Men of Stahlhartes Gehäuse: Or, The Dark Knight Rises on Followership

by Henry on July 24, 2012

Attention conservation notice: contains spoilers and copious idle speculation about the Deep Political Meaning of popular cultural artifacts of the kind that is barely tolerable at blogpost-length, and surely intolerable beyond it.

I saw Batman: The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday (I was a little nervous about copycat shootings). It has some excellent set-pieces, but is not a great movie. If the standard is ‘better than The Godfather Part III,’ it passes muster, but by a rather narrower margin than one would like. It wants to be an oeuvre, saying serious things about politics and inequality, but doesn’t ever really get there. This Jacobin piece by Gavin Mueller argues that it’s not a pro-capitalist movie, but a pro-monarchist one. I think that’s wrong. It’s a pro-aristocratic movie, which isn’t really the same thing. Mueller’s observation that:

There is barely any evidence of “the people” at all – it’s all cops and mercenaries battling it out. So instead of a real insurrection, the takeover of Gotham functions via Baroque conspiracies among elites struggling for status and power.

is exactly right – but a movie about “elites struggling for status and power” without some master-figure, however capricious, who can grant or deny them recognition isn’t actually about monarchy. It’s about the struggle between the elites themselves.

Mueller has lots to say about the movie’s take on Occupy, inequality and so on, all of which is right. But even if The Dark Knight Rises didn’t have this explicit political message, its politics would still be creepy.

The action of the Batman films is driven nearly entirely by the personal hang-ups of a few powerful individuals. Bruce Wayne is driven by the death of his parents. Ra’s al Ghul wants vengeance for the unjust death of his wife. Harvey Dent becomes Two Face because of the murder of Rachel Dawes. Most egregiously, Miranda Tate is all about her daddy issues. Bane does what he does because of his (unrequited?) love for Miranda Tate. The only exception is the Joker, who is defined precisely by his lack of any definitive trauma (he picks and chooses between backstories at whim).

All of these are driven by their personal histories to do things with grand consequences, respectively wanting to break up Gotham’s criminal underworld one crook at a time, destroy the city of Gotham because it is irredeemable, exemplify the one true principle of justice (blind chance), destroy Gotham because Daddy wanted it so, destroy Gotham because Miranda wants it, and show the futility of planning and order by generating chaos. Much of this specific-personal-destiny-meets-embodiment-of-grand-abstract-cause is baked into the Nietszchian cake of the superhero comic, of course, but the Nolan brothers go further than most. The arc of the larger story is a re-enchantment of the world, making it one where great principles clash against each other again. The everyday criminality seen at the start of Batman Begins gives way to a world in which criminals want to express themselves rather than accumulate money or power. The corrupt Dr. Crane is maddened into the malign and irrational Scarecrow; the Joker destroys Gotham’s criminals, and Bill-Drummond-style burns his own money in a vast bonfire of the vanities.

The problem is that the Nolan brothers don’t just want a story about the self-realization of powerful individuals – they want a story with a theory of politics. Specifically, they somehow need to connect the struggles among a tiny number of exemplary (in positive and negative senses) elite actors to the Matter of Gotham – the teetering back and forth of the city between chaos and fragile political good health. The model that they choose is an explicitly aristocratic one. Heroic or anti-heroic individuals, not the people of Gotham city, are the agents who change politics, through building or tearing down myths. Harvey Dent’s purported incorruptibility paves the way for the cleaner, safer city seen at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne’s parents hoped to inspire a renaissance of Gotham city through building a new transport system; instead, their murders helped shore up the city for a little longer, by inspiring fear among the city’s leaders. Batman becomes the city’s scapegoat in The Dark Knight, taking Harvey Dent’s crimes upon his shoulders so that people don’t lose faith, and then becomes an inspiration himself, with a massive public statue after his apparent heroic death at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Alternatively, the city immediately breaks down into a half-arsed version of the Terror, with citizens gone crazy, when Bane takes over and reveals Harvey Dent’s dark secrets.

The problem is, of course, that this model is anti-democratic. The “people” only appear in it, as Mueller argues, as the patsies of the few powerful figures who have real agency. The problem of democratic politics becomes one, in David Brooks’ less-than-euphonious phrase, of followership; of ensuring that the masses follow the right leader rather than the wrong one. The one moment in the movies where people arguably do make their own choice is the boats-with-detonators prisoner’s dilemma scene in The Dark Knight – however, it is retroactively explained as the result of Harvey Dent’s inspiring example (or at least, impossible to repeat if the truth about Harvey Dent were known).

Moreover, it’s a specifically anti-political notion of politics. Max Weber, who thought long and hard about how to resolve an ethic of Nietzschean self-realization with the everyday realities of politics emphasized that the true political vocation lay in the reconciliation of heroic ends with the often sordid realities of political struggle and bargain-making. Weber’s ideal politician isn’t a US machine-politics ‘boss’ who is only in it for the money and the power; but he (and for an only partly-reconstructed rightwing German intellectual just after WWI, he was assuredly a ‘he’) is not even slightly dainty about making messy compromises to achieve a desirable end. This kind of politics is repeatedly rejected in the Batman movies. Commissioner Gordon’s willingness to work with corrupt policy officers in The Dark Knight leads directly to the death of Rachel Dawes. Gordon’s collusion in the myth of Harvey Dent’s heroism in The Dark Knight Rises is unacceptable to John Blake, who drops out of the police force because he refuses to make any political compromise in order to achieve what is right (the end of the movie suggests that he is likely to become Robin, perhaps a Robin who would replace Batman rather than being his sidekick).

You could come up with a counter-reading of these movies, in which the key protagonists, Batman and his adversaries, are completely deluded about what drives politics in Gotham city, mistaking moments in which Gotham’s people act for themselves for mere reflections of their own struggles. Perhaps the scene with the two boats was all about the ‘respectable’ people on the one boat, and the convicts on the other, rather than a shadow-play of Batman and the Joker’s fight over the soul of Gotham city. Perhaps, in some imaginary sequel, Robin will be hunted down as a renegade, while the statue of Batman is publicly demolished with a sledgehammer, leaving the people of Gotham city to make their own fate, free from the interference of self-appointed Men and Women of destiny. But I don’t think that this was the reading that was intended. Nor do I think that anything even slightly resembling such a sequel could ever be made.

{ 69 comments }

1

Russell Arben Fox 07.24.12 at 8:46 pm

I liked the film a good deal more than you–dramatically, I thought all the confusion was confined to the first hour or so of the movie, with its real aims and themes pretty much clear, and clearly and thrillingly delivered, from Batman’s first encounter with Bane on through the end–but your identification of Nolan’s basic take on the Batman mythos as an aristocratic one is, I think, dead on. And while that rightly, as you note, complicates any attempt to make political sense of what the story is purportedly about, I would additionally argue that that kind of anti-political aristocracy has been central to a correct understanding of the Batman mythos from the beginning. So I would credit Nolan for having got that much right about Batman from the very start.

