whose screen-persona usually radiates dignified goodness and wisdom (he is Zeus in The Clash of Titans), and who also plays Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, the first episode of the Star Wars series. Qui-Gon is a Jedi knight, the mentor of Obi-Wan Kenobi as well as the one who discovers Anakin Skywalker, believing that Anakin is the Chosen One who will restore the balance of the universe, ignoring Yoda’s warnings about Anakin’s unstable nature; at the end of The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon is killed by Darth Maul.13
In the Batman trilogy, Ra is also the teacher of the young Wayne: in Batman Begins, he finds the young Wayne in a Chinese prison; introducing himself as “Henri Ducard,” he offers the boy a “path.” After Wayne is freed, he climbs to the home of the League of Shadows, where Ra’s is waiting, although presenting himself as the servant of another man called Ra’s al Ghul. At the end of a long and painful training, Ra explains that Bruce must do what is necessary to fight evil, while revealing that they have trained Bruce with the intention of him leading the League to destroy Gotham City, which they believe has become hopelessly corrupt. Ra’s is thus not a simple embodiment of Evil: he stands for the combination of virtue and terror, for the egalitarian discipline fighting a corrupted empire, and thus belongs to the line that stretches (in recent fiction) from Paul Atreides in Dune to Leonidas in 300. And it is crucial that Wayne is his disciple: Wayne was formed as Batman by him.
Two common sense reproaches impose themselves here. First, there were monstrous mass killings and violence in actual revolutions, from Stalinism to Khmer Rouge, so the film is clearly not just engaging in reactionary imagination. The second, opposite reproach: the actual OWS movement was not violent, its goal was definitely not a new reign of terror; insofar as Bane’s revolt is supposed to extrapolate the immanent tendency of the OWS movement, the film thus ridiculously misrepresents its aims and strategies. The ongoing anti-globalist protests are the very opposite of Bane’s brutal terror: Bane stands for the mirror-image of state terror, for a murderous fundamentalist sect taking over and ruling by terror, not for its overcoming through popular self-organization… What both reproaches share is the rejection of the figure of Bane. – The reply to these two reproaches is multiple.
First, one should make clear the actual scope of violence – the best answer to the claim that the violent mob reaction to oppression is worse than the original oppression itself, was the one provided long by Mark Twain in his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we would remember it and consider it; the one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood… our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak, whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror, that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror, which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”
Then, one should demystify the problem of violence, rejecting simplistic claims that the XXth century Communism used too much excessive murderous violence, and that we should be careful not to fall into this trap again. As a fact, this is, of course, terrifyingly true, – but such a direct focus on violence obfuscates the underlying question: what was wrong in the XXth century Communist project as such, which immanent weakness of this project pushed Communist to resort the Communists (not only those) in power to unrestrained violence? In other words, it is not enough to say that Communists “neglected the problem of violence”: it was a deeper socio-political failure which pushed them to violence. (The same goes for the notion that Communists “neglected democracy”: their overall project of social transformation enforced on them this “neglect.”) It is thus not only Nolan’s film which was not able to imagine authentic people’s power – the “real” radical-emancipatory movements themselves also were not able to do it, they remained caught in the coordinates of the old society, which is why the actual “people’s power” often was such a violent horror.
And, last but not least, it is all too simple to claim that there is no violent potential in OWs and similar movements – there IS a violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process: the problem with the film is that it wrongly translated this violence into murderous terror. Which, then, is the sublime violence with regard to which even the most brutal killing is an act of weakness? Let us make a detour through Jose Saramago’s Seeing which tells the story of the strange events in the unnamed capital city of an unidentified democratic country. When the election day morning is marred by torrential rains, voter turnout is disturbingly low, but the weather breaks by mid-afternoon and the population heads en masse to their voting stations. The government’s relief is short-lived, however, when vote counting reveals that over 70% of the ballots cast in the capital have been left blank. Baffled by this apparent civic lapse, the government gives the citizenry a chance to make amends just one week later with another election day. The results are worse: now 83% of the ballots are blank. The two major political parties – the ruling party of the right (p.o.t.r.) and their chief adversary, the party of the middle (p.o.t.m.) – are in a panic, while the haplessly marginalized party of the left (p.o.t.l.) produces an analysis claiming that the blank ballots are essentially a vote for their progressive agenda. Unsure how to respond to a benign protest but certain that an anti-democratic conspiracy exists, the government quickly labels the movement “terrorism, pure and unadulterated” and declares a state of emergency, allowing it to suspend all constitutional guarantees and adopt a series of increasingly drastic steps: citizens are seized at random and disappear into secret interrogation sites, the police and seat of government are withdrawn from the capital, sealing the city against all entrances and exits, and finally manufacturing their own terrorist ringleader. The city continues to function near-normally throughout, the people parrying each of the government’s thrusts in inexplicable unison and with a truly Gandhian level of nonviolent resistance… this, the voters’ abstention, is a case of truly radical “divine violence” which prompts brutal panic reactions of those in power.
