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Occupy Gotham City
What the Dark Night Rises says about violence, morality and people's power
The Dark Knight Rises attests yet again to how Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicament of our society. Though Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators have criticized the film for naming its villain Bane—as in Bain Capital—most progressive critics have read the film as a denunciation of Occupy Wall Street. But the film warrants a closer reading, with an eye to what is absent as well as to what is present. For those of you who have not seen the movie, here is a (simplified) storyline:
[Ed.: Plot spoilers follow.] Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight—the previous installment of the Batman saga—law and order prevail in Gotham City. Under the extraordinary powers granted by the Dent Act, Commissioner Gordon has nearly eradicated violent and organized crime. He nonetheless feels guilty about letting Batman take the fall for the late Harvey Dent’s crimes and plans to admit to the conspiracy at a public memorial for Dent—but then decides at the last minute that the city is not ready to hear the truth.
No longer active as Batman, Bruce Wayne lives isolated in his manor while his company crumbles—in part because he invested in a clean energy project designed to harness fusion power, then shut it down after learning that the core could be modified to become a nuclear weapon. The beautiful Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, encourages Wayne to rejoin society and continue his philanthropic works.
Here enters the (first) villain of the film: Bane, a terrorist leader who was a member of the League of Shadows. After Bane’s financial machinations bring Wayne’s company close to bankruptcy, Wayne entrusts Miranda to control his enterprise and also engages in a brief love affair with her. (Her romantic competition is Selina Kyle—Catwoman–who steals from the rich in order to redistribute wealth, but eventually rejoins Wayne and the forces of law and order.) Learning that Bane has gotten hold of his fusion core, Wayne returns as Batman and confronts the villain, who admits that he took over the League of Shadows after Ra’s al Ghul’s death. Crippling Batman in close combat, Bane detains him in a prison from which escape is virtually impossible: Inmates tell Wayne the story of the only person to ever successfully escape, a child driven by necessity and the sheer force of will.
While the imprisoned Wayne recovers from his injuries and retrains himself to be Batman, Bane succeeds in turning Gotham City into an isolated city-state. He lures most of Gotham's police force underground and traps them there; then he sets off explosions which destroy most of the bridges connecting Gotham City to the mainland; finally he announces that any attempt to leave the city will result in the detonation of Wayne’s fusion core, which has been converted into a bomb.
Here we reach the crucial moment of the film: Bane’s takeover is accompanied by a vast politico-ideological offensive. Bane, who stole a copy of Commissioner Gordon’s intended speech, publicly reveals the cover-up of Dent's death and releases the prisoners locked up under the Dent Act. Condemning the rich and powerful, he promises to restore the power of the people, calling on the common people to “take your city back.”
The ultimate Occupier
Here is where critics have been quick to pick up on the parallel to Occupy: As Tyler O’Neil writes in the Hillsdale Natural Law Review, Bane reveals himself to be “the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99% to band together and overthrow societal elites.”
What follows is the film’s idea of people’s power: show trials and executions of the rich; streets littered with crime and villainy.
These scenes of a vengeful populist uprising (a mob that thirsts for the blood of the rich who have neglected and exploited them) evoke Charles Dickens’ description of the Reign of Terror in A Tale of Two Cities. Although the film has nothing to do with actual politics, it follows Dickens’ novel in “honestly” portraying revolutionaries as possessed fanatics. Thus the film provides, as blogger Karthick RM [sic] writes on his blog Unceasing Waves, a “caricature of what in real life would be an ideologically committed revolutionary fighting structural injustice. Hollywood tells what the establishments want you to know—revolutionaries are brutal creatures, with utter disregard for human life. Despite emancipatory rhetoric on liberation, they have sinister designs behind. Thus, whatever might be their reasons, they need to be eliminated.”
But on to the conclusion of the film:
[Ed.: Additional spoilers]. A couple of months later, while Gotham City continues to suffer popular terror, Wayne successfully escapes prison, returns to Gotham as Batman, and enlists his friends to help liberate the city and disarm the fusion bomb. Batman confronts and subdues Bane, but Miranda intervenes, stabbing Batman—and the societal benefactor reveals herself to be Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s. It was she who escaped the prison as a child, and Bane was the one person who aided her. After announcing her plan to complete her father's work by destroying Gotham, Talia makes off with the bomb. In the ensuing mayhem, Selina (as Catwoman) kills Bane, while Batman chases Talia to her death. Using a special helicopter, Batman hauls the bomb beyond the city limits, where it detonates over the ocean and presumably kills him.
