JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

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.

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 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]

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.

The truth of the voice

Even though Bane is not an authentic revolutionary or even the film’s central antagonist, he is nonetheless a compelling villain. His attractiveness derives from his effect on other characters in the film—the devotion he inspires—and from his physical presence within the image. Nolan films Bane in a way that accentuates Tom Hardy’s oversized and muscled body. He physically dominates all characters in the scenes where he appears. When he kills someone, he does so effortlessly, like when he steps on the throat of a federal agent or snaps the neck of Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul) at the football game. No other character, not even Batman, seems to be able to coexist with Bane on the screen without appearing both physically and psychically small in comparison.

Bane’s dominance finds its perfect expression in his voice. If Alfred is the film’s true villain, then Bane’s voice is its genuine hero. Due to the mask that he must wear because of damage to his face, Bane’s voice undergoes a distortion when he speaks. The fictionality of the mask is the source of Bane’s power. As he tells a CIA agent at the beginning of the film,

“No one cared who I was before I put on the mask.”

The power of the mask manifests itself in a vocal distortion. This distortion separates Bane’s voice from his body, and this separation constitutes the voice itself as an object. Bane terrifies and attracts us through this voice as much as through his physical presence.

In his Seminar XIII: L’objet de la psychanalyse, Jacques Lacan explains the voice as one of the lost objects—what he calls versions of the objet a—that function as sites of the subject’s enjoyment and thus arouse desire. As Lacan puts it,

“If the subject’s desire is founded in the desire of the Other, this desire as such manifests itself at the level of the voice. The voice is not only the object-cause but also the instrument where the desire of the Other manifests itself.”[20]

This desire of the Other appearing in the voice arouses the subject’s own desire. Even though the subject hears the voice, the voice transcends the field of the audible through its association with the Other’s mode of enjoyment. This is why it has a profound effect on the subject, as the voice of Bane clearly shows.[21]

The voice appears in what exceeds signification in a statement. It is the object form of the subject’s enjoyment, the enjoyment that drives the subject to speak and that the subject derives from speaking. As such, the voice, like the other forms of the lost object, is the site of the truth of the subject. The voice reveals how the subject’s form of enjoyment that escapes even the subject’s own self-knowledge. Even though spoken by the subject, the voice is a foreign intruder that accompanies the subject’s words, a detached object that reveals that the subject can’t know about itself.

The great theorist conceptualizing the voice as an object in the cinema is Michel Chion, who notices how the voice can become disconnected from a body. This disconnection, as Chion sees it, arouses the spectator’s desire for the body to whom the voice belongs.[22] The paradigmatic case is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): we hear the mother’s voice but don’t see it linked to her body, and then at the end of the film, we witness its traumatic connection to the wrong body, that of her son Norman (Anthony Perkins). Though Bane’s voice is Dark Knight Rises seems removed from Bane’s body (in part through the mask that he wears), it does not arouse desire. We don’t seek the place where the voice belongs. Rather than indicating a lack, it bombards the spectator with an excess. Bane’s voice testifies, in other words, to overt presence of his enjoyment, to the passion with which he makes every announcement. This is why his followers are so ready to sacrifice themselves for him.

This voice—voice as an excessive object—is the vehicle for truth in the film. Bane’s voice is the return of the repressed, and thus one of its primary targets is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is the signifier of repression in Dark Knight Rises. His name preserves an ideal of justice even though at the end of his life he transformed into the murderous criminal Two-Face. With the elevation of Harvey Dent into a heroic figure, Gotham and James Gordon perpetuate a fundamental lie. Harvey Dent Day and the Dent Act have their genesis in the lie that Batman killed Dent and committed the murders that Dent actually committed in the previous film. The city of Gotham celebrates Harvey Dent Day to honor the ideal that he represents, and the Dent Act enables extreme judiciary measures for the police to keep certain criminals jailed when they would otherwise be entitled to release. In these two concrete senses, Harvey Dent is the marker of repression, the repression that concludes the previous Batman film and that opens Dark Knight Rises.

Dark Knight Rises begins with James Gordon speaking publicly on Harvey Dent Day. Gordon praises Dent by repeating the lie of his heroism. This allows Nolan to display through a crosscutting sequence the role that Bane will have in relation to the signifier “Harvey Dent.” As Gordon repeats the lie and praises Dent, the film cuts to Dr. Pavel and other hooded prisoners being taken aboard a CIA plane for transport to the United States. One of the prisoners is Bane, and he stages his own rescue along with the kidnapping of Pavel, who has knowledge of how to weaponize the fusion reactor developed by Wayne Enterprises.

The crosscutting from the ceremony honoring Dent to Bane’s heroic escape from the CIA establishes visually the connection between the two characters. The sequence ends with the mayor of Gotham (Nestor Carbonell) praising the virtues of the Dent Act and arguing against those who would repeal it. The intervening shots of Bane’s heroic actions reveal the hollowness of these remarks and the ultimate inefficacity of the Dent Act. Against someone such as Bane, the Dent Act would be completely useless.

