The Tale of a Soldier: Uncovering Identity in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat

Leonard Bopp


Igor Stravinsky, the modernist descendent of the Russian school of composition, has found himself at the heart of a cultural debate. Having been trained in composition and orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, a stalwart defender of the Russian conservatory method, Stravinsky rose to fame through his work with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, the company that premiered The Firebird and Petroushka. But it was with The Rite of Spring, premiered in 1913, that Stravinsky issued an artistic declaration. The Rite was an affront to traditional artistic standards; with its chromatic melodies placed in the extreme registers of the wind instruments in the opening passages, its repeated dissonant chords in the strings in the “Dance of the Young Girls,” and the disjointed thrashing of the final movement, it was an insult to what the typical bourgeois audience-goer would have expected at the ballet. Indeed, The Rite famously caused a riot, with audience members screaming in shock after only a view minutes; after all, turning the ballet, the most effervescent of performance art forms, into a grotesque display of a pre-civilized humanity was an insult to good taste. But The Rite did not just cause a riot in a purely social context; it encompasses, indeed instigates, a philosophical discourse regarding the nature of modernity and the political implications of artistic development.

When The Rite premiered in 1913, of course, Europe was on the cusp of World War I; within the next year, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated in Sarajevo, and the continent would systematically tumble into a war of unprecedented destruction. But as Europe witnessed the ruthless slaughter of its own young men, it also witnessed the disintegration of its social order and the dissolution of its cultural identity. As political conflicts developed between European states in the turn-of-the-century world, so to did conflicts develop in the cultural sphere: in the social realm, certainly, between the bourgeois and the proletariat, as well as in the artistic realm, between the established traditionalists and the modernists. If World War I was a battle over Europe’s political future, culture became the battleground for its identity, the realm in which a devastated European society sough to make sense of itself.

It is through the lens of this cultural battle that we must view the work of Igor Stravinsky. Central to the discussion of Stravinsky’s modernism is his 1918 work L’Histoire du Soldat. Scored for a septet of oddly-combined instruments (violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion) as well as a narrator, actors, and dancers, Stravinsky wrote L’Histoire simply to make money; it was written for a touring theatre company to be performed on a circuit of Swiss towns and villages, a sort of modernist minstrel show. The libretto, written in French by C.F. Ramuz, is based on Russian tales published by Alexander Afanasiev. The story goes like this: a soldier, on leave for a few days, encounters the devil, disguised as an old man, while marching home. The devil trades a magic book for the soldier’s fiddle, granting the soldier new wealth through his magic – but the soldier, lonely after leaving his home, soon realizes that riches do not lead to fulfillment. The soldier gets the devil drunk, steals the fiddle, and uses it to cure the princess of the land; the soldier fights the devil away by playing the violin and driving him to convulsions, and he and the princess marry. But, although he had been warned not to do it, the soldier, having been coaxed by the princess to visit his old home, is captured by the devil the moment he steps over the town line. The moral, as the narrator says during the Grand Chorale, is this: “You must not seek to add to what you have, what you once had; you have no right to share what you are with what you were.”

Though the story is nothing more than a fable, it is interesting  if only for its political undertones – the Grand Chorale, in which the narrator shares this moral, becomes a platform for a monologue about the evils of greed. In doing so, as Richard Taruskin observes, the narrator issues direct moral commandments to the audience against desire; “the devil,” Taruskin writes, “triumphs not out of devilhood, but assumes the role of some sort of avenging angel exacting a just moral retribution upon the soldier’s hubris.” The story is concerned with the relationship between the victim and authority, seemingly manipulating its audience into trusting the moral regulation of the devil. But the work’s concern for the individual becomes all the more interesting when considered in terms of its aesthetic quality, for only when considered in terms of aesthetics does the relationship of the story to the music achieve its ultimate political significance.

