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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Do Not Go Gentle Into that Dark Knight: Occupy Batman

Significant portions of this essay were either actually written by or basically lifted from Mike Konczal and Corey Robin, who bear none of the responsibility, etc.[Before I go on blog-hiatus for a while -- explained here -- I literally could not prevent myself from writing about this movie, as in, physically couldn't do it. Sigh... Anyway, now for realz.]

The Dark Knight Rises is not about Occupy Wall Street, even though it does have a five month anarchist occupation of New York City, which lasts into the winter until a huge phalanx of NYPD officers flood into lower Manhattan and pound the crap out of them. It is a movie that works very hard at not being about Occupy Wall Street, in fact: it fills the screen and narrative arc with all sorts of bells and whistles, bloating its running time way beyond necessity, and generally wearing you down with all sorts of things that are not Occupy Wall Street until you don’t notice anymore that it’s all the fuck about Occupy Wall Street. I mean, for fuck’s sake, Bane and a bunch of his goons literally Occupy Wall Street at one point, and then they lead a leaderless revolution of wealth redistribution and general assemblies, that they apparently hope will by example (mediated through mass media) be replicated across the country. I think Batman even subpoenas Malcolm Harris’ twitter feed at one point.

Via.This vacillation, ambivalence, even insistent disavowal is what seems to me to be, by far, the most interesting thing about the movie, and precisely the thing that so many “political” readings of it must almost bend over backwards to miss, as they struggle to claim it for various political persuasions. Take, for example, the honorable conservative Ross Douthat who tut-tutted yesterday — from his blog at the NY Times — against the “extraordinary overreactions from ideologically-inclined movie writers” like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who he quotes as arguing:

“It’s no exaggeration to say that the “Dark Knight” universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). [It has a] vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society. Maybe it’s an oversimplification to say that that’s the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much.

For the moment, let us skip lightly past the delightful spectacle of Douthat being scandalized at ideological movie reviewers, and take a look at his argument that the movie’s message instead reflects a “quiet toryism” (a term he hilariously gets from the ideology-free pen of the Weekly Standard’s movie critic). To open up space between what he sees the movie as being and the “fascistic” Batman of ideological crazies, Douthat tells us that this is what a fascist The Dark Knight Rises would look like:

[A] genuinely “fascistic” Batman movie would have concluded with the Caped Crusader using the chaos wreaked by terrorists and revolutionaries as a justification for setting aside Gotham’s existing political institutions and ruling the city by fiat, with Wayne Enterprises merged with City Hall, the bat signal emblazoned on every public building, and the collective will of the public channeled through the superior individual will of Il Batman (and his successor, Der Robin, presumably).

On the one hand, this is actually not that far from the sort of ambition that the Bat man has at various points. For one thing, the movie concludes with a Batman statue going up in City Hall and a succession system in place to keep creating new Batmans. Bruce Wayne might leave the city, but Batman will haunt it forever; the implication of the Batman Laws are that the culture built around the lies of Harvey Dent has been replaced by something more substantial, even permanent. This, it would seem to me, is very much like what Douthat said a “genuinely fascistic Batman movie” would conclude with, no?Bruce Wayne, in Batman Begins: “I’m going to show the people of Gotham that the city doesn’t belong to the criminals and the corrupt. People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do this as Bruce Wayne. A man is just flesh and blood and can be ignored or destroyed. But as a symbol… as a symbol, I can be incorruptible, everlasting.”

More broadly, let us never forget that Wayne Enterprises is (among other things) a military contractor — emphatically putting the hyphen in military-industrial complex — and the whole point of the Bat man in the Nolan movies is to mold the collective will of Gotham residents, exactly through the kind of mass spectacle that Douthat attributes to real fascism. Presumably the oh-so-clever reference to “Il Batman” and “Der Robin” (because German and Italian are fascist languages, get it?) is meant to remind us that because Batman is American — uniquely so, in this movie, in fact — he obviously can’t be fascist. Finally, the Bat man is also fascist if extrajudicial killing —  cleansing the republic by restoring the kind of order which democracy can no longer provide it — are fascist. Your definition of fascism may or may not include secret police in the night, but I suspect that only if you think FDR and the New Deal are the ne plus ultra of actually existing fascism — and you forget that secret police are kind of an important part of what made fascism a no good, very bad thing — will it seem like Batman is anything other than at least Fascist-curious.

Via.I’m not saying Douthat thinks that, of course; I’m just saying he’s very confused about what he does think. But part of his confusion here — and the confusion of many critics — is the problem that the movie is totally confused too. It leans fascist, but it also pulls back at the last minute. After all, the previous two movies went to the darkest place in the American psyche — the places where we realize that America has become what it says it fights in the process of fighting it — and made it impossible to distinguish good from evil. Bruce Wayne pretty much learns to fight terrorism by going to an Al Quaeda training camp and the main difference between the Joker and Batman was their levels of denial (the Joker being self-aware in ways the ever serious Batman could never allow himself to be). In that sense The Dark Knight only extended the blowback argument of Batman Begins (which was all about remembering the time the US funded Mujahedeen in Afghanistan), and made it into a terror-on-the-homefront parable. But The Dark Knight Rises does the opposite of what its much more interesting predecessors did: instead of rendering it impossible to distinguish Batman from his enemy — and good from evil — it spends all its energy working to deny that Bane and Batman have anything at all in common, to make the diffference between good and evil as clear and bold as possible. And to do that, it has to categorically un-think important elements of Batman’s fascism.

For example, as Scott J at the “Occupied Oakland Tribune” pointed out yesterday, the logic of Batman’s counter-revolutionary purpose in this movie points inexorably towards one of true fascism’s favorite pursuits: the mass killing of Marxists, union leaders, and dissidents. Everyone always forgets that secret police love nothing more than throwing labor agitators in jail or in shallow graves, but the story of 20th century authoritarianism is usually left strategically incomplete with the omission of all those hundreds of thousands of leftists who were targeted for liquidation by various fascist regimes, from Nazi Germany to Suharto’s Indonesia and Ba’athist Iraq, and many more. One of the first orders of business for an repressive authoritarian right-wing regime, historically, is to start rounding up the leftists.

As Scott observes, however, “[h]aving Batman battle a reluctant Gotham while he unredistributes Bruce Wayne’s wealth would have been far more interesting but ideologically far too complicated.” It is a measure of Hollywood/Nolan’s chicken-shittedness — in that they love the spectacle of reactionary counter-revolution but don’t have the heart to show us dead leftists — that the entire 5 month period of “occupation” is resolved with barely a trace of lingering hard feelings, that after 5 months of dividing Gotham between collaborators and the resistance, everybody’s happy to just call it a day and worship the bat statue or something. The thing that made the first two movies good was the way Bruce Wayne became the terrorist and Batman became both torturer and operator of a mass surveillance system; it was exactly the point that in fighting the villain, he became the villain. If this movie had any guts, it would have — and almost did — show us Batman fighting against the people of Gotham: as they fall under the spell of Bane’s message of radical wealth redistribution, and as they turn against what used to be the status quo, the only thing Batman would find himself able to do is kill the bejeezus out of whole bunches of them. It mostly pulls back from that; the people we see the cops beating up are not citizens, but a hyper organized criminal conspiracy.

As Abigail Nussbaum perceptively notes

“Bane claims to be acting on behalf of the city’s underclass, and establishes a policy of violent persecution against the upper classes…we are kept entirely in the dark on the question of how the people of Gotham feel about this.  Do they support Bane?  Do they oppose him?  Do they think he has the right idea but the wrong methods?  Are they, as seems most likely, divided between these options according to their social status in the pre-occupation world?  The Dark Knight Rises ignores all these questions…Gotham spends months under Bane’s rule–months that you’d expect to have a profound impact on the social, psychological, and cultural life of the city–but upon his defeat all we see are its citizens stepping out of their homes (as if they’d spent all that time indoors), ready to resume their lives as if the very fabric of their society hadn’t been ripped to shreds.  What’s interesting is that the Nolans had an opportunity here to reinforce their authoritarian message and show why Batman is necessary–because when stripped of both their white knight, the lie of Harvey Dent, and their dark knight, the citizens of Gotham turn to Bane, a false savior.  The film could have shown us Gothamites turning on one another, informing on their neighbors and signing up to do Bane’s bidding–the nightmare scenario that justified Batman’s choice to take responsibility for Harvey Dent’s crimes.  Instead, the Nolans prefer to serve up a fantasy of docile, patient goodness, of a populace content to wait for Batman to save it without doing anything–good or evil–on its own behalf.”

