Director: Christopher Nolan
This review contains serious spoilers, don’t read if you haven’t seen the film or don’t want it to be spoiled
After seeing posters for The Dark Knight Rises all over town, I had been anticipating a film that contains serious commentary on social change and revolutionary struggle. One possibility that I had considered was that this was a marketing ploy to capitalize on the past year of protest and revolution to get folks to see the film, yet after seeing it Thursday morning: it certainly does take the subject seriously. The only problem of course is that The Dark Knight Rises is what could be described as an anti-revolutionary, anti-populist, conservative film. That may sound a bit off-putting, but if we analyze the film as a political intervention, or rather a film that seriously deals with politics, then a political analysis and response is appropriate.
So what are the politics of The Dark Knight Rises and why are they problematic from a left wing perspective? To answer this we should look at the major conflict in the film: Bane’s attempt to control, and ultimately destroy Gotham City. The film starts off with Batman/Bruce Wane ruined and depressed by the experiences of the previous film. What returns him to his suit is Bane’s arrival in Gotham, a villain who was trained by the same organization that Wane was, who has come to Gotham to “finish the job” of destroying it (which was the conflict of the first film). Bane likens his method of destroying Gotham to that of escaping the prison that he experienced: letting people see the light and giving them false hope before accepting total despair. In other words, Bane’s motivations for wrecking havoc on the city are to first manipulate the people of the city into thinking that they are being empowered, while at the same time secretly plotting to destroy them all (this particular motivation is partially explained in the first film: that the city has “become too corrupt at every level”). He is a classic “mastermind” in this sense, as he works both with the rich and the “common criminals” to fulfill his goals and raising populist consciousness, each being a pawn in his game. A series of events in the film lead to Bane essentially seizing power in Gotham and declaring that he is ruling on behalf of the people.
While this may sound like something that would excite the Left, his ascendance is based on the threat of unleashing a nuclear device that would destroy the city if anyone leaves or the if outside world interferes with their plans. Bane thus forces the people to be “free,” and instead of being a “man of the people” he is secretly a manipulator of the people which mirrors the dominant Western narratives of revolutions of the past (for example we are taught that folks like Lenin and Castro helped lead genuine revolutions but were really secretly motivated by their lust for power). One problem with this of course is that it is a portrayal of a populist anti-rich group that is motivated by “evil” or malevolence, and thus much of the audience will certainly be reminded of recent events in New York City (which is essentially what Gotham is) like Occupy Wall Street and their populist anti-elite messaging here. The association is similar to what other major media releases like the video game Call of Duty are doing in their attempts to paint populist movements as evil terrorists, as David Sirota pointed out in a recent Salon article that compared politics of the film to the game.
A more significant problem with the film is not just the motivations of the villains as they are used in the plot device, but rather how that plot itself plays out. The villains are not only populists who resemble Occupy Wall Street, but in the film they actually seize power and thus challenge the State, or in other words: they carry out a revolution in the heart of capitalism. Now of course this doesn’t quite play out in the same way it would if Sergei Eisenstein had written the film, but the seizing of power and the question of the state play a central role for the film: for example there is a scene where the recently freed police force goes up against the new army of Bane’s Gotham. One of the police officers even says something along the lines of “there can only be one police force,” this line alone could help launch us into an in depth analysis about the monopoly of violence, the State, and how these questions are ideologically present in cultural products like Batman. This seizure of state power isn’t depicted as a mass uprising, but is rather part of Bane and his organization’s devious plans. Thugs and criminals are the new State in Bane’s Gotham which even includes an absurd kangaroo court with the delusional Scarecrow character presiding over the show trials, unfairly sentencing people to death. So the revolution of The Dark Knight Rises is a far cry from Battleship Potemkin and is instead more of a cautionary tale against allowing such disturbances of the social structure to occur.
So in the context of this plot device, Batman’s character plays a fundamentally conservative role. His status as a wealthy capitalist who secretly protects all the people of Gotham translates into his being the guardian of the very structure that allows folks like himself to have such wealth. It may be a stretch to call him a “counter-revolutionary” in the context of The Dark Knight Rises, considering the revolution itself is portrayed from a right wing perspective. But it isn’t just the portrayal of the motives and the revolution itself that makes the film politically problematic for the left. The secret motive of the revolutionaries to destroy Gotham with a nuclear weapon is related to what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said about major catastrophes in Hollywood films:”So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism” (from the documentary Zizek!). This film highlights this claim about ideology and culture perfectly: even the seizure of power by the people against the rich can really only be understood as the end of the world or as a disaster for all humanity rather than a mere rearranging of social relations. Batman is thus the hero of Gotham who saved it from being rearranged, which would have lead to total destruction for all, or in other words, the very attempt at rearranging those social relations was a threat to all of humanity (or at least the whole city in this case) that only someone like Batman could prevent. This ideological content of the film cannot just be seen as “being read into it” but rather is what the film revolves around.
There are many more things that could be said about the film form both a political and cinematic perspective. But those of us who identify to some extent with social movements like Occupy Wall Street should be taken aback when we see the year’s most anticipated Hollywood film try to equate messages of populism to either being easily manipulated or secretly motivated by “evil destructive ends.” The fact that the film even deals with themes of revolution and social change is an interesting development itself, but framing is important and this film engages in a seriously problematic framing of the popular movements to challenge inequality.