Monday, August 6, 2012

Master Wayne Doesn't Go To Washington

(This post began its life as a comment on another blog.)

You better answer your DKR smartphone: it's Christopher Nolan on
the line and he needs to tell you some deep shit about late capitalism.
The Dark Knight Rises has been out for two weeks, and the discourse surrounding the film is still preoccupied with how topical (for better or for worse) it is or tries to be. Sure, in the months leading up to the release, the internet was alive with fans "pre-congratulating Nolan for tapping into the spirit of Occupy,"  as Anthony Lane puts it in his review for the New Yorker (this buzz was due in part to rumors last fall that Nolan might shoot scenes at Zuccotti Park when filming moved from LA to New York). But as Lane says: "it didn't work out."

I've agreed with some part of most every review I've read of the film, except when the reviewer turns to the question of the film's politics.  Roger Ebert, who generally liked it, calls the setting a "doom-shrouded, apocalyptic future that seems uncomfortably close to today's headlines." But haven't superheroes always been engaged with the headlines, from Germany Invades Poland to Diamond Thief Escapes From Prison? Then there's a review in The Guardian that can't decide if the film is anti-capitalist or pro-capitalist (I will forgive your oversimplification, Mark Fisher, and give you a clue: the movie has so far made more than $300 million). 

See, the thing is, there is very little in the way of coherent political argument in the movie, and it is misguided to expect one from Nolan in the first place, or to try to piece one together from the movie's passing invocations of politics. Of course, I don't put much stake in Nolan's blatantly ironic response either: "we put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story." (Again, the movie has made more than $300 million to date. Nolan isn't your grandpa just sitting down to tell you a story--this is business.)

Let's face it: no Batman film has been as political as this one.

I ultimately think The Dark Knight Rises is a very political movie. But in order to understand how the movie functions politically, we shouldn't be glossing its admittedly pretentious themes. Instead, we need to look at its entire narrative structure, which will reveal how the audience expectations encoded in a summer blockbuster comic book romance of this kind (even an 'edgy' one like DKR) result from socioeconomic, ideological, and cultural forces.

Sure there are vaguely subversive scenes of a cop tossing his badge over a bridge, of hanged millionaires, of a masked criminal storming the Stock Exchange, but despite these gestures, the film, like Batman himself, ultimately winds up defending the status quo. The pleasure of a Nolan-style romance is to watch all of the symbols and archetypes get jumbled about for two hours before being placed neatly back where they belong. It’s carnivalesque, you know where a goat gets made king for a day, but the king is still pretty much the king. In Nolan’s Batman movies, justice and chaos, good and evil, powerful and powerless all trade places for a little while, giving the plot that extra helping of tension which makes the pay-off all the more exciting. If you ask me, it’s pretty innovative as far as romance goes, where yeah, duh, the good guy is going to win.
No scathing cinematic criticism
of corporate America is complete
without a cute toy tie-in.
I would give Nolan the benefit of the doubt as a professional crowd-pleaser. The juxtaposition of the little boy singing the national anthem and Bane blowing up the stadium provides that whiff of pretentiousness that audiences eat up. Nolan isn’t really trying to say anything substantive about the ol’ US of A, but he’s counting on us believing that he is. It’s like expecting Radioheader Thom Yorke’s rambling about “bunkers” and “chirping cellphones” and “kicking screaming Gucci little piggies” to be a cogent critique of consumerism; or Bruce Springsteen’s more half-assed lyrics about backbreaking days in the factory to be a rich depiction of working-class life. What do all these guys have in common? They’re all professional entertainers and they’re all stinking rich.

The film winds up irking me the most precisely because it so clearly stands for that very status quo that, had it really "tapped into the spirit of Occupy," it might have set out to criticize. At the end of the movie, I wanted to know: so all those orphans who couldn’t find work and had nowhere to live but the sewers, who desperately rallied around Bane because he promised them a better life, who partook in a popular revolution (you know, the kind that gave birth to Amurrrica)—they just get the shit beaten out of them by the cops? Where are they after the movie? Back in prison? Or back to living in a (literal) shithole, still unemployed? “Yup,” the film seems to say. And what about the next generation of orphans? “Why, they get to live in an eccentric billionaire’s creepy mansion (which will likely serve as a daily reminder of the wealth and status they will never have) until they turn eighteen or the city runs out of funds and shuts the place down.” And Commissioner Gordon, the deceitful and self-serving cop who seems to prefer the thrill of vigilantism to his actual job of fighting crime and dealing justice? “Yeah, nothing really changes there, either.”

At least real cops shoot at children with parents, and not poor helpless 
orphans. Remember, things could be worse. You could live in Gotham.

Wait, there was no strife during the 1960s. What did these guys do all day?
But then I remembered that superhero stories depend on an imperfect world that is socially stratified, unfair, uncaring—that is fertile ground for strife. If everything is finally made right, there can never be a sequel. The Dark Knight Rises, like basically every romance ever, reinforces hegemonic values by creating a story in which only those values can triumph. In this case, it’s the complacent bourgeois values that the moviegoing audience either subscribes or aspires to: ‘rich people suck, but then again poor people are stinky and still need to play by the rules set out by the rich people to keep them down in the first place, no matter how desperate their circumstances.’ Wha? It's a paradox, but all-too-familiar at the same time, no? Yup,  America is safe again.

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