In considering its composition, however, we are left with a major problem: the most important aspect of L’Histoire, at least that is directly relevant to its place in the modernist cultural battle, is that it does not fit neatly into any distinct musical idiom; it straddles the divide between the competing ideals of reversion to traditionalism and the rejection of tradition. This can be demonstrated most clearly through the contrasting idioms of the various movements. The Grand Chorale, after all, may as well be an exercise in neoclassicism, recalling, albeit with modern dissonances, the harmony of Bach; contrarily, however, the Dance du Diable and the Triumphal March recall the grotesque aggression of The Rite, with their use of the extreme registers of each instruments, their unrelenting dissonance, and their abandon of tradition. The idiomatic disagreement is only further confused when viewed in the context of the chronology of Stravinsky’s work: indeed, L’Histoire would be Stravinsky’s last composition before he turned to the devout neoclassicism of his Pulcinella and Oedipus Rex and away from the revolutionary modernism of The Rite. This dichotomy presents us with two different versions of Stravinsky: Stravinsky the revolutionary and Stravinsky the neoclassicist. L’Histoire gives us both.

The debate over his true artistic identity hinges on the interpretation of Stravinsky’s legitimacy as a revolutionary. As Christopher Butler notes, Stravinsky was revolutionary to the extent that he produced innovative work that revealed new possibilities for the basic techniques of his art form. This claim, however, splits into two opposing stances. The first celebrates Stravinsky’s rejection of standards of beauty in favor of modernist innovation; it paints Stravinsky as a producer of scandalous, discordant, outrageous originality. The second holds that such apparent innovation is truly a guise for a reversion to the past. This second claim is the central argument of Adorno’s scathing critique of Stravinsky in his Philosophy of New Music. Put simply, Adorno did not like Stravinsky; he found him a conformist, having succumbed to the false idea that music could be restored by reconstructing an authoritarian authenticity that recalled past stylistic procedures. The result is a regression that “replaces progress with repetition,” a failure that leaves the work devoid of life itself. This problem, to Adorno, is not relegated just to the explicitly neoclassical; on the whole, Stravinsky follows a pattern of “objectivism,” which recognizes the alienation of the individual and the negation of life by the explicit return to styles of the past, be it neoclassicism or the folkloric, to restore harmony and order. The Adornian critique holds that this objectivism, characterized by a parody of the past, transforms into an aesthetic of non-identity; as David Roberts writes, “the death dance of nonidentity wears the mask of parody.” Indeed, the essence of Adorno’s argument is concerned with Stravinsky’s liquidation of the individual. The music’s sole concern, he writes, is “its mere existence, and the concealing of the role of the subject beneath its emphatic muteness;” the subject, having been seemingly liberated through the restoration of authenticity, has actually been subjected to authoritarian conformity such as to succumb to its own annihilation.

Regarding L’Histoire du Soldat, Adorno viewed the piece as indicative of this dissolution of identity as Stravinsky’s thematic models became degraded to the commercialism of the market:

The defective conventions of L’Histoire are scars resulting from the wounds of everything which was viewed as common sense in music during the bourgeois epoch. They reveal the irreconcilable break between the subject and that which musically stood in contrast to it as an objective factor – the idiom. The former has decayed to the same level of impotence as the latter.

In this sense, this false authenticity – the liquidation of the subject posing as its own liberation – becomes the aesthetic of a modernity of the cultural market; the market appropriates an aesthetic of liberation under the guise of conformity, the art itself functioning as its own propaganda for bourgeois authority; art consumes itself while subconsciously consuming its subject. Adorno is right to be concerned with the piece’s relationship to the market. However, the central irony of his argument, by which he claims that the work’s apparent authenticity hides its liquidation of the individual, has one further implication. If Adorno is right, then L’Histoire is inescapably regressive, appealing to objectivism to find a modernism that can survive in a market that sought artistic harmony and social order. But the true irony is that Stravinsky’s revolutionary innovation is hidden within this regressive aesthetic. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, thwarted by modernist techniques, can be taken as the ironic rejection of traditional classicism, a classicism that expresses its resentment over its status as a commodity by pursuing it, parodying it, and mocking it – there is an ironic meaning to the very absence of subjectivity that Adorno targets. Adorno’s argument, manipulated by this opposite irony, flips on its axis: by subjecting his art to the confines of the market, Stravinsky places on the market a modernism that necessitates the demise of tradition. Stravinsky repurposes the aesthetic of traditionalism for his own purposes, and in doing so, he pushes us past the dichotomy of revolution against traditionalism: he at once reconciles the extremes and juxtaposes them, showing that their apparent union is a guise for their irreconcilability. When the market absorbs Stravinsky’s apparent appeal to order, it is actually told that order can no longer survive.

