The Dark Knight Rises
Batman’s true superpower is to reflect the dark side of human nature. Will Brooker asks if he’s really the protector we deserve
Credit: 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment
The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway
Released in the UK on 20 July
“The gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans,” film critic Robert Warshow wrote in 1948. “There is almost nothing we understand better or react to more readily or with quicker intelligence.” The cinematic gangster, Warshow explained, is not a real man but a larger-than-life figure, “the man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge…he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.”
Warshow was writing about the crime dramas of the previous decade - movies like Scarface and the Warner Bros titles Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. But the lesson he drew from those stories applies equally to the more recent Warner Bros crime dramas, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and now its sequel The Dark Knight Rises.
The Batman, too, was born in the 1930s - May 1939 marks his first appearance in comic books - and, like the gangster, he looms larger than life over the imaginary city. Like the gangster, he is a projection of our own desires, fears and concerns; as if a normal man was caught in a bright headlight - a Bat-Signal - and his shadow thrown larger, darker and starker on to the city’s backdrop. He casts a film noir silhouette, its proportions and dimensions exaggerated like the monsters of German Expressionism; like the gangster, he is what we want to be, and are afraid we may become.
To Warshow, the crime film of the 1930s captured an inherent contradiction in American society. We enjoy the gangster’s rise to power; we enjoy the violence and sadism of his brutal ascent. He represents the American Dream that we can all make what we want of our lives, if we have the guts and the drive. At the zenith of his career, Scarface embraces the message of a commercial sign, made up of electric bulbs, declaring “The World Is Yours”.
But the gangster’s individualistic rise to the top of a criminal hierarchy cannot be allowed to succeed, for it conflicts with another set of values, also embedded in American culture - the notion that everyone is equal. The 1930s movies deftly resolve this dilemma by allowing us to enjoy the brutal trajectory of a self-made man until the final scenes, when he inevitably falls, plummeting back to the bottom rungs of society and dying in the gutter.
In The Dark Knight, Batman plays a similar role for a new century and a new cultural dilemma. After the events of 11 September 2001, the threat is no longer simply organised crime but organised terror, and the key question becomes: how far can we go in fighting terrorism with its own tools before we become terrorists ourselves? From his earliest appearances, the Batman vowed to “strike fear into the hearts of criminals”. Lacking superpowers, he relies on performance and psychology - “shock and awe”, to use a contemporary phrase - to terrify his enemies. Nolan’s 2005 film, Batman Begins, suggests the monstrous aspect of this method by confronting Batman with Scarecrow, a villain who also uses fear as a weapon. Joker, the arch-enemy in The Dark Knight, raises those stakes still further.
When Batman faces off with Joker over the interrogation table in The Dark Knight’s central and most important scene, he is also staring at what he could be, and what he fears he could become: an avatar of anarchy, his own wild energies unleashed.
“Tonight you’re going to break your one rule,” Joker taunts him, knowing Batman has sworn never to kill.
“I’m considering it,” Batman growls.
The scene acts out a key question in recent American culture: in a “ticking bomb” scenario, are we justified in torturing one person to save many others? Nolan gives the Batman/Joker relationship a post-9/11 resonance, relating it directly to controversies over the Bush administration’s “harsh interrogation” of terror suspects.
At other points in the film we see Batman forcibly kidnap a suspect from Hong Kong in order to bring him to the US for questioning - an act of extraordinary rendition - and infringe the civil rights of Gotham’s citizens by turning their mobile devices into a sonar tracking system that allows him to see everyone in the city. The technology is science fiction exaggeration, but sometimes comic books and crime dramas shine a bright light on real-world issues: Batman’s decision to compromise civil liberties is in the spirit of George W. Bush’s Patriot Act of 2001, and the ghostly figures on his sonar screens recall the Transportation Security Administration scanners that now allow American airport staff to see travellers stripped of their clothes and dignity.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Batman’s butler, Alfred, says of Joker; and Batman chooses to fight fire with fire, taking the gloves off in his own “war on terror”. But like the gangster of the 1930s crime movie, he embodies a dilemma that the film must resolve by its conclusion. We vicariously enjoy Batman’s brutality against Joker, trusting him to eliminate the threat by any means necessary; but in doing so, he becomes a monster. In the film’s final scene, Batman exiles himself, shouldering responsibility for his actions and accepting that he must be cast out from Gotham City.
“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now,” concludes police commissioner Jim Gordon, “a silent guardian… a watchful protector. A dark knight.” No wonder some journalists saw the movie as a grim celebration of Bush policy; Batman’s position outside the law seems to echo vice-president Dick Cheney’s statement on 16 September 2001 that the administration would have to “work through the dark side…we’ve got to spend time in the shadows”.
The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after those events, with Batman still exiled and an uneasy peace holding in Gotham, until a new villain, Bane, rises and Batman returns. If Joker represented a specific form of post-9/11 terror, what does Bane articulate about contemporary American culture? Also coded as a terrorist, he is nevertheless a very different figure. Bane is brains and brawn, pure muscle mass, but his threat lies in his ability to command a collective. He is a charismatic leader of mercenaries; he represents the mob and, by contrast, Batman starts to look like a privileged capitalist, a One Percenter facing the crowds of Occupy Wall Street. Bane, his voice distorted by a face-mask, is the sound of the street megaphone, the “mic check”. He is the on-screen embodiment of the internet “hive mind”, the hacking group Anonymous, the protesters of the Arab Spring and the 2011 London riots.
And so the dilemma posed by The Dark Knight Rises becomes not whether Batman can win, but whether he deserves to; whether, in the 2010s, we can really root for the bourgeois individual against the power of the crowd.
To survive this conflict, Batman will have to use different methods, to adapt and accept his own mythic nature. He has to become a folk hero, to change with the times once more. Because it is through adaptation that Batman has survived for 73 years, and retained the ability - perhaps his true superpower - to speak to us clearly about the world we all occupy.
Will Brooker is the head of film and television research at Kingston University. His latest book is Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-first Century Batman (2012).