At this point, the mayor then introduces Gordon to speak further about Dent. In his prepared remarks, Gordon writes the truth, that Dent was a murderer who would have killed Gordon’s own son without the intervention of the now-vilified Batman. At the last moment, however, Gordon decides against lifting the repression and instead repeats the lie of Dent’s heroism. But he does not destroy the written text of his speech, and it ends up in Bane’s hands after the latter’s followers capture Gordon.

After he obtains the undelivered speech, Bane reads the text aloud to the people of Gotham and exposes the lie of Harvey Dent. Before freeing the prisoners from Blackgate, he announces publicly,

“You have been supplied with a false idol to stop you from tearing down this corrupt city. Let me tell you the truth about Harvey Dent from the words of Gotham's police commissioner, James Gordon: ‘The Batman didn't murder Harvey Dent, he saved my boy then took the blame for Harvey's appalling crime so that I could, to my shame, build a lie around this fallen idol. I praised the mad man who tried to murder my own child, but I can no longer live with my lie. It is time to trust the people of Gotham with the truth, and it is time for me to resign.’ And do you accept this man’s resignation? Do you accept the resignation of all these liars? Of all the corrupt?”

What Bane says here is important and gives the lie to the apotheosis of Harvey Dent, but it is Bane’s voice that communicates the truth of the indictment. The voice that emanates from the mask refuses repression.

This revelation has a dramatic effect on social authority, which is always constituted on deceit. After he hears Bane’s statement, Detective Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) confronts Police Commissioner Gordon about his involvement with the cover-up of Dent’s crimes. Gordon defends himself by claiming that Batman dirtied his hands so that Gordon could keep his hands clean, to which Blake replies,

“Your hands look plenty dirty to me, commissioner.”

Though up to this point in the film Blake has viewed Gordon as an ideal to follow, he immediately loses faith in him. His loss of faith in a trusted figure of authority stems directly from the power of Bane’s voice.

This voice exposes the lie behind the state of exception (the Dent Act) that Gordon has used to rid Gotham of crime. Gotham is a peaceful city at the beginning of Dark Knight Rises solely through the success of the Dent Act, a law that suspends the normal functioning of the juridical order. As Giorgio Agamben points out,

“The state of exception is not a special kind of law (like the law of war); rather, insofar as it is a suspension of the juridical order itself, it defines law’s threshold or limit concept.”[24]

The existence of the exception—and Bane’s act of pointing it out—threatens the law because it exposes the violent basis of the juridical order. The mastery inherent in this order requires an absolute silence concerning this violence. Bane’s voice as an object is the reverse side of mastery and constantly undermines mastery’s illusory authority.

But just before Bane’s revelation, the film depicts the voice in another form. As Bane prepares to collapse much of the infrastructure of Gotham (including the professional football field), we hear a young boy on the field singing the “Star Spangled Banner” without any musical accompaniment. The child’s voice should be a representation of innocence, but its presence in the film and juxtaposition with the voice of Bane gives it a threatening quality. The child’s voice approaches the quality of Bane’s because it portends the danger that we know rapidly approaches. Nolan highlights the eeriness of the voice by emphasizing the silence that surrounds it. In addition to the absence of instruments playing, the huge crowd is completely silent and not singing along. This scene shows the voice as an excessive object, just as Bane’s voice is, and this excessive object marks a disturbance within the social structure, even when it is singing the anthem that defines that structure.

Bane’s voice is the synecdoche of his character. Though he credits the mask with his power, the distortion in the voice that the mask creates is what grants him such disruptiveness.[25] He is a figure of pure voice, and as long as he remains so, Batman cannot defeat him. When Batman finally confronts Bane midway through the film, he does in the sewer system, which functions as a form of Bane’s home turf. Because Bane spent much of his life in the dark of a prison, Batman’s use of darkness and deception have no effect on him. Unlike Batman, Bane fights with nothing to lose and thus is able to defeat Batman handily. Defeated and unmasked, this leads to Bruce’s condemnation to the prison where Bane himself spent many years. Bane sentences Bruce to this prison so that he can helplessly watch as Bane destroys Gotham with Bruce’s own nuclear device.

From master to slave

One of the severe limitations of the superhero as a figure of revolution is his or her class status. Though some superheroes have a clearly demarcated middle class status (like Superman working as a journalist, Daredevil as an attorney, or Spider-Man as a photographer), most have enough wealth to create the gadgets that their superheroic feats require. This is the case with both Iron Man and Batman, who live a life of opulence when not working to save civilization. At the very least, the superhero must have the leisure time necessary for crime fighting activity, a leisure time not associated with the working class (though always granted to the superhero’s nemesis as well, which is why the villain’s plan rarely involves just stealing money).

This limitation would not be decisive if it did not manifest itself in the acts of the superhero. Like the western heroes on whom they are implicitly modeled, superheroes inevitably act alone. They are incapable of leading or participating in a collective action. In the superhero film, collectivity is usually the province of the villain rather than the superhero, as is the case with Dark Knight Rises, where Bane has Gotham’s underclass and newly freed criminals working by his side.

