Monday, August 13, 2012

A Dark Knight for Entitled Times

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Handicapping presidential elections becomes, every four years, an American pastime. So, I’d like to offer an early prediction. Mitt Romney will defeat Barack Obama in November—not despite his neoliberal extremism which promises an apartheid America, but because of it. I say this given the stunning success of the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which opened July 20th. Not even two weeks old, it has already crossed the $300 million mark.

The Dark Knight Rises is a strange denouement to an otherwise fascinating triptych. The story takes place eight years after Batman has taken the rap for a crime he did not commit, the murder of Gotham’s crusading district attorney, Harvey Dent. Dent had been mounting an effective campaign against crime and corruption, with Batman’s extralegal assistance, of course, until he had to pay a severe personal price for his service. He then turned to crime himself, which Batman and (future police Commissioner) Gordon covered-up by implicating the man in the black cape. In the aftermath of Batman’s foul deed, Gotham is reborn, thanks to the awesome powers contained in the (posthumously named) Dent Act, a law and order bonanza granting near-limitless discretion to the city. Unlike Harvey Dent, Batman is willing to impose and endure sacrifices for Gotham’s greater good. He will play whatever role the city needs. And what it needs, to rally and unify itself, is a scapegoat. A tragic bind informs The Dark Knight, as Batman saves the city by also doing great harm to it, including himself, the latter leading to a life on the run. The new Gotham will be built on a lie and the ruins of a life.

The life also belongs to Bruce Wayne, billionaire, philanthropist, playboy. Stripped of cape and crusading, Wayne retires to his castle a feudal baron and recluse. When Gotham is once again jeopardized, however, Batman sounds the alarm and resurrects himself. He will do whatever is necessary to save Gotham, which, it is clear, he considers his personal domain.

Initially, Batman is no match for his new enemy, Bane. Broken and beaten, Batman suffers external rendition, which cannot stand. As Gotham moves closer to annihilation, Batman finds affective and physical reserves on which he can draw for the rematch. Since Batman is a comic book figure, I suppose it’s fitting that his ability to heal himself takes ludicrous form: he overcomes a serious spinal injury through a primitive kind of traction and lots of sit-ups. It might be tempting to invoke patriotism as the balm that heals, but the film’s conclusion makes it clear that Batman had no intention of making the ultimate sacrifice for Gotham, though he’s happy to let the people think so. He’s living the good life in Italy with his new love. When the legend threatens to become fact, build a statue to the legend. The only people who don’t know about Batman’s legerdemain, of course, are the people themselves. The film makes a mockery of patriotism, which it reduces to pablum served up to gullible citizens who need to believe in something or someone greater than themselves, which means they need, in this case, childish fictions.

The Dark Knight Rises shows contempt for regular people. Batman’s enemies plan to slowly destroy Gotham, with, of all things, the people’s help. They play the class warfare card and the people run amok, throwing the rich out of house and home and onto the streets in terror. Once they have tasted the spoils of war, they act like pigs and despoil their own booty. You can’t let just anyone into the world of the rich and famous, can you now? They won’t know what to do with it. The life of the one percent is for, well, the one percent.

Despite a nuclear threat, moreover, the people stay in their homes cowed. No one takes to the streets in the name of the civic. This is ultimately Batman’s war to win or lose—because it is his city. If The Dark Knight Rises makes a mockery of patriotism, infantilizing it, it also makes a mockery of democracy, demonizing it. This should come as no surprise. When a gang of virtue-obsessed vigilantes first proposed destroying a corrupt Gotham in Batman Begins so that it could rise from its own ashes, Batman, in its defense, pleaded for more time to do the job himself—if with a fewer casualties. Even so, every time Batman swings into action, accompanied by pulsating, deafening music, you can’t help but thrill to the violence about to be inflicted on his enemies. Given the fascist sensibility in play, you should be rooting for mutually assured destruction of Batman and Bane, but the film reaches a part of you that identifies with excessive force and yearns for its unrelenting expression against state-designated enemies.

Bruce Wayne—perhaps aided by secret Swiss or offshore accounts—finally abandons Gotham for Europe and a life of ease. Yet with his menacing statue left behind, Batman continues to rule—in absentia. He no longer needs to be present to govern the city. If a false hero such as Harvey Dent can inspire a new regime, imagine what a true hero can do with a little granite. And now that the people understand they cannot be trusted with power or wealth (they abuse one and squander the other), they know their place. Should they forget, Bruce Wayne can return whenever he desires. His economic empire may have been formally destroyed, but he has the connections to rebuild it. The one percent always has options, as Bill Connolly’s recent post nicely demonstrated. In the meantime, Batman has anointed his nominal successor, Robin, to the seat of extralegal power. But what Batman gives he can also take away.  It’s his city and the people live in it according to his rules. The social and economic elite can be trusted to rule the world, largely to their benefit, it goes without saying, and we are to live gratefully in it, especially since these elite cultivate and indulge an aspiration that one day we might actually join them. The Dark Knight would quickly come out of retirement should that remote possibility ever become an actual threat to the order of things. Still, in the United States alone the film is on its way to the half billion dollar mark in ticket sales—by the people. Start practicing now: President Romney, guardian of the regime.



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