Swooping from Right: Chris Nolan’s Dubious Superhero

The Dark Knight trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2005-2008-2012


A recent broadcast of the Chris Nolan directed Dark Knight Trilogy got me thinking once again about one of my most favourite things: the imbrication of cultural artefacts within structures of ideology and paradigms of power. While such entanglements exist for most American superheroes, Batman aka Bruce Wayne (perhaps along with Tony Stark) remains one of the most conservative ones around and the last film of Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, actively nurtures a deeply right-wing agenda that vilifies popular social movements, castigates the history of revolutionary struggles and even indulges in standard Hollywood Orientalism.

The entire plot-line of The Dark Knight Rises is premised on Bane and his gang capitalizing on the seething discontent of the people against the prevalent elite of Gotham City, of which Bruce Wayne is unabashedly a member, as indicated early in the film by Selena Kyle, the Catwoman. She categorically warns Bruce Wayne that “There’s a storm coming” and further adds “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, cause when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.” Released in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and several such other anti-capitalist protests across the world, it is impossible not to relate the events in the film to the events that were unfolding then. The connections become all the more obvious when Bane and his henchmen literally attack Wall Street and then rouse the rabble by urging them to take back from the oppressors what is rightfully theirs. However, what follows in the wake of this apparent revolution in Gotham City, is a reign of terror, murder and destruction, which seems to suggest that popular discontent and attendant rebellious movements can only intensify disorder and any attempted redistribution of property will only invite unrestrained mayhem.

Incidentally, as pointed out by Jonathan Nolan, Chris’s brother and co-writer for the screenplay, the mayhem in Gotham was modeled on the turbulence during the French Revolution as depicted in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In fact, so closely does the film reference the French Revolution that there are even scenes of revolutionary justice in front of a people’s tribunal, presided over by the Scarecrow, which offers nothing other than protracted or swift executions. Popular discontent based on class-antagonism thus becomes conflated with criminality and rebellious leaders get equated with psychopaths and the glorious legacy of the French Revolution is consigned to the annals of anarchy without any recognition of the radical re-ordering of society that the French Revolution sought to bring about and the kind of injustice it attempted to abolish. Furthermore, unlike the French Revolution, the revolution in Gotham is less a product of popular action and more a mobilization of the people by a typical ‘evil’ mastermind, Bane, behind whom, of course is the figure of Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul, a member of the Gotham elite. It appears that the ordinary citizens of Gotham cannot even plunder the elite without their own consent.

While many of these insights have already been pointed out by several other commentators, what remains missing is an acknowledgment of the typically Orientalist slant that Nolan’s film also retains. Alfred informs Bruce Wayne that Bane hails from a prison in a “more ancient part of the world”, and the costume of the inhabitants, with turbans and overalls, the chants of the prisoners (apparently in Moroccan) as well as the desert-like landscape of the prison immediately hints at the imaginary resemblance between Bane’s origin and the Arab world. The orient is thus re-deployed not just as a space of backwardness and savagery but also as a potential threat to the civilization of the West, perfectly in keeping with the rhetoric of Samuel Huntington. The Orientalist paradigm becomes even more blatant through the figure of Ra’s al Ghul whom we encounter in the first film of the trilogy. Despite the Arab name, Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows are seen operating out of some secret hideout in the Himalayas, possibly in Bhutan which again emphasizes the typical Orientalist strategy of homogenizing the differences within Orient. No other explanation exists for equating the country of Gross National Happiness with an international organization of crime and catastrophe, apparently operating for centuries. The fact that Miranda Tate is actually Talia al Ghul is also significant as it plays upon the entrenched racist fears of miscegenation and the perceived threat of westerners being indoctrinated by extrinsic forces that threaten national security in U.S.A., England or such other countries. In fact, Talia’s possession and attempted use of a nuclear bomb may even be said to allegorically represent persistent American fears regarding the nuclear arsenal of Iran, North Korea and such other states.

The entire Batman franchise of Christopher Nolan thus operates as an ideological validation of the entrenched myths and prejudices of an orthodox establishment beneath the veneer of wondrous gadgets, an amorous subplot and a spurious rhetoric of justice and philanthropy. In the process, the films collectively embody the crisis of imagination in the new millennia where even a back-handed acknowledgment of crisis in capitalism only yields further manifestations of the status-quo’s repetition-complex.

– Abin Chakraborty

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