Batman is now celebrated as a hero whose sacrifice saved Gotham City, while Wayne is believed to have died in the riots. But Alfred, Wayne’s faithful butler, witnesses Bruce and Selina together alive in a cafe in Florence, while Blake, an honest young policeman who knew about Batman’s identity, inherits the Batcave. In short, as Karthick aptly summarizes, “[Batman] saves the day, emerges unscathed and moves on with a normal life, with someone else to replace his role defending the system." At Wayne’s (would-be) burial, Alfred reads the last lines from Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Dickens is an inspired choice for a film in which the gap between the rich and the poor is present, but depoliticized. Early in the film, Selina Kyle (Catwoman) whispers to Bruce Wayne (Batman), while they are dancing at an exclusive upper-class gala: “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Director Christopher Nolan, like every good liberal, is “worried” about this disparity and admits this worry penetrates the film. He told Entertainment Weekly:
What I see in the film that relates to the real world is the idea of dishonesty. The film is all about that coming to a head. … The notion of economic fairness creeps into the film, and the reason is twofold. One, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire. It has to be addressed. … But two, there are a lot of things in life, and economics is one of them, where we have to take a lot of what we’re told on trust, because most of us feel like we don’t have the analytical tools to know what’s going on. … I don’t feel there’s a left or right perspective in the film. What is there is just an honest assessment or honest exploration of the world we live in—things that worry us.
Although viewers know Wayne is mega-rich, they tend to forget where his wealth comes from: arms manufacturing and stock-market speculations. Arms dealer and speculator: This is the true secret beneath the Batman mask. And yet the film establishes Wayne as the generous gentleman-philanthropist, pitting him against the selfish and decadent rich who lack the Wayne family’s sense of noblesse oblige.
And CNN’s Tom Charity rightly noted that the movie defends “the establishment” by presenting a society of “philanthropic billionaires and an incorruptible police” and by exhibiting a distrust of the people taking things into their own hands. Thus, in the words of Slate’s Forrest Wickman, the film “demonstrates both a desire for social justice and a fear of what that can actually look like in the hands of a mob.”
Blood and revolutions
Nolan’s brother Jonathan (who co-wrote the screenplay) put it bluntly: “Tale of Two Cities to me was the most sort of harrowing portrait of a relatable recognizable civilization that had completely fallen to pieces. The terrors in Paris, in France in that period, it’s not hard to imagine that things could go that bad and wrong.”
However, the actual OWS movement has not been violent; its goal is definitely not a new reign of terror. Insofar as Bane’s revolt is supposed to extrapolate the immanent tendency of the OWS movement, the film thus ridiculously misrepresents its aims and strategies. Bane stands for the mirror image of state terror—a murderous fundamentalist sect taking over and ruling by terror. He does not embody the overcoming of the renegade state through popular self-organization. The ongoing anti-globalist protests are the very opposite of Bane’s brutal terror.
Of course, there were monstrous mass killings and violence in actual revolutions, from Stalinism to the Khmer Rouge, so the film is clearly not just engaging in reactionary imagination. But we must reject simplistic claims that 20th-century Communism used excessive murderous violence, and that we should be careful not to fall into this trap again. As a fact, this is, of course, terrifyingly true. But such a direct focus on violence obfuscates the underlying question: What was wrong in the 20th-century Communist project as such? What immanent weakness of this project pushed Communists (and not only those in power) to resort to unrestrained violence? In other words, it is not enough to say that Communists “neglected the problem of violence.” A deeper sociopolitical failure pushed them to violence.
The same goes for the notion that Communists "neglected democracy.” Their overall project of social transformation enforced on them this “neglect.” It is thus not only Nolan’s film that is not able to imagine authentic people’s power. The “real” radical-emancipatory movements themselves were unable to do it. They remained caught in the coordinates of the old society, which is why the actual “people’s power” often became a violent horror.