This limitation of the superhero comes to a head in Dark Knight Rises. The film casts Batman as the defender of class privilege. While Bane threatens to topple the entrenched class structure of Gotham, Batman works to sustain it. His initial defense of the people of Gotham is just an attempt to sustain the status quo. But Batman himself undergoes a fundamental change as the full extent of the threat becomes apparent.

Alfred’s departure from Wayne Manor is the first step toward Batman’s changed status. Not only does Alfred’s role as a servant attest to Bruce’s position as a mastery, but Alfred constantly addresses as “Master Wayne.”[26] When Alfred reveals that he destroyed Rachel’s final letter to Bruce proclaiming her love for Harvey Dent rather than Bruce, this precipitates a break and necessitates Alfred’s departure. After we see Bruce say “Goodbye Alfred,” the film cuts directly to an image of Bruce sleeping in his bed while the doorbell rings. When Bruce finally answers the door, Lucius Fox expresses surprise at this fact. Bruce now has to perform the tasks of everyday life that were formerly done for him. He has ceased to be “Master Wayne.” But the loss of his servant is only the beginning of the transformation for Bruce.

Bane’s attack on the stock exchange has the effect of defrauding Bruce of all his millions. He is left without the immense resources that had been at his disposal, and he even loses his seat on the company board. As he walks out of the board meeting, a reporter asks him, “How does it feel to be one of the people, Mr. Wayne?” Bruce doesn’t respond, but it is clear from the look on his face that he recognizes a change in his class position.

Batman’s status as a master does not simply derive from his wealth or the fact that Alfred constantly refers to him using this appellation. He is a master in the Hegelian sense of the term as well, and this version of mastery erects a barrier between himself and the people he saves. In the struggle to the death with the other, the master asserts mastery through the refusal to relent, even if this refusal entails death. The slave, on the other hand, agrees to submission and servitude in order to avoid the horror of death. Though Hegel briefly celebrates the master’s courage in risking life for the sake of pure prestige, he quickly recognizes that the truth of the struggle exists on the side of the relenting slave rather than the courageous master.

In one of the most poetic passages in all of his writing, Hegel describes the transformation that the slave undergoes through the fear of death, a fear that the master does not experience. He writes,

“[The slave] does in fact contain within itself this truth of pure negativity and being-for-self, for it has experienced this its own essential nature. For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord. In that experience in has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-self, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness.”[27]

The master’s bravery allows for the avoidance of the absolute negativity that defines subjectivity, which is what the slave experiences at the moment prior to capitulation. Without this negativity, one remains tied to what one is and remains incapable of any act of transcendence.[28] The problem with Batman as a hero lies in his failure to experience the absolute negativity of the slave. He is a superhero of mastery who neither fears death nor takes life.

But in order to become a superhero capable of countering the false revolution that Bane leads, Batman must abandon his position of mastery. And ironically, it is Bane’s punishment of Batman that enables this transformation. The key scene in Dark Knight Rises shows the evisceration of Batman’s mastery. After defeating Batman in hand-to-hand combat, Bane condemns him to the prison where he spent his childhood.

The horror of the prison, as Bane explains to Batman, does not consist in the impossibility of escape but rather in the hope that it provides for its inhabitants. The entrance to the prison is a deep well that seems to offer an opportunity for prisoners to escape. There is no true despair without the accompaniment of hope, which is why Bane spares Batman instant death and why he condemns him to this particular prison (where Bane himself was once a prisoner).[29] It is the insistence on hope that also leads Bane and Tate to delay the destruction of Gotham with the nuclear bomb. Destruction without the possibility of escaping it, however remote, cannot produce the most devastating despair.

In this way, Dark Knight Rises also implicitly explains the bizarre behavior of filmic villains who establish elaborate deaths for heroes rather than simply shooting them in the head. Perhaps the most famous instance of this dynamic occurs in Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964), where Goldfinger’s laser that would slowly slice the captured James Bond (Sean Connery) in half offers Bond the opportunity to escape. Why does Goldfinger do it? Because the inclusion of hope, even if it provides a margin for escape, also enhances the despair of the hero and thus the enjoyment of the villain.

In Dark Knight Rises, we see prisoners attempt to scale the wall that leads from the prison to freedom, and in each case they fail, though Bruce hears from a fellow prisoner that one young child did escape. He strengthens himself in the prison and on two occasions tries to make the climb. But in each case, he fails at the same point near the top and falls with the rope around his waist saving his life. According to his friend in the prison, it is precisely Bruce’s mastery, his privilege, that ensures his failure. This contrasts him with the child who escaped. The friend claims that the successful escapee was “a child forged in suffering, hardened by pain, not a man from privilege.” Here, the fellow prisoner offers an explicit critique of the limitations of the superhero as such. Batman’s mastery induces a reflexive conservatism.

