The Dark Knight Rises as Fascist Propaganda

July 27th, 2012

WARNING: The post below contains SPOILERS.

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It’s impossible to talk about The Dark Knight Rises without mentioning the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. While I’m deeply saddened by the violence and media circus immediately following the attack, I’m not at all surprised it happened.  Of course, this happens in this movie, it makes perfect sense. The ties between failed vigilantes like George Zimmerman and mass market consumption of a glorified and fascist - yes, I said fascist - vigilante film are becoming clearer and clearer every day. So is it really that surprising?

Movies aren’t made in a vacuum.  I believe that a film is imprinted with the zeitgeist of the culture from which it arises, bearing the consciousness - exposed or suppressed -  of its time with its use of language and images. In really good films, the irrepressible ghosts of the past carry their weight on screen, grounding the film in a historical context that incites a collective memory within us. Something primordial.  To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I’m not accusing Christopher Nolan of intentionally making a fascist piece of capitalist authoritarian propaganda, but in an attempt to make the film culturally relevant, he misappropriated certain images from the current political and economic climate of the United States.  Then, processed by the Hollywood machine - an industry that measures the success of films solely on the amount of money they make - these images became distorted representations of a reality used to advance the ideologies of the ruling class.  This is a part of what makes the film fascist.

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When The Dark Knight Rises is green-lit for production with a budget north of $250 million, the studio heads are (safely) betting that the film will offer significant returns on their investment.  The film is then imposed onto the cultural consciousness - a bloated spectacle bombarding a nation of movie-goers with constant advertising; a monster feeding off the hype it itself created, coercing its audience to watch it, because after all, since it’s playing on over 5,000 screens around the world, there’s no way to escape it.  We must ask ourselves why we’ve come to accept, and even welcome, this grotesque display of consumer savagery several times a year.  The answer is very complicated and likely a symptom of a larger problem at hand.  But onto the film…

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Looking at the poster above conjures up memories of the police shutting down Occupy Wall Street and other protests across the country last year.  Except, in the poster, there’s a sense of danger, chaos, and violence.  On the left side, you have Batman and special unit police officers/soldiers.  On the right you have an army of rogues in hoodies, beanies, and middle eastern head wraps, black and asian faces (the dark “other”) twisted in anger, provoking the police, and raising their machine guns in the air, hungry for war.  Look at the close-up and it starts to make sense.  I’ll take this moment to remind you that the Occupy Movement has been one based on peaceful protests, where police usually have been the aggressors, beating women or pepper-spraying peaceful student protestors.

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But you’re not going to get that by looking at the poster.  The poster reminds me when Time Magazine took a photo of a peaceful Occupy protestor and used it for last year’s cover of the PERSON OF THE YEAR issue.  The photo was manipulated, the 99% so prominent on the white handkerchief, now erased of its power.  I wonder if the editors of Time realize that Occupy stands against everything that their magazine represents and therefore appropriating the iconography of the Occupy Movement to sell their magazines is completely stupid, although somehow expected.

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In case you had any doubt that the bad guys in The Dark Knight Rises are vilified facsimiles of the Occupy Movement, Nolan makes it clear for you.  There’s a scene in the film where Bane (Tom Hardy), the leader of the gang breaks into the Gotham City Stock Exchange to commit some kind of financial terrorism.  Bane’s goal is to lead the city to freedom by ripping it from the hands of the 1% and handing it back to the people.  That doesn’t sound so bad, actually, except that Bane’s plan involves trapping the police in the sewers, sinking the city into complete chaos, and then destroying it with a nuclear bomb (yes, I said a nuclear bomb).  As the city descends into mayhem, a court is set up to sentence the 1%, without trial, to either death or exile, while prisons are emptied of convicts, and the 99% infiltrate the homes of the rich and consume their possessions.  This is Nolan’s idea of the 1%’s worst nightmares come true, and although ridiculous and obvious, the film imposes it on the audience, conditioning us to believe that when the wealthy lose power, chaos reigns and innocent people die.  Now, the audience cheers for the police to be free and restore order to the city - but in order to do so it must establish a police state.

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Enter Batman, played by Christian Bale, who seemed to become aware throughout the film that he is being used for something different than he originally signed on for.  This is where it gets kind of interesting.  Unlike the prior two films where Batman operated outside of the law to protect the city from terror and crime, in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s working with the authorities to establish an army of police to control the city.  But we only really get to this point when Batman/Bruce Wayne learns to be afraid.  According to the film, fear will make you strong.  It will make you survive.  It’s good to fear, especially anarchist immigrant rogues with masks on their faces.  All the desires we place on Batman and his vigilante crusade are transferred into a fabricated fear of all that threatens the established systems.   And for those who didn’t quite get it, Nolan posits that the fabric of what it means to be American, our traditions and our pastimes, will also be destroyed.  In other words… bye bye football.  (For a fascinating analysis on the politics of football, see THIS POST on John Steppling’s blog.)

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At the end of the film, it’s Batman, of course, who takes the bomb over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and sacrifices himself to save the city from nuclear holocaust.  Except that he didn’t sacrifice himself.  For some reason, Bruce Wayne doesn’t die.  Instead, he ends up with Catwoman in a cafe in Florence, sipping an espresso.  Everything is okay, you see: Batman will live another day.  In fact, since the reboot of the franchise was announced before The Dark Knight Rises was even shot, you can bet Batman will live through another trilogy that will likely cost almost $1 billion to produce and market.

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This deus ex machina ending sheds light on one of the opening scenes of the film.  Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) offers a public eulogy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to the citizens of Gotham City.  Gordon stands between two large photographs of Dent, Gotham’s “white knight,” paying lip service and praising the courage of the fallen politician.  Immediately, something feels off.  This feels like Nolan’s disguised eulogy for Heath Ledger, despite Nolan’s plans NOT to reference the Joker in this film as a perverse way of “respecting” Ledger’s legacy.   Although unintentional, denying the existence of the Joker in the film’s narrative exposes a fracture in its fictional world.  The film has carte blanche to rid itself from any ties and responsibilities to reality.  It prefers to remain unaccountable and therefore exempt from criticism.  After all, it’s just a movie, geez, no need to take everything so seriously…

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This is the reason why the massacre in Aurora feels so relevant.  It holds our culture accountable via the film.  Reading the witness accounts of the shooting, I found it disturbing the way the victims thought that it was all part of the show at first - the smoke, the shots fired, the screaming.  Is this a slow waking from a dream or blatant suspension of disbelief?  Ironically, the media has dubbed the gunman James Holmes “the Joker” - it’s as if we’re wishing the Batman movies onto ourselves.  We have captured the maniac killer and justice will be served.  Instead of addressing the real issues, like how this young man was able to acquire a semiautomatic rifle and a 12-guage shotgun, we’ll instead cheer/pray at his conviction, and maybe go out and buy a gun in order to “feel safer” (quick note: gun sales have surged across the country since last week’s incident).

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There’s no questioning Nolan’s talent as a movie director.  I think he makes solid films, usually technically masterful, with mainstream appeal because they make people feel “smart.”  And people like to feel smart, especially stupid people.  However, I usually find his films unnecessarily convoluted (Inception) or emotionally distant (Insomnia, The Prestige).   And I while I admire Nolan’s refusal to stop shooting on film in favor of digital, I can’t help but feel this attitude has some self-righteous implications.  His best film is still 2000’s Memento, a crafty neo-noir piece of filmmaking that unfolds through the process of remembering.  The film had a $5 million budget and all the ambition of a young director eager to tell a story.  In comparison, The Dark Knight Rises is an inferior film, rushing through its twisted plot with smug, self-flattering digs at the rich and overly sentimental conventions (Marion Cotillard’s ridiculous death scene) that are more bad melodrama than universal pathos.

However, it’s important to look at The Dark Knight Rises through a critical level.  I’m not calling for Nolan’s head for making a fascist film - it’s almost impossible for this film NOT to be fascist - but I hope he realizes that works of art and entertainment are powerful enough to affect, move, persuade, and change the national consciousness. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t directly responsible for the shootings in Aurora.  We are.  And we must remain accountable as a culture if we’re going to want to prevent it from happening again.

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