The Dark Knight Rises, the Avengers, and Occupy
I am going to discuss The Dark Knight Rises at length, now, and I am of no mind to be careful about what I reveal — like I’ve said before, I don’t really “review” things, like, “Should I go and see this on Saturday?” Yes, you should go see The Dark Knight Rises. That is my review. What follows here is a discussion of the movie, and to that effect you must understand that there will be Spoilers, and this entire opening paragraph before the jump is actually just an extended Spoiler Warning, and I don’t want to hear any of you punk suckers crying to me if I reveal that Hulk punches Thor or something, all right?
The Dark Knight Rises has gotten some criticism in some parts because of what appears to be a contemptuous attitude towards the Occupy Wall Street movement — a very particular populist uprising that directly opposed the overwhelming influence that monied interests have in our political system. I am going to talk a little bit about this movie, and about the way it presents power in society, and I’m also going to talk about The Avengers and how the two movies diverge in terms of their characterization of the merits of individual power.
Now, fair warning: I, Braak, am an atheist, socialist, trade unionist, anti-corporatist, multiculturalist, and (in principal, anyway) sexual libertine. I don’t completely align with the Green Party because they can’t get on board with my plan to nationalize the energy industry. I am about this close to completely opposing the notion of private property, and I definitely think that a preoccupation with property is a huge character weakness. I am exactly the kind of person that Adolf Hitler and Joe McCarthy warned you about. I am solidly, staunchly in favor of the Occupy movement and of the principles behind it, and I have been consistently, inexorably, and secretly judging every person I’ve met who didn’t take it sufficiently seriously.
I also love Batman, and have a pretty positive relationship with the Avengers.
The Structures of Power
One of the issues that superhero stories have always, always had to deal with is the notion of elitism. Batman, especially, has always been — for all intents and purposes — an aristocrat. He’s the good kind of aristocrat, the one who has a powerful sense of the noblesse oblige, the one you like to have as the hero in your regency romances, but the fact of the matter is that he’s still representative of a system in which the good of the aristocracy hinges entirely on the particular largesse of its individual members. The Dark Knight Rises absolutely maintains the sense of Batman as a basically morally, physically, and intellectually superior person, whose actions we’re meant to appreciate by virtue of that superiority. Batman lives in a world in which the law can’t really be trusted, in which everyone is corrupt, and in which you and I, the regular citizenry, have to accept that our lives depend on just how well Batman does whatever he wants to, and how much what he wants to do is in our interests.
Likewise, in The Avengers, we’re faced with an incalculably destructive alien invasion, and here we’re supposed to entrust Nick Fury — a guy whose qualifications and political mandate are, to say the least, not readily apparent — with a giant flying aircraft carrier equipped with nuclear weapons, and a super-team of the most powerful people on the planet. At least one of those guys (Iron Man) straight-up thinks it’s okay to take the issues of political conflict out of the hands of democratically elected representatives and into his own. This is, indirectly or not, absolutely an endorsement of a fundamentally elitist philosophy — one in which regular people have to just trust that better people are going to protect them.
Weirdly, I’m actually less bothered by the Dark Knight Trilogy in this respect than I am The Avengers. The thing about Batman, and about the way the Batman is portrayed in these movies, is that the treatment of a billionaire aristocrat is actually subversive from the way that we ordinarily deal with billionaires — Bruce Wayne, in Rises, has sacrificed his body to the point of being a cripple in order to fight the physical threats that Gotham faces; he’s sacrificed not just his fortune but very nearly his ability to have a fortune, just for the purpose of keeping a deadly weapon out of the wrong hands. And the thing about this attitude is that it doesn’t map onto traditional defense of the 1%: Bruce Wayne says, “I’m going broke in order to protect the 99%”, while the basic defense of our real, regular 1% is, “I can’t protect you guys because then I would be broke”.
If Mitt Romney stood up and said that he was exactly like Bruce Wayne and we should respect him for the many sacrifices he’s made in order to protect the greater good, we’d rightly laugh at him; the conservative defense of wealth is that wealth IS the greater good, so sacrificing it would be counter-productive. And the portrayal of Gotham in the Dark Knight Trilogy is one that makes it abundantly clear that this is not typical behavior for a billionaire; that, in fact, one of the reasons that Gotham is such a shithole is because Bruce Wayne is the only guy who’s doing it. The Trilogy does not present an overall defense of billionaires, as the only other wealthy characters are either deluded maniacs hellbent on revenge, or else cutthroat capitalists who are willing to do anything in order to get more money — up to and including manipulating the stock market so that they’ll have the opportunity to sell weapons of mass destruction to…well, frankly I can’t think of anyone to whom it would be okay to sell weapons of mass destruction, so I guess the point is moot.