Back to Nolan, the triad of Batman-films thus follows an immanent logic. In Batman Begins, the hero remains within the constraints of a liberal order: the system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of the two John Ford western classics (Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) which deploy how, in order to civilize the Wild West, one has to “print the legend” and ignore the truth – in short, how our civilization has to be grounded onto a Lie: one has to break the rules in order to defend the system. Or, to put it in another way, in Batman Begins, the hero is simply a classic figure of the urban vigilante who punishes the criminals where police cannot do it; the problem is that police, the official law-enforcement agency, relates ambiguously to Batman’s help: while admitting its efficiency, it nonetheless perceive Batman as a threat to its monopoly on power and a testimony of its own inefficiency. However, Batman’s transgression is here purely formal, it resides in acting on behalf of the law without being legitimized to do it: in his acts, he never violates the law. The Dark Knight changes these coordinates: Batman’s true rival is not Joker, his opponent, but Harvey Dent, the “white knight,” the aggressive new district attorney, a kind of official vigilante whose fanatical battle against crime leads him into killing innocent people and destroys him. It is as if Dent is the reply of the legal order to Batman’s threat: against Batman’s vigilante struggle, the system generates its own illegal excess, its own vigilante, much more violent than Batman, directly violating the law. There is thus a poetic justice in the fact that, when Bruce plans to publicly reveal his identity as Batman, Dent jumps in and instead names himself as Batman – he is “more Batman than Batman himself,” actualizing the temptation Batman was still able to resist. So when, at the film’s end, Batman takes upon himself the crimes committed by Dent to save the reputation of the popular hero who embodies hope for ordinary people, his self-effacing act contains a grain of truth: Batman in a way returns the favor to Dent. His act is a gesture of symbolic exchange: first Dent takes upon himself the identity of Batman, then Wayne – the real Batman – takes upon himself Dent’s crimes.
Finally, The Dark Knight Rises pushes things even further: is Bane not Dent brought to extreme, to its self-negation? Dent who draws the conclusion that the system itself is unjust, so that in order to effectively fight injustice one has to turn directly against the system and destroy it? And, as part of the same move, Dent who loses last inhibitions and is ready to use all murderous brutality to achieve this goal? The rise of such a figure changes the entire constellation: for all participants, Batman included, morality is relativized, it becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances: it’s open class warfare, everything is permitted to defend the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters but with a popular uprising.
Is, then, this all? Should the film just be flatly rejected by those who are engaged in radical emancipatory struggles? Things are more ambiguous, and one has to read the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem: absences and surprising presences count. Recall the old French story about a wife who complains that her husband’s best friend is making illicit sexual advances towards her: it takes some time till the surprised friend gets the point – in this twisted way, she is inviting him to seduce her… It is like the Freudian unconscious which knows no negation: what matters is not a negative judgment on something, but the mere fact that this something is mentioned – in The Dark Knight Rises,people’s power IS HERE, staged as an Event, in a key step forward from the usual Batman opponents (criminal mega-capitalists, gangsters and terrorists).
Here we get the first clue – the prospect of the OWS movement taking power and establishing people’s democracy on Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly non-realist, that one cannot but raise the question: WHY DOES THEN A MAJOR HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER DREAM ABOUT IT, WHY DOES IT EVOKE THIS SPECTER? Why even dream about OWS exploding into a violent takeover? The obvious answer (to smudge OWS with accusations that it harbors a terrorist-totalitarian potential) is not enough to account for the strange attraction exerted by prospect of “people’s power.” No wonder the proper functioning of this power remains blank, absent: no details are given about how this people’s power functions, what the mobilized people are doing (remember that Bane tells the people they can do what they want – he is not imposing on them his own order).
This is why external critique of the film (“its depiction of the OWS reign is a ridiculous caricature”) is not enough – the critique has to be immanent, it has to locate within the film itself a multitude signs which point towards the authentic Event. (Recall, for example, that Bane is not just a brutal terrorist, but a person of deep love and sacrifice.) In short, pure ideology isn’t possible, Bane’s authenticity HAS to leave trace in the film’s texture. This is why the film deserves a close reading: the Event – the “people’s republic of Gotham City”, dictatorship of the proletariat on Manhattan – is immanent to the film, it is its absent center.
[Appeared in Blog da Biotempo on August 8th 2012.]
- Tyler O’Neil, “Dark Knight and Occupy Wall Street: The Humble Rise” Hillsdale Natural Law Review, July 21 2012.
- Karthick RM, “The Dark Knight Rises a ’Fascist’?”, Society and Culture, July 21, 2012.
- Tyler O’Neil, op.cit.
- Christopher Nolan, interview in Entertainment 1216 (July 2012, p. 34.)
- Interview with Christopher and Jonathan Nolan to Buzzine Film.
- Karthick, op.cit.
- Tom Charity, “’Dark Knight Rises’ disappointingly clunky, bombastic”, CNN, July 19, 2012.
- Forrest Whitman, “The Dickensian Aspects of The Dark Knight Rises”, July 21 2012.
- Quoted from Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, New York: Grove 1997, p. 636-637.
- Quoted in McLaren, op.cit., p. 27.
- Op.cit., ibid.
- One should note the irony of the fact that Neeson’s son is a devoted Shia Muslim, and that Neeson himself often talks about his forthcoming conversion to Islam.