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Fascism for the 21st Century




By Daniel Lindvall.

Without the help of a time machine, watching the The Dark Knight Rises on a big screen will probably remain the closest I’ll ever get to what experiencing a Wagnerian propaganda spectacle in 1930’s Berlin must have felt like. It is not just the celebration of the übermensch in shiny black body armour, the fetishization of his equally shiny black military vehicles and war equipment, nor even the literal horde of police in dark uniforms – a police force now collectively redeemed, cleansed of all corruption – that fight by the hero’s side in the final battle of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga. And it isn’t just the utter contempt that all of Nolan’s Batman films have for anyone looking like they may not be able to afford a home on Gotham City’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Upper West Side – police, loyal servants and orphans excepted. Here “the 99 per cent” figure only as easy-to-manipulate potential recruits to a violent mob led by psychopaths. And it isn’t, in itself, the demonization of Asia as the home of coldly inhuman intelligence and cruelty. Or that evil is so often connected to physical deformity. Hero worship, gun fetishism, glorification of the armed forces of the state, racism – none of this is new to the genre. But in this ultimate instalment, Nolan’s Batman trilogy combines it all into a story that reaches the deepest recesses of the bourgeois soul and unquestioningly celebrates the authoritarian darkness it finds there.

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is not just your ordinary superhero or vigilante. Even if the films make much of his tragically (self-)imposed social isolation this does not make him an outsider or an outcast. His place is above, not outside of, society. He is no bullied loner accidentally gaining super powers, like Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and he’s no rebellious cop, like Dirty Harry Callahan. Bruce Wayne’s powers rest ultimately on material wealth, and not just any wealth, but control over an inherited corporate empire whose main source of profit comes from the arms trade. Batman’s moral code may forbid him the use of deadly violence, but it doesn’t forbid him making a luxury living out of peddling weapons to Pentagon, including, for instance, a machine capable of vaporizing the enemy’s water supplies, intended for use in desert wars. One wonders which desert wars?

The rather worn-out question explicitly posed throughout the trilogy – whether or not it is right to take the law into your own hands – is therefore really the question about the relation between capital and the state, the arms industry and the public armed forces. Batman is a contemporary saga about the shadowy world of post-9/11 ‘security’ arrangements operating under the jurisdiction of anti-democratic ‘anti-terror’ laws and supra-legal authority in a world where the borders between the state and private corporations are increasingly permeable, whilst power escapes ever further away from the influence and scrutiny of ordinary citizens. Of course, the Batman films never seriously questioned this form of authority in any way other than purely rhetorically. Anyone in the Gotham City universe that criticizes Batman is always portrayed as silly, ineffective, corrupt or crooked. However, if there was ever any doubt at all, The Dark Knight Rises does away with it spectacularly as the city, in an unusually distasteful scene even for this film, erects a statue of its hero pictured as a sternly watchful warrior saint.

The event that finally has overcome any lingering doubt in the minds of even the most hand-wringing liberals of Gotham City’s upper classes is the caricature of a revolution that Batman has just saved them from. It is a ‘revolution’ described as if the script was a joint effort by Dickens, Edmund Burke and Rupert Murdoch. Here are the notorious ‘foreign agitators’, in the shape of Batman’s arch enemies in the vaguely Arab-Chinese League of Shadows who puppeteer the ‘masses’ into mindless violence in order to destroy the world’s economic centre. Here is mob rule and a ‘people’s court’ summarily sentencing wealthy citizens to death. In the most sentimental fashion we are presented with the sacked remnants of a luxurious home, camera lingering on photos left behind that silently testify about the loving, ‘civilized’ upper class family that once lived here. To be sure, the rage of the masses is explained to some degree by the endless depression that seems a fact of life in Gotham City. It is impossible not to translate this into a warning about future, or already happening, social explosions in the real world of slow-burning, eternal depression. But this is a warning that wants, only, to convince us of the necessity of accepting an ever more authoritarian rule in order to protect us from ourselves. Wall Street and Pentagon is all that stands between us and barbarism. There are no alternatives. Certainly not in democratic popular movements. But neither in any kind of renewed, neo-Fordist social contract. Where Bruce Wayne’s father once built infrastructure to bring people together, according to his self-image at least, his son is merely the ultimate protector of the night watchman state. If the film’s vision is not exactly Fascist in the accepted sense, it is because it doesn’t even offer its working class the pretense of social consciousness that classic Fascism did. Perhaps we could best refer to the ideology of the Batman trilogy by paraphrasing the term coined by Heinz Dieterich, as ‘Fascism for the 21st Century’?

