IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS WITHIN THIS ARTICLE.
Anyone who has seen The Dark Knight Rises by now must giggle at the overwhelming irony inherent in political shock jock Rush Limbaugh’s conspiracy theories concerning the film’s ulterior motives. Citing the fact that the finale to the wildly popular Batman trilogy features a villainous character that shares a name with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s highly publicized former business (Bane and Bain Capital, respectively), Limbaugh, appropriately to his name, rushed to judgment by drawing a simple connect-the-dots conclusion. Clearly, the film was subtly waging a liberal attack against Romney by associating him with an antagonistic figure, right?
Had Limbaugh for one moment withheld the paranoid venom spewing incessantly from his mouth, he might have realized that the film’s establishment of Bane (who was chosen as the primary antagonist prior to Romney becoming the Republican presumptive nominee) served to put a villainous (albeit obscured) face to the mass of protesters enraged over the wealth disparity in the United States, participants of the Occupy Movement. Essentially a horror film for the affluent, DKR posits a nightmarish scenario wherein these demonstrators break from their peaceful roots and begin inflicting violence upon the elite before ultimately being squelched by the noble hero, Batman. In such a way, DKR works to reinforce the anti-liberal message disseminated by Limbaugh and other members of the political right.
A deeper look into writer/director Christopher Nolan’s beloved trilogy proves that the partisan slant apparent in DKR is, in fact, the rule and not the exception to his work. In his final two films, Nolan used the actions of his iconic hero (Batman) to make pointed political statements about personal liberties and class that were decidedly conservative in nature.
To be clear, Batman has always maintained ambivalence in regards to political orientation. The overwhelming consensus amongst entertainment pundits is that Batman represents the most conservative hero in all comicdom (apparently these people are unfamiliar with Punisher). This is largely because he’s a rich, armament-obsessed white male whose conception of vigilante justice borders on fascism. However, he also maintains qualities that are often associated with the left, including volunteering for humanitarian efforts, donating to causes and developing technologies that aid people of lower socioeconomic positions, and ardently favoring strict gun regulation laws (and not just to weaken his firearm-toting adversaries).
Since Batman has historically displayed a proclivity towards conservatism, it’s no wonder that an artist like Nolan would depict his version of the character as such. However, instead of simply using conservatism to define Batman, Nolan has used Batman to define conservatism in his films, which, considering the character’s enduring legacy as a cultural icon, has the potential to be quite persuasive. Nolan achieves this by placing his protagonist in scenarios that relate to polarizing social issues. Batman’s actions in each are then used to champion an exclusively conservative philosophy.
This politicization of Batman within the Nolan trilogy takes shape initially in the sequel to Batman Begins (which itself is mostly barren of social subtext), The Dark Knight. Much of the film’s political charge is generated from the primary antagonist, the Joker, whom Nolan repeatedly refers to as a terrorist (the ultimate damning label in America after 9/11). By doing so, Nolan defines terrorism in all its permutations through the limited lens of his antagonist, whose actions are motivated entirely by psychotic and anarchistic urges. Petrifying the citizens of Gotham with concentrated bursts of aggression, the elusive Joker epitomizes the challenge facing anti-terrorists like Batman (who himself is outfitted with advanced military-grade equipment) to engage adversaries in a conventional manner.
With no other recourse, Batman resorts to a controversial method for locating the homicidal madman. Employing the assistance of his technical expert Lucius, Wayne uses proprietary sonar technology to construct a visual map assembled from the sound waves emitted by cell phones. This Orwellian technology gives Wayne the power to surveil every person, criminal and civilian alike, in Gotham, and is therefore analogous to the infamous Patriot Act instituted by the Bush Administration, wherein law enforcement agencies were granted expanded powers in gathering intelligence for the war on terror, which often came at the expense of personal privacy rights. If Batman were to infringe on these fundamental liberties, he would be compromising the very individuals he vowed to protect. Nolan’s ultimate solution to Batman’s ethical dilemma was surprising; the superhero used the machine to maintain the Gotham (and, by extension, American) way of life.
While the film tried to mitigate Batman’s offense by having Lucius deactivate the powerful machine after Joker’s capture (as if only using it once makes it acceptable), the damage had already been done. Batman’s eventual utilization of the machine (the only thing capable of successfully ending Joker’s rampage) supports Nolan’s assertion that, in the war on terror, the ends always justify the means (a theme prevalent in co-writer and brother Jonathan Nolan’s television program, Person of Interest). Such an act sets a politically charged precedent for Batman by both glorifying and justifying the hero’s violation of his own denizen’s personal rights.
