A Batman villain in each of us? Shutterstock/Nando Machado. All rights reserved.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote about the large role that cultural institutions and practices play in the unconscious shaping and reshaping of our value system. These values are not suddenly and forcefully imposed upon us but simply surround us in our average daily lives in the form of images. Today, the cultural manifestation which society enjoys the most is the movie and the greatest promoter and financially most successful exporter of visual and symbolic imagery is, of course, Hollywood.
The political success of Hollywood can be measured by its ability to universalise its principles, projecting them onto the world at large. Hollywood is arguably a cheaper, longer lasting and more effective means to change people than any form of coercion. There is little ambiguity in Hollywood movies as to who the good guys might be, but it is even clearer who the 'baddies' are, and importantly, where they are. There seems, however, to be an increasingly powerful idea that the enemy is no longer external but lurks within our midst.
Old baddies die young
The 1990s were a difficult time for Hollywood. Successful movies (i.e. those that sell) have historically featured a good guy/bad guy (rarely a girl) dichotomy, but studios ran out of new ideas after the big bully in the East had finally been ‘defeated’. Russians were welcomed in a US-led world order through the likes of Armageddon, Independence Day etc. Arabs have been vilified since the onset of Hollywood and are rarely ever (if at all) portrayed as heroes. Unfortunately, 9/11 did nothing improve this existing institutionalised racism. If the good white guys of Hollywood wanted to make new blockbusters, new baddies were desperately needed.
Recently we have seen a marked turning point in the fortunes of Hollywood. The Avengers (2012) grossed over 1.5 billion USD, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010 and 2011) and the latest Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) followed suit. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and the return of 007 in Skyfall (2012) complete the list headed by Avatar (2009). All of these movies (with the exception of Avatar) were at the time of their production part of a successful franchise and thus enjoyed what marketing people call ‘synergy opportunities’. This explains, however, only part of their financial success. The key seems to lie in the evolution of the identity of the bad guys. There is at least one fundamental difference between the Harry Potters and the Batmans: the global financial crisis. Let’s have a closer look at the ways in which politics has infiltrated and shaped these movies.
The content of the movies filmed before 2008 seemed to have remained largely unaffected by contemporary politics. They instead follow neatly in the footsteps of their respective franchises and seem to be based on the struggle between the all too familiar heroes and adversaries. The Transformers is based on Foster's Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday (2007) and is largely based in the Cold War setting. It brings back the well-known American themes of the right to property, the conservative pride that comes with patriotism and is filled with Christian dogma. Talks about The Avengers movie adaptation started in 2005 but the Avengers comic series made its debut in 1963. The movie contains many elements (such as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency) that are similarly reminiscent of the Cold War period. The last Harry Potter is based on the book (2007) with the same title and the themes that ensue have a lot less to do with American geopolitics and instead contain numerous Nazi references.
The identities of the good and the bad guys were largely identical to movies we had come to expect from Hollywood. The viewers were constantly made aware of the fact that the movies were detached from a political reality by setting the movie outside the contemporary sphere. The political themes in the movies are as a result rather predictable and readily consumable. Viewers easily knew how to distinguish right from wrong.
Bond, the bad and the blue men
The latest Batman and James Bond production were instead shot during the financial meltdown. The temporal divide carries also a distinct political dimension. A lot has already been said about the politics of the Dark Knight Rises (DKR). A revolution has brought Gotham to its knees: French Revolutionary styled executions take place and the financial markets get robbed (by the wrong people). Fortunately Batman is there to restore the natural human order of things in Gotham; something which had proved to be impossible in Paris roughly 200 years earlier. Batman the aristocrat consequentially reintroduces the kind of morality and justice that would have made Benjamin Disraeli proud.
The influences for the DKR are known but what perhaps is more interesting is the real identity of the villains. The bad guys are no longer geopolitically from somewhere else but are among our own. They are not led by Che Guevara (Bane), as suggested by some critics, but are portrayed as the victims of the hegemonic struggle between Batman and Bane. There is not a scene in the movie in which Bane is accepted as the legitimate revolutionary vanguard. Life in Gotham is in fact worse under Bane and his vicious mercenaries than it was previously under the Batman. The masses are presented as the mere backdrop to the real showdown between Bane and Batman. The oppressive nature of Bane’s rule almost compels us to forget that he is a mere pawn used by the real villain of the story, Roland Daggett. It is Dagget who represents the antagonistic vanguard, but not of the progressive kind. He is rather the exponent of an extreme form of libertarian capitalism. Batman and Daggett symbolise two alternatives for society. One is deeply aristocratic, moralistic and Christian. The other is secular, amoral and libertarian (Dagget even looks like Nozick). The masses side this time not with the bourgeoisie but with the aristocracy.
In Skyfall we are witness to a different scenario but the message is very similar. James Bond is not simply the sexist vanguard of the British secret services that we are familiar with. The stylish protector of Victorian conservatism now finally admits to his Oedipus complex. His only long-term relationship with a woman is that which he shares with M (Judi Dench). The notion of mother love shared goes a long way towards explaining Bond’s trademark misogynistic tendencies. His relationship with M has always been one of controversy but never has it taken on such explicit depths as in Skyfall where Bond finds competition from the former secret agent and arch-anarchist Raoul Silva aka Julian Assange (played by the politicised actor Javier Bardem). Silva is, to cut a long story very short, the victim of M whose ruthlessness is characteristic of a sovereign defending the interests of the British nation state (played by a porcelain Bulldog). Silva is out for the humiliation of M and perhaps a bit of plain revenge. He succeeds in both.
Raoul Silva not merely embodies Bond’s deviant brother but in many ways represents a better and more progressive Bond. He clearly was and is the more advanced agent, confident, liberated from self-loathing, sexually more potent and in the end more effective than 007. The fundamental difference between the twins is their relationship with M. Silva knows that M is responsible for his suffering but Bond is naively driven by his sense of loyalty to M. This tension is resolved by Silva’s killing of M who knows better than Bond knows who has caused the suffering. After Silva has settled his score with M we are led to the final scene in which a visually satisfied Bond is introduced to a male M and reconnects with former agent Eve Moneypenny (now a secretary). Under a male-led hierarchy Bond is able to resume control of his life and restore the paternalistic and conservative order of society.
The enemy in both The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall is increasingly portrayed to be found among ourselves. It is no longer a clear-cut ‘them’ versus ‘us’. ‘They’ are rather believed to live with us, sometimes the forces of evil even residing within ourselves. This is also the tenet of Avatar (2009) which remains until today the highest grossing movie of all time. Too much has perhaps already been written about the elements of imperialism and anti-Americanism in the movie, but what has less clearly been argued is that we, the humans, are portrayed as the superior kind and masters of our and others’ destinies. The Na'vi people are displayed as a kind, but ultimately helpless and disempowered humanoid species that ultimately depend on us for their survival. We are the bad guys but that does not make the Na'vi necessarily the good guys. The message seems to be that we are masters of our own destiny. The Na'vi are incapable of overpowering and changing us. The latter ultimately only happens because of human mediation.
The mirror of consciousness
The identity of the antagonist in Hollywood movies has been evolving since the 2000s, while the protagonist has largely remained the same. The challenge is no longer fought abroad but is with accelerating pace epidemically infiltrating the fabric of our society. It is not only that our families are under attack but it has increasingly become clear for Hollywood that we, ourselves, are the threat.