“Is there a place, in a disoriented world, for a new style of heroism?”
So this is what a culturalist reading of Man of Steel would be like: Ah, the alien, initially feared by the Americans, eventually gets around to loving our way of life, saving our world as we know it, and we accepting and tolerating his difference. The integration into the American dream. Likewise, the Christian symbolism throughout the movie was too obvious to miss. In that one scene, where after a conversation with the image of his father in that spaceship thingy, Superman falls back to the earth cutting a Christ-on-the-cross like image, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to that biblical verse from John 3:16, considered by many to be the essence of Christian theology, “For god so loved the world that he gave his only son and those who believe in him shall not perish but have life eternal.” So there it is, Zack Snyder’s good movie for liberal Christian, multiculturalist consciences.
But what if Superman was an adherent of biblical radicalism? An incarnation of that ‘other’ Jesus Christ, passionately promoted by Slavoj Zizek, the radical who tells his followers that he arrived on earth not to promote peace but to generate upheavals? Or a figure who showed a big intolerant middle-finger to our old way of life and was hell-bent on establishing universal justice and equality even at the cost of sacrificing narrow particularities, political correctness and pluralisms? Simply put, could we imagine a Superman of the Left?One can already anticipate what the liberals would say to the idea of a communist Superman – “you already had one. His name was Stalin!” (Doesn’t ‘Stalin’ itself roughly mean ‘Man of Steel’?) Indeed, the idea of communist Superman, when explored by Mark Millar in the DC Elseworlds comic book series titled ‘Red Son’ released in 2003, portrayed him as an accomplice of Stalin and as a crypto-Stalinist. This Superman enforces a communist revolution worldwide against US interests, overrides notions of liberal democracy and ‘free choice’ and quite literally, rules with a steel fist. He is eventually overthrown by American Lex Luthor, who convinces the indestructible man of the inherent falsity of his faith, and heralds an age of global capitalist utopia. It is interesting to note that while it was possible to imagine Superman as a communist superhero, even in an alternate comic universe it has been impossible to think of Batman on the same lines. In ‘Red Son’, Batman plays the role of an anti-revolutionary saboteur, something on the lines of the Contras in Nicaragua.
Why is this? Batman is inherently systemic, a product of and the defender of an inherently problematic system, a Manichean who almost never considers the nuances of what he holds to be as ‘true’. Just like the global hegemons who use rational means for irrational and unattainable ends, Batman too thinks that pumping the profits of his daytime business into the demands of his night-time activity will make his beloved city a better place. A hooded vigilante who cleans up undesirables of the system – this is the picture perfect image of the death squads that operate in several conflict zones in Latin America and South Asia. That dark part of the system which the system knows is there, which the system recognizes as necessary but whose real nature it refuses to acknowledge for fear of the consequences. Fetishist disavowal anyone?
Superman can be read differently. Of course, the ‘mainstream’ portrayal of the guy is problematic. But is a Man of Steel problematic as such? In a subversive (and, in my opinion, rather unfairly criticized) reading of Zack Snyder’s 300, Zizek in his short essay “The True Hollywood Left” reads a foundation for modern egalitarian principles in the “emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline”. I think Zizek’s emphasis, and this his critics failed to acknowledge, was not so much on what the Spartan ideal historically was, but on what the Spartan ideal can become. A similar subversive reading and appropriation can be made of Superman too.
Unlike a Batman, a Superman is not a product of the system. He is trans-systemic, or at least has the potential to be so. A Superman’s superhuman strength, endurance and penetrative vision needn’t be seen as physical attributes alone. It very well can be the mental attributes of the Nietzschean Übermensch. (The abuse of Nietzsche’s concept by fascists has been drilled enough by several scholars. I needn’t elaborate that here.) In my reading, Nietzsche’s Übermensch ideal was the one who could be faithful to the following exhortation in The Antichrist:
“Truth has had to be fought for every step of the way, almost everything else dear to our hearts, on which our love and our trust in life depend, has had to be sacrificed to it. Greatness of soul is needed for it: the service of truth is the hardest service. For what does it mean to be honest in intellectual things? That one is stern towards one’s heart, that one despises ‘fine feelings’, that one makes every Yes and No a question of conscience!”
Needless to say, these demands require a ‘superhuman strength, endurance and penetrative vision’ and a trans-systemic perspective that critically observes not only the flaws in the existing system, but also the flaws in the solutions that is thrown about as a panacea to the system. This virtue cannot be over-emphasised at this moment when the Left gets orgasmic at any mass gathering which it perceives to be anti-system, be it the Arab Spring, the OWS, or the recent Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey. This will sound cynical, but taking from Lenin who warned his fellow communists against conferring a divine status to the revolution by only referring to it with the capital letter R, we need to warn ourselves today against referring to ‘people’ with capital P or ‘humanity’ with capital H. The war has never been between the 1% oppressors in the ruling class and the rest 99%. It has been and will continue to be, if you take as valid the western military doctrine that war is the clash of wills of commanders, between the 1% oppressors and the 0.1% of the theoretically and politically sound from the oppressed over who gets to command the remainder. Hence, the Superman of the Left is not the one who asks in the face of a people’s outburst ‘What now?’ – He asks ‘What tomorrow?’
Back to Badiou, who defines ‘heroism’ in his evocative essay “The Figure of the Soldier” as “the luminous experience, in a concrete situation, of something that assumes its humanity beyond the natural limits of the human animal.” We have to transgress Marx who decried the importance given to Heroes in History and take the side of Hegel and Nietzsche instead. Lest I be accused of heresy by my orthodox Marxist friends, let me add here that even Mao approved of ‘healthy personality cults’. Our ideal of Hero needs to be something more if we are to answer the question raised by Badiou mentioned earlier.
Heroism can be that moment where a people decide that ‘enough is enough and the old way is not liveable anymore’ and act in assorted fashions to achieve their humanity transcending the limits placed by the situation they are in. But Heroes are those who capture this moment, use this sentiment to ensure that any return to the old way is absolutely untenable, making the necessary sacrifice of plurality for a fighting collectivity, particularity of factions for universality of justice, political correctness for political truth. This Hero, humanely inhuman, is the ‘virtuous terrorist’ and his political ancestry can be traced to the Jacobins. This is the Hero, the Superman ideal, which the left desperately needs to imagine at the current conjuncture.
The regime of repression in Turkey, racist fury in ethno-chauvinist states in South Asia, strengthening of economic models of Asian countries that have capitalism without liberalism, the Syrian crisis exacerbated by American intervention, turmoil in African countries seem far away nightmares. The European left, while snickering over the economic crisis in the West, still fails to come up with a viable – more than that, an inspiring alternative to the current system. In that European country where the pinch was felt the most, the Right capitalized where the Left failed. And thus you have the fascist Golden Dawn that seems to be winning support and popularity day by day not just in Greece, but in other countries as well.
There is nothing essentially fascist about Heroes and heroism, and the Hero ideal cannot be abandoned to liberals or fascists. The Left needs its Men and Women of Steel.
If they don’t exist, they should be invented.
A few weeks back, I watched the BBC documentary on ‘Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution’. True to classic British Liberalism, the documentary presented the image of the main protagonist of one of the world altering events in the history of the modern world as a delusional paranoid who would sacrifice thousands of lives for his ideal. While the Marxist critic Slavoj Zizek provided a single line of defence to the man, whom it wouldn’t be an excess to call the ideological patriarch of modern revolutionaries, the structuring of the documentary as such was tilted towards British historian Simon Schama, who was portraying an image of Robespierre as this megalomaniac, blood thirsty monster (oh, that’s what radicals are to liberals/conservatives anyway). Among other nice things he has said in the past, Mr. Schama has also defended Israel’s pounding of Lebanese cities in the Israel-Lebanon war. But that’s another story.
Let us talk about Christopher Nolan’s final (hopefully) movie in the Batman trilogy, the Dark Knight Rises. Though he has apparently claimed that the movie has nothing to do with politics, the political and social undertones in the movie are too obvious to miss. To give a brief summary of the story, Gotham City has been peaceful after the events in the previous movie ‘The Dark Knight’, and the Batman has retired. However, the ‘terrorist’ Bane enters this scenario and after a few attacks on Gotham, instigates the wretched of the city to revolt against their masters and to wage civil war to take power, using explicit revolutionary phraseology, in the process, exposing the lie on which peace in the city was built – while secretly conspiring to destroy the entire city as such. Though he severely cripples Batman in a fight, the protagonist returns for a final fight. No guesses on who wins.
So why start with the French Revolution?
“Tale of Two Cities to me was the most sort of harrowing portrait of a relatable recognizable civilization that had completely fallen to pieces. The terrors in Paris, in France in that period, it’s not hard to imagine that things could go that bad and wrong.” No, it wasn’t Mr. Schama further demonizing Robespierre referring to Charles Dickens’ literary work that excessively criticizes the alleged ‘excesses’ of the French Revolution.
The statement is of Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan, and co-writer for the movie, responding to a question on the movie’s inspiration in an interview by Buzzine. The inspiration, Dickens’ classic, was steeped in English liberal thought. “We know there are a lot of problems with the existing system, but hey, revolutions are worse.” And as the novel portrays the revolutionaries as possessed fanatics (with far greater finesse though) the movie portrays Bane and his comrades, and condemns Bane with the vehemence that Mr. Schama condemns Robespierre.
The result is the caricature of what in real life would be an ideologically committed revolutionary fighting structural injustice. Hollywood tells what the establishments want you to know – revolutionaries are brutal creatures, with utter disregard for human life. Despite emancipatory rhetoric on liberation, they have sinister designs behind. Thus, whatever might be their reasons, they need to be eliminated. Watching this treatment of Bane in the movie felt like sitting through the BBC documentary on Robespierre all over again.
But why such a harsh disposition towards Bane when a character like the Joker was dealt with (relative) lenience in the earlier movie? The Joker, calling for anarchy in its purest form, is almost impossible to be true. Though he critically underscores the hypocrisies of bourgeois civilization as it exists, his views are unable to translate into mass action for the sheer strength of will and ‘decivilization’ it would require from any individual attempting treading that path. Imagine a political person completely beyond morality and norms of any kind, beyond categorizations and compartmentalizations. Simply put, either one is the Joker or one isn’t. His threat to existing order and its guardian, the Batman, is more philosophical than physical. And the Truth that he waved in the face of Batman was combated by a lie, to save the abominable liberal capitalist society that is Gotham.Bane, on the other hand poses an existential threat to the system of oppression. He is the FARC in Colombia, the Tamil Tiger facing Sri Lanka, the PKK guerrilla combating Turkey, or a Maoist in Dandakaranya. Or the Jacobin in the time of the French Revolution. His strength is not just his physique but also his ability to command people and mobilize them to achieve a political goal. He represents the vanguard, the organized representative of the oppressed that wages political struggle in their name to bring about structural changes. Such a force, with the greatest subversive potential, the system cannot accommodate. It needs to be eliminated. With such a theme, Sri Lankan cinema would’ve made a propaganda movie against the Tamils’ struggle. Nolan gave us The Dark Knight Rises.
Catwoman’s presence is largely unworthy but for one significant symbolism. Selina Kyle, from a proletarian background, a master thief by profession, does not join her ‘natural ally’ in Bane, but embraces the Batman, quite literally, and saves his life. The lumpen seduced by the fascist? The relation Bruce Wayne/Batman has with the two main women in the film is characterized by physicality primarily.Bane, on the other hand, with all the tough veneer, reveals the source of his hardness – love. In a fleeting, but touching moment, through a tear, the ‘monster’ tells the story of his becoming that Che Guevara so eloquently phrased decades back: “Hay que endurecerse sin perder jamas la ternura”. One must endure, become hard, toughen oneself, without losing tenderness. While Batman was brought into his line of work through a personal loss, Bane’s initiation was an unselfish act of love, which came with enduring terrible suffering and sacrifice. The ideal was not limited to his personal fetishes. As love goes, the ideal in itself was total and absolute. Contrast a Batman, inconsistent with both his personal and political lives, and a consistent Bane who saw no difference between the two. In this sense, Badiou is right in saying that the truly subversive thing in the world today is not sex, but love. No wonder, the chap who sleeps around represents the liberal system while the committed lover, the terrorists!
As for morality, ironically, the Batman proves the Joker right in this movie. The Joker had said, referring to the moral standards of the system that Batman defends, in the previous movie that “their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble.” With the trouble, the radical threat to Gotham’s system, that Bane posed, the Batman first threatens to kill him, and later, endorses his murder. Soon after that, Batman, who claimed to be morally opposed to killing, is directly responsible for the death of another main antagonist.
This signifies a crucial point in the series – morality is a matter of convenience as determined by circumstances. In Batman Begins, the protagonist is a liberal claiming that the system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. In Dark Knight, he recognizes that his old methods won’t work, and he taps into an entire city’s phone conversations, besides using torture to pry out information. In the final instalment, he reveals that he will not even stop at murder to defend his system. The age old statement that the oppressors have been saying from Paris Commune to Mullivaikaal – the harder you resist, the harder we’ll hit. But the system shall remain.
Isn’t that what happens in this movie? The Batman has his back broken. Viciously stabbed. Passes through a nuclear explosion (!). But yet, he saves the day, emerges unscathed and moves on with a normal life, with someone else to replace his role defending the system. This brings us to the other crucial point – capitalism is the end of history. Batman’s changes and continuity symbolises capitalism’s persistence despite various crises inherent to it depression, war, genocide, fascism, colonialism etc. But at the end, there is no alternative. Watching the climax of the movie, I was convinced of Zizek’s argument that Hollywood can even imagine the end of the world, but not of capitalism. And the system’s old defenders will be replaced by new ones, probably with a new series of movies on them as well!
Its been a year since The Dark Knight hit the screens. I am not much of a movies person but I should say that this flick had an impact on me. I am not attempting to write a movie review but rather analyzing the characters of the protagonist and the antagonist, their world views.
I used to like Batman as a kid. The concept of a “good guy” standing up for what is “right” and beating up the baddies all by himself is definitely appealing. That too, for Indian kids, who are conditioned by their socialization with family and education to believe that order is the ideal, a defender of social stability would appear a hero. And the caped crusader’s portrayal as a “dark character” also added to his charm. But that was childhood. Intellectual maturity unfortunately does not allow the bliss of naïve romanticism.
The first four Batman movies had a lot of gadgets, goofy villains, hot women, fight scenes – but little stuff to ponder about. Batman Begins was a break from those kid-flicks and had a sober theme. But The Dark Knight, with its striking closeness to reality, took super-hero movies to a different level. Though movies like Underworld, X-men, Spiderman too have some underlying social themes, none have been as provocative or as hard hitting as the Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan has made a daring attempt to cast light on the dark side of society and the human psyche. But perennial skeptic that I am, I had to find flaws in his judgement.
If you belong to that school of thought that believes that there is no art that is aloof from class and politics, then you will agree that a provoking film like The Dark Knight is based in particular kind of socio-political world view. I call it bourgeois morality – and this has been primarily responsible for the way the characters in the movie were projected. The “good side” represents the ideal values of bourgeois society while the “bad side” is its bane, its anti-thesis. Questions of morality are evoked, only to conclude that people are intrinsically “moral” while the “immoral” ones are the exceptions.
If you’re familiar with the ‘patriotic movies’ of Hollywood, you will notice that a streak of anti-communism is evident is most of them. Now, The Dark Knight has been released at a time when the US is receiving criticism worldwide for its “war on terror.” The main theme of the movie is the conflict between the system and what it perceives as the anti-system and the extent to which the system can go to defeat its enemies. The system, represented by Batman, Dent, Rachel, Gordon et al is presented as being fundamentally good, though there a few black sheep. The challenge to the system, represented by the Joker and the mob is presented as being fundamentally bad, though they might have a few strong arguments in their favour. And the good guys within the system make sure that the system does not cross its limits even under extreme pressure from the bad guys.
It is to Nolan’s credit that he has allowed the “bad side,” the Joker, to make strong arguments in his favour instead of simply portraying him as a sadistic demon. But the limits of his objectivity ends there. Nolan covers up the fact that the bad guys are products of the system, of the economic order that creates striking inequalities among people. The mob is not a flaw existing outside the system, nay, it is a progeny of the very system that Batman & Co defend. If Carmine Falcone is morally wrong, then so is the society that fosters conditions that makes some people so desperate that they have to take recourse in crime. So in my opinion, which somewhat corresponds to that of the Joker, the system is the criminal and destroying the established order is part of the solution. But yeah, Batman would have none of it.
So what is Batman’s weltanschauung anyway? Look at Bruce Wayne, he’s the ideal American. White, rich, handsome and very.. ahem.. social. He’s the capitalist with a conscience, if there be such a creature. He is the corporate czar with a misplaced sense of social responsibility. He was witness to the murder of his parents by a vagrant in search of easy cash and thus, he feels that he was wronged by the scum of society. He decides to take it upon himself to defend society from its unwanted lot. And how does he do it? By becoming a hooded vigilante. But then, he is not a vengeful, violent character like, say, Wolverine. He has rules that he would never break. So I feel that the title of ‘Dark Knight’ is rather unsuitable for the Batman considering that he is desperately trying to play “fair” all the time. But for all his fairness, the Batman’s methods are doomed to fail because he’s barking up the wrong tree. Targeting individual criminals can never be the solution when society and its rules, morals, codes and values created by the ruling class to serve their own interests are the disease. And I believe that a wrong diagnosis can complicate the disease, make it worse. Then again, this is what bourgeois morality is all about.
Now to the Joker. He isn’t what his name suggests. The Joker in the Dark Knight is not the buffoon-villain played by Jack Nicholson in the first Batman. No, no. This is a very serious philosophical character, with a touch of dark humour, played to perfection by Heath Ledger. It is a tragedy that Ledger’s best performance had to be his last (I doubt whether anyone else can recreate the Joker the way Ledger did) – and he rightfully received the Academy Award for best supporting actor posthumously. I felt that that he was the real lead character in the movie considering that the Joker was the driver of all the main events – right from pushing Batman and the establishment to their wits end to “converting” Harvey Dent. I am not sure if he “put a smile on that face” when he kills Gambol, but he did put one on mine when he makes the following argument to Batman
“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.”
Ah! A man after my own heart. Ledger’s Joker is closer to reality than many would like to accept. Morals and codes of bourgeois society are constructs of the ruling classes with the primary purpose of maintaining their hegemony over society. A Nietzschean would say that that every system of morals is opposed to nature and reason. The hypocrisy of morality in bourgeois-feudal societies is all too obvious for those who observe it closely – it is bent, twisted or even temporarily done away with as and when required by the ruling classes. In societies like India, where structured inequalities ensure that a minority remains rich and a majority remains poor, a system of morality and rules created by a nexus of religion, society and politics serves as the perfect opiate of the masses, thereby ensuring “order.” The Joker attacks the hypocrisy of the bourgeois when he says that “they’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” He makes an effective argument that people show their true colours when their interests are affected – when that happens, “the civilization and justice of bourgeois order stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge” (thank you Marx).
Consider this conversation with Harvey Dent
“Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying!”
Now ain’t that true? The massacre of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji didn’t provoke any reaction from the Indian bourgeois and its agents. But when that Aarushi Talwar case came on television everyone lost their minds! How could it happen to her? Murder or rape of Dalits is a daily affair but a good looking, fair-skinned, urban, upper caste, upper-class girl is not meant to die – its not “according to plan.” And so, you had television anchors screaming on top of their lungs, spoilt-brat organizations like YFE staging candlelight protests (they didn’t light a matchstick for the Dalits) and politicians trying to assure that ‘everything is under control.’ Tragedy is tragic only when it strikes close home.
The Joker has a solution to these structural inequalities
“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos…Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!”
I guess that’s what necessary in India. Upsetting the established order of society – politics, economics, family, education, everything. Order in a semi-feudal country like ours, where discrimination is sanctioned by religion and enforced by society, has done more damage than good.
So let there be chaos!
“You poor take courage, you rich take care,
this earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share.
All things in common, all people one
they came in peace, next time we’ll bring a gun”
(The World Turned Upside Down)