With this in mind, I’d suggest that the distinction which Douthat works so hard to draw — between “fascism” and “quiet Toryism” — is largely one of degree and extremism, the distinction between a reactionary project that uses murderous extralegal violence to maintain what the order of the status quo, and the conservative project that doesn’t have to (though, of course, quite a few Tories have historically suported Fascism, too). The speed and ease with which the United States has adapted to an era of normal, routine, and banal extra-judicial killing, after all — yesterday was just another “Terror Tuesday” at the White House — only demonstrates how latent the fascism really is in most conservatives (and indeed, in most so-called liberals). All you need is for it to become manifest is for one of your own to order the death of all “military-age males” in a particular area, though it also helps if those people are racially marked. If that sort of thing is not at least a close relative of fascism, then the word means nothing.

Also, let’s not forget that calling Batman “fascist” is a little like accusing the Pope of being catholic, or hinting darkly that a particular bear may have, at some point in its life, shit in the woods.It may, in fact, mean nothing. Certainly I’m less interested in that question than is Andrew O’Hehir, for instance — who actually isn’t nearly as interested in it as Douthat makes him out to be — because the interesting question is how and why the movie turns back from the brink, refusing to follow the logic of its own plot to its natural conclusion. Calling the US “fascist” is just putting a name to what we all basically acknowledge to be the case: the state kills people with drones, without any shred of due process, because it has decided that doing so is necessary to get the job done and maintain the status quo, or something. Call it what you want, but that’s what it is, and it’s not a terrible thing because it has a terrible name like “fascist” attached to it. It’s a terrible thing because killing a bunch of random people just because you can is, you know, terrible.

So I’m not interested in calling The Dark Knight Rises names; I’m interested in understanding what it is. And what it is, it turns out, is an effort to evade the consequences of its own parable, just as conservatives never want to remember how closely aligned their tradition has been with actual fascism. They want to tell the story of a cold war won by the example of Ronald Reagan’s resolute command to “Tear down that wall!” and the accompanying fantasy that all you need is a hero, unswerving will, and symbols. They don’t like to remember the liquidation of half a million Indonesian communists in 1965-66, or the fact that the American embassy in Jakarta supplied Suharto’s secret police with a list of names. The cold war was not won by symbols alone; the US kept Latin America free of communism, for example, by sending money and guns to thugs with death squads.

* * *

But let’s get back to talking about the movie. Or, rather, to talking about how we talk about the movie. After all, most of the people who talk about the movie’s politics do so with a rather — let me be diplomatic here — un-theorized sense of what it means for a movie to be “political.” But they do this because, while all movies are political in a certain categorical sense (since everything is political), most movies are not campaign commercials, or at least the interesting ones aren’t. The fact that people of different ideological persuasions can watch the same movie and get different things out of it is an intrinsic part of what movies are. So in what sense can you really say that a movie is “conservative” or “liberal”? A more conservative movie you could not want than Act of Valor, I put it to you, and yet I have never seen a movie that made military life and death look less appealing than that one.

As I said, I liked the second Batman movie because of the extent to which it was genuinely difficult to say whether the movie was really on Batman’s side, whether he was really “good.” It wasn’t just that the Joker made a good case (though he did), it was that the joker was indistinguishable from Batman and inconceivable without him; the Joker was Batman’s blowback, or if we want to tag in Zizek for a second, he was Batman’s obscene supplement, the illegality that makes law possible, the perversity that makes beauty imaginable, and the chaos without which order can’t even be a thing. In other words, just as the Joker was unthinkable without Batman, the movie dared to suggest that Batman might be unthinkable without the Joker. In such a movie, “good” is polluted by its complicity and dependence on “evil,” to such an extent that it cannot be simply “political,” or at least not in the sense which many reviewers meant; it cannot be said to “reflect a message,” because the very manner of that message’s telling turns it inside out on itself.

This is not to say, of course, that a movie doesn’t put limits on our ability to read it in different ways. It manifestly does; The Dark Knight Rises is not, I can say with full confidence, a critique of Bain Capital. Movies are broadly polyvalent in some respects and they are more narrowly polyvalent in others, which means that some kinds of readings are plausible (“Batman is a fascist!”), and some are not (“Bane is Mitt Romney!”). So the way you figure out where the limits are is by looking at what ends up on the screen versus what doesn’t, the way the movie starts with a range of conceivable narrative choices and selects from them. To put this another way, a movie’s politics are not to be found in the material of the narrative itself, but in the constraints which the material onscreen puts on the kinds of narratives we can tell about it. Certain stories are plausible, and others are not; certain modes of reading and identification become plausible while others get shut down.

So is it “liberal”? Is it “conservative”? Both, a little. But more importantly, “liberal” and “conservative” are already both modes of narrative constraint, political just-so stories that define the limit points of what is politically thinkable and narratable. And by narrating the movie in the space between these two ideological poles, as the material of the film suggests we do, we descend into a political reality in which there is nothing but the incredibly narrow space separating liberal from conservative, a world in which there is no alternative. There is enlightened liberal capitalism of the Keynesian New Deal variety and there is the Hobbesian world of predatory Ayn Rand capitalism. This restaurant serves both kinds of Capitalism, the kind with “rights” on the side and the kind with “liberty” on the side.

This point is important because, of course, there are two programmatically disavowed alternatives in play: leftist revolution and reactionary fascism. And not coincidentally, these are the two obvious narrative possibilities which, by all accounts, should be in play, but aren’t: the latter because the cops (and Batman too) are essentially selfless, modest, and recoil from unnecessary violence; the former because the mass population of Gotham not only lacks a political consciousness but barely even exists at all.

After all, one of the most curious things about this movie — ostensibly about revolution and counter-revolution, and even somewhat shamelessly (if rather hopefully) based on A Tale of Two Cities — is the way the Batman universe has so little room for real class antagonism or the notion of a structural crisis in capitalism. There does seem to be some vague mumbling about poverty in Gotham — an orphan says that there might be work in the sewers, implying that economic despair leads Gotham’s underclass to join up with Bane — but this doesn’t really wash, and not only because the economy is clearly less of a problem for this kid than the fact of being an orphan in an orphanage. Do we see any real suffering in Gotham? I’m trying to remember a single homeless encampment, home foreclosure, or true picture of human poverty, and I find that I can’t. This may be because it was there and I forgot it — having paid more attention to a cockamamy subplot about whether or not Bruce Wayne will go to a charity ball or something — and then again it may be because the movie is clearly not interested in giving the people of Gotham any real motivation to rebel against the status quo. In the Batman universe, crime just is — for no other reason than criminals just are — and that underdetermination has, as its consequence, the evacuation of any possibility that economic despair (or any other “empirical” factor) might be a driving force for social disorder or open revolt. The only thing to do with criminals is to lock them up, forever. There’s a reading to be done on the franchise’s penological imagination, in fact, the way its prisons — from Arkham Asylum to whatever that terrible prison Bane and Talia come from is — demonstrate a particular kind of sociological conviction about what it is that prisons are for. The one thing they’re clearly not for, I feel safe in saying, is correction and rehabilitation.

Via.One of the strongest demonstrations of this fact, in fact — one which the movie glides past really quickly, but which is worth some comment — is that the movie allows Bruce Wayne to invent a technological solution to poverty, right off the bat, and then discard it. This goes by quickly, but let’s linger over this absolutely startling fact: in this movie, cold fusion just happens to have just been invented, by the way, oh yeah, we just happen to have the holy grail of infinite energy production over here, rendering all problems of human scarcity obsolete forever, but yeah, let’s probably not use it.

The movie’s disinterest in the existence of this technology — and even in making much of its transformative capacity — is not only scandalous, it’s revealing. Energy is, at the end of the day, the limit point of nearly every human endeavor, and industrial society is built on the exploitation of carbon, first coal and then oil. Virtually everything about modern society — its contents and discontents — is a function of how we have been made as a carbon civilization, and by the kinds of distributive networks that rise up alongside it. But in a world where a cold fusion energy has been invented, wealth inequality cannot be the real problem, and class no longer even makes sense. Think about this for even two seconds — which is more than the movie does — and you’ll see what I mean: if you have an infinite energy supply, the distribution calculus is no longer zero sum; the wealth of the rich is no longer a proportion of a limited total — such that it could be too much — but is now a fraction of infinity, which is also infinity, and so is the remainder left over for the poor. We’re now in Peter Frase territory.

And yet, even though he’s just solved the most basic problem of human economic existence forever, Bruce Wayne mothballs the entire project from before the beginning of the movie for reasons that don’t even make a little bit of sense: because the device could be turned into a bomb. #um #whatnow? As if Gotham exists in a world where nuclear bombs don’t already exist? Seriously, explain to me how that argument makes any sense at all; how do you decide not to hook up the “end-the-problem-of-material-want-forever” machine because someone might use it to re-invent the nuclear bomb? You may say: “Aaron, you’re taking this movie too seriously; the cold fusion whatsit is just the movie’s unobtanium, the MacGuffin it needs to get the plot moving.” And of course, you’d be right. My point is that the movie’s disinterest in thinking about what a technology like this one would mean is the substance of its politics, a categorical refusal to think about economics.