If we approach Stravinsky from this aesthetic viewpoint – that Stravinsky’s apparent regression is truly a parody of its own failure – then we must also reevaluate Adorno’s conception of Stravinsky’s subjection of the individual to social conformity. Stravinsky does not hide the liquidation of the individual behind its apparent liberation through order. Rather, his music mocks this very concept: it is concerned with the plight of the individual in at the modern world, a world that, according to Stravinsky, has been failed by traditionalism. The liquidation of the individual is transformed from the unintended consequence of Stravinsky’s aesthetic to its primary concern. This is the aesthetic most primarily demonstrated in L’Histoire, casting it as not just a pivotal work, but a work that defines his own modernist impulse.

Combining this aesthetic quality with the political undertones of the narration, we arrive at the fundamental significance of L’Histoire. As previously observed, the story serves to furnish the devil with the power of moral regulation; the devil becomes the authority by which the soldier’s ultimate failure is captured as just. Similarly, we have now concluded that the work’s aesthetic characteristics do demonstrate a concern for the plight of the individual. Stravinsky hides this concern in the ironic neoclassicism of the Grand Chorale, which becomes a platform for the presentation of moral authority, and then carries out the destruction of the subject in the overtly grotesque Triumphal March in the Devil, which recalls the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring. It is ultimately the moral authoritarianism of the devil that kills the subject – and in hiding the death of the individual behind the guise of the grotesque, Stravinsky stakes out a claim on his own modernism: the individual cannot survive in a world dominated by traditionalist moral authority; the subject must submit to social conformity, thus sacrificing its own individuality, in order to survive in such a world. Stravinsky’s modernism becomes a means of repurposing tradition to convey his rejection of it; it displays ironic concern for the dissolution of the subject by condemning its demise.

The advancement of art towards its own enlightenment, as David Roberts writes, is characterized by the transformation of art into “self-reflection on the level of the system, that is, the critique of art qua art.” Put in political terms, such a formulation essentially means that culture becomes a political battleground, as was the case in the divide between revolution and regression, in the years following World War I. Amidst this cultural landscape, a European society grappling with the seemingly meaningless death of a generation of soldiers, Stravinsky, despite his apparent reversion to the authority of traditional order, reveals a deep concern for the individual; the soldier in the L’Histoire, victim of the authoritarian devil, may as well be an unknown soldier, a member of the lost generation. Indeed, Stravinsky’s music express an anxiety over the significance of the individual, a concern for the victim; and in doing so, it lays a claim on its own unique philosophy of modernism.

Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973)

Christopher Butler, “Stravinsky as Modernist” in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, ed. Jonathan Cross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Modris Eksteins, Preface to Rites of Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989)

Max Paddison, “Stravinsky as Devil: Adorno’s Three Critiques” in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, ed. Jonathan Cross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 195.

David Roberts, Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 110-111.

Michael Steinberg, Program notes for Stravinsky: L’Histoire du Soldat. Last modified January 2015.

Richard Taruskin, “Histoire du Soldat: The Concept” in Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, Volume II by Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)

Performing Politics: Chance the Rapper, Angels, and Black Nationalism

Leonard Bopp

Chance the Rapper is a product of his Chicago heritage. Born on the South Side, his earliest musical inspiration was Kanye West, a fellow Chicago native. In fourth grade, he discovered Kanye’s College Dropout, listened to it on repeat; from then on, he knew that he had to be a rapper. Now, he has emerged as one of hip-hop’s fastest-rising stars. His 2013 opus Acid Rap has propelled him towards fame, earning him festival appearances and a spot on Saturday Night Live, the first independent artist ever to do so. But even with his rising fame, he remains tied to his Chicago roots. Chance the Rapper has a mission: to be a voice for the marginalized black communities of the South Side. He is scared for the community that raised him; “the amount of violence – gun violence specifically in Chicago, “ he says, “nobody’s doing much about it. It’s scary. I want to voice it. I want to talk about it” (Taylor). The primary vessel for Chance’s political advocacy, for his expressions of solidarity, is his music, connecting him to a long lineage of rap artists who have wrestled with, spoken for, and written about the political dilemmas facing America’s marginalized black communities.

