Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Politics Of: The Dark Knight Rises

He's The Head Of Bane Capital
Coming very, very late to the party (Did you know you can get The Dark Knight Rises on Netflix!? You totally can!!) The Omnivore talks about the politics of The Dark Knight Rises. There will be spoilers.

The Movie
Completing Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy we return to Gotham for one last time to watch Christian Bale don the cape and cowl. He is the only actor to do so three times in a row (it is also, apparently, the only Batman movie where the caped crusader never uses his grappling hook to lift himself and where the bat-signal is never used).

This time the movie pits Batman against Bane--the ultimate terrorist--who has come to first lay siege to Gotham and then to destroy it. We also meet Catwoman, a sexy jewel thief who has a thing for Batman even if she doesn't share his civic mindedness. There are grand scenes of destruction, a sprawling returning cast, and almost three hours of bat-footage.

Nolan brings us back to the dark heart of the series: it isn't fun to be Batman. We discover that after the Joker, rather than Batman cleaning up the city, he retired and 8 years have passed. Something called the Dent-Act* has allowed the police to round up all the violent criminals and lock them, without parole, in Blackgate prison. The city is safe.

Bruce Wayne has dropped his playboy billionaire act and is now a recluse--unseen even as he hosts charity events with his dwindling fortune (he no longer funds an orphanage, it turns out, because Wayne Tech is no longer making a profit). Oh, he's still pretty rich--but now he walks with a cane and has facial hair ... and people make fun of him.

The movie isn't all grim--Bale doesn't spend most of his screen-time feeling sorry for himself and Bane, played by Tom Hardy with thirty extra pounds of muscle, turns out to be much more interesting to watch and listen to than I thought he'd be. His voice is smooth and urbane and not distorted by the mask in my version (I hear some versions may have had more distorted voice-over).

If there is any part of the movie I have a problem with, it is the sequence where Wayne, after being defeated by Bane, is seemingly teleported to some bizarre prison in another country far away. The prison's set-up is a literal metaphor for Wayne having to overcome his ... what? His bat-ennui? He basically has to get his head-right and heal his broken spine. This is done with the help of the all purpose non-Caucasian elderly doctor ... and takes place over months. It's also blatantly apparent that Wayne can't get out of there until he does the 'right things' (the right thing was obvious to me from the first visual we got).

This isn't exactly "sloppy" in my opinion: Nolan wants to give Batman an arc--an internal struggle to win before his coming victory against Bane can mean anything. I get that--and he doesn't rush through it (although the transition to the land far-far away is nigh-instant). My problem is that it's a load of movie cliches (the old doctor, the hallucination, the healing montage, the attempts to overcome fear--or, in this case, find it again). That we don't need. Maybe there is just no way to do this justice (although if anyone could bring justice to a finding-yourself and training up for the big fight scene, it ought to be Batman, no?).

I think I much preferred Frank Miller's take on it in the 1980's Dark Knight: We are given (as here) a retired, old, out of practice Batman who is visited by a bat flying through his window ahead of a coming storm. The storm awakens him. When we see him next, a juggernaut--an unstoppable force--his internal monologue is laughing at his 'old,' broken' body: he's reborn--and nothing will stop him (he periodically complains he's a bit old even as he's glad a fully armed and armored SWAT team is coming after him: he won't have the burden of restraining himself).

Batman is iconic. While Nolan dwells on the idea that "anyone" could be the batman under that mask we know that's a lie: Batman may be mostly psychological--maybe. I can sort of grant that--but Batman is one in five billion of us.

I'll aslo note that when Miller's Dark Knight met someone he couldn't beat in straight up combat he fought smarter. There are shades of that in Rises--but it's not as explicit. As Nolan drew heavily from the original comic (the conversation between two cops is almost verbatim from it) he might've done well to copy some of that too.

