Noah Brand reveals his startled reaction to Batman’s latest foray into outright authoritarianism.
A note for clarity: I’m going to be using the words fascism and fascist a lot in this review. Since, as Orwell warned us, those terms have come to be used as synonyms for “stuff I don’t like”, I should pin down the sense in which I use them here. Fascism is a political ideology fixated on authoritarianism, militaristic imagery and action, and the use of authoritarian force against internal and external Others who are defined as threats to the continued existence of society. Fixations on nationalism and national or racial purity and unity are also common. Fascism is a phenomenon of the political right, and has always been fanatically anti-communist, communism being what happens when the political left gets equally douchey.
That said, there has always been an intrinsically fascist subtext to all superhero mythology. These stories, which I have grown up on and still love, are predicated on creating a situation of such exaggerated threat that fascist solutions, i.e. strongmen acting outside due process to restore order by violent force, become not only plausible but desirable. To put it another way, citizens of Metropolis might be uncomfortable with having a nearly-omnipotent alien living in their city, answerable to no authority but himself, but when a week can’t go by without a giant robot trying to level the city, you’ll accept the alien as preferable to the robots.
However, this is usually just subtext, and many superhero stories go out of their way to specifically eschew this reading. The Batman films of Christopher Nolan, however, embrace it, and never more explicitly than in the newest, The Dark Knight Rises.
SPOILER ALERT: Everything from here on in will ruin the last two Batman movies for you. On multiple levels.
Many people have read the previous Batman film, The Dark Knight, as an endorsement of the authoritarian, anti-civil-liberties policies of the Bush administration. (Policies that, dismayingly, the Obama administration has not reversed.) I wasn’t persuaded of this thesis until someone pointed out that one of the centerpieces of the film, one of Nolan’s superb action setpieces, is literally about the extraordinary rendition of a foreign national from his own country so he can be brought under American control for interrogation, and it didn’t have to be. That scene could have played just the same way in any skyscraper controlled by Bad Guys; the choice to make it legitimately sovereign foreign soil was deliberate, and creepy.
Even after that, I didn’t want to subscribe to a fascist reading of Nolanverse Batman, until I saw the new movie last night. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie in most respects. Severely weird structural problems, but each scene and line is skillfully and gracefully written in and of itself, and the cinematography is lovely. They’ve even fixed the unfollowable fight scenes of the previous two; the two major fights between Batman and Bane are gorgeous. This is probably the best overtly pro-fascist film I’ve seen since Leni Riefenstahl’s heyday. But whoa nelly, is it fascist.
The film opens eight years after the previous movie, eight years in which Batman has retired because there is no longer any serious crime in Gotham. After the events of The Dark Knight, the “Harvey Dent Act” was passed, which apparently authorized the police to lock up a thousand organized crime figures with no chance of parole… the details are deliberately vague (could the police not arrest people before?) but the expression is clear: Harvey Dent’s supposed martyrdom allowed passage of a law removing any restrictions on police authority, thus granting Gotham a crime-free golden age. Lest we miss the militarist undertones, characters go out of their way to specify that Commissioner Gordon is going to be forced out of his job because he was the right man for the “war”, but now it’s “peacetime.”
This entire time, Batman has been retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse in Wayne Manor. In other words, mere ordinary fascist techniques have proven sufficient to handle the threat, and Batman’s super-fascism has not been necessary.
Now, however, a new threat has arisen, one mere normal fascism can’t handle. From some unspecified Other People part of the world comes Bane, a super-terrorist who has a number of clever and well-written connections to the mythos established in Batman Begins. He comes equipped with an army of “mercenaries” who turn out not to be mercenaries, in that they keep fighting after nobody is paying them, i.e. about halfway through the movie. This is a threat too great for the weaklings running the Gotham City Police Department, especially with strongman James Gordon in the hospital. The ultimate strongman, the Batman, must return to restore order.
Bane’s agenda is that of the Occupy movement as seen by people who don’t know anything about the Occupy movement. (Google “Dark Knight Rises” + “Occupy Wall Street” and prepare to sigh deeply.) He overcomes the current strongman of Gotham City and imprisons its police, thereby successfully taking over the city. This only makes any sense at all if we assume that government is solely comprised of a strongman and his enforcement apparatus, which… well, that’s a little fascist, isn’t it? The enforcement apparatus removed, the economic status quo is reversed, with rich people being turned out of their homes so the poor can take their stuff.