In my humble opinion, this act — this decision to not end poverty because you might release a weapon into the public sphere — demonstrates the real driving force for the movie’s morality, sense of history, and its understanding of civic virtue: the violence within, which must be contained. On the one hand, to say that we could solve all problems of human need and want, but we won’t, because it might become a bomb, is to assert that inequality is not what creates the specter of violence (it’s also, oddly, a lot like the argument that “people don’t kill people; guns kill people!”). The threat of violence is prior and separate from complaints over inequality, however much they might claim to motivate it. And indeed, this was the lesson of the first movie, the lesson Bruce Wayne learned from the death of his parents: you can build an awesome Keynesian super-train and fix Gotham’s economy forever, but some random street criminal will still murder you, because. Better to invest in a secret police force. Also worth noting: the other big summer blockbuster of 2012, The Avengers, also deals with humanity getting access to unlimited clean energy, eliminating scarcity and global warming, but must ultimately give it up because humanity isn’t capable of wielding it without their darker instincts taking over. This is during the summer where the temperature is breaking records and devastating crops. Fuck us.

This is why all the obvious references to the 1% and the 99% they put in the movie are just superfluous window dressing, words without any accompanying social meaning. It’s like trying to plant daffodils in a cement mixer: it just ain’t going to grow. And all that business from Selina Kyle, early on, is just a red herring; even she doesn’t believe that a storm is coming, in fact, or that people are gonna wise up and get theirs, or whatever, and well she shouldn’t. It’s nonsense in this movie, just empty words.

Instead, because all wealth is ultimately reducible to the power to kill, the trick is going to be to keep the power to kill in the hands of the good guys, and any threat of redistributing wealth amongst the people at large is nothing more than a breakdown of the state’s monopoly on violence. Or, rather, Bruce Wayne’s monopoly on violence. It’s vitally important that these weapons don’t fall into “the wrong hands,” as Lucius Fox puts it, and he not only doesn’t clarify whether he means the masses or the state, but that ambiguity indexes the irrelevance of the difference between. The people are just cattle, and when they are as easily swayed by symbols and metaphors and ritual as they demonstrably are, the difference between putting nuclear arms in the hands of the state and putting it in the hands of some random spectator in a football stadium crowd is about as salient as the choice between death or death by exile.

To put it more bluntly, the movie has nothing but contempt for people’s own apprehension of their condition. They don’t know anything but what their betters tell them, so why would their growing discontent because of inequality or something possibly matter? Remember, in this universe, ending all organized crime in the city turns out to mean ending all crime in the city full stop. The people only disobey the law when someone tells them to, because they are, essentially, sheep. And this New York has no apparent poverty anyway; what it has is resentment — the plebes might see the rich and hate them, out of envy — but there is no want or lack or suffering, at least none the movie has any desire to put on the screen.

This isn’t fascism; it’s more like the feudal rule of medieval despotism, in which — as Weber understood — wealth was a function of political power and violence, and political violence and power a function of wealth. But that’s exactly my point: fascism is about suppressing political consciousness and shifting the blame for economic pain onto demonized alien outsiders, and this movie has carefully removed any trace of either political consciousness or economic pain (and of course, Gotham’s position vis-a-vis the outside world is so incredibly confused and incoherent as to make it completely impossible to even know what the difference between a citizen and an outsider might look like).

“Hey Girl; I play Bane in the movie, but that’s just my day job. But enough about me. You look tired. Let me draw you a hot bath and hear about your day.”

This is why Bane is such an enigma, a character who has to wear a mask and take his motivations with him to the grave: he is, and must be, exactly as underdetermined as a class war is for people who don’t believe in class antagonism or the well-foundedness of populist anger. Occupy Wall Street can’t really be about wealth redistribution, such people muse, because no such thing as inequality exists! It must, therefore, be about something else; it must somehow be a tool for some other malevolent intent. And so Bane can’t really be trying to raise the political consciousness of the ordinary people — and isn’t — because they and he cannot possibly have one: the people will believe what their television tells them, and Bane must be a slavish devotee of another ruling willpower, Talia’s. There isn’t anything else to believe, or any other vector for knowledge. Democracy is a sham! Parade in front of them in a fucking bat costume and they step in line; don’t, and they don’t. Read them a letter you say is from Commissioner Gordon recanting on 8 years of received history and, apparently, the public is all like “yeah, sure, that’s cool. I mean, he’s a psychopath with a weird mask thing, but I guess it’s probably authentic, sheesh, things sure are different now I guess!”

Along with the total emptying out of the possibility of revolutionary consciousness — an echo of the cold war conceit that anyone advocating economic redistribution was really a puppet of Soviet foreign policy — the fact of Bane’s own blankness is what makes him interesting. After all, his origin story is oddly sympathetic, even though it isn’t the origin story we were initially told: at the last minute, his entire narrative — “child born in a prison, never knew anything but the darkness, only man ever to escape from it, etc” — evaporates in a whiff of exposition, or, rather, gets appropriated by the scion of criminal aristocracy to whom he’s pledged his lifelong devotion. Leaving behind what? Nothing. And that’s both exactly the point, and also the reason why he can be so handily and neatly dispatched, by a gun of all things. Once it becomes clear that he’s just some guy, the movie totally loses interest in him, to such an extent that he doesn’t get an interesting death scene and it isn’t even Batman who kills him. Could there be a more complete dismissal of a character than a totally forgettable and un-dramatic death?The way Talia appropriates his life story — and seriously, if Bane isn’t the guy who fought his way out of the prison he was born in, what the hell is he? — reminds me a little of that time J. Peterman bought Kramer’s life stories.

But the movie’s contemptuous disinterest in him — so profound as to be palpable — signifies in its own way. Think about it: Bane is a prisoner who had a brief moment of conscience, turned against his fellow prisoners to prevent a child from being harmed, was mutilated for it, and then (on being rescued) briefly became a charity case for the League of Shadows before they got bored with him and revoked his membership or something. Basically, he’s a class-traitor, the worker who crossed the picket lines and devoted himself to management’s interests long enough to get a desk job they eventually fired him from. And when cut-backs came, he was let go.

In the end, the fact that a “storm is coming” — as Selina Kyle puts it — has one clear purpose in this film, and that’s to make us all appreciate our umbrellas.

The main narrative purpose of the Occupy period in this film, after all, is to give a reason and purpose for Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne’s lives. Both men are, at the beginning of the movie, sad and broken, without purpose or vitality or virility. Gordon’s family has left him while Bruce hides in the wings of his mansion; he doesn’t even have the energy to be a playboy millionaire, which is pretty much what he does. Meanwhile, the various elites — believing they are living through “peacetime” — mock both of them for not enjoying the fruits of previous struggles:the mayor is set to fire Gordon, and Wayne Enterprises is looking to ditch Bruce. The only cop worth a damn is an orphan who learned how to mimic mild signs of sociopathy from that time Bruce Wayne visited his orphanage.

As it turns out, those Elites will learn what’s what; all is not well, and the occupation will serve to both validate the true heroes’ suffering and give them a purpose, a struggle, for which to invigorate themselves. Taking a page straight out of Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind, it is only by watching their city come under a(n underdeveloped and incoherent) challenge from below that Bruce Wayne can begin doing the million push-ups that are apparently what it takes to do massive recontructive back surgery while Jim Gordon rises from his hospital bed to become the leader of a police force worthy of protecting Gotham. Without an enemy, the virtuous warrior will lose his virile strength; without an uprising, the repressive capacity of the state will grow idle, and sterile.

This transition — from sterility to virility — might actually be the movie’s most important subtext, a sexualization of violent power that reaches its climax when Selina Kyle is turned into Bruce Wayne’s wife. As Dan Hassler-Forest points out, one of the weirdest things about this movie is the way it takes a character who is clearly coded as lesbian and makes her into a house-cat:

Throughout most of the movie, Kyle is portrayed as strong and fiercely independent, and given her own set of narrative challenges to deal with. Hathaway plays her with a terrific combination of strength, athleticism and vulnerability, and it is strongly suggested that she is involved in a lesbian relationship, while using her physical charms to seduce and then rob gullible males. The blatant fact that she is costumed and framed as an obvious sex object is slightly mitigated by the screenplay’s attempt to transform her high heels into functional weapons with one of Catwoman’s many amusing lines. But the redundant and nonsensical ending, which incidentally robs the film’s central sacrifice of its poignancy, reduces her to that most offensive of Hollywood clichés: a strong and independent woman in charge of her own destiny, who is ‘cured’ of her lesbianism by the irresistible charms of the male hero.