There are few films that so insistently constrict themselves to a ‘from-above’ perspective as does Nolan’s Batman-trilogy. This is the paranoid worldview of the elite in a social system that has reached the age of dementia. Everywhere monsters lurk and sub humans bite the hands that feed them. If, for a moment, we refuse the consistent paranoia of Nolan’s films – something that, it must be emphasized, the films themselves never urge us to – the distinction between ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ quickly blurs. Is the authoritarian power elite of Gotham City really morally superior to the Asian super villains who aim to restore ‘the balance’ of the world by annihilating Wall Street and, perhaps, in the process save the people of the Arab world from the hellish inventions of Wayne Enterprises? Behind the many masks of Bruce Wayne I catch a glimpse of Patrick Bateman.

Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.

Disagree? Maybe you prefer Jacob Mertens’ take on this final episode of the Nolan Batman saga: ‘When it soars it is a thing of beauty’.

SWEDISH version here.

13 Comments for “Fascism for the 21st Century”

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    Bravo. It is no longer bewildering to me why people find pleasure in these films. The public seems to enjoy its alienation, its internalization of interests other than its own, its worship of authority, its joy in death and destruction. This is the triumph, I’m sad to say, of false consciousness.

  2. I severely disagree with this overly political assessment of a simple Batman movie. I find it strange and misguided to compare a (fictional) Batman movie to horrific (and real) Nazi propaganda such as The Triumph of the Will. Patrick Bateman would never understand the concept of “self-sacrifice” in the way that Bruce Wayne does. The leader of the terrorist group The League of Shadows, Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), first appeared in Batman comics in 1971. The terrorist plot depicted in this film is nothing new; Christopher Nolan is using accurate Batman mythology to comment on modern issues, such as the 99%. And since when were Liam Neeson or Marion Cotillard Arab-Chinese? They are not Arab-Chinese characters. Not every villain in the film is “physically deformed.” Liam Neeson, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, and Cillian Murphy are not physically deformed in these films. Only Tom Hardy and Heath Ledger are physically deformed. There are many villains in The Dark Knight who are typical Italian mob genre characters who are also not physically deformed. Moreover, I do not believe that Patrick Bateman or the Nazis would give a mansion to the orphans of a city. 9/11 is not part of the Batman world. And how can you not tell the difference from a masked terrorist who wants to set off a nuclear bomb in the middle of a city and a masked vigilante who takes the same nuke offshore before it explodes in order to save a city? It’s just a Batman movie.

  3. It is true that Ra’s Al Ghul is Arab-Chinese, as I just referenced it in the comics. I apologize for that criticism, I was just thinking about the film (and actors) at hand.

  4. Christopher Sharrett

    I think I can appreciate this writer’s love of Batman comic books (I’ve read many). But he should know that he isn’t responding to Lindvall’s argument, nor does he sustain what he does say with any logic. It is true that The Dark Knight is a work of fiction. So what? Does fiction preclude a fascist worldview? Is Triumph of the Will more authentically fascist because it is “real” (it is far from that, if one means that there is nothing staged or artiifical about it)? Who cares when The League of Shadows “first appeared”? Who cares if Nolan “uses accurate Batman mythology?” I am at a loss.

  5. I have to agree with Chris. Nixon’s comments are fanboy criticism, and I have no use for that. Ian McEwan, the distinguished British author of such novels as Atonement and Amsterdam, had this to say recently about online criticism from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about: “I don’t have much time for the kind of [Internet] site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.”

  6. Gwendolyn Foster

    I really enjoyed reading Daniel Lindvall’s heartfelt and politically astute essay on The Dark Knight Rises. I, for one, think that most critical analysis of pop culture and Hollywood films is oddly lacking in political awareness. Like many folks, I think it is extremely important to examine pop culture from a political perspective. It is equally important to debate the politics of pop culture and film in all forums with a sense of respect for differing opinions. I don’t know any other way to enjoy or partake in pop culture.

    I am puzzled by Bryan Nixon’s comments. It is unclear if Nixon simply disagrees with Lindvall’s analysis of the politics of the film, or if he is actually against any form of political critique of comic book-based films and pop culture in general.

    Sure, many folks argue that this film “is just a Batman movie,” but I, for one, am THRILLED to read a responsible, well supported, carefully reasoned, and historically informed analysis of an important milestone of popular culture. After all, what can be more timely and significant, than a balanced and thorough political assessment of this alarmingly elitist and ultimately fascist film, especially given the economic and political environment in which we find ourselves in 2012?

    To me, the OMISSION of any political critique of this film, or of ANY POPULAR film, for that matter, seems utterly irresponsible, inexplicable, and downright weird. Many reviewers of The Dark Knight Rises, for example, either sidestep the politics of the film, or misread the film completely. If you look a little more deeply though, you’ll find a growing number of reviewers who recognize and deplore the fascist and class-based politics of The Dark Knight Rises.

    Yes, politics matter do matter very much in pop culture and film, especially if it is “just a Batman film.”