Indeed, rap music has always been a political exercise. From it’s origins in the South Bronx of the 1970’s, rap has been a political vehicle for the disenfranchised, a counter-public sphere for a black community that had been marginalized from the cultural and political mainstream (Bonnette 12-13). Fusing the jagged edginess of jazz with the lyric power of Langston Hughes, hip-hop became the dominant medium to capture the ethos of struggle and resistance among black Americans (Henderson 310). For music to be a mode of resistance from the dominant political ideology was nothing new in black cultural history; after all, slaves songs such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd” actually functioned as coded messages for liberation and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” captured painful images of lynching (Bonnette 32). But what began as a mode of expression for the commonality of oppression in the black community emerged as a means for the explicit expression of political goals. Following its ancestry in African American culture, hip-hop’s rise in popularity coincides with the reactionary conservative politics of the Reagan-Bush years and the recessions of the late 1970’s (Henderson 318). Artists from Public Enemy and Tupac to Kanye and Kendrick have taken up the political concerns of the black community, voicing discontentment with economic oppression and political neglect and expressing the desire for liberation. Hip-hop has become a place where social barriers seek to be torn down; it is inherently motivated by the desire for social transformation. Hip-hop that takes seriously its political implications, then, has one big question to answer: what exactly is it fighting for?

If rap music is reflective of a desire for social transformation, then it must advocate, explicitly or implicitly, a certain political solution. Chance the Rapper’s “Angels,” one of his newest singles, does just that. Layered over a Motown-stlye beat and gospel-inspired backdrop, the song’s argument is clear: in a society in which the political establishment has ignored its black citizenry, rap music, its political agenda intact, is the only remaining source of hope and solidarity for the black community. Chance is not just talking about rap as a genre, however, or the black community en masse – this is a song about Chance the Rapper, through his music, personally delivering a sense of solidarity and liberation to his city, Chicago’s South Side. “I got my city doing front flips,” he begins, “while every father, mayor, rapper jump ship.” This is, in part, a direct reference to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been widely criticized for ignoring Chicago’s black community after fighting to keep video footage of the killing of black teenager Jason van Dyke by a Chicago police officer from being publicly released – indeed, Chance’s message is that the white political establishment has abandoned the concerns of Chicago’s inner city black communities. Against a political system that has disregarded its black constituents, Chance is proclaiming his own allegiance to his city – unlike other rappers, who have left their origins behind in a quest for fame; “I ain’t change my number since the seventh grade” and “I’m still at my old church,” he says, pledging his devotion to his own roots.

Moreover, Chance casts himself as a hero, the “blueprint to a real man,” for the black community’s youth – the kind of idol that Kanye once was to him. Indeed, the rapper-as-hero is the song’s protagonist. This is made abundantly clear in the music video. It opens with an image of a young black child walking through city streets; he looks up to see Chance the Rapper flying – like an angel – above the Chicago skyline. He zips through the sky as he sings the first verse, ultimately landing on the roof of a subway car – which is carrying the same young child from before – as the video shifts to a cartoon-style illustration reminiscent of DC and Marvel comic books. The chorus hits, and the people on Chance’s subway car begin to dance along. It is Chance, like a savior, that personally delivers rap music’s particular brand of liberation to the South Side. The argument is that by engaging in the solidarity of hip-hop, Chicago’s black community can achieve the kind of liberation Chance offers. When Chance states in the chorus “I got angels all around me,” he is presenting a personal promise of hope, offering that his music can provide a sense of liberation in Chicago’s black community – especially for the young boy who, it seems, may as well be the young Chancellor Bennett. “Angles,” then, becomes an optimistic promise of hope for the black community – much like Chance’s “Sunday Candy,” a song about the importance of going to church, places of family and community, on Sundays.

