Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
No movie exists in a vacuum. Every film is subject to political interpretations and various levels of expectations. This is especially true for the so-called “serious film,” which injects social, political, or cultural criticism into an art form created for the masses. For the American viewing public, “The Dark Knight Rises” arrives with the burden of immense expectations and a number of unanswered questions. Could it possibly measure up to 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” widely accepted as the best superhero film ever made? Could it expand upon the dense political subtext of that film and its reflection of the War on Terror? Lastly, how would the movie play since the events that unfolded in the early hours of Friday morning in Aurora, Colorado?
It was this final context that weighed most heavily on my mind while watching the film. As acts of terrorism unfolded onscreen, with innocent bystanders being gunned down and an entire city held hostage, the connection between the real-life tragedy and this entertaining yet horrifying film could not be avoided.
While waiting in line to enter the theater, I took note of the extra security guards hired for the opening night screening. During the major action sequences, my eyes darted to the exit rows from which the shooter in Colorado supposedly emerged. Whenever anyone got up to use the restroom, my heart jumped a bit and I followed them with my eyes until they vanished into the darkness. Finally, after about 45 minutes, I was able to become immersed in the film, and that timetable is no coincidence. The first third of the film is clunkily put-together, as Christopher Nolan navigates the difficult task of filling in the details of the last eight years of the film’s timeline – since Bruce Wayne quit his night job – while simultaneously setting the plot of this film in motion. But eventually, the story takes on a life of its own, and Nolan unleashes a gripping, pulse-pounding account of terrorism and anarchy. When I settled in and became engaged with the story, it was not because the movie was so involving that I forgot about the fear that gripped me earlier – it was because the film became about that fear, and I could no longer differentiate between the two.
But it would be a shame if that is the only context within which “Rises” is considered because, as usual, Christopher Nolan is functioning on a higher level. His first two films in the trilogy – “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” – were deeply allegorical stories about post-9/11 America, dramatizing our fear of anarchy and our dark, unspoken desire for order at all costs amidst the chaos of terrorism. I believe Nolan when he claims that he has no political agenda – these films are more artful than that - but that does not mean that they have no political content. “The Dark Knight” gave voice to several political perspectives regarding the War on Terror, from the neo-conservative call for unilateral militant action to the civil libertarian’s concern that America was fighting the war at too great a cost – the loss of our personal liberty. In fact, I would call “The Dark Knight” a work of remarkable restraint. Amidst so many strong opinions about the War on Terror, the film managed to simply reflect our ambivalence, not argue in favor of any one particular view.
So there has naturally been much speculation as to the politics of “The Dark Knight Rises” – the third and final film in the Nolan trilogy. The first trailer and the rumors that Nolan would be shooting at Occupy Wall Street sparked internet speculation that the film would address class warfare and the financial meltdown, but it was still unclear as to what Nolan’s perspective would be. But now the results are in. True to form, Nolan gives nearly equal weight to both sides – those who sympathize with the Occupy movement and those who see it merely as an instrument of anarchy. But when push comes to shove, the film ultimately leans conservative in the same way that most movies do.
As the film opens, Gotham City is almost free from crime. The honorable death of Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight,” contrived by Commissioner Gordon and Batman, has set the example they hoped for, and the new law that bears his name has denied parole to thousands of criminals, keeping the streets safe. But while Gotham is thriving, Bruce Wayne is dying a slow death, physically crippled from his years as Batman and psychologically paralyzed by the guilt of allowing his life-long love, Rachel Dawes, to die at the hands of the Joker. Although he has given up the cape and the suit, he has not truly moved on.
Into his life come two foes that incite him to action: Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), an alluring cat burglar who steals from Wayne right in front of his face, and a hulking evil genius named only Bane (Tom Hardy), who has been living in Gotham’s sewers for months while he builds an army with secret and nefarious plans. These three characters intersect in the film’s first truly great scene: Kyle lures Batman into the sewer for a confrontation with Bane that is the best pure fight scene in the trilogy. For the first time, we see Batman as truly vulnerable, and the sight of him being beaten is a sudden reshuffling of the deck; it raises the stakes and changes the rules. It also demonstrates very clearly that, unlike in “The Dark Knight,” there is no ambiguity as to the nature of heroes and villains. It’s quite simple: Bane is evil, Batman is good. Part of what made “The Dark Knight” politically balanced is that it explored the idea that Batman, i.e. America, was partially responsible for terrorism. Nolan showed that by trying to root out evil, we run the risk of escalation. “The Dark Knight Rises” is uninterested in this moral ambiguity. Instead, we get some very clear distinctions: good vs. evil, preservation vs. annihilation. This moral absolutism, when compared to the relativistic nature of “The Dark Knight,” lends itself to a neo-conservative reading of the film.
