The twenty-first century has not given humanity a lot to smile about between 9/11 and Iraq, Katrina and Snooki. One of its more unexpected joys, though, has been the brutally dark Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan. Where to begin? That the films redeemed the Dark Knight after the cinematic abortions of the 1990s, which plugged big name actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Arnold Schwarzenegger into comic book roles in a depressing, madlib fashion? That a talented indie filmmaker did not just put an eccentric gloss on a major studio franchise, but actually took the opportunity to address the urgent issues of the day on an epic scale? That summer blockbusters could embrace a bleak worldview unmatched since the 1970s? The Dark Knight Rises is lighter than Apocalypse Now, but not by a lot.
Hollywood tends to insist that its moron audiences just want buttery escapism in the summer, which helps to justify making The Brady Bunch 3 or Transformers 13: The Return of the Revenge. But the popularity of the Batman films suggests otherwise; they may be larded with car chases and cool gadgets, but it does not quite seem right to call these movies “escapist.” If so, what we are escaping to is a world at least as deranged and hopeless as our own, if not more so. After all, Filmspotting’s Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen pointed out in a recent podcast that portions of the movie resembled dystopian nightmares like Children of Men or Soylent Green. Yet as both reviewers noted, the movie hardly seems to portray a distant future.
So what do we make of The Dark Knight and its explicably titled sequel, The Dark Knight Rises? The films touch on questions of terrorism, civil liberties, and inequality that have haunted the United States and much of the world in the last ten years, even if any particular message is harder to parse. The most recent movie channels class resentment in a way almost never seen in American cinema, as the brawny terrorist Bane takes over Gotham City and institutes a kind of ersatz anarchocommunist revolution, commanding “the people” to take whatever they want from their rich exploiters and establish a frightening new social order.
What to make of all this? Bane is clearly an evil character—a high-tech Robespierre on steroids who will stop at nothing to institute his wildly destructive dictatorship. He is Lenin and Bin Laden and Stone Cold Steve Austin. He prowls and struts in a dingy, Recession-era New York like a postapocalyptic chieftain. Yet Nolan’s images of social disorder are extraordinary: a raggedy set of revolutionaries with assault rifles, besieging the stock exchange; hordes of the poor and dispossessed confronting the police in the streets; prisoners who were locked up under mandatory minimum sentences, flowing out of jail and waving firearms; and, most striking, doormen dragging rich women in fur coats into the streets of what looks like the Upper East Side. In other scenes, capricious justice is meted out in revolutionary courts, where the rich and powerful are hauled in for sentencing, having already been presumed guilty. “What the hell kind of due process is this?” Commissioner Gordon asks, but the answer is clear. This is a revolution, and due process went out the window a while ago.
Then again, what is due process when the system corrodes from the inside? Take, for example, the much lauded Dent Act. Legitimized by the ruse that beloved Attorney General Harvey Dent died at the hands of “the Batman,” the law reduced crime, locked up criminals, and ended “the war.” (Commissioner Gordon is described in Giuliani-esque terms as a great leader during war, but not in “peacetime.”) The law operated as a legal cudgel, imprisoning criminals without parole while bloating prison populations. Does this sound familiar? One might argue Gordon’s cries of “due process” are little different from the numerous low level criminals who suddenly found themselves jailed for life. Two words for you and the American criminal justice system: three strikes. For all that, when forced to atone for his part in perpetuating the lie, Gordon angrily growls about those who actually have to get their hands dirty. Keeping Gotham safe can be very dirty business, just as American drone strikes might be considered the international equivalent of the Dent Law. It may get some terrorists, but lots of normal people get hurt or killed in that effort.
The Dark Knight Rises offers a picture of New York collapsing under the weight of its own corruption, injustice, and incompetence—not a wild cinematic fantasy, given that a few years ago we were warned that if Wall Street were allowed to crash, we would find ourselves in a world where the only things that mattered were “bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition.” We have had our brush with annihilation and anomie, and the new Batman film looks like every economic, political, and military catastrophe of the twenty-first century rolled up in one.