There’s a problem that you run into with George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (a lot of Shaw’s works, actually), which is that his defenses of personal success, hard work, enterprise, &c. all seem like they follow Carnegie and Ford’s theories about Social Darwinism — but Shaw himself was a socialist, and even Major Barbara explicitly advocates for mass uprising against oppressive capitalism. I think one of the ways to reconcile it is that, in large part, both Shaw’s works and the Trilogy are specifically addressed to people who have power about the way that they should behave: they aren’t a defense of the strong to the weak, but an excoriation of the strong by the presentation of an example of real strength.
When you look at it in contrast with The Avengers, I think there’s an interesting hitch. The Avengers pretty specifically posits the merits of a cabal of super-people who are here to save us from the bad guys — and it generally glosses over the motivations, behaviors, and even personalities of its villains to make that pill a little easier to swallow. We might be in an awkward spot if Bane had been the villain in The Avengers, and the de facto head of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nick Fury) had just assembled a superhero team to fight him, because the thing of it is that SHIELD is very specifically a political agency — while Bruce Wayne uses his vast wealth to separate himself from both the legal and political society that governs Gotham City. There is a difference, in other words, between the Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing aristocrats in Revolutionary France and, say, a secret tactical assassination squad made up of the King’s Musketeers; one is an outsider trying to protect people from mob violence — the other is unmistakably an advocate for the aristocratic society that was just overthrown.
The 99% Rises
Which brings us to the popular mandate. One of the things that I think it’s important to remember in the Trilogy is that there is, in fact, no popular uprising. Bane’s uprising is NOT Occupy Wall Street and, in fact, doesn’t even resemble Occupy Wall Street. It is very specifically an intricate revenge plot that co-opts the language of populism in order to create a militarized police state. And it’s also the culmination of the plot set into motion by Ra’s al Ghul, so let’s take a moment and talk about him.
Ra’s argues in Batman Begins that it’s his responsibility to destroy a society when it becomes decadent, and this actually puts him and the League into a very specific moral and historical position. When your enemy is decadence, and your response to it is to, either legally or illegally, create and enforce a kind of moral purity in response, then you are a Fascist. This is exactly what fascism is: an often extrajudicial movement that seeks to fight “decadence” and “corruption” — almost inevitably defined as “multiculturalism” or “moral relativism” — by creating a renewed sense of purity. When we take the first movie into account, it’s readily apparent that it’s not income inequality that’s on Ra’s’ mind, and so it’s not inequality that Batman is defending — in fact, the income inequality in Gotham was purposefully engineered by R’as al Ghul in order to destroy the city, to battle against the “decadence” that he’d witnessed. While his ambitions might not be specifically about achieving and maintaining power, Ra’s is actually a fascist terrorist, and Gotham was meant to be the League’s Reichstag fire.
Bane, in fulfilling that plan, actually does exactly what every historical fascist movement does — he hands out power to a minority of aggressive, militant thugs, while simultaneously insisting to the population that he’s liberating them. Fascist movements, while not always popular, are always populist. This characterization of Bane’s revolution in the Trilogy actually does several things, to my eye:
1) In the first place, it very clearly distances it from the Occupy movement. The fact that a Fascist movement can use populist language does not imply that all populist movements are Fascist, and when you consider Bane’s actions — the militarized state, the abiding sense of terror that he creates with his bomb, the kangaroo courts, &c., it’s manifest that this isn’t really a criticism of Occupy.
2) Pursuant to the above, what Bane’s revolution also does is point out the inevitability of militarized resistance to income inequality. Every single time we’ve seen a revolution go sour — France, Russia, South America, even in the US (Ethan Allen presided over his share of kangaroo courts, to be sure) — every time a revolution has gone bad, it’s been a direct result of how widespread inequality made a society vulnerable to Fascist movements. That is to say, it’s important for us to understand, and I think that the Trilogy argues for it, that a Fascist police state isn’t the direct consequence of revolution; it’s the direct consequence of the conditions that precede revolution. The aristocracy will always argue that we can’t entertain revolution, because if you give the revolutionaries what they want then eventually they’ll ask for your head; this is propaganda — the truth is that the revolutionaries don’t start demanding heads until you’ve denied them everything ELSE that they want.