  7. First, I would like to say that I encourage political discussion in film analysis. I just find this particular analysis exaggerated. I’m not saying that a fiction film can’t be fascist or communist. I’m saying that a silly comic book movie should not be regarded with the same authority as 1930′s German propaganda. Even if the spectacles are similar, the purpose in the creation of these films are different; The Dark Knight Rises is fantasy popcorn spectacle, 1930′s German propaganda is spectacle with a purposeful and real political goal, whether it was staged or not. If Nolan wanted to make a fascist propaganda film, then I assume it would end not with Batman’s retirement, but with Batman’s forceful reign over Gotham. A single Batman statue would be the least of anyone’s worries. I’m sure the Batman statue in the film was erected because Batman removed the ticking time bomb from the city just before it exploded. I’m sure Gotham went back to being a democratic state after the demise of Bane and Batman. These are simply my opinions on the matter.

    The following description is not exactly accurate: “..the super villains who aim to restore ‘the balance’ of the world by annihilating Wall Street…” Yes, Bane wants to destroy Wall Street, but he also wants to annihilate an entire city. The annihilation of the city is how he wants to “restore the balance.” The annihilation of Wall Street is just a part of the plan. If anything, Bane could have skipped that step entirely and nuked the city in the first place. But first, he wanted to instill chaos on Gotham for 5 months. Eliminating Batman from Gotham was also part of the plan. Breaking Batman was directly lifted from the comic “Knightfall” (1993).

    “Here is mob rule and a ‘people’s court’ summarily sentencing wealthy citizens to death.” I disagree with this assessment as well, seeing as how the judge of the people’s court, which does not feature a jury or lawyers, is a psychotic maniac named Scarecrow, who Bane released from prison. Bane never created a “people’s court” in the film, even if he referred to it as such. He gave that power to the inmates he released from jail. And Bane armed them heavily. The “people” were not in charge of the city after Bane took over, but rather the murderous criminals. “But this is a warning that wants, only, to convince us of the necessity of accepting an ever more authoritarian rule in order to protect us from ourselves. Wall Street and Pentagon is all that stands between us and barbarism. There are no alternatives.” They had no choice but to follow authoritarian rule. The people were unable to defeat Bane and his army so they were unable to break away from authoritarian rule.

    “Here “the 99 per cent” figure only as easy-to-manipulate potential recruits to a violent mob led by psychopaths.” The 99% had no choice but to follow Bane and his minions, because Bane warned everyone living within Gotham City that he would set off the nuclear warhead if anyone tried to leave or interfere. And Bane and his minions were heavily armed with Wayne Enterprises weaponry. These civilians were merely surviving.

    Regarding the 99% and the Occupy Movement: the 99% term was first used by Occupy on a blog post in August 2011, and the movement officially began on September 17, 2011. You can track the movement to it’s beginnings in Spain during May 2011. The screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises was written in 2010, and principle photography began on May 6, 2011. I only bring this up because many reviews claim that the film is inspired by the Occupy Movement, when clearly it is not.

    And if Batman’s being a fascist is troublesome, then even more troublesome is the spectacle that is Iron Man 2 (2010). In that film, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) blatantly and happily tells the American government that he refuses to give them his weaponry/technology and that he is the only one with the moral capacity to use it; he “privatizes peace.” He’s a billionaire owner of a weapon’s manufacturer who gets off on the weapons he creates more so than Bruce Wayne/Batman. At least Batman knew when to throw in the towel and end his reign over the city. The only thing Tony Stark does is rant about how much better and smarter he is than everyone around him. Conversely, Bruce Wayne keeps referring to his wanting to help the people of Gotham without drawing attention to himself to create a false idol to the man behind the mask. I’m not saying that I agree with many of his actions, I just believe that he shows some sliver of compassion. Bruce Wayne is a billionaire who makes mass-murder weapons, but at least he’s a billionaire who does something besides collecting a bill. At least he cares about the orphans.

    I do find it problematic that Nolan did not give those in poverty a proper voice, if any voice at all, especially during Bane’s 5 month long occupation of Gotham. It’s true that Nolan strictly documented the fall of the wealthy, but it was not the poor that brought them down, but rather Bane’s minions and freed convicts. Also, I agree that, as presented by Nolan in this series, anyone who stands against Batman (typically within the police force) is portrayed as silly and ignorant. Matthew Modine’s performance reflects this in The Dark Knight Rises and helps contribute to the fascist perspective of the film that people are buying. I wish that Nolan had crafted this character in a more serious, believable, and stern fashion.

    And yes, I strictly enjoyed this film from a fanboy perspective, because I don’t believe it to be serious political propaganda. I don’t take the film seriously. There is a comic series called “Superman: Red Son” that depicts an alternate universe in which Superman lives in Communist Russia as opposed to the United States. Obviously, the politics within the story are communist and Superman is regarded as “the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.” This does not mean that the story is communist propaganda. It’s only propaganda if it is either purposefully used as such or interpreted as such. If you look for propaganda, you will find it.