Nolan captures a sense that society’s structures are teetering and tottering under unprecedented stress. I remember sensing this slippage acutely during the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, when government was exposed as powerless or indifferent and the social order in a great American city seemed on course for a vertiginous collapse that, until then, had been almost unthinkable. The Dark Knight Rises even alludes to one of the most appalling episodes of Katrina in a climactic scene: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, a good-natured cop, attempts to lead a schoolbus of children away from imminent danger in Gotham, only to be stopped by police on a bridge who promise to shoot them if they push forward in their desperate bid to escape the city.
Such moments convey a dread that all the institutions are failing, from the presidency to corporate America to local government and law enforcement. Paradoxically, the film presents Batman as the savior of the rule of law against erratic, violent revolution, despite that fact that the Dark Knight is, by definition, a vigilante who fights the “bad guys” and delivers “justice” outside the bounds of the law. He frees the policemen trapped under Gotham City and calls them his “army,” who will help overthrow the pseudo-anarchist dictator Bane and his kangaroo courts. The rule of law and due process may be lauded by the heroes of the film, but Batman, Catwoman, and their friends on the police force frequently find themselves going beyond any actions authorized by the law.
This same tension was present in 2008’s The Dark Knight, and was central to its premise: how could Batman or the authorities fight an unpredictable psychopath like the Joker without resorting to extreme means, whether invasive and unwarranted surveillance or brutal violence? And if they did accept those tactics as necessary, how did that make them any better than the monster they were trying to deal with? In this regard, the Joker and Bane appear as two faces of terrorism: the first, a destructive and scarily irrational force, and the latter a radical with a grievance and an agenda. Can Americans retain any moral integrity in the face of either kind of threat?
In many ways, Nolan poses these dilemmas without offering much in the way of answers, such that The Dark Knight Rises could be derided as a lefty, pro-Occupy manifesto by the Right and a reactionary allegory by the Left. The director sometimes prefers to split the difference: in the 2008 film, Batman decides that he will only use his incredible powers of spying on private communications just this once to stop the Joker, but never again—seeming to validate the “ticking timebomb” scenario made famous by 24 and the Bush Administration, while tacitly admitting that such tactics are basically wrong.
The new film taps into the zeitgeist in the truest sense: it was undoubtedly in production before the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged in 2011, yet it speaks to the same themes of inequality and injustice because it sprung from the same wells of public sentiment that gave rise to the movement. Before Occupy, of course, there was the bailout; before the bailout was the 2008 crash; and before the crash there were years of growing disparity between most working Americans and the fabulously rich, a gap that fueled the economic meltdown.
It is impossible to watch The Dark Knight Rises without thinking of these issues, even if the film portrays the revolutionaries as despicable bullies. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman comes from a poor background in Gotham’s Old Town and justifies her thieving as a rational and justified comeuppance to her rich victims; in numerous instances characters talk about money and privilege, especially with respect to the film’s hero, the scion of fortune Bruce Wayne. Indeed, Batman may be a rich guy with an unlimited supply of amazing toys and financial support, but he operates in a world where the gap between the rich and poor yawns so wide that a savage demagogue like Bane can enter into it and turn America’s biggest city into a playground of proletarian retribution. The Hollywood players and financiers who will undoubtedly get rich off of The Dark Knight Rises would do well to take note.
Given the film’s focus on class politics, how do we understand the role of Bane and the League of Shadows? In 2005’s Batman Begins, Liam Neeson played the League’s mysterious leader, Ra’s al Ghul, and in both films the secretive organization appears beyond class and race. “Justice is balance,” Ghul tells Batman. If someone gets in the way of “true justice, you walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.” He describes the League as a check on humanity’s corruption: the sacking of Rome, the plague, and London’s burning to ashes were all the handiwork of the League. “When the forest grows too wild a purging fire is natural,” Ghul ominously declares, before setting Wayne Mansion ablaze. In Batman Begins, the League had attempted a more sophisticated means of destruction: economics. “Create enough want and everyone is a criminal,” Ghul advises. However, the actions of a few idealists like Wayne’s parents blunted this effort. The murder of Wayne’s parents had been marshaled as a symbol of Gotham’s fall and spurred reform movements that ultimately failed to solve its problems, and “Gotham limped on ever since,” Ghul disdainfully tells Wayne. Like the Dent Law, the death of prominent Gotham figures like Batman’s parents pushed reform forward, but unlike Dent, the Waynes provided a pure example, one unmarred by a dishonest mythology. Yet Dent appears to have been a far more effective symbol, even causing one police official to claim that Gotham was no longer at war but in “peacetime.” For all the class politics woven through all three films, it took the deaths of the city’s richest couple to promote change in the first and one of its most prominent in the third.
