Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bat-Mitt vs. The Obamavengers

NOTE I: I was going to wait until after Midnight to put this up, but it looks like everyone and their grandmother is already running their "TDKR in bigger culture" pieces so I might as well drop it now.

NOTE II: This is NOT a review of "The Dark Knight Rises." My review of the film will run, as scheduled, on tomorrow's episode of "Escape to The Movies." This piece is not directly affiliated with any other MovieBob projects appearing elsewhere on the web and should not be taken as such.

I’ll admit, straightaway, to the unavoidable fact that the title and premise of this piece carries with it an air of exploitation, if not outright “hackery.” You would be correct in suggesting that I turned this particular vague idea into a 3,000+ word piece and titled it thusly for “attention” – I plead guilty of being a writer who wishes to be read. I can only offer that I wouldn’t be bothering to actually analyze and write-about whether or not 2012’s dueling superhero movies in some way mirror 2012’s dueling presidential candidates if I didn’t think the observations therein might’ve turned out somehow noteworthy or worth sharing… although, of course, that’s a matter of opinion.
Incidentally, yes, there are SPOILERS for “Dark Knight Rises” after this point. Not major spoilers, mind you, but descriptions of themes, story-points, dialogue, etc. You have been warned. 

In any case, while I agree with many others that the knee-jerk temptation to place Summer 2012’s far and away biggest movie/box-office stories – “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” – in competition with one-another is very much an unfair apples to oranges scenario in that, despite both being adaptations of long-running comic-book superheroes, they’re entirely different animals in the cinematic sense… I wholly understand why the comparison leaps so readily to mind: Different to the point of non-relation as they may be in whole, in the details they begin to resemble “opposing forces” on an almost cosmic scale.

