By Shawn Stjean
One of the unsung virtues of independent film is that, as miraculous as any production seeing the light of day is in the first place, they rarely suffer from the Hollywood strain of sequel-itis. Thankfully. It seems that barely two, let alone three or more, entries into a successful franchise can bear the weight of sustained storytelling. Give a series enough rope, and it will begin to show inherent contradictions, and self-deconstruct. For the sake of coherence, I’ll confine myself mostly to the most fully realized of the three 21st century Batman films, The Dark Knight, while referring obliquely to its excellent predecessor, Batman Begins, and its pale follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises. Together, a half-billion dollar story to make.
Since Batman’s first appearance in comics in 1938, readers have grown accustomed to a self-made hero, one who traveled the Earth learning from the best instructors, honing his body to Olympic-athletic condition, and his mind to that of a world-class detective. In stark contrast to Superman, then, the Caped Crusader’s thematic popularity consists in the realization of the everyday potential of normal human beings. In the conclusion of the recent film trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his position, his fortune, his butler and friend, and for a time, even the use of his body. But, it doesn’t matter to police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman,) because of the symbolism: “anyone could be Batman.” However, this sentiment runs counter to nearly all the major signs in the previous films–as Carmine Falcone rightly put it, Bruce Wayne is “the Prince of Gotham.” Christopher Nolan does not present us, visually or narratively, with a democratic hero. Contrarily, this Batman is truly a feudal knight, in that he’s not only the inheritor of a seemingly endless fortune, but, like the military itself in any age, he relies far more on technology and its exclusivity than on human ability. His adversaries (villains) are less fortunate. In fact, THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT FALL ON A CONTINUUM OF GOOD TO BAD BASED ON THE LEVEL OF THEIR INVESTMENT IN THE WHITE, CAPITALIST SYSTEM. The richer, the better; the less material wealth, the greater the evil.
Beginning with the hero himself, among Batman’s other problems, he must contend with vigilantes inspired by his own image, but without his vast resources for support. They masquerade and attempt to bash criminals in home-made versions of his high-tech body armor (developed at Wayne Enterprises from scratch—a very conservative estimate might put this suit, rubberized muscles and all, at one-hundred thousand dollars.) When the real McCoy rescues one of them and warns him to stop, the humiliated imitator angrily demands “What gives you the right?” Batman’s reply: “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” Two resonant lines of dialogue, which might paraphrase: “If you’re not privileged with a Batmobile, Batcomputer, and a combat-surgeon-turned-butler for a nurse, your only right is to be safely escorted to your day job.” In a world where we can suspend our disbelief over the constant jumping off rooftops, Batman’s later, willing destruction of his own bat-radar system to satisfy the ethical demands of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman,) a priceless and unique invention which merely invades the privacy of citizens on cell-phones, is among the most unbelievable premises we are asked to consume.
Next, the film conjures and disposes of a half-dozen minor villains, not coincidentally all minorities/of ethnic descent: Gambol, a black gangster-type; Lau, a Chinese mathematics wiz; Maroni, an Italian Mafioso; and the Scarecrow, a homosexual readily identified by visual cues. This leaves the struggle for power in Gotham City to be fought exclusively among white patriarchs. Harvey Dent, a conspicuous (“White Knight”) if unpedigreed double for Bruce Wayne, has half his body burned by the Joker, and thereafter adopts a two-headed coin, scarred on one side, to decide whether to support good or evil in any case. The suggestion here is that money is morally neutral, depending on its use for its value. This is, in fact, a luxurious position. To quote Oliver Stone’s black corporal, King, from Platoon, “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.” Director/Writer Nolan insists Dent suffer a more tragic demise than the other rogues: a clean-cut, politically ambitious, right-wing, upper-middle class WASP, he deserves better. What a waste that, because of partial immolation, he should turn his back on a career as agent for law-and-order.
And lastly, the poor folks. How did such an anarchist as the Joker (Heath Ledger) come to be? He explains to Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that his wife had been attacked and her face disfigured: “We got no money for operations,” so the husband mutilated himself in sympathy. Rejected in horror because of his inability to provide the conventional solution of plastic reconstructive surgery, he turns to destruction (“Dynamite is cheap,”) and crimes like extorting the mob–“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” But he does do it for free, and the glee. If Batman stands for defense of the established order, the maintenance of the status quo, the Joker stands–archetypally, and in this film–for chaos and the rejection of systems. He amasses his loot into a Marxian unfinished pyramid—the apex missing (a figure familiar to film buffs from Blade Runner, and which represents the base power structure of working proletariat supporting the upper classes by their labor, further oppressed by the military, church and schools, and the government) which he proceeds to burn down, to the horror of the assembled spectators. Once captured, the police find no labels in his clothes (no Armani or Gucci or even Bill Blass as Bruce Wayne would own.) He’d apparently like to hide his true identity, but he’s also refusing to support the marketplace—very un-American. And as a white man whose face has been reinscribed in bleached “whiteface,” (thus only “playing” white,) his “evil” seems very non-specific: the robbing of banks and demolition of a hospital, not to mention murder—none of these is as bad as his betrayal of capitalism.
As for the later sequel, neither Ra’s al Ghul, Thalia, nor Bane shows any interest in established wealth–when not pursuing utter chaos and destruction, they redistribute property and power to the lower classes. This third entry redresses the subtextual racism of its predecessor, but amplifies the classism: Socialism=Evil (and false socialism=even worse.) Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, who issues Bruce a dark, Marxist warning about “liv[ing] so large, and leav[ing] so little for the rest of us,” seems more interested in stealing a new identity and start for herself, which she eventually gets—again, by accepting proprietary Wayne Enterprises tech–and becoming Bruce’s traveling companion, essentially “selling out.”
The three films not-so-subtly endorse the values of consumer capitalism by casting their hero in the role of billionaire by day, and. . .what do you know?, billionaire by night. This Batman is the sum of his parts: the toys, the cave, the computers, the vehicles. His most worthy adversary, a working class victim of an industrial accident incarnated as a grotesque clown, by his refusal to buy into bourgeois principles even with unlimited wealth in his grasp, is written off by everyone as insane. After all, who would burn a giant stack of money but a madman?
Because indie films, like the productions of self-published authors and unsupported artists of all types, are not themselves “sold out” to the formulas and packaging of the marketplace, they can “afford” not to promote the dominant cultural values it patronizes. Meanwhile, Hollywood, always quick to imitate its own success, and with no public outrage or boycott of $10 seat prices, exacerbated by the intermixture of TV-type commercials with its theater trailers, continues to chronicle for us the adventures of another billionaire industrialist: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who got his start as a crusader against stereotypical Arab terrorists.