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Knight in political armour

Batman,the film,is a Rorschach test — we read ourselves in it

Written by Abhimanyu Das |
July 24, 2012 12:54:35 am

Batman,the film,is a Rorschach test — we read ourselves in it

Last week’s shootings in Colorado have brought to the forefront a particular aspect of the Batman stories: their politics. Various social critics are hysterically advancing explanations for the massacre based on perceived political undercurrents in the Bat-mythos. Everything from the character’s implicit condoning of vigilante violence to his fascist (a few say radical left or libertarian) tendencies is being thrown at the speculation mill,grinding out a homogeneous mush of alarmist finger-pointing and reductionism.

As early as 2005,Batman Begins — the first of the trilogy — inspired rumblings of political discussion. This was pre-recession,but its Gotham City was a poverty-stricken place,much of the crime stemming from the desperation of have-not Gothamites. Enter a billionaire whose approach was to replace his parents’ philanthropy with fists and sharp objects. These rumblings became an outright avalanche with the 2008 release of The Dark Knight. Some read its third act deus ex machina of Batman locating the Joker via mass invasion of privacy as an apologia for Bush-era policies. Others interpreted Batman and Lucius Fox’s destruction of that device as well as Joker’s electrifying hospital monologue (“nobody panics as long as things go according to plan”) as a criticism of those very policies.

Even before the tragic events in Aurora,the array of contemporary hot buttons pushed in The Dark Knight Rises helped the avalanche attain apocalyptic proportions. The fallibility of financial institutions,class warfare,renewable energy — all this and more is woven into the film’s narrative tapestry. Primary antagonist Bane leads the unwashed 99 per cent into a class conflict that violently disrupts the lives of the hapless 1 per cent. Knee-jerk conservative politics,surely? A closer look at the film reveals that the reality of Nolan’s approach is not quite so straightforward.

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An intelligent,ambitious pop artist like Nolan is unlikely to take thuddingly one-sided stances on anything. Instead,he appears to be strip-mining contemporary society to provide a weighty backdrop for his collection of character arcs,giving the outlandish events a real-world frisson. It would be facetious to assert that these films are not politicised. However,they are still mostly about individuals or communities at this particular crossroads of time and space. The politics remain a metaphor for these primary concerns and,in The Dark Knight Rises,there is a semi-articulated and almost catch-all feel to them. This scatter-shot quality hardly reads like a considered defence of one side or the other. Instead,it has the feel of current events cherry-picked to add fuel to the slow-burn dread and charged atmosphere of these films.

This is not to say that it’s all an amorphous aesthetic grab to put the “dark” in “Dark Knight”. Nolan has stated that one of his thematic inspirations was Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities,a book that remains firmly on the side of the ostensible 99 per cent. But beyond that,he evinces a lack of faith in social movements on any part of the political spectrum. Too much is being made of the connection between The Dark Knight Rises and the Occupy movement — the screenplay was finished long before the movement gained visibility — but the film is prescient. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that the lifestyle of the rich is unsustainable — “you’re all going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us”. Indeed,Bane’s working-class army pillages wealthy neighbourhoods,but this less-than-flattering depiction of the proletariat is coupled with an equally cynical portrayal of the rich. Bane’s plan is set in motion partly by corporate bigwigs,and every wealthy character aside from Batman is a sleazebag.

Even Bane’s hippie uber-socialism turns out to be a cover; ever heard of an Occupy plan that involved blowing up the 99 per cent? Commissioner Gordon’s forces of capitalist order draw their power from the pointedly dishonest elevation of a martyr and the withholding of due process,actions that do not pass un-critiqued. To those describing this as a film for the 1 per cent,I say that if there’s any singular POV in this ensemble picture,it is that of working class cop John Blake. In an oddly heartening fashion,the film is almost about him — the common man trapped in the sturm und drang of clashing ideologies and self-serving agendas. Ultimately,the film asks many big questions and refrains from presenting either right or left as the answer. If anything,it warns of the dangers inherent in drawing those lines in the first place.

Beyond the specific cinematic signifiers,I would argue that Batman is actually the great democratiser. A figure commanding such fierce affection and loyalty in so many corners of the globe regardless of political affiliation or social status,filling theatres in Kolkata and Colorado alike,could hardly be anything less. This is undoubtedly an embarrassingly sentimental view but — in light of recent events — worth pointing out. Rather than making a Batman film claiming to represent any one group,Nolan has made what amounts to a Rorschach test. Left or right,we claim the character for ourselves. It would be a shame if one low-life mass murderer were to change that.

The writer is a fellow at New York University

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First published on: 24-07-2012 at 12:54:35 am
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