The Dark Knight Rises, and When Comics Get Political

Back when The Dark Knight came out, there was a lot of discussion--volumes of it, really, and mostly not in the comics press--surrounding the film's politics. While most agreed that it was a commentary on post-9/11 America, it seemed many couldn't quite figure out what side director Christopher Nolan came down on when it came to a number of issues, just that he had "something to say."

Even just having something to say, of course, is enough to land a filmmaker in hot water with some people. The fact is, if fans don't agree with a movie's point-of-view, they can feel excluded from what they perceive as a little club the director has made for himself and the fans that agree with him, and it can alienate them from not just that movie but potentially from the filmmaker's canon as a whole.

Fast-forward another four years to the release last month of The Dark Knight Rises, and suddenly you've got a version of Batman who many commentators think has come off as pretty far right.

(That's ironic, of course, since conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh made headlines just before the film's release, claiming that liberals were going to use it as a rallying cry on the grounds that the villain's name sounded like the investment group for which presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney used to work. Limbaugh was widely mocked for taking this position, for a number of reasons.)

In any event, The Guardian, one of the most influential newspapers in Europe, ran a commentary piece in which the writer claimed that The Dark Knight Rises "demonizes collective action against capital while asking us to put our hope and faith in a chastened rich," and that's a pretty balanced view of the film compared to some of the venom being spewed by critics and viewers on the far left with, frankly, not a lot of viewing comprehension or willingness to embrace nuance. The sheer volume and vitriol of these criticisms led The Atlantic to write a commentary of its own, refuting the claim that The Dark Knight Rises is right-wing propaganda. Says The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates:

It's all true that the cops help restore order by fighting it out in a magnificent brawl with Bane's terrorist mob. With that said, I think it's deeply telling that in order to brand The Dark Knight Rises as a "conservative" movie [New York Times blogger Ross Douthat] has to eschew the conservatives of today (Hannity's), and even the conservatives of 50 years ago (Ayn Rand) in favor of the "conservatism" of nearly 200 years ago. In the present the greatest evinced of a "quiet Toryism" is the Democratic candidate for president.

The attention the movie got from Limbaugh (and the two days of non-stop coverage of Limbaugh's comments as he alternately tried to clarify them, double down on them or rephrase them) and the complaints from the Left seem to have come together to create an environment where there's a lot of "serious" discussion of the politics of the film (and, taken in tandem with a return of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns to the headlines, of Batman in general), with neither side seeming particularly happy and the ever-present message board and Twitter lament, "Why does everything have to be political? Just let me enjoy the movie!"

While those complaints are understandable, they frankly aren't realistic (and really they're just an extension of the "shut up and sing" mentality). As entertainment provides a reflection of the world in which it's created, even attempts to avoid politics altogether would likely fail. Attempts to at least mask the politics in the story by hiding them behind big, broad characters are probably the best you can hope for, and the Batman films certainly did that. Even then, political bloggers, comics bloggers and savvy fans and reviewers will suss out what's being "hidden" sooner than later and assume there's some significance there, since the filmmakers felt the need to anonymize it.

The "Shut up and sing" phenomenon is one that's well-documented, and there are a lot of reasons for it. Longtime fans can feel betrayed when a musician or actor they've supported financially and followed faithfully for years expresses an opinion that they don't agree with, particularly when it comes into conflict with deeply-held religious beliefs or other hard-to-ignore convictions. This phenomenon is arguably most prevalent in country music, a deeply conservative culture that is pretty isolated from people who don't agree with the prevailing wisdom (both by in-group pressure and due to feelings on the part of liberals that it's "not for them," a la NASCAR), but it's visible anywhere; you get conservative fans of Bruce Springsteen who booed his "public service announcements" against the Iraq War and on behalf of soup kitchens, and an even larger number of fans who expressed displeasure at Pearl Jam's Bush-era protest song "Bushleaguer."

