Nolan’s Batman trilogy can be read radically – unlike the relatively straight forward readings by Žižek and Graeber – as a narrative of dialectical opposition: the limitless growth of crony capitalism produces its self-subverting, dialectical opposite. That is, it can be seen as the story of the escalation of intensity and violence produced by the mounting dialectical tension between late-capitalism and its shadow side. This way of reading the Batman movies reveals the intensity of violence and force that capitalism produces, represses, and necessitates.
Let’s begin with the first movie, Batman Begins, which is about the origins of Batman. Here Bruce Wayne is a nomadic, angst filled young man in despair over the murder of his father. In this early, pre-Batman period, Wayne joins the underground criminal scene stealing merchandise from the very company he inherited. Importantly, this faux introduction to crime never allows Wayne to experience its true underlying causes, and it ends up being merely an adventure in losing one’s self. He never truly gets close to experiencing the shadow side of (his father’s) capitalism. While we see Daddy Wayne early on as a philanthropist, he is quite clearly a product and perpetuator of an exploitive capitalist system that creates the very world his philanthropy disingenuously attempts to ameliorate. And yet, this is precisely the lesson Bruce doesn’t learn early on. Instead, he learns how to be a hyper-capitalist vigilante from his dad. His evolution into Batman isn’t in response to his father’s murder so much as it is a continuation of his father’s work.
In prison for stealing his own merchandise, Wayne catches the attention of Raz al Gul, leader of the League of Shadows. The League of Shadows is a mysterious entity never fully explained in the films. The organization is portrayed, however, as a personification of humanity’s self-destructive tendency – of hegemony’s self-subverting, dialectical opposite. The group is a gang of mercenaries not pursing justice, peace, or even domination, but rather the take down of civilizations when they reach the point of peak exploitation and inefficiency.
After being trained by the League, Wayne ultimately parts with them because he sees their methods as ruthless and overly brutal, their moralizing too single-minded. Throughout the movies we see this thing inside Wayne that won’t allow him to separate enough from concern for others to carry out the League’s mission. As a result, he bails and chooses Gotham, a seeming decision for the good that is ultimately a decision for the structural status quo. This is the irony: while Wayne chooses Gotham’s preserverence because of his concern for others, he fails to see the structural inhumanity of Gotham’s modus operandi.
As Batman, Bruce Wayne is everything we see: he’s the hyper-capitalist vigilante with endless resources, answering to no one, who becomes more powerful than the government. And yet, Batman is always fighting for the maintenance of the structural status quo, seemingly always fighting for the same thing the (uncorrupt) police are. Failing to recognize and address the systemic causes of crime in Gotham, the two faces of Bruce Wayne/Batman end up representing crony capitalism and the violence necessary to sustain it.
In each succeeding villain and the corresponding evolution of Batman can be seen an emerging dialectical opposition. Batman is the creation of the dialectical interplay of late capitalist America and its underside; he’s an emergent phenomen and not a manifestation of the personal heroics of a concerned citizen. In brief, the League of Shadows wants to destroy Gotham because it is so thoroughly corrupt. Batman emerges as the dialectical creation of the capitalist empire to defend Gotham. Even as he does so with a “golden heart,” to rid the city of criminals, Batman notoriously never addresses the underlying causes of crime. He’s a beneficiary, participant, and ultimately a defender of the capitalist system, and therefore it’s absurd to ask why he never invests in social and institutional change instead of gadgetry and weaponry. This can only be asked if we fail to recognize Batman as the emerging, self-sustaining force of the status quo. Batman’s short-sidedness and willful lack of structural critique sees crime as the only real obstacle to a peaceful Gotham.
Batman holds the League of Shadows at bay and, in the second film, The Dark Knight, the Joker fills the role of emergent dialectical opposite. In no uncertain terms the Joker wins by revealing to Batman their dialectically co-constitutive existence (proved by the depressed, despairing, and meaningless existence Wayne embodies at the beginning of the third film), by forcing Batman to be at least as brutal as the League of Shadows (queue the interrogation scene), and by turning Harvey Dent into Two Face (this marking the true defeat). Team Batman/capitalism/establishment prevails only by virtue of the combined effort of Batman, the police, and political forces – the profane collaboration of capitalist vigilantism, government, and the martial powers of the state. Yet still, it cannot escape notice that the perceived victory at the end of The Dark Knight and the implementation of the Dent Act are accomplished only deceitfully.
The third film, The Dark Knight Rises, is centrally about how the Dent Act (the product of Batman’s toil and Gotham’s political deceit) rids the streets of petty crime, clearing the way for unfettered capitalism and inequality to flourish (see the “there’s a storm coming” scene with, and really the entire character of, Salina Kyle; see also the effectiveness of Bane’s occupy rhetoric). A vacuum is created, the über criminal Bane arrives, and the underground erupts. As an agent of the League of Shadows Bane is inhumanly strong, intensely devoted, and remarkably resourceful. He is the resurgence of the League with one key difference – he is without the brandished moralism. There is no talk, in the third film, about how the League needs to destroy Gotham because it has become too corrupt. The League persists because, although the streets are safer, the city is still corrupt in its maintenance of staggering inequality.
Bane defeats Batman in a fight, breaking his back and sending him to rot in an underground prison. Here Wayne experiences, for the first time, the other side of oppressive, violent hegemony. An important sub-narrative runs throughout the third movie which is the conflict between Officer Blake and Wayne about Wayne’s lack of investment in social programming (the orphanage). The tension here is that Blake and Batman are more at odds than is immediately apparent. While Wayne is privileged in every way, Blake is the orphan, the one who has grown up amid the despair of poverty and abandonment.
Batman escapes the prison (this process is packed full of dialogue that supports this reading, about only being able to escape from the prison if you’ve lost everything, etc.), returns to Gotham, and defeats Bane (although not without Salina Kyle). What makes Batman a hero isn’t his action on the streets of Gotham but the realization of his own complicity in the destructive dialectical tension as a wiling operative for the ruling plutocracy. His true heroism is in this recognition and his retirement – his stepping out of the destructive binary. And the sublation of the dialectic: Batman replaces himself with Blake, someone who knows all too intimately the shadow side of capitalism, and invests in social programming (gives his house to the orphanage). This radical reading of Batman not only sees Batman’s retirement (which is the real move of self-sacrifice) as the heroic move, but also sees Robin (Blake) as the superhero Gotham truly needs.