Batman at the Limits

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, nor do I plan to for a while until the hype dies down.

Fans of the Batman franchise and political theory should absolutely read this article in The New Inquiry about the class dynamics presented in the three Christopher Nolan films.

Here is a paragraph in lieu of a summary:

The justification for Wayne’s wealth has always been that it afforded him resources to “fight crime” as a semi-reclusive philanthropist and as Batman. But as the first film in the Nolan reboot, Batman Begins, emphasizes, degenerate street criminals and not super-villains motivate Batman by murdering Bruce’s parents, whose beneficent philanthropy had been all that was keeping Gotham City’s ungrateful poor from destitution. A war on street criminals can be read uncomplicatedly as a war on the poor. When Batman’s interventions are understood alongside his double’s conglomerate — Wayne Enterprises, which designs, for instance, the U.S. military’s equipment of deathmaking —  a new problematic crystallizes. By rooting for Batman, we are endorsing the seamless violence of monopoly capitalism (represented by Bruce Wayne), reinforced by blunt coercion (represented by Batman).

Poignant insights, no? Batman, as the symbol and the defender of Gotham (which itself stands in for the idea of the Nation) faces a wave of lower class masses that cannot be successfully integrated. Whereas the Joker in the previous film represented the forces of lawless chaos and anarchy, to defeat which Batman needed to transgress the law itself, in this installment it seems that Bane is the leader of the repressed masses – a theme that should resonate with audiences in light of last year’s Occupy movement.

But these echoes of class conflict run through all of the films, including Batman Begins. Recall the death of Bruce’s parents at the hands of a lowly street mugger and tie it to the conversation the Wayne family has as they ride the Gotham train to the opera that night. Bruce’s father is presented as a civic minded businessman, a job creator with a heart of gold, who cares for the well-being of all of Gotham’s citizens and so invests in a series of public projects that will better the lives of everyone in the city. His death later that night sends a politically clear message: In a city where law and order is breaking down, the rich and the noble (for they are one in Bruce’s father) are the ones with most to lose. Here Batman steps in, and through the deployment of extra-legal violence (Batman has no jurisdiction, as the Joker put it), restores the status quo. Order is upheld through the suspension of the law; the authoritarian tendency remains at the heart of monopoly capitalism.

Food for thought.

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One thought on “Batman at the Limits

  1. Forgive the very belated comment, but at least in the first of Nolan’s Batman films, Bruce Wayne’s actions are largely justified by the fact that his primary enemy isn’t “street criminals” but organized crime (the mob), which controls virtually every institution in Gotham City, particularly the police. This is why Wayne can’t just become a cop and why he seeks out Jim Gordon’s help as the “one good cop” in Gotham. (All of this is taken from Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” from 1986.)

    The piece’s critique of the two sequels is spot-on, of course.

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