In a way, the League sounds like some kind of New Right policymaker. The League believed it could restore Gotham and the larger world to harmony through a sort of “creative destruction.” Institutions and governments would collapse, people would be placed in a “natural state” and humanity would have to claw its way back to civilized life. The League’s unforgiving moralism and embrace of brutal tactics may be redolent of certain neoconservatives. A viewer half-expects Bane or Ra’s al Ghul to begin reciting the speech of the sinister conspirators from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), who declaimed on Western civilization’s slide into decadence:
North America’s getting soft, padrone. And the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure… and direct… and strong… if we’re gonna survive them. Now, you and this, uh, cesspool you call a television station… and your people who wallow around in it… and your viewers… who watch you do it— you’re rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot.
Bane speaks of the “people’s liberation,” a chance to start anew, once the cleansing wildfire of the League has passed. For the League, we are all guilty of decadence. If not for the aforementioned private philanthropy and idealism of the Waynes, the League would have returned things to “harmony” far sooner.
The Dark Knight Rises, then, is a film about injustice and inequality, unmistakably the product of the Great Recession and the Occupy era, where a wealthy defense contractor and the police are the ultimate heroes. The rabble are a dangerous force, morally compromised despite their legitimate grievances and susceptible to demagoguery. Those who would raid Wall Street and Park Avenue are ragtag terrorists, marauding prisoners, and self-serving cat burglars. The elite certainly include the venal and duplicitous among their ranks, but ultimately the forces of the status quo, however corrupt, must save Gotham from the altogether more terrifying spectre of revolution.
Indeed, the dialectic of freedom and chaos is perhaps the most striking theme of the Nolan series. Batman himself is an outlaw, an extra-legal vigilante who occupies a moral gray area not unlike the criminal, terrorist, or revolutionary. Each film portrays the possibility of criminality run amok, a situation where the rules are suddenly suspended:
In Batman Begins, the release of prisoners from Arkham Asylum sets into motion the League’s plan, while the Asylum has long been a symbol of society’s latent violence, a container for all the most deranged and destructive characters in the Batman mythology.
In The Dark Knight, the climactic final scenes involve two boatloads of people, one inhabited by average citizens and the others criminals. The Joker gives those trapped on each boat the power to blow up the other to avoid destruction, in a cruel test of the wisdom of crowds. The criminals have committed wrongs against society and surely deserve to go before innocent citizens, right? And being criminals, they can’t be trusted to make the “right” choice—meaning that the non-criminals should destroy the other boat while they still have the chance. The terrible possibilities of free choice and the ugly incentives of self-preservation are powerfully portrayed, even if the outcome is a shade too optimistic.
Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, the city’s prison population is a symbol of the terrifying past, the “criminal element” swept up in a massive crackdown, but it is also made up of men and women who are the powerless casualties of a misbegotten law and a police coverup. Bane uses them as tools for his own reign of terror, and they seize the opportunity to “get theirs” and take revenge on society with gusto.
In each case, the most excluded and disempowered members of society appear as a combustible, frightening force. Like Bane, they lie in wait, submerged, invisible, all the while capable of erupting at any second and turning the familiar world on its head. Even if the poor, the mentally ill, and the incarcerated are agents of destruction in these films, they still expose a society that itself is sick, corrupt, and destructive. In this way, the Batman series depicts a world gone wrong, where the potential for revolution (however ugly) remains if reform fails. Any film that breaks the hypnotic spell of consumerism and happy endings that characterizes 90% of American pop culture bears within it the potential of social critique. Films that depict a world where all is not right at least have the power to crack open the veneer of a happily functioning society, even if the intentions of the filmmakers are confused or opaque and far from didactic.
Determining whether Nolan sides with the 99% may be beside the point. He has created in this final film a sprawling, virtuosic drama of society in turmoil, sick to the point of convulsion—with all the violence and moral dilemmas that face a society in desperate need of change. In a world where people are free both to amass obscene wealth and to exploit technology to pursue a violent political agenda, The Dark Knight Rises expresses the dizzying whiplash many of us have felt in the new millennium.