Propaganda Has Never Been Cooler Than the Batbike

Whether life is imitating art or art is imitating life, mainstream society is in pretty bad shape right now. I am a self-confessed movie addict and ‘nerd’ and recently watched three movies that culturally literate society, and the media, have been very excited about: 300, Wanted, and The Dark Knight. What shocked me more than the movies themselves was the almost complete lack of outrage from the majority of people who saw those movies. These are movies that have crossed into the realm of ugly propaganda with hot button connections to controversial current events and yet so-called intelligent people are more likely to drool over their coolness than denounce their ideology.

You don’t need to have written a thesis on Black Athena or Greek Democracy to get why 300 should be unacceptable by current standards of awareness. The Spartans were a brutal military dictatorship that used slaves for labor. They eventually toppled the fledgling Athenian democracy during business as usual — fighting other Hellenic states. That ancient Greeks were a bunch of enlightened freedom loving whites holding out for democracy in a cruel world is a classic myth cultivated to boost racist empires in the time of colonization. In the movie 300, Zack Snyder exaggerates the myth to outrageous proportions. The Spartans become heroic supermen that would bring a tear to the eye of yesterday’s supremacist and the Persians get literally demonized — turned into demons and monsters. The whole affair is then fetish-ized to the nines without a shred of irony or comment.

The Dark Knight asks us what can be done when people with morals and decency face up to an enemy with none. It explores the avenues from three perspectives: Gordon the police officer, Batman the vigilante, and Harvey Dent/Rachel Dawes as the letter of the book method. The Joker plays out the terror scenarios on the city and presents us with an evil force that can’t be understood or reasoned with. For anyone who doesn’t live in a cave, this movie is a heavy-handed exploration of the War on Terror and terrorism itself. It happily follows far-right propaganda on the matter without batting an eyelid. It starts right at the beginning with the false premise that underlies all ‘war on terror’ propaganda — that terrorists, people we label as such, are crazed evildoers with no values or agenda and they simply have to be stopped or they will go on horrific rampages for no reason.

I’m sorry Christopher Nolan and all the talented people that worked on this movie but: terrorists do have grievances and view themselves as part of a conflict. These conflicts have histories. Intelligent people should seek to resolve these conflicts peacefully and not get behind mythmaking designed to continue the dehumanizing spiral of violence on both sides. The term propaganda implies intent to deceive and if that intent was not there at any level then we have to conclude that these values are completely internalized by the film makers.

This brings us to Wanted. This movie is unlike the other two in that it doesn’t make a direct comment on practical events or identified ideologies so to speak. Wanted is assaulting us with a more nihilistic abstract that is far reaching and universal. The premise of the movie is this: you have to kill people to save people. It’s tough but there are skilled people who will do this and to ask why or seek more details will only cause trouble. What’s more, who to kill is revealed by a higher power that you should follow without question. Do I need to explain real-world parallels or explain why this is offensive? The scene where the train falls into the ravine is also perhaps the most nihilistic and amoral vision of collateral damage committed to film.

I’m not a book burner or a banner. Edward Said writes in Orientalism that works written in the colonial ideology should not be dismissed entirely. They are multi-faceted complex texts. They are historical records, they are prejudiced and they are technically brilliant, they are repulsive and at the same time influential within a canon. But to talk about extreme texts such as the three movies I mention and not acknowledge their ideology at all is to accept their ideas as normal or uncontroversial. What does it say about us that a large majority of literate, educated people are literally worshipping these movies without a single passing comment on what I have discussed above?

These are clear examples of the bad outweighing the good. As for me, the battle scenes in Birth Of A Nation don’t offset it’s race hatred. The set pieces in Triumph Of The Will don’t make up for Fascism. Vivien Leigh’s performance in Gone With The Wind doesn’t make up for Slavery. And, I’m not going to excuse rampaging slaughter in Afghanistan and Iraq because the Batbike is like … really cool, man.

Andy Best Andy Best is a writer and educator from Liverpool, U.K. he is currently based in Shanghai. He can be found and contacted on the web via his Shanghai music scene blog. Read other articles by Andy, or visit Andy's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. D.R. Munro said on August 22nd, 2008 at 6:36am #

    I do enjoy your article, but I think you may be mistaken on your take with The Dark Knight, especially regarding the Joker. I viewed him more philosophically, sort of a roll-up of the philosophies of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Stirner, and others taken to a somewhat logical extreme end. That is just the way I read it, though. You are clearly free to see it how you feel.

  2. bozhidar balkas said on August 22nd, 2008 at 8:20am #

    zionist movies, TV, news/views, comedy, etc., i don’t watch

  3. Deadbeat said on August 22nd, 2008 at 9:01am #

    I agree with D.R. I think the author’s take on the Joker is a bit off. The Joker as Batman’s foil was created in 1940 well before the “War on Terror” and well before even the “War on Communism”. Nolan stated he based his interpretation of the Joker on the original concept of the character.

    Also what makes the Joker difficult to fit conceptually is that the originators never developed a backstory for the character. Therefore anyone can conceive whatever they choose to say about the Joker. It could be right or it could be way off but it’s open to interpretation since there is really way to really describe the character’s motivation.

    What can be examine is how those around the character respond. I think that was the main theme of Nolan interpretation. It was how the Joker created fear and how the public responded. Ultimately the people made the right choice during the ferry scene.

  4. manitor said on August 22nd, 2008 at 9:25am #

    I discussed the Dark Knight in this light previously, and I am glad to see that someone else noticed the threads of an underlying morality:

    Joker as Batman’s foil IS the ethos that can be harmful. Long before the cold war/war on terror, people were still acting with the same mental sicknesses.

  5. Andy Best said on August 22nd, 2008 at 10:19am #

    Thanks for commenting everyone. RE: Dark Knight, I’m familiar with the full history of Batman but I’m reacting to the movie alone.