3) Finally, the language that’s often overlooked in criticisms of the movie is that Bane’s pronouncements about liberation? Those are our pronouncements — America’s pronouncements, the kind that we make a big deal about when we “liberate” other countries. Bane leading a line of tanks down the streets of Gotham and demanding that the people greet him as a liberator is as absurd as us telling the people of Iraq that we’ve liberated them with our tanks and our drone strikes, or the people of Afghanistan that we’ve liberated them from the Taliban by delivering them directly into the hands of a different corrupt dictator.
Of course it’s easy for us to overlook criticisms of our own, American hegemony, which is one of the things about The Avengers that makes me bristle so much — it’s so very clearly built to be a propaganda film. Consider that Ra’s’ characterization as a deadly fascist is…well, not subtle, but it’s at least specific and pursuant to the plot. Ra’s makes an argument that eventually sees fruition in Bane’s fascism. Contrarywise, Loki’s characterization as a new Hitler is a consequence of him just being an inexplicable cock — he goes out and is an asshole to some Germans, at which point one of them compares him to Hitler. It’s not just a ham-handed device; it’s also only evocative of the broadest and most simplistic understanding of who Hitler was and how he came to power.
Similarly, consider the differences in the rank-and-file villains of the two movies — there’s a complexity to those in Rises (I will get to this) that The Avengers purposefully, specifically eschews. In The Avengers, the earth is under attack by aliens that lack any clear motivation, any individual characterization, any position of moral ambiguity that might cause us to question, even for a moment, the moral rectitude of annihilating them with a nuclear weapon. They are, very specifically, the demonized Other (actually, I think “The Other” is the name of the head alien) — a foreign force that is purely malignant and can therefore be destroyed with a clear conscience, created solely for the purpose of giving our heroes a threat to fight that won’t cause the audience to think about the moral ramifications in any way.
Importantly, one of the abiding themes of the Dark Knight Trilogy is how Batman’s acts of violence come with inevitable and often disastrous consequences. This has actually always been a question that’s dogged most superheroes, but it’s also dogged Batman in particular: how does beating up a bunch of muggers actually solve the problem? Right from Begins, we see the abiding argument that it doesn’t — it’s not the Joe Chills of the world who are the real bad guys, which Bruce Wayne learns the first time he had to steal to avoid starving, it’s the system that creates them that Batman has to fight.
It’s a fair argument to point out that the Trilogy can be seen as a rich guy who slums for a while as an excuse to beat up the people he doesn’t like, but I think this is an unfair characterization; Nolan very particularly makes it clear that Wayne is in this for the long haul — he doesn’t just pretend to be poor, like he could go back to his wealth whenever he wants; he actually has to get arrested and go to a prison in China. He doesn’t get to pass judgment, in other words, until he’s committed himself in a non-trivial, irreversible way — and, to his credit, he still refuses to pass judgment on the kind of petty criminals that he’s seen are a consequence of widespread income inequality.
It’s certainly possible to read Batman’s final confrontation with Bane, in which he asks if Bane thought he was the only one who could climb out of hell, as a kind of indictment of people who suggest that privilege necessarily insulates us from an understanding of the suffering of others; but it’s also important to remember that Batman can’t win until he actually does climb out of hell. It’s not enough to understand where a person has come from — if you want to engage with them on equal footing, you have to have actually been through the shit, too. I think it’s a much stronger position, though it’s also easy to see why, if you’re in a position of privilege, you might overlook it.
What’s vital to remember in all of this is that there is one and only one action that Batman takes which has unequivocally good consequences: it’s not defeating Ra’s al Ghul, that just sets up the long-term vendetta that will see Bane’s revolution; it’s not becoming the Batman, that’s just what creates the Joker; it’s not even shielding Harvey Dent from blame for his actions – that just serves to create a system that suspends due process and provides Bane with an army to destroy Gotham. This is the complexity that I was talking about earlier, in the rank-and-file villains of the Trilogy: the first one they’re mostly just random thugs, sure; but in The Dark Knight and Rises, those thugs are people who are mentally handicapped (and out on the street, why? Because they live in a city without the kind of social safety net that would have seen them get the medical treatment that they needed), and people who were arrested en masse, possibly for spurious reasons. Simply beating those guys up is not only not productive, it’s actually kind of morally problematic — or say, rather, while it might not be bad, it’s also not explicitly good.
