Tuesday, 24 July 2012

In Defense of the Dark Knight

I saw this review of The Dark Knight Rises, retweeted by Amitav Ghosh and Rahul Bose - both Bengali intellectuals, and undoubtedly, left-leaning. I, too, am Bengali, and left-leaning. At least I like to think so; based on my gravitation towards the Frankfurt School's culture industry thesis, and most of Noam Chomsky's works.
With this review, however, I tend to disagree. Vehemently, so. Because, I suspect, my instincts as a comic book geek overpower my left-leaning stance.
 First of all, I liked The Dark Knight Rises. Sure, its predecessor - The Dark Knight (2008) - was an edgier movie, with a stunning performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker. But, as far as trilogies go, Nolan did a spectacular job in bidding the Dark Knight legend an explosive and more than memorable farewell.
My interest in Batman is more and beyond than just the movies; I am a comic book geek, after all. And the thing is, for people who are not aware of the themes in the comic book, much like the author of that review (as I suspect), it is very easy to make generalized assumptions about the nature of Batman's war against crime.

Let me elucidate this a bit more: 
One: "Bruce Wayne can splurge on the kit and cars to set himself up as a crime-fighting Christ substitute, plus power and glitter enough to hide his hobby. He's always been a curious idol: within aspiration because he's flesh and blood; beyond it because he's the lucky recipient of inherited wealth."
What she fails to interrogate is that Bruce (played by Christian Bale) is as much a victim of the (capitalist) state's disinclination to address issues that underscore its own importance and interests. Bruce's parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, were shot dead in an alley when he was eight. One of the stronger and more prominent themes in Batman Begins (2005) was his struggle to comprehend this tragedy. He blamed Joe Chill - a homeless vagrant who accidentally came to possess a gun - for the murders. But then realized that it wasn't Chill's fault; it's the fault of the system, which made Chill as much a victim as Bruce. This isn't my sole reading of Begins; authors like Frank Miller, in The Dark Knight Returns (the text on which Rises was based) have addressed this issue as well. And the gun metaphor, I believe, is more relevant in light of the Aurora shooting. I think it's as tragic as it is ironic, that a Batman premiere - Bruce is averse to the idea of firearms - should see such an event. Which goes to show that the Batman mythos is not just fanciful fiction, based on one man's representation of social reality; but is a far more complex, nuanced and textured critique of social reality.

Two: “The Occupy Gotham movement, as organised by gargly terrorist Bane, is populated by anarchists without a cause, whose actions are fuelled by a lust for destruction, not as a corrective to an unjust world.
Okay, she's just reading too much into this now. Bane (Tom Hardy), as the movie clearly establishes, does not set out to "liberate" Gotham from the shackles of crass capitalism; he's a part of an international terrorist organization called The League of Shadows (Assassins, in the comics). He seeks to destroy Gotham; as Ra's Al Ghul (played by Liam Neeson) intended in Begins. Plain and simple. So, yes, while these characters are self-made, they represent just that: fiction. Sure, Nolan plays on the "We are the 99%" theme - and Selina Kyle's (played by Anne Hathaway) dilemma in this scenario, I believe, presents the complex theme beautifully.
Bane's motive is precisely to destroy Gotham. He wouldn't have armed a nuclear device with a decaying core otherwise. Because that would've been rather stupid, no?

Three:  “But The Dark Knight Rises is a quite audaciously capitalist vision, radically conservative, radically vigilante, that advances a serious, stirring proposal that the wish-fulfilment of the wealthy is to be championed if they say they want to do good.
What I fail to understand is: how can one argue against someone who sees a textured reality in such black-and-white terms? Nevertheless, I shall try my best to defend Batman.
Yes, Bruce Wayne had a billion dollars in his trust fund. Yes, he travelled the world, learnt exotic martial arts. Yes, he came back to Gotham and used his resources to fight the scum of Gotham. But, he was a philanthropist, too, remember.
His father nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combating the Depression (as Alfred tells Bruce in Begins). Others (in the comics, as well as outside) have made a different critique: that Bruce's antics as a caped vigilante attract psychopaths - such as Bane in the Knightfall story arc - to Gotham. Batman's fight against crime, therefore, is not as unproblematic as the author seems to think.
Bruce, in many ways, is disillusioned about his own wealth and social location. The rigid boundary that separates the wealthy from the proles, an idea which the author seems to not only sell, but also believe in, is not really that rigid. Their worlds have clashed, and violently so; Bruce saw it happen, the night his parents were murdered. And that’s why Bruce, as a Wayne and a part of Gotham, has poured in money to several of Gotham's orphanages, charities and his continuous and undying association with Dr. Leslie Thompkins in story arcs, like Batman: The Animated Series attests to the fact that he is not just another billionaire playboy. The filthy-rich and corrupt of Gotham are as much in his crosshair as are the super-villains (a theme explored in the works of Jeph Loeb and Frank Miller, such as The Long Halloween and Batman: Year One, respectively). Even in Rises, Roland Daggett - the corrupt businessman in Wayne Corp. - is as much an antagonist as Bane. And someone Bruce, as it happens, detests.

Batman, in my opinion, transcends the superhero-ness of many of his peers. One argument is that he does not possess superpowers. True. But I believe so mostly because he's constantly had to make choices; choices which make him unpopular; which continue to push the boundary between good and bad; between hero and vigilante.
While, at the end of the day, Batman is fiction - and there's no denying that - it is a form of artistic expression. And it does express and builds on a lot of social realities. However, unlike most other superhero canons (except for Alan Moore's Watchmen and V For Vendetta) Batman serves to critically examine these very social realities. On a more ancillary note: wasn't Bane's conception a veiled critique of Mitt Romney? The Guardian's review is an opinion. I understand that. But it's an opinion based on a partial understanding of a phenomenon. And, for that reason, it is flawed.

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