Batman, Terror and the Revolution

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I was a bit reluctant to see The Dark Knight Rises, the latest and hopefully final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and this was every bit as much for the ubiquitous and overbearing advertising from my TV to my local grocery as for the sophomoric moral and political content supposed to be taken as deep psychological drama in the last two movies. For all I expected to be underwhelmed however, the latest film reached a level of awfulness I truly did not expect.

For the purposes of this missive, I propose to ignore for the most part the particulars of the acting and the intricacies of the plot – these are, I think, more or less at the high end of what we have come to expect from contemporary Hollywood. Instead, what I want to do is detail how exactly the film represents a recasting of hoary ruling-class tropes about revolution and popular democracy. That it comes out in the era of the Arab Spring, Occupy and the mass struggles against austerity in Greece and the rest of Europe should, of course, be a telling sign of the message that this particular movie carries, which it may have escaped had it been released even a few years earlier.

Such is the movie’s deeply anti-democratic (not to even mention counter-revolutionary) message that even the mainstream media in America has been forced to sit up and take notice – such bastions of the liberal media as Rolling Stone and The Nation have drawn the obvious connections between Bane and the Occupy movement in their reviews of the movie. That no media source outside of the left-wing ghettoes bothered to note the class prejudice and – yes – racism that ran just as deeply through the last two installments of the Batman trilogy is a sign of just how much Occupy has changed the political conversation in this country.

Therefore, what I am writing in this blog is not exactly original commentary. What I can offer, however, is an at least half-baked critique of the kind of ruling-class paranoid fantasy that The Dark Knight Rises very much has its home in. Of course, reviews in the left-wing press such as those of Socialist Alternative and Jacobin Magazine are also recommended. I will also ignore the specifics of whether Bruce Wayne happens to represent capitalist or feudal values, which the Jacobin review goes into excellently, but I think in a way that is a bit beside the point.

So, what do we have in The Dark Knight Rises? Quite simply, it is an anti-democratic tirade of the type that our ruling classes have trotted out from 1789, to 1917, to 2012. In the movie we have Bane, a super-villain wearing a very sinister mask and possessing an even more sinister British accent, who succeeds in rousing the population of Gotham City to overthrow the rich and powerful elite as represented by the reclusive Bruce Wayne and his compatriots. Predictably, of course, Bane’s revolution is nothing more than a plot to destroy Gotham with the use of fusion power which Wayne in his infinite wisdom has chosen to hide from the city for fear of it being used as a weapon.

The reasons Bane and his hidden comrade have for wanting to destroy Gotham, being obscure and hidden in the series’ mythology, do not particularly interest me. What is more telling are his methods. The viewer may remember that Bane launches his coup at the beginning of a football game, which he interrupts by slaughtering both teams. That the population of Gotham is roused to overthrow their rulers through a pantomime speech in the wake of such carnage might be a sign of either their inherent stupidity and obedience, or their criminal delight in violence, or both – we can’t be sure, because Nolan doesn’t take us close enough to actually ever see the motivations of Bane’s rank and file. Where we do see them for a moment, they seem to be a combination of scraggly young white men whose images the ruling class media associated with Occupy, and criminals mostly of minority populations. This plays to the worst elitist tropes about popular movements in the recent history of the West.

We might also take note of the content of Bane’s message. Though he calls on the citizens of Gotham to rise up and take power, his reason for this is expressed in a few words about corrupt elites – which, of course, we do not see up close. An anti-elitist, anti-corruption message, of course, might be the program of anyone from the revolutionary left to the most tepid liberal populist politician. That it is enough to rouse the citizens of Gotham serves to tell us that any radical program of change, no matter how it is phrased or enacted, can only lead to disaster. 

This, of course, has long been the message of our ruling class in relation to any social upheaval or revolution. We might note other cultural products which have carried a similar message – Across the Universe and other movies about the Sixties in America, as well as Dr. Zhivago, Anastasia and other movies about the Russian Revolution. These are all variations on a theme. That theme? Something like: while there may be some mild corruption at the top of our society, any attempt to address this through mass action has the effect of making things much worse. Because the lower classes of society are stupid, vicious and easily led by their noses, any mass movement that develops is under the open or hidden command of evil masterminds, usually disaffected elites themselves. A successful uprising by these people will inevitably lead to mass terror, disaster and/or the end of civilization.

This was the dominant ruling class explanation of the Russian Revolution, and it has remained this way, with perhaps the excision of the story that revealed the links between Leon Trotsky and sinister American Jewish businessmen (as it was told at the time). This, for example, is a famous counterrevolutionary propaganda poster from the era:

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The same goes, more or less, for the French Revolution, about which the only thing most people know is the image of the guillotine. That The Dark Knight Rises can be called a fully self-conscious ruling class paranoid fantasy about a popular revolution can be told from Bruce Wayne’s funeral, at which Commissioner Gordon reads the following as his eulogy:

I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out… I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence… 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.

Charles Dickens wrote these words as an epitaph for the French aristocracy which was overthrown in the revolution of 1789. Whatever you think of the political character of the rest of his work (Bill Keach makes a good case here for considering his broadly progressive role in English fiction), A Tale of Two Cities, from which this monologue comes, is nothing less than the original fable on the dangers of popular revolution. That the revolutionary terror at its height only carried off a few thousand executions at the most, which should be seen as a self-defensive measure as part of a broad defensive mobilization on the part of the Jacobin regime did not in the end concern Dickens, who for all his professed radicalism shrank away at what was necessary to establish and preserve democratic rule. Neither does it concern Nolan when he apes Dickens’ Madame Guillotine by the revolutionary tribunals which condemn Commissioner Gordon and other of Gotham’s elites to “exile” by walking across the thin ice than surrounds Gotham in the winter.

What, if any, will be the impact of the film’s ideology? That it is this year’s summer blockbuster should give us an idea of its potential to influence the popular consciousness. Bourgeois cultural products which influence the prevailing “common sense” like this movie do not, of course, work by imposing their narratives fully on the minds of the population. Many will recognize the elitist and reactionary nature of this film, and will profess to just enjoy it “as a movie.” This is an equally dangerous mistake. To ignore the political content of art, which at a fundamental level is just as much an intervention into society as a pamphlet or a demonstration, is to give any reactionary a free pass to the mass consciousness, where a number of elitist ideas like the ones The Dark Knight Rises will reinforce exist already in a complicated relationship with other, even opposite, notions like those of freedom and democracy. To anyone who sees the police invade Gotham and recognize that we are supposed to cheer for them when they beat down the masses who have taken control of their city, on the other hand, the only credible response to this movie must be: I stand with Bane.

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