Director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy is one of the most respected works of fiction in the past decade, uniting popular and critical audiences in rarely agreed celebration of its value and importance to contemporary fiction. Its exclusion from the 2009 Academy Award “Best Picture” category sparked considerable controversy and even prompted the Academy to double the nominee pool (Lockett). However, as celebrated as these films may be, criticism of the director’s work is met with intense backlash and occasionally death threats (Singer). These reactions, while shocking, suggest a violent protection fans have of the films’ director and of the subject matter found in The Dark Knight trilogy. While this paper is not interested in sociological phenomena, I would like to examine the ideologies that, in part, contribute to the violence with which The Dark Knight trilogy is defended. The Dark Knight Trilogy, perhaps Nolan’s most celebrated films, demonstrate an authoritarian worldview that valorize violent protection of the status quo, and it is my belief that this ideology is at the root of the hostile protectiveness contemporary culture shows toward The Dark Knight. Regardless of the director’s intentions, these films offer a view of the society that endorses violent preservation of the bourgeoisie and the monied people in positions of leadership. It does so first by championing a wealth-based social hierarchy then next by demonstrating how vulnerable the hierarchy is without a violent protector to keep it in place.
The Dark Knight trilogy follows billionaire executive Bruce Wayne’s adventures as the costumed vigilante, Batman, in a facsimile of New York called Gotham City. The films frame Bruce Wayne as capitalist champion whose work sustains physical and legal infrastructures of the city by day, and Batman as peacekeeping warrior whose dedication and gumption keep the law-abiding citizens of Gotham safe by night. In these two roles, Bruce Wayne/Batman (I’m going to refer to the character as Bruce Wayne/Batman throughout this essay where appropriate because I believe it’s important to maintain the duality of these two harmonious figures of power; they both enforce the existing power structure in different but equally important ways) functions as an idolization of the American dream: wealthy and powerful, but hard-working and tireless. He is immensely privileged but, in a superficial way, he can be seen as having earned his place in the 21st century aristocracy. He was born wealthy, but lived for a time without his wealth, he is only human, but having undergone an Orientalist training regime he has transcended his his body’s needs. Simultaneously, because the films interpret Bruce Wayne/Batman as the embodiment of American virtue, they suggest his virtues warrant—demand, even—that he wield extralegal power necessary for society to function. The Dark Knight suggests that the administrating body must withhold truth from the masses to maintain order (Fiennes 1:27:23 – 1:31:47). Those who have privilege in society have it because they have earned it, they use it justly for the good of society and in exchange they alone can be trusted with its governance. The ideological structure espoused by The Dark Knight trilogy demands that the state control and organize how violence is used and that only certain individuals—the wealthy, the able-bodied and the emotionally driven like Bruce Wayne/Batman—of a certain class can justly distribute violence for the social good.
Viewing the state as the validation and distribution of violence (Mbembe 25), it is clear that these films champion an authoritarian world-view, where Ra’s Al Ghul, the foreign extremist, Joker, the mad anarchist and Bane, the revolutionary unionist (each film’s respective villain) threaten the fabric of society. In his dual roles as Bruce Wayne, postmodern aristocrat, and Batman, urban warlord, the lead character embodies the fascist mythology, where good citizens behave, criminals are punished, and everyone has their place. The mythology of meritocracy and of order are portrayed as the naturalized social standard and the films validate the status quo while simultaneously presenting themselves as apolitical entertainment products.
