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.