Dark Knight of the 1%: Fantasy of vigilante smackdown

This essay appeared in Jacobin magazine.

‘The Dark Knight is no capitalist…

… he’s something much worse.

by Gavin Mueller 


By now, you already know: the new Batman movie is fascist propaganda, a clear swipe against the Occupy movement, and the occasion for the worst rampage in U.S. history, by a guy referring to himself as the Joker. Historic stuff is happening, so much so that Hollywood opted not to report its weekend numbers out of sensitivity (and, maybe, because Batman 7: Dark Knight 2 isn’t going to beat The Avengers).

But Batman a fascist? Come on, this isn’t news. This is American entertainment!

Folks have been doing the superheroes-are-fascist routine for over 50 years now, so there’s very little novel in dropping the f-bomb on Batman now. Which isn’t to say the critics are wrong: after all, the last Dark Knight movie was totally reactionary, though I don’t seem to remember quite so many complaints about it.

There’s that whole rich guy handing out helpings of extrajudicial brutality thing, which is the entire Batman schtick. Then there’s the Brothers Nolan heaping some extra fascist ideology on top, wrapping up The Dark Knight with authority figures effacing the crimes of the elite in a deliberate effort to craft symbols that will get the public to support their War on Crime.

And then there’s the actual plot, that dusty old thing that ties together two hours of dudes grimacing and punching each other. In Dark Knight, we saw Bruce Wayne cleverly wrest away control of his corporation from its pesky shareholders, turning Wayne Enterprises into a privately held company to better conduct experimental weapons research.

We can’t have valuable tank money wasted on useless ventures, no! And nothing gladdens the American soul like a family company allowed to do business the way they see fit, away from those pesky disclosure rules and fiduciary responsibilities — in fact, I remember the theater audience cheering.

Look, you don’t have to be an entertainment junkie, or a critic, to come up with examples of white men, often cops and soldiers, “forced” to go rogue to fight the (usually brown-skinned) evils that threaten family and fatherland. Pretty much every trailer before Dark Knight Rises had some variation on the theme, even the comedyNeighborhood Watch (apparently, Trayvon Martin’s killing by hero-wannabe George Zimmerman pushed the release date back a couple months – oh sensitive Hollywood!). Halliburton wet dream Iron Man 2 was shockingly glib about “privatizing peace,” and everybody noticed, but I guess Robert Downey Junior is too charming for the f-word. Frank Miller, the curdled soul behind contemporary Reichskultur like 300 and Sin City(and The Dark Knight), is all but open about his fascism, and recently told Occupy to join the military and get whipped into shape fighting our “ruthless enemies.” Lately I’ve been watching Walter White kill depraved Latino drug dealers so he can keep his brood nice and petty bourgeoisie.

Guys, these are your basic fascist plotlines, and if you want to tell me that 90% of Hollywood plots work this way, do the math yourself. It’s not an accident that these revenge fantasies pour out of the country that’s the world’s biggest, most violent bully.

Apparently this time the critical consensus has caught up, declaring Batman a Goebbelsian fable squarely targeting the protests of the 99% before the film had been released to the public. If that’s true, then The Dark Knight Rises is a pretty crap installment of the U.S. entertainment industry’s parade of macho reaction. Class war tropes abound, but they’re thin and unconvincing, never given the credence you’d expect now that income inequality is dinner table conversation.

Director Christopher Nolan, a guy who deemed absolute monarchy “relatable,” wouldn’t know real underclass resentment if it pulled him up by his underwear, the way his chums at his British private school used to. So let me clear things up – The Dark Knighthas nothing to do with Occupy, and no one who sees it will make that connection, unless they gleaned everything they know about Occupy from newscopter footage. Bane’s “army of the 99%” is a disciplined private militia – no mention of anarchists, as the Guardian would have you believe – who happily volunteer for neck breakings out of blind loyalty.

This “true believer” nonsense simply doesn’t resonate with Occupy at all, where debates over simple procedural matters took hours to resolve, and Bane’s authoritarian command violates the Occupy’s own prime directive of leaderlessness. There’s only the sketchiest indication that Bane has any appeal to the Gotham citizenry at all, unlike the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.

If The Dark Knight Rises was supposed to be an attack on Occupy, it’s a failure, and even if it’s settling for vague anti-populism, it sucks at that too.

There is a fundamental carelessness – or perhaps more accurately, cowardice – running through the whole film, where every character’s motivations are thin and unconvincing or simply nonexistent. Sure, the Joker didn’t have any motivation, but I’ve been bored by evil-for-evil’s-sake villains since I started fifth grade. Let’s start with Bane himself, who I initially liked. He informs people of their imminent demise with this matter-of-fact Sean-Connery lilt that makes untimely death seem like not such a big deal.

