Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: A Political Review

I hate going to see films anymore in movie theaters, multiplexes, cineplexes, or whatever the hell they are called now.  I just can’t see spending $12 (or $25 if you are foolish enough to buy soda and popcorn) to be crammed into a sterile-looking theater with a relatively small screen and have to deal with hordes of annoying teenagers who just won’t shut up.  But I was persuaded, against my better judgment, to go see the third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.”  I have to confess that I wasn’t overly smitten by Nolan’s busy, loud, overblown take on the Batman myth or Christian Bale’s deadly-dour version of Bruce Wayne (Where’s Michael Keaton when you need him?).  But I was intrigued with the stories that I had been hearing about Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane, so I ventured forth from my own version of the Batcave to embrace the world of popular entertainment.  

First a quick review of the film:  The story is basically a rehash of the Joker film with anarchists taking over Gotham/Manhattan instead of the Joker and his gang wreaking havoc on the city.  Like Nolan’s previous films there are some wonderful special effects and some nice action sequences, but also plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon.  The cast is all more than competent, although I am weary of Bale’s soulful Batman, Gary Oldman’s annoying method acting as Commissioner Gordon, and Morgan Freeman’s new spin on the righteous black man that he has played in every film that he has ever been in.   Anne Hathaway is a completely pale and uninteresting  “Catwoman” (Oh, for Julie Newmar!  Purr!!!) and  Michael Cain is wasted once again as Alfred.  But Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were both wonderful, as they are in every film they are in, and watching these two terrific actors on the big screen was definitely worth the price of admission. 
The bottom line about the film?  To appreciate any of Nolan’s films—and this is true of “Inception” as well as his Batman movies—you’ve got to completely suspend disbelief, ignore plot inconsistencies, and simply go along for the cinematic ride.  If you can do that, you’ll have a hoot watching “The Dark Knight Rises.”  If you start asking too many questions like why the villains of the film, who seem rather self-interested, don’t just leave Gotham before the nuclear bomb that they have set goes off, or how Batman gets his broken back healed in just a few months, while festering in a third world prison, or how he gets from that prison, which is in the middle of nowhere, back to Gotham City in just a few days without any resources or friends to help him…if you start asking questions like these, you might as well just give up on the film. 

Now for the politics of the film.   The plot seems simple enough: fanatical anarchists led by Bane take over Gotham and usher in their own version of the French Revolution.  There’s been much debate, however, about what exactly Nolan is trying to say in this film about our contemporary political situation in the United States (if anything at all). 
Blowhard conservative radio host, Rush Limbaugh, for example, has suggested that the film’s villain, Bane, is actually a liberal attack on Mitt Romney:  “Have you heard this new movie, the Batman movie, what is it, The Dark Knight Lights Up or whatever the name is. That’s right, Dark Knight Rises. Lights Up, same thing. Do you know the name of the villain in this movie? Bane. The villain in The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, B-a-n-e. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran and around which there’s now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time. The release date’s been known, summer 2012 for a long time. 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?”  If you actually watch the film, however, there’s no way that you could possibly view it as a liberal Hollywood conspiracy against Mitt Romney, expect perhaps in Limbaugh’s own oxycontin-riddled mind. 
But there definitely is a case to be made that this film, consciously or unconsciously, represents a reactionary attack on the values and beliefs of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Here are just a few bits of evidence for this interpretation:
  • The film is set in lower Manhattan and mostly around Wall Street—ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
  • Commissioner Gordon has been responsible at the beginning of the film for initiating Gotham City’s own version of Bush’s Patriot Act, and it is clearly viewed as a good policy that has kept Gotham safe for the past eight years. 
  • Bane is a self-professed anarchist, and this is what the Occupiers were accused of being by the media and right-wing pundits.
  • The city is “occupied” and “held hostage” by these anarchists.
  • The very language that Bane uses about income inequality in particular is lifted right out of Occupy Wall Street.  If the film doesn’t actually use the term, “The 1%,” (and I honestly can’t remember if it does or not) to describe the objects of Bane’s ire, there’s no doubt from the scenes of the elite being driven out of their “Park Avenue” apartments that this is who is being represented.
  • Although the wealthy in the film are portrayed as being completely callous to the plight of those less well off, Nolan’s film treats the rich who are forced to experience “wealth distribution” as the ultimate victims in the film.  Batman is seen as the only one who can right the wrongs that they have experienced and give them back all their ill-gotten wealth. 
  • In the end the city is saved by a millionaire who hasn’t worked in years, lives in a big mansion with a butler, and has more toys and gadgets than he can ever use in his lifetime.  Even after Bruce Wayne loses Wayne Manor, he still apparently has more than enough money to live high off the hog with his latest fling, Selina Kyle, in France.  Apparently, even in bankruptcy, the rich live by a different set of rules than you and I do!
As someone who had been greatly enamored with the Occupy Wall Street movement and who even made a film defending the protestors, I have to confess that I found some of the political themes in the film annoying and simplistic.  I almost wish that Nolan had just stuck to making an action film and spared us his attempts to be “relevant.” 