I found The Dark Knight Rises a fitting cap-stone to the trilogy. I made it all the way through without checking my watch and Bale has genuine charisma which really helps since the movie is far more about him than his caped alter-ego. I thought Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) actually stole most of the show (as well as some pearls, Wayne's car keys, and some guy's watch) as she seems to be the only person who really has fun in her alter-ego and enjoys being someone a little more than human (okay, Bane is having fun too--but he's a psychopath).

It's Nolan's usual triumph of scriptwriting and filmmaking and you should see it if you can handle dark, moody super-heroes and want to see how the legendary trilogy turns out. There clearly will be more Batman movies--but it's hard to imagine what the next go-round will do that will live up to this.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of The Dark Knight Rises
Nolan has come out and said his movies are not political. I believe him. This is despite people likening Bane to Che Guevera, Rush Limbaugh suggesting that Bane is some kind stand-in for Romney (yeah ... Bain Capital? Look, it's not my fault the former presidential candidate chose a name that could be a stand-in for Evil-Corp ... that's on them), and The Guardian called it radically right-wing. There's a lot of meat to chew on in Rises. Let's call it out:

The Dark Knight Rises Is Right-Wing!!
  1. Green Energy is a trap. Wayne builds the clean-fusion generator (a sustainable green-energy project, we are told) and it turns out Miranda is a traitor who wants it for a bomb. Green Energy is a trojan horse: don't trust it!
  2. Bane is a bad-guy He takes over the city "for the people" and tries and executes the rich! Isn't that what we're afraid leftist will do?
  3. Wayne is a billionaire--and a wealthy philanthropist--he's a good guy: the best guy in the movie. Isn't that right-wing? 
  4. When Catwoman saves Batman in the very end she makes a pro-gun statement compared to Batman's hard-core anti-gun stance!
All true--and yet: not the whole story. There is a difference between what is in the script (per se--the dialog, at least) and what/how the camera shows it to us.

It's true that the green energy program turns out to be a total disaster--but the camera shows us Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman supporting it--gladly. The person behind it is Wayne's love interest and is shown as a genuinely good person (until she sticks a knife in Batman's back). No less of a voice than Morgan Freeman tells Wayne he ought to be going out with her. The camera sells us green energy as an unambiguous good. 

Imagine a hard core conservative sitting in the audience going, at the very first mention of the green energy project, "That bastard Wayne is into green energy!? He deserves to lose all his money ... it's just like Soylendra!!" This person should not be the least bit surprised when she turns on Batman--no? But the camera treats it as a total surprise. Which it was.

Bane talks like #Occupy--but look at him: he's scary looking. He's 100% thug. And the guys he unleashes are described as, to a one, violent criminals (as opposed to peaceful protestors or libertarian pot-smokers). 

Wayne is a billionaire and a philanthropist--but he gives is an actual speech disdaining charity balls (even as he attends one). He says it's all about ego. While no one would deny this is sometimes true, I think we can make a case that the conservative film would not need to have its hero talk down charities for any reason.

And Catwoman? Yeah, she uses a cannon to kill Bane ... the cannon on Batman's Bat-Pod.

The Dark Knight Rises Is Left-Wing Propaganda!!
Let's look:
  1. Catwoman, a sympathetic character, delivers the "There's-a-storm-coming" monologue telling Wayne to his face that he will wonder how he and his ilk could get away with taking so much for themselves and leaving so little for everyone else. Economic injustice? Thy spokeswoman, her name is Catwoman!
  2. Bane's assault on the stock exchange (which moves Gotham from 'Chicago' to 'New York') shows the 99% (shoe-shine people, janitors) taking up arms against the 1% (stocktraders who the script goes out of its way to make look like assholes). Bane even comes off as a little heroic there, doesn't he?
  3. The government is inept at best and a hinderance at worst. They can't stop Bane and when a heroic Robin-to-be tries to escape with orphan kids, the government fist fires at his feet and then blows the bridge trapping them in the blast radius (if you have not seen the movie, it is because they have been warned that Bane will detonate the bomb immediately should anyone escape).
  4. Bane makes more 99%-style rhetoric when he tells us he's given the bomb's detonator to "an ordinary citizen" so, hey anyone could have it. I bet there's a Tumblr picture of a Gothamite holding a sign that says "I have the detonator and The Man still doesn't respect me!"
All true: and yet, not the whole story.

While, the script has Catwoman run her mouth about the coming storm the camera shows her picking through the wreckage of Wayne manor clearly seeing things have gone way, way too far. Bane does have some (brutal) charisma in the way the script has him talk--but the camera? He's the bad-guy.

In the stock exchange the traders are jerks--but they do get a bit humanized when Bane callously kills a few of them, no? And when the head of the stock exchange is told that the police won't risk hostages to save his money he says "That's everyone's money."

The government sucks but, come on? It's a superhero vigilante movie. If the government's spec-ops team were the guys from Zero Dark Thirty they'd have infiltrated the city on day one and bagged Bane on day two. That's not the genre we're watching here.

And the detonator? Even the character of Miranda says it's a lie: she's no ordinary citizen--Bane has given the detonator over to his co-conspirator. And she's a complete surprise. Trusted characters (Commissioner Gordon) tell us flat out that Bane would never hand that thing over to some random guy--and we know it's true.

My Conclusion
If you really want to piss off an anarchist tell him that Somalia is a great example of anarchy! This will piss him off because (a) anarchy as a 'form of government' isn't about warlords and chaos so he will tell you snidely you are ignorant, stupid, and ill-read and (b) he knows in his darkest heart that any actual attempt to force real-world, real-life, actual transition to anarchy would make Somalia look like West Palm Beach. In other words: it'll piss him off, for real, because he knows you're right. While the words used to describe anarchism may in some cases be very pretty, the images that we all have imagining some kind of transition to a society without stable power-structures look like Blackhawk Down.

In The Dark Knight Rises we get some left-wing and a little bit of right-wing dialog because it is resonant. Nolan knows that green energy will have positive connotations for most of his audience, whatever the facts are (and backing that up with Freeman will bring it to around 100%). Nolan knows that having a thug spout left-wing talking points while he spills violent criminals (armed with iconic AK-47's onto the streets) will get his viewers right there. So he does it.

The camera, however, usually shows us exactly the converse. Nolan knows that Miranda's "heel turn" will shock us (the image is the knife going into Batman's kidney). Nolan knows that the somber view of Catwoman in the wreckage will show us viscerally the results of her speech in a way dialog can't.

In the end, though, I think these all balance. It's all about the needs of the story. I see no consistent underlying political authorial voice. You could argue that his visuals are louder than his words but I think they all work together and actually cancel each other out because both of them are employed in the same task: driving the story.

This is no small thing: Nolan has a complicated plot with a billion characters and multiple balls in the air. He can't afford to waste time with political messages. I looked for a vein of political meaning and, at the bottom, I think it's just a story about Batman.

* The Dent Act is interesting--what is it exactly? We're never told. Apparently it's something that allows violent criminals to be locked up without parole across the city regardless of, perhaps, whatever legal defense they can mount. This is never questioned: it seems that Gotham never really needed The Batman anyway--they just needed fascist police powers. Again, this could be seen as right-wing propaganda but, really, what it is in terms of the story is (a) a way to keep Dent's legacy relevant (b) a way to make Gordon seem 'obsolete' which is necessary for his comeback to be effective and (c) it allows Batman to retire without abandoning the city in its hour of need. But still? The Dent Act? That's some weapons-grade hand-wavium right there.


  1. Before reading this, I was certain the movie had right wing undertones. The scene of Batman leading the police against Bane and his goons actually made me laugh because I read it as a (comical) battle of the government vs. the risen underclass. Thanks for taking a good hard look at the film and changing my opinion!

    1. Thank you! I always assume I'm over-thinking these posts and they're too long for anyone to read. It's great to hear someone read the whole thing, liked it, and was convinced! I'm thrilled!