I was looking forward to seeing his character develop, for the film to explore his weird populism, or at the very least his destructive pleasures the way Dark Knight indulged us with the Joker. Instead he ends up being your bargain basement villain, making silly pronouncements and receiving lots of head trauma. The Nolans couldn’t think of anything to do with him after he breaks Batman’s back throws him into an Uzbek prison pit (there’s a reason this movie is almost three hours long and still feels rushed). He ends up getting unceremoniously capped by some Bat-Gadget, nary a farewell one-liner to his name.

This is not a movie full of good one-liners. Commando, that’s an action movie with some one-liners. In Dark Knight Rises, one of the characters literally utters, “His only crime was that he loved me.” Someone wrote that.

The writing’s not all bad, and most of the decent lines go to Anne Hathaway’s appealing Catwoman, who also has the most coherent class war angle. The Nolan boys attempt to give her character a dash of hipster-bohemian anticapitalism with a social climbing streak, but her poise and taste for the finer things doesn’t exactly add up to a rough childhood, let alone Billyburg bee-keeping. Rather, it better approximates the privileged upbringing and pricey liberal arts education of Hathaway herself. Still, she’s a welcome presence in a film full of nondescript white dudes with that same Mad-Men-retro slicked hair thing that GQ cannot stop pimping. That’s right, Joseph Gordon Levitt, I called you nondescript, which is better than me saying you are not at all credible as a grizzled cop.

But you don’t need me to tell you this movie is clunky, if not a total clunker, just like you don’t need me to tell you that it’s fascist. You’ll probably see it for yourself, if you haven’t already. So let’s get to my most controversial point: Batman/Bruce Wayne is not a capitalist. Sorry.

This Batman-as-financier stuff is a trick played by casting the actor whose greatest role was a psychopathic i-banker. Yes, Wayne is rich, but that’s not the same as being a capitalist. The guy running the bodega down the street is more of a capitalist than Bruce Wayne. Wayne has no interest in profit, in accumulation, in investing his wealth to produce more wealth. If you don’t see M-C-M’ you don’t have capitalism. Now, the character of Bruce Wayne has always been imbued with noblesse oblige, but let’s not get that confused with what a capitalist does. Wayne funds orphanages and renewable energy in distinction to the actual capitalist, Daggett, who is trying to pillage Wayne Enterprises, Bain-Capital-style. Daggett is pointedly dissed at a party full of rich peoplebecause he’s only interested in money. Those silly noveau-riche, so gauche, am I right?

So this is a class struggle all right, but it’s not between Bane’s pseudo-proles and Gotham’s elite with their cop army. That’s a sideshow. The struggle is within the ruling class itself, between the capitalist Daggett and the aristocratic Wayne. Wayne is far more feudalism than finance: heir to a manor complete with fawning manservant, unconcerned with business or money-making, bound by duty and honor even if it makes him a recluse.

Meanwhile, Daggett represents the rapaciousness and self-destructiveness of unfettered acquisition, stooping to working with terrorists to edge out Wayne’s position on the board of directors. And so we’re presented with a choice, which like with so much ideology is a false one: be ruled by the chaotic profit motive who holds out empty promises of liberation, or by an unaccountable violent lord who nevertheless promises to look out for our best interests. Using the French Revolution for inspiration, the Nolans have restaged the question of bourgeois revolution, but in reverse. They want you to stand with the monarchists.

Here’s where the renewable energy plot comes in. Wayne invested heavily in fusion power, which was apparently successful. However, he shuttered the project at great personal cost because he was worried about it being weaponized. This is why we can’t have nice things, world! Your betters have constructed cheap, clean, renewable energy, but it could be turned into a weapon by evil people (Russians of course, those reliabletragic mullatoes of global cinema – so white and so good at science, yet so ethnically other that things always go badly). So Wayne mothballs it “to keep it out of the wrong hands.” He alone determines the fate of the realm – in the name of the people, of course – as he hobbles around his mansion.

This is the essential gutlessness of the Nolans’ enterprise. They can write a knotty plot, and can even bring some visual style, but they have no feel for what most people actually feel and enjoy and find “relatable.” I’m impressed by their films, like I’m impressed byMichaelangelo’s Last Judgment even though it doesn’t inspire me to fear the torments of Hell. Even when I like a Nolan film, I don’t love it, don’t identify with it, and rarely get swept up in it unless the soundtrack forces me (for fascism, I’d like a bit more Wagnerian bombast in the score instead of Hans Zimmer’s strings tugging me by my sleeve from scene to scene). And I think that’s because the Nolans have absolutely no common touch, no feel for what energizes anyone who isn’t white and with summer home.