It is key to note that mythology, in a contemporaneous theoretical definition, presents itself as natural, unquestionable truth with no political strings attached; myth presents itself as apolitical, existing outside and above human interactions (Barthes 265-66). In The Dark Knight Rises, the status quo exists in sustained perpetual motion and can only be disrupted by external threats that attack at night time to be defended by Batman. In all three of the films, the social good falls on those with power and wealth, while the welfare state is useless when it isn’t actively harmful to society. For instance, in Batman Begins, Gotham only survives the League of Shadows’s economic sabotage in the film’s prologue because the wealthy are so moved by the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents; in The Dark Knight Rises, a city orphanage faces closure and Bruce Wayne learns it’s because there are no profits from the Wayne corporation to sustain it. The wealthy are responsible for maintaining social order and it is their duty to acquire wealth for everybody’s benefit. When Bruce Wayne buys a hotel to perform his wealth to a snippy waiter in Batman Begins, he tells his friend Rachel Dawes “that isn’t who I really am.” Wealth is not a privilege to Bruce Wayne, it’s a burden (one that often comes with unnamed, conventionally beautiful women, expensive cars and luxery properties across the city) that he must bear to keep society in order. Bruce Wayne, as the wealthiest and therefore most responsible citizen of Gotham, is owed certain rights and privileges afforded to his station.
As Foucault discusses in “Society Must be Defended,” under traditional systems of state, the sovereign’s power is vested in imposing death or allowing life, while under biopolitics the state provides life and withholds death. The difference is that, under biopolitics, the state has various means of prolonging a subject’s life and as a result can deal with enemies of the state not necessarily with imposing death as the sovereign would, but in withholding access to life-prolonging resources (125). Indeed, throughout Batman’s existence in popular mythology, criminality has been conceptualized as a pathology and Batman as the neutralizing agent to stabilize a city suffering from it (Filipowich). In biopolitical terms, Bruce Wayne as altruistic capitalist ideal and Batman as self-appointed secret police Other crime for the safety and preservation of the ordinary, healthy, labouring citizen.
When, in Batman Begins, the Wayne family funds the construction of a city-wide monorail, they create a public service that the lower classes depend on, which, even if it prolongs the life/lives of the individual/averaged labourer, gives the Wayne family biopolitical power over many people’s ability to live and work in the city. Furthermore, when the Scarecrow threatens the city with a fear-inducing chemical weapon, distribution of an antidote and vaccine is left to Batman and the allies he trusts. Granted, Batman responds to a threat, but he does so in a way that organizes access to medication according to his priorities. Batman decides who will be vaccinated first, who should be left to suffer while a more global solution is discovered. Meanwhile, in The Dark Knight Bruce Wayne raises funds for Harvey Dent’s continued position as a legislator, resulting in the prolongation of Dent’s authority and political allegiances. In all of these cases, the hero furnishes certain segments of Gotham’s population with resources that will improve their quality of life in the interest of preventing crime. Finally, it is worth noting, as Foucault does, that racism justifies the organization of life-sustaining resources (132), which could apply to either Ra’s Al Ghul or Bane, who are both men of colour in their comic book origins and are equally “Other” in nationality and political allegiance (that the trilogy whitewashes these characters somewhat de-racializes their Otherness, but it also erases and alienates the ethnicities they represent: I’ll let the reader decide which is worse). But all three of Batman’s enemies are Othered either through their orientalist fanaticism (Ra’s Al Ghul), mental illness (Joker) or revolutionary charisma (Bane).
As Gotham City is sustained by the production of wealth, Bruce Wayne—the wealthiest and greatest wealth producer in the city—acts as the city’s sovereign. Not only is Bruce Wayne frequently conceptualized as the “prince” of Gotham, but in his Batman persona he roves the streets and violently subdues enemies of the status quo to be rounded by the police; he acts as an urban warlord maintaining order against those who are simultaneously his enemies and his subjects (DiPaolo, 58-59). Bruce Wayne/Batman’s judgement separates the subject from the enemy, and his control over the city’s resources gate access to life-sustaining biopolitical resources. This is exemplified in The Dark Knight where, after the welfare state’s failure in the first film (corrupt police department, inept justice system, exploitative mental health care), the warriors of the new regime—Batman, police lieutenant James Gordon and district attorney Harvey Dent—strategize over how to put away the last remaining organized crime circuits in Gotham. In their various meetings, not only do the trio organize the police (the Althusserian repressive state apparatus par excellence) against criminal organizations but, more importantly, they deceive the public about James Gordon’s death, Batman’s identity and ultimately Dent’s fall from grace, all while Batman spies on the public without their consent.
