On Batman: Allegories of a faltering empire and the vagaries of an election

The last Batman unabashedly criminalises those who threaten the heartbeat of American imperialism at Wall Street.

Nolan's Batman is the "total delusion of American imperialism" - the perfect "allegory of the reluctant empire" [AP]

As the last week of President Obama’s first term presidency is rapidly coming to an end with the climactic bang of Hurricane Sandy, and as we are getting ready for the finale of one of the most uninspiring presidential elections of recent decades, we may take a moment to wonder why in the world is that there is no serious challenge to this gridlocked political culture that these two redundant political parties represent. Thus every four years we are faced with the challenge of choosing between the bad and the worse and made to be so scared out of our wits that if we do not vote for the bad, the worse may actually take over.  

There are myriads of social and historical explanations that have been and one might continue to offer, but one particularly poignant feature of this political culture worth considering is its habitual psychopathologisation of dissent – that if you oppose the status quo then there must be something wrong with you – psychologically.    

Psychopathologising dissent 

Perhaps, the most spectacular blockbuster movie of this presidential election year that best represents this demonisation of dissent was Christopher Nolan’s last installment to his Batman trilogy – The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – unabashedly criminalising those who threaten the heartbeat of American imperialism: Wall Street. 

Released in the year of the US presidential election, The Dark Knight Rises became the most potent allegory of imperial politics and what bemuses and threatens it at one and same time.  

At a critical moment in the film, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (the Catwoman) whispers into the ear of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale): “You think this is going to last. There’s a storm coming, Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” 

The question is apt, you may think – and yet made sound particularly sinister when asked by a petty thief dreaming big.  

Cause for dissent 

There is something deeply rotten about a world in which, according to a major recent study, “A global super-rich elite had at least $21 trillion hidden in secret tax havens by the end of 2010…. The figure is equivalent to the size of the US and Japanese economies combined.” 

This is while in the US alone, according to recent reports, “The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.” 

This is all while human catastrophes of all kinds – caused by natural disaster or manmade calamities of all sorts are wreaking havoc – far beyond any national boundary and widely into the heartland of humanity. Hundreds of millions of human beings starve for a meagre subsistence and yet the military budget of the United States alone reaches ever more staggering heights. 

“At the end of 2010, the 50 leading private banks alone collectively managed more than $12.1 trillion in cross-border invested assets for private clients,” the same reports indicate – while at the same time: “Poverty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor. More discouraged workers are giving up on the job market, leaving them vulnerable as unemployment aid begins to run out. Suburbs are seeing increases in poverty, including in such political battlegrounds as Colorado, Florida and Nevada, where voters are coping with a new norm of living hand-to-mouth.”

We read in the same reports that: “Less than 100,000 people worldwide own about $9.8 trillion of the wealth held offshore,” while “the analysts’ estimates suggest that some 47 million people in the US, or 1 in 6, were poor last year.” 

What madness is this? And should people who raise these sorts of questions be compared to monstrous apparitions, psychopaths, thieves and faceless brutes – as they appear in Nolan’s Batman? All to make more masses of millions of dollars for Hollywood executives.  

For perhaps obvious reasons, Hollywood looks at the Wall Street and sees those who during the Occupy Wall Street Movement went to question its operation as a band of monstrous criminals. 

The Batman that comes of Nolan’s mind is a vastly different Batman than (and in fact the complete reversal of) the one originally imagined in the aftermath of the crash of 1930’s Great Depression – a poverty stricken national imagination of wealth and power and good deed. 

Nolan reimagines that Batman from the vantage point of a military industrial complex that includes the corporate magnates and the militarised security apparatus that keeps them in power. And thus he sees the American Way – football and national anthem and all – in jeopardy when he sees people protesting the sheer insanity of that power. The angle of shots of Wall Street in Nolan’s Batman is thus framed as if from the vantage point of the Ponzi scheme charlatan Bernie Madoff that is definitive to American capitalism.    

The chief villain of the film, Bane (Tome Hardy) occupies the Wall Street, as in fact did tens of thousands of New Yorkers peacefully, with no access to any nuclear bomb. But Christopher Nolan’s version of that occupation turns the event – intentionally or not is irrelevant – into a monstrous design to destroy Western Civilisation – for evidently Western Civilisation equals predatory capitalism. 

As Bane occupies the Wall Street with his sinister gang, Nolan has a sweet child sing the American national anthem, tens of thousands of New Yorkers singing along with him as they get ready to watch a football game, the closest thing to a sanctified ritual, precisely at the moment when the monstrous occupiers of the Wall Street are about to blow them all up to smithereens. 

When people delight in Nolan’s Batman’s heroic deeds, they perhaps do not recall how he got all of those cool gadgetries. Who is Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and what is the Wayne Enterprise that he runs all about? He is a defence contractor developing cutting-edge weaponry for the government, and that is the way Batman has access to all his militarised gadgetries.  

You look at the gentle and noble face of Morgan Friedman as the face of the military industrial complex and you look at the deformed and monstrous face of Bane and you see the face of the people who occupied the Wall Street – that is the power of distortion, of complete and categorical reversion, on display in Nolan’s version of Batman. 


 Shooting spree kills 12 at Batman premiere

Nolan’s Batman is the total delusion of American imperialism – the perfect allegory of the reluctant empire, very much the same way that Niall Ferguson reads the American imperialism. This reluctant hero, as the US is the reluctant empire – there to save the world sacrificing its own well-being out of a sense of mission to save other worlds from their own evil – never receives the recognition he/it deserves. 

So is there a link between Nolan’s Batman and the mass shooting on July 20, 2012, at a Century movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises? Of course not. Those innocent victims could have been watching Bambi, and a mass murderer could have dressed like Godzilla and gone there to murder them.  

But while there is no causal link between Nolan’s Batman and the shooting in Aurora, there is a structural correlation between the pathologisation of dissent that this particular Batman best represents and the aestheticisation of violence – the fusion of fact and fantasy, as I have already argued – that the US global warmongering reifies.  

Nolan’s Batman brings two critical factors together – the active demonisation of dissent and the playful aestheticisation of violence. So desanitise violence – recognise what your drones and your “Kill List” and your military are doing around the globe – and decriminalise dissent and you will have a far healthier society than the one that keeps inventing drones and mass murderers at one and the same time and then arranges for meaningless presidential elections every four years.  

A post-9/11 Batman  

Now, who exactly is Batman’s chief nemesis? We know it from David S Goyer, who co-wrote Batman Begins (2005) with director Christopher Nolan, that they modelled Ra’s al Ghul (Arabic for “the Head of the Monster”) on none other than (yessir) Osama bin Laden! “They wanted to broaden the parameters of the Batman mythology,” according to a report.  

“I think, of the Batman villains, Ra’s al Ghul is the most complex,” David S Goyer told Creative Screenwriting magazine. “We modelled him after Osama bin Laden. He’s not crazy in the way that all the other Batman villains are. He’s not bent on revenge; he’s actually trying to heal the world. He’s just doing it by very draconian means.”    

To be sure, the origin of Ra’s al Ghul predates the appearance of Osama bin Laden on world stage and goes back to the early 1970s. But in the hands of Nolan and Goyer, the character receives a new post-9/11 makeup, and in the last episode through his daughter Talia, the chief accomplice of Bane, come back to destroy the heartland of American imperialism and Western civilisation.

“Nolan’s Batman brings two critical factors together – the active demonisation of dissent and the playful aestheticisation of violence.”

Batman and Robin, as well as all the villains they oppose are floating signifiers, pliant character traits that artists and scholars can make and break in multiple directions. If in their original comic creation in the 1940s they were the aspiration of ordinary people in search of superhuman strength as fantasy to deal with the horrors of their time, Christopher Nolan has turned them 180-degree around to serve the interests of corporate capitalism. 

They say that Alexander the Great carried a copy of the Iliad on his campaigns – kept alongside a dagger – while Romans looked to the Aeneid to guide their imperialism. The Shahnameh has also been the favourite of many Persianate empires. Every empire has its own epics.

This particular empire to whose decline we are historic witnesses is running out of epics and allegories – and keeps going to the one story of death and resurrection that in and of itself sees the non-Christian world as constitutionally demonic.

It is in that vein that Nolan sees chaotic revolt from within and faceless monsters from without threatening the Western civilisation and the ideological format of a globalised capitalism. His Batman trilogy is thus far more a requiem than an epic. 

As evident in its ideological self-manufacturing like Nolan’s Batman, the American political culture thus faces the prospect of turning into a closed-circuit television that keeps re-screening itself – demonising all dissent, digitising violence, a vacated and vacuous machinery spinning around itself, raining death destruction upon any and all its real and perceived enemies. The vacated Zuccotti Park that failed to occupy the Wall Street remains the solitary site of a future revolt of which the original Batman had innocently dreamed.  

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.