Batman wins the Cold War

One thing that struck me about The Dark Knight Rises was how painfully literal an allegory for the Cold War Bane’s rule over Gotham was — insofar as there is “Occupy” imagery, it’s immediately conflated with Communist imagery. You have the nuclear deterrent, the gestures in favor of freedom even as the U.S. literally adopts a policy of containment, the show trials, the gulag (“exile” to the icy wastes), the common people living it up in the ruins of the great mansions, etc., etc. It’s as though Nolan is sending a message: “So you want to rebel against capitalism, do you? Well, remember what happened last time!”

It’s a specifically right-wing narrative overall, with Batman as Reagan — and a racist narrative insofar as the left-wing ideology is only opportunistically seized upon as a vehicle for specifically Oriental nihilistic will-to-power. And as is basically legally required in films with an “East-meets-West” theme, the Western character turns out to outdo the Orientals at their very Orientality, despite (or as a result of) not being immersed in the culture. Batman is the better League of Shadows, just as capitalism is the better nihilism.

28 thoughts on “Batman wins the Cold War

  1. But totally fun! Remember you gotta say that because, well, it is pretty true (though some of the editing in this one seemed sloppy compared to the last two), and because people get pissed if you’re critical of a blockbuster on intellectual grounds.

  2. Well, also… it’s Batman, who has always been the most right-wing of superheroes (even more than Superman). You have to go in assuming that particular baseline.

    The way I see it, the films basically take up the muddied middling position. This is not a huge criticism, because this is largely the position of our current times. Where all moves are available, and none are particularly satisfying. I didn’t see much of a victor — only relative survivors, and even they … for how long? Even Wayne wants out its pursuit. When all a people have is a symbol, well, they don’t have much.

  3. the common people living it up in the ruins of the great mansions

    These images — especially combined with the trials, where the accused sits on Louis XIV furniture while being told the “Death… or Unga Bunga” joke — have more of a debt to the French Revolution than to Communism. But, yeah.

  4. There were gestures early on toward the wretched excesses of the rich, and Catwoman’s Robin Hood monologue, but overall I think it landed on the reactionary side rather than the muddled middle. Overall, the whole political angle was window-dressing to the superhero-supervillain plot, but to the extent it said anything at all, every depiction of the takeover of Gotham felt like a Bob Jones political science class: “they preach equality, but they’re really just thugs with guns who want power and nice stuff they haven’t earned.”

    It was also notably unclear as to whether the looters and occupiers were just Bane’s men or also a mob they unleashed.

  5. “the Western character turns out to outdo the Orientals at their very Orientality”
    I realize I may be missing the point here, but the moment when Batman pulls his “secrets of the orient” trick and hurls smoke pellets at Bane is pretty pathetic. He needs “air superiority” for the win. I was actually a bit bummed by this. I thought it was interesting to strip Batman of his wealth and toys and see where that was going.

  6. I was really, really hoping for a sequel to AUFS’s “Thesis on the Dark Knight,” but after seeing this movie I’m not sure how it could be done.

    Sweet batplane, though.

  7. “And as is basically legally required in films with an “East-meets-West” theme, the Western character turns out to outdo the Orientals at their very Orientality, despite (or as a result of) not being immersed in the culture. Batman is the better League of Shadows”

    Is he, really? The League of Shadows thought Gotham was too corrupt to be salvageable; what do you see that shows they were wrong?

    I think Nolan did a fine job at keeping the politics ambiguous. And as K-sky pointed out, the imagery is French Revolutionary (storming of a prison, reading from “A Tale of Two Cities”) more than communist. And it’s Bane who closes the borders, not the US; if it weren’t for the threat to blow the nuke, the US had tanks ready to roll into the city.

  8. “The League of Shadows thought Gotham was too corrupt to be salvageable”

    They should totally have built a skyscraper channelling mystic energies to bring about the terrible reign of Gozer the Gozerian. Then Batman could have defeated her by crossing the streams, or something.

  9. On outdoing the Orientals, I was more thinking of how he was able to escape the inescapable prison, which only a child born there had previously been able to do — and to do so after having his back broken.

  10. Also, yes, obviously there are a lot of different “revolutionary” images at work, but I would argue that the Cold War mentality is the controlling one. So yes, the show trials used French Revolutionary imagery, but they were also, you know, sending people to an exaggerated version of the gulag. Also, the fact that they were trapping people within the supposed utopia of freedom sounds reminiscent of the Eastern Bloc. Plus — they have nuclear weapons.

  11. As a first-time reader of your blog, I take issue with whether DKR is a right wing narrative; but leave that aside for a moment. If we’re going to affix modern politics to it, I agree that Catwoman comes closest to representing the Occupy movement, but Bane aligns best with the anti-government crowd (both are in the extreme, needless to say). Bane’s actions– cutting Gotham off from the larger (federal) world, negating a police presence, abolishing official courts– and his speeches– YOU are now in control (sorry I can’t quote)– and even some of the consequences of his actions– used and empowered by the wealthy and the powerful who he turns on at his first opportunity– all point to a certain element that’s alive and well in the U.S. That Batman (or was it Bruce Wayne?) observes that Catwoman should be right at home in Bane’s Gotham suggests how close Nolan thinks the movements are– not a linear political spectrum, but a circular one.

    Enter Batman, and by extension Gordon and Blake who’s philosophy seems closely aligned to Batman’s. If we’re going to shoehorn them into any modern political spectrum, they strike me as being moderate law-and-order Republicans: not interested in social issues and largely ignorant of matters of wealth and oppression and willing to tolerate some heavy-handedness and a few public lies in service of the greater good; “do what you have to, just keep our streets clean.” Is Batman Reagan? I’m certain modern law-and-order Republicans see Reagan as a bannerman for their cause, but remember– so do social conservatives and deregulators and libertarians. Reagan– perhaps like Batman– serves as a vessel that people on the right of the political spectrum fill with their own beliefs and then see as their guiding light. In that respect, you may be on to something. Batman can be anyone, to paraphrase Batman, and Reagan can be whatever you want him to be.

  12. You could argue that nuclear weapons are simply the default weapon of mass destruction. How else would you threaten the existence of an entire city? The French Revolution aspect, however, was so thick as to have been heavy-handed. The closing passage from A Tale of Two Cities put it over the top.

  13. You could argue that, and you’d be wrong. Why the sudden appearance of “America” if we’re not re-running the Cold War narrative? In any case, there are historical associations between the French Revolution and later communist revolutions.

  14. Brian, I’m glad to have encouraged another unified theory. I’m not convinced that Tea Partiers are really up for looting the homes of the rich and then executing them, though.

  15. Adam,
    Perhaps not, but I think it’s wrong to ascribe sophisticated political views to the rank-and-file of Gotham. They are just doing what we would expect in the environment Bane has created– some loot, some go to lockdown, some seek revenge, some party like the world is ending.

  16. So the only reason your theory doesn’t work is that a superhero movie about a rich guy who decides to single-handedly take on crime in an entire city is making concessions to psychological realism?

  17. I think that you are right and very insightful about the “Cold War mentality.” However, I wonder if I can make an argument that a French Revolution mentality is “controlling” – the vision of the French Revolution here coming from Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, which Christopher Nolan explicitly references in the eulogy (and as source material more generally). The politics, then, would be Dickensian.

    The main Dickensian element, to me, isn’t merely the presence of orphans or something like that, but the doubling.

    From Dickens (and, through him, Carlyle), we have an undifferentiated and savage crowd calling for scapegoats. This crowd also gets more severe in time – “Death by exile!” (We also have the Bastille parallel.) The crowd, though, is a double for the crowds in “peacetime” that kept order by scapegoating that “thug” and murderer, Batman, and imposing the Harvey Dent Act. (Note, as well, that Bane announces his reign at a football game, which already artificially unites crowds in unanimity against opponents, and, at times, scapegoats.)

    We have other examples of doubles. Both Batman and Bane have a relationship with Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul. Both war over a desire for a Gotham purified of “corruption,” which, for Bane, means the destruction of the city in toto, and, for Batman, merely the destruction of the mob and other criminal elements (which just might mean a slower destruction of the city by pushing things underground).

    But the main double is Batman and Bruce Wayne. Put simply, as Alfred notes, Batman has to die for Bruce Wayne to stay alive. The instrument of this self-sacrifice – the Lucy Manette – is Selina Kyle, who brings Bruce Wayne out of his Howard Hughes-like seclusion. Selina Kyle wants to erase her past so that she can begin again. She does not want to be “Catwoman” – IIRC, a word never used in the film – and perhaps gives Batman the idea of “dying,” Sidney Carton-like, for Bruce Wayne.

    The false Lucy Manette is Miranda Tate, who appeals to Bruce Wayne’s Messiah complex. Both are involved in and drawn to each other by a project to create sustainable, clean energy to save the world. Bruce Wayne’s desire to continually “save” Gotham would also keep Batman going, which would surely lead to the end of the aging, cartilage-less Bruce Wayne. (Some of the comics have hinted that the continued existence of Batman puts Gotham in danger, since the existence of a masked crime-fighter inspires super-villains in an inevitably mimetic relationship. Here, the film just suggests that some of Batman’s actions are indirectly responsible for the rise of Bane’s underground army. Batman himself is like that reactor …)

    Selina Kyle, then, inspires Batman to make an act of self-renunciation. This is directly opposed to, and “redemptive” of, the dangerous rivalry and jealousy of all of the crowds, peacetime and wartime.

    Although the eulogy suggests that the death was a sacrifice for Gotham, it was also to let Bruce Wayne live, now without fear and anger, with his Lucy Manette. The superhero mantle must pass to “Robin” John Blake, who still has the anger “in his bones” that, presumably, begins the cycle all over again …

    (Sorry if this violates the comments policy.)

  18. I don’t know if this is entirely relevant, but I was watching The Dark Knight on TV the other day, and I was struck by the extent to which Heath Ledger’s Joker seemed like someone doing a Nixon impersonation (there’s something in his voice, and his shifty lack of comfort in his own skin). You could probably draw some kind of political allegory based on a Batman-as-Reagan vs Nixon.

  19. In any case, there are historical associations between the French Revolution and later communist revolutions

    Not just later communist revolutions, but also later responses to same. Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind identifies the foundational reactionary pose in Edmund Burke’s horror at the French Revolution, and traces it through to the present. Perhaps this is the feature version.

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