The films take for granted that Bruce Wayne/Batman and his administrative allies need to control information to maintain order. Indeed, Bruce Wayne/Batman’s secrecy is validated. When the Joker booby-traps two passenger ships, the refusal of either to sink the other demonstrates the supposed goodness of the ordinary Gotham citizen. But if Gotham’s people were good, there would be no need for Batman. It is only because Batman withholds information, spies on citizens and enforces the law by himself that people are able to act with goodness (Treat 107). In The Dark Knight, the Joker challenges the people of Gotham to kill an employee of Bruce Wayne before he reveals Batman’s secret identity, which the population immediately tries to do; in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane orders a proletariat uprising and overthrow of the wealthy and professional classes, which the population immediately executes. Several events in the trilogy clearly demonstrate that when Batman does not control the flow of information people respond with uncoordinated violence. The Gotham citizenry is demonstrably not good when Bruce Wayne/Batman cannot control them and they show a dire need for a just ruler: Bruce Wayne/Batman is better than the people he rules over. He is physically and intellectually superior and his capacity to distribute resources is not only logical, but the Nolan films present situations where it is just. However, nowhere is Bruce Wayne/Batman’s access to wealth and resources most clearly an abstraction of his divine right than through his command of technology.
It is important to note that not all fictionalized uses of technology are necessarily fascist, nor is technology necessary in breeding fascism. There is, however, an established connection between techno-fetishism and fascism. As wildly conservative as authoritarianism is, groups like the National Socialist Party view industry and technology as key tools in social control,
Notable here is the Janus-faced nature of fascism’s regenerative nationalism: to reinvigorate the body politic, fascists looked beyond a decadent present to past eras, but they did not advocate a nostalgic return to, say, the era of Imperial Rome. Instead, they sought to incorporate qualities associated with past eras into the creation of a radically new society, fully integrated with twentieth-century industrialism and technology. (Antliff 150).
As contrary as the values of modern liberal democracy might seem to fascism, there is recent ideological precedent to a totalitarian administration worshipping technology. Moreover, fascist self-image is based on the aesthetic reverence of the ruling party. In fascism, art is disguised as an apolitical worship of leadership and attributes an ineffable aura to the ruling party and to the status quo (Benjamin 22-23). Batman is an aestheticization of technology. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman only when technology and criminal fear are projected onto his body.
In the first film, Bruce Wayne’s gradual transformation from executive to crime fighter is marked by his interactions with a disgraced engineer relegated to a discontinued arms development wing of the Wayne Enterprise. It is while picking out the bat “toys” that will later serve as his non-lethal arsenal that Bruce Wayne becomes Batman (DiPaolo, 58). This scene is mirrored in The Dark Knight Rises, when Bruce Wayne, after retiring as Batman, restores his crime-fighting identity by integrating new tools and vehicles into his arsenal. Batman militarizes his body not just through intense martial arts training but by incorporating a variety of armoured suits and gadgets into his person. Batman enmeshes technological resources with his own body and demonstrates the “naturalness” of his place as a transhuman warrior king through the technologies he integrates into his body. Once again, though, the right to engineer technology into one’s body is a regal privilege, one that, like information, must be securely protected by our heroic urban warlord.
I would like to point out that the game between Bane and Batman is strictly over their right to rule. When Bane defeats Batman, he gains access to a bomb, arms it, and routes it to a detonator. At this point, there is nothing stopping Bane from leaving the city and detonating the bomb remotely. However, destroying the city is never the film’s purpose, the purpose is to contrast the performances of these two leading figures to validate Batman’s rule at the expense of Bane’s.
