The Dark Knight Rises: The (Real) Politics of Nolan’s Batman

If the respective media bonanzas surrounding the Presidential election and The Dark Knight Rises have produced anything spontaneously newsworthy, it was surely the absurd moment when the summer’s most anticipated crowd-pleasers finally began to bleed into each other.

That “Bane” (the main villain of the new Batman film) sounds like “Bain” (Romney’s former company) has ruffled some Republican feathers. As Rush Limbaugh fumed: “Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing four-eyed whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bain?” Limbaugh, who has clearly seen the film, is right about one thing: “A lot of people are gonna see the movie, and it’s a lot of brain-dead people—entertainment, the pop culture crowd—and they’re gonna hear ‘Bane’ in the movie and they’re gonna associate ‘Bain’.” Democratic strategist and former Clinton aide Christopher Lehane has already done him the honor of confirming this: “Whether it is spelled Bain and being put out by the Obama campaign or Bane and being out by Hollywood, the narratives are similar: a highly intelligent villain with offshore interests and a past both are seeking to cover up who had a powerful father and is set on pillaging society.”

This is all, of course, a thick wad of garbage. But like almost everything in mainstream politics and media, it tiptoes around what’s actually worth talking about. Even more so than the previous installments, Rises is deeply political. But it’s not an allegory for the election.

I’ll briefly (pinky swear) sum up my take on the politics and aesthetics of the trilogy and Rises in particular. What makes Nolan’s trilogy different from other recent attempts to “modernize” the superhero genre? He’s honed in on what makes the Batman universe the darkest of the major franchises: the relatively few fantasy elements. Bruce Wayne has no “magic” power because his greatest foe is power itself, the oppression of our world. It is not radiation but the violence and poverty of Gotham City that create Batman when they take the lives of his parents. Batman Begins, perhaps the trilogy’s least ambitious and least flawed installment, recognized Gotham’s function as the very real dystopia of corporate capitalism. There is no metaphor in these films for the real-world abuse of power. It is the very fabric of social relations.

The central battle of The Dark Knight is really a conflict of two ways of dealing with this reality. On one hand, the nihilistic Joker sees postmodern institutions as unreformable and humanity as irredeemable. On the other hand, Batman’s humanism compels him to reject destruction as a tool of resistance and retain his belief in the value of every life. In the end, Gotham gets it backwards, villainizing the very man who saved them—just as their real-life counterparts made “Hope and Change” out of more of the same.

Which brings us to Rises and surprisingly, back to Rush Limbaugh, who counters the Bain thing by claiming that Bane is actually “a terrorist… an Occupy Wall Street guy”. There is a kernel of truth to this nonsense, and it’s central to what I’ve concluded is the film’s political confusion. OWS represents the resurfacing of radical dissent, the threatening desire for “none of the above”. It is the slightest hint that there may be an answer to the deadlock of TDK: if merely “saving” us (civilization, capitalism, the US etc.) only means prolonging our own slow decay, where does our true salvation lie? Bane recognizes this longing for an answer in Gotham City, and he exploits it.

Rises is, above all else, a conservative film. In the beginning, Gotham looks cleaner and more daytime-y than it used to. Yes, the truth about Harvey Dent and Batman has been hidden under a pile of misplaced outrage and empty eulogies, but has incremental reform (plus Batman) really worked? While the first hour is bloated with introductions, reintroductions, and “Hey, remember what happened in the first two movies?”, it’s a further shortcoming of the screenplay that the actual condition of Gotham and its citizens is left rather murky, considering their role in what follows. Bane is Limbaugh’s OWS boogeyman in the sense that he, like the fascism of old, uses popular disillusionment with a corrupt, morally bankrupt democracy and the language of anti-capitalism to control the mob, establishing a new, frightening, even more violent status quo.

Recall that Bane’s “revolution” begins by attacking the two sacred cows of the United States: pro sports and the stock market. The tense alliance between Batman and the police pits them, as defenders of civilization, against Bane and the restless 99%. Fascist Gotham offers the masses as much of the rich’s property as they can grab, and a kangaroo court keeps them entertained by condemning their former oppressors to death or “exile”. In the end, Bane is defeated, and the old order (minus a few rich people) is restored.

But despite Bane’s rhetoric, he really just wants to blow everything up. There’s nothing remotely lefty about Fascist Gotham: it looks like rubble and cars piled up in the street. The only order is the fearful submission of the mob to their warlord. There’s also the issue of the police and the government. Aren’t they still corrupt? The top brass turns on Batman and lets Bane escape the moment it appears advantageous. Aren’t they still protectors of the elite? The discontent and resentment Bane exploits are very real and (at least according to the Batman universe) completely justified.

The film has other problems: too many characters are introduced and then underdeveloped; (necessary) flashbacks and “remember this?” moments feel clunky; cheesy montage; uneven pacing really kills the momentum (space out those returns!). Improvements over TDK include coherent (and awesome) action scenes, breathtaking set pieces (the football stadium…!), and Anne Hathaway. One final twist: would I have been more generous with Nolan’s recent output (which is really quite good) had he never made Memento? I suspect so.

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One thought on “The Dark Knight Rises: The (Real) Politics of Nolan’s Batman

  1. Pingback: Cinema for pleasure or cinema for protest? | The Red Fury

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