This advocacy towards extreme political measures in the name of public safety continues with unmitigated force in Nolan’s finale, The Dark Knight Rises. This comes largely in the form of the Dent Act, which (pieced together from the film’s hazy explanation) permits law officials to imprison people believed to be tied to organized crime (ostensibly on suspicion alone) without parole. Illustrating again the social consciousness that permeates Nolan’s work, the measure recalls the Bush regime’s policy towards suspected terrorists. These individuals were/are stripped of fundamental liberties, and are kept imprisoned in places like Guantánamo Bay indefinitely.
Standing as the ultimate conservative fantasy, Gotham’s fascistic measure proves an overwhelming success, as the city enters the first period of peace in its history. Nolan’s depiction of Gotham’s lawful renaissance, though, fails to recognize the slippery slope that would result from the Dent Act, as well as the havoc it would wreak on the prison system. In such a way, Nolan emphasizes that reorienting the justice system towards suspicion would transform America into a utopia, a wholly thoughtless and conservative concept.
But while these glorified violations of civil liberties are distressing, the more significant issue in DKR revolves around class, a subject that defines the film’s main villain, the extremist Bane. Bane justifies his initial attack on Gotham, manifested in the form of an underground bombing campaign of the city’s streets and bridges, by declaring it the first step in a revolution lead by the people to take back their city from ruling forces. Ostensibly galvanizing Gotham’s lower class citizens with his rhetoric of empowerment, Bane (without much persuading, I should add) initiates a successful rebellion of Gotham by exploiting preexisting anxieties surrounding class disparity.
By addressing these anxieties, Nolan uses DKR to tap into a larger ongoing dialogue regarding the Occupy Movement, wherein protesters staged rallies outside of institutions they believed promoted an economic system predicated on the disproportionate distribution of wealth. This is most clearly alluded to when Selina Kyle warns Wayne of an impending “storm” against the rich, after which “you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Kyle is thus early established as the spokeswoman for the 99% through her initial disguise as one of Wayne’s maids, a tongue-in-cheek revision of the superior/servile dynamic between classes (an issue crackling with relevance after Romney’s misguided attempt to win the favor of the underprivileged at a local fundraiser by drawing his guests’ attention to their servers).
Whether he intended to make specific reference to the Occupy Movement or not, Nolan’s work undoubtedly conjures preexisting cultural anxieties surrounding class that lead directly to its formation. In attacking the symbol of economic power, the Stock Market, early on, Bane establishes himself as the enforcer of the 99% (a position complicated by the fact that his ultimate endgame is Gotham’s annihilation). As Bane’s anger turns to violence, his rebellion takes the form of a modern Reign of Terror, a period following the French Revolution characterized by mass systematic purges of the aristocracy.
It is at this point where Nolan’s pro-elite agenda comes clearly into play. The filmmaker takes pains to equate a modern movement predicated on non-violent protest with one of the bloodiest coups in the history of man, an ill-conceived association that only succeeds in further vilifying and perpetuating the fear of the 99%. In scenes depicting horrifying home invasions, the film envisions a nightmarish future that arises from the proletariat challenging the established superiority of the upper crust, resulting in civilized society descending into anarchy.
Clearly, Nolan lands squarely on the side of the affluent, going so far as to depict them as the victims in the war of the classes (especially when Bruce is attacked in the most horrifying of manners, by having his money taken away). The rich are helpless in the face of the rabid mob of the poor and middle classes (keep in mind the only civilians we see not participating are members of the police and volunteers at the boy’s club). Not only are the underprivileged made akin to a historically unruly mob, but also are associated with Bane based on their adoption of him as their leader. In such a way, their actions, and the actions of the protesters by proxy, are made akin to terrorism.
As if the line of demarcation between the haves from the have-nots hadn’t been illustrated clearly enough, Nolan stages a final, all-out brawl between the former (represented by the hero, Batman, and the noble police) and the latter (portrayed as an army of criminals and terrorists). Proving that even tales of class warfare can have a “happy” ending, the battle concludes with Bane’s defeat. In addition, the figures of authority and wealth regain their power, marking a return to normalcy based on an economic hierarchy.
Albeit wildly entertaining, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy repeatedly championed conservative patterns of discourse. The vivid political orientations of both Batman and his villains served as Nolan’s tool for perpetuating paranoid and distorted views of wealth and human liberties. Intent on winning public favor by appealing to his fans’ love of Batman, Nolan sought to promote policies that would limit power to an exclusive few. If this analysis can teach us anything, it’s that entertainment has the potential to serves as a weapon by clouding the political messages transmitted within. So, before aligning yourself with Nolan’s Batman, know that it is not a democratic Batman.