Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (with Class Consciousness and Spoilers)

We saw The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, and it's a fine and entertaining film, in some purely aesthetic ways. The plot and characters drew me into the action and I wanted to know what happened. But beyond that, it's a movie made by rich white men addressed to other rich white men. It's a warning about inequality--but not a warning to the suffering, oh no. A warning that if the wealthy do not take charge of the redistribution of wealth, the suffering masses will take it into their own bloody hands, so they better let them have some crumbs.

But guess what. We don't want the crumbs. We don't want loaves. We want the whole f****** bakery. (I quote a wise t-shirt.)

SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. Many leftist critics are describing this film as fascist propaganda. I am not sure if I would go that far, and I'm not ascribing it "Republican" ideals or anything like that; it's more status-quo enforcing, fear-mongering, anti-social movement lazy politicking. Heck, it is a screed against inequality, just from the perspective of the rich. But it sure as hell tries to demonize the masses and any movement that might come from them (most especially Occupy Wall Street). OKAY HERE ARE SOME SPOILERS.

Let's start with our most vulnerable members of Gotham society: the boys in the orphanage, the ones that Bruce Wayne used to support until his company ran out of money (and here is a lesson for us all: philanthropy depends on the largess and profit of the wealthy, and while it is better than untrammeled greed, it's still not a reliable way to feed the hungry and clothe the naked--still prioritizes profits over people). We see their seamless transition from children, spottily cared for by the state, deserving pity and charity, into impoverished adults, deserving scorn, imprisonment, and death. This is a real problem that happens in the real world. Drawing attention to it is good, except the movie participates in their criminalization. One day the kids are orphans deserving help escaping the city; they cross a magic age line, and become superfluous monsters who want to kill, maim, and destroy. The movie never allows those boys, once they become desperate adults, a moment of humanity, a spark of individuality. Poor kids are the object of pity until they become poor adults, who are criminals and thieves and will follow the first murderous thug who comes along and promises them anything. This demonization is necessary so that the audience continues to sympathize with Batman; it's also necessary for capitalism to maintain that poverty is a moral failing instead of a social structure failing.

And let's talk about that murderous thug, Bane. Indeed, his back story is so sympathetic that it's hard to understand why we shouldn't prefer him to Batman. For most of the movie, we believe he was the only escapee of a terrible jail; then we find out, even better, that he was the only person who loved and helped a small child in a terrible jail! How can you not cheer for that guy? He has a lot of good qualities that Batman lacks: he builds cameraderie among his peers, he protects his associates, and he tells the truth. The only way you could not like him is if, I don't know, you were working from a perspective of wealth, or if...I know! He has a nuclear bomb and is illogically going to blow everyone on the island, himself included, to kingdom come with it! Oh my goodness! That makes perfect sense!

The bomb makes literally no sense. I know that the secret society wants to destroy Gotham because of its decadence (which also doesn't make a whole lot of sense), but Bane has already helped some of Gotham's undesirables make a life for themselves, and all his reforms seem directed at that same goal. The bomb seems like a not-so-subtle poke at Iran (if they have nuclear energy, they will weaponize it and use it for destruction!) and more generally at attempts for clean energy. As well as a plot device. And a reminder that the poor just need a charismatic and crazy leader to tell them what to do, and they'll all help destroy the world through terrorism.

The tensions that wealth and privilege feel about Occupy Wall Street saturate this film. For starters, Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless movement, but this film is insistent that there must be leaders somewhere if a social movement asks for some redistribution of wealth. Such a cry could never come from the people! Of course, there's Bane, but there's also Scarecrow, the corrupt psychiatrist from the first movie, serving as a Robespierre-style judge killing off Gotham's elites. Not only is he a connection to the first movie and to the French Revolution, which is invoked numerous times, but he also stands in for the overeducated trust-fund radicals that stereotypically "lead" social movements, taking from the oppressed their sad acceptance of How Things Must Be and stirring up desires that can never be fulfilled.

If you want to maintain that the film is not commenting directly on OWS, well, let's look at the first crime Bane commits in the public view: on Gotham's stock exchange. Bane takes the stockbrokers hostage, in a way, and they are forced to come out to the police, hands held high, a dream of many an Occupier--that the real financial criminals would be forced to take responsibility for their crimes, embarassed in front of the nation they hurt, thrust into the spotlight as the villains they are (recognizing, of course, that the guys down on the floor are probably the youngest and most vulnerable members of the firms they represent, and possibly only lackeys for the criminal class, not necessarily the criminals themselves). But all too soon, Bane and his people are recognized as the 'real' criminals. The progressive fantasy of the police actually arresting financial criminals is popped immediately, and the desire for that to happen is equated with hostage-taking. I was reminded of when a very rude U.S. representative apologized to BP for Obama insisting they should pay for some damage of the oil spill.

But the very worst, and most direct, anti-OWS attack comes near the end, when the police come out of the sewers and attack city hall. Yes, yes, they are trying to stop the killing in the context of the story, but the footage of the brawl itself reminded me so much of the brutality filmed at Occupy Wall Street that my innards twisted up at that point. See for yourself--there's an abundance of footage on You Tube of the police in NYC and California (specifically Berkeley and UC-Davis) getting out the batons and beating the heck out of peaceful protestors, and that footage looked exactly like the movie (except that Bane's army is well armed, and I don't know of any armed OWS protestors). I heard rumors that Nolan originally wanted to film at OWS but didn't get the chance. I was so excited when I heard that, last summer--little did I imagine he wanted to film in support of police brutality and against the occupiers.

