Welcome to our new weekly video series Sight Unsound, where filmmaker and writer Ted Wilkes offers his own alternative theories on film, television and pop culture.
This week: is Batman just a right-wing fascist who watches too much Fox News?
And for those who prefer a long-read, here’s the full text, which we originally published last year…
Let me get this off my chest. I hate Batman. He is everything that a leftist like me should despise. A billionaire who has been gifted his fortune whose company manufactures weapons and whose excessive playboy lifestyle would make any of the cast of Made in Chelsea green with envy. “But…” you cry, “he’s a superhero who despatches the evildoers of Gotham, the ones who seek to harm us and disrupt our pleasant way of living.” To you I say this: the wool has well and truly been pulled over your eyes, my friend.
Batman now more than ever embodies the ruling elite. His crime fighting escapades are merely a thinly veiled attempt to preserve the status quo; his seeking to prevent the ‘worst’ parts of society from rising up and taking over is simply an endeavour to remind us that we should know our place and in the end be thankful for it.
The longest running battle our Caped Crusader has ever had is with the mentally unstable and twisted Joker. The Joker represents the dark side of us all, in Freudian terms the ID. In this space of our brain nothing will satisfy more than the carnage we crave, the lust we long for and the destruction we desire simply for the sake of it.
Batman in this battle represents the SuperEgo, the all controlling voice of the father or mother in our head, which tells us to sit up straight, pay attention and eat our greens. These two happily co-exist in our minds directing us as they see fit, allowing us a sensible middle-ground where we do as we are told at times and cut loose when we need. However, Batman does nothing to appease the desires of his ‘alter ID’, there is no negotiation or desire to understand how and why the Joker is the way that he is. His preferred method of interaction with the yin to his yang is a good old fashioned senseless beating in a darkened room. In this we understand that the Batman wishes only for the Joker to submit to his ways and not to reform. In this we learn that the little voice in our head that tells us that things aren’t the way they should be and we should kick and scream against the world is simply crazy.
Nowhere is this more overtly presented than in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Many have argued that Nolan’s film is nothing more than one long propaganda reel for George W. Bush and America’s Conservative agenda for the 21st century. What is most interesting is that since 9/11 and the attack on the World Trade Centre we are now bombarded with images of torture in our films and the ‘good’ that it does. Not only is this a lazy plot device, but in making Batman complicit in torture we see him as just another mouthpiece for Western insistence that without it we would not be winning the information war.
Most frequently in films we are shown a hero forced into the act of flagellating information from another with a ticking bomb in the corner (an imminent attack, a maiden who must be rescued or a device that must be found and defused). The necessity for torture is heightened so that the captor will spill the beans and the hero, armed with information, may save the day. In this we are constantly being forced to buy into the idea that torture is necessary in our fight against evil; simply an unfortunate by-product of our new war against terror. In order to win the day we have to cast aside our principals (as we see our heroes do) so that we are able to gain the information we need.
In another scene Batman justifies the use of his own mini-surveillance state in order to save the day and, although upon his mission’s completion orders it destroyed, we are forced to sympathise with his mass collection of data in the name of finding truth and justice. Although there is a little debate about the ethics behind such a system this is largely paying lip service to a toxic issue and as a viewer you can’t help but feel that Batman’s mind was already made up when he saw this technology’s usefulness to him. In justifying the use of such a machine, we as viewers then see real-life surveillance tactics a little less like an Orwellian nightmare and much more like something that has to exist for the common good.
As Slavoj Zizek and other leftist philosophers have argued, in The Dark Knight the lie is fetishised and reinforced, and not just through the standard stock trope of ‘having a secret identity’, but through the idea that we are lied to for our own good. Harvey Dent lies about being Batman, Gordon lies about working with Batman and finally Batman lies about Dent’s true identity. The only character telling the truth in the whole film is our aforementioned bringer of destruction, The Joker, who we are told is the embodiment of evil.