We cannot simply claim that there is no violent potential in OWS and similar movements. There is violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process. The problem with The Dark Knight Rises is that it wrongly translates this violence into murderous terror.
The best answer to the movie’s implicit claim that the violent mob reaction to oppression is worse than the original oppression itself, was the one provided by Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood … our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break?”
On the state, violence and morality
Let us make a detour through Jose Saramago’s Seeing. In that novel, the Portuguese Nobel Laureate tells the story of the strange events in the unnamed capital city of an unidentified democratic country. When the morning of election day is marred by torrential rains, voter turnout is disturbingly low, but the weather breaks by mid-afternoon and the population heads en masse to their voting stations. The government's relief is short-lived, however, when vote counting reveals that more than 70 percent of the ballots cast in the capital have been left blank. Baffled by this apparent civic lapse, the government gives the citizenry a chance to make amends just one week later with another election day. The results are worse: now 83 percent of the ballots are blank. The two major political parties—the ruling party of the right (p.o.t.r.) and their chief adversary, the party of the middle (p.o.t.m.)—are in a panic, while the haplessly marginalized party of the left (p.o.t.l.) produces an analysis claiming that the blank ballots are essentially a vote for their progressive agenda. Unsure how to respond to a benign protest but certain that an anti-democratic conspiracy exists, the government quickly labels the movement "terrorism, pure and unadulterated" and declares a state of emergency, suspending all constitutional guarantees and adopting a series of increasingly drastic steps: Citizens are seized at random and disappear into secret interrogation sites, the police and seat of government are withdrawn from the capital, the city’s entrances and exits are sealed, and finally, a terrorist ringleader is manufactured by the powers that be. The city continues to function near-normally throughout, the people parrying each of the government's thrusts in inexplicable unison and with a truly Gandhian level of nonviolent resistance… this, the voters’ abstention, is a case of truly radical “divine violence” which prompts brutal panic reactions of those in power.
Back to Nolan. Viewed as a commentary on the state, violence and morality, the triad of Batman films thus follows a certain logic. In the first film, Batman Begins, the hero remains within the constraints of a liberal order. The system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. By contrast, the sequel, The Dark Knight, is effectively a John Ford-style Western, deploying the idea that in order to tame the Wild West one break the rules in order to defend civilization.
Or, to put it in another way, in Batman Begins, the hero is simply a classic urban vigilante who punishes the criminals that the police cannot. The problem here is that law enforcement relates ambiguously to Batman’s help: While admitting Batman's efficiency, the police apparatus nonetheless perceives him as a threat to its monopoly on violence and an embarrassing testimony to its own inefficiency. However, Batman’s transgression here is purely formal–acting on behalf of the law without being legitimized to do so. In his actions, he never violates the law.
The Dark Knight changes these coordinates: Batman’s true rival is not Joker, his opponent, but Harvey Dent, his counterpart, the “white knight.” As the aggressive new district attorney, Dent is a kind of official vigilante, whose fanatical battle against crime leads him to kill innocent people and eventually destroy himself. It is as if Dent is the legal order’s response to Batman’s threat: Against Batman’s vigilante struggle, the system generates its own illegal excess. Its own vigilante is much more violent than Batman and directly violates the law. There is thus a poetic justice in the fact that, when Bruce plans to publicly reveal his identity as Batman, Dent jumps in and falsely identifies himself as the masked hero. In return, at the film’s end, Batman takes upon himself the crimes committed by Dent to save the reputation of the popular hero who embodied hope for ordinary people.
Finally, The Dark Knight Rises pushes things even further: Is Bane not Dent brought to a logical extreme? Is Bane not a Dent who has drawn the conclusion that the system itself is unjust—so that in order to effectively fight injustice one has to destroy the system by employing the most brutal of methods?
On the subject of Bane, Karthick raises a perspicuous question: Why is Bane depicted so harshly, while the Joker of the previous film is a more sympathetic villain? (It is not just because Heath Ledger is a more accomplished actor than Tom Hardy.) Karthick’s answer is simple and convincing:
Bane is distinguished from the Joker by one thing: his capacity for unconditional love, the very source of his hardness. In a short but touching scene, Bane tells Wayne how, in an act of love in the midst of terrible suffering, he saved the child Talia—and paid a terrible price for his loving act (Bane was beaten within an inch of his life while defending her).