The only bright spot in the film, for me, was Catwoman, who spoke frankly about the devastating effects of inequality on her and hers. She also spoke with a friend of hers, briefly, which was as close as the movie got to passing the Bechdel test (do women speak to each other about something other than men for more than 30seconds in the course of the movie). It wasn't more than thirty seconds, and men were involved in the conversation, but that was as close to humanization as women got in this testosterone-fueled capitalism junkie ride. However, I thought she was lesbian until the heteronormative ending kicked in; I would have liked there to be something off limits to Batman and was disappointed that she changed because of her romantic interest rather than because she wanted to do the right thing.

I will say that Batman also was not quite as bad as the rest of the film. He did follow the biblical edict for how a rich man can be saved: give all he has to the poor. He wanted to help and inspire people with his example, no matter how misguided I think that might have been at times. As an audience memeber, I wanted him to get better and escape from the jail, and I wanted him to save Gotham from the bomb. He tried to work with other people. He's just not very good at it.

But finally, this was a very violent movie that sought to discredit social movements, especially Occupy Wall Street. It was made to keep the masses complacent and waiting for a savior from above (literally--all that flying) while rejecting any leader from below (also literally--sewer and pit jail anyone?). It celebrated hierarchy and oppression. And nothing not discussing global warming has any right to be as damn depressing as this was.

Don't bring me down, Bruce Wayne.




  1. Very cogent comments. I re-tweeted this.

  2. I just saw this movie last night, and I agree with you that it possesses a “happy ending” for capitalism. I did see Bane from a bit of different perspective- I don’t think that he built camaraderie, I think he was portrayed as being out for himself (and his love interest) and, quite frankly, ruthless until it was revealed that he was actually second in command to Tate. I was disappointed in myself for not catching her early on in the film as the villain; it should have been so obvious. From the beginning of the movie it seemed she is portrayed as an “other” that doesn’t really fit with “good guys” (at least it seemed to me from the beginning that she was “different”). I found the casting of that character particularly interesting: she is a French actress with an accent playing a character from a prison that appears to be in the Middle East. For me, since she is actually French makes the film’s “dangerous others” more than just about fearing the Middle Eastern “other,” but anything that doesn’t fit the pure capitalist model you describe. I did also see the parallel between OWS objectives and the film that you draw, but thought it was interesting that these characters (“the bad guys”), at the least the leaders, were all foreign. I think that this point also ties in with the theme of “dangerous others” in the film since OWS is a movement that originally began in Egypt spreading to Europe and eventually the US.

    I also agree with you that the film, like most blockbusters, is heteronormative and accidently very loudly said “seriously?!” in the theatre at the kiss between Batman and Catwoman before he takes the bomb. I do agree that Catwoman’s sexuality is very ambiguous before the end of the film and that, while viewers are left to somewhat question the repercussions of not dealing with economic inequalities, heterosexuality is protected at all costs. It is also the means by which Catwoman and Batman escape from the (captialist) society they ironically abandon after rescuing to go and start a new “happy” beginning (or society). I hate to be a cynic, but for me this (along with other elements such as Robin taking Batman’s place) gave the movie a circular form and message that new beginnings do not necessarily result in progress.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I hadn't thought much about the Fearmongering towards international "others."

  4. This is an interesting perspective, Angela. I saw the film as a comic-book fan and didn't read into it as much as you have. I see your points. Not that you need me to say they're valid but I do understand your interpretation. I'll have to watch the film several more times now, which I'd planned to do anyway.

    We could have a long conversation about the fanaticism and zealotry of Ra's al Ghul, the League of Shadows, Miranda Tate/Talia, and Bane which is not new to the characters, by the way. Ra's and Talia have been around since the early 70s and Bane since the early to mid-90s. I will point out that Ra's says in Batman Begins that the League of Shadows was responsible for the fall of Rome. He's obviously judged Gotham to be in a similar state. In that regard, Bane's actions at the behest of Talia make a little more sense, I think.

    I think it's interesting that you don't necessarily call Bruce out for not paying attention to his money in the eight years he's not Batman. Perhaps if he'd been paying attention and not feeling sorry for himself he'd have done better. Perhaps the orphans wouldn't have 'aged out' of the system and been fodder for Bane. I'm curious what the ratio of men to women in Bane's underground army was. I only saw men that I can recall carrying guns and working for him. Certainly others were sheltered by his core group but only to be used by him and Talia.

    I don't think Selina going with Bruce at the end necessarily indicates a change away from being who she was during the rest of the film, ambiguous sexuality and all. She was looking to start over with the Clean Slate program and Bruce gave it to her. Maybe she's just along for some fun and will take off after a while. Maybe she felt she owed him something for helping her when he didn't have to. I agree that she was a very bright spot in the film overall.

    The whole idea of any series is to reset the status quo at the end. Is the new world better than the old one? Who knows? I was satisfied by the ending that Bruce knew he couldn't be Batman forever, which is one of the fundamental problems with comic book superheroes anyway.