This is a key point: Bane keeps talking about The People, but the people of Gotham City do not appear in this film.
The People are entirely absent. Everyone we see dragging rich folks out of their homes, everyone we see freeing the men imprisoned under the Harvey Dent Act, everyone we see fighting the police in the big authority-vs.-rebellion showdown at the end, they’re all Bane’s staff members. The only character with a speaking part who expresses any support for Bane’s agenda and isn’t a known supervillain or paid-up member of the League of Shadows is Selina Kyle’s girlfriend Holly. It’s one of her three lines. Nobody got a SAG card playing a Gotham citizen in this movie; their only role was to cheer Batman in crowd scenes.
This is important: if the people of Gotham are present, then when the enforcement mechanism of the current power structure is removed, the people immediately rise up and overthrow the system. This would imply that Gotham citizens are so oppressed that only brutal enforcement keeps them from naturally rising against this oppression, which makes Bane the good guy. However, the people are not present; only Bane’s thugs rise against the rich. The people are so absent from this movie that, in every single vehicle scene, there are no civilian vehicles on the road. Everything on the road in every scene belongs to either Batman, the cops, or Bane, resulting in some rather odd-looking chase scenes down completely unused urban streets.
This point is inadvertently underscored toward the end, when Commissioner Gordon realizes Batman’s secret identity, a moment that should be powerful and instead is comical, because he is, at that point, literally the only significant character who didn’t already know Batman’s real name. He ends up coming off as the last kid to get the joke.
Bane’s “power to the nonexistent people” schtick is designed to echo vague impressions of Soviet communism, with its empty stores, kangaroo courts, and a lingering shot of a breadline, something American audiences have been conditioned to believe was solely a Soviet phenomenon. A similarly lingering shot of a tattered and torn American flag under Bane’s regime is there for people too slow to pick up on the other symbols.
In the end, of course, the police and the Batman triumph and order is restored by force, thus freeing the nonexistent people of Gotham to enjoy their existing system where the police can lock you up without parole at will.
All this would not be too bad, except for the little matter of cultural context.
Americans live in a society right now where fascism is trendy. We are more militarized, by money spent, than the entire rest of the world put together, and one of the men running for president has promised to increase that spending. We have more people imprisoned per capita, than any society in human history, including China, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Soviet Union. These are facts. They reflect a status quo in which fascist solutions for society’s ills are considered good ones by a portion of the populace, and it is to that demographic, the American political right, that The Dark Knight Rises is explicitly pitched. The entire film is peppered with conceptual catchphrases, like “peacetime”, “appeasement strategy”, “those who have too much”, and so on, designed to appeal to the worldview of people who think Fox News does journalism. A deliberate caricature of the imagined opposition is created, and then duly punched into submission in accordance with superheroic genre convention.
Some will argue, and have argued, that the film is more even-handed than it is, that it presents a moral dilemma between fascism and anarchy that Batman must resolve via a middle ground. It doesn’t. There is no anarchy, merely a choice of two dictatorships, and Batman doesn’t resolve it, he comes down very squarely on the pro-fascist side. Commissioner Gordon is presented as having doubts about the Harvey Dent Act, but he never speaks out against it, his words against it are stolen by bad guy Bane, and he is put in his place by new good guy John Blake, who dismisses his attempt to remain morally good as useless.
Again, in case the red meat for the right wing is too subtle for some, the film explicitly casts “sustainable energy” as a doomsday weapon. Nolan clearly didn’t want us to miss his point, so I feel it would be bad manners to pretend I did.
Fascism may not always be palatable or pleasant, the film tells us, but it is necessary and it works. At no point in the movie do fascist solutions fail, except in cases where they are not fascist enough. The strongmen who Do What Must Be Done, the classic excuse of the fascist, are always right. When the Gotham police are led into a trap, it is under the command of Gordon’s successor, who is shown to be a cowardly quisling who only redeems himself by putting on a uniform and shooting scruffy people.
In short, The Dark Knight Rises posits a conflict between the form of fascism some Americans currently favor, and a strawman version of their imagined opponents, and places the center of moral good firmly on the pro-fascist side. This isn’t even subtext, it’s just text in context. I’m sorry if this ruins the movie for anyone.
Oh, and Catwoman is in the film as well, but since she’s not called Catwoman and the plot wouldn’t be even slightly different if she were absent, I have omitted her in a failed attempt at brevity. Which is a shame, since she’s the best thing about the movie.