JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Rush Limbaugh attacks the association of Bane with Bain Capital before the release of Dark Knight Rises but is silent after the film appears.

Robespierre and the French Revolution seem to be the target of the critique in the film, not contemporary capitalism and its representatives like Bain Capital.

A celebration of the Dent Act that leads to the denial of parole to criminals with ties to organized crime.

Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, a critique of the French Revolution, provides a narrative foundation for Dark Knight Rises. Nolan mentions it as an influence.

James Gordon is just an individual fighting against injustice. This seems to be the only avenue that the film proposes.

Many of Nolan’s films, like Memento, begin with deception in order to reveal how deception is integral to truth. We discover truth through deception, not by avoiding it.

The incredible rescue performed to free Bane at the beginning of the film deceives the spectator about Bane’s status. He seems to be the chief villain, not taking orders from Miranda Tate.

Even when the CIA has Bane as its prisoner, he seems in control of the scene. Nolan uses the mise-en-scène to assert Bane’s power as a character.

Even though the Joker destroys Batman’s life and takes Rachel from him, Bane is a more significant threat. Bain inspires a devotion that the Joker does not.

The film presents Miranda Tate as a benevolent figure. Her charity ball, in contrast to most, is really a charitable affair.

The acts of revolution are ultimately in service of the restoration of balance in the world, a balance that is thoroughly ideological.

 

 

Should the Dark Knight
have risen?

by Todd McGowan

Limbaugh contra Robespierre

In the days before the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises (2012), Rush Limbaugh expressed trepidation about the political impact that the film would have on the upcoming election. Given the controversy surrounding Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s activity at his company Bain Capital, the name of the summer blockbuster’s villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), portended, in the mind of Limbaugh, a nefarious Hollywood plot to undermine Romney’s presidential campaign by associating Romney with a villain out to destroy a popular superhero.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Though Limbaugh’s comments generated great controversy prior to the film’s opening (leading to a minimal retraction after much critique), he didn’t follow up on this critique after the release of the film. In fact, no prominent conservative cultural critics took up Limbaugh’s mantle and substantiated the Bain/Bane connection after viewing the film. This is because, to all appearances, Nolan has made a fundamentally conservative film. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Nolan has tried to appease Limbaugh even prior to the articulations of his grievances.[2]

In fact, this has largely been the leftist response to the film. Critiques of the film focus on the brutal images of those articulating a revolutionary, anti-capitalist message. One critique notes,

“The result is the caricature of what in real life would be an ideologically committed revolutionary fighting structural injustice. Hollywood tells what the establishments want you to know—revolutionaries are brutal creatures, with utter disregard for human life. Despite emancipatory rhetoric on liberation, they have sinister designs behind.”[3]

In clear contrast to Limbaugh’s fears, Nolan’s film fits comfortably within a universe in which the head of Bain Capital is the enemy of Bane, not his doppelganger.

The film seems to target the emancipatory spirit of the French Revolution as its primary object for critique. In lieu of storming the Bastille, Bane storms Blackgate Penitentiary and frees the inmates imprisoned according to the Dent Act, which includes stricter penalties and denial of parole to those involved in organized crime. Bane also attacks the Gotham Stock Exchange, and his overthrow of the city leads to the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal that sentences aristocrats to death.[4] He initiates what appears to be a repetition of the Reign of Terror.[5] The eulogy that James Gordon (Gary Oldman) offers after the apparent death of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) punctuates the parallel with the French Revolution, as he recites the final lines of A Tale of Two Cities. Talking about Bruce, he says,

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”[6]

This concluding citation from a novel condemning the excesses of the French Revolution seems cement the film’s anti-revolutionary politics.[7]

In addition, the villains in Dark Knight Rises speak the language of emancipatory revolution and even of class struggle. They proclaim their desire to free the people from their oppressors and to a create a situation in which, in the words of Marx,

“the expropriators are expropriated.”[8]

The peaceful status quo of Gotham is one where the upper class live in crime-free opulence while many in the underclass find themselves relegated to the vast underground sewer system. The film highlights the injustice of this class system, but the primary voices of the indictment are those of the villains.

Bane offers the most pronounced and sustained critique of the class politics in Gotham. He leads a version of the Occupy Wall Street movement as he takes over the Gotham Stock Exchange.[9] Then, when he finally takes power in the city and collapses much of the infrastructure, he announces to the people,

“We came here not as conquerors but as liberators, to return this city to the people.”