2

veblen's dog 07.24.12 at 9:29 pm

This billionaire vigilante as aristocratic super-hero is just a contemporary Scarlet Pimpernel, occupying a similar niche in the reactionary mythos of the times.

3

shah8 07.24.12 at 9:44 pm

I don’t really think Nolan brothers had much to do with this aristocratic viewpoint. Mass media movies are very prone (to the point I think it’s policy) to promote this sense of public participation, where they see larger than life figures be symbols of some kind of great theory and combat each other, while the normal people are passive actors unto victimhood. I think this effect is much clearer with Alan Moore’s works converted into movies. The comic books are pretty careful to preserve a sense of the personal, and I consider the change of the end of Watchmen to be tragic–the comic book is angry that average people don’t get a chance to be better than what they are, when Ozymandia carries out his destruction in order to terrify self-destructive tendencies to obedience. That cartoonish narrative of conspiracies that mark the end of Watchmen, the movie–it’s hard to see how that isn’t about reinforcing the narrative that other people will make the decisions for you, Joe Blow, and it’s hard for me to see how this isn’t a piece of propaganda art. V for Vendetta has similar kinds of narrative changes. And most of these big action movies (say, MiB for example, despite being rather humane)directed at the broad public hew to this pattern. It’s not so different from Chinese movies, I suppose in my darker thinking, just better acted and slightly more plausible plots, than anything like Hero, or any of those other State Spectaculars!

4

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 07.24.12 at 10:04 pm

I enjoyed the movie for the most part, but I walked out thinking “I don’t want to live in a planet like that”. The plot is basically the unseen muggles living at the mercy of a couple of individuals. It’s a crapsack world.

5

EWI 07.24.12 at 10:37 pm

I liked it, but trying to shoehorn so many plots into the third film results in narrative contortions to get everyone in the right place for the final showdown – the fascinating Selina Kyle becomes a cameo, Miranda Tate is robbed of her deserved big romance with Bruce before (literally) sticking the knife in and twisting it for the big reveal, and the less said about the unwise five months fast-forward so that Bruce’s back can be broken then heal the better (the US let a major city alone in Bane’s hands for such a long time? The cops emerge from the sewers in such pristine shape?).

@ shah8

Watchmen is unwatchable (no pun intended) for me after enduring it once. I knew something was wrong in the film when the Night Owl and the Silk Spectre were portrayed as sadistic murderers (after they were attacked by the muggers that they then beat up and killed).

It’s no surprise that the corporate types who control the rights have now commissioned ‘prequel’ comics, and not from Alan Moore.

6

novakant 07.24.12 at 10:44 pm

The problem is, of course, that this model is anti-democratic. The “people” only appear in it, as Mueller argues, as the patsies of the few powerful figures who have real agency. (…) The model that they choose is an explicitly aristocratic one. Heroic or anti-heroic individuals, not the people of Gotham city, are the agents who change politics, through building or tearing down myths.

While I’m no fan of Nolan’s Batman, this particular criticism is rather silly, since it applies equally to most of western dramatic output from the ancient Greeks onwards. It’s very hard to construct a drama in which “the people” are the primary agent. And even if one succeeded at this, I would regard the result as just another case of liberal self-delusion, but then I’m pretty disillusioned as far as democracy is concerned.

7

Anderson 07.24.12 at 11:22 pm

Ditto 6. Plus, democracy isnt easy. It depends on institutions. Bane severs those. A few people riot; most lay low.

People seem to confuse the movie having something to say with Bane saying something.

But yes, CT has noticed that tales of supermen aren’t particularly democratic.

8

faustusnotes 07.24.12 at 11:38 pm

Isn’t the problem just that Batman himself is a shallow character, a kind of hyper-muscular extension of the insecure egos of your average nerdish American comic reader?

I rewatched a scene from the last movie, a confrontation between the Joker and Batman, and couldn’t help cheering the Joker. Batman is two-dimensional and shallow, a cheap suit filled entirely with unjustified anger.

9

Henry 07.25.12 at 12:22 am

bq. But yes, CT has noticed that tales of supermen aren’t particularly democratic.

But it’s more than that, surely – the _Batman_ series takes a general tendency, and turns it into a reasonably explicit ideology.

10

Henry 07.25.12 at 12:26 am

bq. While I’m no fan of Nolan’s Batman, this particular criticism is rather silly, since it applies equally to most of western dramatic output from the ancient Greeks onwards. It’s very hard to construct a drama in which “the people” are the primary agent. And even if one succeeded at this, I would regard the result as just another case of liberal self-delusion, but then I’m pretty disillusioned as far as democracy is concerned.

I really don’t think that most of western dramatic output has the main characters musing copiously about the need to have the people inspired by the ‘right’ story in order to make for a workable politics, does it? That’s what the _Batman_ movies do. It’s not that they are about a small group of people’s personal dramas, which they are – it’s that they have a quite explicit theory of politics where political action centers on those dramas, and no-one else gets any real agency, even implicitly.

11

bianca steele 07.25.12 at 12:43 am

I agree that the aristocratic theme is undercut–or made creepier, which may be the same thing–by the way each character is neatly assigned psychoanalytic motivations for what they do. But it’s also undercut because they’re not actually the elites (except maybe for Scarecrow). They’re people without any defined place in society that they can live with (Bruce Wayne doesn’t want to step into his father’s shoes–his relationship with the board is pretty cliched, but is done in a way that’s also annoyingly reminiscent of Vanilla Sky). They’re just nerds with emotional problems (or artists who are deluded into out their fantasies in the real world).

There’s no reason anyone in Gotham would want to be involved in politics. The fact that they aren’t involved isn’t even an issue in the films. They just don’t want to be terrorized. Only the villains (like Scarecrow) try to get them to do something beyond going to work in the morning and coming home at night (and in the Scarecrow’s case it’s by giving them emotional problems). It’s creepy, but complaining that non-elites in Gotham don’t have political agency seems beside the point.

(I may actually get to see this in a first-run theater–the second-to-last movie I saw in a theater was actually The Dark Knight–yes, I need to find a babysitter–but I haven’t seen it yet.)

12

bianca steele 07.25.12 at 12:45 am

deluded into acting out their fantasies

13

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 07.25.12 at 12:51 am

I’d actually like a superhero story that ends the way “The Stars, My Destination” does: the protagonist empowers everybody in sight and then pisses off, never to be seen again. For example, Batman open sources his “League of Shadows” juju and helps other people defend themselves, then hangs up his cape and pisses off to the Riviera.

14

Keith Edwards 07.25.12 at 1:14 am

Batman is hyper-real. He’s not a citizen or a politician running for office, he’s a psychological avatar, a stand-in we can use to explore slightly abstract concepts about Freedom, Responsibility, Justice, Ambition, etc. That’s what is so great about Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is that it has such a complex psychological structure. This makes it great for exploring the darker side of human emotions and motives, but not so much for mapping real world politics. And yet, people keep trying to find political messages in Batman’s story, only to be horrified when they uncover a twisted, Id filled nightmare of a political allegory.

