Christopher Nolan’s Batman as Social Criticism (Part 1)

Good art, real art that is, always reflects some greater reality about the times we live in. False art or corporate art seeks rather to distract from reality in an effort to get us to buy and consume more and more, never questioning how fragile the whole system is. We think the next Batman movie (absurd as this sounds) might be more of the former and less of the latter. From the trailer, Selina Kyle (Catwoman) says to Bruce Wayne at an apparently upscale party:

“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.”

Entertainment Weekly asks, is it political? Clearly there’s a larger message here and its worth exploring.  Obviously, there is a narrative about the wealthy elite engaging in lavish social events in high towers while the world below them crumbles, but to limit it to just class warfare would be overly simplistic. That’s just the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s vision.  

In the first film of the series, Batman Begins (2005), the villain Ra’s al Ghul argues that society has become so weakened by corruption, that it must be destroyed to be successfully rebuilt.  His primary tactic is to use a weaponized form of fear which will tear society apart. The audience is led to agree with Batman, that the society can be saved and rebuilt without bloodshed. Ra’s al Ghul uses fear to warp the society into something he sees as stronger, regardless of the casualties such an act will cause.

The second movie, The Dark Knight (2008), delivers the Joker, a clever anarchist who seeks to dismantle society for the sole enjoyment of “watching the world burn.”  He’s aided by Two-Face, a politician who’s mind and body are warped by random violence, a society gone mad. He was supposed to be the golden boy, a man they had placed their hopes for a better future in; yet even he failed.  Again, Batman, the avatar of order, rejects extreme surveillance measures offered to him through technology and he still manages to prevail. His voluntary relinquishing of power is reminiscent of the Roman dictator Cincinnatus, who ruled Rome briefly during a barbarian invasion. He quickly relinquished power after the threat had passed.

Batman willingly accepts responsibility for Two-Face’s crimes in order to preserve the existing system. Batman is the avatar of the traditional order, and he chooses to embrace and promote a lie to sustain the system. Philosopher and social critic Slavoj Žižek notes here, ”If the public had learned how corrupt the legal system was, it would have collapsed, and so we need a lie to maintain order. This is an old conservative wisdom, asserted long ago by philosophers from Plato, and then later on Emmanuel Kant and Edmund Burke and so on, that the truth is too strong, a politician should, even though he knows the truth, should tell the people what Plato called a ‘noble truth,’ a lie.”

In the latest installment due out this summer, we have the violent Bane as the primary villain, someone who represents direct physical aggression, someone who in the comics succeeds in crippling Batman.  Maybe Catwoman will have a similar position. Perhaps she’ll be more moderate in the style of Occupy Wall Street instead.  That remains to be seen.

It doesn’t take much vision to see that each installment is a lesson on the ongoing degeneration of our society.  Fear is used as a weapon to reorganize society according to an ideological and utopian vision (a vision that is impossible to achieve if history is any guide). Anarchist soon arrive with little more than an immediate goal to destabilize whats left of civilization.  And now we have physical violence — the inevitable outcome of a society incapable of addressing its problems. To quote John F. Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The third movie will also feature the return of Ra’s al Ghul, indicating that total collapse is possible. We’re told this is the final installment of the series. There’s no reason to believe that the government or the civilization will survive in a recognizable form.  The hero and the order he represents may not survive.  Total collapse is possible and considering the passionate intensity of the villains, perhaps even likely.

The collapse of civilization may move the population to embrace fascism and its dictatorial decisions. Indeed, by supporting Batman who represents the old order, they already have accepted a deeply flawed system. Street gangs embracing the Batman ethos and imagery support this view. Meanwhile, normal, reasonable people almost completely absent, their voice silent as things continue to get worse.

We don’t yet know whether or not the franchise will be one that offers hope or despair, but we already know what the broader message is.  In the real world we’ve seen the distortive power of fear, chaos and now, if what society’s doomsayers predict is correct, we will get a chance to see what real suffering is like.  In the event of an economic meltdown, physical violence on an scale unheard of in this country for over 150 years becomes a real possibility.

I’m looking forward to seeing the third installment in this series, but it’s not Batman I’m interested in seeing, but what happens to the world around him.

For part 2 of this series, click here.

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  1. Mike
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Judging by the article that you have written it seems that you understand that these movies, while highly entertaining, are completely reflective of the time in which they are created.

    Begins gave us fear, TDK gave us chaos and judging by the latest trailer & 7 min movie intro, Rises will bring us the concept of pain. Nolan & company really did create this movie within our world, and not the comic book one.

    It’s important to note that pain while associated with negative aspects of reality has also shown that it can bring out the best in us. It shows us that we can stand no matter what circumstances. While it appears that people around you have been beaten down by economic and other various life events, they continue to put on their own cape and cowl driven by hope that there will be a positive change .

    It’s not that Superman has been rejected, it’s just he is not reflective of the current outlook on life. Continue to be grumpy and brood as long as you are doing something positive for society.

  2. Posted December 20, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    fantastic commentary. from other teaser imagery it seems that nolan’s final vision is that the batman fails to save society. would make a hell of a movie, and the most concise fictional accounting of our times.

  3. Posted May 1, 2012 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    Wonderfully written! Many fans of the comic were disappointed and confused by the first two installments simply because they are unable/unwilling to see the “greater reality” you referred to that Nolan is conveying. I just saw Trailer 3 and between the muted effects and haunting piano notes, I know it will be an epic conclusion indeed. The only question that remains is whether the end if for the better or worse.

  4. Trent
    Posted August 29, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    The film’s are totaly fascist, using terrorists to bolster the idea that the alternatives to neoliberal capitalism are “violent and chaotic”. Newsflash: we cause terrorism because capitalism relies on terrorism.

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