Christopher Nolan’s Batman as Social Criticism (Part 2)

This is part 2 of 2. For part 1, click here.

If the primary theme of the new Batman movies could be boiled down to one word, it would be fascism. Clearly, all superhero movies have fascist elements in them. They feature superhuman beings who through force of will and personal strength are capable of beating back otherwise unbeatable monsters. This is how the classic fascists of the 1920s and 1930s viewed themselves.

Fascist try to argue there is a battle between them, the ultimate good, and their enemies, the ultimate evil. They present ideological black and white solutions to complicated problems. Of course, the real world’s heroes are not so easy to identify. They don’t wear capes, or achieve any real direct power. 

In most movies and comics, the powerful claim their powers in order to protect us, but in the real world that power is always abused. In popular fiction, the powerful combat inhuman and contorted villains who seek to destroy society. In real life, the powerful often cause the problems they claim they want to solve.

When flawed heroes, rather than a measured and reasoned response, become the only hope for an oppressed people, the result is often catastrophe.

Nolan’s work is unique among superhero movies because it deconstructs the traditional superhero narrative — that heroes single-handedly can restore justice. In Nolan’s universe, Batman represents the old establishment’s attempt to restore and maintain order. Note that this is not necessarily the same as restoring justice, which is continually subverted in favor of order. Batman’s very existence subverts the rule of law in an attempt to forestall anarchy.

One anonymous internet commenter noted, “In the Dark Knight, Batman goes on full invasion of privacy surveillance. Sure, he gives it up after it’s no longer needed but who’s to say it won’t be needed again? Who’s to let him decide when people’s rights are to be trampled in the name of their safety?”  The writer continues:

“We need to trust Batman because he knows best. This is already a disturbing idea in most superhero films where the superhero is basically a cop. Batman is like a full government branch though. He has files on everyone, has eyes everywhere, is not above enhanced interrogation to get what he wants and casually decides what’s right and wrong. This idea is enhanced in that last trailer when the city just falls apart without him. The system we have in place isn’t enough.”

The collapse of civilization may move the population to embrace fascism and its dictatorial decisions. Indeed, by initially supporting Batman, the people have already accepted a deeply flawed system. Skeptics are almost completely absent, their voice is silent as the situation continue to deteriorate.

Batman represents the old order. He is powerful, but his costume only works under cover of darkness. Exposing it to the light destroys its effectiveness. Its flaws are laid bare and people quickly lose what little hope they had left in the old system. The failures we always suspected where there are confirmed in the most humiliating way possible, a theme likely to be explored in the upcoming film.

(Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid possible spoilers.) In the comics, the villain Bane breaks Batman’s back, immobilizing him and exposing his frailty. The latest trailer would indicate something similar happens. Bane says Batman’s “punishment must be more severe” than death. Revenge for past transgressions, real or imagined, is also a popular calling card of the fascist.

The Nazis were able to take power in Wiemar Germany not because people hated the communists, but because they hated the centrist moderates who had continually failed them. The rise of an extremist party was inevitable, the Nazis were merely the best organized and the most ruthless. Bane represents that extremism, ready to use violence to expose the failure of the old system as it desperately tries to maintain power.

Recently, Nolan noted the primary inspiration for the film’s first draft was Charles Dicken’s A tale of Two Cities. The novel centers on the eve of the ultra-violent French Revolution, a conflict largely caused by economic and social tensions which had been brewing for decades. While the revolution began with high principles of individual freedom and liberty, it ended in authoritarianism and bloodshed.

If warranted, we’ll post another analysis after the movie’s release.

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  1. Wesley Dodds
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Sad day – and my prayers go out to all of those killed and injured and their families. God help the little children.

    I also hope Mr. Dolan and DC realizes the type of psychotic and violent individuals are attracted by glamorization of big screen mass murderers. The “caped crusader” has long been replaced by big screen terrorism.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I can’t imagine what some of the victims are going through. A real tragedy.

    I just hope the country doesn’t lose its head with the ideological stuff. The last thing we need is another Trayvon Martin situation where everybody has an opinion without knowing any of the facts.

  3. JD
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    “The collapse of civilization may move the population to embrace fascism and its dictatorial decisions. ”

    The collapse of a civilization often does leads to dictatorships. That’s just another reason it’s good for Batman to be fighting for order and justice.

    “Indeed, by initially supporting Batman, the people have already accepted a deeply flawed system. Skeptics are almost completely absent, their voice is silent as the situation continue to deteriorate.”
    Isn’t every form of government flawed? And there were tons of people who were skeptical of Batman or who flat out didn’t trust him in the movie.

    One of the most interesting things about Batman as a character is that he depicts the least corrupt and most moral authoritarian vigilante imaginable. It’s a fun fantasy but that doesn’t mean that kids are going to see him and think ‘man, if only we lived in an authoritarian dictatorship.’ I’m a huge batman fan but I really dont support authoritarian regimes. Batman can be a catharsis for our impudent rage and desire to control things beyond our control the same way we can think violence is wrong but we still like to watch violent action movies. Batman is the guy with his finger on the button who never crosses the line but he walks on it all the time. That’s a really beautiful story even if in real life absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Also you should read Superman: Red Son. It’s a really interesting take on Superman where he is born in the Soviet Union.

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