Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Defense of The Dark Knight Rises

Does the left have to ruin everything? 

Predictably enough, everyone on the left seems to hate The Dark Knight Rises. Never mind the fact that the film was written before OWS emerged: everyone has decided that it is totally about what a bunch of dumb thugs they are. And of course, it's not enough for the film to be an apology for income equality and capitalism: it has to be an apology for fascism and aristocracy! Add smart, strikingly-filmed blockbusters to the list of fun things that we aren't allowed. And people wonder why the left has been on the decline for decades. 

The problem with these reviews is not just that they are evidence of what a bunch of recalcitrant kill-joys the few remaining leftists are. It's that they demonstrate that being recalcitrant kill-joys is such an overriding imperative that they will overlook the basic facts of the series to achieve this end. The notion that the figures of the wealthy philanthropist and the superhero savior are held up as simple and uncomplicated models, deserving of our prostrate devotion, is silly. Bruce Wayne's parents literally die for their naive limousine liberalism, and the earlier films explicitly suggest the possibility that their position was ultimately a form of cowardice. The figure of Batman himself is also quite problematic throughout the series. He's continually confronted with the uncomfortable similarity between himself and the villains he fights. As the series progresses, it becomes less clear that he's pursuing justice rather than revenge or self-aggrandizement. And of course, the trilogy ends with Bruce Wayne recognizing the inherent deadlock of both his father's limousine liberalism and his own vigilantism, their fundamental inability to address the underlying class tensions that power the series.

It is certainly not impossible to conduct a reading that acknowledges these complexities. But the left seems to derive a perverse pleasure from ruining as many cool things as possible. Maybe they aren't wrong to see something of themselves, then, in Bane's reactionary thugs (who, by the way, are not really staging a revolution, but rather exploiting the pretext of revolutionary class strugge for their own fascistic purposes--exterminating the vermin, eliminating the decadent rot of urban decay, etc.)

Can't we be leftists without being insufferable naysayers? Although that increasingly seems to be a distinction without a difference, there are indeed other ways of proceeding. Consider this alternative reading, which also takes into account the original depression-WWII origins of the story arc, which the entire trilogy explicitly harkens back to: the elder Wayne is the sort of FDR-like figure, seeking to put a bandaid on capitalism to address its inner contradictions, and succeeding somewhat. But his very liberalism is what makes him ultimately unable to destroy the far greater cancerous mutation of capitalism that is fascism (League of Shadows, who explicitly seek to use capitalism as the means to achieve their destruction in the first film). By contrast, it is the illiberal ways of the son (a sort of cult of personality-Stalinist figure), who because he was allied with the enemy (Wayne's initial alliance with LOS--by extension the Nazis, the Ribbentrop pact, etc.) knows how to use the very brutal tactics against them that they will deploy ("any means necessary," as Liam Neeson's character puts it in Batman Begins). 

Like the Soviet Union, Wayne is not of course interested in profits. However--and this is one of the most crucial facts in giving the lie to the reading of Batman as the aloof aristocrat--he is interested in production, transforming Wayne Enterprises into a sort of command economy designed to build the arsenal necessary to defeat the fascistic enemy. This is the reason why Batman/The Soviet Union are both properly tragic figures: it's because they were so perfectly positioned to do the dirty work of defeating fascism, thus saving capitalism from itself, that the Soviet economy would also end up structured in the very way that ultimately destroyed it. For all their power and might, it was something as simple as Wayne's inability to lead a normal life, and the Soviet economy's inability to produce basic consumer goods, that made them unstable figures that had to come to an end. And in a sense then, Batman/The Soviet Union also ironically becomes the ultimate bandaid: by doing Gotham's/democratic capitalism's dirty work, they prevented the very revolutionary upheaval that would have been necessary to truly confront the fascist threat. The collapse of these figures, then, isn't the end of the struggle. It's an acknowledgment that it's back in our hands, that some superhero figure won't be doing the hard work of class struggle for us anymore. 

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