The Dark Knight Rises A Fascist?
By Karthick RM
21 July, 2012
A few weeks back, I watched the BBC documentary on ‘Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution’. True to classic British Liberalism, the documentary presented the image of the main protagonist of one of the world altering events in the history of the modern world as a delusional paranoid who would sacrifice thousands of lives for his ideal. While the Marxist critic Slavoj Zizek provided a single line of defence to the man, whom it wouldn’t be an excess to call the ideological patriarch of modern revolutionaries, the structuring of the documentary as such was tilted towards British historian Simon Schama, who was portraying an image of Robespierre as this megalomaniac, blood thirsty monster (oh, that’s what radicals are to liberals/conservatives anyway). Among other nice things he has said in the past, Mr. Schama has also defended Israel’s pounding of Lebanese cities in the Israel-Lebanon war. But that’s another story.
Let us talk about Christopher Nolan’s final (hopefully) movie in the Batman trilogy, the Dark Knight Rises. Though he has apparently claimed that the movie has nothing to do with politics, the political and social undertones in the movie are too obvious to miss. To give a brief summary of the story, Gotham City has been peaceful after the events in the previous movie ‘The Dark Knight’, and the Batman has retired. However, the ‘terrorist’ Bane enters this scenario and after a few attacks on Gotham, instigates the wretched of the city to revolt against their masters and to wage civil war to take power, using explicit revolutionary phraseology, in the process, exposing the lie on which peace in the city was built - while secretly conspiring to destroy the entire city as such. Though he severely cripples Batman in a fight, the protagonist returns for a final fight. No guesses on who wins.
So why start with the French Revolution?
“Tale of Two Cities to 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.” No, it wasn’t Mr. Schama further demonizing Robespierre referring to Charles Dickens’ literary work that excessively criticizes the alleged ‘excesses’ of the French Revolution.
The statement is of Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan, and co-writer for the movie, responding to a question on the movie’s inspiration in an interview by Buzzine. The inspiration, Dickens’ classic, was steeped in English liberal thought. “We know there are a lot of problems with the existing system, but hey, revolutions are worse.” And as the novel portrays the revolutionaries as possessed fanatics (with far greater finesse though) the movie portrays Bane and his comrades, and condemns Bane with the vehemence that Mr. Schama condemns Robespierre.
The result is 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. Watching this treatment of Bane in the movie felt like sitting through the BBC documentary on Robespierre all over again.
But why such a harsh disposition towards Bane when a character like the Joker was dealt with (relative) lenience in the earlier movie? The Joker, calling for anarchy in its purest form, is almost impossible to be true. Though he critically underscores the hypocrisies of bourgeois civilization as it exists, his views are unable to translate into mass action for the sheer strength of will and ‘decivilization’ it would require from any individual attempting treading that path. Imagine a political person completely beyond morality and norms of any kind, beyond categorizations and compartmentalizations. Simply put, either one is the Joker or one isn’t. His threat to existing order and its guardian, the Batman, is more philosophical than physical. And the Truth that he waved in the face of Batman was combated by a lie, to save the abominable liberal capitalist society that is Gotham.
Bane, on the other hand poses an existential threat to the system of oppression. He is the FARC in Colombia, the Tamil Tiger facing Sri Lanka, the PKK guerrilla combating Turkey, or a Maoist in Dandakaranya. Or the Jacobin in the time of the French Revolution. 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. With such a theme, Sri Lankan cinema would’ve made a propaganda movie against the Tamils’ struggle. Nolan gave us The Dark Knight Rises.
Catwoman’s presence is largely unworthy but for one significant symbolism. Selina Kyle, from a proletarian background, a master thief by profession, does not join her ‘natural ally’ in Bane, but embraces the Batman, quite literally, and saves his life. The lumpen seduced by the fascist? The relation Bruce Wayne/Batman has with the two main women in the film is characterized by physicality primarily.
Bane, on the other hand, with all the tough veneer, reveals the source of his hardness – love. In a fleeting, but touching moment, through a tear, the ‘monster’ tells the story of his becoming that Che Guevara so eloquently phrased decades back: “Hay que endurecerse sin perder jamas la ternura”. One must endure, become hard, toughen oneself, without losing tenderness. While Batman was brought into his line of work through a personal loss, Bane’s initiation was an unselfish act of love, which came with enduring terrible suffering and sacrifice. The ideal was not limited to his personal fetishes. As love goes, the ideal in itself was total and absolute. Contrast a Batman, inconsistent with both his personal and political lives, and a consistent Bane who saw no difference between the two. In this sense, Badiou is right in saying that the truly subversive thing in the world today is not sex, but love. No wonder, the chap who sleeps around represents the liberal system while the committed lover, the terrorists!
As for morality, ironically, the Batman proves the Joker right in this movie. The Joker had said, referring to the moral standards of the system that Batman defends, in the previous movie that “their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble.” With the trouble, the radical threat to Gotham’s system, that Bane posed, the Batman first threatens to kill him, and later, endorses his murder. Soon after that, Batman, who claimed to be morally opposed to killing, is directly responsible for the death of another main antagonist.
This signifies a crucial point in the series – morality is a matter of convenience as determined by circumstances. In Batman Begins, the protagonist is a liberal claiming that the system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. In Dark Knight, he recognizes that his old methods won’t work, and he taps into an entire city’s phone conversations, besides using torture to pry out information. In the final instalment, he reveals that he will not even stop at murder to defend his system. The age old statement that the oppressors have been saying from Paris Commune to Mullivaikaal – the harder you resist, the harder we’ll hit. But the system shall remain.
Isn’t that what happens in this movie? The Batman has his back broken. Viciously stabbed. Passes through a nuclear explosion (!). But yet, he saves the day, emerges unscathed and moves on with a normal life, with someone else to replace his role defending the system. This brings us to the other crucial point – capitalism is the end of history. Batman’s changes and continuity symbolises capitalism’s persistence despite various crises inherent to it depression, war, genocide, fascism, colonialism etc. But at the end, there is no alternative.
Watching the climax of the movie, I was convinced of Zizek’s argument that Hollywood can even imagine the end of the world, but not of capitalism. And the system’s old defenders will be replaced by new ones, probably with a new series of movies on them as well!
Karthick RM is a research scholar at the University of Essex, UK
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