In 1986 DC Comics published a four issue mini-series called Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. While few would have predicted it prior to its publication, this work of Frank Miller was soon regarded as one of the touchstones for the medium and, through commercial success and critical controversy, almost single-handedly reinvigorated a moribund character. Time magazine suggested the portrayal of a ‘semiretired Batman [who] drinks too much and is unsure about his crime-fighting abilities’ was an example of trying to appeal to ‘today’s sceptical readers’.
Regardless of the criticism which the series received in some quarters, it undoubtedly did appeal to readers and the manner in which its ‘dark’ and ‘adult’ approach were progressively taken up by other comics points to the ‘scepticism’ of those readers being a widespread condition rather than the aberrant property of a cynical minority. The same dark approach lay behind the critical and commercial success which Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight enjoyed at the box office in the summer of 2008. Why is this kind of approach so popular? What explains its manifest resonance amongst vast swathes of the cinema-going and comic-buying public?
Perhaps the answers lies towards the end of the film when Batman and Jim Gordon attempt to make sense of Harvey Dent’s actions, as the brave and virtuous district attorney was driven to attempted murder by the cruel machinations of the joker. The public regard Bent as a hero, but the public face of heroism becomes a fiction, crafted by powerful men in midnight schemes because the masses could not countenance the grim truth and social order necessitates the illusion. The heroism of Harvey Bent becomes a cruel joke, which Batman, alter ego of the billionaire Bruce Wayne, attempts to hide in the best interests of the public. If it wasn’t for his own personal biography, as a man forever damaged by the murder of his parents as a child, he might have channelled this patrician impulse into philanthropy. Instead he rushes off into the night, chased by police and dogs, taking the blame for the crimes which Bent committed. His parting words sum up the ethos of the exchange: ‘You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’. This is the bitter truth which the public must be protected from at all costs. The closest thing to heroism which The Dark Knight portrays is the attempted deception of the public towards this end.
Compare this critically lauded portrayal of heroism within that of another popular film series. While The Dark Knight was an enormous critical success, the Rocky films were, with the partial exceptions of the first and the sixth, critically panned. Yet both, in a sense, portray heroism. Once you look beyond the crass jingoism which frames large aspects of the Rocky series, a rather earnest narrative about heroism and virtue soon comes into focus. Each of the films follows the same format, as constancy and courage enable Rocky Balboa to triumph over adversity. The virtues the films portray have a long moral history in Western culture and yet for most of us the narrative which portrays them is one we struggle to take seriously. While the moralisation of professional boxing probably takes some blame for this, it is by no means the whole story.
What we can take seriously however is The Wire, and, its gritty social realism notwithstanding, it comes equally equipped with its heroes. Foremost among these is stick up boy Omar Little. He prowls Baltimore in his trench coat, with his shotgun slung at his side, robbing drug dealers. With his facial scar, ethical code and fearsome reputation, he becomes a mythic figure known throughout Baltimore. He crafts a mythology from the ruins of deindustrialised desolation and he sustains a heroic existence one day a time. Yet he cannot, ultimately, escape from his surroundings, and he dies ingloriously on the floor of a convenience store after being shot to death by a child.
What message can we take from this? Perhaps that when a hero is reduced to a daily struggle for survival, his or her heroism is unsustainable. The Wire’s realism ultimately conveys, perhaps inadvertently, the impossibility of heroism in the late modern age. We can struggle against the constraints of circumstances and the debasing forces of contemporary times. We can craft an honourable life in the midst of violence and suffering. However the effort required is herculean and inevitably, at least in the long run, beyond us. This is the message conveyed by the sudden and pointless death of Omar, as well as by this sort of social realism more generally.
Yet if we accept this realism I think we have lost something important. Though The Wire itself admirably retains the capacity for imminent social critique, this is the exception rather than the rule and it’s primarily a consequence of the sheer talent of the creators of the series. The ‘scepticism’ which Time magazine suggested was responsible for The Dark Knight’s success has only grown since 1986 and it’s far from a positive cultural trend. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls it ‘capitalist realism’: the aestheticisation of capitalist hegemony. As Fisher puts it, ‘capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’ and, as such, dominates the sensibility and aesthetics of cultural production. However unlike historical instances of a politicised aesthetics, the ensuing cultural style is neither narrowly aesthetic nor superficially political. It manifests itself in a ‘machismo of demythologisation’ which proudly undercuts heroism in the name of psychological realism (‘you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’) and hope in the name of sociological realism (everything ultimately comes down to power and deceit). It counsels suspicion and scepticism in the name of an acceptance of reality which will help protect us against the ideological machinations of the powerful.
In fact its acceptance helps, in a sense, bring about the reality it purports to reflect. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that, far from being a post-ideological acceptance of sheer reality, contemporary cynicism is profoundly ideological in character because its hyperbolic fixation on the worst the world has to offer (cruelty, corruption, deceit) and its suspicion towards those ideals and practices seen to provide masks for that deceit (heroism, morality, authority) leaves us mired in an apathetic irony (unable to take the possibility of social change seriously or think beyond present circumstances). The sad truth is that, as he puts it, ‘even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them’. The error lies, he argues, in an overvaluing of belief. Far from representing an act of resistance, the subjective disavowal of the cynic (eg, ‘don’t you know all politics is manipulative bullshit?’) facilitates their objective complicity (a passive disengagement from political life). This cynicism precludes critique as well as protection. It simply engenders an subjective anger and an objective impotence. It also cruelly erodes the kind of social historical vantage points which would be necessary to address the question of overcoming it. Therefore in their absence perhaps the first step is to take Rocky a bit more seriously and Batman a little less so?