The ultra-right turn in the Batman franchise

‘Which of the two methods of cure for the social crisis shall be applied at present?’ This is the question Leon Trotsky places on the lips of the bourgeoisie as he imagined them contemplating the multiple crises looming over Germany in the 1930s. Would social democracy and the class it represents yield concessions to the masses in an attempt to stave off more radical demands of revolution? Or would it resort to the more brutal ‘surgical intervention’ of fascism to stop the agonising paroxysms wracking its body, mangled by economic depression and mass protest?

These themes are taken up again not ‘as farce’, but as epic pop entertainment in Christopher Nolan’s latest instalment of the Dark Knight trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises. As Mark Fisher points out, the film contains a definite rightward bias:

The sustaining fantasy of Nolan’s Batman films […] is that the excesses of finance capital can be curbed by a combination of philanthropy, off-the-books violence and symbolism. The Dark Knight at least exposed the duplicity and violence necessary to preserve the fictions in which conservatives want us to believe.

By anyone’s account, Nolan is certainly no Leon Trotsky. Fisher’s attribution of a ‘right-turn’ in the franchise under Nolan is correct but mischaracterised. There has always been a sense in which Batman represents a deeply conservative morality. Far from the view that criminal behaviour is produced and conditioned by poverty or social degradation, in the Batman films criminal lifestyles have always been freely chosen. Where they haven’t, they are the product of madness. Indeed, even the characters that are portrayed as mentally deranged are depicted as responsible for their actions and deserving of the justice meted out to them by Bruce Wayne, a mega-wealthy corporate superstar-turned-vigilante.

No other character more embodies this contradiction between personal responsibility and mental incapacity than the Joker. In the second film of Nolan’s trilogy, the numerous, conflicting explanations he gives for his macabre scars make him an everyman of the criminal world; he is Legion. The traumas the Joker invents to explain his troubled mental disposition all contribute to the suspicion that his madness is a performance. Paradoxically, this performance serves only to make his criminal behaviour an essential part of who he is. It’s an excuse for criminal behaviour, not its cause. In this respect, Nolan’s treatment of the films hasn’t shifted to the right; it has simply re-confirmed the reactionary attitude that was always there: madness is evil by another name, and evil cannot go unpunished.

Although there is nothing particularly new in Nolan’s depiction of criminality and madness, the political right-turn is certainly present in this latest film, but in a far more pronounced fashion than Fisher describes.

Gotham City is a trickle-down economist’s fairytale. The well being of the city rests in the hands of wealthy oligarchs, like the Wayne family. The novelty of Nolan’s final instalment is that he brings Gotham’s paternalistic capitalist economy into crisis. As Ann Hathaway’s character, a nod to Cat Woman and the voice of petit bourgeois sensibility in the film, says, ‘there’s a storm coming’.

The storm arrives in the figure of Bane, an ex-convict armed with a nuclear bomb secretly rigged to explode in six months and an arsenal of revolutionary rhetoric. The bomb handily transforms the Marxist ultimatum of ‘socialism or barbarism’ into its opposite. Unless normal (capitalist) relations are re-established, Gotham and the surrounding area will literally be destroyed. As such, the film acts as both a hysterical metaphor for the consequences of any victory for the Left and the dangers of left-wing rhetoric (I wonder if the term “debt time bomb” has any relevance here). Evil clothes itself in socialism and madness, it seems.

In many respects Gotham’s fictive bourgeoisie face a similar choice to the one faced by the German big bourgeoisie in the 30s. Trotsky writes: ‘For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions’ (What Next? Vital questions for the German Proletariat). The millionaire philanthropist, Bruce Wayne, and his alter ego, Batman, aptly represent the dual tools of parliamentary, reformist concession and fascist violence available to big capital in the face of Kyle’s ‘coming storm’. However, Bane has already taken to the barricades and begun to expropriate the wealth of the rich. The only strategy left to the bourgeoisie is the “big stick” of fascism.

Enter Batman, literally a Black Shirt for the 21st century. Originally hunted and disparaged by the state for his vigilante justice, his ultra-violence and Nietzschean morality are the only thing capable of freeing Gotham’s state power, the police, from the collapsed sewers in which they’re trapped. What better metaphor for fascist brutality in the face of social-democratic, reformist impotence? As if to ram the metaphor home, in the earlier stages of the film as the economic crisis gathers pace, Bruce Wayne – the social conscience of capital – is literally unable to walk without a cane, whereas his fascistic alter ego, Batman, is conveniently able to overcome this disability with technologically advanced leg supports. Wayne and Batman are the fictive embodiments of big capital’s dual strategy.

In a determined swim upstream against the narrative of history, the end of the film turns Batman into a fascist martyr. Similarly, when the police finally face off against Bane’s revolutionary militia, it is the police who ‘take back’ their streets and it’s with them that Nolan has us side.

It’s in this respect that the portrayal of Gotham’s population is most interesting. They are conspicuously not present in the latter half of the film. Or rather, everyone seen on the cinema screen is a policeman or one of Bane’s goons. The aggrandising of fascist violence can only be achieved by an erasure of the people to which Bane claims to have given Gotham City. There is one moment in the film in which it looks as though “normal” people might be doing the looting (a wealthy man is dragged from under some furniture to face an uncertain fate as his house is ransacked), but they are depicted as feral, overcome by a deranged greed. The masses are either invisible, gun-toting disciples of Bane, or wild and mentally unstable members of a mob. The idea that Bane’s revolutionary message might attract a genuine following isn’t explored.

Of course to do so would be an abandonment of Batman’s basic mythology: people do bad things because… they’re bad people. This mythology insists on a denial that Bane could ever garner any support for his decreed revolutionary beliefs, and yet this is precisely what he must possess to engage in an armed conflict with Gotham’s finest. This is the film’s central contradiction. It’s in this respect that it isn’t an apology for fascist violence. The Batman mythology guarantees that within the world of the Dark Knight no such violence against any ordinary, working class person with a legitimate grievance against the system can exist. It is, however, an aggrandising of fascism’s role in political crisis; an attempt to put fascist political forces “on our side” by (ironically) removing the Gotham population, with whom we might find some identity, from the narrative.

Never mind the belief that philanthropy can ‘curb the excesses of finance capital’. The film’s ultra-right turn consists in a celebration of finance capital’s uniformed enforcer. This is the logical terminus of the Dark Knight mythology.