The Dark Knight Rises, 2012’s most highly anticipated film, finally reaches theaters this week. But it already stands as one of the first mass-culture artifacts of the Occupy era. Its trailers alone have inadvertently revealed the violence necessary to maintain social inequality, and whether billionaire Batman saves the day in the film is irrelevant. The trailers have exposed him as the true villain of our current impasse. Batman is too big to fail.
Trailer vs. Film
Trailers are the best representation of how film-industry elites perceive and shape popular tastes. In the YouTube era, the trailer is all the more influential because it frames our anticipation and memory of a film. The trailers that precede movies distill their plot, magnify their effects, and raise expectations with speedy cuts, fleeting images, and seductive suggestions, setting up what to watch for and how to remember it. There are companies that produce trailers exclusively, and trailer makers trump filmmakers in studios’ financial calculations. Since the preview does the key job – generating the interest and hence the money – that keeps studios in business, trailer makers are hired by studio heads and insulated from directors, screenwriters, and other artists who cannot be entrusted with high-stakes business investments. The profit-motivated primacy of trailers over films has only grown with the intensifying focus on opening-weekend sales. Since trailers sell movies (or trick people into first-weekend viewings), movies as cultural signifiers start with their first trailers.
The trailer may be seen as “the real” of the cultural production of cinematic experience, a mode of direct access to the ideology and political economy of filmmaking. It reduces to excess what it ostensibly represents, the film itself. Roger Ebert’s contemptuous quip that Armageddon (1998) was the first 150-minute trailer (“It is cut together like its own highlights. Take almost any 30 seconds at random, and you’d have a TV ad”) grasped the way films have begun to imitate trailers, but trailers have improved more than films have declined.
The affective and symbolic power of trailers’ techniques allow them to generate rushes of images and emotions that potentially overflow the film’s narrative. They become more real than what they represent. Indeed, previews for The Dark Knight Rises may convey Gotham’s corrupt political economy — i.e., of our world’s states of exception and impoverishment — more clearly than the film as a whole.
While the first Rises trailer is exciting enough, it’s the second that brings the full auratic power of the cinematic event down hard upon us:
The trailer opens with a cherubic boy singing the Star-Spangled Banner at a football game before calm inevitably gives way to storm: a gas-masked sadist blows up the field, prisoners riot, swat teams assemble, a tank fires on city hall, a hover craft flies through the streets, and so on. These rapid-fire cuts act as bundled spectacles of stimulation: Look at all this action you are going to enjoy! Hence our attention lingers when the clip slows down. There are three such moments: butler Alfred comforts a forlorn Bruce Wayne by invoking Bruce’s orphan-related trauma, the boy sings the American anthem, and then — the longest by far — an extended ballroom scene where a spectral Anne Hathaway whispers in Bruce Wayne’s ear:
You think this can last. There is a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.
Class tension here is not only directly addressed but presented as the central threat to which Batman must respond. The next shots are of rioting prisoners and others chanting a phrase in a foreign language. What are they saying? “Rise,” we are told. Rise? Is this a working-class revolution we are being promised?
When Hathaway’s character invokes inequality, the camera pulls in tight on Wayne’s face, allowing us a good look. His expression is confused, anguished — without the pique or fatigue you’d expect yet another villain to provoke. Instead, his face seems to entertain the possibility that she is already right: not about the coming storm but about how Bruce/Batman could have so much and have lived so well with this fact without making that face until now. Shouldn’t he have seen the structural violence already, from both of his positions?
At that moment, Bruce Wayne’s face reveals the unspeakable contradiction that he can’t escape, either as Bruce or as Batman: “What am I doing with all of this dough, and what is Batman protecting?”
The justification for Wayne’s wealth has always been that it afforded him resources to “fight crime” as a semi-reclusive philanthropist and as Batman. But as the first film in the Nolan reboot, Batman Begins, emphasizes, degenerate street criminals and not super-villains motivate Batman by murdering Bruce’s parents, whose beneficent philanthropy had been all that was keeping Gotham City’s ungrateful poor from destitution. A war on street criminals can be read uncomplicatedly as a war on the poor. When Batman’s interventions are understood alongside his double’s conglomerate — Wayne Enterprises, which designs, for instance, the U.S. military’s equipment of deathmaking — a new problematic crystallizes. By rooting for Batman, we are endorsing the seamless violence of monopoly capitalism (represented by Bruce Wayne), reinforced by blunt coercion (represented by Batman).
Wayne personifies capitalist firms’ “legitimate” expansion — assimilation to the military complex and consolidation with finance capital — and capture of the political process. Note that in The Dark Knight, when hailing Harvey Dent as Gotham’s savior in a scene glorifying his super-sovereignty, Wayne tells Dent, “One fundraiser with my pals … you’ll never need another cent.” Batman, meanwhile, personifies the extra-juridical violence needed to clean up the messes Wayne’s system produces. Batman is the barely veiled, ever-necessary, and always spectacular violence that haunts Gotham. This haunting is critical: The viewer is encouraged to be annoyed by Gothamites who find Batman’s vigilantism objectionable, but perhaps these citizens – not privy to the sympathetic view of Bruce/Batman’s childhood trauma that viewers enjoy – see things more clearly.
An All-American Dualism
The other striking feature of the trailer is how very, very American it is. The boy sings the national anthem at an American football game, fans’ hands across hearts, and his voice continues far beyond his image, its tones penetrating deep into the trailer, saturating the images with a star-spangled sentimentality that Nolan’s Batman series never indulged before. Gotham had always been for itself, a sort of anywhere-nowhere detached from concepts of nation.