What did you expect from a man who dresses like a bat and fights killer clowns? Were you really expecting Harvey Dent to have something profound to say about the US’s fiscal policy? The Joker to lecture on the Laffer curve? Poison Ivy to quote the Kyoto Protocols? I guess maybe Bruce Wayne has an opinion on Capital Gains Tax, but that’s not the point of the movie, it’s about how he fights his own inner demons by dressing like one of them and acting out a Jungian psychodrama.

15

Watson Ladd 07.25.12 at 1:17 am

Anderson, there are many movies about people living in a time when the institutions of democracy are severed. But by and large they do not wait for rescue, but make every attempt to reestablish democracy. Or have we forgotten every world war II movie ever made? The resistance in Batman confines itself to passively waiting for the police to emerge and Batman to return.

16

Anderson 07.25.12 at 1:24 am

But it’s more than that, surely – the Batman series takes a general tendency, and turns it into a reasonably explicit ideology.

And that in itself is valuable, I should think.

where political action centers on those dramas, and no-one else gets any real agency, even implicitly

… Um … yeah. Obviously. Like every comic book ever.

Keith at 14 is of course 100% correct, except I’m not sure that Batman is about resisting any inner demons. Bruce Wayne is so consumed by guilt that he hardly exists; cue the moment in TDKR where he tells Kyle that he’s pretending to be Bruce Wayne. That is literally true. Batman is the real person; Wayne withers when he’s not being Batman.

I’m not sure it’s sufficiently developed in the film, but there’s a reason Wayne ends up with Kyle (other than, dude, she’s Anne Hathaway). She’s the one who wants to give up the costume and get her “clean slate,” be a normal person. And she teaches Wayne to want that too, so that “Batman” does die out there over the ocean, and Bruce Wayne makes it back to shore (uh, somehow … is there a Batsub?).

17

Anderson 07.25.12 at 1:26 am

Anderson, there are many movies about people living in a time when the institutions of democracy are severed. But by and large they do not wait for rescue, but make every attempt to reestablish democracy.

Those aren’t superhero movies. Duh.

If you wanted Nolan to make a movie where Batman becomes irrelevant as the People in Arms rise up to re-establish democracy and civil institutions, well, that might be an interesting movie. But that’s an anti-superhero movie.

18

Jeremy 07.25.12 at 1:50 am

It looks like the reactionaries are thinking along the same lines, claiming the Batman of The Dark Knight Rises as a compatriot. Ross Douthat praises the movie’s “quiet toryism.” Here’s a link to Andrew Sullivan quoting Douthat, so I don’t have to be responsible for anyone using up one of their NY Times freebies to read Ross freaking Douthat talking about Batman: http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/07/batman-the-burkean.html

“Batman the Burkean”, it’s almost like he’s begging for a response from Corey Robin.

19

John B 07.25.12 at 1:51 am

Watson: off the top of my head, I can think of precisely no WWII movies that didn’t feature a Heroic Elite rescuing the Suffering Masses from an Evil Elite. It’s the trope of absolutely everything related to that war, from Nazi propaganda through to Inglorious Bastards.

20

Watson Ladd 07.25.12 at 2:20 am

John B: The composition of the heroic elite in WWII is ordinary people. Most US focused war movies take pains to portray the ordinary backgrounds of their protagonists: the midpoint of Saving Private Ryan is the revelation that a schoolteacher is the Sargent. The Great Escape has mundane soldiers continuing the fight from within a POW camp, at ultimately a great human cost. A Bridge To Far shows soldiers dying pointlessly, as does Bridge Over the River Kwai. The Last Metro and Casablanca both have ordinary, fallible people as their protagonists.

The sole savior could only be Dr. Turing or Dr. Oppenheimer, one invisible and the other permanently haunted by what he created. Even Inglorious Bastards renders the heros superflous. Had they not arrived, the theater would burn with the head of the SS inside it, and there would have been just as few survivors.

21

Henry 07.25.12 at 2:21 am

bq. I’d actually like a superhero story that ends the way “The Stars, My Destination” does: the protagonist empowers everybody in sight and then pisses off, never to be seen again.

I was actually thinking of that ending in this here movie – the bit where Bane makes the announcement about how some perfectly ordinary person out there (well … actually the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, so maybe not so ordinary) is holding the key to the bomb is so close to Gully Foyle’s final action that I wondered if it were a deliberate reference.

bq. … Um … yeah. Obviously. Like every comic book ever.

But again – do comic books really have the superheroes going on and on about how the people will be disinspired and sink back into chaos and corruption unless they set the right example? Maybe they do … but not the ones I remember reading. And I actually think that’s a different kind of rhetorical move, and one which is more directly political. Not that I want to belabor all this, since in the end it’s just a slightly silly movie, but still …

22

Anderson 07.25.12 at 2:44 am

But again – do comic books really have the superheroes going on and on about how the people will be disinspired and sink back into chaos and corruption unless they set the right example?

“Disinspired.” I like that. I want it on a T-shirt.

… The effort to use Harvey Dent as a political symbol is ultimately a bad idea, according to the movie. Gordon’s guilt leads him to the verge of confessing, and he gets raked over good by Blake for his deception. So to the extent that anyone in the movie thinks it’s necessary, the film says they’re mistaken.

Wayne comes by this mistake easily enough, since he is personally obsessed with escaping his own (sense of) guilt by becoming a symbol … his rationale is that it’s terrifying to his enemies, and that may be true, but at the very least it’s overdetermined. Remember, he dresses like a bat because *he* fears bats.

So to the extent this movie goes on about people’s symbolic value, it’s peculiar to the Batman mythos. IIRC, Wayne makes a point of telling several people that Dent is the real hero, and I think he says he would like to put Batman aside and get behind Dent. The Joker foils that plan, which I will have to think about, b/c on my reading of Wayne/Batman, Wayne is lying, perhaps even to himself: Batman is his reality.

What I’m wondering is what to make of John Blake’s evidently taking on the role of Batman. Is that really a good thing for him, or for Gotham?

23

js. 07.25.12 at 2:48 am

While I’m no fan of Nolan’s Batman, this particular criticism is rather silly, since it applies equally to most of western dramatic output from the ancient Greeks onwards. It’s very hard to construct a drama in which “the people” are the primary agent.

I kind of sort of see the point of the second sentence, I think. But given the incredible breadth of the first, I’m going to go ahead and recommend John Carpenter (Escape from New York and They Live are obvious examples) and Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers obviously, but also Robocop) as makers of genre films with a decidedly anti-aristocratic bent. And they aren’t the only two, of course. The point is that there’s nothing remotely inevitable about popular genre entertainment—let alone “western dramatic output since the Greeks”—that need make it an apologist or cheerleader for aristocratic tendencies.

24

js. 07.25.12 at 3:13 am

Also, I haven’t seen the film and have a genuine question:

Is the film any more visually coherent than the last one–esp. in the action sequences? (I’ve been trying to read reviews and figure this out, but it’s nigh well impossible. I found the action sequences in The Dark Knight to be basically headache-inducing, and not sure I want to put myself through that again.)

25

Keith Edwards 07.25.12 at 3:51 am

If you wanted Nolan to make a movie where Batman becomes irrelevant as the People in Arms rise up to re-establish democracy and civil institutions, well, that might be an interesting movie.

I’m trying to figure to how you would show this happening in a movie (or any form of narrative) without reducing “The People” to a few representative characters. “The People” are an undifferentiated mass. In order to apply a coherent narrative to them, you have to single out representative characters. The limits of budget and the medium dictate that for a 2-2.5 hr movie, you’re only going to be able to give half a dozen POV characters any meaningful coverage.

Hay, you know what might be interesting? If these representative characters were also psychological archetypes. And maybe they could wear masks and costumes to underscore the symbolism…

26

David 07.25.12 at 4:26 am

Just in terms of movie making, has no one noticed what I consider the most blatant continuity error in recent history? I saw it at a special IMAX showing early last Thursday evening. The second big set piece, which heralds the return of Batman, starts with a chase in broad daylight at the Gotham Stock Exchange and some minutes later finishes in the middle of the night. I don’t think so. It wasn’t that exciting. I realized in a few minutes that something was seriously askew. Pretty silly movie, really.

27

Both Sides Do It 07.25.12 at 6:16 am

David,

OH MY YES. Especially since they foreground the passage of time. The thing they’re downloading advances a couple percentage points in the five-ish minutes they take to between deciding to leave the bank and hop on their motorcycles in broad daylight, and then they’re zipping down the highway in inky blackness and only a few percentage points have gone by.

js,

It is as night and day as the continuity error David picks out. There are a couple fist fights between Bane and The Batman whose average shot length must be at least five times the average shot length of the most coherent fight in the previous movies.

As to the theory of politics stuff, there are a couple narrative choices that hurt the story and are consistent with Henry’s take. We are given literally no depiction of how the average person deals with the siege. The closest we get is Selina Kyle’s blonde “roommate” enjoying the spectacle of taking all the rich people’s shit and beating them up, and that’s obviously not intended to be a stand-in for the person in the street. This hurts the story because I for one am interested in the reactions of hundreds of thousands of people on an individual and group level to being held captive with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and was wondering why we weren’t being shown that.

That might not have been as big a problem as it turned out to be. Movies can’t show everything, after all. But we do get the very specific reaction of the police chief or second in command or whoever, Mr. Matthew Modine himself (Nolan found a way to fit a Joker into the movie after all), who gets a quiet personal moment of refusing to fight and wanting to huddle up with his family in his modest house on a street that had several newspapers in it being blown around by the wind.

So: th’ fuck? Is this supposed to stand in for the reactions of hundreds of thousands of people? It doesn’t work as character development because this character has less screentime than Miranda Tate and changes just as drastically. And the only way it works on a plot level is to generate tension about who is going to lead the police in their frontal assault against Bane’s Army at the end, which is just another example of what Henry’s talking about.

The most charitable reading of these choices is that Kyle’s buddy and Modine are the two general flavors that the reactions of regular folk come in, and that their representation of the populace as a whole fell flat because it wasn’t executed very well. But the reading that’s more plausible, because it’s been built up not only in the rest of the movie but the rest of the trilogy, is that the reactions of regular folks aren’t included because they just don’t matter and the movies aren’t interested in them. Kyle’s buddy highlights Kyle’s own personal growth, and Modine’s plot points and whiplash-inducing character development are included because they show another example of how leaders respond in stressful environments, even though they take all of five minutes and are superfluous to the plot (why was that final assault by the cops necessary, again? What did it accomplish?).

28

Daniel Nexon 07.25.12 at 7:18 am

I feel compelled to point out that Season 7 of Buffy does end with the empowerment of “ordinary people” as the Slayer’s status as a solo superhero has been revealed as a patriarchal control mechanism — a corollary of the “First Evil” of misogyny.

I’m also of the “well, duh, this is a superhero trilogy” and “making its aristocratic bent explicit is a feature, not a bug” bent. But there’s also a decidedly Platonic bent (we are talking about guardians, after all) to all this myth-making as a means of securing justice in the political community. It is no accident that Gotham city is a decaying city, its aristocracy turned to oligarchy and its demos manifesting all of the worst pathologies of rule by the unwashed masses. I’m too tired to elaborate on this here, but Moore’s subversion of these themes in Watchmen fits within the general thrust of such a reading.

It might also be worthwhile to contrast the general tenor of the DC heroes (at least as embodied in recent-ish films) withe Marvel ones. In Raimi’s Spiderman the Green Goblin claims that NYC’s inhabitants are, more or less, as they appear (emphasis on appear, as I do think the Dark Knight subverts this message a bit) to be in the refracted NYC that is Gotham. But Osborn is wrong and Parker is right; ordinary New Yorkers become key players in the Green Goblin’s defeat.

…. Of course, DC’s heroes were conceived as übermench, Marvel’s as a response to that vision of the superhero. Even the re-imagining of Batman in the 1980s can’t quite erase his genetics, I suppose.

29

aepxc 07.25.12 at 7:46 am

Whether explicitly or implicitly, the same ideas tend to underlie all band-of-heroes epics (so certainly all major comic book superheroes). The ultimate fate of the entire world is at the mercy of the whims and fancies of a tiny number of randomly-chosen but irreplaceable ‘Chosen Ones’. Everyone else is just there for adulation, manipulation, or cannon fodder. It’s why my tolerance for such stories is directly proportional to their frivolity – seriously pushing such paternal elitism as an ideal to strive for is despicable.

I suppose they work well as palliative escape fantasies for the disempowered and marginalised, however. Especially with the heroes tending to be plucked out of obscurity, the desired effect is not “wouldn’t it be great if I was among the thus-administered masses” (because no – it would not be great), “wouldn’t it be great if I similarly was made the hero”. It’s the modern take on the peasant guy/girl marrying the princess/prince in fairy tales.

30

aepxc 07.25.12 at 7:59 am

@Keith Edwards,

Just make it a battle in a much larger ongoing war. As with pretty much every serious WWII movie ever produced.

Then it would be representatives of “The People” doing what they can, rather than ‘Champions of the People’ imposing their preferred ethics on the world because they are the only ones who can save it.

Make the events much bigger the representative characters, rather than making the representative characters much bigger than the events.

31

Neville Morley 07.25.12 at 8:11 am

Insofar as this aristocratic ethos permeates every superhero movie ever made (even if most of them are less concerned than Nolan’s Batman trilogy with being Significant And Meaningful), then that simply widens the problem: why is it that the culture of late capitalism yearns to return to an idealised Middle Ages? Because it’s not just the superhero movies: Harry Potter follows an identical path of struggles for power among the magical elite, with the mass of the population relegated to passive herd status. Somehow I fear that the film version of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, depicting the revolt of the masses against their magical overlords, is unlikely to make it onto the screen any time soon.

32

Neville Morley 07.25.12 at 8:19 am

One quibble: are we all convinced that Ra’s al Ghul is driven by unresolved personal trauma like the rest of them? I would have said that the film (not least through the casting) presents him as someone who has genuinely sublimated his own grief and anger through commitment to a greater cause; he has a clarity of purpose that stands in clear opposition to Batman’s confused guilt, and it’s only the fact that Batman is against him that makes him appear as the unmistakable villain.

