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The Ubermensch Rises: Justice, Truth and Necessary Evil in “The Dark Knight Rises“

We can’t rely on a hero to save us, nor count on an unjust system to miraculously transform itself. We must tear off the mask and take matters into our own hands.

Spoiler Alert: This article reveals plot twists and outcomes you may not want to know before viewing the movie.

Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead” is quoted nearly as often as it is misunderstood. Nietzsche did not simply intend to express that there is no God. Rather, he meant that the notion of God had ceased to play its value-generating role as an organizing principle, maintaining order and social harmony. Since God is what gives the world structure for the plebian masses, the death of God opens a space in which meaning can be reshaped and ideals redefined. For Nietzsche, God would have to be replaced by an übermensch, a higher sort of human being who would “revalue all values,” assuming the role of imposing meaning and purpose for the weaker class of followers.

Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” takes place at a rather similar moment. In the film, the system and those who lead it (“the 1%” of Occupy’s imagery) have failed: we are shown images of economic decline, unemployment and hardship. This fall corresponds with the disappearance of Batman, the patriarchal guardian of order in Gotham City. This absence of “God” brings imbalance in the form of a mass uprising led by arch-villain Bane, which threatens dominant values and relationships. It is not often that superhero villains explain their goals in terms of social justice and democracy, yet that is precisely what Bane does – but he seeks to redefine these terms in a manner contrary to that of the existing establishment. The clash between Batman and Bane is, on one level, a clash of values between value-creating übermenschen, two contradictory notions of social order and harmony. In the film, concepts like democracy justice, and equality are deformed and manipulated by the “bad guy” as a means of leading the masses astray, into what is ultimately a murderous plan to destroy the entire city. Then, in true Bonapartiste fashion, Batman the übermensch joins the cops in reimposing the rule of the social elite, restoring law and order.

As with God in Nietzsche’s age of scientific discovery, and in Gotham in “The Dark Knight Rises,” for us today the system has lost its self-evidence, the automatic legitimacy that usually renders its role in underwriting social order invisible. But in this moment of liminality, no übermensch, but the Occupy movement, has risen to challenge fundamental ideas and structures, striving to re-articulate the very principles on which the prevailing ideology claims a monopoly. This struggle has contributed to the crisis of ruling-class power, and has accordingly been met by a level of state violence that has shocked the nation and contributed to a growing awareness of the tenuous, limited nature of our democracy. In this context, “The Dark Knight Rises” has been interpreted by several critics as a shameless, reactionary attack on the efforts of Occupiers to endure police beatings and brave the winter cold to propel us toward a more just and democratic future. This is worth paying attention to, because it is not just fictional characters Batman battles, but real-life ideas that are of great importance to our future.

Justice, Class and Power

The tremendous inequality in Gotham city is obvious from the very beginning. While Bruce Wayne drives around in a sports car with a six-digit price tag and attends glamorous balls, a black child on a playground talks to a cop about the precariousness of his family’s economic situation. “How long do you think all this can last?” Selina Kyle, a jewel thief cum social justice crusader whispers to Bruce Wayne amidst an extravagant charity gala. “There’s a storm coming … when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Against this background comes Bane’s pseudo-anti-capitalist uprising, which includes the dramatic seizure of Gotham’s Stock Exchange, in which bankers and traders are attacked. “There’s nothing here for you to steal,” one of them protests during the trade floor hijacking. “Oh yeah? Then what are you people doing here?” Bane replies. It turns out that stealing or damaging the financial sector is not the true purpose of the attack, but it’s still hard not to chuckle in agreement.

Relying on a pseudo-Jacobin discourse of class struggle and popular justice, Bane promises “the good people of Gotham” that the wealthy will soon be forced to surrender their riches to improve the lives of everyone. How, then, is the audience to know whom to see as the “good guy”? After all, most people would have a difficult time identifying with Gotham’s billionaire class. The answer is simple: rhetoric aside, Bane and his supposedly “revolutionary” cohort do not actually seek the social transformation they claim, but rather are intent upon destroying the entire city and killing everyone in it by turning a fusion reactor developed by Bruce Wayne (for the purpose of saving the world with “green technology”) into a powerful atomic bomb. Thus Bane’s movement is more a pathologically homicidal attack on the people of Gotham – from which they need to be protected by existing state institutions – than a struggle to emancipate them. In the presence of a nuclear bomb that threatens to kill everyone, the interests of the majority are suddenly brought into total alignment with those of Gotham’s 1% – and the organs of state that sustain them – whom they may otherwise have desired to usurp.

But if the cheap device of the nuclear bomb isn’t enough to illustrate the evil of Bane and his followers, their uprising itself is depicted as dangerous and frightening: dramatic scenes of unruly crowds filling the streets, destroying property and committing acts of violence against the wealthy serve as the backdrop for Bane’s grandiose rhetoric. It’s never made clear whether any of this supposedly popular revolt is carried out by Gotham’s civilian population as opposed to hired goons: in the battle between übermenschen, the people themselves have no agency whatsoever. They are merely Nietzschean “herding animals,” doomed to mindlessly follow one idol or the other: good or evil, Batman or Bane. This is the precise inverse of the situation in the French Revolution, whose imagery Nolan so freely employs. Rather, that revolution was propelled by spontaneous mass insurrection bursting through one representative-institutional arrangement after another.

The film is at pains to show that Bane’s vision of justice – in conflict with that of the state and Gotham’s elite – is false, a siren song in hard times. While persuasive, such re-articulation is incredibly dangerous – in this case serving as a façade for nihilistic slaughter. When the rich and powerful are forced to appear in show trials before a revolutionary tribunal, a corrupted Commissioner Gordon bemoans the lack of due process because there were no witnesses to testify or evidence against him. The conservative lens is obvious: Justice cannot be administered by the people (or those claiming to represent them) as it results in chaos and death; only the system, with its established procedures of due process, can legitimately mete out justice. But we should remember that our current president insists on the right to maintain a secret list of individuals to be targeted for death without charge or trial – including American citizens – designated solely by him.

Harvey Dent, the Übermensch and the Violence of Capital

The ultimate message is that we should trust those in power, who can handle things maturely. Rather than a ruling class drunk with greed amidst an out-of-control bonanza on Wall Street that eventually wrecked the economy and destroyed countless lives, the wealthy as represented by Bruce Wayne and the majority of the Wayne Enterprises board are depicted as a responsible group who spend much of their time engaging in charity or otherwise trying to improve the condition of humanity.

The very nuclear weapon that Bane attempts to use to destroy the city is a converted fusion reactor designed and built by Wayne – a philanthropic billionaire in the mold of Bill Gates – to save the world from global warming by providing a green alternative energy source. But after he discovered it was possible to build a bomb out of the reactor, Wayne responsibly decided to shut it down and conceal it from the world, losing his investment and practically bankrupting his company. In the name of transparency, Miranda Tate reveals its existence to the board of directors after taking over Wayne Enterprises, but Bane shows up at the meeting and the reactor falls into his hands (it is later revealed that the two were in league all along). Wayne, who was just trying to spare the world from global warming, would have acted responsibly in secrecy, but once his secrets were revealed, evil was able to take advantage of the information, and strike.

In this vein, the film also takes what appears to be a not-so-oblique shot at WikiLeaks. At a public rally, Bane reads the private meditations of Commissioner Gordon, intended only to be made public at some never-specified, endlessly deferred “right time.” Gordon has been concealing the fact that the beloved Harvey Dent, the district attorney who gained a reputation for cleaning up the streets and defeating organized crime, committed murder. In a further sacrifice, Batman allowed himself to be blamed for Dent’s killings and death, in order to preserve the illusion of the DA’s immaculate image and secure the passage of the Dent Act that expanded the powers of law enforcement to pursue dangerous criminals. Now, years later, Dent’s broad smile and blonde hair are omnipresent on posters throughout Gotham, the symbol of the happiness and social harmony which the public is supposed to believe constitute the status quo. In the name of “the truth,” Bane defiles the omnipresent, two-dimensional image of Dent, holding a poster of his face before the crowd and declaring his corruption. We are shown frightening images of prisoners, many of them Hispanic or African-American, being broken out of jail.

Though the public believes he was killed by Batman, following the murder, Dent is transformed into “Two Face”: though his blonde hair and broad smile persist on one half of his face, the other has been horrifically burned and disfigured. This duality is central to the film: in the public world of appearances, Bruce Wayne is a businessman and respected socialite; in the private world of shadows, he is Batman, a masked caped crusader who engages in violent struggle in the darkness. Concealed behind every smiling photograph of Harvey Dent is a hidden world of violence necessary to sustain the myth of the peaceful, orderly status quo. Likewise, though Batman and Bane are clearly the good guy and the bad guy, respectively, Batman’s very status as the ultimate übermensch is signaled by a non-dialectical moment in his relation to Bane. Whereas Bane needs his mask to survive, Batman/Bruce Wayne is free to move in and out of the “shadow world” that lies behind the tranquil exterior marked by Dent’s placid smile. “So, you think the darkness is your ally?” Bane asks, reminding Batman that while Batman inhabits both worlds, entering each at his will, Bane “was born in darkness” from which he is unable to escape. Batman/Wayne must master both worlds in order to gain supremacy in either – preserving Dent’s immaculate image requires forceful exertion in the dark underworld, behind the mask.

Like Batman’s self-sacrifice for the sake of appearances, the principal struggle of the film is to keep the mask on, to preserve The Lie and keep up appearances of social harmony. As responsible, enlightened leaders understand, preserving order (and keeping nihilistic evildoers such as Bane from infecting the masses with their poisonous doctrines) requires the deception of the public, concealing manifestations of social collapse behind two-dimensional, placid illusions of social harmony and the system’s smooth functioning. As with the disclosure of Wayne’s fusion reactor, Bane’s reading of Gordon’s secret personal letter serves only to tear off masks that are best left on, undermining public faith in the established order, which functions in the best interests of all.

“Structures Become Shackles”: Reform and Necessary Evil

When explaining his decision to deceive the public to a shocked and demoralized subordinate, Commissioner Gordon explains that “structures become shackles,” forcing the corruption of good individuals who are trapped by faltering institutions. The fall of Gordon, an ordinary police commissioner trying to do good, mirrors the fall of the system as a whole; likewise, his rejuvenation marks the restoration of the system and the suppression of Bane’s revolt. The implication is clear: the system has failed, requiring a strong individual – an übermensch – capable of acting violently outside of formal institutional structures to restore balance.

As it turns out, this is also Bane’s ideology. The irony here is that it is Bane’s attempt to destroy the system that made possible its revitalization. As Bane tells Batman at one point in the movie, “I may be evil, but I am a necessary evil.” It was Bane’s struggle which brought Batman to the rescue, to shake the accumulated corruption and decadence out of the system and restore its smooth, orderly functioning. Bruce Wayne had to fall, become one of the people, and then rebuild himself in order to bring this salvation and, ultimately, stabilize the status quo.

This is the paradox which Occupy faces: in struggling for social change, it is attempting to avoid becoming the system’s necessary evil, resulting merely in some paltry reductions in student loan interest rates or a few Keynesian programs to increase aggregate demand that could restore a precarious order to a fundamentally unjust capitalism. As Marx understood, struggles such as Occupy’s are essential if the system is to run smoothly – otherwise, it would collapse in on itself by the force of its contradictions. The cure, therefore, becomes itself part of the disease. Escape from this paradox is not easy, but falling into the trap is not inevitable, as “The Dark Knight Rises” might have you believe.

As George Orwell was fond of remarking, “All art is propaganda.” Indeed, “The Dark Knight Rises” contains so many reactionary themes, it is virtually impossible to deconstruct them all in one brief critique. Advancing the struggle to redefine the rotten values that have produced such misery and hardship for so many requires that we dispute the purported “innocence” of such ideology-laden spectacles in our relentless attack on the supports that legitimize the status quo. We cannot rely on an übermensch to save us, nor count on a system based fundamentally on injustice and inequality to miraculously transform itself. Rather, we must tear off the mask, take matters into our own hands, and struggle together to create a better world no matter what justifications the 1% concocts to preserve its power and privilege. With the implosion of capitalism in the West, the evisceration of democracy and intensifying ecological catastrophe, there is little choice but to begin right now if there is to be any future worth living in.

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