Thoughts on The Dark Knight: Weaponised Violence, and Hand-to-Hand Fighting

by , under Arts, Culture

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.


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  1. camostar

    Haha, Batman. Maybe it’s not so much that Bruce enjoys an old-fashioned fist fight but that it helps him believe he’s not really hurting people, by not killing them with guns and only beating them up pretty bad. But really? Doesn’t Zizek’s critique of the good capitalist fail for its universalism? Aren’t we all good capitalists? Zizek doesn’t exactly live in poverty (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/jun/10/slavoj-zizek-humanity-ok-people-boring). I could really have chosen a less well-paid job and start eating bread and butter instead of takeaways all the time. The problem is that the moral, not just the life of disconnected spiritual piety, but the moral that sees ourselves responsible for the suffering of others (the two are probably not that easily inseparable), is infinitely unfulfillible, as Paul makes the point that law is impossible because of sin and Jesus does also by revealing the infinite requirements of something that was interpreted too literally (eg. murder extends to hate, adultery to lust). An accusation on Batman’s hypocrisy relocates his actions from the absolute (guns are bad; I will therefore not use them) to the relative (all of my actions are more or less an expression of using guns). But it lacks universal relativity: All actions negatively affect other people in some way. So the coffee drinker who chooses Fair Trade over regular may think they are contributing to a better society, but in actuality they are a part of the problem because they think they are solving it. Moreover, that they have money to buy coffee, an arguable non-necessity, is a further symptom of the larger problem.

    Confronted with this, Batman has two options (there are probably others but I lack the vision): (a) To live a life of ‘repentance’, beginning by removing missiles from his vehicles, changing his target market, eventually realising that his speculating also contributes to the violence, eventually renouncing all direct physical violence he engages in and eventually, I don’t know, joining with the people towards economic equality or something, yet continually threatened (?) by his inability to live up to his ideals and live a life that is actually going to positively reduce violence in Gotham City. Or (b) despairingly consider the infinite requirements of repentance to an extent that shocks him into inaction, a complete fear of change that reinforces to him that what he is doing is making a difference and that is all that he can do because he lacks the sacrifice to take his no-gun logic any further — that the same hypocrisy defines the actions of everyone else so that you might as well embrace it and maintain the status quo.

  2. Jay

    Where do I start… Wayne Industries manufacturing of weapons, Weapons were made by the company from the time Bruce became an orphan at age 8 till his return from his league of shadows training which is about 20years. You need to go back and watch the first movie, Bruce had no part in Wayne industries making weapons (Applied Sciences) he had to buy a majority of stock so he could run his fathers company. More than likely his father never would have let the company make weapons do to the fact he was a medical doctor and was trying to restore peace to Gotham. The reason Bane was abele to get all those weapons is because Mr.Fox (Morgan Freeman) had been trying to retrieve them so he could store them in one place so no one but batman (Who had retired at this point) would have access to them. I will return with more latter, for now I must retire to the Batcave.

  3. KB

    Good stuff Camostar, and Jay too… Here’s my thing – I’m not ’embedded’ in the Batman back story… I don’t know the full history etc. And I think this is a tension within the films – with all films that are adaptations in a way. There will be some parts of the audience who are so embedded in the history already that they don’t need bringing up to speed, and don’t need things signposting. Then there are others who, in order to ‘get’ parts of it, do need these things. So that can be a dilemma for the film-maker… one which I think all of the Harry Potter directors (a series of stories I am embedded in) got wrong.
    So I guess I’m saying I want to trust you on this Jay…but at the same time think that the editors needed to do a better job with balance and communication. Perhaps (PERHAPS) I need to watch it again. May be we should put it on at Wayne Towers in Mayo Drive when I’m over in October, then you can get me up to speed. And then kill me with your bare hands 😉

  4. Ash

    I think Jay makes an excellent point. I, too, never read the Batman comic books, and I watched the older movies when I was too young to remember much of them. My only real engagement with Batman has been the Nolan films.

    But the first of these makes it very clear that it is the Board of Wayne Enterprises who pursued the weaponry wing of business. Wayne’s father’s tenure saw the development of the body armour and the ‘cape’ technology, which, as Fox explained, was designed to save the lives of soldiers. BUT the cost was too high, the military was not prepared to spend $100,000 per soldier on armour, and the operation was retired.

    Wayne asks Fox to mothball all of the weaponry programmes when he takes over the company.

    The real plot hole, though, is that if the Board were running the operations, surely they’d recognise the tech Batman uses and figure out his identity pretty quickly… As would the engineers who built it all.

  5. matybigfro

    Isn’t Batmans choice not to kill less about non-violence and more about choosing justice over revenge. As opposed to the league of shadows, Batman is renouncing the title of Judge, Jury and Executioner as killing would be tantamount to taking all those roles. He leave’s criminal’s alive so that they can be arrested, sentenced and punished by the state.

    As such there’s no conflict for Bruce Wayne to allow his company to develop military weapons for the US Military as there is no critique of violence or the state from Batman.