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.

15 thoughts on “Fascism for the 21st Century”

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  9. 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)

  10. 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?

  11. The entire article misses several points. First of all, Batman has been criticised as a “fascist” character for decades, even in the book that the film is inspired by — Dark Knight Returns — addresses the fact that Batman’s one-man “Crusade” really is a neo-Fascist tendency that is being glorified. However, this point is addressed very early on on the film: Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City is an ever-evolving world, and when we begin the film we see a Gotham barely existing in a fragile dictatorship — a dictatorship established by Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent; it is a Police-State and the message is immediate: Batman’s war on crime has, by relying on fear-tactics, ultimately failed to make Gotham City a good place. In other words, the prejudices that the article accuses of the film for being guilty of has already been addressed within the first act of the film itself. Secondly, Bane and his “Arab-Chinese League” is NOT the “foreign threat.” It is most certainly NOT the “foreign other” that invades Gotham, but rather a manifestation of the SELF. Ra’s Al Ghul’s establishment is not an Asian or Arab terrorist group, it is rather ruled by suit-wearing sophisticated Westerners who use rhetoric to sway the masses. Bane is not the other. He is a grotesque representation of what we think of our heroes to be. And as the case is, he becomes a dictator. Selina Kyle, perhaps the most vocal representation of “the 99%” is ACTUALLY ONE OF THE PROTAGONISTS. As are working class heroes like John Blake and Commissioner Gordon (and previously, Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent). The point of the Batman films is anything BUT the glorification of the 1%.

    Another trend in Hollywood these days has been this “Fascism in America.” The Dark Knight Rises addresses it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier addresses it, even the recently released X-Men: Days of Future Past addresses the theme of how government policies can easily turn the US into a fascist regime, and it is correct. These are intelligent films that asks an intelligent audience to think. Unfortunately while movies like Cap Am may seem like left-leaning political pieces addressing the fallacy of a government, what such name-calling and fascist-labels (and in Hollywood, labels come through visual images: the concentration camp of the Sentinels, the drone-like Iron Men, the way corporate logos appear closely like the Swastika, how the Pre-Cops in Minority Report were little more than S.S. officers, etc) are actually betraying a CONSERVATIVE mentality by saying “Government = Bad” which means “Private = Good.”

    In other words, by repeatedly attacking the government (and government alone) for its incompetence and evilness (like The Winter Soldier does) it immediately speaks of the government as an oppressive body, as though rhetorically speaking, a more “individual” AKA “private” ruling body would be a better and more “DEMOCRATIC” solution to the problem of a fascist government. The answer is that it doesn’t — to say that government is fascist, and individualism is democratic is in fact a celebration OF the sort of fascism that big corporations are employing. Using the “fascist” label to prevent government regulation has been the time-tested practice of sensational neo-conservative politicans and Hollywood is not free from that.

    Where the Dark Knight Rises is BETTER is because it DOES NOT say that the only security we have is either Wall-Street or Pentagon. In fact, the entire message of the movie is that both wall-street and pentagon are no longer capable of protecting civilian rights; they are conquered by the bad-guys, and it is up to US, the ordinary people, to do what is right. The Batman isn’t a symbol of oppression or revolution, he’s a symbol of justice and hope for the people of Gotham City; Bruce Wayne is NOT awesome because he is the 1%, as Batman he is a commoner — he trained without money, lived without his wealth, and forged his mind and physical abilities through sheer will and determination to break down the biggest class-divisions in Gotham City as represented by the Mob, the old Wayne Enterprises CEOs (who were shown to be corrupt), the corrupt GCPD, and even corrupt politicians. The wolves of wall-street are addressed and made accountable for in TDKR, we have had corporate bad-guys in the trilogy. BATMAN is not a monolithic hero, and he cannot be a monolithic symbol; unlike Tony Stark who says that even without the suit, he will always be Iron Man, TDKR ends with Bruce Wayne retiring and the message is clear: Batman is a symbol for everyone. Like V for Vendetta. Moreover, the message of the entire film is that the ending should be when Hero-worship ceases, when the hero retires, when we no longer rely on our idols to give us protection, but that as a city the people of Gotham must grow to be independent of the superhero that they have been relying. That eulogy of the statue is a historical record; are we NOT meant to remember our war-heroes? Yes. But are we to emulate them? Are we to WORSHIP them? No. The premise of the film is, and has been, that this is The End of the Legend. It is the end of Batman’s fascistic grip of fear over Gotham, and rather establishes Batman as a representation of the people instead.

    Robin is not becoming the next Batman. Gotham City has reached the point where it no longer needs a Batman.

    Moreover, TDKR and TDK both address political viewpoints from both the left and the right. It is a Bakhtinian polyphony that is at work, rather than a monolithic propaganda piece. To compare it with a 1930s propaganda film from Berlin would be like judging a crossword puzzle for having the word “fascism” in it: there are more words in the movie.

    If you want an unabashed celebration of 21st century American Fascism, watch a Michael Bay movie instead.

  12. I never even watched Rises because Dark Knight was such a blatantly disgusting propaganda film making excuses and apologies for George /W.Bush/Soros politics all supported by JP Morgan Chase Bank money. Watch the Dark Knight movie trailer at 1:22 you will see a cgi batman holding a cell phone to his head standing in front of cell phone towers looking down from a ridiculously high building watching over a dark gotham and as the camera cranes around the structure Chase Bank comes into view the only thing readable in the frame. This sums up the entire film that goes on to demonstrate that government spying on people because of terrorism is completely justifiable and the addition of the bank not only proves Nolan’s a propagandist for the bank cartels but also quells all his BS argument that he wasn’t connected to the OWS movement which was obviously either started or high jacked by JP Morgan to keep America on the bankster heroine monetized debt. Dark Knight really made me sick to my stomach with scene after scene trying to show the public see the George’s had every right to do what they have been doing through over exaggerated situations and over the top fake characters the same way the George’s got us involved in the Iraq wars and got us to give away our Constitutional Rights and I couldn’t believe the American public sat their entranced by this third rate propaganda that was an exercise in proving, Americans are idiots, Americans don’t hate tyrants they just want a tyrant they can believe in, and that blatant out right propaganda is way more effective than subliminal messages at controlling public opinion. I could not believe that people who complain about the state of our current political system and its corruption sat their bent over and took it all just because a guy who they idolize was committing the crimes against our freedom. Everything about batman screamed only rich and powerful extremist can excite change and that pissing all over freedom is necessary because freedom only exists because extremist can only be held in check through more extremism. This is simple Left Right Paradigm mind control. The pride America has in these films could only be matched in its contradictory stupidity if Jews sat clapping and cheering on Hitler and booed at the end while watching Schindler’s List. You know the quote find what a society isn’t talking about and you find the control mechanisms? Try and find a list of left right paradigms you won’t and people are not aware of the fact that these two walled prisons are just traps for social control so that people like in these comments can argue both sides are being represented and make assumptions that that means equality in some form that creates checks and balances. What is never represented though is the fact that choice A and B are both wrong and both designed and controlled by one group of benefiters. The public going berserk and rioting is a socialized reaction just like people screaming at news cameras get that camera out of my face. We have been conditioned to react in exact mannerisms that can be easily dealt with and controlled and will end in giving the controllers more justified power. My friend who was in college in the 60’s as riots were being incited told me the students didn’t have any political agendas and that only a tiny insignificant minority were protesting at all the rest just reacted seeing an opportunity to take an anonymous stab at authority. Yet we are taught today in studies on 60’s culture that protesting was some kind of major social movement of the people and shown videos of riots and protesting that have voice overs telling us all the people involved were standing up for social justice movements the validity of these protesters and their causes is never questioned or fact checked just accepted as truth. My friend taught me that despite my indoctrination the majority of students just started throwing things because they hated police and authority figures in general and that it had nothing to do with any movement or politics. I will never sit through another Nolan film so I have not seen Rises but I’m guessing he never presents any outside the system scenario just orchestrated politics as usual am I correct in assuming this?

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