Later, he leads a raid on Blackgate Penitentiary with the goal, as he puts it, of “freeing the oppressed.” But Bane’s emancipatory rhetoric serves as a cover for a terrorist plot that aims at the destruction of Gotham through atomic explosion.

In response to Bane’s faked revolutionary movement, the film seems at a loss to show an authentic emancipatory alternative.  As Andrew Barnaby notes, the sole political virtue of the film seems to be negative. There seems to be no hope for any revolutionary collective action. He says,

“We are left with a few honorable individuals … but not much else to cheer for. Is there a point there? We shouldn’t have a revolution unless we can really diagnose the problem or unless we know what would count as success.”[10]

The film is, at best, a warning about the failures of emancipation. At worst, it represents the moralization—and thus the evisceration—of political struggle.

Bane leads a takeover of the stock exchange in Gotham. He appears here like a figure from Occupy Wall Street. Bane frees the prisoners from Blackgate Penitentiary. This adds to his stature as a revolutionary hero on the side of the oppressed.

Dark Night Rises makes evident the limitations of every superhero and the kind of thinking—predominant today—that leads to the veneration of superheroes and the production of superhero films. All that Batman can do is to save the lives of the people of Gotham. He cannot assist in forging a people’s movement or an emancipatory struggle. This is the limitation of every superhero. By definition, the superhero acts alone or in a small group; there is no image of a collective superhero. But Dark Knight Rises has the virtue of showing why the superhero cannot constitute a collective movement: the superhero as such cannot escape the idea that he or she has a true identity beneath the mask.

The film shows that both the limits and the power of Batman and the figure of the superhero as such emanate directly from the source of the superhero’s allure—the complex status of the mask. The prevailing leftist critique of the film correctly identifies the problems that the film encounters in its content, in the events that it depicts. Dark Knight Rises fails to depict successful emancipation and its negative portrayal of attacks on social inequality proffer an implicit apology for that inequality. But formally, through its celebration of the role that the mask plays relative to truth, the film provides political insights that belie its content. In the film, the mask is at once the site of truth and the site of collective identification. It is only on the basis of the mask that one can form a collectivity because it allows one to see that one’s true self forms through the confrontation with the Other and doesn’t exist prior to or outside this confrontation. The retreat from the mask is the retreat from truth and from collective struggle. This is the film’s great formal insight.[11]

But the act of wearing a mask leads the superhero to believe that there is a true identity that the mask hides, and this true identity is necessarily individual. This is the source of the superhero’s political failure. Even though Dark Knight Rises radicalizes Batman by transforming him from a figure of mastery to one of servitude, it concludes with his retreat into an authentic identity beyond the mask. When he does this, he fails to recognize that the mask or the fiction contains in itself his true identity. Bruce’s lifelong servant Alfred leads him into the illusion of the true self beneath the mask, so we might say that Alfred is the villain of Dark Knight Rises.

The mask is the truth of the superhero. Rather than hiding a true identity, the mask exposes the trauma that defines the superhero. Alfred, the servant who sees a true identity behind the mask, is the film’s villain. He wants a normal life for Bruce Wayne and thus betrays the truth found in the mask of Batman.

The Yugoslav attack

Christopher Nolan often begins his films with scenes meant to deceive the spectator. We see what seems to be the killing of the murderer of the wife of Leonard (Guy Pearce) in Memento (2000) or the involvement of Borden (Christian Bale) in the drowning of Angier (Hugh Jackman) in The Prestige (2006). In both cases, the films subsequently reveal that this initial impression has misled us entirely. As I note in The Fictional Christopher Nolan, deceiving the spectator is Nolan’s method for leading the spectator to a new truth.[12] The initial deception in Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the most extreme of these since it involves a spectacular stunt, the kind of stunt that testifies to the authenticity of those perpetuating it. Though audacious stunts often seem cinematically faked, they typically reveal authenticity within the filmic diegesis because the extremity of the act requires total commitment.[13]