But in offering liberation, Chance’s music must explain how it plans to do so – by what means and towards what ends the people of the South Side can transform their social circumstances. The answer lies in the music video’s replacement of traditionally white cultural icons with black characters. Indeed, the song casts Chance, a black man, as an angel – and in the traditional cultural notion of this religious allegory, black angels cannot exist. The realm of the heavenly is nearly uniformly portrayed in popular media as a white paradise, to the extent that exceptions to the rule must have serious implications as an alternative; in this case, the music video is presenting a savior, through a religious allegory, that is black rather than white. It does the same by turning Chance into a superhero, a role that through its various incarnations – Batman, Superman, and the like – has been uniformly reserved for white people. It is these dissident characterizations, the black angel and the black superhero, that deliver the promise of liberation to the people on the subway car – all of whom are black. These portrayals of black characters in traditionally white roles is fundamental to Chance’s offer of liberation. The political agenda it advocates depends on the replacement of society’s normative authoritarian whiteness with black characters; liberation, it argues, cannot be achieved in a social and cultural framework dominated by whiteness. Rather, for a community that has been abandoned by a white political establishment, liberation can only be achieved through distinctly black social and political systems. “Angels,” ultimately, is a song about the political agenda of black nationalism, the cultural and political independence of black Americans (Bonnette 54). And if we can tie this to a tangible political solution, we could say this: it imagines a distinctly black polity on the South Side of Chicago.

There is indeed a historical trend of hip hop artists promoting the black nationalist ideology. After all, the immediate predecessor of and primary inspiration for early hip-hop was the Black Arts Movement, which had as its primary goal the creation of an Afrocentric culture as a means of liberation; it was essentially an artistic representation of the political agendas of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (Henderson 315). With Public Enemy, one of rap’s earliest political advocates, black nationalism became central to hip-hop’s cultural identity. With “Shut Em Down” and “Can’t Truss It,” Public Enemy conveyed an alternative to the popular models of integrationist politics conveyed by the white media and Martin Luther King, which, as Errol Henderson argues, constrained thought and analysis on models of liberation (Henderson 327-328). Nas and Tupac later took up this political agenda; in “Thug’s Mansion,” for example, a verse from the late Tupac is explicitly utopian, presenting a black alternative to heaven. And today, as America continues to see its black population subjected to police violence and economic oppression, the black nationalist strands of Public Enemy have resurfaced in hip-hop’s cultural sphere, with Kendrick Lamar and Kayne West, current icons of hip-hop culture, both addressing the oppression of African-Americans and advocating racial solidarity.

Indeed, pop culture, and hip-hop specifically, has often been a matter of envisioning a utopian society, in which, by addressing a political problem and advocating a solution, it advocates a political agenda. This utopian vision, however, can be indicative of varying strands of political thought. In rap and hip-hop, artists have often advocated liberation by representations of the black nationalist ideology – whether explicitly in the lyrics or implicitly in the song’s representations of black nationalist attitudes of self-reliance of solidarity (Bonnette 58). Chance’s “Angels” may not present the black nationalist ideology as explicitly as, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” an anthem of solidarity from To Pimp a Butterfly, or Beyonce’s “Formation,” which makes explicit references to Malcolm X in the context of America’s police brutality epidemic. But through its vision of a black nationalist utopia, it’s implicit advocacy of distinctly black political and social structures, “Angels” presents the attitudes of black nationalism as the solution to the politics of racial oppression. At the end of the music video, Chance dances on the streets of Chicago along with a group of black dancers; the video concludes with the same young child it showcased in the opening looking up at the Chicago skyline. The only way that the black community can tangibly claim their city, it argues, is through the attitudes and policies of black nationalism. This is a song not just about solidarity and liberation, but about achieving those ends by the means of radical political change.

Works Cited

Bonnette, Lakeyta M., Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Henderson, Errol A.. 1996. “Black Nationalism and Rap Music”. Journal of Black Studies 26 (3). Sage Publications, Inc.: 308–39. 2784825.