But another prisoner, a blind man, provides a possible solution, the opportunity for Bruce to transform himself from a master into a slave. In a remarkable dialogue from the film, this prisoner articulates the freedom that comes from, as Hegel puts it, trembling in every fiber of one’s being. The exchange begins with the prisoner’s critique of Bruce:

Blind Prisoner: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce: Why?
Blind Prisoner: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Bruce: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
Blind Prisoner: Then make the climb.
Bruce: How?
Blind Prisoner: As the child did, without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

Nolan cuts from this exchange to Bruce attempting the climb for the third time, and the absolute fear that he experiences enables him to succeed.

Though Bane intends Bruce’s imprisonment to teach him the horror of total despair, what he fails to realize—and what the film shows—is that total despair or pure negativity is the form of subjectivity. The subject becomes a subject when it experiences this emptiness in the face of death, which is why Rebecca Comay, in her stunning book on Hegel, claims that for the subject

“the void is constitutive.”[30]

The despair of Bruce’s punishment allows him to succeed against Bane because he no longer has an attachment to his prestige as a master. Mastery doesn’t fear death, but it does fear the loss of its prestige. It is thus, even more than servitude, a fundamentally limited position, despite its lack of awareness of these limitations.

When Batman returns to Gotham as a slave rather than as a master, he is able to defeat Bane by damaging his mask during a fight. The mask that distorts Bane’s voice is the key to his truth as a character. During Batman’s final fight with Bane (after Batman’s escape from prison), he damages Bane’s mask and thereby alters the voice. This is the moment that Nolan uses to reveal the true identity of Tate as the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane’s total allegiance to her. In addition to changing his appearance and voice, Bane’s mask saves him from excruciating pain. Thus, with his mask broken and the distortion of his voice eliminated, Bane loses his ability to defeat Batman physically. Bane’s power resides not in his physical stature but in the distortion of his voice, a distortion that brings with it the return of the repressed.

But as Bane’s relationship to Tate becomes evident, his radicality also disappears. Even though Bane has been doing the bidding of Tate throughout the film (unbeknownst to Batman or the spectator), his voice has functioned independently. His actions were part of a plot, but his voice had a drive of its own. When he loses the voice as separate object, he also loses all independence as a character. As Tate’s follower, he is nothing but an instrument that would try to restore balance in the world, whereas his voice represents the impossibility of any balance. Though she feared him throughout the film, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is able to kill Bane almost nonchalantly after Batman breaks his mask. Without the voice, Bane is reduced to an ordinary criminal in the service of Tate and the League of Shadows.

At this point in the film, Batman changes as well. His defeat of Bane, unlike his defeat of Ra’s and the Joker in the earlier films, involves the creation of creation of a collectivity. He needs the assistance of the police, the orphan Blake, and the jewel thief Kyle in order to thwart the plans of Bane and Tate. This form of collectivity brings together legal and marginal forces to defeat the champions of harmony and balance (Bane and Tate).[31] Through this ending, Dark Knight Rises glimpses an emancipatory collective, but the film cannot realize it without, in the last instance, exiling Batman from the collective. He must separate himself at the end of the film, expressing a need for individuation that is the superhero’s original sin. By opting for this ending, the film misses the radical possibility that it suggests in Bruce’s relationship to Selina Kyle.

The keys to the revolutionary kingdom

On two occasions in Dark Knight Rises, Bruce trusts someone with a revolutionary technological device. These are the first occasions in the trilogy when Batman has trusted anyone outside his circle of intimates. Even when he hoped that Harvey Dent would constitute a licit version of himself, he never offered Dent the keys to the Batcycle, as he does with Selina Kyle. He guards his technological gadgets because they are a crucial source of his power and, in the wrong hands, they could do considerable harm. But this caution diminishes with the increased threat in Dark Knight Rises.

Each time that Bruce engages in an act of trust, it is with a woman. The first time seems to be the better bet. He gives Miranda Tate control of the fusion reactor developed by Wayne Enterprises. As head of an ecological organization and Bruce’s one-time lover, she seems trustworthy. But Bruce’s trust in her is wholly misplaced. It leads to her nearly successful attempt to destroy the city of Gotham by using the reactor’s core as a nuclear weapon. Later, as Batman is on the verge of defeating Bain, she stabs him with a knife and proclaims her true identity as Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter. Though Bruce was wrong to trust her, she gave him every reason to believe that she was worthy of that trust, and the device that he gives her seems to hold great revolutionary hopes.

The promise of the fusion reactor is free energy for Gotham. This would eliminate the monopoly that the wealthy have on energy and create an opportunity for much greater equality. But the problem with such a device is not just its potential, as Bruce fears, for it becoming a weapon. One can also imagine capitalists finding a way to charge for the distribution and consumption of the energy, even if its production had no costs. The allure of free energy, properly controlled, is a capitalist dream, not a revolutionary one. In this sense, Tate’s betrayal inheres within the device itself.

In contrast to Miranda Tate, Bruce has little reason to trust Selina Kyle. She is a criminal rather than someone committed to ecological change. She stole the pearl necklace belonging to Bruce’s mother from his house safe and later betrayed him to Bane after promising to help him. Nonetheless, Bruce does trust her with this device, and Kyle proves completely trustworthy. While Tate wants to restore a lost sense of balance through destruction, Kyle expresses an egalitarian sensibility.