While Wayne is relegated to rehabbing his body after the fight, Bane takes advantage of his absence by launching his long-planned attack on Gotham. Continuing the work of the League of Shadows from “Batman Begins,” Bane aims to upset the social order of Gotham and incite its citizens to destroy themselves. A key element of his plan is his disruption of the city’s financial infrastructure. Bane’s army invades and takes over the stock exchange, erasing the wealth of the city’s elite and empowering the rest of Gotham to pillage. This revolution of the masses is clearly a reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement (Nolan’s claims that he shot the film in New York because Gotham is New York ring hollow. He never felt that the first films needed to be shot there. It is clear that because so much of Bane’s plan revolves around the financial collapse, Nolan wanted the authenticity of shooting on Wall Street, and he certainly would have been able to predict that people would make the connection to the Occupy movement.)
But if we accept the premise that Nolan is linking Bane’s proletarian revolution with Occupy Wall Street and resentment towards the wealthy, then it is clear that he is portraying their ultimate goal in a very negative light. The working people of Gotham kick the rich out of their homes, breaking up families in the process and trashing their heirlooms. Rich men are brought before kangaroo courts and subjected to vigilante justice. Ultimately, their success in overthrowing the ruling elite results in more anarchy and violence than Gotham has ever experienced.
The characterization of Selina Kyle also reflects Nolan’s rejection of class warfare as a tool for change. As a cat burglar who steals from Gotham’s wealthiest citizens, she gets to speak the line of dialogue, seen in the film’s trailer, that first sparked internet speculation that “Rises” would have an Occupy Wall Street theme:
“There is a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
While Kyle is aligned with the revolution in theory, she’s no Robin Hood. She may take from the rich, but she only gives to herself. Once the revolution hits, she revels in the new social order but before long begins to see her lifestyle as a selfish one. It helps that Wayne is constantly in her ear, urging her to give up her thieving ways and be a force for good. In a way, she represents the audience’s viewpoint more than any other character in the film, constantly trying to find out where she fits in this new order, torn between her old selfish habits of stealing from the rich and a path of altruism and sacrifice. She begins the film aligned with those who are seeking to overthrow the ruling class, but she ultimately rejects that movement. Since Kyle is the audience’s entry point into the story, we can naturally conclude the film’s perspective is that the movement is a selfish and destructive one.
Besides the ways in which “Rises” aligns with those Republicans who are critical of the Occupy movement, the film is also conservative in the same ways that all commercial films are (in this scenario, I am using the traditional sense of the word “conservative” – representing those who aim to keep the status quo). “The Dark Knight Rises” sings of the virtues of individualism over the whims of the masses. It chooses symbolism and the power of example over policy solutions. While I won’t say too much about the film’s conclusion – there are several twists too good to spoil – I will say that in the end Gotham and Bruce Wayne return to their own natural states. The status quo is ultimately preserved.
But this return to normal is not a political statement, it’s just an inevitability. Film is ultimately a conservative medium, and popular entertainment, which aims not to challenge us but to fulfill our expectations, is by its very nature a preservation of the status quo. Sitting in a darkened theater, captivated by the lights and colors on the screen, we may be at our most suggestible and open to the ideas contained within the film, but those ideas must in some basic way reinforce the way we view the world. Otherwise, the audience will be deeply disappointed. Although “The Dark Knight Rises” is a challenging film in many ways, it is at heart a work of pop art, and thus conservative by nature.
And so is politics. How often have we heard a national political figure really challenge us with a new idea? These days, hardly ever. In our age of poll-testing and constant campaigning, it behooves our elected officials to tell us what we want to hear and hope that we don’t notice when they fail to live up to it. So in this way, “The Dark Knight Rises” and Nolan’s Batman trilogy as a whole represent current mainstream American political values. Nothing changes in the end.
But while we would be right to criticize our politicians for failing to make change, we should not chastise Nolan for it. Rush Limbaugh may carry on about the sinister liberal messaging in the movie, and others will speculate as to whether the Colorado shooter was inspired by the violence in “The Dark Knight,” but we would be wise to put pointed political arguments aside and give Nolan credit for what is truly an awesome achievement – a hugely successful superhero trilogy that is consistent in its political themes, reflecting back to an audience that cuts across generation, racial, and class lines a dramatization of our post-9/11 fears and secret desires. Friends, this is art – even if it is “pop” art - and while others play the expectations game, I advise you to sit back and enjoy the ride. We may not get another one like it for a long time.
My Rating: See it in the Theater