No, obviously the one thing that Batman does that permits him a genuine freedom, instead of his self-imposed seclusion, is risking his life to take the atomic bomb away from Gotham City. This is an act that’s not about defending a status quo, about beating up a villain, about an identifiable enemy, about morally ambiguous lying or secrets; this is flat-out a guy sacrificing himself for the sake of the common good. The only true heroism, at the end of this long argument about the fine line between justice and fascism, is self-sacrifice.
And when you look at it next to The Avengers, the key difference is thrown into relief. Batman risks his life to protect Gotham City from a bomb; Tony Stark risks his life to protect Manhattan from a similar bomb, by pointing it at an army of invaders. Batman’s aim is solely to protect, and his action will necessarily protect the good and the bad — the bus of orphaned schoolchildren AND the hardened escaped cons who were just gunning down cops. Tony is happy to protect the humans, but the foreigners are going to get wiped out — their asteroid-thing is annihilated, the remainder…die, I guess. It’s worth noting again that Thor, whose own movie hinged on him opposing genocide even of people who were bad, doesn’t even seem a little sad that this is the only way that they could do it.
Look at what Tony Stark says, too, about what the Avengers are and what they’re for: ”Because if we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we’ll avenge it!” The point of the Avengers is explicitly NOT self-sacrifice — and we can really read an argument that says that if an Avenger did sacrifice himself in a way that didn’t destroy an alien horde, that sacrifice would be a failure. The Avengers aren’t here to protect anyone; they’re here to destroy Our Enemies, which is a position that Rises, in the end, explicitly rejects, and I think it’s stronger for it.
Of course, everything is always going to be at least a little problematic. The fact that it causes problems shouldn’t be taken as a reason to not like it, but you do need to keep these ideas in your head and you have to weigh them when you’re talking about the merits of a movie. Rises, and the Dark Knight Trilogy as a whole, have their fair share of problems.
Among them, I think it’s unfortunate how often “the people of Gotham”, characterized as a largely-faceless mass (or by the occasional orphan) that Batman asserts (without any particular evidence) is fundamentally good, is essentially used as a prop in other peoples’ power struggles. While the treatment of Bane’s fascistic rise is a good one, it’s a little disheartening that we don’t see the fact that the end of fascism in a time or place is never something that rests on the back of one hero, but is itself a popular movement. We, the people, aren’t juggled between Fascists and Revolutionary heroes — we make the fascists and we let them lead us; and they leave when we make them leave.
Likewise, there’s a lot of Rises that seems like it’s defending the 1% in a way that I’m ultimately willing to let slide, because I think this has more to do with the problems that are incurred when you have a director who is also a writer: namely, that justifications tend to be over-written. So, for example, when Bane seizes the Gotham stock market, and the cops don’t want to go in because of hostages, there’s a day-trader or something who tries to argue with a working-class guy about why it’s desperately important that the stock market be protected.
My suspicion is that this is less an explicit defense of the merits of the stock market, and more an anxiety on behalf of the director, who was afraid that the audience (whom he can rely on to be mostly indifferent to stockbrokers, at least) would be insufficiently invested in the stakes unless he made it absolutely clear how a fucked-up stock market could directly affect us, the working folks. I think this was a mistake on his part, I think that scene would have worked fine without the explanation; but I’m inclined to ignore it in favor of the broader structure of Fascist revolutions simply because of it’s so clearly and clunkily an explanation for this particular set of actions. It’s not a demand that we protect Wall Street, per se, it’s just a plea to the audience, for the sake of the plot, for us to not say, “Well, fuck those guys.”
Well, maybe. It is pretty annoying, though.
In my opinion, The Dark Knight Rises — both as an individual film and as the culmination of a trilogy of films — is superior to The Avengers in every respect save one. I am happy to credit The Avengers with developing a kind of action vocabulary that made for some exhilarating fights, with the kind of fluidity that you almost never see in live-action films that involve super-powers. But otherwise…well, look, just the fact that we can have a discussion about Batman as an allegory for fascism in popular movement and the nature of heroism, and any discussion of The Avengers kind of peters out after we’ve covered Whedon’s one and only socio-political argument (“It’s about constructed family“, yeah, yeah, we get it, man) indicates that the Dark Knight is by far the denser, more intelligent treatment of the attendant questions of superheroism, of power, and of elitism.