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The Dark Knight Rises & Batshit Politicking

August 24, 2012

Gadzooks, dear readers, almost two months without a single post! These once-mighty blog muscles risk atrophy! Mewling self-pity aside, I fancy the best way to return to fighting shape would be to launch into a rant about a popular movie forthwith. And so…

I’m late to the party in discussing The Dark Knight Rises (quick review: it was entertaining, but a goddamn mess overall) but the hugely anticipated event movie has nonetheless provided an amusing side distraction in the weeks following its release. It seems various commentators and critics have come to the conclusion that there is some kind of noteworthy political subtext to the most recent Batflick and have been churning out column inches in response, the rough consensus being that The Dark Knight Rises is an indictment of the Occupy movement group against income inequality and an unabashed exultation of extrajudicial vigilantism to defend capitalist values. Here are a pair of examples (admittedly soft targets) arriving at the same conclusions from markedly different parts of the political spectrum.

Catherine Shoard, a film editor at The Guardian –

Dark Knight Rises: fancy a capitalist caped crusader as your superhero?

So it should be no surprise that The Dark Knight Rises so firmly upholds the financial status quo. Christopher Nolan’s film indulges in much guttural talk of the gap between the 99% and the 1%, but it is the former who are demonised, whose revolting actions require curbing and mutinous squeals muting. Your average Joe, it turns out, requires a benevolent, bad-ass billionaire to set him straight, to knock him sideways, if necessary.

The Occupy Gotham movement, as organised by gargly terrorist Bane, is populated by anarchists without a cause, whose actions are fuelled by a lust for destruction, not as a corrective to an unjust world. Such self-made characters as we meet in the film are, by and large, fishy – power-grabbers hiding behind a fig-leaf of philanthropism.

But The Dark Knight Rises is a quite audaciously capitalist vision, radically conservative, radically vigilante, that advances a serious, stirring proposal that the wish-fulfilment of the wealthy is to be championed if they say they want to do good.

John Nolte, editor at Breitbart.com –

‘Dark Knight Rises’ Review: Nolan Masterpiece Slaps Obama

Now smug and soft, Gotham is going about the business of letting down its guard — a weakness that always invites aggression.

Aggression has already arrived in the form of Bane (Thomas Hardy), a hulk of a man burning with resentment against a society whose only provocation is being prosperous, generous, welcoming, and content — instead of miserable like him. In Gotham’s sewers, Bane recruits those like himself — the insecure thumbsuckers raging with a sense of entitlement, desperate to justify their own laziness and failure and to flaunt a false sense of superiority through oppression, violence, terror, and ultimately, total and complete destruction.

As expected, “Dark Knight Rises” is a love letter to Gotham City: its flawed but ultimately decent people, its industry and generosity — all of which are by-products of liberty, free markets, and capitalism.

Between those two polar opposites of the hand-wringing Guardianista and the unhinged right-wing loon are many similar articles pushing roughly the same line, but it is not entirely clear that any of these people watched the same movie that I did. I’m one of those weirdoes who actually pays attention to the film he’s sitting in front of and I will therefore take the unusual step of debunking these views by referring to what appeared in the film itself. (This will involve major spoilers.)

It’s quite clear Bane is not part of an Occupy movement or any fictional analogue thereof. It’s right there on the screen. He’s the leader of an immensely powerful, clandestine paramilitary group of mountain ninjas known as the League of Shadows who have a penchant for destroying cities they perceive to be corrupt. Batman (in Nolan’s films) used to be part of that same band of mountain ninjas, gaining his extensive, advanced combat training from them, but, being too moderate for the group, he rebelled against their fanaticism and thwarted their initial decades-long plans to destroy Gotham City (Batman Begins). It’s likely that any conclusion made that these antagonists are supposed to represent Occupy protestors comes mainly from some fleeting snippets of dialogue in an altogether thematically muddled film. Bane is said to be “recruiting from the homeless” and later the supervillain makes a quip to the effect that a cowering stockbroker is a thief but, lest we think this character is leading a revolutionary band of the downtrodden, he is introduced to us carrying out an elaborate mid-air hijacking of a CIA plane with the help of his highly-trained, mountain ninja fanatic followers. These guys are emphatically not the 99%. Neither Bane nor his group is actually interested in redistributing Gotham city’s wealth or enacting some class revolution. The real plan, as The Dark Knight Rises spells out halfway through, and which makes up the central part of the plot of the latter half of the film, is to destroy all of Gotham, rich and poor alike, with a neutron bomb. Granted, the masked menace does indulge in some faux revolutionary rhetoric and action but it is then explicitly stated that he is doing so only to offer hope to the citizens of the city before murdering each and every one of them, because he’s a giant arsehole that way. Later, the final reveal is that Bane isn’t even all that committed to this nihilistic, psycho plan but is only carrying it out because he’s the puppet of Talia al Ghul, driven by his loyalty and unrequited love for her and having next to no agency of his own. It is also worth noting that, as stated in Batman Begins, the group that Bane belongs to, The League of Shadows, actively manipulated the economy of Gotham in order to widen the gap between the rich and poor and damage the fragile social fabric of the city.