33

Charles Peterson 07.25.12 at 8:27 am

Yes, but actually it sounds interesting in a way, being so explicit about its political theory, thereby being different that way. Usually the political theory is there, in clear view, but nevertheless implicit, which probably makes the message stronger, often a message that submission to hierarchy is the way to achieve brotherhood. I recall critique of Star Wars as antidemocratic, can’t get much more antidemocratic than that. For something more like democracy, there was Star Trek. That is prehistoric now. We’re become disappointed and cynical. Our democratic forms are ever more revealing both designed and evolved plutocracy. Is democracy actually possible? Has there ever been anything better than a lottery for it? Corrupt political machines, or big politicians like FDR bending the rules may have been the best exemplars we’ve had of something more like democracy. When it’s more about big principles, and not big people, it falls down.

34

Scott Martens 07.25.12 at 9:24 am

What would a democratic superhero look like? Really? The examples that are coming to mind are not really exemplars of values, and the notion that the superhero genre is basically fascist has a long history, one exposed at some length by Alan Moore.

Buffy is not a fascist hero, she’s a messed up little girl trying to grow up, driven by fate, the gods, magic, and eventually possibly by her own psychological makeup. Her values bend and break all the time. She isn’t out to liberate anyone, not even herself.

Spiderman is not a fascist hero, but his attitude is hardly liberating. His activities protect people, and that protection may serve to empower them in a negative sense – criminals don’t take away their freedoms – but he adds nothing else to their lives. His own reasoning and moral code are of the noblesse oblige kind: “With great power comes great responsibility.” A feudal lord might well have seen his duties in the same way.

The X-men have a much more liberatory rhetoric, but at its best it’s about liberating the mutants from oppression, not the ordinary people. Magneto was right, it’s either the masses that are free or the mutants, not both.

V’s notion of freedom and justice is amorphous when it isn’t just nuts. He’s the opposite of a democrat, responsible to no one and nothing but his own deranged world-view. Anything that can’t be liberated by killing somebody or blowing something up he isn’t interested in liberating. Watchmen is about how awful and undemocratic the whole idea of superherohood is. And even Superman doesn’t seem to be able to stand for “truth, justice and the American way” with any kind of straight face these days.

Maybe Captain America could make the democratic superhero work with a little adjustment in the new DC continuum: Just another foot soldier in the long war against the Nazis, turned into a supersoldier through ethically questionable government experimentation, routinely shafted by his commanders, and despite his powers unable to personally effect change outside of his unit and the whole military apparatus, he returns to America with a combination of pride in his nation and his service to a just cause, and at the same time is horrified at the post-war settlement and the continuing injustices at home. This turns him into a sort of SDS/RAF fellow traveller who still works for the government hoping to effect change from within. He becomes more and more cynical about the values of America and its future prospects, hating the Soviets for their betrayal of his sense of morality, anti-imperialist and violently opposed to the petty fascisms rising in the wake of decolonization, but genuinely concerned about the peasants and workers and oppressed minorities, while struggling against his own racial and sexual prejudices in the new America and fighting bouts of PTSD… Nah, DC will never go there.

Batman is at his best when morally ambiguous. The moral ambiguity of his politics should probably have been highlighted, but that his worldview is disturbing is probably exactly right.

35

William Burns 07.25.12 at 9:59 am

One of the reasons DC will never go there with Captain America is that he’s a Marvel character.

36

Scott Martens 07.25.12 at 10:27 am

William@35: I’m not sure if my head smacking is loud enough to hear over the Internet. If not, take it as read.

37

cem 07.25.12 at 11:38 am

“In time, you will help them accomplish wonders…”

We’ll certainly get a chance to see these theories put to the test next summer when Watchmen’s Snyder and Batman’s Ryan give the ultimate Nietzschean comic book figure another shot. (http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/wb/manofsteel/)

I’ve always thought the politics of the Batman and Superman ethos fit more into a Seven Samurai/Man Who Shot Liberty Valance theme- the stories might be organized around aristocrats, but they’re not for the the aristocrats- they stage the people’s desires and fears, their inadequacies, confront them with those desires and fears, and leave them asking what to do about it.

The civic status of the contradictions- therein lies the question.

38

chris 07.25.12 at 12:22 pm

If you wanted Nolan to make a movie where Batman becomes irrelevant as the People in Arms rise up to re-establish democracy and civil institutions, well, that might be an interesting movie. But that’s an anti-superhero movie.

I’d go further and say that it’s an anti-movie. All movies focus on a small number of characters because they don’t have room to do anything more. Movies are a short form. Even shortish novels have regularly to have content cut to make them into movies. If a movie tried to tell the story you’re talking about it would end up focusing on a few leaders of the revolution and maybe a couple “typical” man-on-the-street types (or, of course, that perennial favorite, the everyman thrust by circumstances into a position of great importance).

Even a Tolstoy-length book couldn’t tell the stories of *all* the People. The People are vast; they contain multitudes. They’re too big to comprehend without simplification, let alone chronicle in any reasonable-length work of art. That’s why nobody tells stories about the People — the scale of the People is incompatible with the scale of any possible narrative.

39

chris 07.25.12 at 12:26 pm

Batman is at his best when morally ambiguous.

I would have said it the other way around: he is morally ambiguous at best. And to achieve even moral ambiguity he has to exist in a failed state, otherwise he’s screwing up a functioning state and doing more harm than good.

Even when the state has failed, though, Batman makes no attempt to change that fact (unlike V, who is also morally ambiguous at best, but is at least trying to change the big picture rather than emptying the sea teaspoon by teaspoon).

40

Metatone 07.25.12 at 12:29 pm

Points, not necessarily in a coherent order:

1) The heavy handed musing about the Straussian relation of Batman to the masses is of a piece with the comic book character. It’s a bit unfair to expect Nolan to have taken this in a new direction. Batman Begins is all about Gotham under a new Great Depression and (at first) a new Al Capone. Then that story ran out and they bring in the super villains – because superhero needs villains that match up. That’s also the arc of evolution of the comic books.

2) The political theory is largely of a piece with all the superhero stories of the current moment. Actually, it’s often not even a theory of elites, it’s much more (c.f. Avengers Assemble) a theory of “gods amongst men” – where we who are “ordinary joe” are little more than background – soft squishy background that sprays red liquid when we get caught in the crossfire. An important reading of all the films taken together is that we’re in a period where people feel thrown by impersonal and uncontrollable forces. You could see Charlie Stross’ Lovecraft stuff as part of this cultural phenomenon. The project to weld Hayek/public choice/etc. together into an anti-political mindset has led us here and it is anti-political, but I’d argue it’s worse, it’s utterly fatalistic – the ordinary people have no role at all.

3) Batman’s heritage has touches that take us at least away from the gods. Bruce Wayne starts out as just a human with some technology, although the eastern mystic beginning chips away at that. In a lot of ways, Fox (the technology) and Gordon (who deploys it) are the ones who save the city from the detonator – and they are men, not gods.