Oh, they try, but they largely waste a good football stadium set-piece while tipping their manicured hands by having a British choirboy sing the national anthem.

When it comes down to it, the Nolans are enthralled by the elite of the elite, and simply cannot stoop to dissent from them on any level. The Nolans won’t let us revel in the carnivalesque eviction of the rich from their condos, or let us enjoy shooting up the stock market before hurrying to the next scene, or even give us a riotous show trial to chuckle through.

Read your Jameson, boys: you’re allowed to let us indulge in our fantasies of communist utopia as long as you sew things up ideologically by the end. But we are never allowed to indulge; instead, the audience of the indebted and oppressed are invited to shake our heads sadly at the spectacle of redistribution of property. Dickens may have been a lip-quivering liberal in the face of social revolution, but he at least portrayed the poor with sympathy, depicting the destitute of London and Paris hanged, limbs lopped off for the slightest offenses. The Nolans only have sympathy for the ruling class aristocrats, and that’s what they insist on from their audiences. So they’ll let Bloomberg’s private armyplay the scrappy guerilla force: the cops are the underdogs when it comes to taking back the streets, and the Nolans want you to root for them.

I don’t watch a lot of movies these days, mostly because I find them as juvenile and regressive as this one. But I’ll be honest: sometimes I can “look past” shitty politics and enjoy films on a formal level, though it’s not as easy as it used to be. I halfway hoped I could do that for Dark Knight Rises. But the problem is that the shitty politics, and the Nolans’ slavering supplication to them, sap the film of its pleasures. The Nolans never honestly consider the antagonism between rich and poor. Instead, what could make for some really fertile drama is just another wasted set piece for some CGI pyrotechnics. Have some characters mouth some half-remembered platitudes from an E.J. Dionne op-ed, call it topical. This tone-deafness to class struggle renders the entire occupation of Gotham nonsensical when it could have been the most interesting part of the film.

This stems from the Nolans’ lack of any concept of popular power. There is no evidence that “the people” back this coup, no evidence of popular support, not even a scene where a newscaster summarizes it for us. 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. By going medieval, this allows the Nolans to tie DKR into the previous two Batman flicks while crafting so much room for a sequel that you could fit a fleet of Batplanes into it.

They’ve sacrificed a whole lot of the script to the shareholders on this one, which isn’t really what I expect from them. But maybe it’s one reason they have so much affection for a world where elites can exercise their powers any way they wish. Capitalism is hard on art, and these guys want to suggest feudalism might be a better option.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - anewworldispossible

    This is a good article. People are the makers of history - not aristrocrstic nobility or technology. I was thinking how much harm and illusion this film creates on its own - super racist fascism.

  • Guest - Red Fly

    I used to like Nolan. Following, Memento, Insomnia remake, even The Presige and Inception (a bit more problematic)...all pretty decent existential thrillers. But the first two Batman movies are rot.

    Ugly politics. Ugly and largely incoherent action scenes.

    Haven't seen this one. Not exactly eager to either. Sounds like more of the same.

    Review money line: "Have some characters mouth some half-remembered platitudes from an E.J. Dionne op-ed, call it topical."

  • Guest - anewworldispossible

    Comic books often have a shallow outlook in my opinion - there are exceptions - Alan Moores for example - I wonder if Nolan was just trying to capture that pragmatic simplistic aspects of tension between forces? The politics seem wrong anyways - the depiction of OWS was obvious in my opinion, too - and technology.

  • Guest - chegitz guevara

    Frank Miller, who, IIRC, created the concept of the grim Dark Knight, made him explicitly "fascist." Miller himself has a rather fascist mindset, and while Batman wasn't overtly fascist, it was fascist in the same way the movie <i>M</i> was fascist. It portrayed a weak, helpless, corrupt government, and only a powerful, violent, and incorruptible force could save the people, while displaying contempt for those same people.

  • Guest - anewworldispossible

    Chegitz, yes that seems to be a common theme - Nolan could have been more nuanced in showing these incorrigible forces in a larger framework - ie a lumpen proletariat amongst more objective masses, more in fighting within the bourgeoius, and a more fleshed "super heros", cops with internal contradictions - but then there wouldnt be that inncottagubleness ;)- or he could have been more tonugue in cheek ie Starship troopers or watchmen - tim burton seemed to go that route w a previous batman. Nolan did seen to take some freedom with catwoman, correct?

  • Guest - Bill Martin

    This is why I stopped working with Batman.


  • Guest - anewworldispossible

    Bill, lol!