    I apologize that my earlier comment was rushed and scatterbrained. I hastily reacted because this review caught me by surprise and I had little time to assemble my thoughts. Daniel Lindvall, I admit that you’ve had my brain spinning, which I applaud you for. Some of my views I just wrote may be illogical or wrong. Let me know, but please don’t throw me under the bus.

  8. Bryan, I’m sorry if you felt thrown under a bus! I’ll answer some of the points you bring up here one by one.

    “If Nolan wanted to make a fascist propaganda film, then I assume it would end not with Batman’s retirement”:

    More accurately it ends with succession being secured through Robin, the princeling. But even without this, the film unequivocally comes out in favour of the authoritarian.

    “The following description is not exactly accurate: “..the super villains who aim to restore ‘the balance’ of the world by annihilating Wall Street…” Yes, Bane wants to destroy Wall Street, but he also wants to annihilate an entire city.”:

    Absolutely, they want to destroy the whole city – being the economic and industrial headquarters of the nation – and thereby the whole global system, the world order, that it represents. If I gave the impression, to anyone who has not seen the film, that they simply wanted to destroy one street or one building, I apologize.

    “Bane never created a “people’s court” in the film, even if he referred to it as such. He gave that power to the inmates he released from jail. And Bane armed them heavily. The “people” were not in charge of the city after Bane took over, but rather the murderous criminals.”:

    That is more or less the point I’m making. This is a version of the way that conservatives and anti-revolutionaries have always portrayed any revolution througout history: Instigated by outsiders, run by criminals, the people made up of the innocent victims and easily manipulated vindictive elements. Actually the Syrian regime, right now, uses similar reasoning. Here the script was directly inspired by Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities”, by the way.

    “They (the people) had no choice but to follow authoritarian rule. The people were unable to defeat Bane and his army so they were unable to break away from authoritarian rule.”:

    Here you have misunderstood what I mean when I say that the film urges us to accept authoritarian rule. I refer to the authoritarian rule of the city/state police apparatus in tandem with the military-industrial complex (Batman, the Dent Act etc), that we need to protect ourselves from “our own” tendencies for violence manipulated by dangerous foreign terrorists.

    “Regarding the 99% and the Occupy Movement: the 99% term was first used by Occupy on a blog post in August 2011″:

    I’m well aware of that, I’ve been follwing the movement since it started. I’m not saying the film is directly inspired by Occupy, I merely use the term “the 99 percent” as they do to stand for “the people”. I do claim that this film and the two previous ones are inspired by the times they were made in. As you say, the screenplay was written in 2010, well after the current phase of the capitalist crisis had started in 2007.

    “Bruce Wayne is a billionaire who makes mass-murder weapons, but at least he’s a billionaire who does something besides collecting a bill. At least he cares about the orphans.”:

    If you read your own two sentences again, don’t you see how preposterous this sounds? Yes, bad people do good things all the time. It’s called “charity” and is often a very cost effective form of PR. In fact, we learn early on in this film that Bruce Wayne (who, remember, controls a corporate empire!) has not been interested enough in the orphans to see to it that funding for the one little orphanage they’ve funded in the past has been kept up.

    I have not read “Superman: Red Son” but I am very, very, very convinced that it was not Communist propaganda.

  9. Thank you, Daniel. I appreciate your comments. If I ever sounded pretentious, I didn’t mean for it to be so. I just wanted some questions cleared up. Thank you again for clarifying and not saying that I shouldn’t ask questions or pose thoughts; I’d never say that to anyone who commented on anything I write. I like being able to discuss such things. And yes, “Red Son” is most certainly not communist propaganda.

  10. No worries Bryan. It’s nice to see a bit of life in the comments section!

  11. Thanks for a great and honest review.

    I felt increasingly uncomfortable watching this movie last night and had some good and heated discussions about it with my friends afterwards.

    I’m worried though, as I don’t think your view on this movie is the general one and that most people in the theatre yesterday will see no harm in the message this movie throws at them. Heck, maybe even Mr.Nolan doesn’t since he claims this movie isn’t political at all. (see commentary section on its wikipedia page)

  12. http://nymag.com/news/business/themoney/jeff-greene-2012-8/

    “It’s not a stretch to say many residents of Park Avenue harbor vivid fears of a populist revolt like the one seen in The Dark Knight Rises, in which they cower miserably under their sideboards while ragged hordes plunder the silver.”

  13. Well if it makes any difference Marion Cotilliard has some Arab descent (1/4 I believe) on her mother’s side. Perhaps that helps to stay true to the original character just a little?

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