Fascism, Semiotics, Anne Hathaway, and Other Semi-Random Thoughts On The Dark Knight Rises

by evanmcmurry

Finally saw the Dark Knight Rises, which means I can offer thoughts about it that are not contextual:

1. Christopher Nolan clearly just wanted to make dark movies about terrorism, and the Batman franchise was the only way to get funding. The only Batman product I’ve ever seen that was less interested in a guy in a batsuit was The Dark Knight, which will some day be rereleased as The Anarchist Starring Heath Ledger. In DKR, we’re 45 minutes in before Christian Bale puts the suit on, and he’s immediately stripped of it and thrown in prison for the sole purpose of Nolan not having to deal with Batman for the next hour of the film. The upshot of this: every twenty minutes or so of this somber, terrifying mood piece, somebody said the word “batman” and I burst out laughing, spoiling the otherwise sustained bass note of dread that girded the film.

2. Nolan’s essential point seems to be that both terrorism and the forces that repel it function semiotically, that is as a series of symbols that operate largely independently of their reality, and that both represent and misrepresent that reality. In all three films, the public—that’s us!—are at a complete remove from the truth of events. In the first film, the crime wave that is seen by the public as symptomatic of moral decay is actually a long illusion produced by Liam Neeson’s facial hair for the purposes of inciting moral reform; in The Dark Knight, the resolution of the plot hinges on allowing the emergence of a fictional version of events in which Harvey Dent saves the city from a menacing Batman (laugh), all to give the people “a hero” (I honestly never followed this); and in this film, all of the events occur behind a miasma of signs, such that it’s questionable whether a single character, including Batman (laugh), ever knows the full version of events, let alone Joe Public, who is manipulated from start to finish by false narratives.

This goes well beyond the standard superhero trope of “Is he a hero or a vigilante?” In all three films, the protagonists are just as reliant, if not more so, on illusions—constructed narratives that mediate reality, often quite mendaciously; in all three films, the good guys do a piss-poor job of controlling these networks of symbols, and in DKR, the revelation of one of these narratives as fabricated seriously erodes confidence in law and order. In most superhero movies, the “image of the hero” is something Spiderman/Superman/Iron Man have to deal with; in the Dark Knight trilogy, everybody is wholly powerless against the network of symbols around them.

Nolan seems to be saying that terrorism is largely effective due to its use of narrative as a weapon—it is not a system of actions after a palpable goal like enrichment, as in organized crime, but one dedicated to undermining of the concept of civil society, an inherently symbolic end—and so our ability to fight it necessarily rests on the manipulation of symbols as well, a fact that will always risk undermining our moral argument for that very civil society. The threat of terrorism is that it highlights our concepts of right and wrong as vulnerable constructions, and thus calls into question whether we have any right to be invoking them to justify state violence, erosion of civil rights, etc. Finding real-world referents for this theory in our post-9/11 actions isn’t difficult in the slightest, and to the extent that Nolan’s trilogy functions as an allegory for terrorism and its aftermath on American society, I thought it was quite effective.

3. What this has to do with Batman (laugh) is beyond me. That Nolan had to smuggle his tale of terrorism and its discontents inside a bat suit ultimately perverts whatever his message was supposed to be, not because Batman (laugh) entails certain expectations, but because summer blockbusters do. Nolan had to get his film to a point at which its resolution could only be achieved through a half-hour long action set piece, as all blockbusters—The Avengers, X-Men, etc.—need to: we must eventually end by shooting it out over the rooftops of New York City, always, forevermore.

But in the case of DKR, the violent climax isn’t just a payoff; it forces the film to push an essentially violent worldview that belongs more to the world of popular film than it does to the world of the Dark Knight. Others have pointed out the fascistic core of the The Dark Knight trilogy, in which a single authority figure imposes an autocratic version of order over a citizenry for their own good and entirely through the strength of his own will. I don’t think this theory is wrong, but I also think it came about less by Nolan’s design than out of structural necessity: eventually Batman (laugh) has to enforce his will over the people, because he has to enforce his will over the movie via violent climax, because he’s in a summer blockbuster. The movie seems to make the point that in the end, the violent will of one man is required to stop evil, and we just need to cross our fingers and hope that a) we have a violent guy on our side, and b) he does the right thing; but this argument was as much necessitated by the form of the blockbuster as it was the logical conclusion to Nolan’s narrative.

This, I guess, was Nolan’s trade-off: he got his dark terrorism allegory, but it was perverted by the demands of the form.

4. I think too much got made over the congruence of Bane’s army to Occupy Wall Street; in truth, the two have very little in common. But Nolan clearly borrowed the rhetoric and some of the visual cues of OWS for his villain, and to the extent that he gets credit for making his films so topical, so zeitgeisty, he should be held accountable for getting the zeitgeist wrong. And he got OWS wrong. One of the film’s main visual arguments occurs when Gotham’s police officers, who were trapped in an underground prison because they followed orders straight into a trap set by Bane, rush the men of Bane’s army, automatons who have followed a false revolutionary. The cops and the class warriors are clearly juxtaposed in the scene as two sides of the same follower coin: cops who follow orders, rebels who follow revolutionaries.

But this wasn’t OWS at all. The movement was horizontal (blech), which meant there was no centralized figure like Bane—name for me one figure from Occupy. And the distinguishing feature of the movement was its lack of unified action; indeed, that turned out to be one of its main faults as well, as the movement was never able to harness the energy it created. Again, I think Nolan was simply using OWS as costumes for his villains, not making a point about class war or revolutionary movements. But Nolan’s film will also be big enough that it will influence perceptions of our time, and we should be careful not to let his faux-class warriors replace the real thing. (I don’t think cops are automatons, either, but somebody else will have to pen their defense.)

5. It’s time, after Rachel Getting Married and now DKR, to admit Anne Hathaway is a pretty good actress. I don’t like it either, but we now have about 400 minutes of evidence.

6. After Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and now DKR, we can safely assume Gary Oldman writes an “I get to dress well” clause into every one of his contracts. His Commissioner Gorden is 140% more bespoke than any police commissioner I’ve ever seen.

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