The unity of love and sword
Karthick rightly locates this event into the long tradition, from Christ to Che Guevara, that extols violence as a "work of love." As the famous lines from Che Guevara's diary puts it: "Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality." What we encounter here is not so much the "Christification of Che" but rather a "Cheization of Christ”—the Christ whose scandalous words from the Gospel of Matthew put it this way: "Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother." This grim pronouncement seems to be more in harmony with Guevara’s more “problematic” exaltation of revolutionaries as “killing machines”:
Guevara is here paraphrasing Christ’s declarations on the unity of love and sword—in both cases, the underlying paradox is that what makes love angelic, what elevates it over mere unstable and pathetic sentimentality, is its cruelty. Violence raises love over and beyond the natural limitations of man and thus transforms it into an unconditional drive. This is why, back to The Dark Knight Rises, the only authentic love in the film is that of Bane, the “terrorist,” in clear contrast to Batman.
Along the same lines, the figure of Ra’s, Talia’s father, deserves a closer look. Ra’s is a mixture of Arab and Oriental features, an agent of virtuous terror fighting to counterbalance the corrupted Western civilization. (Ra’s is played by Liam Neeson, an actor whose screen-persona usually radiates dignified goodness and wisdom—he portrayed Zeus in The Clash of Titans and Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace).
In Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Ra’s is also the teacher of the young Wayne. In Batman Begins, he finds the young Wayne in a Chinese prison; introducing himself as "Henri Ducard," he offers the boy a "path." After Wayne is freed, he climbs to the home of the League of Shadows, where Ra's is waiting but presenting himself as a servant.
At the end of a long and painful training, Ra’s explains that Bruce must do what is necessary to fight evil, while revealing that he has trained Bruce with the intention of him leading the League to destroy Gotham City, which Ra’s and his followers believe has become hopelessly corrupt. Ra’s is thus not a simple embodiment of Evil: He stands for the combination of virtue and terror, for the disciplined egalitarian fighting a corrupted empire, and thus belongs to the line that stretches (in recent fiction) from Paul Atreides in Dune to Leonidas in 300. And it is crucial that Wayne is his disciple: Wayne was formed as Batman by him.
The immanent center
So … should the film just be flatly rejected by those of us who are engaged in radical emancipatory struggles? No. One should read the film in the way one interprets a Chinese political poem: Absences and surprising presences count. Recall the old French story about a wife who accused her husband’s best friend of making illicit sexual advances toward her. It takes some time until the surprised friend gets the point: In this twisted way, she is inviting him to seduce her. It is like the Freudian unconscious, in which to speak something is always to affirm it: What matters is not a negative judgment on something, but the mere fact that this thing is mentioned. In The Dark Knight Rises, the specter of “people’s power” becomes a central concern.
This in itself provides us a clue. The prospect of the OWS movement taking power and establishing people’s democracy in Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly unrealistic, that one cannot but raise the question: Why then does a major Hollywood blockbuster dream about it? Why fantasize about OWS exploding into a violent takeover? The obvious answer—to smudge OWS with accusations that it harbors a terrorist-totalitarian potential—is not enough to account for the strange attraction exerted by the prospect of people’s power. No wonder the proper functioning of this power remains blank, absent: No details are given about how this people’s power functions, what the mobilized people are doing. (Bane tells the people they can do what they want. He is not imposing on them his own order.)
It is therefore all too simple to criticize Nolan’s film from the outside, comparing it to the reality of anticapitalist protests and pointing out how its depiction of the OWS reign is a ridiculous caricature. One should criticize the film from the inside, demonstrating how the film is in tension with itself. Consider that Bane is not just a brutal terrorist, but a person of deep love and sacrifice. In this way, Bane’s authentic love leaves a trace within the film’s texture. This is why the film deserves a close reading: The imagined Event—the specter of the “People’s Republic of Gotham City,” dictatorship of the proletariat on Manhattan—is immanent to the film, it is its absent center.
Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.