What We Want from Batman
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has generated a disproportionate interest and enthusiasm, even among those who would not normally take notice of an action or superhero film (I count myself here). The trilogy clearly takes itself more seriously than most of the films in its genre, and surely the Batman story itself is better suited than most to a kind of sleek, shadowy para-realism, with its emphasis on private wealth and secret technology. The enthusiasm is not dissimilar from the wide-ranging ardor that greeted Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster, Inception: his innovation seems to be making high-octane action films that incorporate the reality games and retrospective twists that mark such upper-middle-brow movies as Fight Club and Memento (also written and directed by Nolan).
Doubtless we are witnessing the rise of a new genre, the “smart” action film (its way paved by the gnostic pretensions of The Matrix). But what distinguishes the Dark Knight films (particularly the last two) from the rest of their cohort is their relentless topicality. As reviewers of the latest Dark Knight have unfailingly commented, the film’s imagination resides squarely in the post-9/11 shadows; Nolan’s Batman is essentially a beefed-up black ops commando, a privatized strike force, a one-man Blackwater. This Batman is at home in the national security state. The films, however, tell us less about the world we live in than about the paradoxical fantasy we wish we could inhabit.
The coordinates of our high-security social reality are all here, but their signals have been scrambled. In the second film, The Dark Knight, the hot-buttons are state secrecy, unwarranted surveillance, constant terrorism, and the question of extralegal military action versus institutional process. In a scene late in the film, it is revealed that Batman (Christian Bale) has illegally converted every cell phone in Gotham into a giant, web-like listening device. This glance at warrantless wiretapping is hardly covert, with Batman’s assistant, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), dutifully taking up the position of the indignant civil liberties advocate, threatening to quit unless the device is dismantled. Batman uses the device anyway, which turns out to be instrumental in winning the day; only afterwards, when it has served its purpose, do we discover that it has been programmed to destroy itself automatically. To read this as a justification for wiretapping would be too simplistic: it would be more true to say that it represents a fantasy, the fantasy that we can have our domestic surveillance and our suspended liberties too, because we know when to stop—we’re in control, and there are men of unimpeachable moral character watching over. There is a whiff of willful desperation here, and when you remember that the film appeared in the twilight of the Bush era, it begins to strike you as rather sad.
In the newest film, The Dark Knight Rises, the fantasy becomes more complex. Here the topical markers have been updated to incorporate the mass protests and class tension witnessed by so many world cities in the past two years. The climax of the film begins with a phalanx of police, large enough to cover an entire city street, marching towards a loosely assembled army of bandana-wearing anarchists. It is a situation that ought to be familiar to our contemporary moment, but the thrust of the scene has been inverted: here it is the police that are rag-tag and poorly equipped, united by the courage of their common cause, while the “protestors” are brutal-looking and heavily armed, outfitted with advanced weaponry and standing on the steps of city hall. The social map has been replotted, the signifiers reversed.
Similarly, one could be forgiven for associating the khaki tanks that prowl the streets of Gotham with the Humvees currently patrolling neighborhoods in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gotham, under Bane (Tom Hardy), is a city under occupation, and it is the police commissioner, Gordon (Gary Oldman), and his associates in law enforcement, who are the underground insurgency, the terrorist cell, trying to expel the foreign invader. The reference is clinched by the inaugural speech that Bane delivers to a crowded football stadium at the moment when he assumes control over the city: after carrying out a series of coordinated shock-and-awe attacks that disable the city’s infrastructure, he announces to the people of Gotham that they have been “liberated.”
Out of the convergence of these timely threads emerges a coherent, if contradictory, fantasy. In essence: we want to be on the side of those in power, of the status quo, but we don’t want to feel like we’re siding with the Establishment. In our narrative imagination, the scrappy band of rag-tag rebels, the underdogs standing up to impossible odds, always have the moral edge over the overwhelmingly powerful, faceless system, with its comfortable monopoly on power and force. But the nature of our contemporary conflicts does not align well with this innate notion: for we are well aware that the opponents of American power, both at home and abroad, are determined groups of ordinary people, fighting solely on the basis of fiercely held beliefs against an unimaginably rich and powerful foe. Thus, the terms of our reality have to be recoded, to “correct” this disturbing problem—and so the Commissioner becomes the brave insurgent, the police become the plucky rebels, and the anarchist protestors become the Establishment. (This reversal also mirrors the recent move by the American Right, which has embraced the idea of itself as a rebellion against the Establishment, speaking truth to Leftist power.)
In this way, the film speaks to a deep and pervasive unease with the narrative shape that our power has taken in today’s world. The fantasy we find in The Dark Knight Rises is not essentially dissimilar from that of the preceding film: both represent an impossible desire to have it both ways. We wish to keep all the disproportionate advantages of our empire, our wealth, our weapons, our technology, while also taking on the qualities that we unconsciously (and guiltily) envy in our enemies: their adversity, their righteousness, their suffering. Surely, then, this is the meaning inscribed in the centerpiece of the latest film, in which Bane leaves Batman to languish in the dark hole of a secret, vaguely Middle Eastern prison (not particularly unlike a CIA black site). Bane, we know, was raised in this prison, and managed to escape, and so the film reaches its dramatic crescendo when Bruce Wayne—the rich, privileged American hero—must prove that he can endure everything that his enemy has endured, suffer everything that he has suffered, and still emerge, eternally triumphant. Needless to say, when he gets back to Gotham, his gadgets are waiting for him.