    To be honest, as a humanist, I wouldn’t go near anything Miller-esque as a director.

  6. D.R. Munro said on August 22nd, 2008 at 10:57am #

    I don’t know the history of Batman, however I do know the history and development that the nihilistic and, to a degree, the harder-edged existentialist ideas that the Joker seemed to embody.

    One thing I did notice, though, is that, if we are speaking of social class propaganda and such, is that the only reason Bruce Wayne can become Batman is because he is the epitome of capitalist. There is theory that goes around in the realm of thought I like to stay in that boredom is the worst thing in human existence – Bruce Wayne seems to fight boredom by becoming Batman. If he wasn’t a billionaire, nay “the richest man in the world,” the question is . . . could he become Batman? Is really a hero? Or is he just protecting the wealth, like the police, and the army, and whatever else you want to add to that category.

    Seems weird to want to take-apart a character like Batman in this respect, but this idea really caught my attention while watching the film, especially when looking at the cars Bruce Wayne is given to drive.

  7. D.R. Munro said on August 22nd, 2008 at 10:59am #

    Quite a few missing words and such in my above post, please disregard them and fill them in as you please, so long as it helps my point!

  8. T.R. Walters said on August 22nd, 2008 at 11:30am #

    In Heath Ledger’s Joker, we finally have an opponent for the “good guys” who leaves them no simple solutions. In contrast to, say Christopher Reeves’ Superman -where there’s little doubt about what the hero has to accomplish–“The Dark Knight’s” heroes are pulling their hair out to the point of acting, and even becoming precisely what they’re fighting against. In the process, our heroes have lowered themselves-with Batman having to withdraw and regroup–and maybe redefine himself and rethink his methods. A very complex, satisfying film and I think the author reads way too much into it.

  9. cg said on August 22nd, 2008 at 11:58am #

    Sometimes a joker is just a joker.

  10. Giorgio said on August 22nd, 2008 at 12:13pm #

    I have not seen those movies nor do I intend to, but I agree that movies like these purport to eulogize violence and have at the core a hidden propagandistic agenda…
    PEACE is a yawn! By the seventh day it will have men beating up their wives and children. It ‘s imperative to get them glued to the TV screens. Hollywood and Arnold Schwarzenazi have known this simple truth for years…..

  11. Hans Bennett said on August 22nd, 2008 at 12:53pm #

    I actually agree that at some level the portrayal of the joker fit into the propaganda structure, especially by labeling him an “anarchist”. However, I think the more general criticism of the movie was unfair, because I thought many parts of the movie were highly critical of the “war on terror” and the “divide and conquer” methods of the ruling class war-mongers…

    Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, there was one scene in particular where the Joker attempts to pit two groups of people against each other in a very darwinistic “kill or be killed scenario”, but it doesn’t work…. And I thought this was overtly symbolic of what the “war on terror” is doing to us.

    Maybe I give too much benefit of the doubt, but I also think it is a little too simplistic to condemn the whole movie as propaganda.

    On another note, if folks haven’t seen it yet, be sure and watch “Shooter” from last year, starring Danny Glover and Mark Wahlbergh. Trust me, you’ll be asking yourself “How did this one get past the corporate censors?” There is nothing politically ambiguous about this movie!

  12. Jason Dodd said on August 22nd, 2008 at 1:57pm #

    Andy, I think you make a strong point about the normalization effects, whether wittingly or otherwise, delivered by these films. I have not seen Wanted, but certain themes in both The Dark Knight and 300 do seem to play directly into the most right wing and barbaric frames of contemporary American Exceptionalism and Neo-Imperialism. “Iron Man” also helps perpetuate and further normalize thinly veiled racist boogeymen myths of “The Other” in its demonizing use of generic desert people terrorists (in this case, an obviously self-conscious mixture of people bearing the stereotypical features of SW Asians and central Europeans)–or, to put it in the parlance of your typical lowest rung American Exceptionalist: Ragheads. The plot turn that reveals the ultimate antagonist to be a white American corporate lord, combined with an at least superficially anti-establishment protagonist, seems to redeem the film’s final moral balance, but I can’t help wondering if the crazed “Ragheads” stereotype reinforcement, which is never actually repudiated by any character in the film, is really the most powerful meme delivered by the film–by virtue of being taken for granted. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to describe the endgame of normalization than that.

    But this is hardly a new problem. If the American superhero comic, historically, hasn’t been the literary embodiment of American Exceptionalism, then I don’t know what has. The super powered vigilante is all about above the law unitary power, in both micro and macro contexts, depending on the title and character(s) at hand. And Marvel Comics, especially, has a long tradition of propagandizing American Exceptionalism and a generalized “might makes right” ideology (if such barbarism even qualifies as such), as well as perpetuating and exacerbating aggressive national myths of “The Other”: be they Nazis, Commies, Ragheads, etc.

  13. lynn said on August 23rd, 2008 at 6:14am #

    Read any good books lately? The same right wing theme runs through much popular fiction like a bad dream. Especially the “hero” that trashes the Constitution to ferret out the bad guys.

  14. D. R. Munro said on August 23rd, 2008 at 1:29pm #

    I don’t read much popular ‘literature,’ but I wouldn’t doubt it.

  15. John Hatch said on August 24th, 2008 at 6:23pm #

    George Bush as Batman? Holy Gadzooks, we’re lost for sure.

  16. AJ NAsreddin said on August 25th, 2008 at 4:04am #

    Deadbeat, isn’t the fact that there is no backstory to the Joker just strengthening the point that we needn’t look for one? And what about that Batman flick (1989) where we saw the Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) get acid splashed on his face? The victim of corporate abuse? Even if there is no original back story, that film is in the literary soup, as it were.