The Corner

Of Angels and Bats

Last weekend I went to see Dark Knight Rises. I liked it, but I was modestly disappointed in that it didn’t fulfill all of my expectations. 

I’ll run through my problems very quickly. As others have noted, the plot problems can’t all be solved by simply saying “It’s mythic, damn it.” Also, I think any film would have suffered in comparison to its predecessor given Heath Ledger’s epic performance as the Joker.

Then there’s Gotham. As the Nolans (Christopher Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, co-wrote the movie) have explained, their Batman trilogy is in many respects a story about Gotham itself (this film was partly inspired by A Tale of Two Cities apparently). I think that’s good and fine. But I think the cinematography suffers as a result. In the first two films, Gotham was Gothic. In DKR it’s for the most part a sunlit New York City. In one chase scene, you can see national chain stores like they were product placements. The streets are NYC streets. Now, I have to assume this is all intentional. A redeemed Gotham is a city pulled from the shadows and is transformed into a less mythic and therefore more recognizable New York (call it from dystopia to utopia). But it’s a visually less interesting setting. Moreover, when Bane & Co. take over, it remains sunlit and New Yorkish. Whatever is going on there, I wasn’t completely sold.

#more#Anyway, where I thought I’d throw in my two cents is on the film’s politics. I think it’s fascinating how little controversy there has been about the fact that this is a huge wet slap in the face to the Occupy Wall Street folks. I can see how the hipsterati missed the attack on the French Revolution, but the attack on the Occupiers was so flagrant it’s impossible not to catch. I mean how much more unsubtle can you get than the scene where evildoers literally occupy Wall Street (or Gotham’s version of it)?

But while I think the shot at OWS is as welcome as it is obvious, because it is obvious I’m not sure I have much to add to what has already been said about it.

I think Peter Suderman largely has it right when he says:

“The Dark Knight Rises” is not so much anti-Occupy Wall Street as it is anti-revolutionary, positioning Batman as a small-c conservative defender of duty and common manners.

Americans frequently have cast Batman as a vigilante bent on vengeance, but Mr. Nolan’s British sensibility repositions him as a warrior in a fight for social decency: He fights crime with a stiff upper lip.

I’d put it slightly differently. In a fundamental way the film highlights what might be called the chasm between naked freedom and ordered liberty. When Bane says he will return the city to the people, what he’s really saying is he will hand Gotham over to whoever is strong enough to hold it. When you remove law — and law enforcers — from society, you don’t usher in an age of liberty, but an ecosystem of bullying. This is a very, very dark (and probably accurate) view of anarchy.

I’m reminded of a 20-year-old column by Peregrine Worsthorne (not on the web, as far as I can tell). In an essay (“How Freedom Enslaves Us All”), Worthsthorne recalled the terror of “free time” in school. “In class the bullies were kept in order by a master who was free to coerce them. Out of class they were free to coerce me. As far as I was concerned ‘free time’ meant only a different kind of coercion — by several bullies rather than one master . . .”

In a society of ordered liberty the physically powerful cannot compel the physically weak for their own ends (at least in theory). Strength and the will to do evil do not grant the license of arbitrary power over others. The rule of law may seem more constraining than anarchy (or even pure democracy which, after all, can be just as tyrannical as any other system), but it’s more just and ultimately more liberating as well. If men were angels, then anarchy would be the only just system of governance, for we could all govern ourselves.

But men are not angels, and that raises the dark irony and appeal of Batman. The old saw goes that Marvel comics are about flawed humans grappling with superpowers while DC comics are about gods who fight other gods. While I think this distinction is a bit overstated, Batman was always the most notable exception. Batman believes that the rule of law, which is so vital for preserving society, can become its own worst enemy when it gives too much freedom to evil men. He is the bully who keeps the bullies at bay. He is the man of will who declares that we will not live in a society ruled by men of will.

Which brings me back to the Occupy Wall Street themes of Dark Knight Rises. I think it’s significant that the Batman tale begins with a small child of great wealth and privilege being horribly wronged by a bully. According to the vision of the OWSers (and of the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and countless others claiming to manifest the will of the 99 percent), the Waynes are exploiters. But the whole point (and irony) of Batman is that for ordered liberty to work, violence and bullying cannot be justified by appeals to envy and resentment of those who may have benefited most from the rule of law. 

In the Dark Knight, the 1 percenters of Gotham are the first to be attacked, bullied, and killed. The moral logic of the OWSers says they have it coming because they are exploiters (Look at what they have! Get them!). But the moral logic of Batman — and ordered liberty — recognizes this evil madness for what it is: an attempt to satisfy the ravenous appetite of the mob one innocent at a time.


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