Stellan Vinthagen September 26th, 2012
Author: Christopher Sims
Department of War Studies
King’s College London
If Occupy Wall Street had made a Hollywood blockbuster, it may have been remarkably similar to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Purportedly the final instalment of a Nolan trilogy, this film serves as a sometimes explicit, sometimes allegorical critique of those responsible for the crisis of Western capitalism. As such, Nolan unashamedly taps into the zeitgeist, throwing in his lot with the 99% over the 1%: the former who make up the bulk of the trilogy’s fan-base; the latter its financial base. Indeed, in one scene, Gotham city traders are strapped to the backs of motorcycles to be used as human shields; transformed from peerless architects of self-aggrandising financial systems into helpless slaves of the West’s violent arbiter.
In the film, art imitates life. The plot of The Dark Knight Rises would have had little resonance were it not for Occupy Wall Street or the atrocities of 9/11. The grand theme of the film, that of a disenfranchised majority serving an über-wealthy minority and a masked terrorist mastermind detonating considerable portions of the city, has its roots firmly in actual events, where Gotham is a thinly disguised New York City. Even the villainous Bane’s entry to Gotham may seem familiar, taking control of a US government-operated plane, ultimately using it for his own ends as he controls its mid-air disintegration, leaving one of his group members onboard who is quite prepared to sacrifice himself in order to enable the operation to advance.
Bane we are informed has been the only inmate of a notorious prison somewhere in the Global South to have escaped its confines. Thus he is in possession of the strength, conviction and guile necessary to confront the West. Bane’s continual articulation of the philosophical reasoning behind his actions brings to mind the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s comment in his conversation with Gilles Deleuze: ‘And when the prisoners began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power’. It is this discourse against the status quo which is so unsettling – articulate and yet seemingly bereft of compassion. The idea of incarceration is an important one in the analysis of East/West binaries, as seen for example in the geographer Derek Gregory’s writing on the global war prison.
Emancipated, Bane comes to control Gotham, achieved by using the West’s – specifically Wayne Enterprises – technology against itself, acquiring cutting-edge military hardware in order to quell dissent. This is a prominent theme in contemporary counter-terrorism fictions: in one episode of 24, day 4, when a stealth fighter is stolen, Chloe O’Brian observes that the terrorists are using our own technology against us. There is an ensuing pause laden with implication. This idea if not entirely rooted in the events of 9/11 then resonates on that level. At the same time, paralleling the Occupy protests, Bane arrives in Gotham to occupy a key installation in the financial district. He brutalizes the security staff before taking hostages. It’s Occupy Wall Street, but with a rather more kinetic character.
When the first confrontation between Batman and Bane takes place, Bane concludes that ‘victory has made you weak’. Such must be the verdict upon the West itself; from its peerless position at the end of the Cold War to a new era in which it appears plagued by popular self-doubt, afraid of what resistance movements may evolve in the Global South amid the consequences of a War on Terror waged across continents and systemic economic violence. Capitalism is at risk, democracy is evidently a volatile and malleable system of government; many analyses conclude that world inequality is increasing. Is The Dark Knight Rises escapism or self-reflective voyeurism?
Where is the West’s redemption? It is in his support of the bottom billion that we find the heroic in the character of billionaire Bruce Wayne. At one charity fundraiser the character reaches his philosophical apogee, considering the banquet laid out for the charity supporters as a great irony. It is a tedious, trite dialogue, well-worn, but necessary in order to resonate with the audience, articulated simply to appeal to the 99 percent watching from their cinema seats whilst drinking soda and eating candy purchased from multinational corporations. The film’s importance is in what is absent; the military and the political are relegated to obscure sideshows: this is instead visceral physical violence combating systemic economic abuse. The Masters of the Universe, to borrow Tom Wolfe’s phrase from his 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities, are usurped by those who have come from nothing and consequentially have nothing to lose. It is a compelling narrative: compelling because the narrative resonates.
Bane has been bankrolled by a member of Gotham’s financial elite. In one scene, the pair is together, with orders being given to Bane, before Bane turns and kills his former master. It is a fearful image, and evokes Karl Marx and Friederich Engel’s argument in The Communist Manifesto that modern capitalism, ‘a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the underworld that he has called up by his spells.’ In Gotham too, there is an underclass no longer provided for by the state, instead, they find their best chance of work, and thus of hope, is found by mysterious employment deep in the sewer system, now working for those very powers of the underworld.
The analysis of the interplay between life and art, between popular culture and politics, is a burgeoning discipline gaining mainstream momentum; consider Kelly DeVries’ and Charli Carpenter’s recent assessments of the political and historical relevance of Game of Thrones, in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has fused violent anti-Western resistance narratives to the Occupy Wall Street agenda, under a powerful Hans Zimmer score. Bane attempts to catalyse societal rebellion, enabled by self-aggrandising elite figures. Art may be the translation of personal experience into a universally resonant form, but this film is clearly the translation of universal experience into an artistic form. Bane represents our greatest fear – that Western hubris has spawned an eloquent and omnipotent arbiter intent on bringing the West its day of reckoning.
In the West today the interface between rich and poor has not reached the physical carnage played out in The Dark Knight Rises, but a discernible friction exists; witnessed in sporadic bubbles of discontent at bankers’ bonuses, the Occupy protests, Anonymous hacktivism, recent demonstrations in Spain and Greece. In the Global South where social deprivation is stark, these interfaces are more pronounced: systemic violence removes all attempts at social dignity and hope for future prosperity, resulting in the protests of the Arab Spring. Inequality in the West is ever-increasing too; for the average wage-earners, real income has not increased since the 1970s, this despite a sizeable recent increase in income for the top one-percent. In Germany, praised as a fiscal model to emulate, there has emerged a new stratum termed ‘the working poor’. Perhaps after all it is life which imitates art. Perhaps a storm is coming.
Image: Lego Bane. Photo credit anonymous, via lego.wikia.com.