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Critical Appraisals: The political economy of the Dark Knight

November 21, 2009 3 comments

by Karl Wolff


I.     Introductory Quotations

“Money declares war on the whole of humanity.”

Pierre le Pesant, sieur de Boisguilbert

Vicki Vale: What do you want?
The Joker: My face on the one dollar bill.
Vicki Vale: You must be joking.
The Joker: Do I look like I’m joking?

Batman (1989)

Meadow Soprano: Our dads are in the garbage business, and it’s always good for a laugh. And, yeah, they brush up against organized crime. But, do you think they control every slime ball and illegal gun in like a hundred communities? The fact that you could even say this in front of an outsider is amazing to me!

The Sopranos, Episode 3.13, “Army of One”, 2001

II.  Batman, Wayne Enterprises, and limitless capital


Thomas Wayne: Gotham’s been good to our family. But the city’s been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times. So we built a new, cheap, public transportation system to unite the city. And at the center … Wayne Tower.

Batman Begins (2005)

In the opening sequence of the Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan), a bank robbery occurs.  The bank robbers rob a mob bank, a new twist on an old action movie trope.  The opening sequence also introduces a theme that will continue throughout the entire film: money.  The corrupt world of Gotham City commodifies everything.  People and institutions, faced with fear and desperation, have no means to escape the pressures forced upon them.

Enter the Hero.  Batman embodies the comic book trope of the Heroic Billionaire.  This essay seeks to explore the subterranean connections created by money.  Money, as a means of exchange, becomes both the corruptor and the liberator in Gotham City.  On an abstract level, it is the eternal conflict of Good and Evil.  On a practical level, it is the millionaire mobsters against the billionaire Wayne.

In the Dark Knight and the previous film, Batman Begins, the viewer recognized the limitless wealth of Wayne Enterprises.  Wayne Enterprises built the mass transit system and has control of the utilities.  While Bruce Wayne and his family receive the usual hagiographic characterizations, certain board members are seen as nefarious but the near-monopolistic control of the city by Wayne Enterprises is never addressed, at least not in explicitly.

Given the control and capital of Wayne Enterprises, how culpable is it for the depression in Batman Begins?  When power becomes concentrated in a single organization, it is susceptible to collapse.

While Bruce Wayne combats organized crime in heroic fashion with cool, expensive equipment, how does he characterize the attack on Gotham City?  Is Bruce Wayne the good king defending the city gates against the barbarians?  Does he consider it an attack on private property?  When not fighting crime, Wayne is purchasing hotels and chic restaurants.  When economic control becomes nearly monopolistic, how can one compete?  How can one make a living?

Lau (Chin Han) is good with numbers.

When Batman apprehends Lau (Chin Han), the Chinese businessman and “glorified accountant,” the limitless capital gets applied to extrajudicial crime fighting.  Although Lau does not know it, he shares the same socioeconomic class as Bruce Wayne, albeit within the New Money nomenklatura that comprise the New China.  Using his money and his connections, Batman goes where the working class police can not.  Lau thought his wealth and power could insure the criminal element of Gotham City have their ill-gotten earnings secured.  Batman, in an uncanny reflection of modern times, performs an extraordinary rendition of Lau.

The crossing of national borders is also reminiscent of pre-9/11 film Clear and Present Danger and post-9/11 film Syriana.  Since Batman operates as an individual meting out vigilante justice, he stands beyond the strictures and budgetary confines of law enforcement and covert operations.  In that way, he is the perfect weapon of the Gotham City Police Department.

Batman’s vast capital finances his armor and weaponry, but his use of non-fatal weaponry and his commitment not to kill remain both his heroic virtue and his Achilles Heel.

III.  Old Money and Ethnic Entrepreneurship

Wayne Manor (Old Money)

Alfred Pennyworth: [walking through the Batcave] In the Civil War, your great-great grandfather was involved in the underground railroad, secretly transporting free slaves to the North. And I suspect these caverns came in handy.

Batman Begins (2005)

Bruce Wayne is Old Money.  The gangsters represent New Money.  The gangsters also represent ethnic entrepreneurship, since the membership includes criminals from Italian-American, African American, and Eastern European communities.  When they recruit the services of Chinese accountant Lau, they up the ante by using the powers of Chinese authoritarian capitalism against Wayne’s monopolistic business empire.

The Dark Knight unintentionally reinforces the stereotype that WASP capital (Wayne) is good while ethnic capital (Sal Maroni, the Chechen, Gambol, etc.) are evil.  The stereotype has historical precedent, since every ethnic cohort that enters the United States has to start from zero.  As the quote above indicates, the Wayne family had an immense fortune even in the days of the Civil War.  The Old Money family is analogous to real-world examples like the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and Bushes.

Why do the bad guys have to be “ethnic”?

In order to crawl up the greased pole of economic advancement, it is inevitable for some members of first- and second-generation immigrant communities to join gangs or to work for organized crime.  The Godfather series explores the corrupting effects of capitalism on the Corleone family.  The TV series the Sopranos extends the exploration begun in the Godfather.  Tony Soprano has acquired the legitimacy for which Michael Corleone fought.  Unlike Corleone, Tony Soprano lives in the suburbs and exists as a normal American dealing with normal American afflictions like nervous breakdowns and affluenza.  The Sopranos have crossed the threshold of their working-class roots to implant themselves in the suburbs.

The Godfather (1972) and the Sopranos (1999 – 2007): Made in America.

In their quest to rid themselves of their Batman problems, the gangsters unleash the chaotic force of the Joker.  Unlike the gangsters, the Joker really does not care for money as a commodity.  It’s a useful bargaining tool like human lives, but money does another thing he likes.  It burns.

IV.   “From one professional to another”

“This American system of ours … call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.”

Al Capone

“From one professional to another …” So begins a throwaway line spoken by mob boss Sal Maroni to Batman.  The scene is worth dissecting.  How different are these two individuals?  On a superficial level, both like the finer things in life and both can use women as ornamental accessories.  Wayne has his prima ballerina and Maroni has his mistress who he prefers gorgeous and silent.  Maroni has a more pronounced accent and earns his money illegally.

He can survive the onslaught of Joker, but can he survive a town hall meeting?

Both Maroni and Wayne communicate through extralegal violence.  In the case of Gotham City, the Police Department use Batman as a proxy to solve their problems.  The United States uses the Central Intelligence Agency in the same way.  CIA covert operations sometimes depend on hiring indigenous proxies for intelligence gathering and intimidation.  Since these proxies are paid, the intelligence gathered lack quality and reliability.  One remembers the unreliability of Ahmad Chalabi following the US invasion of Iraq.  Batman is not paid by the Gotham Police, but the Police become overly dependent on him and his extralegal methods.  The situation becomes even more muddy when one discovers members of the Police were threatened and bought off by both Maroni and the Joker.  In the film Traffic, local police look at the job as an entrepreneurial endeavor.  A similar situation plagues the Gotham Police.  In our culture, with the idols of “tax cuts” and “drowning the beast” (also known as draining the finances of government), we should learn this lesson.  Unless our law enforcement officials receive adequate pay and adequate equipment, they could be bought off.  The Dark Knight shows how civil society is much better under the protection of devoted civil servants than mercenaries.

Another purveyor of extralegal justice.

When the Joker arrives on the scene, he only needs to touch a few vulnerable points.  A few delicate taps and the entire system will collapse on itself.  The Joker even mocks business speak when he says,

“Now, our operation is small, [grabs a pool cue] but there’s a lot of potential for … aggressive expansion! So, which of you fine gentlemen would like to join our team?”

Like some dark variation of Bill Lumbergh from Office Space (1999, Mike Judge), the Joker mocks the banalities we hear everyday in cubicles.

V.     Gotham City: criminal anarchy vs. corporate oligarchy

“Let us build a structure of peace in the world in which the weak are as safe as the strong — in which each respects the right of the other to live by a different system — in which those who would influence others will do so by the strength of their ideas, and not by the force of their arms.”

Richard Nixon, Second Inaugural Address (1973)


The Dark Knight varies the theme examined in Batman Begins.  In Batman Begins, Batman confronts a plethora of villainy: mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson); lunatic psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy); Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and the League of Shadows; along with an amoral board of directors at Wayne Enterprises run by Earle (Rutger Hauer).  While Earle and Carmine Falcone want to make a buck, legal or not, the League of Shadows represents an apocalyptic Puritanism, a psychotic cross between Cotton Mather and Travis Bickle.

Wayne Manor burning around them, Ducard gives a memorable monologue:

Bruce Wayne: You’re gonna destroy millions of lives.
Ra’s al Ghul: Only a cynical man would call what these people have “lives,” Wayne. Crime, despair… this is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.

Carmine Falcone and his successor Sal Maroni, like Batman, want order.  Ducard, like Batman, wants to clean up Gotham’s corruption.  Ducard chooses an annihilating chemical weapon, Batman puts his faith in the justice system and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman).

In the Dark Knight, Batman has disrupted criminal order to such a degree that the mob bosses have to meet in daylight.  The mob bosses naively hire the Joker to get rid of Batman.  It is not too hard to read into this, since the United States bankrolled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to oust the Soviets.  One should never underestimate their hired proxies.

Following the apprehension of Lau, the Gotham City Police make a major bust.  Over five hundred criminals get captured.  District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) explains how the top-level guys will get appeals, but the mid-level guys will not be able to.  When a war is on, then no one is earning.  The newfound hope in defeating organized crime is dashed when the body of a Batman copycat hits the Mayor’s window.

Joker, a self-described “agent of chaos”, wants to turn Gotham into anarchy.  For a real life example of anarchy, one need look no further than Somalia or Afghanistan.  Like Satan in Paradise Lost, he also gets the best lines, this time commenting on the thin veneer veiling our social order.

Batman: You’re garbage who kills for money.
The Joker: Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

Gazing at the world after 9/11 – the excesses of the PATRIOT ACT, the tortures of Abu Ghraib and the “justifications” for contravening the Geneva Convention via legal briefs written by Alberto Gonzalez and John Yoo, the “war of choice” in Iraq, the war profiteering, and the unscrupulous reaping the rewards of the politics of fear – one can see that the Joker, while abhorrent and evil, is not inaccurate in his assessment of humanity.  Even those under the flag of a sovereign nation can act like Ducard and other exterminating angels who want to make the world “better” or at least more profitable to their campaign contributors.  Unlike other apocalyptic films and their yearning for simplicity, the Dark Knight sheds a light on the moral complexities and terrible choices we have to make when confronted with desperate situations.

The Joker possesses a genius for exploiting the vulnerabilities of his antagonists.  He does not care how much money the mob bosses pay him, so long as they understand they represent the subservient party in the transaction.  The same goes for Batman.  He says he needs Batman.  “You complete me,” the Joker says in another dark parody, this time degrading their epic battle and urban conflagration to the catch phrase of a romantic comedy.  He knows Batman possesses near limitless wealth and an abundance of expensive weapons, but there are some things even capital cannot protect.

Nudging the populace little by little with terror and violence, the Joker turns Gotham City into a Hobbesian nightmare, a reincarnation of Scarecrow’s psychedelic nightmares that destroyed the Narrows.  A hospital destroyed, people murdered, and barges filled with criminals and civilians set to blow each other up, Batman can only do so much.

V.   The limits of capital

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. (5.6)

Ludwig Wittgenstein,Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

In the end, the Dark Knight offers a glimpse at a world “gilt but not golden,” to quote Algernon Charles Swinburne.  It is a film about limits.  Batman, an ordinary man transformed by his capital, his technology, and his sense of mission, into a superhero and hope for a city once again threatened by terror and chaos.

Nevertheless, the transformations of capital can only do so much for Gotham City.  He cannot save Rachel Dawes from her fate and the “social experiment” on the ferries reveals how ordinary people can become the real heroes.  The criminals and “scum” on the ferry expose the venality and banality of middle class platitudes in one of the best non-action scenes of the film.  Criminals, whose only currency is cigarettes, exhibited humanity and decency, while the other ferry wanted to destroy the ferry and hopefully their middle class guilt.  Since this is a piece of fiction, it is hard to tell how this “social experiment” could have ended in real life.  The Dark Knight revealed a world pushed to the brink of chaos and the poisoned chalice of authoritarian salvation.  Lucius Fox is dismayed at Batman’s strategy of total surveillance, a thin recreation of the short-lived Total Information Awareness program concocted after 9/11.

Our tragedy, while it did give birth to monsters, also showed the world how we could come together and act decently. The power of capital can only go so far.  It is not a means of salvation any more than Marx’s mythical “classless society.”  Money played a pivotal role throughout the Dark Knight, whether Bruce Wayne’s billions and Sal Maroni’s riches.  The Joker traded in the currency of fear and terror.  Unfortunately for him, his “social experiment” failed and his currency suddenly plummeted in value, worth no more than a US dollar against the British pound.

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LEONARD BERNSTEIN!

November 17, 2009 Leave a comment

by Matt Christman

Divining cinematic trends from serendipitous release dates is usually a mug’s game, but when five movies about the end of the world come out within a few months of each other, especially given the relative scarcity of apocalyptic films since the end of the Cold War, it’s not going too far to suspect you’re catching a glimpse of the zeitgeist.

The fall/winter movie season is giving viewers their flavor of Armageddon: the secular (Zombieland and The Road), New Age pseudoscientific (2012) and religious (The Book of Eli and Legion), all crafted to appeal to a different subset of the coveted 18-35 white male demographic.  Some of them deal with the spectacle of destruction that will come with the end of the world, others focus more on the Mad Max-ey task of rebuilding society in a world without plumbing or non-ragged clothing.

It’s probably a coincidence that this deluge of end times films, the first since the mid-80s era of nuclear saber rattling, is coming during a time of economic instability unseen for generations.  But perhaps this renewed interest in the collapse of civilization reflects a creeping suspicion that the “great recession” isn’t like past downturns. Even as the stock market rebounds and bailed out investment banks rack up profits the economy continues to shed jobs, with no one capable of articulating exactly where new jobs could possibly come from.

Deindustrialization has turned huge swathes of the Rust Belt into sets for the next round of post-apocalyptic thrillers, and ever-exploding personal debt is crippling the service and consumer economy that was supposed to replace manufacturing in the first place. What’s next? “Green jobs?”  Given that our sclerotic government is incapable of even reforming a manifestly broken health care system, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be able to summon the collective will for the massive public investment necessary to reorient the entire American energy infrastructure. The same governmental gridlock that will probably doom any effort at recreating a sound foundation for the economy is also ensuring that nothing meaningful will be done to combat global warming until it’s too late.  Just as we all suspect that this new economic order will feature mass unemployment and chronic crisis, we know that runaway carbon emissions, ocean acidification and the continued depletion of fossil fuels could likewise spell the end of our comfortable lives of compulsive amusement and heedless waste. We look around our couches uneasily, just waiting for the cracks in the foundation to spread.

If this swirling vortex of economic collapse and environmental catastrophe have given credibility to cinematic apocalyptic visions, what could make people want to seek out such visions for entertainment purposes?  Our latent anxiety about impending doom is mixed with a giddy anticipation for oblivion.  Not only would the apocalypse offer the greatest spectacle in the lives of people conditioned above all to crave the spectacular, but it would signal the end of every mundane stress factor and petty indignity that make up an existence marked alternately by the dull and the disheartening. If we survived the mass destruction, we would live in a new world governed by the fight-or-flight response, not the intricate and soul-crushing array of social norms, economic necessities and personal failings that rule our day-to-day.  It would mean a return to the nasty, brutish and unrestrained lives our bodies were evolved for.

Of course, all of these dreams of postapocalyptic adventure are predicated on the assumption that we will be among the few survivors of such a cataclysm.  We’re going to be in the plane with John Cusack, not in the car tumbling off the highway into the yawning abyss below.  We’re going to be Viggo Mortenson, not some anonymous burned-over carcass. Even in the face of a world annihilating catastrophe, we cannot abandon our subjectivity. In the end, we can never really accept the fact of our own deaths, even given the overwhelming statistical likelihood that any apocalyptic scenario would kill every single person who went to see 2012 this weekend.  But the end of the world is just like the lottery: someone’s got to win.

What we do here …


bobs

Bob Slydell: What would you say ya do here?

Office Space (1999)

“Coffee is for closers” is, in a nutshell, a look at the intersections between pop culture and politics.  Staffed by two hyper-educated historians who aren’t above using a pop cultural footnote to prove a point, we seek to entertain and educate.

What can a reader expect from this blog? Long-form posts on everything from the political economy of the Dark Knight to the resurgence of apocalyptic cinema, Battlestar Galactica and the post-9/11 mindset, and a critical examination of Atlas Shrugged.  There will also be Point-Counterpoint and discussions of topics with scholarly depth and pointed snark.

We’re not just another political blog and we’re not just some pop culture blog.  A bit of both and neither.  Another mutant bastard stepchild of the Internet.