Malone, Christopher and Martinez, Jr., George, “The Organic Globalizer” in Hip Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture, ed. Christopher Malone and George Martinez, Jr., 1-17. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Taylor, John, “Chance the Rapper Drops Acid,” Interview Magazine, April 30, 2013, accessed April 24, 2016, the-rapper-acid-rap/#_

The Hero We Need: The Political Paradox of Batman and The Dark Knight Rises

Leonard Bopp

Batman 3: The Dark Knight Rises begins with an image of Commissioner Gordon delivering a tribute to Harvey Dent, the former Mayor of Gotham credited with ridding its streets of organized crime. “It will be a very long time before someone inspires us the way he did,” he says; “I believed in Harvey Dent.” Of course, if we are to understand the significance of Harvey Dent and the context of Batman 3, we must return to its predecessor, The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is supposed to be a hero for the city; he is the savior of social order in a world threatened by organized crime. This is, of course, until the Joker unleashes his chaotic terror on Gotham, usurping both the systems of organized crime and the public social order, revealing the ease with which people are pushed towards evil and order gives way to disorder. Harvey Dent is the Joker’s primary victim – by killing Harvey Dent’s lover, the Joker drives Dent, the figurehead of the government, to commit a madness-induced killing spree. The role of Batman, at this moment, is to preserve the city’s faith in the establishment. Batman takes responsibility for Dent’s crimes in order to preserve his image as a savior and the public’s faith in the established order; it is easier, of course, for the public to consider the mysterious renegade a criminal than it would be for them to indict those who are supposed to be their saviors – their government and their police.

In the context of its predecessor, then, the opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises reveals what we already know about Gotham: that the established social and political order is a failing system, indeed, a falsehood. Though Commissioner Gordon perpetuates the almost deistic representation of Harvey Dent, he, of course, knows that he is not the savior; he knows that Harvey was the victim and Batman was his scapegoat. Years after Harvey’s death, however, the city is once again under threat – this time, the villain is Bane, a descendant of the mysterious League of Shadows and the leader of an underground revolutionary movement. The falsehood of the establishment will once again be challenged; the city will once again need a savior, and the Batman must return. The puzzle of the movie, however, is that it is ultimately the very system the Batman is protecting that produces its enemies.

Indeed, the figure of the Batman presents the viewer with a troubling paradox. The Batman is, after all, the altar-ego of Bruce Wayne, the orphaned child of wealthy parents who were murdered by a thief on the streets of Gotham. After being raised by his Butler, Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce vowed to rid Gotham of the type of criminals who killed his parents. Having risen to the top of his family’s organization, Wayne Enterprises, he is entrenched in Gotham’s capitalist economy – indeed, as the city’s wealthiest and most revered businessman, he is its figurehead. This capitalist system, however, has, inevitably, created a disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Indeed, Gotham’s capitalist economic order has fostered the very types of crime Bruce Wayne sought to eliminate. When Blake, a well-intentioned police officer who idolizes Commissioner Gordon, visits the shelter for young boys where he grew up, he meets a young black child who shares that his older brother died while working in the tunnels. “A lot of guys go down into the tunnels when they age out,” he says; “they say there’s work down there.” And as he speaks with Blake about his experiences at the shelter, he draws figures of the Batman in white chalk on the sidewalk. Indeed, this child, and his late brother, have been failed by the very system Bruce Wayne leads, forcing them to search for a way out of the circumstances that oppress them.

In truth, it is the very system – capitalism – of which Bruce Wayne is the figurehead that pushes the economically oppressed people of Gotham towards crime. This, of course, is what drives Bruce to return as the Batman – he is guilty of perpetuating a system that hurts the very people he claims to want to save. The Batman is not fighting the system that causes crime, but the criminals that threaten the establishment Bruce Wayne leads; Batman’s rival is not the capitalist system that has perpetuated Gotham’s social injustice, but it’s alternative, its enemy, its revolutionary counterpart. Inevitably, the movie presents an alternative to this capitalist system – socialism – hidden under the mask of Bane. As Bane stands outside Bloodgate Prison, which he calls a “symbol of oppression,” and demands the release of its captives, he appeals to the people of Gotham with socialist rhetoric; he claims that the people of Gotham have been fed “myths of opportunity,” and calls for an army of the oppressed to rise and “rip the powerful from their decadence.” Furthermore, he demolishes the public’s perception of Harvey Dent as a hero, revealing, by reading an unheard speech by Commissioner Gordon, that Dent, who was responsible for the imprisonment of thousands of criminals, was nothing more than a criminal himself; indeed, that he was a false idol, held up to the city to hide the corruption of the establishment. His aim is to return power to the people of Gotham; indeed, he tells them that his revolution is the “instrument of your liberation.”

But the movie wants us to hate Bane; he is not a savior, but a threat to public order. Indeed, the Batman is decidedly the movie’s protagonist. His plot line is, after all, guised in capitalist symbolism. After Bane fights Batman nearly to death at his lair, he brings him to a prison at the bottom of a tower that can only be escaped by a near-fatal jump. As Batman, trapped in this dungeon, watches footage of his city burning, he becomes determined to escape, but in order to do so, he must climb towards the light at the top of the tower. He tries twice, tied to a rope to catch him if he falls – and both times, he fails. Only when he is independent, free of the rope’s safety and protection, is he able to make the jump. Indeed, Batman is fated to reach the light at the the top of the tower and save the city – his city, the capitalist system he symbolizes. We are supposed to cheer for the Batman as he risks his life to climb out of the tower; and in doing so, without knowing it, we are cheering for capitalism, and the defeat of the revolution.

But the allegory of the tower is also relevant to Bane and his ally Miranda Tate, as both of them are descendants of the same prison. At the end of the movie, we learn that Tate was born in the prison; her mother, the daughter of a local warlord, had been imprisoned after falling in love with a local mercenary, who was ultimately exiled. Miranda and her mother were treated brutally in the prison – indeed, it is implied that the other prisoners raped her mother. As a child, Miranda was able to escape, to climb to the top of the tower, like the Batman, but only because Bane protects her from the other prisoners – the prisoners who will ultimately cause the disfiguration that forces Bane to wear his mask. Miranda joins her father and is taken in by the League of Shadows, and they later return to the tower to free the oppressed prisoners and recruit them to their cause – the cause that became the basis for the revolution Miranda and Bane bring to Gotham. Indeed, Miranda’s father was the first villain the Batman killed – and now, she has vowed to vindicate her father and finish his work. The stories of Miranda and Bane reveal a fundamental conflict of the film: though the tower is an allusion to capitalism, it is at the same time a symbol of oppression; it both symbolizes the victory of Batman and the oppression of Miranda and Bane. The same, of course, can be applied to the capitalist system of Gotham – the city’s established order is guilty of oppressing those who ultimately threaten its existence. When the Batman hears Miranda’s justification, he insists that her father was trying to kill millions of innocent people – to which Miranda responds, fittingly, that “innocent is a tough word to throw around Gotham.” Indeed, everyone, the entire society, is responsible for the systems of oppression and injustice that the revolution calls attention to; but the movie, in establishing the Batman as the capitalist protagonist, doesn’t want us to care.

And then there is the peculiar figure of the Catwoman, who plays an interesting role in manipulating the audience to cheer the rise of their savior. When we meet the Catwoman, she is undercover as a waitress at an elite gala at the Wayne Manor; her real purpose is to obtain Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints – she is a thief, a criminal, and, in her own way, a woman of unique power. When Bruce finds her sneaking into his safe, she knocks over his cane, pushes him to the ground, and backflips out the window; she is a woman capable of gaining power of Gotham’s most significant male figure. Later, while dancing with him at a Wayne Enterprise gala, she tells Bruce that she “takes what she can from those who have too much” and tells him of the coming storm of the revolution. But ultimately, the Catwoman functions to manipulate the audience to support the Batman. All the Catwoman wants is a clean slate, a second chance to redefine her life – which, of course, is indicative of the capitalist ideal of defining one’s own destiny, the notion that one becomes what they make of themselves. The Batman, as the capitalist savior, becomes her own savior – only he, she learns, can offer her a clean slate – and her transition to Batman’s cause carries the audience towards this ideology. After leading the Batman directly into Bane’s trap, the film cuts back to her as Bane fights the Batman – she looks distraught, appalled, at Bane’s brutality. She tries to flee, but is caught at the airport by Blake; ultimately she confesses to being scared by Bane’s power. This is only compounded by her emerging love for Bruce. When he returns from the prison and offers her the clean slate, she has the chance to flee the city, but in her first moment of genuine emotion in the film, she pleads for him to come with her, saying he can save himself from the burning city. But after Bruce refuses, she ultimately returns to help Batman defeat Bane, submitting to Bruce’s cause, his authority, and, by demonstrating her love, solidifying the viewer’s support of the Batman’s defense of capitalism. Indeed, she is simply reduced from her position of power to a mere romantic object – and in turn, the movie’s capitalist ideology is disguised in a typical love story.