4) I’m inclined to agree with many commenters that the political theory explicit here (badly narrated, etc.) is implicit in much of the superhero genre. And further, to draw on Charlie Stross, it is so different from James Bond?

5) It’s easy in the post-Watchmen world to view Batman’s critique as a bit lame – but I think that’s a bit unfair. He’s human, the city starts out very ambivalent about the “vigilante”, the world is one of corruption. These are all elements beyond Avengers Assemble. I haven’t seen the new Spiderman, but I suspect that Batman asks more questions there too. I guess what I’m actually saying is that Batman is regressive and horrible and anti-political, but that’s because it gives people the agency to follow, some of the other movies reduce us to animals.

41

Eric Titus 07.25.12 at 1:34 pm

How is a genre that is a mix of fantasy and crime noir not supposed to be about elite action? X-men, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars are all about a small number of people. Sci-fi runs the other direction (Blade Runner, Aliens, etc)–the best people seem to do is to survive a bizarre and alien world.

What is insidious about these aristocratic tropes though is the illusion of representativeness. This is what magnifies the drama: Batman, Frodo, and Luke are carrying the torch for the forces of light. A similar thing happens with sports (Casey at Bat being a great example), where commentators act as though the players are feeling the combined anxieties of the fan base as they walk to the plate/free throw line/penalty kick area. The illusion is that an aristocratic system can be democratic, if only the people realize it.

42

William Timberman 07.25.12 at 2:10 pm

Batman: the Dark Knight Rises isn’t Grand Illusion or Battleship Potemkin, but it’s what we’ve got. That probably says more about us than it does about the Nolan brothers.

43

bianca steele 07.25.12 at 3:06 pm

@Keith Edwards, aexpc:
The problem is when you combine the internal psychological imagery with a story about politics (as Nolan’s Batman movies have been–Burton’s were not, as much), I don’t see how you can have a clear political message. You raise a lot of questions about how they relate to each other.

44

bianca steele 07.25.12 at 3:35 pm

Also, Nolan’s first post art-school film already combined Nietzschean themes and a noir atmosphere (but without an obvious political tie-in, from what I can see), so even if the source and the choice to keep the original atmosphere, and the modern superhero genre, dictated some of the film, any one detail might be dictated by another thing altogether.

45

Watson Ladd 07.25.12 at 4:17 pm

Harry Potter is deeply cynical about leaders. Dumbledore is ineffective, the Ministry of Magic government capture in action, and ultimately everyone does what they have to do without much guidance from above. (Especially Dumbledore’s Army).

As for BTVS, Slayers are nice but not necessary. (spoiler alert) Giles, Xander, Anya, Willow, and even Dawn kill vampires single-handedly at points. I’m a bit surprised no one thinks to blow up the Bronze during the daytime, exposing all the undead within it to light, but ultimately the resistance in the Wishverse saves a large number of people. Also, Sunnydale high school graduation? While Buffy might be needed to blow up the school, her classmates go hand to hand with vampires. As for the people keeping us safe from the horrors of the undead: like all governments, mostly human.

46

js. 07.25.12 at 5:04 pm

Both Sides @27:

Thanks. The bit about the average shot length is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to know.

chris @37:

All movies focus on a small number of characters because they don’t have room to do anything more.

Yeah, but Henry’s point is a lot more specific than this. Maybe, as several people here have said, there’s something intrinsic to the superhero genre that makes it pro-aristocratic (or pro- or proto-fascist), but it’s extraordinarily implausible that this bias is imposed by the very form of a short, more-or-less self-contained narrative, which is what you seem to be implying. And again, there are films—even in genres that are not totally dissimilar to the superhero genre—that are explicitly anti-fascist (or anti-elite, in the relevant sense).

47

Dave 07.25.12 at 6:33 pm

the takeover of Gotham functions via Baroque conspiracies among elites struggling for status and power.

Haven’t seen the movie, but isn’t this just a description of civilization? Elites struggling for power over some particular configuration of the masses? If it’s not a universal description of civilization, it seems to me to be a pretty adequate description of contemporary experience, at least as far as a commercial superhero movie can represent it to the masses. In other words, sure, it’s a creepy aristocratic politics, but it’s also the kind of politics we live with.

48

Keith Edwards 07.25.12 at 6:45 pm

why is it that the culture of late capitalism yearns to return to an idealized Middle Ages?

Because most of these stories are based on the Heroes Journey myth arc, which is a product of the Middle Ages and therefore serves the needs of the Capitalist Elite. Like many things form the late middle ages, the ideal of Heroism (especially the iconoclastic heroism of late Capitalism, who is not bound by the rules of the society he serves) is undemocratic.

49

Keith Edwards 07.25.12 at 7:01 pm

Bianca Steele @43:

My point was that Nolan’s Batman movies aren’t meant to have a clear political message. The characters are too big and abstract to fit into tidy little political categories.

Bane is not a Ron Paul supporter. He’s a psychopath who would shoot Paul in the face on national television, then give a speech about how true liberty only comes after you smash your idols. But of course, he’s a monster from the Id, so he doesn’t mean that in any sort of ideological sense. He’s just trying to perpetuate the sort of chaos in which a monster like that can thrive.

Bruce Wayne, as the first child of Gotham (and our orphaned hero) feels compelled to use his wealth and privilege to fight these monsters from the Id by becoming one himself. In this world, the political is a secondary or even tertiary concern over the ramifications of this dark psychodrama.

50

Data Tutashkhia 07.25.12 at 7:03 pm

@48 isn’t this just a description of civilization?

It’s a silly romantic description of civilization, a-la the ‘great man theory’.

51

bianca steele 07.25.12 at 7:52 pm

Keith:
That’s what I thought you meant, but I wasn’t sure. I agree. Bane might represent what, in his own psyche, Bruce Wayne most worries will take him over and cause him to lose control. Or what he fears most about the people of Gotham, as he imagines them. None of these is a political statement. Unless Bruce Wayne is meant to be representative in some way (of people in the real world). I don’t know whether the filmmakers meant him to be, or whether they’re depicting the psychology of one idiosyncratic figure.

OTOH, plausibly Bane might represent what the “real” leader of the movementof Rand Paul followers looks like, in the author’s mind. I don’t see what’s gained by merging this political statement with a psychoanalytic statement (as you suggested earlier could be done, I don’t know whether Nolan did just that). I mean, I see what’s gained in terms of visceral audience response, but it makes the film less political.

52

Tangurena 07.25.12 at 9:17 pm

What does Attention conservation notice mean? I’ve seen it over at ThreeToedSloth, and also when Cosma posts here. Is it an affectation? Really means something? Exists only to annoy certain species of trolls?

53

Bill Kaminsky 07.25.12 at 9:26 pm

Hmmm… a couple thoughts

Short Version: I find it hard to believe that a “theory of politics” is being dramatized when all the key dramatis personae are not only afflicted with TEH CRAZY, but also the Nolan brothers wouldn’t have it any other way, being utterly obsessed themselves with dramatis personae suffering from utter obsession.