“Lesbian” is probably too specific, too precise; the thing about Selina Kyle isn’t that she is any one thing, but that she isn’t whatever it is she’s supposed to be. She is not “gay” in a safe and domesticated way; she is queer and undomesticatable. But this is exactly what it takes to restart Bruce Wayne’s jaded libido, it turns out: a woman who demonstrates a clear disinterest in men, and must therefore not only be conquered, but can only be won once her previous identity has been wiped. Should it surprise us that Bruce Wayne just happens to have a “tool” that will wipe her prior identity, leaving her a blank? And that this, it turns out, is what she secretly desires? This is why, as Eileen Jones observes, the movie goes to such annoying lengths to strip her of everything that’s interesting about her:

Selina Kyle/Catwoman is also unambiguously good in this Batman, because she’s played by Anne Hathaway with her giant doe eyes and schoolgirl pertness, and more importantly, because she renounces “class warfare” at the end. Sickening little scene when Catwoman, portrayed here as battling her way up out of poverty and exploitation, comes upon a looted apartment and shudders with horror at the property damage. A framed photo of a nuclear family has been smashed! It’s unbearable, in a city of poverty and suffering, that the glass in this framed photo of blonde people should get broken!

But this conquest is necessary, this ideological victory over wayward femininity. Selina Kyle is the real prize, the main villain that needs to be conquered. After all, Bane turns out, ultimately, to be irrelevant, a non-entity. And while Talia finally ends up being the real villain pulling the strings, let me be blunt: who the heck cares about her? In fact, I think the movie actually goes to some lengths to make Marion Cotillard less attractive than she could easily have been, or, rather, to carefully code her as “beautiful but not, you know, quite hot enough to be seriously interesting.”

This is how she looks in the movie:

And this is how she looks on the cover of Vogue, dressed and made up to be exactly as glamorous as the movie never bothers to make her:

Every aspect of a film’s look is controlled, planned, and budgeted, and these are profoundly different looks — in the beauty economy of Hollywood — which they deliberately chose between. They made her look the way she did — “nice girl” — because her function in the film is to scan as the kind of reasonably attractive, blandly suitable girl that Alfred wants young master Bruce to settle down with. But Bruce Wayne is precisely not interested in Talia because she isn’t dangerously hot like Catwoman; there’s no challenge to her, nothing to conquer (and in this movie, after all, this is exactly what is really dangerous, since the ease of victory will sap you of your strength).

By contrast, taking Selina Kyle and making her into the kind of bland [insert wife here] that is necessary to bring Alfred’s fantasy of domestic bliss to fruition, well, that’s quite an achievement, right? The conquest of the indifferent feminine by masculine virility is exactly what this movie needs to tie up its last symbolic loose ends (along with the succession narrative of Robin becoming New Batman). As Abigail Nussbaum puts it, to whom I’ll give the last word:

[T]he film uses the earnestness of Selina’s convictions to dismantle them.  When she sees the violence that has accompanied Bane’s revolution, the suffering of the rich whom she had previously reviled, Selina repents of her desire for revolution, and by the end of the film she is fighting by Batman’s side to defeat Bane.  The message here is clear–capitalism, however predatory, is still better than the alternative–and it’s Selina’s own believability as an enemy of capitalism that helps to sell it.  What’s more, the fact that she’s positioned as a love interest for Bruce Wayne–the very representative of everything she despises–helps to undercut Selina’s convictions, which are overpowered by her affections for Bruce.  One can’t help but compare this turnaround to Pfeiffer’s last scene in Batman Returns, in which she tells Batman “I would love to live with you in your castle … I just couldn’t live with myself.”  That Catwoman had the strength to give up what she wanted for the sake of her beliefs; the Nolans’ Catwoman doesn’t.

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67 Responses to “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Dark Knight: Occupy Batman”

  1. Jonathan Dresner says:

    “all wealth is ultimately reducible to the power to kill”


  2. white hotel says:

    This was great till you started to collude with the film’s misogyny. ‘[R]easonably attractive, blandly suitable’? ‘[insert wife here]‘? Jesus Christ.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Cold Fusion would end poverty! Hahaha no.

  4. Aaron Bady says:

    You don’t think Nolan made the choice to make Marion Cotillard look the way she did on purpose? We’re not talking about real life here; we’re talking about the movies, where producers decide which look to give each actor or actress. And they chose to dress her and make her up differently for this movie than Vogue did for the glamour shot on the cover. Which is to say: Nolan chose to make her less glamorous, because he wanted her to signify as “reasonably attractive, blandly suitable” and let Anne Hathaway’s character have all the dangerous glamour. There are different ways to critique that, but my point was just to identify the choice that was made, so we could see the ideology underneath it (safety is dangerous, whereas battle makes you strong).

  5. Anonymous says:

    Holy crap: how many personal neuroses can one man fit into his work? Many, apparantly.

    I summarized your argument on the film to a co-worker who just laughed and said “why do you spend your time reading the work of ideological nutcases on the internet?” I’m not sure, but Matt Yglesias sent me this way.

    To start with, as gerald42 already eloquently put it: cold fusion would end poverty? Hahaha, no. Seriously: to any third party reading this who knows anything about economics that should be a red flag that the reviewer doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    The key passage in the film that explains why Bane is talking the language of the revolutionary left, why he recruits people who are resentful against traditional political authority is found after Bane transports Batman to the prison in India (and yes, it’s in India.)

    Bane talks about the prison is the “worst hell on earth” not because people get tortured there, or because it’s unbearably uncomfortable, or any other such conventional reason: it’s the worst hell on earth because freedom appears so easy to everyone in it. There are no guards; no handcuffs; nothing to keep people inside the prison. The light at the top of the cave is unguarded.

    What makes the prison the worst hell on earth is that the promise of freedom appears so easy in Bane’s words, but impossible to get to. Again in Bane’s words, it’s “torture of the mind” – to raise people’s hopes only to take everything away from them in the end.

    The entire plan from Bane’s perspective was to murder everybody in the city – Talia and Ra’s Al Ghul have committed the LOS to it. The whole point of the Occupy Wall Street talk is to raise the hope of the people living inside of the city, to seduce them with talk of freedom, only to murder them in the end. Bane wants to bring out the worst in everybody – to assault, murder, rob – to prove the point that Ra’s Al Ghul made in Begins: that Gotham is corrupt and must die.

    I want to repeat that: Bane doesn’t believe a word in what he is saying. The LOS believes that Gotham is corrupt and must die; by encouraging people to rob, murder, and assault their neighbours they are gleeful when the rabble proves their point.

    Batman isn’t the fascist in this movie; Bane, the LOS, and Talia are the fascists.

    PS. It’s only in the mind of leftists where everything is reduced to sex that Catwoman in this film could be described as a lesbian. Because god forbid there be a strong, independent women with a close female friend who hasn’t met the right guy yet. No: she must be a lesbian. You’re a joke.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In that picture you just posted, she had been living in the attic of an office for 5 months. In that circumstance, she is supposed to look like she stepped out of the cover of Vogue? Catwoman on the other hand, is free to do what she pleases. Give me a break.

  7. Anonymous says:

    And about that photo of Talia: she had been living in the attic of an office for 5 months. In that circumstance, she is supposed to look like she stepped out of the cover of Vogue? Catwoman on the other hand, is free to do what she pleases. Take off your ideological blinders.

  8. anonymous says:

    misogyny? the movie was unmistakably matriarchal, in a few scenes.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “But Bruce Wayne is precisely not interested in Talia because she isn’t dangerously hot like Catwoman; there’s no challenge to her, nothing to conquer”

    I just can’t stop myself. What the ****? Did you not see the movie? HE SLEPT WITH TALIA. Catwoman complains that he is going to choose his “snotty girlfriend” over her, and indeed he was going to. He wants to head to city hall to not only fight Bane but to rescue Talia as he tells Fox in the scene before; in the scene where he is taken to Fox and Talia at the make-shift court he tells her that he will come back for her when he can and to stay safe. They share a tender moment.


  10. John_jacob_jingleheimer420 says:

    I have never seen an article jump from one drawn out point to the next in such inelegant style. What is this article even trying to say? You should have just stuck with the Occupy Wall Street theme and left misogyny for another column.

    Too many articles on this site try their absolute hardest to sound intelligent and just end up prioritizing the display of their verbose vocabulary over the display of their actual understanding of the subject at hand and the ability to convey that understanding to others.

    This site would do well to remember that simplicity and clarity are the golden standards in most everything in life, not convoluted sentences forming convoluted ideas that say nothing.

    “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    “A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life” – Winston Churchill

  11. Guy says:

    I thought it was an ok article, but, as an anarchist, the line:

    ‘five month anarchist occupation of New York City”

    perhaps understandably pissed me off. Bane is about as socialist as Stalin was, but even if we ignore him for a second, the only relationship that the Gotham Commune, and the takeover itself, has to anarchism is that it’s an insurrectionist’s wet dream- it’s about as well thought out as the SLA’s army strategy. As you rightly point out in the article, the people (working, middle and upper classes) are basically removed from the situation. Any situation like the Gotham Commune would as most anarchists (hopefully) realise take years of class struggle and agitation, and, like the Paris Commune or the Gwanju commune ( take warlike conditions to provoke.

