by Scott J.
Image: Anjin Anhut Source: Wired.com
1. The Dark Knight Rises is by far the weakest of the three films in the Nolan Batman trilogy. The second half of the film degrades rapidly in believability, logic and even special effects. This may be due to a limitation in the creativity of the filmmakers but the problems with the film cannot be separated from its reactionary politics and are largely a consequence of them. However, it is not sufficient to dismiss it as “simply reactionary.” The film certainly attacks issues such as wealth redistribution that are relevant to Occupy Wall Street and the filmmakers even considered–before rejecting–the idea of filming at Zuccotti Park. However, the way in which these politics are expressed–or suppressed–needs to be analyzed specifically and understood both for the ideological implications but also regarding their effect on the story itself. For radicals, these two factors are not separate issues but should be considered inherently intertwined.
2. The previous films in the Nolan Batman series had reactionary elements but also mediating factors against those elements. Partially, there was an attempt to make the story of an urban vigilante more acceptable and partly there was a critique of vigilantism itself. These made the films not only more palatable but also far more dramatically compelling than they would have been otherwise. For example, the first film in the series featured Bruce Wayne training himself by stealing from his own corporation, rejecting revenge on his parents’ attacker and then battling organized crime that is enabled by a corrupt Gotham City Police Department. The second film also featured multiple analogies with the War on Terror, but simplistic readings of Batman as a heroic George W. Bush figure missed the point, which is the critique of the War on Terror embedded in the film. This is not to say that The Dark Knight was explicitly opposed to the War on Terror–rather, it contemplated the War on Terror even while it vacillated, but it’s vacillations at least made it interesting. So, Batman produced an NSA-worthy device which could spy on every citizen of Gotham City, but as soon as he used it he abandoned it due to his–belated–privacy concerns. Additionally, Batman tortured information out of the Joker, which would seem to be a defense of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” but the information was faulty and resulted in the death of an innocent person regardless. These factors showed a limited, liberal conscience in the previous films and made them much more interesting than they would have been otherwise, even if a radical critique of these issues were unsurprisingly absent. Unfortunately, these mediating factors are missing from the latest film.
3. The Dark Knight Rises is full of Occupy Wall Street themes, including explicit attacks on stock traders and all-out class war. Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) whispers to billionaire Bruce Wayne that “A storm is coming… You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Later, Bane attacks a stock exchange and roughs up the bankers, stealing–read “redistributing”–billions of dollars, including from Wayne himself, who subsequently loses everything except his mansion. This leads Catwoman to quip in one of the more satisfying lines of dialog in the film that “the rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us.” None of this should be surprising, as one of the story credits is given to David S. Goyer, who is also credited as a writer of the video game Call of Duty : Black Ops II. Supposedly the villain in the game is a “narco terrorist who has been dubbed ‘the Messiah of the 99 percent.’” If that were not enough, there is also a nuclear device that threatens the entire city of Gotham which is created out of a failed green energy project that not only brought Gotham no energy but foolishly lost millions of dollars in private investments.
4. The Dark Knight Rises is not simply conservative, with a brutish thug who attacks Wall Street investor-types. Rather, it is also explicitly anti-revolutionary and contains references to both the French and Russian revolutions. Bane calls on the people of Gotham to take back their city, speaking to an audience of likely middle-class (and wealthier) Gothamites at a football game. This Revolution In One City is carried out by destroying the bridges, trapping the majority of Gotham’s police underground and freeing the city’s prisoners–who have been given lengthy sentences due to the “Dent Act”–who proceed to march out with their imprisoners’ firearms. The chaos that ensues throughout the city is predictable, but the imagery is significant. A French Revolution-like tribunal is established which sentences Gotham’s remaining police officers to death–or exile, which is certain death by walking across the city’s partially frozen river. This and other winter scenes recall moments in the Russian Revolution and civil war, and a later funeral includes a reading of the final lines of A Tale of Two Cities, referring to the unrestrained use of the guillotine in France. The lesson is clear–all revolutions result in tyranny, so before people like OWS supporters demand wealth redistribution, they may want to consider the ugly consequences, revolutionary tribunals apparently being one of the more obvious.
5. It is a problem for the filmmakers that class war, or at the very least class resentment, is popular among tens of millions of working-class people, which constitute a large part of the expected audience for the film. Unsurprisingly, then, this ideological bent against wealth redistribution and revolution causes serious problems in the story. In particular, there is a surprising lack of scenes showing ordinary people looting shopping malls or sipping champagne from the captured fortresses of the one percent. Many people in the audience would find these scenes appealing even if only as a cathartic fantasy in a morality tale about the consequences of such actions. But The Dark Knight Rises won’t even give us this much, instead leaving us with the image of horrified football spectators being greeted by their brutish liberator. Thus, we get all of the misery and none of the fun of revolution and class war, which is not only dishonest but frankly boring. Only Selina Kyle seems to relish the coming class war–before being inexplicably turned off by the results. There is, however, one concession in the plot to the “problem” of class resentment: Bruce Wayne losing the entirety of his wealth as the greatest victim of Bane’s redistributionist crusade. Wayne, it should be noted, takes this news in stride. He’s more concerned about the people of Gotham, of course. The problem for the story is that a billionaire saving the people from themselves–and from Wayne’s wealth–would be far too awkward for a film that seeks mass appeal. Better to make him more like an ordinary guy, a dispassionate defender of all of Gotham–not so coincidentally, the liberal ideal of the state–rather than a crusader for his rich friends. The writers seem to have realized that the only way to make Batman sympathetic in this situation is to bleed him dry and nearly kill him. But this leads to other problems.
6. The second half of the film descends into a convoluted mess, ending with Batman gliding over the ocean in a hoaky special effects scene reminiscent of a flying RoboCop. What brings us to this point is a set of plot contrivances that are essentially an expanded version of the James Bond villain who describes his plans precisely so that our hero can foil him. In this instance, Bane admits that he both wants the people of Gotham to take back their city and he wants them all dead. He is both a social revolutionary and a nihilist. What point he seeks to prove is unclear, other than the inherent dastardliness of wealth redistributors such as himself. Killing everybody is not enough for this story–he has to foment class war first in order to show its link to terrorism, which is also shown at the beginning when one of Bane’s devotees voluntarily dies in a plane crash. There is also the double-contrivance wherein the explosive device cannot be moved and Batman cannot access it anyway–until at the end he can access it, at which point it is perfectly mobile. This is not the plot the story needs, but the one the writers want. Having Batman instead battle a reluctant Gotham while he unredistributes Bruce Wayne’s wealth would have been far more interesting but ideologically far too complicated. There is no liberal conscience to grapple with here in part because of the emphasis on revolution, an issue on which both conservatives and liberals wholeheartedly agree, leaving us with no conflict or drama, simply a predictable Hollywood blockbuster.
7. The Dark Knight Rises could have delved into the issues of wealth inequality with far more complexity as there is a vast amount of untapped dramatic potential in the billionaire Batman fighting for his ideals while watching the world transform into something he cannot comprehend. Perhaps that is too much to ask of Hollywood, whose creative potential is hampered by the corporations that dominate it and their lackeys who are paid by them. Instead, what we have is a far weaker film than Nolan has ever made before, leaving the trilogy in a far, far weaker rest than it otherwise could have known.