The idea is that a public with the knowledge of the truth will be both dangerous and scared. Unable to process what we are being told, we will flee in all directions and life will progress towards that which The Joker depicts. In this we can see more of the Bush-era political Punch and Judy show that Nolan continues to be an advocate of – the idea of the noble lie. It’s now widely regarded that the centrepieces of Bush’s attack on Al Qaeda in two costly wars in the Middle East were launched on the back of a lie. The Dark Knight posits that the lie is noble and that being told the truth is a much greater evil.
The idea of being desensitised to figures of authority and us accepting their lies is fully explained by Adam Curtis’ Oh Dearisms. The notion is that we know there are lies in the world, but we are so frequently bombarded with them and are so unable to do anything about it, that we simply shrug our shoulders and say “Oh dear!” because, just as it is with The Dark Knight, there must be an important reason for them.
Let’s move forward to 2008 and the release of The Dark Knight Rises. Now after the financial crash we have a terrifying new enemy to depict on film: Wall Street. However, who does Batman attack? He’s already despatched his mentally ill adversary by hanging him upside down on the tallest tower in Gotham, so a new enemy appears. Bane. However who should he really be going after? Does he attack the elite who have done their damage to his city and go on a Robin-Hood esque fight to return the lost money to its owners? No, he continues attacking those who he sees as ‘wrong’. In the first scene Batman is chasing down a gang of petty, tooled up, drug dealers. We see him as the vigilante we are told we should be able to stomach and condone rather than the one of old who would rob from the rich and give to the poor. Despite the world turning on its head, with us finally understanding that criminals too can wear a suit and tie, he decides that it’s only the underclass that are worthy of his swift justice.
Bane is the true hero of The Dark Knight Rises. He strips Wall Street of its power, executes those responsible for the crash and gives us back the power that Batman wants to take from us: the freedom of choice. In giving an ordinary citizen access to the big red button he allows us the final decision over our fates, rather than perpetuating our life of constantly chasing money.
It can be argued that we all need to have the freedom to press the button as Bane lets us. There is no true freedom without the ability to fall. Unburdened by our desire to acquire private property as it could be destroyed at any moment we can now live our lives how we wish rather than be trapped in capitalism. With no Batman to preside over us, watch our every move and torture those who lash out against the system, we live in anarchy, as we know no better than to chase our next paycheck and consume. Bane proves that if the only thing keeping us from doing evil is the ‘man in the mask – the invisible hand of the status quo – then there is no freedom at all. If the only system that is preventing us from doing harm is the threat of violence against us, civilisation is not only doomed, but has never truly begun. In finally removing Batman he shows to us that we need a better system, as the one we have hinges too much on the power of one man (or one ideology).
One of the most interesting scenes in the whole film is the show-trials of the elites that Bane has rounded up to be despatched. Nolan frames the accused as scared individuals against the backdrop of a huge courtroom. The judge presiding over them is another mentally ill man (Scarecrow), the rules seemingly unfair now that they (as the elite) are on the scales of justice. We feel sorry for them as they’re just victims of another coup that the ‘bad man’ has ordered. However, they have committed crimes and no other system, it seems, is willing to deal with them other than the one that Bane presides over. If the law is blind then it seems that someone must first bind the rag tighter against her face. He is now doing the work that Batman should have spent the previous half of the film doing – finding the true criminals in Gotham behind long polished desks or on trading floors across the city.
Maybe the Batman films actually exist in a frightening alternative reality where Bruce Wayne is a mental patient in Arkham Asylum, and the various other characters in his universe are the doctors and nurses trying to coax him out of a state of psychosis where he has become ‘The Batman’. Perhaps with his overtly strong sense of right and wrong he had a terrible childhood where rules were too strictly enforced. Controlled and repressed he killed his parents and blamed it on a passing mugger as his parents, ignorant of the working classes and their plight, probably would have done too. He now struggles against his restraints in a rubber room muttering about Alfred, The Batcave and a mysteriously absent Robin all while watching Fox News on a 24 hour loop. Batman isn’t the hero we deserve, or even the hero we want. He’s simply a paranoid schizophrenic who watches too much Bill O’Reilly.
Subscribe to Sight Unsound on YouTube for further weekly episodes.