And that is part of the point of Batman: He transcends such circumscriptions. Though Gotham is a nickname for New York, Batman’s Gotham is not quite that. Both Begins and Dark Knight are clearly filmed in Chicago. Gotham becomes a simulacrum for the “late-capitalist city” writ large. As such, while it was always in America (we spy an American flag in Dark Knight), it was not of America, firmly grounded.
But in the Rises trailer, the national anthem lasts 80 seconds. It suffuses the pan over Gotham, the police commissioner’s speech, some furious action sequences, and – importantly – through Hathaway’s warning about class rebellion.
The only thing that silences the national anthem is the laborers’ chanting of “Rise! Rise!” Hence when the gas-masked villain tells Bruce that “When Gotham is in ruins, I give you permission to die,” Gotham gives way to America. We are left, then, with an implicit battle between the nation — represented by Batman — and the material political struggle represented by those fighting him.
The explicit presentation of class politics diverges drastically from the rest of the Batman films, suggesting that Occupy has penetrated Hollywood. This theory gains credence when we learn that Nolan wanted to actually film at Zucotti Park but didn’t out of respect for the movement. But his film nonetheless celebrates a reactionary hero. This is irreconcilable, which explains the nationalist iconography, where the fetishized nation becomes the only ideal sacred enough to justify Bruce/Batman and his interventions. The two constitute a loop: the Nation allows Bruce to exist while Bruce enables Batman to save the Nation from Evil (the gas-masked super-villain) that must be excised.
But can the super villain create an existential threat that obscures the class politics? Because we also see rioters and chanters, and we hear Hathaway’s warning: There is a storm coming. If the villain is excised, we will still be left with the worker uprisings and contradictions of Bruce/Batman. Will these others be swept along as well? Here is the obliterating force of reterritorialization: The rioters are the “part of no part” in this universe, those who, in Jacques Rancière’s sense, animate politics through the dissensus they create by their constitutive inability to be harmoniously integrated. Against their demand, the loop constructed between Batman and nation attempts to subsume these agents. The workers’ singular demands, realities, and identities are eclipsed, replaced with identities, realities, etc., as members of the nation.
But in the wake of Occupy, will we be so fooled? Is Nolan setting up the battle between capitalism-nation versus Evil Other only to show us how false this battle is? Perhaps the form of the trailer exposes the content of the film it previews.
From Super Villain to Systemic Villain
In a recent essay on The Wire Frederick Jameson observes that good villains are obsolescent. Attributing their near extinction to the erosion of the concept of evil, he makes three braided arguments: liberal society’s permissiveness has weakened taboos (no one is really “evil” anymore), capitalist villains who pursue only money are “boring” rather than evil, and when they are “immense” enough they enter the realm of the political, which – his third point – is a mass-culture no-fly zone. So we have only the serial killers and terrorists, and they too are becoming stale in their repetition.
Jameson, however, is wrong about politics being forbidden in mass culture. The Dark Knight Rises is political by other means, gesturing at an evil system rather than an evil villain. For instance, the Joker’s excess vis-à-vis criminality enables Batman’s excess of the juridical: Batman must go beyond the law because the Joker goes beyond mere criminality. The Joker’s villainy provides a state of exception that justifies Bruce/Batman’s violations, among which is one that’s rarely noticed, his internal incoherence and its external permanence. ( This is a central argument in Agamben’s reading of Benjamin and Schmitt, that the episodic, actual state of exception obscures the enduring, virtual one that constitutes modern biopower.) Thus, only the Joker sanctifies and obscures Bruce and Batman in their combined wealth/crime-fighting. Absent the Joker, we realize Batman protects Bruce as the police protect corporations, no matter how corrupt, complicit, or coercive they’ve become in inflicting mass human suffering. Without the Joker, Bruce/Batman becomes a double threat to the 99%.
Following this, that Rises replaces the Joker with multiple villains (gas-masked man, rioters) suggests an inversion of villainy on two separate planes simultaneously: the Joker’s “evil” diffracts and distributes into the entire system: into Gotham itself, the corrupted capitalist city against which the 99% are rioting.
As such, the relations of villainy are flipped: The anarchists become liberators of the system that Bruce/Batman defends. Bruce/Batman, distracted by his mommy-daddy-me orphan issues, has not realized that he has become the villain.
Now that the trailer has opened up this tension, whether the film leaves the wound open or not is ultimately irrelevant. Even if Batman prevails in the furious action sequences that will surely constitute the movie’s climax, everyone knows this is just fun and games, that any Batman sacrifice is merely a ridiculous resolution that won’t answer the question: How could you live so large and leave so little for the rest of us?
But even if the truth of The Dark Knight Rises is contained more forcibly in what draws us to the theater than what sends us out of it, it is uncertain whether this provocation will matter to people once they exit the theater. Will Rises change attitudes, pullulate into sustained commitments? Or will the same dialectic of shatter/recapture play out in the social realm with less successful results?
This is the open question of our Open Secret era: does speaking a typically-occluded truth shatter collective common sense and move it toward a more politically-radicalized consciousness, or does it act as a way of siphoning off social pressures, leaving us pacified when we return to the desert of the real? This is another question that Batman cannot answer. It is instead left to the rest of us, the multitude, to decide if the small but meaningful tears that Occupy, the Arab Spring, the London protests have constituted (and still constitute) will compel a more decent and humane politics to rise.