Fascism for the 21st Century
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.