On the other hand, whether he realizes it or not, with “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan has done a great service to the Occupy Wall Street movement, by keeping it alive when it is all but moribund.  Despite its reactionary tone, the film also revives the always important topic of income inequality—the issue in the film which seems to motivate Bane. 
And here’s the ultimate kicker: more than a few people who I have spoken to have said that they found the character of Bane as portrayed in the film to be strangely compelling.  One went so far as to say that he almost was hoping that Bane would defeat Batman.  Bane is a violent, sociopathic thug, who is willing to commit the mass murder of millions of people, and audience loves him!  What could possibly account for this strange phenomenon?  My explanation is that the audience digs Bane because he believes in SOMETHING, because he clearly demonstrates passion and commitment, and because he is able, through his example and his lofty rhetoric, to inspire his supporters to follow his vision for Gotham City.  All this actually is what a leader does.  And perhaps the audience simply appreciates the fact that Bane has any values at all in a world where our own political and economic elites seem to value only the perpetuation of their own power and wealth. 
Turning a self-professed anarchist into the true hero of “The Dark Knight Rises” was a really neat trick—especially when that character was supposed to be the villain of the film.  Nolan is also producing the new Superman reboot that is coming out next year.  If he can just turn Lex Luther into a contemporary version of Leon Trotsky and have General Zod spout some nifty Leninist doctrine, who knows, the Marxist International might come sooner than any of us could possibly imagine. 


  1. I agree that Bane is supposed to represent the OWS movement. But I've always thought Batman was a thinly veiled fascist. The Nazis definitely would have loved his outfit!

  2. Interesting observations from the movie. I felt that it was a good film that could've been great. "The devil is in the details" as they say, and I needed some of the motivations and plot devices to be a little clearer. I know it's a fantasy, but it tries to be rooted in reality, so details like Bruce escaping his prison in the middle of nowhere, and getting back to Gotham (in an unbelievably short time) does matter. Having your back broken requires a set of circumstances in order for you to be able to fight again (much less walk again!) Why are Bane and the others willing to just die when they set off their bomb? What is the point of that? And just what will it accomplish by destroying Gotham? Bane seems too intelligent not to understand, that in the end, it would change nothing. Politically, the "occupied wall street" overtones didn't bother me because the movie had more interesting things for me to focus on. I was frustrated that Batman (in the trilogy) ultimately wasn't around that much. After the Joker, he took 8 years off... and then had one more adventure. I felt it would've been more interesting if he was busy during those eight years, and wearing himself out...and then Bane came along. Nolan's movie had many great moments, but he missed some major opportunities. (Don't get me started on the demise of Bane!) Overall, it should be said in this day and age of commercial, shallow over-blown action films, the Batman films have the right to hold their heads high, despite their faults. What amazes me is that they get the hard things right, but miss on easy story-plot problems. The problem is when you raise the bar this high, the expectations of the audience rises along with it. Great blog Prof. Russo!