Long Version:
I believe there’s a theme running through all the Nolan brothers’ films, not just their Batman films, that means any attempted critique of their Batman films as fundamentally pro-aristocratic/pro-fascist/pro-Great-Men-of-Will-seeking-to-establish-salutary-legends-to-impel-the-average-joe-or-jane-to-fufill-their-proper-role will be missing quite a bit of the brothers’ intent. Namely (in my humble opinion at least), the Nolan brothers seem to venerate obsession—particularly the type that’s uncontrolled, destructive to oneself and one’s loved ones, and plain ol’ all-consuming—as the most interesting subject for cinema. When I look at the main characters of not just their Batman films, but Memento, The Prestige, and Inception as well, I see the complete opposite of Persons of Great Will self-realizing and remaking the world into something of their choosing but pitiable persons who are extreme clinical neurotics suffering from an utter abridgement of volition.

Hmmm… I fear my thoughts are outstripping my ability to put them in prose [which is pretty much the story of my life, e.g., I'm procrastinating on writing my PhD thesis as I write this comment. :( ] Soooo… in closing, maybe suffice it to say that what I’m getting at is just an extreme version of Henry’s original point that

The action of the Batman films is driven nearly entirely by the personal hang-ups of a few powerful individuals.

and Bianca’s point back at Comment #11

I agree that the aristocratic theme is undercut—or made creepier, which may be the same thing—by the way each character is neatly assigned psychoanalytic motivations for what they do.

54

Cosma Shalizi 07.25.12 at 10:14 pm

52: Since most things are not worth most people’s time to read, I find it courteous to begin by explaining to people why they shouldn’t go any further. I got the idea, and the name, from Bruce Sterling’s old Viridian mailing list.

55

Salient 07.26.12 at 3:20 am

Do other superhero series go out of their way to highlight how pathetic, disgusting, and contemptible it is for the masses to attempt to claim some agency for themselves?

Maybe less so the third movie, but The Dark Knight hardly said anything else. Near the beginning Batman steps in and foils some vigilantes’ attempt to interrupt criminals; he leaves them both, but it’s the vigilantes he mocks. Near the end two sample populations from the masses demonstrate how pathetic, disgusting, and contemptible they are by choosing to blow up the other boat. In each case some rogue individual has to step in and trick or coerce the populace into forfeiting their agency. Then to drive the point home Batman says to the Joker, “What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?” (Which, of course, they are; Batman just wasn’t there on the boat to see it.) Joker responds, “Can’t rely on anyone these days.” Which is the perfect characterization of the Gotham populace in Nolan’s world. They’re fickle and stupid and amoral and stuff.

I guess the only time we see the masses in the third movie is the police force, which is dense enough to get captured underground. Their release is completely inconsequential, and we’re treated to this extended tracking shot of thousands of police officers charging at… among other things, a missile-launching tank. And it’s completely pointless. It doesn’t matter if they’re blown to bits or if they somehow subdue the tank. Either the bomb asplodes and everyone dies, or the bomb is neutralized and the military steps in to promptly squash the terrorists. So what purpose exactly are they serving, other than acting the fools? You’d think a Batman who knows the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the vehicle uniquely well would fare better against a rocket-equipped armored tank than a thousand lackey officers wearing matching hats and billy clubs, but apparently fistfighting with Bane takes priority. And then no more scenes of the “war,” because, whatever.

56

Dan 07.26.12 at 5:27 am

Keith Edwards @ 49:
“Bruce Wayne, as the first child of Gotham (and our orphaned hero) feels compelled to use his wealth and privilege to fight these monsters from the Id by becoming one himself. In this world, the political is a secondary or even tertiary concern over the ramifications of this dark psychodrama.”

A major problem with TDKR is that Bruce Wayne was NOT compelled to use his wealth for EIGHT years to support the people of Gotham – he was at home sulking. He let his company get run into the ground and apparently the only thing he did in that time, the fusion reactor, he shelved because HE didnt trust anyone except himself. Only a billionaire could be so narcissistic – the city has to get on with its life. It has to pay bills. It has to open its own doors…

In this sense, Bruce Wayne was very much Bruce Wayne and NOT enough the Id, his creation. He is supposed to BE Batman, protector of the city. The CITY. He is not Bruce – whiny rich kid, he just plays one in public. But in TDKR he only put the bat on when the rich were imperiled.

For a proper take on batman and his relationship with the city watch Batman: The Animated Series. Sure, you get the stories with the super-villains, but you also get the stories of Batman on the street, helping the little guy. And he only fights super-villains because they endanger the people.

57

rf 07.26.12 at 11:40 am

As good as this analysis is, it still falls a little short of the standard set by Joe Queenan in 2007:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2007/sep/04/features.juddapatowfilm

58

Anderson 07.26.12 at 2:11 pm

“Near the end two sample populations from the masses demonstrate how pathetic, disgusting, and contemptible they are by choosing to blow up the other boat.”

They choose NOT to blow each other up.

59

Jeffrey Davis 07.26.12 at 3:00 pm

“The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.”

It’s hard to construct a politics or philosophy that lasts as long as the paper it’s written on.

60

Salient 07.26.12 at 5:26 pm

They choose NOT to blow each other up.

This is incorrect. Both boats decide to blow the other ship up. In the prison boat, a rogue criminal persuades the warden to let him be the one to pull the trigger, then chucks the trigger out a window in the side of the boat before anyone can react. In the rich people boat, they hold a closed vote to determine they should blow the boat up. One of the men on the boat volunteers to press the button, has a change of heart, and decides to reject the voted-on decision. The consensus decision on both boats was to destroy the other boat. An individual intervened and prevented the masses from exercising their agency, and in both cases we’re supposed to feel good about that individual, and bad about the masses who couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing.

This isn’t me being weird, it’s a standard interpretation that matches the IMDB synopsis:

At the same time, the two boats are still debating what to do with the detonators. On the ‘criminal ferry’, one of the largest and meanest-looking convicts makes a speech about the warden holding the trigger not knowing how to take life, then goes up to the warden and asks to take the trigger so he himself can do what the warden should have done ten minutes ago. The warden hands the convict the trigger and the convict promptly throws it out of the ferry, making it impossible for anyone on the convict ferry to blow up the ‘innocent’ ferry. On the innocent ferry, after having voted to use their detonator, the officials can’t bring themselves to act out the decision. A man stands up, takes the detonator but is unable to press the button.

The synopsis doesn’t capture any of the body language between the officers and prisoners, so it doesn’t mention that we see the prisoners and wardens looking around, substantiating the conjecture that they want the trigger to be pulled. When the prisoner offers to take the trigger, everyone on the boat understands this to mean that he’s going to explode the other boat. Then surprise, he doesn’t he tricked everybody… and then everyone feels ashamed about what they had wanted.

61

mud man 07.26.12 at 5:59 pm

without some master-figure, however capricious, who can grant or deny them recognition isn’t actually about monarchy

You seem to have in mind a Sun King model of monarchy, but that’s only one phase of the cycle. At other times there is the Game of Thrones or Hundred-Years’ War phase, wherein competing absolutists duke it out for the right to confer legitimacy, going beyond the country-club maneuverings of the Upper Ten Thousand which ultimately center around conservatism: more of what we’ve got. It seems to me Jacobin has a point.