    Otherwise, what i found interesting was the complete about face on the Role of Batman. At the Beginning of TDK, he makes fun of a Batman copycat (who, incidentally, is doing batman’s work), yet in TDKR, he says, “batman can be anybody”- which seems pretty much like the complete opposite of his line in TDK, when he says “I’m not wearing Hockey pads” in reply to the copycat’s question “what’s the difference between you and me?”

  12. Guest says:

    Aaron, I’d be curious to hear what you make of the many Israelis in the movie — the “Russian” scientist speaks with a thick Israeli accent as does the blind doctor in the Indian prison — they are both Mizrahi Israeli Jews, and Talia is a Hebrew name…I guess many times “Arab” terrorists are portrayed by Israelis in Hollywood movies, but this time it was more obvious.

  13. Aaron Bady says:

    Totally didn’t notice that at all. Huh. Do you have a read on it? The name might be inherited from the original source, don’t know about the rest, so it’s hard to tell how much to blame/credit Nolan et al.

  14. Aaron Bady says:

    Well, Bane’s crew isn’t OWS, either, it’s more like what many conservatives believe OWS to be: a secret cabal of conspirators who talk about wealth inequality but secretly plan to destroy all that’s good and decent in America. In other words, it’s *not* about OWS, but it thinks it is. I mean “anarchist” in that sentence the same way; it’s not like any of the anarchists I know, but it’s supposed to be, by and for people who don’t know better (or refuse to learn).

  15. Aaron Bady says:

    That’s a fair point. I still don’t agree with you, of course, and I *could* explain why. But why would I? Arguing with someone who communicates by shouting abuse is usually a waste of time.

  16. marion cotillard is more beautiful in the film still than the vogue cover

  17. Anna Nicole Smith & Wesson says:

    “why do you spend your time reading the work of ideological nutcases on the internet?” – proceeds to offer an ideological critique of the article..

    “This site would do well to remember that simplicity and clarity are the golden standards in most everything in life, not convoluted sentences forming convoluted ideas that say nothing.”

    Not sure I agree. Cultural critique is tricky, and rhetorical strategies vary.
    There are several key arguments which emerge in this piece, some of which are more pertinent than others. As reasonable readers, it’s up to us to respond to those points established within the piece. We may agree, disagree, or think them irrelevant, but to deny Aaron has established a basis for critique is, I think, unreasonable.

    Many readers today look for a headline – e.g.: “Batman is a fascist.” This type of quick encapsulation is the mechanism of contemporary media – the frame without the content. What serious writing does is sketch out a conceptual view by circling around the real. Different readings give us different insight.

  18. Anna Nicole Smith & Wesson says:

    Funny how capitalism has become the big other which defines modern cultural criticism. I haven’t seen the film, and probably won’t. Most film today reflects the apolitical anti-intellectualism so well captured in many of the comments below.

    As you point out, the narrow poles in which the film positions itself politically results in a single straw-man – politics itself. I think this represents the worst of an emerging ideology: that the end of history is ushering in an era of biologically-determined rationalism. The normal folks emerge from their homes, returning to their natural lives, with the craziness of class struggle and social upheaval behind them, free to enjoy a technological utopia (I guess)

    I’m reminded of an ongoing debate between friends on Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.” Gender trouble aside, it’s an interesting representation of the tension between modern empiricism (represented by Dafoe), and chaotic idealism (from Gainsbourgh). Her death signals a return of the human species to that of an animal. Dafoe sits in a field eating berries, looking as much like an ape as you’d like, and we realize her death also signalled the death of the human project.

  19. Your last point is true, but I would argue that Batman makes a conscious reversal of his arrogant presumption in The Dark Knight. He realizes that assuming sole custody of Gotham’s trouble

  20. Guest says:

    Talia seems to be from the original source, but it’s still a weird name choice for a woman of mixed European, Chinese and Arab background, and that vague Israeliness is reinforced by all the Israelis in the movie. I think it has something to do with what you pointed out, an inability to fully deal with the implications of what it’s putting forth. If the Arab/”brown” terrorists are secretly coded as Israeli they are not really suffering and oppressed, and have no real reason to be mad at Americans. They can both evoke fears of Arabs and also not be located anywhere real.

  21. Aaron Bady says:

    It’s interesting that while the “Batman is/isn’t fascist” argument is fairly dull and predictable, my perhaps less than adept effort at the politics of MC’s appearance in the movie has provoked a very much broader range of responses, most/many totally unexpected by me.

  22. Guest says:

    In blockbuster movies, w/female characters, it is usually the greater their deprivation/disaster, the hotter they look. That’s why it’s a movie!

  23. Anne says:

    This article is absolutely spot on– on every point. You especially nailed it in your discussion of the lack of alternatives, the everyday fascism of both liberals & conservatives and casual fascism of the U.S. — and then you really brought it home in your discussion of the conquest and colonization of Catwoman’s enigma with “legitimate” male power. I couldn’t agree more. This whole film belies a cowardly attempt to reaffirm the status quos– all of them. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  24. Guest says:

    Honestly, just read the Wikipedia entry on cold fusion.

  25. Rpmcd1986 says:

    Pretty sure you mean Suharto where you’ve written Sukarno

  26. Anonymous says:

    Great essay.

    What do you make of the fact that Batman saves Gotham with a drone?

  27. Jesse Miksic says:

    I agree that the lack of any representation of public sentiment or reaction made Bane’s role very confusing… he had intense rhetoric, directed at the public, but the film rendered the public entirely invisible, thereby refusing to address whether this rhetoric had any consequences. After my viewing, I assumed that Bane’s rule over the city was actually more a reign of terror, loosely dressed up in socialist rhetoric: empower the most dangerous people, freeze up commerce and social life, and use the whole arrangement as cover to bully the population. Indeed, it seems that this was Bane’s role: he was a large-scale sociopathic bully, with all the lack of soul, motive, and inner voice that such a role entails.

    Also, you’re right that the fixing of Catwoman is striking; one of the most disturbing of the film’s superficial reassurances. On the other hand, I do feel that Talia’s representation is problematic… her character is so incoherent that it’s hard to draw any particular significance from it. She could be an indictment of altruism (the lefty do-gooder is actually a power-hungry successionist monster), a counter-argument to Bruce’s willingness to place faith in anyone besides his own carefully regulated personal network. He can patronize the public and dominate his employees, but in order to remain a dominant force, he has to treat all other credible competitors — all other wealthy and ambitious people — as enemies.

    Regardless, it all comes down to Bruce “Batman” Wayne’s personality as a force that structures the whole universe. It domesticates Catwoman, it erects a statue of itself in Gotham, and it destroys any force that’s got a conflicting agenda — Bane, the LOS, Talia — who are the only ones to question the Wayne worldview or his economic dominance.

  28. Captainfrogbert says:

    I guess my reaction to this essay is: Dude, take it down a notch. It’s a comic book movie. Of course it makes no sense. Is Batman a fascist? No. But he’s not a socialist, either. He’s a super hero. Nothing more nor less. He’s a fantasy for little boys and the men who never grow out of being little boys. That he uses violence to achieve his ends is not remarkable. Violence is easy and adolescent. And when you have the right script writers, you can never lose a fight (or if you do, it’s only so you can win the next one even better). This reality is screen writing 101. See any James Bond movie for confirmation.

    Is Bane a fascist? No. Of course not. His function is to give Batman a person (of apparently overwhelming strength) to fight. That he turns out to be an empty (leather) suit is unremarkable. He exists so Batman can triumph.

    Is Catwoman a lesbian? Who cares? Catwoman exists so men can leer at her (notice how Batman wears all sorts of muscle-enhancing armor, while Catwoman wears skin-tight spandex? Think that was intentional? Yeah, me too). She is there for no other reason than to allow Batman to triumph and have (presumed) sex with her. Everything else is fluff and nonsense.

    That so many people are trying so hard to shoehorn their own personal political ideology into this film is, frankly, weird. And it speaks to the cognitive dissonance of modern American life. We live in a country that cannot, ever, speak honestly or rationally about anything. Everything is slathered over with delusion, denial and self-justification. With excuses and epithets. With lies and more layers of lies.

    Everyone is assumed to be spinning constantly, and nothing is ever as it seems until our lords and masters tell us what and how to think, then we cling with ecstatic fervor to the received truth of whatever side we occupy. No actual thinking or analysis required. We spend all our time analyzing silly movies instead of our leaders words and actions. Ya think that’s the plan? Can I get an Amen? I knew that I could.

    The movie is a cartoon. Trying to analyze it just gets you tied up in knots trying to shove your own ideology onto characters and themes that are there for no better reason than the writers got to page 42 in the script and needed another explosion. Face it, James Joyce this is not.

    TDKR is a medium-good movie that drags ponderously in the middle and ties up its meager story line story moderately well. Nothing more. Any attempt at deeper analysis is writing words on fog.

  29. Captainfrogbert says:

    Yeah, we all need a conservative man to come to the rescue of strong, independent women. Let’s see, Selena Kyle openly despises men and lives with a cute blonde who clings to her whenever she gets near. Nah, no lesbianism going on here.

    But, none the less, it hardly matters. Catwoman is simply a tabula rasa upon which to inscribe adolescent male fantasy (as is Batman). She can be a lesbian until the script needs her to not be one. She is nothing more. She means nothing more. It’s just a movie.

    But conservatism is still dumb. So dumb.

  30. Notoriousrrz says:

    Aaron, this makes me miss you.

    First of, for all the haters, to say this should focus exclusively on the elements of the film that deal with class and not on the misogyny of the film: if we aren’t willing to deal with the fact that heteropatriarchy and capitalism reify each other, then we aren’t going to get very far fighting either, now are we?

    Having said that, I will say that I am more willing to forgive the de-glamorizing of Marion Cotillard, as there was speculation from the moment of casting among the comic-book crowd that she would play Talia, who is sexualized in all the traditional comic book ways in the Batman comics. Her presentation in the film was dowdy enough that by the time she revealed herself, I was surprised by it. I am happy to get on board with railing against the de-clawing of Catwoman, however, and I am glad that Abigail Nussbaum turned to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman as one who held on to her convictions.

    I’ve actually been thinking about these movies a lot in relation to the Burton films. Starting with TDK, I was fascinated by the way that Batman has become so iconic that he can be used as a lens by different authors without “damaging the brand” if you will. I find it fascinating that, at the end of the 1980′s, Burton gave us a Gotham City where the criminals wore suits and lived in lavish apartments, where Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a chaotic mirror of those fantasies of wealth and impeccably tailored, pinstriped garments, where The Penguin is brought in as a scion of wealth denied his rightful heritage who partners with a corporate baron who is–stick this in your cold fusion pipe and smoke it–siphoning energy from Gotham, and where Catwoman is a corporate cog driven insane when a wealthy man kills her to protect his money. Now we have a corporate green-funder who turns out to be a sociopathic nihilist, an anarchic (if not anarchist) cat burglar who decides she didn’t want a revolution after all, and the usual Arab terrorist fetish (Bane in the comic book was in a Latin American prison in the early 90s) hiding behind an English accent.

    Having said all this, I really enjoyed the ride of the movie, but felt dirty afterwards.

  31. Captainfrogbert says:

    OK, look, the movie wasn’t about “what would happen if a terrorist captured New York and forced everyone to live like it was Paris after the revolution.” It was about “Batman kicks Bane’s ass and becomes a hero and has sex with the hot girl after.” Trying to apply any deeper analysis tells you more about the writer’s psyche than it does about the film.

  32. ewriouo324 says:

    Well I for one really liked this review. Long, yes, but well worth reading.

    “In the Batman universe, crime just is — for no other reason than criminals just are — and that underdetermination has, as its consequence, the evacuation of any possibility that economic despair (or any other “empirical” factor) might be a driving force for social disorder or open revolt.”

    Touching on that, there was one thing I’m surprised you didn’t mention- the famous quote from TDK where Alfred says “Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. ” He’s saying very clearly that the only proper response to the worst criminals is to lock them up or kill them.

  33. CZ says:

    Amazingly well thought out article. Hollywood as long been (for the most part) a mouthpiece of the 1%. With only 3-4 mega-corporations owning all of entertainment, film is reduced to advertisement. Advertisement for the status quo.

    And thank you for pointing out the misogyny. Misogyny, I would argue, is rampant through Nolan’s work:

    The complete unimportance of Bruce’s Mother. She has no lines, and her death is barely given any attention compared to his father. Bruce had no relationship with his mother, he did not mourn her at all. How about the line, “You aren’t responsible for your parents death, your FATHER is!” What’s with that? Heaven forbid a women taking action, and control of a situation! Of course your mother couldn’t have done anything bruce!”

    And I love how the only women character in the first two films, is a love interest in the first movie, and then is killed off as cheap motivation in the second. “We all feel really bad about her death! Let’s use that to justify an hour and half more movie!”

  34. Anonymous says:

    I love how you just make shit up in order to try to one-up me.

    What makes you think Selina Kyle “despises” men? Where is that in the script? Her antagonists are men – the guy who ripped her off for the Clean Slate, the people she owes money too – but who else do you hate, other than your enemies? Ra’s Al Ghul said that all of Gotham was corrupt and thus deserved to die. Do you think Al Ghul also thought all Americans were corrupt and deserved to die? If not, why would you jump make something up about Selina ‘hating’ men?

    Actually, the blonde girl was pretty ratty with rotting teeth who didn’t cling to her whenever she was near – Kyle interjected herself to help her friend when she was in trouble. Clearly, that makes her a lesbian. /sarcasm

    Actually, what she means is pretty clear: Wayne says, when prodded by Alfred to get a life, that “there’s nothing out there for me.” At that point, he saw himself as nothing but a conduit to stop crime without any desires of his own for bliss. Meeting someone who risked her neck for him changed that – at the end of the movie there is something out there for him. Happy ending!

    But no, she’s a lesbian, you’re right. /sarcasmoffforrealthistime

  35. Aaron Bady says:

    I don’t expect to convince you of anything, nor really feel the need to try; I mean, this is how I see things and you can see things the way you see them. That’s cool. But I will say this: what I find weird is when people come onto this site and spend as much time as (for example) you did, arguing that we should think less and interpret less. I mean, sure, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes it’s also a phallus. But just as it would be silly for me to argue that all cigars are penis substitutes, it seems ridiculous when people come along and claim that no cigars are ever symbols. And it’s really predictable that when I write about superhero movies — or any other kind of apparently simple, uncomplicated moral fable of good and evil — all sorts of people pop up and argue VERY STRENUOUSLY (though with differing levels of politeness and respect) that THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE HERE. You can interpret that as people responding to me going off the deep end, of course. But I interpret it as a kind of very telling defensiveness: people don’t want these kinds of movies to have deeper significance, because it somehow threatens their enjoyment. But that doesn’t make them right (and for me, these movies are enjoyable precisely *because* they’re so laden with ideology).

  36. Aaron Bady says:

    Aw, Rudy! Yay!

    Regarding your first point, writing this post made me realize that if my anti-fascism isn’t feminist, it’s bullshit. Which is why the critique of this post that hits home for me — or at least makes me nervous — is the one where I’m somehow judging actresses by their appearances in a less than cool way. I hope I’m not doing that! My point wasn’t so much to criticize the fact that Cotillard wasn’t beautiful (which isn’t true anyway) but to look at the semantic content of her look, the way she is beautiful in a specific way (a very respectable way) and not beautiful in another (the more dangerous look that Catwoman has, and which the Vogue cover demonstrates Cotillard being eminently capable of). It also occurs to me that the specter of Batman’s lost love from the previous movie is partially being recalled, in some way; one of the things I didn’t tallk about was how compulsively this movie tries to recall and tie up every single loose end it can from the entire series. There are so many visual and thematic rhymes its a little bit silly.

  37. Aaron Bady says:

    Thanks, fixed it.

  38. Aaron Bady says:

    I didn’t, but I like it now!

  39. Aaron Bady says:

    Whereas insistently trying to argue down everyone who tries to apply deeper meaning doesn’t tell us anything about your psyche? Feel free to psychoanalyze me — and who knows, you may even be right — but don’t think for a minute that I’m not doing the same thing with you. :)

  40. anon says:

    But why? I mean aren’t you just looking for what you want to see? I would like to see you hash out why you like this droniness. I believe the movie calls it autopilot, and I see *zero* parallels between batman ejecting from his craft after turning on autopilot and the drone-enabled surveillance state (I don’t like how I just put that, but it works as shorthand). It looks like a huge reach on your part and nothing more, and it confirms my sense that you see what you want to see.

    I’m in no way against interpretation, and I’m DEFINITELY not a fascist. But I think you’re way over-literal and sure, you’re absolutely entitled to your reading of the film. But it just feels so forced to me and I could definitely present you with some alternatives. I think you give the Nolans way too much credit, too, for being able to execute a master plan of impeccably coding an ideological vision that you feel is perfectly antithetical to your own. It reminds me of how certain conspiracy theorists gave the Bush administration way too much credit in seeking some masterfully constructed master plan (and i’m not exactly equating you with conspiracy theorists, and I’m definitely not equating the Nolans with the Bush administration).

    I’m on the verge of rambling, which is never a good idea in situations like this. But I’m just not sure to what extent you feel that you’re reading a subtext that emerged subconsciously, versus a deliberately constructed ideological agenda. If we’re talking subtext and subconscious, maybe there’s an interesting discussion to be had, but then everything is messy and slippery and I find your reading way too tidy and limited. If on the other hand you’re thinking the Nolans set out to press a fully elaborated ideological agenda that is fundamentally fascist and misogynist (or just extremely conservative… and conservatism and fascism are not the same thing), then you’ve lost me before you’ve even started.

    And on the subject of misogyny, dude: Hollywood. And can we acknowledge while we’re at it that Christian Bale gets plenty shirtless throughout the trilogy? It’s not like men don’t get used as sex objects too. Obv power dynamics are important, I’ve just grown very tired of over-simplification when we talk about these things.

    Interpretation is something I’m a huge fan of. And with that, I note that the psyche is riddled with rabbit holes. Maybe we should bring Inception into the discussion?

  41. Aaron Bady says:

    Real quick, because I’m going out the door (and mind you, this isn’t something I’ve thought much about) one way droniness is interesting isn’t in any way an exact parallel, but more along the lines of how politics meshes with technology. For example, one of the things drones do — in our present configuration — is let us pretend that there’s a technological solution to real political and economic problems. In other words, posited that there are actual terrorists in Pakistan right now, what do you do? Before drones, you had to act through diplomatic channels, or totally invade; after drones, you could kind of sidestep that really hard and unsatisfying choice, or at least convince yourself that you could. The ending to the movie feels a bit like that: thanks to technology, batman gets to be both the martyr and also not have to die. It’s a bit like the way drone operators get medals for combat duty?

    As for the rest of your comment, the short answer is that I think ideology is rarely conscious or thought-out; that’s the problem, that you think the things you are doing are rational and normal, non-ideological. Nolan probably thinks his movie is simply a realistic look at How Things Are, you know? But it’s worth picking away at it to see the kinds of assumptions that actually inform How (you think) Things Are.

  42. anon says:

    Wish we could do this over a beer, frankly… but alas. In any case I’m really not at all convinced that he was trying to take a realistic look at how things are (and I get that realistic and realism are not the same). At least not in any kind of literal and timely fashion. (All my Nietzsche comes second hand, in the interest of full disclosure.) I agree that with what you just said about ideology in general, but holy crap do we then get into what in my mind are VERY complicated waters. Not that you don’t treat them as such, but… hmmm… hmmmm…… doesn’t fascist propaganda play on human desires and fears that precede ideology? The human psyche is far, far older than formalized politics. Maybe I just want to leave this comment there and see what you’d say to that, if you have a chance. But I might’ve said too little to be coherent, in which case apologies, trying to control the ramble.

  43. anon says:

    But but but also (tumblr’s putting the squeeze on me!) I mean I don’t know when eject became an option for fighter pilots but they were doing it in Top Gun, so clearly ejection technology has been around longer than unmanned drones.

  44. Neilist says:

    “Il Batman” and “Der Robin” are references to “Il Duce” and “Der Fuhrer” – not to German and Italian being fascist languages. Not a stroke of genius on his part, but it’s more clever than you give it credit for. Douthat may have crappy politics, but at least he knows some history.

  45. Zunguzungu says:

    Of course, but they’re also just the word “the” in those languages, no? One cheap shot deserves another, imho.

  46. Pawel Mizgalewicz says:

    This is a very interesting piece, explaining nicely a lot about which ties with reality make this movie feel so wrong and providing a few interesting links.

    I just read that the movie, of course, earned a lot of money, and Warner Bros. “pledged to make substantial donations to victims of the shooting”. I wouldn’t like to sound more cynical than I truly am, but I hope youn understand it’s hard not to find it coincidental with all that superhero movie ideology – a big studio that’s been always living off violent movies tends to care about shooting people if only it actually takes place DURING their movie. Well, with all rich people cautious and caring like that, America has nothing to be afraid of.

  47. Pawel Mizgalewicz says:

    I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t know that… I think the point was explained clearly – that the situation really IS similar to what Douthat described as “real fascist Batman”.

    “Il” and “Der” are just like “The”, so what was Douthat’s point in writing that? Here’s the fragment:

    “the collective will of the public channeled through the superior individual will of Il Batman (and his successor, Der Robin, presumably)”

    Well this article, and the linked ones, describe clearly that in “Dark Knight Rises”, there IS a belief shown that the will of public should be channeled through a superior individual. Who uses a nickname. And you have his graphic symbol everywhere in the city. So what’s left? Only the fact that he’s American. The only difference, the only thing that for Douthat seem to differentiate non-fasisct behavior with fasisct is that he’s not “Der Batman”, but “The Batman”.

    This fragment is priceless because it shows exactly how the moral value of things and words you use to describe it change depending on whether “Our people” do it or “The others” do it.

  48. Guest91 says:

    To be fair, Batman’s code involves not using guns and not killing. The copycats in TDK were ordinary citizens wearing hockey pads and using guns with the intent to harm others. Their intention may have been to do well, but they could have done more harm than good if they took a life.

  49. Guest91 says:

    People also forget that she began filming just a couple of moths after giving birth. You could tell that she had extra weight in this film compared to her other on screen appearances. I’m not trying to offend women who give birth by suggesting that they become unattractive after giving birth (in fact, I found Marion to be very attractive), I just wanted to point out that having a child may have affected her appearance.

  50. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed reading this article and I think you bring up some good points for discussion. Two things I thing bear mentioning. First the character played by Juno Temple is clearly supposed to be Holly Robinson Selina’s friend introduced by Frank Miller in Batman:Year One. Holly was a canon queer in the Catwoman vol. 2 books and was a consistently portrayed as a important part of Selina’s life although not romantic or sexual relationship. That’s not to say the possibility isn’t there for such a relationship, but that the relationship in comics was portrayed as a close friendship between a self-identifying queer woman and a self-identifying straight woman (at least on page). I’d say the relationship on screen, imo/in retrospect, seem to reflect it albeit without as much of the warmth of the relationship as portrayed in comics which could indeed lead to a different reading. Hard to tell given the amount of time that ended up on screen perhaps cut footage will give us more sense of where Nolan was going with this.

    Secondly, the comment about Marion Cotillard seems just way offbase. First I don’t think there is anyway that you can ever describe the actress as anything except beautiful and the comment “just not quite hot enough to be seriously interesting” is jaw dropping in its brazenness to boil a woman’s looks into the putrid “hot or not” ratings that seem to permeate a certain part of the internet.

    I’ll also note that Cotillard had just given birth when filming the movie and was breastfeeding as well. I think pointing out how she looks in the movie and comparing it to a more recent photo a year after doesn’t show anything except that a woman’s body and look does change as a result of giving birth.

  51. Aaron Bady says:

    That’s interesting about Holly. But the thing with gay characters in so many high profile places is that they never get explicitly named as such, right? She isn’t any less queer in the movie because the point isn’t clearly specified; in some ways, that’s the biggest clue.

    I take your second point; I wish I had written that part a lot more carefully, as I think the point I was trying to make is worth making — the movie producers dress her a certain way to encode the social role she is meant to play in the movie — but if it can be read as “hot or not?” then I’ve certainly not made it very well. But standards of beauty are not absolute; especially in movies — where models play the “normal looking” friend, routinely — they are always relative, and in this movie, it seemed clear to me that A. Cotillard was being positioned as a *conventional* match for Bruce Wayne, in that she was (thought to be) a high society charity-ball giver and a scientist (which is what I meant by “Alfred approved”) while also B. being positioned as less glamorous/dangerous than Selina Kyle. And that her looks were calculated to match this portrayal (which has nothing to do with anything like a person’s “actual” beauty, even if such a thing exists; Hollywood can make an actress who just gave birth look any damn way they please, for example).

    The point in comparing the two pictures was, then, not to say that the actress is or isn’t hot, but that — since the actress could be any level or kind of beauty the movie wants her to be — the choices made by the producers tell us something about what they’re saying about the characters. In this case, that is that: safe and conventional is dangerous (because it makes men weak) while dangerous keeps you virile and strong (because the conquest continues, or some shit like that).

  52. Anonymous says:

    On Holly, I agree with your point they didn’t specifically state it. She’s a great character and I’m surprised given the casting of Temple she didn’t play a larger role. I’m looking to see if there was additional footage shot.

    I get your point about how they presented “Miranda” but I think part of this is that the way she was presented was the antithesis of how she appears in her “true” form in comics. I’d chalk that up to Nolan’s “everybody wears a mask” theme he’s going for here.

    Of course, I’ve now mentioned two things that will resonate only with people who read the comics. Which speaks to an issue with the movie.

  53. Chiropteranthropos says:

    While I could be mistaken, I believe “Talia” to be a variation on “Thalia”, a name of Greek (rather than Hebrew) origin, from Gk. “Thaleia”, meaning “in bloom”. It was the name given to the Muse presiding over idyllic poetry, but I don’t believe we should give that fact much weight: in all probability, the name was chosen by Dennis O’Neill (who created the character, and introduced it to the DC comics universe, in 1971) for its sonorous quality, rather than any symbolic reasons.

    This is a fascinating article, and even more fascinating discussion; my appreciation goes to Mr. Aaron Bady for having written the former, and for his patience and open-mindedness when addressing objections raised to his position in the latter.

  54. ewriouo324 says:

    In Nolan’s defense, the entire superhero-crimefighter genre is inherently Fascist-friendly (and not just when it’s based on comics written by outspoken fascist Alan Moore). First, it relies on the “great men” model of history, where history is shaped by just a few exceptional individuals. In superhero comics, those individuals are not just morally and intellectually great, but they have magical physical powers as well. The Nolan Batman movies at least show how both Batman and the villains rely heavily on others (the police and the petty criminals, respectively) to help them out.

    Also, the genre usually demands an exciting and satisfying climax, which basically means that the hero defeats the villain with violence. The Nolan movies at least made a small mention of there might be some underlying problems like unemployment and corruption creating these villains, but addressing those issues wouldn’t make for an exciting hollywood blockbuster. Instead it would be more like this:

  55. Literarywitch says:

    Honestly this article reads like a graduate school lit theory exercise in cramming as many hermeneutic tools as possible into a film whose material simply doesn’t support the reading. Sometimes there are overstatements that are just blatantly about the pyrotechnics of using Big Ideas, rather than fidelity to a close reading. I have na umber of objections, but let me first address the “feminist” anger at Catwoman becoming Batman’s romantic companion, which completely misses the point by the way. Batman and Catwoman are two outcasts–even their hybridized names signify that they are not fully human, but rather conflicted creatures torn between worlds who will never fit in–and in their alienation from regular society, they are true equals. Every superhero mythology must eventually struggle with the problem of the Normal Life: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, Frodo/Bilbo Baggins, all these protagonists had great moral responsibility thrust upon them, often at unthinkable personal cost such as the death of loved ones. How, then, do you give the superhero a fitting end after all his sacrifices? This is the question that DKR, as the last of the trilogy, seeks to answer. The central thematic element of Batman’s psyche, consistently repeated across all three movies, is that he is alone in the world. Only someone as lonely and forsaken as Catwoman would understand him, which is why Rachel Dawes was never his true love — just an enchanting placeholder for the Normal Life he would never have.

    Regarding the film’s political messaging, this film clearly believes in the rule of law and social institutions, even if such structures are weakened or corrupted from the inside. You can say this is “anti-revolutionary” or “fascist” but that’s kind of missing the finer point: not every modality of social change needs to involve a Noah’s Ark-type genocide of all the “corrupt” people, nor a revolutionary uprising led by the mob. That’s why we have something called democracy–and it’s not a perfect or quick means of enacting change or eradicating inequality, but it has so far proven to be the one that affords us the most freedom. That’s why Batman save the city from nuclear bomb, but doesn’t eradicate the problems that self-government was meant to solve. The superhero can save us from supernatural evil, but even he can’t deliver us into an utopian society. Democratic citizens have to do that themselves.

    Finally, Marian Tate doesn’t look like she’s on the cover of Vogue in this film because she’s the head of a terrorist organization and doesn’t need to find herself a husband.

  56. Aaron Bady says:

    The first thing we’ve got to do is shoot all the grad students.

  57. Anonymous says:

    There’s a trope called “Hollywood Homely” that describes the way audiences are expected to believe that some of the astoundingly beautiful people on the screen are in fact less beautiful than the other astoundingly beautiful people by dressing them in slightly less daring clothing and makeup, or occasionally using wigs and *gasp* glasses to make them look comparatively frumpy.

    Its more of an audience cue to create a hierarchy of beauty or hotness than anything real. And sometimes it really doesn’t work due to the audience liking women who look like they could have posed for Botticelli instead of having the correct dimensions for Vogue.

  58. Anonymous says:

    Exactly. And it’s lead by a mysterious foreigner from an oppressed background…

  59. Anonymous says:

    When I was in the theater, only the really obvious plot holes bothered me (that tiny amount of rubble was all that was keeping the cops underground? Why aren’t there any army reservists or retired Green Berets or recreational sharp shooters in the general Gotham population, picking the masked thugs off from rooftops?)
    Mostly though, that was masked by my embarrassment at not realizing who Talia was right away and my disappointment that the future Batman’s name was Robin and not Terry McGinnis.

    Later, when the explosions weren’t ringing in my ears anymore, other things began to bother me more. Not least, the realization that in the rich fantasy lives of the cultural Right in this country, the scary foreigners with the radical wealth distribution plans reflect the Occupy movement. Bane, the mysterious foreigner from an unspecified country (and who might also be an unspecified race) could be an echo of their (imaginary) fears about our current commander in chief.

    This article was an excellent analysis of all the things I found extremely disturbing about it. I do have one quibble, though. I thought Catwoman was clearly registering as bi. She seemed to think that Bruce Wayne and Batman were sexually attractive and exciting, but also had the blonde sidekick, who probably also represented her origins. She’s Catwoman. She doesn’t have to adhere to anyone else’s hetero normative definitions unless she feels like it.

  60. Bate Man says:

    hahah I love how showing how riddled with inconsistency and terrible the new Batman is really brings out the insecure self-hating weirdos. Jeez, maybe stop worshiping idols and then perhaps you wouldnt embarrass yourself over such an incompetent movie? ill-tempered children

  61. Joepotterbutler says:

    You want it to incorporate all these phD-level themes and all this complexity AND make it completely thrilling when you see this jet black ribbon of vengeance speed through traffic? The movie was already nearly 3 hours long you dweeb! It only means to stoke our fears about inequality and anarchy and fascism and nuclear annhialation enough so that when Batman arrives to save everyone we are thrilled. And it did thrill, much more than the standard woman-in-jeapordy or city -in-jeapordy plot does.

  62. says:

    Watch Dark Knight Binges parody with a better plot

  63. durr says:

    I’d say that the “reformation” of Catwoman wasn’t nearly as annoying as Bruce giving up. The former was little more than a means to make the latter seem a bit less infuriating by comparison.
    Not only does it go against the “mainstream” interpretation of both characters, it also cheapens them in the context of the movie, and determines Batman’s role as a fascist figure rather than as a vigilante, without even making it look controversial.

  64. Anonymous says:

    Well I thoroughly enjoyed this. A few points I might take issue with but overall this is fun and intelligent and I’m not sure why there are so many quite nasty comments. Great read, thanks!

  65. JBYoung says:

    Ditto. I do think that we look at fascism/dictatorship too much as something of “the other,” like only Germans and Italians are capable of it. To hate fascists for being foreigners is tantamount to being one. All people can create evil power-structures. So the fact that there were evil fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany doesn’t excuse the contemporary bullying of Germans and Italians in America, many of whom had more reason to believe in the American ideal of tolerance than the Anglos. Instead, the only way to hate fascists is to hate fascism, which is (despite its teachings) international.

  66. Marek says:

    Wow. Pure idiocy. There was nothing, NOTHING to suggest Selina Kyle was a lesbian. I have a male roommate. Am I gay? He’s my best friend. Am I gay? I hate certain women. Do I hate all women? There was nothing to suggest Bruce Wayne “tamed” her and her disinterest in men, because the “disinterest” in men wasn’t there! You’re reading into things that simply ARE NOT there, and that is one of the most annoying things a person can do to art. Watch the episode of South Park, “The Tale of Scroatie McBoogerballs” for a much better explanation of why than I could ever give. Satire is effective. Also, this movie espouses charity, helping others in need, courage, will and determination. NOT fascism. If Batman was a fascist, if a BILLIONAIRE was a fascist, he would have a whole different path towards achieving his goals than fighting crime. Just because Batman ignores petty laws doesn’t mean he’s fascist. I could write several essay. But in conclusion, I truly believe you to be an absolute imbecile and this article to be pure rubbish. Great work if that’s what you were going for.

  67. Orgo says:

    Alan Moore’s an outspoken Anarchist, which is as far as you can get from fascism.
    Take this quote for instance:
    “Well, the one thing with writing stories about the rise of fascism is that if you wait long enough, you’ll almost certainly be proved right. Fascism is like a hydra — you can cut off its head in the Germany of the ’30s and ’40s, but it’ll still turn up on your back doorstep in a slightly altered guise.” -Alan Moore

    I don’t think he would compare something he would like to a hydra whose heads are to be cut off.

    You might be thinking about Frank Miller who’s openly fascist (he believes in nuking the entire Middle East as a solution to its turmoil) and helped revitalize the Batman franchise in the 80′s in the gritty form largely reflected in the Nolan films.

    I understand the overall point you’re trying to make, but just looking at Moore’s work shows that superhero stories can be a layered commentary on fascism rather than just pure propaganda in support of it.

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