So, The Dark Knight Rises. Pretty good, but also a bit of a letdown. Batman has a plane, which is neato. Catwoman shows up, although in all fairness she might as well not have, for all that she gets to do. The movie feels overwritten and stuffed, and I guess that we’re either going to get a Directors Cut in the future that gives the characters a little more room to breathe or that Nolan and co have been working on this property for so long that they simply got in too deep. There are almost twice as many important characters in Rises as in The Dark Knight, and almost half of them could have been easily dropped. I liked The Avengers better.
Now let’s talk politics. In particular, let’s talk fascism.
ZING! Winner by a Godwin! This is a popcorn movie, idiot, not a political statement! Let it go!
The thing is, I normally would have, but Rises really brings this on itself. Not only does it have several characters talk about politics, but it also employs images that so clearly refer to political events past and present (more on that later) that it’s sort of impossible not to think about what the movie actually means in this context. And with that, the creeping sense came over me that Batman in The Dark Knight Rises was a bit of a fascist.
Now, before we delve into why this is exactly, let me illustrate what I’m talking about here on this neat chart, appropriately enough called the Nolan Chart:
Okay, that might be a little abstract, but the basic thing to take away from that chart is that aside from “leftist” and “rightist” political views, there are also “authoritarian” and “libertarian” views. All four of these are legitimate political philosophies – whatever the internet might say – and have arguments for and against them.
Now, the main reason I am talking about all this is because of something Bane, the main villain in Rises, does around the halfway point of the movie. He takes over Gotham by blowing up all the bridges, trapping the entire police force underground (long story) and threatening to set off a bomb when someone tries to escape. But he presents this by saying the following: “Gotham, take control… take control of your city. Behold, the instrument of your liberation!” A quote that sounds a lot like political Anarchy to me.
Anarchy is a complicated bowl of soup, and I’m not going to delve into that right now, but suffice to say that the movie doesn’t seem to give much thought to what all of this means. Bane is presented as a Bad Guy without Batman’s strict moral code, and the whole bomb thing easily makes him a terrorist. He’s later revealed to have been Ra’s Al Ghuls disciple, and that character was apparently based on Osama Bin Laden, so there’s not much moral leeway there.
But this is only half the story. Besides terrorism, Nolan also uses imagery in its portrayal of the bad guys that alludes to Occupy and, more significantly, The French Revolution, which in its inception (SeeWhatIDidThere) was a populist uprising against an oppressive society. Look at the chart above again, and you can see that in both the historical conflict and the conflict of the film is essentially between the top and the bottom.
The problem with all this is where Batman stands. We’ve been told he is the good guy, and this was easy to accept when he was pitted against The Scarecrow (personification of madness) and The Joker (personification of gleeful destructive nihilism). But against Bane… I’m really not so sure. Sure, there’s the bomb, but that feels so shoe-horned in that it might as well have been labeled “Convenient Plot Device”. And without it, I’m not really sure Batman/Wayne has much more of a point than Bane. He’s a very rich guy who uses his money to beat up street thugs. I know this has always been sort of the problem with Batman as character, but it never really mattered before because the character was never meant to be political.
But now this film clearly makes him political, and I find it kind of hard to root for the guy who is basically fighting to keep his own money safe. Selina Kyle/Catwoman has a great moment in the beginning of the film where she warns Wayne that “You think this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Looking at the current political landscape, I can’t be the only one who thinks she might have a point.
Batman seems to defend the status quo, and much is made of him helping or saving the police force. In the final battle they team up, and are supposed to be the good guys. But any political anarchist (or Marxist, really) will tell you that in their philosophy the police is essentially a method to keep the class differences in place (this refers to the police as an institution, of course, not to individual policemen). Gotham is shown to us a city where class differences are rampant, and at one point the city literally descends into armed class warfare. Batman has to stop this, with the help of the armed police. By beating the poor people back to their places.
In all fairness, I doubt Christopher Nolan intended this to be the message of the movie. He’s a pop filmmaker, and none of his other films seem to have much of a political message. Bane is really a silly character, and if he is supposed to represent political anarchy they got him just as wrong as that other movie about a guy in a mask beating up people. That’s a link to 2005′s V For Vendetta, in case you’re wondering, a movie that seems to believe that anarchism is best represented by all dressing up to form a faceless mob. Perhaps this is more a problem of Nolan overstretching the whole “realism” angle than anything else.
But be that as it may, words and images still mean something. I said before that the movie uses imagery of the French Revolution, and this is particularly striking in the scene near the end of the film where the police force storm Bane’s stronghold. Their attack is shown in a way that recalls the storming of the Bastille, and in particular that one famous painting made about it. So… the police force, literally people who are in charge with upholding the status quo, are visually equated with a revolutionary army? That’s… a pretty bad historical analogy right there, Mr. Nolan. I respect you as a filmmaker, but if you’re going to invoke politics, you should probably think about what your film means a little more in the future.
Phew, that was some heavy stuff. Have a puppy.
P.S. Oh, also? Batman at one point straight up goes and shoots a dude. Seriously, pay close attention at the moment he saves Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s character. He totally does. There goes your entire first movie, Mr. Nolan.