And it all ties back to the idea that nobody wants to be excluded; once you get far enough in either direction on the political spectrum, you'll start to find large numbers of people who feel isolated and think that nobody in the political sphere or the mainstream press is "speaking for me." It's what creates social movements like the TEA Party and Occupy, as smaller groups of people who find solace in common beliefs start to discover that larger groups of people feel the same way. And when their protest day is done, they turn their eyes to their televisions and movie theaters and novels and comic books and they feel they're under- or misrepresented.

This feeling of exclusion can also lead to anger; remember when TEA Party members and FOX News called out Ed Brubaker for a background panel in Captain America in which a member of an extremist group was holding up a TEA Party slogan? Such a furor was kicked up that Marvel's Joe Quesada announced almost immediately that the sign would be re-lettered for the collected edition. As it turned out, there was no ax to be ground in that situation--the letterer, who was not politically active, had merely gone online and googled "protest signs."

Comic books go beyond the parameters of normal storytelling, though. Many comic book fans have been reading serialized, soap operatic stories featuring these characters for years, some for as long as they can remember. And so where in most fiction there's a need for readers to relate to the character which drives them to bristle at the politicization of the stories, in comics it goes deeper than that. Fans feel a kind of ownership of their superhero characters, believing that Superman, Batman and the rest are as much theirs as they are the property of the intellectual property holders, and that it's their prerogative to let the publishers and filmmakers know when they believe that property is being damaged, devalued or improperly cared for.

There's actually some element of truth to it, in a way; much has been made over the last few decades of the idea that superheroes are contemporary mythology, a shared non-religious experience that provides many of the same messages as your holy book of choice. There's obviously some cache to that, which leads people to see these characters as a part of the collective social whole and integral to our American experience. It's also why you see so many thinly-veiled takes on classic comic book characters in comics, on TV and in films.

Beyond that, there's the issue of the copyright law. Under the laws which were in place when many of our favorite comic book characters were created, they would actually, literally be public property. Were it not for changes made to copyright law in the 1970s (at the behest of massive, multinational corporations like Marvel Comics owner Disney), characters like Superman and Batman would already have fallen into the public domain, and be free for all to use in the same way Sherlock Holmes and Snow White are today.

All of that aside, though, it's this feeling of (arguably false) ownership which leads the fans to think they know what's best for the character in any given situation. Whether they say it expressly or not, "I could do it better" is the bottom-line criticism of many comic book fans complaining about DC or Marvel "raping their childhood."

We've seen a lot of this, actually, with attempts by the publishers to diversify their characters by adding nonwhite characters and LGBT characters to the mix. Fans of the character being replaced will scream tokenism, and often be joined by other subgroups of fans who might not even care about the character in question except that they either don't want to see a more diverse line for one reason or another (the obvious answer, and the one that's offered up more often than not, is racism or homophobia, but it can be other things, too, including the position that new characters should be created to fill a niche, rather than retooling the old). There's also a pretty substantial portion of the audience that feels like any changes to the formula that has worked in superhero comics over the years are flawed from the get-go.

Many readers feel that their twenty-odd years of experience reading Superman has given them insight into the characters that the bean-counters at Warner Brothers corporate and DC Entertainment just don't have. In some cases, of course, they might be right--Mark Waid was a fan, and then a fan journalist, and then made the jump to comics. But for the most part it's just frustration.

That frustration can be amplified, though, when politics come into play. A lot of people simply don't like to see the opposing view represented in media, let alone to have it superimposed over a character for whom they have a great deal of affection and to whom they feel loyalty. This makes comics in politics kind of the perfect storm for fans to get offended, legitimately or not, and bent out of shape.

Comics are also unique in that they're a cyclical system of storytelling based on a serialized narrative. Many fans, who love a character and have read it nearly all of their lives, will choose to simply "sit through" content they hate, either for quality reasons or political ones, because they know (or at least strongly suspect) that sooner or later, this writer's politics will disappear from the book and the character will return to an apolitical, inoffensive status quo. And they're usually, with the exception of Oliver Queen and maybe one or two others I can't think of right now, right. The decision to sit through it, though, doesn't mean that they have to (or are likely to) do it quietly.

So maybe the moral of the story is to appreciate each work on its own merit and don't get too hung up on the long-term implications for something that likely has no long-term implications.