Before the third of the Batman trilogy hit theaters, I had heard that The Dark Knight Rises was a film without hope, with a long and dreary narrative that never loosens its grip. It leaves the viewer without a sense of answers.
I saw it and left confused. It saw it again, and left confused again. All the while, I kept wondering if this interpretive effort would pay off. Maybe it’s just another movie and lacks the ideological significance of the previous two.
I too had read several reviews that had condemned the film from a left-wing point view, arguing that it took a cheap shot at the Occupy Wall Street movement, suggesting that it consists mainly of brainless menaces who are easily manipulated by a strongman leader. The filmmakers deny this.
Regardless, this was probably the best political feature of the film.
However, the merit of its warning about left-wing populism was seriously compromised by the portrayal of the Gotham cops as saintly guardians of the social order. Neoconservatives loved this part of the film, made all the better to them because the prisons are full and Gotham is ruled by a civilian-led authoritarian regime of tight law and surveillance — the neocon dream come true.
What’s going on here? Why is the movie so full of mixed messages and, in the end, so unsatisfying?
Finally, it hit me. And this will be perfectly obvious once you hear it.
The problem is that the film gives Gotham (and us) a choice between two forms of despotism, one “left wing” and one “right wing,” and asks us to choose the lesser of two evils. We can have one of two systems: bureaucratic/authoritarian or revolutionary/dictatorial. The idea of a self-managing society is just out of the question. The film biases that choice by showing one as offered by the evil villain and the other by a corrupt, yet stable status quo.
Do you see now? The Dark Knight Rises replicates the choice that the present political system presents to us. We look at the choices and throw up our hands, knowing full well that neither really offers answers to the problem. Watching this film is like watching the Sunday talk shows that feature two flavors of the same poison. It’s the State of the Union address and the response to the State of the Union address, neither of which tells what’s true or gives us a way out.
It’s the two sides of the street fights between the Occupy protesters and the cops. It’s the left versus the right. It’s Republicans versus Democrats. It’s “law and order” versus revolutionary dictatorship. It’s Italian fascism versus Soviet communism. It’s the two sides of the Spanish Civil War. It is also the choice faced by old Rome in its late stage: rule by a corrupt oligarchy of the Senate or a cruel imperial dictatorship of Caesar.
It is the choice given to every nation in its late stages. No truly informed citizen believes that this is all that should be on the menu. But The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t show us another way. It never shows us the option of a self-managing society where people are permitted to shape their own destinies apart from the will of two gangs of political elites. Whoever wins the great struggle over Gotham’s future, the results will be imposed from the top down.
The result is that viewers are left with a sense of hopelessness in the same way that the current political climate denies people authentic hope. Whatever happens will come from the center and top, leaving the rest of us unfree to manage our own lives, keep and use our own property, mind our own business, and cobble together our own human associations. In The Dark Knight Rises, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not even distant memories.
The film opens with Bruce Wayne/Batman in a long period of retirement, living alone in his mansion during eight years of stability in Gotham. But what is this stability, really? It’s not prosperity, because the homes for orphans are full and they can’t get jobs once they are too old to live there. The prisons are jammed with supposedly violent thugs and the leaders of organized crime, swept off the streets thanks to a new draconian law that unleashed government power.
The new law is named after martyred district attorney Harvey Dent. In the first scenes of Gotham, the city is celebrating Harvey Dent Day. The police are in firm control of the city, as led by the police commissioner and the political powers of the city. From the perspective of the elites, nothing is wrong. Life is blessedly boring. Crime has fallen so low that police joke about soon having to chase down people with overdue library books.
Is there corruption? Of course. This is Gotham. In fact, the corruption is so deep and pervasive that the saintly district attorney after whom the present order is named is a lie. He is actually the villain named Two-Face — a perfect metaphor for every member of the political class. In his tenure, he said one thing and did another. People thought he was doing good, but he was secretly doing evil. Even the best men of the current regime in Gotham are willing to spread the lie of the greatness of Dent, solely for the purpose of maintaining government power and immunizing the power structure from criticism.
The strongman dictator Bane sees the vulnerability of this seemingly stable system. He perceives that people are seeking something, some form of liberation, and that he can use this political impulse to solidify his control over Gotham on his way to plotting its final destruction. He recruits the unemployed to work under the city in the sewers to plot his takeover.
Bane has plenty of people willing to risk death to work for him, both because they are desperate and because Bane offers a radical alternative to the present order. Meanwhile, the city elites go on about their daily tasks, completely oblivious to what is happening beneath the surface.
At the appointed hour, Bane initiates shock and awe in the form of massive explosions throughout the city. At the football game where a large portion of Gotham’s citizens are gathered, Bane blows up the field, and announces to everyone that he is the new leader of the city. Their elites have failed and now a people’s revolution is taking place.
“Gotham, take control,” Bane says, “take control of your city. Behold, the instrument of your liberation! Identify yourself to the world!”
The rich are looted. The prisoners are set free to become armed gangs in the Bane regime. Show trials are established on the model of the late stages of the French Revolution. Guilt is presumed and everyone is sent to die, to the cheers of the workers and peasants. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie cower in their homes in fear.
This is when the Dark Knight rises to set the world right again. His most-loyal allies in this army are the massive number of police who had been recruited during the years of seemingly crimeless stability.
As audience members, we are being asked to cheer for Batman because he opposes the bloody and ruthless Bane, who is a Stalin-like figure. But the best possible result that Gotham can get out of this is a restoration and intensification of the previous fascist system of police, prisons, rule by corrupt elites, and mandatory obedience to Gotham’s version of the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security.
As a result, it is hard to cheer. The choice is left or right dictatorship. It is Occupy versus the cops. It is Stalin versus Mussolini all over again. It is Hoover versus FDR. It is the Democrat despot or the Republican despot.
This is the dreadful choice that political systems all over the world have set up. You have to decide, based on your cultural identity and ideological preferences, what form of top-down rule you desire. There’s Plan A or Plan B, but no Plan C. There are two types of prison cells, but there is no way out of the prison itself. Our choices are not really authentic choices. All of us are inchoately aware that whatever the results are, we will not be freer than we were before.
One of the most-compelling images of the film is a prison that is considered the worst prison in the world. It is buried deep in a hole. You can look up 200 feet in the air and see the light, but there is no way that ordinary people can climb out. This is a chilling image of where most people in the developed world are today. We look up and we see a far-distant light, and that light is called liberty. But we don’t see a way to get there.
This much we can see. There is no Dark Knight who will save us. We must save ourselves.