Throughout the film, Kyle, though a thief, clearly aligns herself with revolution. At a charity ball where she dances with Bruce Wayne, the camera rotates around the dancing couple as they move across the dance floor. But then Kyle moves her mouth close to Bruce’s ear, while both the bodily and camera movement stop. She tells him,

“There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’ll all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave to little for the rest of us.”

Though Bruce doesn’t respond, the way that Nolan shoots Kyle’s statement reveals its efficacy and truthfulness.

The cessation of all movement and the attention to Kyle’s mouth signals that this represents a moment where the truth pierces through the overriding symbolic fiction. Here, as with Bane at other times in the film, Kyle’s voice becomes detached from her body and functions as an object speaking what all the wealthy attendees of the ball repress. It is almost as if Nolan uses a close-up on Kyle’s voice itself.  It is this voice that Bruce can trust, even if Kyle’s intentions are criminal.

Kyle is desperate to acquire a device that would erase one’s entire history and thereby allow one to start over from scratch. She steals Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints for the capitalist Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) in exchange for such a device, but when she gives him the prints, he informs her that no such technology exists. In theory, it would wipe out every computerized record of one’s identity and enact a form of symbolic suicide. Though Kyle wants to use this device to escape her life of crime, it nonetheless embodies the spirit of revolution itself.

The symbolic identities that we have sustain prevailing inequalities and relations of production. Only a break from such identity could facilitate a genuine social change. In his plea for revolutionary change, Theory of the Subject, Alain Badiou insists on the evacuation of identity as a prerequisite for such change. He proclaims,

“let us make a tabula rasa of the past.”[32]

Only by destroying one’s identity can one endure the capacity for risk that revolution requires.

Though the nuclear core that Bruce gives over to Tate has the power to destroy the city of Gotham, the device that he gives to Kyle has a greater power. It offers the possibility of a complete break from the past. It embodies the revolutionary event, a point at which the sedimented identities of the social structure explode and give way to new possibilities.

But Dark Knight Rises does not explore the revolutionary potential of the erasure device that Batman gives to Kyle. Though Bruce overcomes his mastery in the prison, he is unable to overcome the idea of an authentic self outside of the mask rather than an authentic self within the mask (like the authentic voice of Bane). This leads him the illusion of a normal life, an illusion that is not even his own but that of Alfred.

Alfred as villain

Throughout the three Nolan Batman films, the figure of Alfred occupies a special place for Batman and for the spectator. Unlike the other characters within the filmic universe, Alfred knows the truth of Batman and, at the same time, cares for him like a surrogate father. His constant reference to Bruce as “Master Wayne” both secures Bruce in a position of mastery and infancy, given the multiple meanings of the term “master.” Alfred still looks at Bruce like at a young “Master” who hasn’t yet graduated to the title “Mister,” and yet he remains for Alfred the undisputed master of the house.

Concerning Bruce’s enemies, Alfred always offers sage advice. In The Dark Knight, he warns Bruce that the Joker is unlike other criminals who have a consequentialist agenda, and in Dark Knight Rises, he offers Bruce an honest assessment of his physical readiness to confront Bain. Alfred doesn’t simply tell Bruce what he wants to hear, which is what many servants do. Instead, he sees Bruce from the position he wants to be seen, which is what the ego ideal does.

Though Freud never explicitly delineates the distinction between them, the ideal ego and ego ideal play vastly different roles for the subject. In his essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” he provides the clearest explanation of their effects within the psyche. The ideal ego is, as Freud puts it,

“the target of self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the actual ego.”[33]

The ideal ego presents the subject with an image of how it wants to see itself, which is why Jacques Lacan relegates this formation to the imaginary register. The power of the ideal ego keeps the subject within the confines of its own ego without any awareness of any outside authority (even if this authority might govern what appears as an ideal).

Just a bit later in his narcissism essay, however, Freud abruptly shifts his terminology. After explaining the ideal ego, he turns to a discussion of the ego ideal without detailing the difference between the two terms. But the association of the ego ideal with the surveillance of the subject that Freud suggests in the essay provides the key to the distinction.  While the ideal ego derives from the subject itself and provides an ideal with which it can identify, the ego ideal is associated with social authority, which is why later Freud will place the figure of social authority in the psyche, the superego, in apposition with the ego ideal.[34]

The ego ideal is an external measuring stick located within the psyche, an ideal point from which the subject imagines itself being seen, which is why Freud links this agency to surveillance. As such, it is a manifestation of the law, as Jacques Lacan makes clear in his discussion of it. In his Seminar I, Lacan notes,

“the demand of the Ichideal [ego ideal] takes up its place within the totality of demands of the law.”[35]

That is to say, the ego ideal is a measuring stick by which we think of ourselves in terms of what the social authority demands of us. The ego ideal may seem like our friend within social authority (while the superego is our enemy), but its attachment to this authority is nonetheless just as strict.

