“I love when people get interested in the politics of it, when they see something in it that moves them in some way,” says Christopher Nolan, director and co-writer of The Dark Knight Rises. The film’s message is summed up in Laura Fitzgerald’s review for The Socialist: http://www.socialistparty.net/comment/1004-review-the-dark-knight-rises.
Here, free of the space limitations of a newspaper, we can look in greater detail at how “Batman’s return […] signifies a hope for the return to order in the aftermath of the crisis of capitalism of recent years.”
Firstly I want to look briefly at where the previous two films in the trilogy stood in relation to the time they first hit screens.
Batman Begins (2005) was part of a fashion for rebooting any and every long-established franchise. James Bond, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Star Trek, Dawn of the Dead, Clash of the Titans, Conan the Barbarian and practically every well-known DC and Marvel superhero have all seen re-imaginings in the last eight years or so, almost always with a “grittier” and “darker” feel than we are supposed to expect.
Regurgitation is so much easier for Hollywood than imagination. At its worst, a director will just tell the original story with a bit more moral ambiguity, a darker palette, a faster pace and a lot more CGI, and sneer at the perceived “naivety” of the past even as they plunder it for ideas.
Batman Begins was perhaps the finest film to come out of this trend. It used the iconic elements of the franchise and re-explained them, from scratch, in a near-future that was dark and very “gritty” indeed. In this it took a “realistic” tone which was of course totally spurious. Batman Begins was not realistic but its “realistic” look-and-feel was very engaging.
A Dog Chasing Cars
The Dark Knight (2008) was a belated comment on the War on Terror. Andrew Klavan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the film was a “paean of praise” to George W Bush as the election loomed:
Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency…
In this the film fell down. The only thing more ridiculous than comparing Batman with George W Bush is comparing the Joker with Islamist terrorism. He is an irrational and his motives are totally beyond comprehension. He describes himself as being like a dog chasing cars- “I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one.” “Some men just wanna see the world burn,” says Alfred.
Bin Laden and co in reality took up a medieval, barbaric and ultra-conservative vision of Islam with a plan for supreme order under sharia law, not mad chaos for its own sake. They were motivated by legitimate fury at the role the US plays in the world, and the War on Terror has been a massive recruitment tool for them rather than a challenge. They are rational, however barbaric and misguided, actors. But of course it’s always handy to represent your enemies as just mad dogs that need to be put down, and this is exactly what Bush did: “They hate freedom. They love terror.” Nolan plays along with that in The Dark Knight.
Still the film succeeds because it did what Batman Begins did, but on a bigger scale. Its pseudo-realistic aesthetic, its middle-brow screenplay and complex plotting, its gritty and crunchy action scenes and its epic scale were all hugely appealing. Heath Ledger’s Joker, meanwhile, has become a legend.
Rising Above Privilege
A lot has already been written about the politics of The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Catherine Shoard writes of “the Occupy Gotham movement” while Andrew O’Hehir goes so far as to call it a fascistic film.
One point that has not properly been made yet is that the film is obsessed with the idea of privilege. It’s often been said that Batman is not a “real” superhero- he’s just a guy with lots of money. In this film Batman’s privilege is not his super-power- it’s his weakness. Miranda Tait, Selina Kyle and John Blake all talk about their poverty and it’s clearly a big theme in the film from early on, and an implicit challenge to Batman/Wayne. With Selina, it’s definitely an explicit challenge, and probably one of the film’s best lines.
Earlier in the summer Iron Man had to prove he was a “real” superhero, and not just a rich guy with a cool suit, by flying with a ticking nuclear bomb into a portal to the other side of the galaxy. For the incomparably “grittier” and “broodinger” Batman the stakes are much higher.
Batman goes head-to-head with Bane and gets absolutely destroyed. It’s made clear to us that he’s losing because of his great weakness: his privilege. Batman has learned to use the darkness, Bane tells us; but he, Bane, was born into it.
Later on, why can’t Bruce Wayne escape from the prison in Randomistan? An explanation comes from an inmate who has so far not given any indication that he can speak English. But like all foreigners, he really can if he needs to, it’s just a matter of making an effort. So he explains that Wayne will never escape from the prison because he was born in privilege. He’s not angry, streetwise, tough or anything else that comes from being a working-class hero.
The title of the film describes Batman “rising above” his class, in a spectacular inversion of what that usually means. He can’t escape from prison until, like every privileged man dreams, he proves he’s “hard” and can hold his own alongside the wretched of the earth.
But Wayne saw his parents get shot! He lived for years as a petty criminal then did crazy ninja training on top of a mountain! What exactly does Wayne have to prove? The answer is that we’re talking about a lot more than upper-class feelings of inadequacy.
Caricature of Revolution
“If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed,” says Nolan, rejecting claims that he’s attacking the Occupy movement in The Dark Knight Rises. But here we have a typical liberal view of popular movements and revolution. The people don’t know what they’re doing- they’re being misled by Bane.
Bane is never a “genuine” revolutionary, as Commissioner Gordon at one point insists. Bane’s alliance with capitalist John Daggett- they overthrew a West African government together for the sake of mining rights- implicates Capitalism in Bane’s rise and also undercuts Bane’s credentials as a revolutionary.
Rich houses are looted, rich people are killed, there are scary kangaroo courts presided over by Scarecrow- yes, just as Bane is a caricature of a cynical revolutionary demagogue, so his takeover of Gotham is a caricature of a revolution.
Bruce Wayne has to rise above his class not just for credibility but because he’s engaged in a battle for the soul of the good but gullible people of Gotham. In the real world, the economic crisis and the mass social protests of the last few years have exposed Capitalism and turned people’s heads toward revolution. Capitalism, seriously exposed, is under pressure to prove it upholds the rights not just of one class but of all.
One review of the film was headed “Batman hates the 99%.” I don’t think this is the case. I think Batman is scared of the 99% and is seeking an accommodation with them. Bruce Wayne loses all his money and Batman’s back is broken. Bane has captured the public’s imagination with his rhetoric. To return to form, Batman needs to transcend class and prove he has something to offer to everybody.
Easy Way Out
So how does he do that?
Firstly, the film derails itself from its interesting class-war course and resolves itself into the compulsory “epic” Hollywood climax: a ticking time bomb and a pitched battle. The pitched battle in this case is interesting- a barricade of revolutionaries armed with tanks and machine-guns is charged by thousands of unarmed policemen! But the ticking time bomb is just a disappointing standard trope.
Batman reclaims his honour by sacrificing himself and saving Gotham from nuclear holocaust. We’re back in standard superhero territory- nuclear bombs are so much simpler than seething class antagonisms! Just ask Iron Man. But Batman adds to this class-neutral heroism by appointing the working-class Blake as his successor and by turning Wayne Manor into an orphanage.
So that’s the settlement Batman makes with the angry masses of Gotham. That’s the settlement Capitalism offers humanity in the sign-language of the film. Adequate or not, never mind. That’s what’s going on. Batman is engaging in class war, tackling the revolutionary zeitgeist. But it’s not a fair fight- Nolan brings in a class-neutral nuke for Batman to dispose of. Batman won the class war but he cheated.