There’s the professional rivalry, of course: The Dark Knight (“Batman” to his friends) hails from DC Comics, while The Avengers come from Marvel – two publishers who’ve been at “war” for the loyalties of readers for over a half a century. This being the age of consolidation, this friendly-competition between publishers of four-color funnybooks is also a proxy-skirmish between globe-spanning corporate titans; DC being part of the unfathomably massive Time/Warner empire, while Marvel recently became a member-state of The Magic Kingdom. It’s not simply Batman and Captain America staring one-another down across the field of the battle; it’s the assembled armies of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse – with the ghosts of Jack Warner and Walt Disney looming above like rival gods.
Even the radically-divergent approach to the source-material that separates the two films also binds them in opposition – two absolute-extremes of the two prevailing methods of superhero-adaptation. Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy is a tear-down/rebuild of not only Batman but of the genre, consciously and deliberately draining the very concept of the costumed-crimefighter of as much color, humor, archness and otherworldliness as can be drained without jettisoning the core entirely; with a goal of finding something “more” in what remains. Joss Whedon’s “Avengers,” on the other hand, is a sort-of climax to a multi-film experiment whose goal has been to translate the entire “Universe” of Marvel Comics to live-action film as unmolested as possible. “Dark Knight” sees superheroes as a subject in need of “elevation” (and an extreme-makeover) to earn a place among a serious-cinema; while “Avengers” feels made by people who looked at superhero movies and said “You’re not as a good the comics are – let’s fix that.” Nolan appears to approach the source material with something akin to the “White Man’s Burden” – the noble Colonialist bringing civilization to the savage land of the superhero; while Whedon has the zealotry of a prophet: he’s Moses down from Sinai, carrying Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Holy Writ, and fie unto thee who would alter a word of The Holy Text.
The final and yet most surprising place they differ is in their approach to the “real world” that they, fantasies both, aim to mirror. Specifically, in their approach the ultimate verboten subject of crowd-pleasing blockbuster entertainments: POLITICS. “Knight” is portentous and self-consciously weighty – it’s characters frown and sigh as they dutifully cross every “t” and dot every “i” on Very! Meaningful! Matters! like terrorism, classism and government overreach; while “The Avengers” occasionally look even more excited to be smacking an army of Space Monsters around Manhattan than their audience, and aren’t selling much in the way of explicit messages beyond “it’s good to make new friends” and “teamwork is important.” To be fair, neither one is exactly C-SPAN; that “Rises” has a philosophical/political through-line could easily be the unintended byproduct of putting topical-sounding statements into characters mouths so that we’ll know that it’s a Very Serious Enterprise.
And yet… one is the story of a single high-born aristocrat deigning to restore order to a city after the disastrous results of a (partially) poverty-instigated citizen’s-uprising; while another is about a group effort where the world can only be saved if various characters set aside self-interest and work toward a common goal. The metaphor is pretty obvious, particularly this year. Can it really be expressed so simply – The Avengers as the “progressive” super-saga, Batman leading the reactionary-retort? Is it possible that our culture is now so politically-stratified that even a pair of “rival” blockbusters could perceived/received as “The Obama Blockbuster” and “The Romney Blockbuster?”
“The Dark Knight,” immediate predecessor of “Rises,” was an explicitly (though not particularly deeply) political film; taking it’s dramatically-overhauled incarnations of Batman and The Joker out of the broader “order versus chaos” dynamic that tends to define their relationship and into an explicit allegory for the War on Terror – Joker as an extreme caricature of American culture’s post-9/11 vision of The Terrorist as the incomprehensible madman, the force-of-nature whom it would be a waste of time and resources to even consider might have some point or reason (which is not to say “excuse”) behind his actions. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” intones Alfred; a poetic but ultimately empty turn of phrase that serves the same function as real-life’s equally-dismissive “they hate our freedom” as an entreaty against introspection: Don’t waste time overthinking it, Gotham City/American Public; they’re just pure-straight crazy. Now shut up and let us do What Must Be Done to protect you.”
In “Dark Knight,” What Must Be Done turned out to mean Batman giving The Joker an “enhanced interrogation” and later illegally wiretapping the entire city in order to “sonar map” The Clown Prince of Crime’s location. The Bat’s confidant, Lucius Fox, raises the obvious “invasion of privacy” question… but in the end his fears turn out to be unfounded: Batman is The Good Guy, he really does have our best interests at heart, and he really will only use this incredibly-unethical-yet-incredibly-effective extraordinary measure just this once – and we can trust him on that. Even Fox can only smile and shake his head at how pure the motives of The Administration – excuse me, The Batman – turned out to be. The obvious parallel to The Patriot Act and other Bush/Cheney anti-terror efforts (“warrantless wiretaps” being a hot-button topic at the time) in a massively-popular film raised antenna on both sides of U.S. political spectrum; earning high praise from The Right, objection from The Left and panicked denials that the film was about anything other than a costumed vigilante fighting a clown from a controversy-wary studio and an introspection-resistant fan-culture.
Speaking only for myself, I don’t necessarily see “The Dark Knight” as a high-five from British director Christopher Nolan to the then-outgoing U.S. presidential administration; but it’s hard for me not to concede that the film tips ideologically to the “right;” whether incidentally or by design. Even ignoring the topical business about wiretaps and mad-terrorists, there’s an unmissable element of the Privatization Ideal underpinning the whole franchise: The police are ineffective and corruptible, well-meaning White Knight beaurocrats like Harvey Dent can’t really fix a problem like The Joker. No, fixing that takes a Man of Business – not some measly rule-bound government cog but a two-fisted child of privilege with the money and the means to save us all – if only we’d just get out of the way and let him, damn it!
The seeds of this are planted in the less overtly-politicized “Batman Begins,” which adds a key dash of Nolan’s literalism to Bruce Wayne’s backstory …and Batman’s nickname. It posits the Wayne Family as having a tradition of shepherding Gotham City through tough times via charitable capitalism, a noble-burden Bruce effectively inherits along with his title, mansion and bottomless fortune. The Dark KNIGHT, indeed. Nolan’s Gotham is a medieval Castle Town, with Bruce Wayne as it’s Feudal Lord. Or, if you prefer, welcome to Trickle-Down Superheroism – if only we would just stop over-regulating Bruce Wayne’s self-punishment/symbolic-retribution, the rest of us will eventually reap the benefits of a lower crime-rate.
So when it becomes clear that in “Rises” the symbolic issue of the moment has gone from Terrorism to so-called “Class Warfare,” it’s hard not to see similarities between the chaos unleashed by the film’s antagonists and the paranoid demonization of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement from the likes of Talk Radio and Fox News – though, admittedly, it doesn’t help that the filmmakers at one point planned to incorporate real footage of the initial Occupy protest as background for the actors.
In the story, the supervillain Bane aims to bring Gotham City and Bruce Wayne to their respective knees by breaking the city off from the mainland and setting himself up as dictator of the (localized) post-apocalypse. A key part of his plan is whipping Gotham’s impoverished underclass into a frenzy against authority in general and The Wealthy in particular: In the intervening eight years between films, Gotham’s police have used the fabricated accounts of Harvey Dent’s death as pretext for heavy-handed anti-crime techniques that have “secured” the streets at the cost of bloated prisons and simmering unrest (at least in theory – like too much in the film we’re only told, not shown, much of Gotham’s citizenry until Bane’s Occupy Gotham horde starts dragging rich folks from their homes in Act III); and Bane’s faux-revolutionary rhetoric inflames both into a violent fervor that intentionally recalls The French Revolution (as imagined by “A Tale of Two Cities,” at least.)
It’s the classic reactionary alarmism of the “Socialist Boogeyman” blown-up to blockbuster proportions: Encouraging The Peasantry to question the rightness of class-stratification can only lead to societal collapse, and the guy speaking-out/organizing against it is actually a monster who knows this and actively seeks it for his own sinister agenda (Bane helpfully informs Batman/the audience of his “use-class-warfare-to-mask-mass-destruction” plans before he starts preaching, so we won’t be confused). And since said Peasantry is too dumb/short-sighted to suss that out for itself, they require the protection (from themselves, naturally) of their wealthy betters because only they’ve got the tools (“Job Creation” in real-life, vaguely bat-shaped fighter-jets here) to save us – after all, you silly poors… That’s why they’re on top in the first place!
Take out whatever ‘comic-booky’ elements left that Nolan and company weren’t able to strip-out already, and what your left with looks and sounds more than a little like the thesis of the Romney/Republican presidential campaign: “That charismatic talker agitating against unrestrained-capitalism is leading us toward class-warfare, socialism and Soviet-style collapse; and only The Heroic Executive can pull us back from the brink!”
In the film, the audience-POV for this lesson is cat-burglar Selina Kyle (better known as “Catwoman” in versions of the story not petrified of “silly” nicknames), who breathily coos activist rhetoric to justify her criminality early on but wises-up and pledges Team Batman after witnessing her friends go from zero-to-Che during Bane-instigated manor-looting – “This was someone’s home…” mourns Not-Catwoman. “Now it’s everyone’s home!” cackles her newly-villainous gal-pal. Remember, kids: Recognition of income-inequality will lead to INSTANT STALINISM!!!
It would be, again, a mistake to try and specifically ascribe a so-called “Right-Wing Agenda” to Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking vis-a-vi Batman. After all, the fact that the bad tidings in Gotham are brought on in part by Batman’s (and then Commissioner Gordon’s) anti-crime overreach is a significant shade of gray in the setup’s moral-spectrum; and to be perfectly frank the political business in “Rises” comes off pretty superficial compared to its predecessor despite how much more of the plot and dialogue it takes up – as though the topical references to social-unrest, Stock Market shenanigans and Occupy are there as attempts to infuse specific meaning into a film that, despite its thunderous self-insistence doesn’t really have that much to say about the issues it raises.
It’s been suggested many times that superheroes – particularly the crime-fighting as opposed to world-saving kind – are inherently reactionary, and that Batman’s “stock persona” tips inherently rightward in as much as he’s a “maintain law and order” hero rather than “justice” hero (see also: Dick Tracy.) Better minds than mine* have suggested that the seismic shift wherein Batman began to supplant Superman as “The” Superhero coincided with the principal fear of American children changing from “death” to “loss of personal-security and/or stuff-I-own” during America’s post-WWII boom; which was also when the animating values of the emergent Middle Class changed from community and equal-justice to “Keeping Up With The Joneses;” which is part of the same calculation.
On the opposite end, we have “The Avengers” …or do we?
The two films are diametric opposites in all other respects, certainly, but opposition can have more than one form. With its broader tone and a story where the “real world” is only ONE of many relevant worlds – and currently under-siege by interdimensional aliens commanded by the Viking God of Mischief – it would be easy to argue that “The Avengers” differs from “Dark Knight Rises” ‘conservative’ political-streak not by being the “progressive” superhero movie… but by having no political-streak at all.** There’s some truth to that – Bane’s (disingenuous) rabble-rousing is grounded in something like authentic political philosophy, while the closest to something like that “Avengers” get is when Loki waxes the poetic about benevolent fascism and earns  a stern talking-to from onetime professional Nazi-puncher Captain America. Not precisely the same degree of relevance or nuance, that.
But, on the other hand, while “The Avengers” plays things broad and simple on the surface (the plot: “The Bad Guy stole the Magic Cube, call all the Good Guys so they can get the Magic Cube back!”) it’s far from a stupid or shallow film. Instead of labyrinthine plot-machinations, it’s complexity is found in the way it’s disparate characters relate to one other; and the themes, lessons and moral-grounding of these interactions invariably espouses collective-effort, self-sacrifice, teamwork, being true to one’s self, skepticism of military/industrial authority and other reflexively progressive (or, if you prefer, “liberal”) philosophical points.
Tony “Iron Man” Stark, for example, is a Businessman Hero not unlike Bruce Wayne in his own series (he brags that he “privatized world peace” in “Iron Man 2”); but his character-arc amid joining The Avengers is all about putting his individual ego in-check to contribute to a group effort. In fact, that’s practically the arc of the whole film. (He’s also gotten into the Clean Energy business, but so has Batman and that’s a story for another time.)
Iron Man, in turn, receives his primary dressing-down vis-a-vi selfishness from Captain America, which might seem discordant until you recall that Steve Rogers hails from the 1940s – his flag-waving (or flag-wearing, as it were) is that of World War II “we’re in this together” communal war-effort and FDR’s social-justice New Deal; not the fortress-mentality “patriotism” of The Cold War or Ronald Reagan’s regressive “Morning in America.” And Cap has a lesson to learn, too: There’s real drama in a moment where, after having lectured his teammates against questioning the military chain of command, he discovers they were very right to be suspicious of S.H.I.E.L.D’s motives.*** And when The Avengers make the climactic decision to eschew S.H.I.E.L.D’s headquarters and do they’re fighting/people-protecting at the street-level (“community organizing,” one might say…) it’s Captain America who leads the charge and field-commands the mission.
And there’s The Incredible Hulk. Typically, this character’s “heroism” has been defined by his own self-denial: The Hulk is a force for destruction, and Bruce Banner is a hero for keeping him at bay unless absolutely necessary.  “The Avengers” has a different take, courtesy the influence of Tony Stark. Not only does Stark demonstrate further complexity of his own character in meeting the “weird kid” who everyone else is nervous around and immediately insisting on making friends. He also has an opinion on how Banner should handle his “condition” that’s a far cry from the suppressive self-denial: He thinks Banner needs to “come out” – embrace that part of his person and let his Hulk Flag fly. Guess who turns out to be right when “The Other Guy” becomes a tide-turner in the climactic battle?
So, yeah: Suppressing your true nature? Bad. Teamwork and group-effort? Good. Saving the world? “It Takes a Village.” If “The Dark Knight Rises” can be read as an entrepreneurial power-fantasy that could’ve sprung fully-formed from the top of Mitt Romney’s freshly Just-For-Men’d head; “Avengers” can easily be viewed as a big, bright barrel of “Hopey-Changey Stuff” and ray-gun decorated progressive optimism – “Yes We Can… close that space portal!”
These are, of course, subjective observations of mostly superficial details. Batman isn’t Mitt Romney, and The Avengers aren’t the DNC. And while neither film is without a point to hammer home, they aren’t anybody’s idea of campaign commercials; regardless of Rush Limbaugh’s bizarre (and, given the actual themes of the film, hilariously ironic) postulation that TDKR’s Bane has been so-named as a covert anti-Romney smear.**** These are pop-entertainments, after all – so expensive to produce and so desperately needed as profit-generators for their corporate masters that it’d be close to suicidal for them to take any kind of truly “divisive” stance.
And yet… there IS such a thing as zeitgeist in a culture. The movies have a way of reflecting and embodying moods among the masses, and so do political campaigns. Removed from the specifics of policy, Romney and Obama’s respective campaigns still differ starkly in THAT very realm: A campaign is a narrative - just a like a movie – with The Candidate as hero, and narratives (the ones that work, at least) have a tone, mood and thematic-arc all their own.
The Romney narrative - the Republican narrative – is dark and somber. It’s story is of an America on the brink of collapse, and it’s antagonist isn’t so much President Obama himself as it is the “na├»ve” left-wing idealism he was said to embody. The Romney “story” is as openly-dismissive of “liberal optimism” as Nolan’s Batman is of authentic comic-book superheroics. The world defaults to darkness and danger, it says, and those who foolishly think it can be otherwise have brought America low. Playing nice and thinking big can’t save us – only the cold-steel strength of The Businessman can do that. Hope? Change? Kiddie stuff, as childish and useless as Boy Sidekicks or flying pals from Krypton.
The Obama narrative, on the other hand? Relentless – almost to the point of parody, frankly – optimism. Colorful, diverse, energetic, youthful. The dream can work, and the dreamers can make it work. There are problems, sure, but they aren’t insurmountable and they won’t be solved by some stern, anachronistic Daddy Figure. It’s the story of a world that’s bending, however slow, toward a better tomorrow; and it’s a coalition of radically-different people working toward a common goal that will get us there. And while that may seem like stuff that only ever belonged in fairytales (or comic-books), that doesn’t make it impossible – or unworthy of trying.
So, then, is it fair to look at “The Dark Knight Rises” dark, grim story of a billionaire out to rescue the status-quo from anarchy and see it as Summer 2012’s “Romney Movie?” Yeah, I think so. And then, by the same token; do the brightly-hued, relentlessly-optimistic “up with group-effort!” “Avengers” likewise constitute “The Obama Movie?” In a manner of speaking, certainly.
Does that mean anything, for either the films or “their” candidates? Does the respective popularity of one or the other (“The Avengers,” as of this writing, is the biggest boxoffice-winner/pop-culture fixture of the year, while newcomer TDKR’s prowess remains to be seen) tell us something about the direction of the political winds? Probably not… but it’s a long year ahead yet – and I don’t expect that this is the last time me or anyone else will bring it up.

** The same certainly can’t be said of their directors – while Christopher Nolan isn’t known for talking politics in public, Joss Whedon is:
*** Interestingly, in “The Avengers” S.H.I.E.L.D. uses the same “hack every phone” tactic “The Dark Knight” did. It passes without verbal commentary, but the initial reveal of this briefly cuts to Captain America looking vaguely-shocked. Maybe it’s meant to reinforce his awe at modern technology, but Whedon is on-record as having cut scenes featuring Cap speaking disapprovingly about present-day American political matters from the final film for time; maybe this was one of them?

P.S. I reiterate that this article is strictly part of this blog and not intended to be affiliated with any other writing/video-making I do about these films elsewhere on the web.

P.P.S. Breitbart headline: "Nolan Nukes Occupy Wall Street."


James the Dolt said...

You're left wing Limbaugh. Blah, blah, blah. Gary johnston is Jesus 2.0. Why won't you rest your head under my boot? I hate you...why WONT YOU LOVE ME!?!

Warren said...

Oh you really accuse Nolanites of being delusional drooling fanboys and then relate Whedon to being the savior of superhero films for making a "goofy" superhero film as if we've never seen one before? YOU HAVE to fucking kidding me!

"draining the very concept of the costumed-crimefighter of as much color, humor, archness and otherworldliness as can be drained without jettisoning the core entirely;" what struck me about the Nolan films on a recent rewatch was how humorous they managed to be amidst the gritty tragedy. Otherworldliness? Don't people criticize the films for characters faking deaths, having massive schemes that always go according to plan, and shakespearean monologues? Aesthetics and the reasons why the characters look the way they do (make-up on The Joker) don't take away from the fact that characters have been very faithful to the source material.

As for the Obama-Avengers and Romney-Dark Knight thing....Bob I advise you to please read the comments that are lengthy. It's a chore but unlike the short "YOU SUCK BOB!" comments, you might actually find some arguments that completely counter to notion of the Nolan batfilms being Right-Wing. I've always seen TDK as a Left-Wing film myself.

As for The Avengers....I loved it, but it isn't saying shit. That's not a criticism, it doesn't need to say anything beyond teamwork and such. Objectively: It's a solid summer flick with good actors who deliver great dialogue...and not much else. So "Taste of your own medicine doctor" - You really do come off a a raving Marvel FANBOY!

Jeppe said...

you are losing your shit Bob... You are letting your "fanboyism" taking a crap all over your credibility.. Sad really..

Anonymous said...

oi...I head hurts. Don't always agree with ya Bob but I generally don't have issues when that's the case. This time I think you're oversimplifying the Batman's films and overestimating The Avengers. I love the Nolan Batfilms and find them very faithful. It bothers me when people act as though there needs to be asterix symbol beside them saying "Not Real Superhero films! Future ones need to stay as far away from this as possible!".

That aside I feel Bob is looking too close to the surface on The Dark Knight. It's a left-wing film and Batman, despite being rich, is a left-wing character. I couldn't say it any better than this guy:

James said...

Can we change his name from "Moviebob" to "Biased Bob" now?

PS Bob: Obama is as bad as Romney, and you're a left-wing Limbaugh

JamesT said...

I'm not on the side of those who see Nolan's bat films as Left-Wing, but I do think you are oversimplifying that The Dark Knight is a Right-Wing film. The movie certainly asks for certain liberties in a post-9/11 society, but Batman is ultimately repremanded for all the choices he made at the end of TDK.

His methods of wire-tapping and ultimately covering up the lie about Harvey Dent's death are where he all his unethical choices come back to haunt him. At the time, his actions were certainly necessary, but they were also under absolute extreme circumstances.

The rich is never seen as purely good in the Batman films, the only one who is, is Bruce himself. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight aim to villify most of the rich as the evil ones, in the form of mobsters, blackmalling employees and company executives. Batman is %1, but he's an incorruptable %1, something the world desperately needs. I've seen the films as more of a warning to the goverment and the rich as warnings. TDK being a warning to the government that their powerful hold on society such as the PATRIOT Act need to be kept in check. And if the ending I've heard is true for TDKR, then the final chapter also will be a warning to upperclass to sacrifice their wealth in effort to stabalize society and prevent a possible revolution among the masses.

Anyways, I've always seen Nolan's Batman films as looking explicitly at society and then using Batman as an image to say "THIS IS WHAT WE NEED TO FIX THESE PROBLEMS, A FIGURE OF AUTHORITY WHO WON'T ABUSE HIS POWER AND BE WILLING TO MAKE SACRIFICES TO HELP SOCIETY IN THE LONG RUN."

Anyway, obviously I don't agree with your sentiments, although I've only heard of plot spoilers for TDKR so I can't say for certain until after tonight. Regardless of my disagreement, it was a facinating read and worthy of examination.

Knoxy said...

Really well written stuff Bob, need a bit of time to process it before replying to the content, but it's certainly a commendable and much appreciated piece of work.

On another note your actually review has gone live on the escapist surprisingly early, is this deliberate?

Anonymous said...

Pretty weird theory, seeing as The Avengers actually contains an explicit onscreen "Fuck you Democrats!" at the end as a greedy Senator CLEARLY labeled "D-NY" rants about how the Avengers have destroyed the city and who's going to pay for this? Granted, I haven't seen TDKR yet, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that it doesn't bash Democrats as blatantly as The Avengers.

Oliver Orr said...

Bob, I love you madly and will always read your blog no matter what, but I do tend to think that you over-thought this one. I do see all the right-wingism in the Batman movies, but the Avengers as a left-wing film? I mean, I guess it could work theoretically, but a lot of what the movie stood for is ideal for both the Right and Left (if we can even still divide along that barrier).
If anything, X-Men seems like the Left-Wing idealist Marvel franchise, what with the under (and over) currents of equal rights regardless of sexual orientation or race.
Unfortunately, only two of the five X-Men movies can be classified, without qualifiers, as "good"

W.D. Conine said...

You know, any article that states an opinion, there will be a bad reaction. But it's hilarious to see almost all of Bob's posts getting these angry and dismissive comments.

If you don't like or agree with a website, you can stop visiting visiting the site.

If you don't appreciate Bob's writing or his view, you can stop visiting the site.

Hell, I don't even agree with him most of the time but I appreciate getting a different point of view.

Bob, keep up the good work. The amount of bullshit you put up with is both tragic and inspiring.

Silens Cursor said...

Huh, it appears I wasn't the only one to publish a long essay on political and symbolic elements of 'The Dark Knight' today.

Look, Bob, I actually find most of the stuff you talked about here rather interesting... BUT I also don't think you went as deep as you should have on 'The Dark Knight', particularly considering how much it built on the feudal political elements of 'Batman Begins'. Fortunately, I did it for you: - here's the commentary on 'Batman Begins' - and here's the commentary on 'The Dark Knight'

Look, I don't pretend to have entirely gotten every element in the film, but archly framing the US political debate through the battle between TDKR and The Avengers just doesn't cover everything.

Also, if we follow through with your analogy, where does 'The Amazing Spider-Man' come in? ;)

Anonymous said...


So Bob should live in a vacuum where all he does is preach to the choir without any discussion whatsoever? Why even post/publish anything unless you seriously only want people to parrot back that you are correct in everything you say. Not everyone who disagrees with Bob is a nutjob like James.

motyr said...

Interesting analysis. I hope that these points don't enter your criticism or exaltation towards either film, however. Disagreement vis-a-vis politics should not constitute a negative towards a work of art, instead one should judge a work on its success within said framework. Probably easier said than done.

jikotel said...

The movies Nolan has worked on are NOT right-wing at all. To even suggest that, would be calling Nolan an idiot of monumental proportions. Does anyone really think the guy who is so comfortable with writing about corporate espionage, and political corruption would have such a simple fucking point of view that filthy political pundits across the "spectrum" could comment on it so casually? This is why Inception was considered "deep", because people love to pretend they are fucking morons.

Omorka said...

I hated "Batman Begins" precisely because it wasn't a comic book movie, and haven't bothered with TDK; I probably won't see this one either, so I can't comment on its political leanings. The Marvel movies have been all over the map politically - the Iron Man movies have gone from progressive to reactionary within the space of a single scene, in particular. I suspect the usual timidity from the House of Mouse is at least partially responsible.

Having said that - did you get an allusion to the MLK "Arc of History" quote in there, or was that accidental? If the first, then good job!

Elessar said...

Even from your barebones description, I can already tell that you're looking too hard to make it conservative and I can actually say it's probably a call for balance (I'll say more when I've seen it in 4 hours). But here we go:

This basis for this is what you said about powerful police and overflowing prisons, IE a far right ideal (fascism). Bane comes along with his far left ideal (socialism). And how do we stop the far left and the far right fighting? By a team up of the left (Catwoman) and the right (Batman).

Not a bad argument from just having read your bit eh Bob?

Nathan Lickliter said...

Y'know, I get a laugh when ever Bob posts an article like this. Not from the article itself, mind you. But, from the people who comment railing Bob as a left wing limbaugh and so on. They do crack me up.

Anyway, to the topic at hand. While I appreciate Bob's take. I mean, we all do. That's why we read these things. I've never seen any of that stuff in any of the Marvel movies or the Dark Knight Trilogy. When I watch them, they are just enjoyable movies to me.

If I watch the Dark Knight, it isn't because I want to watch something about the Patriot Act. It's because I want to watch a psycho who dresses up as a bat beat up a psycho who dresses up as a high class clown. If I watch Avengers, it's because I want to watch a bunch of guys in wild outfits, some with wilder powers, beat up on a bunch of things that are coming out of a hole in the sky.

Why can't we get back to a point when movies didn't have to be dissected for political leaning or social meaning and just ENJOY THE FUCKING MOVIE!

Anonymous said...

...So Amazing Spider-Man is Jill Stein?

xaszatm said...

@Nathan Lickliter

To be fair, moviebob does mention both in this essay and in his movie review that the political "messages" are really minor things that you'll see only IF you are looking to hard at them and that the "message" in no way detracts from enjoying the film.

OT: Hmm, an interesting piece, to be honest, I like essays like this. You should to more of these more often. Since I have not seen the movie yet, I agree or disagree with you opinions at this point in time. Still, thanks for a fun read.

lemonvampire said...

Amazing essay, Bob. You did a really admirable job of approaching this topic as objectively as you could. We're all well aware of your own political leanings and writing an analysis of disparate political philosophies from an objective viewpoint without letting your own preferences dominate the topic is incredibly challenging, and I can see where you tried to keep an even head on this.
This is the kind of writing that keeps me coming back to your blog. Thanks Bob.

Redd the Sock said...

I guess I'll start with a pet peeze that anyone can take this as an Occupy alagory. The script was in the can and filming under way well before OWS became mainstream Early TEA Party and something prophetic about how it could be co-opted by people with ulterior motives, maybe. Hey, your description made Bane sound more like the Koch brothers to me.

Beyond that, god forbid stories be honest and admit that neither one side or the other is 100% right, and thus contain applicable morals from the left and the right. Comics often tread this line: promoting the general attitude of Great power = great responsibility, while the existance of the reoccuring bad guy is usually a great arguement for the death penalty. Villans range from the "anything for a buck" penguin to the environmental extremists like Poisin Ivy or Ra's al Ghul.

Sometimes it's comes down to perception of people whos politics are no less fanboyish than the old Marvel vs DC fights. Is TDK praise for the patriot act, or subtile jeering that Bush neither caught Bin Ladin with it, nor would have the conviction to scrap it if he did? Is the moral that only Bat-Mitt can save Gotham (the world) with his speccial skills, or is it that Gotham got that way due to Bat's inaction and apathy (I can't speak for the new film as to Bruce's absence from Gotham, but the absence of a good moral centre to Gotham in Begins was not big government, taxes, or regulation, but Bruce's self pitty.) Ass for Avengers, well, we need to work together is hardly a value to either the left or right, rather both think the other side is the one being obstinant and obstructionary (just listen to any right winger talk about how Obama is dividing the country that should be united.) Add in SHEILD's weapon stockpiling, and the secret shadow government and I question how left winging it is in it's entirety.

Still, most people will take away what they want to because that's sadly how were are: we want people to justify our opinions, not challenge them.

guyinthehat said...

It's a well written article Bob and you bring up some good points but I have to really disagree on this one. Sure there's some right-wing pro-Patriot Act stuff going on in TDK. But the film goes both ways, it shows the inherent failures of both the left and the right and how some of the morals on either side aren't wholly acceptable.

It places a negative mirror to both ends, reflecting society as a whole and the extremism that comes from biased political views. The ideals set place in the films only serve to question what's good and what's bad. There's a reason Batman is the Dark Knight and why he believes Harvey is a better purer side of justice than himself; hence Harvey being the White Knight of Gotham.

His ultimate fall from grace isn't symbolic of his inability to "fix a problem like The Joker" it's just a man ultimately brought to chaos through loss. Literally and physically splitting him into two different men aka heavy psychological trauma. He's still well meaning but he goes too far, stepping across the line and becoming an antagonist. That's the whole point of his character, to parallel Batman. "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." That's exactly what happened to him and Batman himself becomes the villain through his own actions.

This is getting long, but ultimately the film doesn't vilify one side over the other, rather it vilifies both. But God forbid a movie discuss the failings of the left-wing while occasionally praising the right. It shows the good and bad of both, it's not a one sided political statement.

I can only assume now that after this post, someone will take offense and get on me for disagreeing with Bob's opinion on an opinion blog. I'll only say this 1) he wouldn't post it and have a comment section if he didn't want to bring up discussion; especially an article like this and 2) I don't dislike him, I enjoy reading his opinions even if some of them are biased and superficial and I enjoyed this article. I didn't agree with it but it was well written, I enjoyed it and it made some strong points of its own, so let's take the hate comments out of the equation please.

The Dude said...

Good article, but I have one nit-pick. The interrogation in the Dark Knight didn't technically work. He didn't beat the information out of the Joker, the Joker voluntarily gave it to Batman.

guyinthehat said...

The Dude- Good point, I think the biggest point of that scene was to show that The Joker just doesn't care and that Batman's beat the snot out of people until they answer mentality doesn't always work. The Joker was going to give them the information regardless, that was his whole scheme pretty much anyways. Batman's beating him was pointless. And was actually a waste of time.

greg_coyote said...

Good article Bob. I personally think there's some conceptual overstretching here, especially when it comes to your take on the Avengers, but nonetheless you're an excellent writer and it's a pleasure reading a long form, well thought out post like this. More like this please!

Also: "It’s not simply Batman and Captain America staring one-another down across the field of the battle; it’s the assembled armies of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse – with the ghosts of Jack Warner and Walt Disney looming above like rival gods" - someone please write this fanfic.

guyinthehat said...

greg_coyote- agreed, that's an awesome image and would make an epic story lol.

Joe said...

@Nathan Lickliter:

Why can't we get back to a point when movies didn't have to be dissected for political leaning or social meaning and just ENJOY THE FUCKING MOVIE!

1) That point never existed.

2) For many of us, that is how we enjoy the movie. (q.v. "Moff's Law")

If you just want to sit back and "enjoy the fucking movie", why does it bother you if other people want to enjoy it in a different manner than you?

Joe said...

As an outsider, I find these political dichotomies extremely weird considering from an ideological perspective, there is almost no difference between Obama and Romney. The only substantial difference is in the populist rhetoric they give lip service to. Obama flatters the progressives and social liberals, while Romney kisses up to the religious conservatives and Tea Party crowd. But whoever gets in, it's going to be business as usual.

Blue Highwind said...

Well, Moviebob, you convinced me to vote Romney. Thanks.

Here I thought Obama vs Romney was just simply a choice between two political modes of thought with a little culture clash thrown in. Turns out its actually a choice between The Dark Knight and the Avengers. So in that case, if Batman equals Republican, I'll go Batman.

By the way, who is Spider-Man? The Whigs?

yamato-0 said...

Interesting read. However, I hope you're not insinuating that "genre deconstruction=conservative" whereas "troperrific=liberal" in all cases.

Sam Robards, Comic Fan said...

I read the whole piece, Bob, and while I appreciate you writing it, I've always been of the mind that superheroes, as a concept, were always a little Right of center, politically speaking.

The whole "individual/group works outside the system to right the wrongs the system can't/won't" thing always said "anti-government" to me, and since the perceived role of government is the key difference between the Right and Left of the American political spectrum, the concept always seemed Right of center.

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who argue that the concept is Left of center, though I just don't see it.

Oh well!

MongooseAndSteve said...

Clearly, if one movie swings moreso left and another slides moreso right, there needs to be a movie (in true spineless - rather, *pragmatic* - fashion) that shifts between the two. We need a movie that emphasizes the value of being flexible between rigid environments without adhering too seriously to ideas or individuals. A movie that shows it's as important for a person to be adaptable and evolving when you need to be, but firm and heavy-handed when the situation calls for it. That fighting authority creep AND anarchy creep is *twice* as fun as just accepting/rejecting one or the other; and sometimes, just sometimes, the only way we can get the things we want in life and help those we care about is by stretching ourselves to the limit (and for others to stretch with us).

That's right. We need a Plastic Man movie.

Eze said...

I myself have posted my thoughts on the whole "Avengers vs. Dark Knight" situation:

If you like, have a read.

NotAnonymous said...

Comic book heroes are inherently fascist, that was one of the points to Watchmen. An individual who is stronger and smarter than the populace enforces his/her moral beliefs on them is very right-wing, and most superheroes do that.

I have to say though, describing the character beats of the Avengers: there not liberal, there tropes. The plot in the Avengers is so basic that any subtext will be incredibly general and would apply to many other films. The Avengers is as much of a strictly liberal film as, I don't know, King Arthur. The Avengers was so broad that assigning it an ideology is disingenuous.

In TDKR, the duped masses are riled up against the establishment by a charismatic leader who was brought into Gotham by very rich men who were trying to game the system and make it better for themselves. If you want to got out of your way to make real world connections, than the unwashed masses calling for anarchy sound a lot more like the Tea Party than the Occupiers. Daggett might as well been called Koch. Even after Daggett has been disposed of, Bane is leading the masses with false proclamation on a path that he knows will lead to everyone's ruin. The only goals it accomplishes are his own, which is much more in line with the crooks who secretly run the show. Bane knows that he has to pretend to be one of the people.

Honestly though, enough of a mythology and back-story was created in the Nolanverse so that it didn't directly relate to our world, and I think it's better for it. The film takes place in Gotham, not Manhattan. Batman is not strictly limited to representing the 1%, and Bane is not strictly limited to representing the 99%. In fact, I don't believe he represents them at all. Bane represents the League of Shadows, an organization that exists exclusively in the Batman universe and doesn't have a simple real world connection besides crazed conspiracy theories.

Continued in next post.

NotAnonymous said...

You said it yourself Bob, the film only pays lip service and doesn't delve into the topics the same way TDK did. The film was inspired more by the French Revolution by way of Dickens than by Goldman Sachs protesters. I don't know which of the writers tries to make it more topical (I'm hedging my bets that it's Goyer and not either of the Nolans) but it shouldn't be what most people talk about. This film, like the first film more so than the second, was about Batman and the world he fights for.

In general, The Dark Knight series of films (all 3) is too nuanced and the Avengers is not nuanced enough. The Avengers probably had plenty of right-wing fans and left-wing fans, and I believe it would be giving even Joss Whedon too much credit to think he was that subversive. Remember, there was a scene where Nick Fury disobeys the order of the shadowy government cabal and sends his team in to take care of the invasion without approval. That same government office, that tactfully went unnamed so that it could be argued that it wasn't a part of the government, then decided that they were better off nuking the island and killing all of the civilians. For such a seemingly liberal movie they seem to show a lot of disrespect towards the government.

Bob your argument seems to be that despite the fact that claiming that either of these films align strictly with one ideology was not only unintentional but patently false, we the people will align them ourselves anyways so that the campaign will have a pithier more soundbite ready story. We do this because the cultural zeitgeist is a dumb mob that loves to simplify matters, removing excess details until they lose their original meaning. The only people who will take up either the "Romney=Batman" or "Avengers=Obama" are not only not looking into the films properly, but they are not looking into the issues properly either. Both films have enough fans on either side that neither would let the other side take responsibility for it. Come election time these people will continue to be duped by public figures who claim to fight for them, but are actually working to destroy what they stand for.

Hey, I saw something like that in a movie recently.

Zeno said...

Doing an analysis based on a traditional left/right dichotomy is pointless; both sides are incoherent, inconsistent, and not based on any moral principle.

Anonymous said...

"It’s the story of a world that’s bending, however slow, toward a better tomorrow"

The economy is at historic lows.
The national debt has never been higher.
America's credit rating is gone (for the first time in it's history).
The price of gas is astronomical.
All of my friends are out of work.

The future's bright.

Jeffmc2000 said...

People are missing the bigger picture of this post, which is not just whether Avengers or Batman is liberal or conservative, but that the franchises, while ostensibly in the same genre, are the exact opposite of each other in every major way. So if you are going to ascribe political affiliations to one, you sort of have to think the other might lean in the opposite direction, which is really nothing more than a fishing expedition, but it's a fun exercise, nonetheless.

In terms of intent, there's no way the Dark Knight has any real statement to make affirming conservative politics, just because the writers and director are very intelligent people, and so not prone to proscribing easy answers to complicated situations---one of the main tenets of conservative ideology (as in "nuke 'em all and let God sort 'em out", or "hangin's too good for 'em.").
But that doesn't mean you can't look beneath the surface of this 80 year-old franchise and find some interesting themes that may not be particularly relevant when looking at a two-dimensional comic book adventure set in fantasyland, but maybe stand out in an unintended way when those same stories are transposed to a gritty, real-world environment.

JamesT said...

Now that I've seen the film, I'm standing by my original statement that TDKR isn't Anti-Occupy, but it's certainly Anti-revolution. But it also puts a lot of pressure on the 1% to fix the problem and prevent the revolution. It's Anti-Ocuupy the movement, but it's Pro-Occupy the ideals.

Unfortunately, the doesn't change the fact the movie is kind of disappointingly average.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I guess if you look at them from the surface, the Dark Knight Trilogy is anti-occupy and pro-1%.

If you look at them in more details they're kind of just a commentary and how humans respond to situations, and often characters suffer or are scolded for taking these right-wing approaches...arguably making more left-leaning than anything.

But whatever Bob needs to do to make him feel that two films of equal strengths and flaws are somehow drastically different in film quality enough to praise The Avengers as the second coming of superhero films (Note: It's not).

Hyena said...

I can't help but notice..
Bob dislikes the Right wing of American politics... Bob also dislikes Nolan's take on Batman. Thusly, Nolan's Batman is compared with Right wing political ideology, conveniently combining BOTH things Bob dislikes into convenient single package.

Bob LOVED Avengers. Bob LOVES Whedon. Bob LOVES left wing politics.
Avengers magically = Left wing ideology to Bob.

Nope, no coincidences here.

But I will say, this was an extremely well written essay and it is my wish that as many people as possible at least read it and consider the points he made... for food for thought, not as a reason to fight and further divide the nation along socio-political lines.

Michael Harris said...

To your point, Bob, I have been thinking about the old adage: "Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line" when applied to their candidates. I can actually see that with these two movies. People are wild about the Avengers and they don't really see the need to defend their love because in their eyes it was exactly how it was supposed to be. If you look at the comments from the people for The Dark Knight Rises you will see many of the fans not only defending their product but bashing people who like Marvel in the same post. I think that this has to do with how those people take their product. Even if there is a legitamate argument to be had in the film you can't voice it because Nolan knows all and we should just fall in line and "In Nolan we trust." It is an interesting examination even if it is very subjective.

Just for reference (read: a shield for those pointing to biases) I liked Avengers more than TDKR, but I liked Dark Knight more than Avengers in a "this really isn't a Batman movie more of a big budget arthouse drama sort of way."

cdstephens said...

Nice analysis Bob. Maybe a bit too much hyperbole and your distaste for Nolan's efforts to make the Batman movies more "realistic" shows, but still good stuff. It reminds me of an article I read on Cracked:

Basically it discusses how The Dark Knight's plot relates to the war on terror: the Joker using suicide bombers (the cell phone guy), wire tapping, etc.

I felt though that making a connection between left-wing politics and The Avengers seemed a little forced. It might be though that there is a crystal clear connection between right-wing ideology and Batman.

As to people accusing Bob of being biased: he's gonna have a political opinion whether you like it or not. It may show up from time to time in his writing, but he still makes good points nonetheless.

Chris Cesarano said...

I'm just going to go ahead and skip the discussions above because I imagine it'll make me angry or depressed.

I can't say much about Christopher Nolan, but if Joss Whedon wanted to make a political statement in The Avengers it would have been very, VERY obvious. The man has a tendency to preach with his material, and it has downright ruined an episode of Firefly for me and makes certain episodes of Dollhouse tough because he's simply not good at it. Maybe out in LA he seems like a clever political smart guy, but most of the time when he "makes a statement" in his shows or anything, he's saying something that sounds like a high school teenager that imagines himself to be enlightened.

Joss Whedon is best when his philosophies are more subdued in an effort to push the story forward. Dr. Horrible is okay with this, not great, but The Avengers seems to be him keeping himself under control. Do you know how shocked I was when Captain America said "There's only one God, ma'am, and he doesn't dress like that!"? I mean, it was no surprise that all my conservative friends made a big deal out of it, but I know what Joss Whedon feels about Christianity. That he included that line actually was a big deal to me because it meant he was willing to be as true to the nature of these characters as possible regardless of his own personal thoughts.

Does Christopher Nolan have any such statements or political affiliations? Honestly, I really can't tell. Between his Batman films, Memento, The Prestige and Inception, he...well, he likes to make deep cinema.

I'd rather hear the directors themselves discuss any subliminal (maybe a bad word to use?) meaning to their films, but I imagine The Avengers was pretty much blockbuster stuff with The Dark Knight Rises being slightly elevated blockbuster shlock.

Though oddly enough, I find this focus on Bruce Wayne kind of funny. I look at the trilogy, and it is about Batman saving Gotham. Does he do it with money or politics? No. By TDKR, it is rather obvious that Batman is trying to save Gotham by giving the citizens a symbol to hope for, to strive for, and ultimately to save themselves and take back their city.

It's actually a very similar goal that Bane is supposedly preaching, but the methods and targets are different. If anything, Bruce Wayne is a lot more like Obama as a symbol for hope and change.

I guess it just depends on what perspective you choose to have...and mine is that both films were written and directed by men that have their own political idealogies, one loud spoken and one not, that were more focused on telling a story about super heroes while drawing from the real world for inspiration. I do not think either film is intended to make a statement.

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AlaskaFinal said...

Avengers I'd say has Libertarian elements to it.

Iron Man already did in 2 when Tony flat-out denied the Senate's appeal that he should turn over his suits to the U.S. Gov't, and Tony pointed out that would make him a slave, as his heart-thing was tied to the suits technology.

In Avengers, Loki's and Thor's first talk about "Power would suit you ill", not to mention the comeback of the old man at the Austrian opera house "There will always be men like you."

Not trusting, full-faith in authority as Captain America learned, then the same lesson Nick Furry learned when he tried to overrule his superiors about using a nuke...

So, Liberal? Yes, but in the classical sense, and which isn't antithetical to Conservatism.

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