When Alfred leaves Bruce, this creates the possibility for Bruce’s break from the position of the master. But the problem is that Alfred never leaves Bruce’s psyche. He makes sure of this when he relates the fantasy that he concocted about Bruce during the latter’s absence from Gotham. Alfred sentimentally tells Bruce,

“Remember when you left Gotham? Before all this, before Batman? You were gone seven years. Seven years I waited, hoping that you wouldn’t come back. Every year, I took a holiday. I went to Florence. There’s this cafe, on the banks of the Arno. Every fine evening, I’d sit there and order a Fernet Branca. I had this fantasy that I would look across the tables and I’d see you there, with a wife and maybe a couple of kids. You wouldn’t say anything to me, nor me to you. But we’d both know that you’d made it, that you were happy. I never wanted you to come back to Gotham. I always knew there was nothing here for you except pain and tragedy. And I wanted something more for you than that. I still do.”

Here, Alfred provides a concise articulation of an ideological fantasy. It is the fantasy of a life without the mask, the fantasy of a true life lived elsewhere.

Though Alfred presents this fantasy as his own, it is in fact Bruce’s fantasy. It involves being seen from the exact perspective from which one wants to be seen—that of the ego ideal. As Alfred recounts this fantasy, Nolan cuts to images of the sighting in the café. In the montage sequence that concludes the film, Nolan includes a scene in the café from the fantasy that repeats the fantasy almost exactly. We see the same look from Alfred, though this time Bruce is accompanied by Selina Kyle.

It is tempting to interpret this scene as just Alfred’s private fantasy with no diegetic reality. But this would miss the real deceit that Nolan explores here. If the beginning of Dark Knight Rises aims to deceive us about the film’s true villain in order to show the danger that resides in the ideal of balance, the film’s conclusion offers an even more cunning deceit. When we hear that Bruce Wayne repaired the autopilot function on the Bat that he used to fly the nuclear device out to sea and we see the Bat Signal miraculously repaired, we know right away that this implies Batman could have survived the blast by jumping from the aircraft prior to the bomb’s detonation.

By showing Bruce living out Alfred’s fantasy, Nolan offers the perfect Hollywood resolution. The hero retires with the romantic partner at his side. And yet, here the conventional ending cannot but disappoint because it illustrates the extent to which Bruce has misunderstood the nature of his own subjectivity.[36] His subjectivity does not reside in the identity of Bruce Wayne who has permanently left the Batman’s mask behind. It resides in the mask itself, in the truth that appearance allows to emerge. The mask is the truth of the subject because it manifests the past trauma. This is the case for both Batman and Bane in the film: both wear a mask in response to a trauma that has scarred their being irreparably, and the promise of life without the mask, like the promise of life beyond trauma, is an ideological lie. This is the lie that Alfred peddles in the film.

Batman can defeat all villains, even Bane, but he cannot defeat Alfred. When contrasted with the superego, the ego ideal usually gets good press. But the conclusion of Dark Knight Rises reveals its treachery. As the ego ideal, Alfred offers Bruce a position from which he can see himself as likeable, and this will allow him to avoid the radical alternative embodied in the device that he gave to Selina Kyle.

The film’s final scene is not the scene depicting Alfred’s recognition of Bruce and Kyle in the Italian café. Instead, Nolan opts to conclude with Blake (revealed at the end of the film to have a given name of “Robin”) entering into the Batcave and seemingly taking up the role of the superhero. The suggestion here is that Blake will become Robin to Bruce’s Batman, the superhero Nightwing, or perhaps even the new Batman.[37] On a purely cynical level, this ending paves the way for a sequel, but it also serves to undermine Bruce’s decision to retreat from the mask in the penultimate scene. Most Hollywood films would simply end with the café scene and avoid an additional scene that might detract from the typical fantasy. Blake’s discovery of the Batcave could easily have preceded the scene in the Italian café. Nolan’s decision to end the film with Blake rather than with the fantasmatic scene of Bruce and Selina reveals just how unsatisfying this fantasy is.

Despite the numerous leftist attacks on Dark Knight Rises, perhaps Rush Limbaugh was right to fear its release. Though its creators avowedly adopt a Dickensian moral view of political change and thereby implicitly reject the possibility of genuine revolution, the film nonetheless points to where true radicality lies—in the mask itself and the truths that the mask enables us to utter. And at the same time, it makes evident the psychic barrier that confounds our revolutionary dreams. The problem is not the fantasy of Batman—people believing that they are superheroes or believing that a superhero might save them. No, the problem is Alfred and our investment in his belief that there is someone beyond the mask, that there is another life, a better life, in an Italian café. We can live with the fantasy of Batman, but we can’t live with the reality of Bruce Wayne.