The great fear at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises is that one of Wayne Enterprise’s technical devices could be weaponized. Bruce Wayne therefore keeps the device—a green alternative energy source—hidden, as is his wont. Later Bane endangers Gotham by defeating and exiling Bruce Wayne/Batman and usurping his control over technology; Bane not only weaponizes the energy device, but he steals the same vehicles and gadgets Batman once maintained order with. The warning The Dark Knight Rises imparts is not that weapons exist, but that the wrong warlord might wield them. The expropriation of Batman’s war assets is a direct upheaval of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s divine right over Gotham city and thus Batman’s war with Bane is not one to keep Gotham’s citizenry in their proper place anymore—as it is with the Joker—in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman’s battle is to maintain the social hierarchy itself:
…is Bane not Dent brought to extreme, to its self-negation? Dent who draws the conclusion that the system itself is unjust, so that in order to effectively fight injustice one has to turn directly against the system and destroy it? And, as part of the same move, Dent who loses last inhibitions and is ready to use all murderous brutality to achieve this goal? The rise of such a figure changes the entire constellation: for all participants, Batman included, morality is relativized, it becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances: it’s open class warfare, everything is permitted to defend the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters but with a popular uprising. (Žižek)
Batman’s conflict with his own subjects is no longer only for their own good, it is for his right to rule. And while Batman is venerated through a false self-sacrifice, he still leaves the “position” of Batman open and appoints his friend, John Blake, with filling it. As Bruce Wayne/Batman “dies,” the social function is restored with another person who inherits the reinstated throne of the restored power structure.
In these films, Bruce Wayne/Batman illustrate many of the status quo’s self-protecting mechanisms. Not only does the figure of Bruce Wayne/Batman prop up the mythology of meritocracy, but it pathologizes and Others exterior forces to validate power’s violent self-defence and weaves techno-fetishism into the ruling class. As entertaining as these texts may be, they implicitly uphold the existing power structure and manufacture situations where an extreme of the status quo—capitalism, organized authority, state apparatuses—is framed as the optimal design for society. These films exemplify why it is important to bring a critical, cultural reading to every cultural artefact, especially for those that, like The Dark Knight trilogy and Nolan’s entire oeuvre, solicit such dogmatic loyalty and ideological endorsement.
Antliff, Mark. “Fascism, Modernism, and Modernity” The Art Bulliten 84.1 (2002). 148-169. Web.
Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. Fourth Edition. Ed. John Storey. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2009. 261-269. Print
Batman Begins. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale, Liam Neeson. Warner Bros. 2005. Film.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Media and Cultural Studies Keywords. Eds., Meenakshi G. Dunham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2006. 18-40. Print.
The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger. Warner Bros. 2008. Film.
The Dark Knight Rises. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale, Tom Hardy. Warner Bros. 2012. Film.
DiPaolo, Marc. War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarlane, 2011. Print.
Filipowich, Mark. “Crime and Punishment: Criminology According to Batman” bigtallwords. Mark Filipowich, 22 Aug. 2014. Web.
Foucault, Michel. “Society Must be Defended.” Cultural Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Imre Szeman and Timothy Kaposy. Wiley-Blackewell, Malden, 2011. 124-133. Print.
Lockett, Dee. “Sorry, The Dark Knight, But the Oscars Might Go Back to 5 Best Picture Nominees” Vulture (2015). Web.
Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. Berkley: University of California UP, 2001. Web.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Perf. Slavoj Žižek. Zeitgeist Films, 2012. Film.
Singer, Matt. “Why Are Christopher Nolan Fans So Intense?” Screen Crush (2014). Web.
Treat, Shaun. “How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Cynically ENJOY! The Post-9/11 Superhero Zeitgeist” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 6.1 (2009). 103-106. Web.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Gotham City” Boitempo (2012). Web.
This article was supported in part by community patronage. If you would like to support my future writing please consider becoming a patron.
5 thoughts on “The Fascist We Deserve: The Authoritarian Ideology of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy”