The Politics of “The Dark Knight Rises”: A Discussion

Film Quarterly Writer-at-Large MARK FISHER and Editor ROB WHITE debate the finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Main image: © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding LLC. 

ROB WHITE: The new pamphlet by Left theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, rather pompously entitled Declaration, begins with a credible and gripping account of the contemporary capitalist world as a prison system. Actual penitentiaries are only the start of it. Though the authors are careful not to downplay official penal environments, they identify a “generalized social fear”: “In some ways those who are in prison have less to fear; rather, even though the threats they face from the carceral machine, the guards, and other inmates are severe, they are more limited and knowable. Fear in the security regime is an empty signifier in which all kinds of terrifying phantoms can appear” (Argo Navis Author Services, 2012, 24). Yet no sooner have these frightening apparitions been sighted than they disappear in a utopian characterization of the movement for so-called direct democracy, associated in particular with Occupy Wall Street but extending (in Hardt and Negri’s catch-all view) to the uprisings of the Arab Spring and beyond: “The encamped protesters—being together, discussing, disagreeing, struggling—seem to have discovered a truth that Spinoza foresaw: real security and the destruction can be achieved only through the collective construction of freedom” (43). Freedom indeed! Would the actual prisoners with their supposedly “more limited and knowable” dangers therefore have liberty if, within the penitentiary walls, they adopted such interaction, “silently wiggling their fingers with hands up or down to express approval or disapproval” (64) as a prelude to collective decision-making? I find it a most unconvincing proposition, involving a curious kind of retro-conjuring trick that presents the problem of servitude only to magic away the dimension of trauma and suffering that makes it matter. If “jazz hands” can save the world, then not much is really wrong; Declaration strikes me more as a work of consolation than militancy.

I begin at this tangent to try to short-circuit a trend in debates about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises: the idea that the film is a thinly veiled attack on Occupy (which is assumed to epitomize emancipatory radicalism). The argument runs that because masked mercenary Bane attacks the Stock Exchange and then sets off French Revolution-style mob violence (rather than peaceful public assemblies), it adds up to an alarmist denunciation of Occupy’s sinister potential. But in terms of outright political content, it’s surely Selina Kyle (the film’s version of Catwoman) who gives Robin Hood-style voice to Occupy’s ideas about economic equality. The soldier of fortune Bane is more like a Shock Doctrine fundamentalist, who wants to use Gotham as a lab to see what happens when people are no longer shackled by regulation. He and his henchmen arrive, Bane declares, “not as conquerors, but as liberators—to return the city to its people.” Doesn’t this make him an incarnation of the Tea Party, Paul Ryan on steroids?

There are all sorts of further ambiguities. With justifiable cynicism, the film gives the language of sustainability and global “balance” to its surprise sociopath, Miranda (aka Talia al Ghul). And the parallel between Batman and Bane isn’t avoided: both are initiates of the League of Shadows and, more subtly, there’s a moment when the film cuts from Bruce Wayne in a room that boasts a collection of African-looking masks to a character saying that Bane has been involved in a coup in that same continent. The implication seems to be: such are the acts that Bruce’s inherited wealth is made of. So, in typical Nolan fashion, The Dark Knight Rises is a political puzzle, full of red herrings and sleights of hand. And full of lies. The film begins with Commissioner Gordon’s manipulative speech falsely praising the late Harvey Dent (whose secret villainy was hushed up at the end of The Dark Knight). The next scene is a murderous deception: Bane getting on board a CIA plane disguised under a prisoner’s hood. The third also involves a stratagem: Selina’s theft of a string of precious Wayne pearls. From the start, Nolan inculcates an attitude of suspicion.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker kept making up new fictions about his disfigurement. Crucial statements in the new film are difficult in another way—as many viewers have noticed with frustration. Sometimes Bane’s explanatory dialogue is unintelligible in the sound edit, even after repeated viewing (a fact that is surely ironically acknowledged when the mercenary says of the boy singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the football stadium: “that’s a lovely, lovely voice”). Bane’s black gas-mask contraption covers his mouth completely so there isn’t even any visible facial twitching to reassure us that the voice is indeed connected to an onscreen speaker. It’s a subversion of trust—one of many in the film—and of any sense of what one might call the authenticity of political enunciation relied upon by, and enshrined in the title of, Hardt and Negri’s pamphlet.

What do you make of Bane?

MARK FISHER: Duplicity is certainly the major theme in Nolan’s work going back to his first film, Following. But my initial impulse was to read The Dark Knight Rises as incoherent and opportunistic rather than engaging in the duplicitous shadow play that characterizes the director’s best work. I say opportunistic, because it was almost as if Nolan went out of his way to give someone from practically any political persuasion some nugget of satisfaction to take away from the film. Bane seems to typify the incoherence of the film as whole. Slavoj Žižek tries to read Bane as the leader of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/08/slavoj-žižek-politics-batman). Yet this take on Bane only works if we leave out of account Bane’s ultimate plan to destroy Gotham with a nuclear device. How could Bane be engaged in an emancipatory project if in the end he will resume his mentor R’as al Guhl’s fascist project of cleansing the city by incinerating it?

I agree that that Bane’s voice and mask are fascinating on many levels. Firstly: is what Bane wears a mask at all? He plainly doesn’t choose to wear it in the same way that Bruce decides to become Batman. Furthermore, the apparatus doesn’t conceal Bane’s identity. Batman tells his young protégé, Blake, that if he’s going to perform heroics he should wear a mask in order to protect those he loves, but Bane doesn’t have a private identity that could be obscured in the same way. The film never explains why Bane wears the facial apparatus, and the gap in explanation has prompted all kinds of bafflement and speculation online (for instance here: answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20120720013004AAHcSKd). In the comics, Bane uses it to imbibe a drug known as Venom, the source of his increased physical strength. This is never referred to in the film. Nolan told Rolling Stone magazine that “Bane is someone ravaged by pain from a trauma suffered long ago, and the mask dispenses a type of anesthetic that keeps his pain just below the threshold so he can function” (www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/christopher-nolan-dark-knight-rises-isn-t-political-20120720). Yet this explanation isn’t given in the film either. According to both these accounts, though, Bane’s headgear isn’t properly speaking a mask at all: it’s a prosthesis, a cybernetic augmentation of his body and nervous system that only accidentally obscures his features. In that sense, it is his face—or part of a cyborgian extended face. At the same time, one could equally well say that Bane’s prosthesis deprives him of a face.

Then there’s the question of the voice. Is Bane an example of what Michel Chion calls the acousmêtre: someone who speaks, but who isn’t seen? Chion derives the concept of the acousmêtre from Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of acousmatic sound—sound that is floating free from its source. Acousmêtres seem to be omnipotent and omniscient, but, as we see with the most famous example of the acousmêtre, the Wizard of Oz, this aura is stripped away from them once the moment of “de-acousmatization” occurs, and the sound can be traced back to a particular body. Mladen Dolar adds a further complication. In A Voice and Nothing More, Dolar argues that de-acousmatization never really happens. Even in everyday cases, Dolar claims: “The source of the voice can never be seen, it stems from an undisclosed and structurally concealed interior, it cannot possibly match what we see … [T]here is always something totally incongruous in the relation between the appearance, the aspect, of a person and his or her voice, before we adapt to it. It is absurd, this voice cannot possibly stem from this body, it doesn’t sound like this person at all, or this person doesn’t look like his or her voice. Every emission of the voice is by its very essence ventriloquism” (MIT Press, 2006, 70).

If the facial prosthesis provides Bane with physical power, it also gives him a more metaphysical “acousmatic” power. This is reinforced by the fact that the electronic effects on his voice are reminiscent of the devices that we’ve previously seen used in films by telephone stalkers and kidnappers to disguise their voices and terrorize their victims. Is Bane like the Wizard of Oz, or does he more closely resemble another of Chion’s example, the HAL computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey? With HAL, there’s no proper moment of de-acousmatization, because HAL is intrinsically acousmatic: there’s no mouth, no biological aperture, that the voice can be traced back to. As a cyborg, Bane is between these two cases. Unlike the Wizard, he doesn’t hide behind a screen. The apparatus which prevents us seeing his mouth is also the means by which he speaks—and presumably breathes—at all. Equally, the electronic augmentation of Bane’s voice is not something which conceals a “real” voice. If, as seems to be the case, Bane would die if his prosthesis were removed, then the electronic voice is the only voice he has (left). The moment of “unmasking” would not be a deacousmatization because Bane’s voice doesn’t belong to his biological body alone, and the body that the voice is ostensibly being traced back to would be dead.

The Dark Knight Rises © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding LLC. Photo: Ron Phillips.

ROB WHITE: “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask,” Bane says to the ill-fated CIA operative at the beginning, but I think you’re right that the covering over whatever remains of his face is a life-sustaining prosthesis. With such a prosthesis we can’t any longer separate mask and face, apparatus and person, technology and humanity—thus the cyborg fusion of man and machine. So is Nolan giving us a sort of deconstruction of human identity in The Dark Knight Rises? There’s an element of “the dog that didn’t bark”—the “dog” in this case being precisely the unmasking you mention. We never, that’s to say, get to see the grotesque—and pathetically human—disfigurement that the prosthesis conceals. There’s no equivalent here of the scene in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader’s pasty human face can finally be seen. The same is true at the end of the sewer fight. Bane easily defeats Batman and contemptuously holds his adversary’s mask, which he must have removed, in his hand. But there isn’t the expected followup: we don’t see Bruce Wayne’s unmasked face until he reappears later, locked away in the prison pit. Maybe Nolan felt that the scene of unmasking is too much of a superhero cliché, but in any case its absence maintains the indeterminacy in regard to the relation between mask and face.

At the start of Living in the End Times, Žižek comments on burqa-wearing in Europe: “[W]hy does the encounter with a face covered by a burqa trigger such anxiety? Is it that a face so covered is no longer the Levinasian face: that Otherness from which the unconditional ethical call emanates? But what if the opposite is the case? From a Freudian perspective, the face is the ultimate mask that conceals the horror of the Neighbor-Thing … The very covering-up of the face obliterates a protective shield, so that the Other-Thing stares at us directly (recall that the burqa has a narrow slit for the eyes; we don’t see the eyes, but we know there is a gaze there” (Verso, 2010, 2). It’s not a stretch from this to assert that Bane’s visage reflects back our own increasing cyborg inseparability from audiovisual devices—as with those technology stories about Google implants and the like; that Bane is not a monster, but is us, because we’re more monstrous and thing-like than we like to think as well as less independent of our gadgets. Having said that, though, the film insists on the trackability of identity too. Selina steals Bruce’s fingerprints and, using them fraudulently, Bane’s cronies manage to bankrupt Wayne Enterprises by authorizing stock-market trades with this unique ID. Selina herself is motivated by the promise of access to Clean Slate, a computer program that can erase her from all the world’s databases (by means of which Bruce is quickly able to identify her as the burglar). Thus, presumably, she can start over—which is the idyllic prospect, too, glimpsed at the end of the film when Blake (the film’s Robin) finds the exotic new Batcave, and Alfred sees Bruce having a cozy lunch with Selina in Florence. There’s a tension in The Dark Knight Rises, then, as in other Nolan films, between a nightmarish sense of techno-mutation (and mutilation) and a more caper-like escape from the terrible apparatus.

What are the politics of all this? Let’s not forget how Bane came to need his prosthesis. Such was his devotion to Talia when they were together down in the pit that he was willing to endure the savage beating that disfigures him. (Just such a fierce, chaste, avuncular protectiveness also prevails between Alfred and Bruce, though Alfred gets to keep his face. I’m surprised how much, judging by reviews, Alfred’s care has touched viewers: I find the scenes between the two men mawkish and clumsy.) Žižek in the article you cite invokes Christ, Kant, Robespierre, and Guevara and praises Bane’s unwavering, self-sacrificing loyalty as the kind of “unconditional love” that revolutions are made of. Žižek gets positively exultant on the subject! (It reminds me of the emphasis Hardt and Negri place on the joy of direct democracy in Declaration.) I just don’t get this; I can’t reconcile Bane the deformed cyborg with Bane the heroic altruist.

Perhaps things can be shaken up a bit by pointing out that, metaphorically speaking, loyalty and devotion are also prosthetic—attachments, in psychoanalytic terms, emotional ties that get ingrained and impossible to detach. What do you make of the film’s presentation of loyalty, affection, dedication, and so forth?

MARK FISHER: Once again, I think Žižek has to squint quite hard to make his interpretation of Bane seem to work. He has to ignore the fact that it is Bane’s unconditional love for Talia which makes him forget any emancipatory principles and collude in the plot to obliterate Gotham. Instead of standing for a cause, Bane’s loyalty is ultimately of a familial type. It’s an excellent example of what Hardt and Negri mean when they say that the family is, like the corporation and the nation, a “corrupt form” of the common (Commonwealth, Harvard University Press, 2009, 160). Bane’s relationship to R’as al Guhl is intensely Oedipalized: like Bruce, he’s positioned as the errant son of R’as, just as R’as becomes a failed father. Bruce rejects the League of Shadows, whereas Bane remains loyal to his “father’s” project, continuing it after his death. What’s missing—or rather what’s suppressed—is the notion of an abstract Idea to which Bane could show unwavering loyalty. This is a particularly glaring absence because of the Nolans’ evident fascination with the potency of Ideas. After all, what is Inception about if not the power of an Idea to destroy someone?

I found Bane’s love for Talia much less interesting than the love that Bane’s followers show toward him. There’s a strange tenderness in that opening scene when Bane tells one of his men that he must remain on the plane and die. The sad but stoically accepting way in which the man goes to his anonymous death was far more moving to me than any number of scenes between Alfred and Bruce. What is it that motivates this devotion to Bane? Of course, this could be yet another case of quasi-familial clannishness, but there’s at least a suggestion here of an Idea so powerful that it can motivate people to give up their lives.

I also find Bane the deformed cyborg more alluring than Bane the heroic altruist. One consequence of Bane’s prosthesis is that it means that certain kinds of intimacy—kissing for example—are impossible for him. He’s instead condemned to what Lacan called “extimacy,” but as Jacques-Alain Miller explains, “Extimacy is not the contrary of intimacy. Extimacy says that the intimate is Other—like a foreign body, a parasite” (www.lacan.com/symptom/?p=36). The concept of extimacy points to the key psychoanalytic claim that what most makes us what we are is also other to us. When we go deep inside, we encounter something from outside. This brings us back to Bane’s voice—he can only speak because “a foreign body, a parasite” permanently clings to his face. (Is it an accident, incidentally, that Bane’s prosthesis resembles the “facehuggers” from the Alien film series?) But if we follow Dolar, Bane’s prosthesis only makes visible what is always the case. For Dolar, the voice is inherently cyborgian. The voice doesn’t “belong” to the body or to the mind, it’s the mysterious apparatus which binds them together. There’s a peculiarly extimate quality to how we hear Bane’s voice. Partly because of the way that the effects were added to it in postproduction, Bane’s voice doesn’t quite belong to the film’s shared reality, so it’s as if we’re hearing the voice inside our own heads.

Squinting is what you have to do if you want to see Bane as a revolutionary leader—or indeed if you want to extract any egalitarian potentials from a film that, in the end, is deeply reactionary. I agree with Žižek that the film is a “precise indicator” of “the ideological predicament of our societies”—but that’s because it’s a reactionary vision which can only imagine radical social transformation as catastrophic. Following from the basically Hobbesian orientation of The Dark Knight (the people cannot be trusted with the truth; abuses of power are justified if they achieve social order), The Dark Knight Rises offers Terror without Revolution: we see chaos, summary justice, and generalized criminality, but no hint of any new social relations.

But I think this kind of squinting can actually be a valuable exercise, provided we acknowledge that’s what we’re doing. If we look beyond its manifest reactionary message, The Dark Knight Rises gives us some of the materials for a revolutionary vision, but fragmented, inverted, “upside down as in a camera obscura,” as Marx and Engels put it in The German Ideology. There’s more than an element of revolutionary romanticism and philosophical theatre in Žižek’s invocation of Christ, Guevera et al. It’s worth dwelling on this, because I think this kind of thinking is a vice in certain kinds of political philosophy. The twinning of Love and Terror in Žižek’s (and also Alain Badiou’s) account of revolution invites us to see radical transformation in high-flown ethico-philosophical terms whereas a successful struggle is likely to be beyond good and evil in a far more murky, Machiavellian way.

There’s a more promising approach to the question of “revolutionary personality” in Žižek’s new book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. Žižek briefly discusses Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television (Zero Books, 2012). Kotsko analyzes the preponderance of sociopathic types in some of the most celebrated U.S. television of the past decade or so: Homer Simpson, McNulty in The Wire, Jack Bauer in 24, Dexter, Mad Men’s Don Draper. Žižek argues that the sociopathic features of some of these characters “provide the perfect model for the authentic revolutionary . . . :what we need is a subject who combines the dedication of Jack Bauer, the inventive pragmatic spirit of [The Wire’s] Stringer Bell, and the innocently malicious joy of Homer Simpson” (Verso, 2012, 124). Couldn’t the same be said of the Batman films—that the potentially “revolutionary” personality traits shown take the form of sociopathic tendencies, displayed not only by Bane, but also by some of the reactionary characters? Certainly, Bane’s strength, charisma, and leadership would be crucial assets in any struggle to radically transform society; but so also would Selina’s criminal ingenuity and improvisatory guile, Batman’s capacity to induce fear, even Harvey’s instrumentalization of the legal system (in The Dark Knight), and Gordon’s reluctant collusion with Harvey’s draconian policies and self-mythologization. It’s one thing to self-sacrifice in some grand gesture of altruism; it’s another to sacrifice one’s ethical conscience itself in order to further the cause. And as regards fear: surely one reason that neoliberalism has survived the bank crisis is that the hyper-rich do not fear the poor, and the sad fact is that the peaceable encampments of Occupy have done nothing to induce such fear. Batman—a wealthy man terrorizing the criminal underclass—is the inverted image of what we need now: the poor organizing to terrorize the super-rich.

One value of Nolan’s Batman series—something it inherits from Frank Miller’s Reaganite take on the character—is that it’s open about the low cunning that the Right need in order to maintain power and hegemony. The mistake is to oppose this low cunning with some kind of ethico-philosophical purity. The Left needs its own low cunning, its own strategies for subordinating institutions to its interests. It’s significant that Don Draper isn’t mentioned in Žižek’s list of potentially revolutionary sociopaths, because what the Left sorely lacks at the moment is a force capable of contesting and reversing the libidinal manipulations engineered by PR and advertising. We’ve been good at denouncing the Right’s manipulations, but far less effective at countering them, in part because that would involve engaging in manipulative strategies of our own, something the Left has rather lost the stomach for. Revolutionary romanticism is far more comfortable with violence than with the idea that “the people” might need to be manipulated to act in their own interests.

ROB WHITE: In his pomp, orchestrating the total shutdown of Gotham through simultaneous detonations, Bane achieves an almost magical power—he becomes this urban island’s Prospero. Yet for all his strength, brutality, ingenuity, and managerial–military authority, there’s something sad and suffering about Bane: your notion of the mouthless one who can’t kiss captures this quality perfectly, as does the image of him defiantly alone in the dungeon with sackcloth covering his bloody, torn-up face. He’s Caliban too, traumatized, burdened by a vengeful anguish that he can only enact loyally (as you suggest), channeling all this pain into the megalomaniacal project of R’as rather than a truly emancipatory endeavor. (As Hardt and Negri remind us in Commonwealth, Caliban is often invoked as a figure of anticolonial resistance.) But Nolan’s empowered Caliban is also unmistakably middle-aged. Nolan’s film—like The Prestige and Inception—lets growing-older regretfulness infuse the action-thriller genre. (Indeed maybe this is the director’s distinctive contribution.) Loves lost, roads not taken, bodies that can’t perform without prostheses: thus Bruce hobbles around grumpily in his mansion until Selina starts a process of medically assisted recovery. She, too, though clearly younger, is a representative of those who “have a past”—who wish things could have gone differently (thus the desire for the Clean Slate).

The ruefulness of The Dark Knight Rises has political resonance. It’s an appropriate attitude for what one might call the austerity-making generations in the west—the Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers like you and me—that so miserably failed to defend against the neoliberal storm, but that will survive in relative comfort to worry about Alzheimer’s and the Right to Die while today’s children and teenagers wear shackles and have only an increasingly threadbare safety net beneath them. When intellectuals like Hardt and Negri in Declaration breathlessly celebrate direct democracy as if radical togetherness could be all one summer youth camp (with lectures by admired professors of a certain age, of course!), they abandon precisely the hard-bitten sensibility you rightly insist is needed. Give me the through-a-glass-darkly vision of lawless Gotham, however Hobbesian, rather than this sort of airy and irresponsible sentimentality! And give me a Left intelligentsia that honestly explores its guilty conscience (the kind of past-one’s-prime angst that Nolan is very good at depicting).

Twenty years ago in the U.K., many teenagers were entitled not only to free university tuition but also to a maintenance grant that was sufficient to live on. You could leave university with no debt, an unthinkable scenario now. What this state support permitted—reinforced by what was by today’s standards totally rudimentary communications technology that made phoning home a chore—was the opportunity to leave home without obligatory ties of financial dependence and without the jittery mutual monitoring of online social networking. There’s much more to leaving home than geographical distance, of course, and you rightly invoke familialism as the complex psychosocial forcefield that can easily allow dutiful obedience to mistake itself for rebellion. Hardt and Negri refer in Commonwealth to the fallback on family models as evidence of “a pathetic lack of social imagination to grasp other forms of intimacy and solidarity” (161). Leaving home is a name for the process of opening the door to “other forms of intimacy and solidarity,” and creating possibilities too for an antisocial hostility that may be just as important if we care to really acknowledge the scale of the problem of our dependencies on an imprisoning social order. Reverting to more concrete and local terms, the fact that so many in the U.K. can’t any longer actually leave home because of reliance on parental support, especially in the form of housing, is one indicator of family retrenchment. (The recent criminalization of squatting in the U.K. also contributes to this process.) But what has this got to do with The Dark Knight Rises?

There’s a curious topographical anomaly in Nolan’s latest that connects it in a certain way to Inception: the world gets smaller as you go deeper down—or, at least, we see less of it. The Dark Knight Rises has, toward the end, swooping helicopter shots that emphasize the extent of the metropolitan sprawl, even though it’s mostly cut off from the rest of America by Bane’s bombs. But the visible sewer world beneath the city is strangely restricted. Bane’s first subterranean hideout is little more than a low-ceilinged room; most of Gotham’s cops get crammed into a tunnel or two. Yet we get a hint of there being something more down there. Near the start of the film, Blake—state-raised kid turned idealistic law enforcer—finds the washed-up dead body of a teenager called Jimmy, who’s “aged out” of St. Swithin’s, a Wayne Foundation-funded orphanage that must discharge its occupants once they’re adults. How did Jimmy die? It’s not clear, but it seems to have something to do with going underground—because (as someone says) “there’s work down there.” Perhaps Bane has been recruiting in the sewers, but his henchmen seem like hardier veterans than Jimmy would have been. So can we instead suppose that beneath Gotham is a zone where institutional rejects who don’t become cops earn and congregate (though it must be a dangerous place too, judging by Jimmy’s fate)?

I agree with you that with a film like The Dark Knight Rises, we’re not dealing with an openly insurrectionist blockbuster like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. So it’s necessary to look—perhaps here the middle-aged awareness of tracks not followed is helpful—for loose threads, for hints, deviations, potentialities. I do have some sympathy for Žižek’s point in his review that The Dark Knight Rises does at least explicitly envisage the kind of endemic class war that’s habitually disavowed by neoliberal propaganda, but for the most part I’m inclined to think as you do that we need to look for character elements that are emancipatory “figures of subjectivity” (to use a phrase of Hardt and Negri’s that’s useful). Only the key character for me in the film isn’t Bane or any of his henchman, but Blake—with the crucial proviso that it’s a different Blake … one who took same the perilous path as Jimmy.

When Blake hectors Bruce into dusting off the Batsuit, he talks about his experience of being orphaned—which is, of course, Bruce’s experience too—and feeling “angry in your bones.” Such a child is misunderstood by the custodians who substitute for parents: “they want the angry little kid to do something he knows he can’t do: move on. So after a while they stop understanding; they send the angry kid to a boys’ home,” where “you got to learn to hide the anger, practice smiling in the mirror—it’s like putting on a mask.” If crippling dependency in the form of debt and possibly never-ending social obligations of one kind or another is what’s now, under the name of austerity, being mercilessly inflicted upon the young of Europe and beyond, then perhaps one result will be to trigger in many rightly angry minds a process of “orphaning” in which, at first behind a mask, later in hidden meeting places, bonds of allegiance to the corrupt institutions of dependency are destroyed. Perhaps this is how the necessary cunning will be learnt. Perhaps in time there’ll be thousands and thousands of clandestine orphans and they’ll succeed where former postwar generations so culpably failed.

At any rate, thinking of those possible unseen spaces under The Dark Knight Rises’ Gotham, and what it might be like if one could sneak with creaky knees into them and peer with bespectacled eyes in the gloom, I recalled a passage from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “Europeans, you must open this book and enter into it. After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered round a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading-centres and to the hired soldiers who defend them. They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices. This indifference strikes home: their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was who allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies. Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it. Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound and perished with cold. Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies” (trans. Constance Farrington, Penguin Classics, 2001, 11–12).

The Dark Knight Rises © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding LLC.