  • Guest - Ghan Buri Ghan

    I just saw the film, and yes, it is deeply anti-communist; more so than this review actually gets credit for. And it is indeed anti-communist in a very fascistic and anti-Semitic way. I could go into more details, but it's one of those films that needs to be seen for itself to appreciate.

  • Guest - Ian Anderson

    Anewworldispossible: "tim burton seemed to go that route w a previous batman."

    Batman Returns is pretty interesting, and McDonalds withdrew their involvement due to the non-family-friendliness (probably more the violence than the vague anti-corporate sentiments.) He's basically a bourgeois Democrat. The main villain is a monopoly capitalist, Max Shreck, and they have this interaction at a masque party:

    Max: I am the light of this city. And I am its mean, twisted soul. Does it really matter who's the mayor?
    Bruce: It does to me.

    Wayne exposes their corruption, broadcasting a recording of the Penguin (Shreck's favoured mayor) expressing open contempt for the people of Gotham. Of course this is all very hypocritical for a secretive millionaire vigilante, but it's interesting the different bourgeois ideologies people ascribe to Wayne/Batman.

    (That one also has Catwoman as an ideological challenge of course, though in this case she's a lot more post-feminist than class warrior. Origin story here is Shreck's murdered secretary.)

  • Guest - anewworldispossible

    Heh.. I think the key is, batman is just a flawed character that doesn't rely on the masses for change - and has a fetish for technology. I'm curious how one of my favorite writers, Alan Moore did with Batman.

  • Guest - Ian Anderson

    @Anewworldispossible: The Killing Joke isn't a particularly deep entry in the canon and suffers from a Women in Refrigerator plot, although it's got some cool ideas and images (also a very similar aesthetic to TAS and the Burton films.) Moore acknowledges it as not achieving much and being more about Batman than about anything else, he did more with Batman's likeness in the Watchmen series.

  • Guest - Red Luxemburg

    The movie does have an anti-revolutionary message, but I doubt Nolan was consciously targeting OWS. Why? It takes about 2 years to make one of these big budget movies and Nolan already had the screenplay written in 2010 and brainstormed the idea with his brother and David S. Goyer in 2009, filming started in Summer 2011. He has also stated that a prime influence on the script was Dickens's A Tale Of Two Cities which is of course a reactionary look at the French Revolution.

  • Guest - Red Fly

    One of the greatest radical filmmakers of all time died a couple of days ago.


    The best film ever made on the New Left.


  • Guest - anewworldispossible

    Oh no - he did write some good films. 12 monkes is one of my favorites. Any recommendations?

  • Guest - Red Fly

    <em>The Grin Without a Cat</em>, which I posted the link for, is a masterpiece. To clarify though, it's not an expository history of the New Left, but an experimental compendium of radical people, images, sounds and thoughts spliced together to create a profoundly materialist, highly idiosyncratic/personal meditation on the ebb and flow of the era's (1967-1976) global revolutionary currents. Definitely don't go looking for a primer: Marker dives right in and it helps to have an understanding of the history here.

    Has anybody else here seen this amazing film?! If you haven't and you're a part of that era then you need to see it!

    <em>12 Monkeys</em> was Terry Gilliam's Hollywood remake of Marker's La Jetee. I think they're both good films. But the Marker is much more formally interesting.

    <em>Sans Soleil, A.K. One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich, 2084, The Case of the Grinning Cat, The Last Bolshevik</em>, all gorgeous films.

    There's so many that I haven't seen though. Of course half the fun is in tracking new ones down.

    I'm surprised that this profoundly radical (both politically and artistically) filmmaker hasn't been discussed here.

  • Guest - Balzac

    Frank Miller is definitely a fascist, though I am unsure why Batman in this case is called both a feudalist and a fascist. There are certain similarities, but they are still extraordinarily different ideologies and Batman, in the analysis of the author of this article would really only qualify as a feudal aristocrat.

    My personal feeling, though, is that Nolan's take on Batman has much, much more in common with Plato's political thought than with more modern political ideologies. The Plato stuff is so thick that at the end of the Dark Knight there is actually a discussion of the decision of the ethics of the noble lie which founds the city, which is quite literally lifted out of Plato, as is the decision to go ahead with the lie. This is why the movies play out so much as a fantasy, because Platonic (and pre-Enlightenment) thought does not orient itself whatsoever to the concept of popular will, which is the dominant concept in all forms of politics today (even if only in an effort to negate it, all political thought must orient itself to it as a master concept). Batman exists at a total remove from the popular will, the concept doesn't even register for him (ie it is outside his discursive radar), which puts him squarely in a pre-modern context of political thought.

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