If you follow my Twitter at all you may have picked up that I went to see the latest (and last) Christopher Nolan installment of the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. You may also have picked up that I found the film problematic, partly in terms of the plot – which seemed over-convoluted and lacking true coherence, but also in terms of the way this plot was presented. In short, there are ideas in there, but they need more work and a better editor. Oh, and less ridiculous bangs and crashes. Zizek has attempted some kind of intelligent critique of the film here, but, having read it, I’m not convinced that he’s that convinced about the robustness of his interpretation (especially given the slap-dash grammar etc.)
A couple of days after seeing it, it’s the bangs and crashes that have caused me most thought, and I feel that the violence in the film is deeply problematic. Let me be clear, this isn’t a post about violence in films per se. You might have views on how graphic and violent films should be, but that’s for another space.
What’s been of interest to me is Batman’s use of violence. As fan-sites will tell you, Batman does not use guns, and Batman never kills. Not the real Batman. This point is explicitly made in Nolan’s film, where he convinces an aid to dispose of his weapon and fight, we presume Batman-style.
The problem is, what is Batman’s style? He is committed to not using handguns, but out of his Bat-cave makes use of a highly weaponised, missile-laden motorbike, and a helicopter-style aeroplane which carries numerous powerful weapons – all of which are made use of by Batman as he goes about his crime-stopping. Missiles are fired at enemies, and vehicles containing enemies. And, in The Dark Knight Rises, these vehicles are ones which have been commandeered by his opponents from Batman’s own depository of high-tech armaments and military equipment.
Batman does not fight with guns, but Bruce Wayne funds Batman’s ideological stance on hand-to-hand fighting through the massively profitable Wayne Enterprises, which makes some of its money through sales of weapons systems.
What are we to make of this? At arms length, at a distance, Batman is happy to use missiles to blow things apart and, as an inevitable consequence, risk major harm to people. Not only that, he is happy to fund his Batman persona through the sales of weapons which others will inevitably use to kill and maim. But, when it comes to hand-to-hand conflict… Batman won’t use guns. He wants to punch and kick and headbutt. One can only surmise that he prefers to feel the proper physical impacts of his fights, and somehow enjoys the thrill of feeling the punches hit. Theoretically, the people at Wayne could develop sophisticated stun-gun technologies which could disarm and disable enemies from a safe distance, but Batman – and Bruce Wayne behind him – are suckers for physical pain.
I think this leaves the film with some major problems. Batman’s ethical stance on violence is completely flawed, as is Bruce Wayne’s too. The nuclear weapon at the centre of the film is a clean-energy fusion reactor that Bruce Wayne mothballed when he realised it could be weaponised… and yet in the next warehouse he has an array of sophisticated weaponry that he is willing to sell to make his millions.
In short, I just didn’t buy it. A far better meditation on the use of violence comes in Alan Moore’s Watchman, where one retired Masked Hero develops a weapon so powerful, alien and destructive it will shock the world into peace. It is the moral dilemma of this path to peace that the book (and film) explores… Batman, on the other hand, attempts a blithe moral highground by refusing to use guns… while all the time surrounding himself and supporting this stance with arms a-plenty.
It’s all too common a philosophy – one that we see in the poverty of the philanthropy of hardcore capitalists, or the green-wash of those who insist on Fair Trade coffee at Starbucks. The problems are deeper, more systemic. But to challenge at that level would require Batman to give up the thing he truly loves: smashing people in the face. POOOOOOOW.