Love your idea for a sequel…. it so could work.

62

Ragweed 07.26.12 at 6:15 pm

@John B

With WWII movies, I think there is a big difference between movies made during the war, and later movies. In many movies made during the war, there were hero’s who did great things with made a difference for many, but there was also a sense that they were ordinary people compelled to greatness because of the war, not because they were inherantly great. Think of Laszlo in Casablanca – when threatened by one of the Nazis, he replied that if he were killed, another would take his place, and another after that et. al. It was part of war era propoganda, to be sure, but a distinctly more democratic one.

63

etv13 07.26.12 at 11:46 pm

@Ragweed, John B.: There’s also 1942′s Keeper of the Flame, in which a great national hero, recently deceased, turns out to have been a secret fascist. I remember its being Spencer Tracy’s character who tells Katharine Hepburn’s (I’m paraphrasing loosely here) “He was their [the people's] enemy and they deserve to know it,” but the plot summary on Amazon says it was Hepburn telling Tracy. In any case, part of the point of the movie was that the people deserved to know.

64

liberal japonicus 07.27.12 at 3:40 am

I haven’t seen the movie and not followed the comments closely, but etv13′s invocation of Keeper of the Flame reminds me of the opposite notion in Angels with Dirty Faces, where Cagney suddenly pretends to fear the electric chair (iirc) in order to have the “proper” narrative given to the children who idolize him.

65

FredR 07.27.12 at 4:06 am

Maybe Nolan’s real inspiration was Vilfredo Pareto. Elites with class 1 residues getting replaced by elites with class 2 residues, except they were lucky enough to have Batman, class 2 residue paradigm, on their side.

66

Nine 07.27.12 at 8:40 am

Turned out to be a great movie after all, much better than the utterly bland 1 & 2 imo. But anyhooo … I am really, really curious about what bits in the movie, actually in the movie, rather than prior associations in peoples’ heads, suggested counter-revolution or restoration even! (that article in “Jacobin” was way over the top), that is to say sympathey for the ancien regime for the theme ? If anything, there’s plenty of finger pointing at the rotten ancien regime. Viz at the stock exchange – “There’s nothing for you to steal here” – “Then what are you lot doing here”, ” I am not having my men die for your money” etc, etc, etc. Does any cinematic cliche signal decadence & downfall more than a masked ball ? I suspect most people here are unaware that the story is a mash-up of several different arcs from the comics & not even contiguous arcs – almost nothing in the plot is original with the the Nolans, it is pretty much all DC comics presents including the siege and reconquest of Gotham. I am not sure the Nolan is doing much more than driving a super-hero vehicle. If anyone want’s Monarchism then Miracleman is your book.
BTW, question for those who want a movie about the democratic agency of the masses – what would the plot look like ? And would you pay money to see such a movie ?

67

Mercy 07.27.12 at 7:06 pm

@Bill, the sheer number of political speeches mean any attempt to cast the film as apolitical is going to take a bit more evidence than what you’ve got. More to the point, the political stuff is entirely superfluous – the movie’s plot would be unchanged if Bane simply announced himself dictator, and Kyle’s dissimilitude with the possibility of populist revolt runs counter to the rest of her character arc- the only plausible reason for putting it in is as a deliberate message: populist revolts are dangerous, cooked up by shifty oriental schemers to cast down the righteous and put themselves in power.

As political commentary goes it’s on the level of one of those political cartoons with some morally clear but irrelevant image, captioned so that the villains are your political opponents and the victims yourself (as per: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1226#comic). Juvenile and harmless but, because of that, pretty obvious – in a movie where the dialogue consists entirely of people spouting exposition and their motivations at each other, why else do Catwoman and Bane make repeated monologues and the poor and downtrodden, when they already have perfectly good motives for everything they do. No plausible reason but to associate those making similar speeches with criminals and, in the case of Kyle, to have her realise the error of her revolutionary ways – though this little character arc merely muddles her much more typical “amoral thief grows a conscience” arc.

Incidentally it’s worth pointing out that the film’s writer, David Goyer, is currently working on a videogame about the OWS movement falling for a charismatic terrorist who dupes them into letting him take over the US. So the authoritarian political elements identified here are probably not accidental.

@Scott you’re kind of coping out by dismissing the X-men like that, it clearly indicates you can have a superhero story about broad movements. Regardless of whether the movies had admirable politics, they provide a blueprint for stories that do, that are not based on individual psychoses but on masses of superpowered individuals.
And though it’s been a while, I seem to remember the comics had the X-men expanding their rooster to include the marginalised and uncanny generally – clones and aliens and so on – rather than defining their team membership on racial grounds. Plus there was a constant proliferation of mutants front of judea-style ideological splits, which fits in the idea that the stories don’t have to be about isolated individuals.

68

dear chris bertram 07.28.12 at 4:34 am

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2012/07/the-extra-large-omelet-of-death.html

Brad DeLong on populism. I assure you he’s not alone. Most of you would agree with him, as often as not.

69

David 07.29.12 at 6:42 pm

I’m not sure I’d agree films without an aristocracy of representative character that subsitute for the mass are impossible, but they would be Eisenstein style montages that mostly lacked dialogue.

Anyway, in the TDKR I was sort of playing spot the rightist ideology. Others here will know these better than me, so I’m open to correction:

1. The lie about Harvey Dent – this seemed evocative of what’s often attributed to Leo Straus (unfairly or not, I don’t know) – exoteric myth for the masses, esoteric truth for those in the know. This is predicated on the masses being potentially powerfully capable (otherwise why bother to mystify?) but also fated to be incapable to know right and so to ever do good.

2. Gordon’s complaint about the ‘Shackles of Structures’ – this is sort of Carl Schmitt, isn’t it? Although they often appear as a couplet, the idea here is that Law and Order are antinomic (really, moral law versus order – subtracting the moral aspect from law is the reduction of law to ordering). Gordan and Batman chose order at the end of TDK.

I think 1 & 2 are partly interesting because they were Batman’s attempt to do politics in response to the Joker’s destabilisation, a move beyond the anti-political conspiracism of Begins. TKDR makes clear it’s ultimately a failure, with Blake explicity rebuking Gordon for it. But the solution isn’t a different politics that’s truthful to the masses: it’s a real, heroically presented conspiracy in the form of Gordon’s counter-revolution rebellion, which is a policeman’s putsch with no mass participation, a new anti-politics. From artistocrats conspiring to securocrats conspiring. From heroic to routinised reaction: Batman lays down the law, installs the police then leaves the stage.

3. Again, out my depth here, but wasn’t the whole fear death, jump without the rope bit a kind of lite Heidegger?

I thought it all sort of raised the question: was climbing out of the pit a metaphor for Wayne’s entire story, so essentially being Batman was dicing with death until he learned to live authentically, and his reign in Gotham was really just a means for working on his existential problems (so the running ‘extreme sports’ gag was actually the truth?).

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