The politics of The Dark Knight Rises: more complex and less ideological than you might think

Pontificating on the politics of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises has become a cottage industry almost as large as the movie itself.  Wading into the politics of a superhero movie is an exercise probably doomed for failure, but trying to make something political out of The Dark Knight Rises is one’s duty as a pundit or blogger, so here goes nothing.

Much of the talk from the conservative side of the aisle points to the villain Bane and his troops as a representation of what the Occupy movement would be if it had machine guns.

[Spoilers are ahead, so be warned.]

Let’s talk about Bane as a representation of the Occupy movement.  Certainly the character uses language and rhetoric that echoes the calls of the Occupy movement.  But is his plan really an Occupy dream scenario?  I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Attack on the stock exchange

Bane’s attack on the Gotham City Stock Exchange is widely-cited as evidence of Bane’s Occupy leanings.  After all, much of the Occupy movement has focused its efforts on shining the light on injustices it claims are the result of behavior from Wall Street executives.

But what does Bane actually do at the Stock Exchange?  Does he engage in a broad-based attack on the financial services companies that help to drive inequality in Gotham’s economy?  Does he steal from the wealthy and powerful to create opportunity for the masses?  Nope.  Bane goes to the stock exchange because he needs direct access to the exchange’s computers to enter a complex series of trades with one specific goal — to bankrupt Bruce Wayne.

Is Bane targeting Wayne because he’s a symbol of Gotham’s worst excesses?  Again, the answer here is no.  Bane’s attack is designed to allow Miranda Tate/Talia al-Ghul to take charge of Wayne Enterprises and gives her control of the nuclear fusion project that becomes the ticking time bomb which drives the movie’s third act.

Bane’s Gotham

Others point to Bane’s five-month rule of Gotham as evidence of how the goals of the Occupy movement would lead to tyranny if implemented.  I don’t think that’s exactly true.  First off, Bane isn’t trying to create a new society.  His plan — if carried to a successful conclusion — is the complete destruction of Gotham City.  Fully 100 percent of Gotham’s residents are dead under the Bane plan.  Whether it’s “death”, “death by exile” or death by nuclear explosion, the end state is the same.  In fact, some have argued the opposite:  that while the rhetoric takes cues from Occupy, Bane’s actual rule of the city in fact reflects the conservative ethos taken to its extreme end — public services all but eliminated except for the military and courts.

A more realistic assessment of Bane’s strategy here is a divide-and-conquer strategy.  By keeping Gotham’s residents divided against each other, he limits the threat of an organized insurgency against the martial law he has imposed on the city.

Clearly, Nolan is pointing out that so-called populist movements can be co-opted and turned into something other that what it originally intended to be.  Is it a specific critique of a specific ideology, though?  I don’t think so.

It would also be helpful to go back to the first movie of the trilogy, Batman Begins, on this point.  In that film, recall that villain Ra’s al-Ghul told Bruce Wayne that the League of Shadows had been working for decades to destroy Gotham City using economics as a weapon — creating the very inequality that Bane attempted to exploit.

What’s really happening here

The first act of The Dark Knight Rises has a large thematic focus on the tension between Bruce Wayne and his faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth.  Wayne’s eight years as a hermit have had an impact — not only on his company, but on the rest of Gotham — as shown by the subplot with policeman John Blake and his interactions with the orphanage (once funded by Wayne Enterprises) that he grew up in.

Alfred consistently implores that it’s Bruce Wayne that Gotham has needed in recent years, not Batman.  Here Nolan seems to be calling on the 1% to take up the example of Wayne’s parents and invest in their communities instead of focusing on their own narrow interests.  Going back to Batman Begins, Ra’s al-Ghul notes that the League’s economic efforts to destroy Gotham failed because of people like Wayne’s parents.   Recall that Wayne’s father had built public transit for the city, and done much to help fight poverty in Gotham.

But it’s not just about the wealthy folks acting in a way that benefits all.  The constant theme of the Nolan Batman trilogy, in fact, is about how all people need to act nobly, look beyond themselves, and take their society back.  Wayne has an unfailing belief in the people of Gotham City and Batman is a symbol meant to inspire Gothamites to do the right thing.

In Batman Begins, Wayne as Batman — along with policeman James Gordon and assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes — challenge the corrupt Gotham City establishment.  In The Dark Knight, Wayne/Batman hopes that newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent can be the symbol that helps push Gotham into a new era, by putting honest and worthy people into the existing social structures and positions of power.  We also see in TDK that the two boatloads of Gotham citizens don’t succumb to their fear and blow each other up as the Joker intended.  Finally, in TDKR, we see this notion brought forward again as the entire GCPD — once racked by corruption — comes together to try and stop Bane.  Multiple characters, most notably Selina Kyle and Deputy Police Commissioner Foley, turn away from their narrow self-interest and instead fight for all of Gotham.

And it’s also notable who Nolan has Wayne turn the Batcave over to at the end of the film.  It’s not some other billionaire to provide security for Gotham’s masses, but Blake — the orphan from the bad part of town turned beat cop.  What’s important is what and who Batman stands up for, not who is behind the mask.  What’s important for us is to work together to build our communities instead of focusing on what divides us.

I would argue Nolan is calling out to all of society to pull together and repress the urge to just do what’s best for us as individuals, but instead do what’s right for everyone.  He’s saying we have the power to fix our broken institutions by being better as people and by demanding more of those who claim power.

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2 Responses to “The politics of The Dark Knight Rises: more complex and less ideological than you might think”

  1. Very nice post about TDKR. Very detailed analysis.

    I liked the movie for bringing the story of Bruce Wayne full circle. Of course, Nolan and Bale were outstanding as always.

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