24 July 2008

The Dark Knight: Fascist?

Critics are entitled to their aesthetic opinions. I have no problem if a movie reviewer likes Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight less than I did, but it irks me to read a review in a local arts weekly which referred to Batman as some sort of fascist. I've seen that sort of comment before, but I wondered how common it was. So I googled "Dark Knight" and "fascist," limiting myself to references from the past week, and got over 2,000 citations. That's too frequent to be idiosyncratic.

It irks me when people refer to the Republican party or the conservative movement in the U.S. as "fascists." They're bad enough on their own terms without misrepresenting them. I can see why people want to call folks like Bush and Cheney by that name, but why others take a costumed vigilante to be a fascist or crypto-fascist eludes me.

For starters, consider that a character like Batman goes to great lengths to conceal his identity while fighting crime. This doesn't seem to fit with fascism's reverence for charismatic leaders. If Benito Mussolini discovered that he could fly, I don't think he'd put a mask on before showing the public.If anything, Bruce Wayne's decision to wear a mask shows a disinterest in becoming a leader of any kind of movement.

As for his conduct, his often-brutal crimefighting methods may remind some people of stormtroopers or other fascist streetfighters, but how often did you ever see any of those sorts fighting alone. Leaving Robin the Boy Wonder out of the equation for the moment, Batman looks like the opposite of the sort of pack animal fascists tend to be.

Some people might say Batman is a fascist because he is a vigilante. Dirty Harry was called a fascist for a similar reason, and so, probably, was the hero of Death Wish, as if only fascists ever espoused taking the law into one's own hands. But isn't a vigilante nearly the opposite of a fascist by virtue of his decision to operate outside of the police establishment? Wouldn't a true fascist aspire to taking over the legitimate police force and using it as an instrument of his will? Vigilantism is problematic unto itself, and one of the virtues of Nolan's movies is his appreciation of the problem, but it's a different kind of problem from fascism. He invokes Roman republican dictatorship in the Dark Knight screenplay, but it's Harvey Dent rather than Bruce Wayne who brings up the topic with seeming approval.

It is worth noting, in closing, that superheroes are a product of the age of dictators in the 1930s. There probably is a link between the fantasy of unlimited power to beat up bad guys and the drive for absolute power in the political realm. During the Depression years, many Americans wondered whether dictatorship was in their future, and some thought that might be a good idea. Superheroes, however, have always struck me as more Jacobin or even Stalinist than Fascist. Reading "Golden Age" superhero comics, one notices an emphasis on using extraordinary methods to get criminals to confess their crimes without the protection of slick lawyers that could remind a reader of the Moscow Show Trials, if one thought about it a little too much. Fascist superheroes would probably just kill the villains.

No comments: