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Between two masks

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ plays into a deep-rooted fear of the underclasses milling out to shatter the ordered life above

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: July 27, 2012 12:25 am

A spectre is haunting Gotham,the spectre of communism. To twist the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto further,all the powers of Hollywood have entered into an alliance to exorcise this spectre — director and producer,fanboy and studio executive,talkshow host and CGI-technician. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises pits the big bad bat against arch-villain Bane,who takes over Gotham by whipping up the masses against bankers and financiers. Bane is the nightmare of the 1 per centers.

Nolan and scriptwriter David Goyer play into a deep-rooted fear of the underworld rising up — of the 99 per cent,WikiLeaks,Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous hacktivists. It is the old Victorian dread of the underclasses teeming out from beneath to shatter the ordered life above. One of the first to access this fear was H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. He depicts a future where the ruling classes,who live on the surface,have degenerated into simpering helplessness. They are preyed upon by the working classes who have evolved into a brutish subspecies. Similarly,the sewers and tunnels beneath Gotham are feared places where lurk the disruptors of life above.

As Bane goes on a rampage,the underneath literally starts showing,the flesh stripped away to expose society’s faultlines. Nolan faithfully recreates all the props of revolutionary terror,including people’s courts,forced collectivisation,“appropriate the appropriators”. Nolan,by referencing Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities,may also have been reaching for the dawn of revolutionary terror,of society on the tumbril.

However,even with all the hype,Batman fervour outside pop culture has been negligible. That has belonged to another comic,another character. In protests and demonstrations across the world,an image,a face,has been appearing with increasing regularity — the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta by Alan Moore.

The labyrinthine plot features the machinations of “V”,a sociopath of superhuman strength and intelligence as he goes about conducting a terror campaign against a fascist dictatorship. V is togged up in the gear of the 16th century proto-bomber Guy Fawkes,including a mask in the form of a stylised representation of his face. Moore started writing Vendetta in the early 1980s,at a time when Margaret Thatcher and her brand of neoliberalism was at its peak.

V’s mask,with its hooded eyes and cipheric smile,is a blank slate onto which the viewer can project the passions of the time. That smile slowly worked its way into the collective unconscious only after an indifferent movie adaptation in 2005.

V,like Batman,has no superpowers. While Batman uses his grotesque appearance to terrify criminals,V has the same effect,but on governments and bureaucracies. “I’m the king of the 20th century. I’m the bogeyman. The villain. The black sheep of the family,” he declaims.

With CCTV,drones and wiretapping,the apparatus of surveillance extends everywhere. There are eyes in the skies,always — the mask is a must-wear when meeting the gaze of this digital Panopticon. The balaclava is too terroristic,while the scarf across the face is so 1960s. Into this breach steps Guy Fawkes and becomes the face of the protest — the Guerillero Heroico of our unquiet age.

While V for Vendetta is about a society’s descent into chaos,with the promise of a new order at its end,The Dark Knight Rises is about Batman restoring order,a yearning for a return to the status quo. With markets tumbling and the sinews of the American dream straining,this yearning may have a certain allure.

I always felt Batman was a wimp for going on about his parents getting killed,while Superman didn’t let his entire planet getting blown up detract him from his cheery uncomplicatedness. But even the blandly wholesome Superman contains a pointed critique.

Jules Feiffer,in his 1965 study “The Great Comic Book Heroes”,points out that while other superheroes had to put on their costumes,“Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman.” In his case Clark Kent was the costume — “his fake identity was our real one.” And Clark Kent,in his bumbling ineffectiveness,is what Superman really thinks of the the human race.

More than these two,the only superhero for children of a certain generation in India was Lee Falk’s Phantom. Bill Finger,the writer of Batman,was liberally “inspired” by the Ghost who Walks. So was Bob Kane,the artist. Falk,observing that ancient Greek statues did not have eye pupils,giving them an awe-inspiringly inhuman appearance,memorably did the same for Phantom. Kane followed suit.

Our imaginations will continue to be dominated by these masks,what they represent,what they conceal. As the line in the movie goes,“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof.”

The writer scripts the ‘Hyderabad Graphic Novel’

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