Zizek: Occupy Gotham City

The Dark Knight Rises attests yet again to how Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicament of our society. Though Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators have criticized the film for naming its villain Bane—as in Bain Capital—most progressive critics have read the film as a denunciation of Occupy Wall Street. But the film warrants a closer reading, with an eye to what is absent as well as to what is present.  For those of you who have not seen the movie, here is a (simplified) storyline:

[Ed.: Plot spoilers follow.] Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight—the previous installment of the Batman saga—law and order prevail in Gotham City. Under the extraordinary powers granted by the Dent Act, Commissioner Gordon has nearly eradicated violent and organized crime. He nonetheless feels guilty about letting Batman take the fall for the late Harvey Dent’s crimes and plans to admit to the conspiracy at a public memorial for Dent—but then decides at the last minute that the city is not ready to hear the truth.

No longer active as Batman, Bruce Wayne lives isolated in his manor while his company crumbles—in part because he invested in a clean energy project designed to harness fusion power, then shut it down after learning that the core could be modified to become a nuclear weapon. The beautiful Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, encourages Wayne to rejoin society and continue his philanthropic works.

Here enters the (first) villain of the film: Bane, a terrorist leader who was a member of the League of Shadows. After Bane’s financial machinations bring Wayne’s company close to bankruptcy, Wayne entrusts Miranda to control his enterprise and also engages in a brief love affair with her. (Her romantic competition is Selina Kyle—Catwoman–who steals from the rich in order to redistribute wealth, but eventually rejoins Wayne and the forces of law and order.) Learning that Bane has gotten hold of his fusion core, Wayne returns as Batman and confronts the villain, who admits that he took over the League of Shadows after Ra’s al Ghul’s death. Crippling Batman in close combat, Bane detains him in a prison from which escape is virtually impossible: Inmates tell Wayne the story of the only person to ever successfully escape, a child driven by necessity and the sheer force of will.

While the imprisoned Wayne recovers from his injuries and retrains himself to be Batman, Bane succeeds in turning Gotham City into an isolated city-state. He lures most of Gotham’s police force underground and traps them there; then he sets off explosions which destroy most of the bridges connecting Gotham City to the mainland; finally he announces that any attempt to leave the city will result in the detonation of Wayne’s fusion core, which has been converted into a bomb.

Here we reach the crucial moment of the film: Bane’s takeover is accompanied by a vast politico-ideological offensive. Bane, who stole a copy of Commissioner Gordon’s intended speech, publicly reveals the cover-up of Dent’s death and releases the prisoners locked up under the Dent Act. Condemning the rich and powerful, he promises to restore the power of the people, calling on the common people to “take your city back.”

The ultimate Occupier

Here is where critics have been quick to pick up on the parallel to Occupy: As Tyler O’Neil writes in the Hillsdale Natural Law Review, Bane reveals himself to be “the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99% to band together and overthrow societal elites.”

What follows is the film’s idea of people’s power: show trials and executions of the rich; streets littered with crime and villainy.
These scenes of a vengeful populist uprising (a mob that thirsts for the blood of the rich who have neglected and exploited them) evoke Charles Dickens’ description of the Reign of Terror in A Tale of Two Cities. Although the film has nothing to do with actual politics, it follows Dickens’ novel in “honestly” portraying revolutionaries as possessed fanatics. Thus the film provides, as blogger Karthick RM [sic] writes on his blog Unceasing Waves, a “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.”