Monday, July 15, 2013

Looking Back: The Politics of The Dark Knight Rises

Watching The Dark Knight back in 2008 I was deeply impressed by the film's use of the Joker as a Trickster/Shadow figure, and the construction of a Jungian psychodrama around it. I was much less impressed by the film's rather muddled politics, and took little interest in the attempts to read a statement about the War on Terror into it.

However, watching The Dark Knight Rises avoiding politics seemed impossible, least of all the class politics so explicit on the screen.

What did I make of them? The attempts to equate Bane with Mitt Romney's Bain Capital have struck me as overreaching of the worst sort. Bruce Wayne's casually expressed cynicism about other rich people and philanthropy and loss of all his money, the involvement of his business rival John Dagett with the villain's scheme, Commissioner Gordon's misgivings about the lies he told about Dent's death and reading from A Tale of Two Cities at film's end, also seem of ambiguous significance.

Far more substantial are Bane's anarchism, and the pack of right-wing ideas which are the foundation of its treatment--the distrust of the "average" person as a rational or ethical being, and corresponding justification not only of elitism, but the excesses of Leviathan and vigilantes alike; the imagery of revolution as chaos, and revolutionaries as undeserving looters waiting for the chance to grab other (better) people's stuff; the idea that the revolutionary's egalitarian rhetoric is merely a mask for their nefarious real agenda, which is destruction rather than salvation, driven by hatred rather than love, etc..1 Salon's Andrew O'Hehir called it all suggestive of an inverted "Soviet-era revolutionary epic, in which the masses are the villains and their onetime overlords the heroes"--and indeed, watching it time and again I felt that I was looking at something spun out by a stiff-moustached Victorian bourgeois who had become hysterical after reading a piece of yellow journalism about Communards and their Infernal Machines.2

The question, then, is not whether the film's content is right-wing, but rather how we are to take that right-wing content; if we are to take it straight, or see the film as problematizing or satirizing its material.

There is some reason to think this is less than serious, in how over the top the film goes--arguably, to and past the point of absurdity, all the way to schlockiness in significant parts (all the more apparent because of the film's generally high level of technical accomplishment). There is, for instance, the film's bizarre treatment of the passage of time (night turning to day with extreme abruptness, months going by with the feeling that nothing happened in the meantime).3 There is the silliness of the unnamed Nowhereistan from which Bane hails in this version of the story.4 There are the conditions of Batman's imprisonment by Bane, permitting him an escape that would embarrass the very dumbest Bond villain. There is the goofiness of the scene where Gotham's Finest charge a pack of armed criminals like warriors in a pre-gunpowder melee. There is, too, the film's oddly skipping over what happens to Revolutionary Gotham after Batman's departure from the stage and the presumed restoration of order.5 Long stretches of the film are in fact so flimsy as to cry out for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Yet, the claim that the movie must be satirical simply because significant parts of it are so badly made that we cannot take them seriously seems excessive, especially when over-the-top is standard operating procedure for the genre to which the film belongs. Besides, people can and do make bad movies with total earnestness (especially when their political passions get the better of their artistic inclinations), and it is not inconceivable that this would be such a film. The difficulty of the balancing act between the grit Nolan strives for and the spectacular heroics audiences expect of comic book protagonists, and the pressure to top the previous installments in scale (this is undoubtedly the broadest of the trilogy, and in its looseness often feels like a story that simply got out of the author's control); the exhaustion of a series' concept by film number three (revenge for daddy, big city held hostage by big bomb--hardly on a level with the preceding films' inventiveness); and plain old creative misfire (Batman: Escape From Nowhereistan!); all seem sufficient to account for the mess.

Certainly I have a hard time remembering a moment when the film signaled anything like a satirical intent the way that we saw in, for instance, Starship Troopers (1997)--the last big-budget summer entertainment to seriously play around with ideas like these.6 Additionally, where satirists are often frank about their politics, DKR's writer-director Christopher Nolan has been evasive, not only about the content of the film, but about his own political opinions.7 And if one does, at the risk of reading too much into it, try to glean something of those opinions from what he has said--that he was writing "from a place of 'What's the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?'"--one finds little reason to do anything but take the film's politics at face value.

1. Given the film's shooting schedule it is possible, even likely, that Bane's attacking Gotham's stock exchange is not a comment on Occupy Wall Street (the movement only began in September 2011, with the production underway). However, given Bane's larger plans, it is hard to read the film as anything but hostile to that kind of protest--just as the Dent Act and Blackgate Prison come across as an advocacy of the suppression of civil liberties and basic human rights, irrespective of whether or not they say anything about the Patriot Act or Guantanamo specifically.
2. Such an inversion is hardly inconceivable or unprecedented. As Thomas Frank demonstrates in Pity the Billionaire, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is "reverse-engineered" proletarian literature.
3. The sky changed an awful lot in those forty-five minutes before the bomb was set to blow.
4. It often seems as if the entire region of northern Africa and southwestern/southern/central Asia are a single, homogenous ethno-cultural mass in many minds. Sometimes the confusion gets even worse, with Eastern Europe thrown in there as well to give us characters like Borat.
5. It is as if the writers forgot about it--or thought it better not to linger on it, like the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune.
6. Starship Troopers, of course, satirized the right-wing politics its producers considered the Heinlein book to embody. The film's efforts were not unproblematic--the spectacles of martial might, the grandly staged (if ludicrous) battle scenes left it open to the charge that it was having its cake and eating it too, and the film fails to take on important dimensions of its milieu (like class and economics, largely passed over). However, the movie is peppered with bits where the intent is unmistakable--the scene in which the film's screenwriter Ed Neumeier is condemned to death; the old-fashioned narration in the media clips (previously employed as satirical vehicles in other Verhoeven science fiction films like 1986's Robocop and 1990's Total Recall); the irony in the remark of a disabled veteran that the Mobile Infantry made him the man he is today; etc..
7. Starship Troopers' director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier, for instance, have been quite frank about that film's politics, and their own politics (in among other places, the commentary on the DVD of the film).

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