Such is the case with Bane’s rescue at the beginning of Dark Knight Rises. As the CIA takes the recently captured Bane back to the United States in its aircraft, Bane’s followers fly above in a larger aircraft and lower themselves into the CIA plane in order to free their leader. During the rescue, Bane’s followers evince not just the courage necessary for the midair attack, but they even demonstrate total devotion to Bane and his cause. One refuses to identify Bane even under the threat of being thrown from the plane as a result. Another, even more astonishingly, accepts Bane’s insistence that he go down with the plane. As he prepares to escape, Bane says to him, “No, they expect one of us in the wreckage, brother.” Rather than plead for his life, the follower merely says, “Have we started the fire?” Bane replies,” Yes, the fire rises,” and the follower smiles in the acceptance of imminent death. This type of behavior suggests that Bane’s power is not simply physical—his awesome size and strength—but also psychic—his ability to command total loyalty. The film establishes him as a villain even more formidable than the Joker (Heath Ledger) from The Dark Knight (2008), who engages followers through fear and promise of payment.[14]

Nolan encourages the spectator to see Bane as the film’s primary villain in order to make clear where the real threat lies today. Bane can outwit the CIA and overpower the Gotham police (and even, for some time, Batman), but he has no independent aims of his own. The opening sequence shows his power, but it seduces us with the image of power. The power behind Bane, the one directing his actions, is where our fear should be directed. We wrongly fear the image of terror when we should fear the apparently benign champion of civilizational balance.[15]

Despite Bain’s dominance of the mise-en-scène in Dark Knight Rises, he is not the film’s villain. He serves Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the head of an ecological organization and also secret daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), the former head of the League of Shadows. Though Ra’s Al Ghul trained Bruce Wayne, Bruce broke from him over his desire to destroy Gotham and ultimately killed him during the assault on the city by the League of Shadows. In Dark Knight Rises, Tate seeks vengeance for her father’s death and to complete his mission—destroying Gotham in order, as she puts it, to restore balance to civilization.

Bane’s attack on the stock exchange bankrupts Bruce Wayne and forces him to give control of Wayne Enterprises—along with its fusion reactor—over to Miranda Tate. She uses the weaponized version of the reactor as the key to her plan for destroying Gotham. In contrast to Bane, however, Tate seems like a progressive figure. Though she is wealthy, she holds a charity ball not to entertain but to provide genuinely for charity, as she tells Bruce when he confronts her about such events. She tells him,

“You have to invest if you want to restore balance in the world.”

Though at this point the film hasn’t revealed that she is the daughter of the head of the League of Shadows, she nonetheless speaks like he does, albeit in a disguised form.

Tate’s two identities—head of an ecological organization and adherent to the League of Shadows—seem completely at odds with each other. The one is bent on sustainability and the other is bent on destruction. And yet, there is a profound symmetry that becomes apparent through Tate’s comment to Bruce at the ball. In other words, Tate hides her true intentions in the only viable hiding place—in plain sight. The League of Shadows destroys not for the sake of destruction—it does not operate out of some perverted understanding of the Freudian death drive—but rather for the sake of balance and harmony. When a civilization becomes too decadent, the League of Shadows intervenes to destroy part of it and restore equilibrium to the world. In the same way, many ecologists, though they don’t use destructive methods, argue for a harmonious relationship with the natural world.[16]

The idea finds its most pronounced articulation with the Gaia Hypothesis. The primary proponent of Gaia, James Lovelock, envisions a harmonious partnership of all living things. He writes,

“if Gaia does exist, then we may find ourselves and all other living things to be parts and partners of a vast being who in her entirety has the power to maintain our planet as a fit and comfortable habitat for life.”[17]

Though most ecologists don’t go so far as Lovelock, the idea of a natural harmony or balance plays a large part in much ecological struggle. Human excess—too much carbon emission, too much population, too much industrial development—has destroyed the balance of the natural order, so the ecological thesis often goes. Even when ecological groups become violent, they can still hold to the thesis that the natural order has a harmonious balance. In fact, this is the perfect justification for an act of violence that would restore the order that humanity has disrupted.[18] In this sense, there is a profound homology between Miranda Tate’s overt identification and her covert aims, between ecology and the League of Shadows, and the depiction of this homology represents a high point in the film.[19]

The daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul, whom Batman killed in Batman Begins, returns for vengeance in Dark Knight Rises. He continues to haunt Batman despite his death. Miranda Tate is the head of an ecological organization. But as the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghu, she's the force behind the destructiveness of Bane.

As Dark Knight Rises presents it, the chief danger isn’t the overt violence of Bane but the vision of balance perpetuated by Tate and her father. The idea of balance is an expression of ideology: it posits a world without the excess of subjectivity or a world in which one might correct that excess. Balance is the great danger, and it requires an investment in the mask to confront it. Ironically, the vehicle through which Tate would accomplish the restoration of balance is a figure of excess, and this excess functions as a site of revelation in the film.

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