In truth, Batman 3 can be reduced to capitalist propaganda; indeed, the movie wants us to root for the Batman to save himself and his city against the evils of Bane’s revolution, and, in turn, wants us to hate those that challenge it, that see it as unjust. When Blake investigates the inner workings of Bane’s underground society, he approaches two men operating a cement truck, suspecting that they might be affiliated with Bane’s revolution – he targets the working class, treating them as criminals. Sure enough, they were Bane’s operatives – they have poured cement laced with explosives in a ring around the city, designed to trap the police officers sent into the tunnels to destroy the underground revolution – so Blake kills them. Indeed, we are supposed to hate them and the revolution they represent; in actuality, the movie wants us to fear the poor.

But these political underpinnings are communicated through more than just socialist rhetoric; Bane is quite literally attacking and destroying a traditional American society. When Bane and Batman face off in the tunnels, Bane blows a hole in the ceiling, revealing an industrial center, where old-style cars are produced by laborers on an assembly line – the same kinds of laborers that formed the early American trade unions – which fall beneath the crumbling floor. Furthermore, when Bane first introduces himself to the people of Gotham, he actually does so at a football game in the stadium of the Pittsburg Steelers – and he blows it up, the football field falling beneath the players’ feet, right after a boy soprano sings the American national anthem. In these scenes, it is the society of the Rust Belt, the Pittsburg-to-Detroit center of old American industry, that Bane is destroying; and the height of the Rust Belt, the height of American industry, was during the second half of the twentieth century – the era of the Cold War.

Indeed, the politics of the Cold War looms large in this film. The fundamental threat of Bane’s socialist revolution, after all, is that he has a nuclear bomb that can destroy the city – and it is a Russian physicist that created it. The conflict in the movie between capitalism and socialism, then, is indicative of the Cold War political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and, in particular, the resulting nuclear crises. But the film is not just about the threat of the Soviet Union – it goes beyond that; the film is, more broadly, about the politics of globalization, with Bane representing all that threatens the ideal of American greatness. In the film, Bane destroys the old industrial centers of the Rust Belt; but in reality, those industrial centers were lost due to the rise of international trade and the globalization of the economy, through the NAFTA agreement and the creation of the World Trade Organization, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Lastly, the movie directly responds to the rise of terrorism. Bane’s first attack on the city of Gotham is, not coincidentally, on the trading floor of the Gotham Financial Center, the embodiment of Gotham’s capitalist system, just as the World Trade Center was the embodiment of American economic power. Indeed, the prison in which Miranda Tate and Bane lived, and that Bruce Wayne escaped from, is in the middle of an Arabian desert, indicative of an American association of the Middle East with terrorism. And as the film shows the destruction they caused to the city of Gotham – its buildings burning, its bridges exploring – the camera pans along the Hudson and the East River, past the Queensboro and George Washington Bridges, towards the Empire State Building and the abandoned site of the World Trade Center. The Gotham of Bane’s revolution is, in fact, is a post-September 11 New York City.

Indeed, Batman 3 is a fictional representation of the very real-world political conflict between the American establishment – capitalism, industry, and democracy – and the revolutions that threaten it – socialism, globalization, and terrorism. And how does this film resolve this political conflict? Bane and Miranda, the revolutionary leaders, are killed by the Batman and Catwoman. The Batman flies Bane’s nuclear bomb out over the Atlantic Ocean, saving the city from its blast. The people of Gotham survive. The Batman’s legacy is that of a hero, and his political allies erect a statue of that Batman in the capital building.

Indeed, such is the paradox of the Batman: by saving the very political and economic oder he represents, he is able to reconcile his guilt in perpetuating a system that creates its own enemies; and as the Batman saves his city from the revolution, so we are saved from ourselves.