Holy Terror, Batman! Some Thoughts on Violence in The Dark Knight Rises

Posted by Charles Reece, July 22, 2012 11:56pm | Post a Comment

There are plenty more insipid cartoons about the recent "Batman shootings" where Jeff Korteba's came from. I don't use it as an example of the decrepitude of political cartooning (it's always been the world's lamest artform). Rather, the cartoon exemplifies a certain misreading of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy*: the vigilante Batman displaces real world law and order in the superheroic fantasy. In which case, the films' audience needs a reminder of who we should fantasize about, namely the guy who really puts his life on the line. However self-critical his films are, Nolan is too much the well-ensconced liberal advocate to ultimately use the character as anything more than an imaginary supplement to the status quo. There is a reason, after all, why the revolutionary violence in all three films is treated as pure chaos for chaos' sake. Batman doesn't represent change, but a much needed (or so the narrative goes) restoration of order.

Sure, the Joker scores some good points against hypocrisy when he sounds like Walter Benjamin in advocating "divine violence," a resetting of cultural values to zero, destroying the occluded underground byways of systemic violence that capital requires to continue (just think of the modern sweatshops used in manufacturing the iPhone, for example).** And Catwoman sounds like Bertolt Brecht as she gleefully portends what Bane's about to do to Gotham's stock exchange (e.g., "robbing a bank's no crime compared to owning one"). Nevertheless, these are the villains of the trilogy, not the heroes (Catwoman only becomes a hero when she fights to restore order). That's why Ben Shapiro over at Big Hollywood has it right: this is a conservative trilogy.

The hero is the one who preserves the tradition against the radicals, who uses violence (what Benjamin called "mythic violence") to maintain the order, not abolish it. There is no real meditation on the French Revolution's choice of liberty or death here, but a decisive alignment with the pragmatico-realist's belief that the corrupt impurities in the devil you know is always better than the irrational radicalism of the devil you don't. When Batman proves incapable on his own of dealing with Bane's tyranny, he's aided/supplanted by the collective body of Gotham's finest, who heroically face off against the enemy's superior firepower. Just in case you might miss the point, Nolan cuts to a battle-worn American flag. As Bruce Wayne explains in The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman could be anyone ... anyone, that is, who willingly fights for the status quo -- never, of course, the demonic Other represented by Ra's Al Ghul, the Joker or Bane (those guys are just batshit crazy terrorists). 


[*] This misreading is based on the common moralizing assumption that specular violence doesn't have content, that it doesn't say different things in different contexts. To wit, Dana Stevens' analysis of the possible relation between Nolan's films and the actions of terrorist du jour, James Holmes:

To discuss the meaning and motives of his crime, of course we have to at least talk about why he might choose The Dark Knight Rises as a backdrop (and possibly a template) for whatever private fantasy he was enacting. And maybe there should also be conversations about what it means that the economics of the film industry are driven almost entirely by the fantasies and desires of young men, and what effect that kind of over-representation in pop culture might have on … the fantasies and desires of young men. All I know is that, when I heard the news about the Aurora shootings, my first thought was very clear and very scary: “Of course this was going to happen sooner or later.”

One would be hardpressed to find any popular example of the action packed summer movie where the violence is not justified on the side of protecting the establishment. Even in The Dark Knight, where the Joker legitimately critiques the violence of the capitalist order, Batman is portrayed as the hero for sacrificing his own myth (he becomes known as a murderer) to support the noble lie he and Commissioner concoct about Harvey Dent's true nature in order to keep Gotham functioning at a symbolic level. Better this myth than chaos. If some individual uses this fantasy as a reason for his own violence, it's not because of the fantasy Nolan actually presents. If one were to subscribe to his fantasy, one would likely become a cop. But misreadings are bound to happen sooner or later.

[**] I say a lot more about the Joker's criticisms in my analysis of The Dark Knight.

Relevant Tags

Ben Sharpiro (1), Batman (7), Violence (12), The Dark Knight Rises (3), Christopher Nolan (5), Dana Stevens (1)