Bruce Wayne: Putting the class in class war.

Contrary to the assertions of Shroad and Nolte above, the good guys of Gotham are not supposed to be the successful, rich businessman and unrepentant capitalists. There are a total of three prominent such characters in The Dark Knight Rises. Two of them are explicitly revealed to be proper villains, not ambiguous grey-area characters but utter shits (one of them is the “Big Bad” in disguise), and the third is Bruce Wayne, the anomalous nice rich guy who has to repeatedly pretend to be a smug, conceited prick in order to blend in with the other wealthy people of Gotham. In the previous film, The Dark Knight, there were two such characters, one being Bruce Wayne, the other being the corrupt businessman and money launderer, Lau. In Batman Begins there was Bruce Wayne and the bullying shitbag CEO William Earle. Nolan’s Batflicks have never portrayed the elite of Gotham city in a particularly sympathetic light. Instead, much has been made of the corruption and institutional failings of the city, from cops on the take to banks owned by the mob and, in this most recent film, Gotham is shown to have a financial system so horrendously deregulated that Bruce Wayne is able to be stripped of his immense wealth through blatantly fraudulent trading carried out by armed men storming the stock exchange. As well as a smattering of innocent orphans, the sympathetic characters of The Dark Knight Rises include the sassy, sexy Catwoman who, lest we forget, is an unrepentant thief throughout, joyfully preying on Gotham’s wealthy and powerful citizens. Her presence and portrayal in the film is a glaring counter to the arguments advanced above and it is of little surprise that neither commentator mentions that character at all. Also conveniently absent from the articles is any reference to the anti-gun ethics of Batman, which is explored several times in the film and in much clearer and unambiguous terms than the class politics window dressing.

Director Christopher Nolan and brother/screenwriting partner, Jonathan, have publicly stated that their main inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I haven’t read that famed novel myself but I would hazard a guess that it is not an unfettered celebration of capitalism that oozes wanton conservative sentiment. Nolan, who started developing the story a couple of years before the Occupy movement sprung into life, also addressed this issue directly in an interview with Rolling Stone.

It’s just telling a story. If you’re saying, “Have you made a film that’s supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?” – well, obviously, that’s not true.

Later in the same interview, on the subject of Batman being a right-wing character, Nolan responds, “the corruption that drives Bruce Wayne to become Batman is very extreme.” That’s the writer and director of the film refuting both the notion that the villains of The Dark Knight Rises reflect the Occupy movement and the idea that Gotham City is a laudable bastion of benevolent capitalism. There is some imagery and dialogue in the film that taps into topical zeitgeist stuff about wealth disparity and social disenfranchisement however they are merely passing references that act as backdrops rather than part of a coherent whole. Again, all of this, including the Dickensian element, is largely subsumed by the final plot twists/reveals anyway.

Bane around the block.

A solidly discernible political subtext would have been preferable to what felt like an undercooked story with shoddy characterization but it is simply not there in the finished film. Do you want to know what The Dark Knight Rises is really about? It’s about spending $250 million in order to make $1 billion. Nothing more. In that sense, of course, it is a capitalist film, in exactly the same way that every single big Hollywood blockbuster is a capitalist film. They’re looking to generate maximum profits in box office receipts, popcorn, DVD sales, merchandise, video game tie-ins, etc.  Nobody is really looking to make any profound political statements in the text of such a film, especially to the extent that the aforementioned profits would then be at risk from potentially alienated audiences. The previous film, The Dark Knight, did contain some post-9/11 thematic elements that touched on terrorism, security and their effect on civil society, although there they seemed nuanced and solidly defined and certainly not anywhere near as crude as the supposed “Occupy is bad, capitalism is good” analyses being offered up above. As detailed in this marvelous review by Film Critic Hulk at Badass Digest, Nolan’s heart likely wasn’t in it for this latest Batflick, The Dark Knight Rises being a thematically jumbled, incoherent piece. However, the claim that the filmmakers indulged in some political paean to radical conservative values is laughable and amounts to little more than a kind of critical cherry-picking to support preexisting ideological reflexes.

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2 comments

  1. The real problem is that you have to overlook that they clearly explain that Bane’s motivation is personal. The political element is a smokescreen to hide the actual plan.


  2. Exactly. It’s right there in the film. My question above as to whether or not these journalists watched the same Batman film that I did was quite sincere.



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