The Dark Knight Decides: Sovereignty and the Superhero, Part II

IMG_1013by Ajay Chaudhary

[Photo by Abby Kluchin]

Note: Part I of this essay can be found here.

Sovereignty and the Superhero

Frank Miller is most frequently cited by film critics as the source for the “darker” Batman that has dominated the film series from the 1990s and Nolan’s trilogy. However, this isn’t entirely fair. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams began the work of writing a serious, socially relevant Batman comic series in the 1970s that came to replace the image left by the campy 1960s live action television serial. Among many other innovations, O’Neill and Adams created Ras al-Ghul, his daughter Talia, the revitalized Joker, and, of course, Bane. Still, the most obvious materials that Nolan draws from are Miller’s groundbreaking The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987), and Miller and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001), as well as significant materials from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), the “Knightfall” story arc in the ongoing Batman comics series (with at least five authors) from 1993-1994, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween (1996-1997) and Dark Victory (1999-2000.) Still, it is Miller’s influence on both the subsequent comics series themselves and the films that seems paramount. However, one of the key differences between Nolan’s Batman films and Miller’s “Dark Knight” series is that in Miller’s version, it is the Batman who realizes the limited nature of his definition of justice; it is the Batman who recruits and trains an army of “Batboys” to destabilize the state; it is the Batman who leads the charge for anarchy. However, The Dark Knight Strikes Again does not end with ambiguous anarchy as in V for Vendetta. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the Batman does all of this not to set up a more just democratic society, but to provoke the somewhat dim-witted Superman (Miller’s is far and away the best version of that character) to assume an ultimate fascistic protectorship over the entirety of the Earth, after Batman and Superman overthrow the regime of Lex Luthor and Brainiac (who have been governing behind a literal hologram of a fake president designed to look like Ronald Reagan).

In Nolan’s version, this anarchistic element is removed from the Batman and shifted to Bane. This is crucially important; it allows the political theological question to play out. We are shown from the beginning of the film that Bane has absolutely no hesitation in “doing what is necessary” in his cause. In the first sequence, we see him condemn one of his zealous followers to death and kill several other people. In another early scene, we see him physically choke a man to death with one hand, in a move that, as many critics have noted, is eerily reminiscent of the Darth Vader “force choke” from Star Wars (1977). The Batman, on the other hand, is not only physically weakened from his forced “retirement,” but is morally bound and cannot decide on the exception to his own moral rule. It is no wonder that Bane, who has all the same training as Bruce Wayne and has, additionally, surmounted far more difficult circumstances, is able to overcome the Batman and break his back. After he does so, once he has placed Wayne in the prison of his own birth, Wayne asks why Bane did not kill him. Bane offers in response the crucial line, “When Gotham is ashes… then you have my permission to die.” Bane does not hesitate to kill, as we have seen. And this is not purely a convenient plot device to keep Wayne alive. The crucial element is the phrase “you have my permission to die.” This encompasses not the act of killing, which we have seen Bane do over and over again, but the decision that expresses sovereignty. This is sovereignty so fully expressed that the subject does not even have control over his own life. As Schmitt writes:

That it is the instance of competence that renders a decision makes the decision relative, and in certain circumstances, absolute and independent of the correctness of its content. This terminates any further discussion about whether there may still be some doubt. The decision becomes instantly independent of argumentative substantiation and receives an autonomous value. The entire theoretical and practical meaning of this is revealed in the theory of the faulty act of the state. A legal validity is attributed to a wrong and faulty decision….Looked at normatively, the decision emanates from nothingness. The legal force of a decision is different from the result of substantiation. Ascription is not achieved with the aid of a norm; it happens the other way around.

That is to say, the sovereign decision is formally coherent and valid regardless of its relation to competency, correctness, or norms. This kind of decision stands simply because it has been made. It “emanates from nothingness”; it does not rely on anything else. This is because, at least for Schmitt, the force of law, like in its analogue, theology, emanates from authority, not from reason. The normative content does not disappear. If the Batman puts aside his killing rule, that does not destroy the rule per se; in some ways, it proves it by defining, saving, even instantiating the order in which it makes sense. This is why Nolan’s splitting of Miller’s idea of the Batman is so important. Miller’s version of the Batman seems to have no trouble deciding on the exception and yet still maintaining the normative content of the rule. Schmitt always insisted that his theories were about saving the Republic. In Nolan’s film, it is Bane who has no trouble with this. Though the Joker intended to prove that they were the same, the Batman and the Joker are opposites. However, within the constraints of these films, there is only one space that allows for the Batman to prove the Joker wrong. And it is the space occupied by Bane. It is the space of sovereignty. When the Batman finally regains his strength, through experiencing the same prison nightmare from which Bane emerged, he is likewise willing and able to occupy that space. For unlike the Joker, the Batman and Bane are twins, the Batman with his only goal of “Justice,” Bane, as it is slowly revealed, with his only goal of “Love.”* Thus when the Batman finally confronts Bane and returns the line, “then you have my permission to die,” we can understand exactly what has happened: the Batman has finally decided. That Selena Kyle delivers the killing blow not long after this is largely beside the point: it is the decision that is the sine qua non for the sovereign. The Batman may have always participated in fascist acts; the Batman films may have always partaken of fascist spectacles (in the Leni Riefenstahl sense) but it is only at that moment that the Batman becomes a true fascist and simultaneously the true sovereign.

But his is an uneasy, even horrified fascism. He has finally seen that for all his talk of merely “being a symbol” and of pushing Gotham back on the right path, the Batman cannot remain a symbol. He must become an sovereign, individual institution, with the exclusive power to decide when the laws of the Republic are to be abrogated, and to decide when the moral law does not apply. “This is too much power for one person,” Lucius Fox says to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight. And Wayne has devised a clever way of using that power without grasping it. But he is outsmarting himself, buying himself time. In the end he grasps it and recoils at the power. What can be read as an extraordinarily pat Hollywood ending (Wayne seems to die in a nuclear blast but lo-and-behold! he has faked his death and we and Alfred catch a brief glimpse of him and Selina Kyle leading a new life, in a quaint Italian café) is in fact a confirmation of Wayne’s simultaneous recognition of the necessity of the Batman and his own inability to come to terms with what that demands of him. He abdicates the Batman-cy and decamps for foreign shores, but not before he appoints a new Batman in his stead. Officer Blake – now revealed to be Robin – is left to inherit the Bat-cave and the mantle of the Batman. “Structures can become shackles,” says Blake, repeating Gordon’s own phrase when he explains why he can no longer remain part of the police force. Wayne is declared officially dead. A black idol of the Batman is enshrined in City Hall. The Batman is dead; long live the Batman. This monarchical formula, however, is thoroughly modernized, just as the visual world of Gotham leaps from a murkier forever-1930s art-deco to an all-too-contemporary Manhattan. It is no longer about station, about reciprocal obligations, and certainly not about divine right. It is about the will to decide. It is about the will to impose the “state of exception.”

Patriarchy and the Superhero

It does not have to be this way. I am tempted to give an alternate reading. In this version, it is Selina Kyle who makes the decision – the decision, that is, to come back to Gotham. And it is Selina Kyle who acts on the decision by delivering the killing blow to Bane. With a gun, no less. The Batman is proven fundamentally impotent – never seemed too much interested in sex in the first place, did he? — just like the other patriarchal institutions of authority in Gotham. But I am forced to admit that this reading is neither true to the text at hand, nor is it a terribly convincing critique. On the one hand, it is, of course, the Batman who convinces Kyle to come back, just as he repeatedly insists that she is “more” than her career of grand larceny and “adaptability.” What’s more, the film visually displays Kyle’s coming-to-Bat-Consciousness as she surveys the ruined homes of some of Gotham’s citizens. On the other hand, what is the purpose of this reading? This would not undo the patriarchal logic of the Batman series. It would just make Kyle the new patriarch. This is only a more radical reading if Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir are the great feminists of our time. That is to say, women who – through structural constraint and conditioning – grasp the reins of patriarchy just as tightly as their male counterparts. It also undoes the excellent characterization of a very Third Wave Selena Kyle. Hathaway does an exemplary job of portraying her, a female member of the lumpenproletariat, maneuvering among these staggering displays of patriarchal violence through the only space left for her even to breathe: mocking, playful resistance and survival. Are her high heels a reification of the desires of the male gaze? Yes. As Dagget’s goon taunts her, “do those heels make it hard to walk?” Does she also actively attempt to reappropriate them to subvert the logic of male domination? Yes. She unexpectedly kicks the legs out from said goon and responds, “I don’t know. Do they?” Does this undo the origination of the objects themselves? No. Is their deceptively bladed nature (which she reveals when she holds one up to Dagget’s neck) a transformation of an object of feminine representation and restriction into one of feminine assertion, resistance, and activity? Possibly? Is this in anyway satisfying or non-contradictory? I do not know. Like any performance purely based on resistance and reappropriation, a great deal of what is being resisted and reappropriated is simultaneously being reproduced. Neither would theoretically be necessary under just conditions. Gotham, though, is among the most unjust conditions.

I also did not want it to be this way. For much of the last third of TDKR, I was quietly hoping that the Miranda Tate / Talia al-Ghul reveal would initiate an alternate path out of the tightening logic of a Schmittian notion of sovereignty.** This is partly because Talia in the comics is a highly ambivalent character, but also because I have seen superhero stories which do subvert the logic of patriarchy. In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (1986) , we are presented with the superhero story par excellence (which I will treat with extremely unfair brevity here). In it they explore the fundamental connection between the desire for heroes and especially for superhuman heroes with ultimate fascist authority. He also explicitly explores the connection between the desire for heroic power and the sexual desire for power. Dan Dreiburg’s manifest sexual impotence can only be cured once he dons his Nite Owl costume, reasserting his masculine power and authority all at once. In Watchmen, the state may be awful, corrupt, and oppressive but it is not weak in the way it is in TDKR. In a “real” world, how would people react to superheroes? Watchmen tells us, quite logically, that the state would either appropriate their power (The Comedian, Dr. Manhattan), strip them of their power (Nite Owl), or force them into outlaw, vigilantism (Rorschach). Ultimately, a single superhero, Adrian Viedt, through his innate intellectual superiority to even the potentially omnipotent Dr. Manhattan, “wins,” overcomes all human difference and opposition and instantiates world peace through an act of utterly depraved, genocidal, hypocritical, and highly rational violence. But unlike Miller’s “Dark Knight” comics, Watchmen does not revel in the fascism of superheroes; it displays it and asks, well you wanted heroes, and this is what wanting heroes means: do you like it? Watchmen is the critical display of the patriarchal and fascistic nature of the superhero.***

Was it ever possible that Talia al-Ghul could’ve turned out to reveal an alternative path as I hoped? No. As I stated originally, Nolan has excluded any number of variables in the creation of his thought experiment about the nature of sovereignty, morality, and power. This possibility, it seems then, is one of them.

225px-Benjamin-smAll Our Fascist Dreams

The Batman films are commercial art. They utilize fascist spectacles (displaying scenes of violence and mass-destruction as, at least theoretically, pleasurable.) And, as I have argued here, the Batman films even offer something of a case for fascism itself – even if they purposefully do so in an uneasy way. Do these factors make these films ‘fascist art’? And if so, is that inherently bad?

Walter Benjamin famously wrote at the end of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

Fascist spectacles have the capacity, Benjamin claims, to teach us how to love our own destruction, or our own domination. The alternative to this “aestheticized politics,” making the political sensuous or beautiful, is “politicizing art,” making art political. At least one of Benjamin’s categories, Communism, seems dated today, and the entire structure of the argument far too binary for contemporary thought. But even recognizing a broad spectrum of possibilities, the question of aestheticizing politics or politicizing art remains relevant.

Benjamin seems to be making the case that there are certain kinds of art that lull us into complacency and others which either – out of the corners of our eyes – or directly (like in a Brecht theater piece) – shock us into thought, into a momentary flash of consciousness.**** I want to ask the question: does the great outpouring of critical thought in regard to Nolan’s Batman films make it far more like the latter than the former? This cannot simply be a question of popularity (there have been many more popular movies, even this summer) or of the explicit political content of the film (again, plenty of commercial films include explicit political content). Can a film – or any work of art – trade in so much fascist ideology and imagery and yet still be a case of politicizing art? If this is the case, somehow, the reproduction of ideology would not occur alongside the performance of it.

One thing that Benjamin often assumes is a picture of the viewer of film, the listener of music, the reader of books, as a nearly completely passive subject. Someone into whom art is poured. Although I am deeply sympathetic to Benjamin’s views, particularly about technologically produced and reproduced mass art, I question whether he has fully thought through what, if any, was the difference between the critical theorist (i.e. himself) and the theorized subject of art? I do not mean to introduce a crass democratic notion that there is no difference between the two. What I mean to interrogate is the absence of self-consciousness; how did it come to be that the critical theorist can watch/read/listen/see so much bad art and remain a committed, conscious intellectual?

Finally, following the course of all these questions, I want to ask: if we are provoked, inspired, into self-motivated thought and action by a film which openly displays fascist politics and imagery, are we then implicated in those politics? Are they necessary? Are they good? Is there a little fascist that lives inside us? These are the kinds of questions that we must explore in regards to art like Nolan’s Batman films. We must ask: why do we dream in fascism?

*If there is any direct commentary on contemporary politics to be drawn from the film, it is about the degradation and inhumanity of incarceration. Bane, it turns out, is a fairly sympathetic character. Born within a horrific prison environment, against all odds, he finds a locus of innocence, in the person of Talia al-Ghul, and dedicates himself to her love, protection, and affirmation. For overcoming this sheer inhumanity, he is rewarded with disfigurement, dissociation, and exile. We are still in the realm of allegory, for certain, but the cyclic hopelessness of incarceration is openly on trial.

** I am going to leave unaddressed the discussions of whether or not the actress Marion Cotillard is portrayed as “attractive” in her role as Miranda Tate / Talia al-Ghul. First… what? And second… no, really: what? I’m not sure the Internet needs more men posting pictures of women and playing “hot or not.”

***But this is, in fact, not the only superhero story that can be told. In Joss Whedon’s television serial Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) we are presented with a feminist challenge to the traditional superhero narrative – and not simply because the hero is a woman (see above). Buffy (which I will also treat far too briefly here) systematically overcomes the patriarchal logic of a superhero story from beginning to gloriously original end. Buffy overcomes systems of overt patriarchal control (the Watcher’s Council), the patriarchy of biological family (both in the case of her family and her much-beloved father-figure, Giles), and finally the patriarchal logic of the institution of the superhero itself. Within that fictional universe, the writing of the superhero story is re-enacted symbolically as the ancient creation of a group of men who constrain a single woman in “every generation” to fight their battles for them. Buffy overcomes this not by destroying it nor by becoming the ultimate power vested now in woman, but by taking that male-imposed power structure, hierarchical, singular, vertical, and transforming it into a structure of shared power, the cultivation of power everywhere, the exploration of potential.

****This is just one, highly reductive reading of the Benjamin quote which is useful for the present analysis and does not do full justice to the nuances of the text and the argument. I would encourage any interested reader to explore the vast secondary literature on Benjamin as well as his own sizable corpus.