Notes

1. Limbaugh’s comments generated an almost infinite quantity of mockery from the Left and even some handwringing from conservatives. For instance, leftist commentator Rachel Maddow devoted a segment of her television program to exposing the ludicrousness of Limbaugh’s conspiracy theory. Limbaugh himself noted that this statement occasioned more outrage than any of his other controversial claims, inclusive of his description of Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute” for her testimony on behalf of insurance coverage for contraception. [return to text]

2. The political discussion surrounding The Dark Knight Rises after its release surely became muted due to the shooting in Aurora, Colorado on the night of the film’s premiere there. James Holmes fatally shot 12 people and wounded numerous others in the movie theater. This event triggered debates about violence in film and about handgun laws but also focused attention away from the political bent of Nolan’s new film. Holmes clearly took the Joker, rather than any character from The Dark Knight Rises (a film he hadn’t yet seen), as his role model. In fact, Holmes is as far removed from Bane as possible: whereas Bane’s voice functions as the source of his power, Holmes retreated into complete silence after his mass murder.

3. Karthick RM, “The Dark Knight Rises a Fascist?” Society and Culture (July 21, 2012):
http://wavesunceasing.wordpress.com/category/
society-and-culture/
.
See also Tyler O’Neil, “Dark Knight and Occupy Wall Street: The Humble Rise,” Hillsdale Natural Law Review (July 21 2012):
http://hillsdalenaturallawreview.com/2012/07/21/
dark-knight-and-occupy-wall-street-the-humble-rise/
.

4. In a blog for the Washington Times, conservative columnist Eric Golub equates Bane with Occupy Wall Street. The terror that Bane unleashes is akin to that perpetuated by the Occupy protestors, despite the lack of violence in the movement. He writes, “The evil villain is Bane. He rails on about the powerful exploiting the people, and exhorts the people to rise up. They storm the stock exchange. In other words, they ‘Occupy Wall Street.’” Eric Golub, “George W. Batman: The Dark Knight Rises Against Occupy Wall Street, The Washington Times (August 7, 2012):
http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/
tygrrrr-express/2012/aug/6/george-w-batman-
dark-knight-rises-against-occupy/
.

5. The head of Gotham’s Comité de salut publique is Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), one of the chief villains from Batman Begins (2005), which underscores the criminality of the revolutionists. With Crane in a position of power, the attack on Gotham cannot be one of emancipation.

6. The same eulogy is used for Spock (Leonard Nimoy) during his funeral in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982). In both cases, it indicates a forthcoming (and unforeseen) resurrection. Perhaps this is because Sydney Carton, who utters these words just before his impending execution in A Tale of Two Cities, is a double for Charles Darnay, who lives thanks to Carton’s sacrifice. It is as if Darnay suffers, through Carton, a symbolic death and he continues to live in the real, just like Bruce Wayne and Spock.

7. In a discussion of the film, writer Jonathan Nolan claims that A Tale of Two Cities functioned as the chief inspiration for the film. He lauds the novel’s “harrowing portrait of a relatable recognizable civilization that had completely fallen to pieces.” Jonathan Nolan, quoted in Emmanuel Itier, “Brilliant Filmmaking Duo Discusses Batman Trilogy and The Dark Knight Rises,” Buzzine (July 19, 2012):
http://www.buzzinefilm.com/interviews/
film-interview-dark-knight-rises-christopher-
nolan-jonathan-nolan-07192012
.

8. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1976), 929.

9. Given the obscure Arab origins of Bane’s traumatic imprisonment, the film seems to target the Arab Spring for critique, as much as the French Revolution or Occupy Wall Street. (I am indebted to Anna Kornbluh [University of Illinois, Chicago] for this point.)

10. Andrew Barnaby (University of Vermont), private communication, August 8, 2012.

11. The theoretical insights of the film are neither the product of Nolan’s conscious intention nor that of an interpretation that seeks to exemplify certain concepts through cinematic models. Instead, it is act of filmmaking itself—like the dream work—that engages theoretical concerns. In other words, theory inheres in the work of art itself and even paves the way for the spectator’s enjoyment of the work, and the task of the critic is simply to bring it to the fore.

12. For an extended discussion of these and other deceptions in Nolan’s cinema, see Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012). A description is available at:
http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/mcgfic.html.

13. One of the fundamental tenets of existentialism—the extreme situation strips us down to our authentic selves—seems explicitly confirmed by the cinema. The true heroic self of John McClane (Bruce Willis), for instance, comes out when he finds himself isolated amid a high-tech robbery and hostage situation in John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988). Prior to this extreme situation, McClane appears to be a failed father and husband, but the extremity allows him to prove his inner worth (and true love). In this sense, one could imagine Die Hard written by Karl Jaspers or Martin Heidegger.

14. Though Bane inspires more loyalty than the Joker, he is also a more compromised villain. Bane is ultimately trying to restore balance to civilization, while the Joker represents the failure of all civilizational balance. For a discussion of the disruption that the Joker occasions, see Todd McGowan, “The Exceptional Darkness of The Dark Knight,” Jump Cut 51 (2009):
http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/
jc51.2009/darkKnightKant/index.html
.

15. The illusion that Bane is the film’s chief villain is tied to his image. Our attention to image causes us to miss the symbolic structure that the image obscures. Through its emphasis on the misleading image of Bane, the film functions like the early critique that Jacques Lacan makes concerning how the imaginary register obscures the symbolic order, which effectively runs the show. In an exemplary passage from his fourth seminar, he claims,

“The imaginary relation, which is an essentially alienated, interrupted, slowed, inhibited, and most often inverted relation, profoundly misrecognizes the relationship of speech between the subject and the Other, the big Other.”

Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre IV: La relation d’object, 1956-1957, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1994), 12.

16. Though he doesn’t imagine the use of a nuclear bomb to wipe out all human life, ecologist Alan Weisman does envision how the earth would fare after the elimination of the human imprint. See Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (New York: Picador, 2008).

17. James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1.

18. Of course, not all ecologists are like Lovelock and believe in a natural balance. But it is difficult to be a committed ecologist and not harbor the belief that the natural world has an order to it that humanity lacks. This appears to be the position elaborated in James Cameron’s Avatar (2010), but the film has the virtue of showing nature itself take sides in a struggle and thereby gives the lie to the ecological notion of a natural balance. For more on this reversal in Avatar, see Todd McGowan, “Maternity Divided: Avatar and the Enjoyment of Nature,” Jump Cut 52 (2010):
http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/mcGowan
Avatar/index.html
.

19. The fact that Tate also seeks revenge for the death of her father, Ra’s Al Ghul, further associates her with the idea of balance. The partisan of revenge implicitly believes that the act of vengeance will restore the balance lost through some initial loss. By destroying Bruce, Tate hopes to compensate for the death of her father, but what the avenger fails to recognize is the primacy of loss, that there is no original balance to restore.

20. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire XIII: L’objet de la psychanalyse, 1965-1966, unpublished seminar, session of June 1, 1966.

21. In Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek explains the power of the voice through the contrast between gaze and voice as objects. He claims,

“the scopic object involves a desire addressed to the Other (to show itself, to allow to be seen), while the vocal object involves a desire from the Other (announcing what it wants from me)”

(Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism [New York: Verso, 2012], 701). Lacan famously notes that our desire is the desire of the Other, but this expression is completely ambiguous and must be taken in two different senses. Gaze and voice function as complementary objects associated with the two senses that the term “desire of the Other” has. The gaze is the object that tries to capture the desire of the Other, while the voice is the object of desire imposed on the subject by the Other.

22. Chion theorizes desire and the voice primarily in terms of what is heard offscreen. He says,

“it is the law of every offscreen voice to create this desire to go and see who’s speaking, even if it’s the most minor character.”

Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema. Trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 141.

23. Though Dark Knight Rises makes clear that the Dent Act has helped to rid Gotham of criminality, it also implies that the extraordinary penalties the act authorizes have helped to create a repressive society. To this end, the film offers a criticism of the previous Batman film, The Dark Knight, in which Batman’s final self-sacrifice and Gordon’s lie about the crimes of Harvey Dent led to this legislation. Just as Dark Knight opens with a critique of the vigilantism triggered by Batman in Batman Begins, Dark Knight Rises provides a critique of the new legal regime triggered by Batman in Dark Knight. Each sequel includes a critique of its predecessor.

24. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 4.

25. The closest analogue to Bane in the cinema is Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). In that film, Lecter’s voice not only terrifies Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) and simultaneously leads her to the truth, it also coaxes a cellmate to his death.

26. The problem with the servant like Alfred is that he sees the hero as an ordinary person rather than as a hero. His entire mode of treating the hero will thus work to limit the hero’s heroism. Taking up a line of thought from Goethe and adding to it, Hegel contends,

“No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet—is a valet, whose dealings are with the man, not as a hero, but as one who eats, drinks, and wears clothes, in general, with his individual wants and fancies.”

G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 404.

27. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 117.

28. As Alexandre Kojève points out in his commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, negativity is the break from human animality. He says,

“Negativity is liberty (the free or liberating action), the possibility that the human has to transcend its nature; it is what is properly human in humanity.”

Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, ed. Raymond Queneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), 64.

29. This is a point that Friedrich Nietzsche insists on throughout his work. In Human, All Too Human, he says,

“hope … is in truth the worst of all evils, because it protracts the torment of men.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 45.

30. Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 125.

31. I owe this point to Adam Cottrel (Georgia State University).

32. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels (New York: Continuum, 2009), 168.

33. Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” trans. C. M. Baines, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14 (London: Hogarth, 1957), 94.

34. In The Ego and the Id, Freud notes that

“a differentiation within the ego … may be called the ‘ego ideal’ or ‘super-ego.’”

Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, trans. Joan Riviere, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 19 (London: Hogarth, 1961), 28.

35. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, trans. John Forrester, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York: Norton, 1988), 134.

36. When I saw the film on opening day at a cinema in Montréal, a devoted fan in the bathroom after the film screamed as loud as he could, “That fucking sucked!” I imagine this as a response to the film’s ending, which revealed Batman as finally losing, albeit to the fantasy of his butler.

37. All of these theories were proffered by fan discussion groups immediately after the film’s release, and all represent a refusal of Bruce’s fantasmatic retirement to a normal life in which he populates an Italian café.


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