Life, etc

Watching Batman in Beijing

By Richard Poplak 12 September 2012

There’s no mistaking Beijing for Gotham City, Batman’s home and keep. And yet, watching The Dark Knight Rises in Beijing proves an uncanny experience. RICHARD POPLAK keeps an eye out for the caped crusader in communism’s glitzy redoubt.

“There’s a storm coming,” Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, tells Bruce Wayne right before she liberates him of his Lamborghini. Kyle is referring to the revolution about to sweep through Gotham City, led by the enigmatic Bane and a legion of scruffy psychopaths, often dressed as members of the working class. As Wayne and Kyle dance at a benefit held by one of Gotham’s grandees, lobster claws and flutes of champagne chilling on the banquet table, Kyle (who steals from the rich to get rich) warns Wayne that the swankiness is about to end. Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises, a $250-million piece of industrial entertainment, is a film that imagines the 1% getting theirs.

Bane’s army is the Occupy movement after ditching the organic communal meals for sub-automatic weaponry. They drive dump trucks and shave with blunt razors, and yet their ideology seems unformed – we never quite know how Bane mobilizes them, except through fear. The man has a tendency to crush people’s faces with his bare hands, and it’s a persuasive recruiting technique. His army gathers in the sewers, waiting to be unleashed.

Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City (played awkwardly in the earlier The Dark Knight Returns by Chicago and now by an undisguised Manhattan) is the dark id of every metropolis – a place where the natural condition is chaos and violence. Nolan does not appear to believe that the city is the apex of human civilization; rather, he thinks of Gotham as something of a nadir, a construction that needs to be saved from itself. He doesn’t trust civic institutions – the city’s only hope, on three occasions, has been the Batman, a masked vigilante with a pain fetish. 

That Batman is a shadow regulator, a third force behind the police and politicians, who are corrupt and ineffective and out of touch with the common man. But there are tiers of commoner in Nolan’s latest film. Those waiting to be blown up by Bane’s nuclear device, and those happy to press the trigger. And that, the film implies, is why we should give alms to bums. 

The film opens with Wayne in seclusion, still mourning the death of his beloved Rachel (herself blown up by the Joker in the last instalment). Gotham enjoys an unprecedented respite from mayhem thanks to the Dent Act – named in the memory of Harvey Dent, whose facial burns transformed him into the villain Two Face in the same murderous caper that killed Rachel. The Dent Act sent Gotham’s organised crime practitioners to jail without due process – something that troubles Gotham’s three remaining liberals. 

Bane, hooked up to a mask that pumps painkiller into his mangled body, punches his way into this soft underbelly with barely a fight. 

None of this presents any real political sophistication, which is becoming an unhappy Nolan hallmark: he’s a filmmaker who substitutes coherent ideas for plot twists. (See: Inception.) That there are ideas floating around in this immense, and immensely entertaining mega-flick, should count as a plus, considering Nolan could have phoned in the film and still remained on the A-list. Unfortunately, the ideas just don’t add up. 

And yet, in a Beijing locking itself down for the Communist Party Congress in mid-October, all of this revolutionary ferment seems dangerously au courant. Here’s the first question: why did Beijing’ bien pensants allow the film run in Chinese theatres? Certainly, the Chinese market is becoming essential to Hollywood studios, which have seen audiences at home eroding over the last decade or so. (This instalment of the Nolan franchise has grossed more than 60% of its $1.04-billion from foreign markets, while the last film grossed 60% of its $1-billion gross in American cinemas, an inversion that grows by the year.) 

Put another way, the liberalisation of Chinese film exhibition has been a boon to corporate entities like Warner Brothers, which financed the Batman franchise to the tune of over a quarter of a billion dollars and is ultimately responsible to shareholders, and not the political sensibilities of their contracted employees. Perhaps this explains the anodyne revolutionary gobbledygook sprouted by Bane through his mask: “Rise up,” he tells Gotham City, right after blowing up their football stadium. “Take what’s yours.” And other lyrics from the Ché songbook.

Was Nolan asked to go easy on the film’s ideological garnishing, or did the irony of a blockbuster made by multimillionaires espousing the virtues of an equitable society simply become too much? I’d say neither. In a film of this size, with its manifold moving parts (action, romance, intrigue, explosions), something is going to misfire. In this case, it was the revolution subplot. 

No film can play in China without the approval of the China Film Group, which functions – as only a Chinese entity can – as the local film production, distribution and regulatory body. Hollywood studios spend blood and treasure lobbying the CFG’s head, a man named Han Sanping, in order to make sure their films are approved for the Chinese market. That the CFG didn’t see fit to circumcise The Dark Knight Rises of its revolutionary esprit is a rather dreary fact. Gotham City is terrified by Bane, but Beijing is not. 

Hollywood filmmakers constantly imagine the destruction of America’s finest city – twice in the last three months, superheroes have presided over the utter trashing of Manhattan. (There’s barely anything left of the place after the Avengers leave town.) Nolan is British, his sensibilities forged on the lap of dystopia peddlers like Stanley Kubrick and Alan Moore, who abhorred the hyper-capitalism of Reagan/Thatcher, and the cities that rotted under their watch. Cities, for Moore and Kubrick, were emblems of decay and decline, testaments to the death of the capitalist project. 

But what place is more hyper-capitalist than postmodern Beijing, with its ubiquitous sleek black Audis and dozens of Breitling outlets? But Beijing isn’t rotting. Its wide boulevards are spotless; it’s vast parastatal headquarters odes to its rising economic prowess. Crime, at least of the petty variety, is almost absent from Beijing’s streets – the Chinese Batman would find himself battling environmental horrors in the countryside instead of purse snatchers in Wanfujing. 

For the Chinese powers-that-be, The Dark Knight Rises is just another consumer product, its “message” lost in the noise and the fistfights. Beijingers will not take what’s theirs – not until the Party Congress is over, and perhaps not until the next Party Congress, if ever. It seems inconceivable that another uprising could ever occur in the city, given how effectively pacified the place has become.

But as China becomes more and more unequal – and as those who got rich first, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, get even richer – The Dark Knight Rises’ ideological underpinning might hold a warning. That the authorities did not see fit to heed it, especially so soon before their big secret shindig, is perhaps the biggest knock against a film that otherwise makes the popcorn go down a treat. DM


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