I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises. Obviously, this post is going to spoiler-heavy.
I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. I had a wonderful time watching it.
I’m going to do something incredibly lazy, but also really worthwhile: I’m going to tell you a lot of things about the film that other people have said. Then I’ll actually, you know, do some work. So.
I. The Dark Knight In Review: Other People Writing Smart Things
SEK says that the film is The Return of the Jedi through and through, claiming that is isn’t “as dark or accomplished” as The Dark Knight and that it “descends into maddening silliness. . . every time Bane ‘opens’ his mouth.” He also says that the film fails to stay on message and is confusing at times–this is what leads reviewers like John Nolte to be utterly wrong about basic plot elements in the film. For SEK, “Nolte’s inability to grasp the most basic of plot points belongs to Nolan.”
As expected, “Dark Knight Rises” is a love letter to Gotham City: its flawed but ultimately decent people, its industry and generosity — all of which are by-products of liberty, free markets, and capitalism. In other words, just as “The Dark Knight” was a touching tribute to an embattled George W. Bush who chose to be seen as a villain in order to be the hero, “Rises” is a love letter to an imperfect America that in the end always does the right thing.
There’s a lot right and wrong in that little bit, which is representative of the entire review. The fact that this reading can be reached without any real stretching of factual data presented to us through the movie signals a certain kind of extreme conservatism in the film. This isn’t surprising–watchers of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight should be aware that there is a hardcore ideology about a Great Man taking on a Great Weight because average people simply can’t handle difficult things like “the Truth.”
Abigail Nussbaum, in a stunning piece of criticism about the film and the Dark Knight saga, responds to that recognition of a certain kind of conservatism in the film. She writes that is dangerous to “ignore the strain of fascist authoritarianism, of Great Man fetishism” that exists in all of Nolan’s Batman work. Nussbaum then characterizes The Dark Knight Rises as a slow tread through these same themes in a non-gripping, overwrought way. For example:
Far from toning down The Dark Knight‘s message, then, The Dark Knight Rises takes it to even further extremes. This isn’t simply Batman having the moral authority to act as judge and jury on Gotham’s criminals. This is Batman–and Bruce Wayne–as John Galt, the mysterious, reclusive, omni-competent, super-rich industrialist who is the only hope for the future. The Dark Knight Rises extends Batman’s authority past crime, into technological progress, and even into social welfare–when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake, a Batman believer who is one of the first to uncover signs of the film’s villain, starts his investigation by following up the murder of a homeless teen, he learns that the boy was kicked out of his group home because the cash-strapped Wayne Foundation has stopped funding it. In other words, it’s not just the police that needs to be augmented by a caped crusader, but every level of government that must be replaced by private enterprise and private philanthropy. And when that private benefactor is mocked, derided, hobbled in his efforts to keep his community safe and even hunted down for those efforts–why, then he will retreat from his obligations, and the result will be disaster.
This isn’t a new theme in TDKR. Batman Begins is fully of statements about Thomas and Martha Wanye’s contributions to Gotham and the fact that they created most of the infrastructure that enables Gotham to exist as the greatest city in America–in fact, that’s the big plot point at the end of Batman Begins. If the microwave thing reached the heart of Wayne Tower, the very electrochemical heart of Gotham, then everything would be lost. Luckily, it was blown up before then.
Adam Kotsko points out the clear Cold War allegory and the racist message that the latter half of the film embodies, what with Batman “outdoing Orientals at their very own Orientality” and all.
Finally, though there are many more articles being written constantly about the film, I want to invoke Aaron Bady’s longform essay on the film for The New Inquiry. Chock-full of smart points and criticism, Bady’s essay falls short in one way: he doesn’t see poverty in Gotham. He writes:
After all, one of the most curious things about this movie — ostensibly about revolution and counter-revolution, and even somewhat shamelessly (if rather hopefully) based on A Tale of Two Cities — is the way the Batman universe has so little room for real class antagonism or the notion of a structural crisis in capitalism. There does seem to be some vague mumbling about poverty in Gotham — an orphan says that there might be work in the sewers, implying that economic despair leads Gotham’s underclass to join up with Bane — but this doesn’t really wash, and not only because the economy is clearly less of a problem for this kid than the fact of being an orphan in an orphanage. Do we see any real suffering in Gotham? I’m trying to remember a single homeless encampment, home foreclosure, or true picture of human poverty, and I find that I can’t. This may be because it was there and I forgot it — having paid more attention to a cockamamy subplot about whether or not Bruce Wayne will go to a charity ball or something — and then again it may be because the movie is clearly not interested in giving the people of Gotham any real motivation to rebel against the status quo. In the Batman universe, crime just is — for no other reason than criminals just are — and that underdetermination has, as its consequence, the evacuation of any possibility that economic despair (or any other “empirical” factor) might be a driving force for social disorder or open revolt. The only thing to do with criminals is to lock them up, forever.
And while this ignores some substantial points that we’re shown over the course of the trilogy, it also sums up a the state of Gotham. The people have no faces. They are crowd shots or expressions; they are allies with names or smug enemies, but they will only exist for less than five minutes; they are formless. Bady’s article ends on a strong note: TDKR ends in a place that renders politics, or thinking about politics, impossible; there is only Bruce Wayne and the way the world ought to be.
II. The Dark Knight 3: Dark Harder, or I Try To Say One Small, Additional Smart Thing
The Dark Knight Rises is a reckoning with the trilogy as a whole, a kind of Ragnarok that totally destabilizes the entire mythos of the Nolanverse. John Nolte claims that the Batman films are about Gotham, which is true, but it ignores the fact that Gotham is much bigger than “the city.” Gotham isn’t merely its citizens, nor is it its structures, institutions, or mayor. It isn’t a football team.
Gotham is a supplement word, something that we put in the place of an assemblage that contains citizens, buildings, sewer pipes, Batman, Wayne Manor, orphans, brutal capitalism, the bat signal, Jim Gordon, divorce, the League of Shadows, collapse, care, Arkham Asylum, Rachel Dawes, portraits, speeches, and weapons. I can’t litanize it all. It is too much. But if we can all agree that “Gotham” is a gesture toward that grand assemblage that pulls all of these elements together, then yes, the films are about Gotham.
I don’t know how to speak about this assemblage without starting with Batman Begins. The section of Bady’s article that I quote up top suggests that there isn’t an underclass in Gotham–for him, this is a critical reason that The Dark Knight Rises lacks a strong political reason; it guts itself. Except, well, the entirety of Batman Begins is about showing the brutal poverty of Gotham and telling us exactly how it came to be.
This, of course, colors my reading of the entire trilogy. A quick recap of what we’re told in Batman Begins: There is a major depression going on. The Waynes, unlike Gotham’s other megarich, spend a lot of money on the infrastructure of the city–they expand public utilities and transportation in Gotham, as well as generally just being philanthropists. They are murdered by Joe Chill, a guy who is down on his luck. A slip of the trigger finger and ever-fearful Bruce Wayne is an orphan. This is where it gets interesting: the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne spur the rich of the city to give back. The city gets pulled out of a major depression, but at the same time it is taken over by organized crime. Rachel Dawes, however, points out the major inconsistencies in that narrative; she drives Bruce Wayne through the Narrows, which is literally a favela-like area of Gotham, and says that the narrative itself is a lie. Life got better for the middle class and organized crime, but got worse for everyone else, but the lie that the depression is over has clouded everyone’s ability to see the bad in the world.
The world of Batman Begins is a world based on the neoliberal lie that things will always get better if there are good directors and a workforce willing to work. I watched it again recently, and I was genuinely shocked by the clarity of the film: Bruce Wayne, a white male billionaire, has to come save the stupid teeming masses from themselves. Against him is the League of Shadows, a communist allegory if you’ve ever seen one, in which everyone is interchangeable with everyone else. More than that, they destroy advanced civilizations that have tripped over some invisible line of decadence, a key signifier of which seems to be a giant favela in the middle of downtown area.
This was a long digression, but what I want to get at is that the plot of The Dark Knight Rises has little to do with The Dark Knight and everything to do with Batman Begins. The plot of the former is about Gotham being torn to pieces from the inside, using its own cast off citizenry as the ammunition, which closely mimics the themes of the latter. Instead of driving your average Joe mad with science fiction scare powder Bane just gives the downtrodden a job and a purpose. That’s all he needs.
It is easy to get off-message here about these movies. They’re sprawling, and I am having a hard time getting my hands around the larger message. So instead of rambling on, I’m going to talk about two very particular things: lies and politics.
1. The Lie
As I said, Batman Begins opens on the ur-lie, the creation myth, that life for everyone is beautiful. The Dark Knight ends on another lie, a replacement lie that forces out the previous myth and leaves Jim Gordon scarred. So what is the lie of The Dark Knight Rises?
The lie is that there is a happy ending. Instead of a lie that makes the lives of the people of Gotham liveable, it is a lie that makes the happiness of the viewer possible. Bruce Wayne isn’t dead; Alfred wasn’t emotionally abused; the Batman legacy will go one; the forces of evil are silenced forever. But remember way back in Batman Begins? Batman has started something that has no ending; the lives of Gothamites are going to be punctuated with occasional acts of extreme violence and madness, but mostly their lives will be controlled for them by the strong arm of the Gotham PD and the Batman. Their lives are limited. Their possibilities are small.
There is no chance for an ending. Instead, there is episodic violence in the lives of the people of Gotham. Pre-Batman, they believed that things would get better, and that poor people were poor because they didn’t work hard, and oh well. Now they know that there is a class dynamic–and Batman has solved it. The lie is finality. The lie is the statement of a possible ending. There will be more Batvillains that show up and have to be taken down by the new Batman. Gotham will be ripped apart again. And then another lie will take the current one’s place.
2. Bane’s Politics
A common strain in a lot of the writing that I have been reading about The Dark Knight Rises is that the film takes politics as its core theme and then radically depoliticizes itself. Instead of showing us the actual political implications of, say, giving control of a city over to its people, it shys away and shows us Bane and Batman punching each other on the steps of city hall. The public trials, the looting of mansions, and the occupation of Wall Street, this writing claims, are masks that the film wears to make us think that is is about politics while actually hiding away from all of the real political conclusions that the film could take us to.
But that might be too reductive. Like I said, Batman Begins is the starting point, and so we have to take it into account. If Gotham is built on the ur-lie that there are no homeless, no downtrodden, then those people have to be hidden. In fact, when Bady claims that there isn’t a political underclass in The Dark Knight Rises, he is explaining this point for us–they are so hidden as to be literally imperceptible by the viewers of the film. They’re under ground, and it is in this space that Bane crafts them into a loyal army, a new League of Shadows crafted from those who have no possibilities other than the ones that only he can give them.
In the first film of the trilogy, Ra’s Al Ghul tells us that the League of Shadows exists as a space for people who are disenfranchised to come together as equals. Bane merely takes that to Gotham itself, preying on the precarious class and bringing them into a fold that has meaning. We know these people exist, and more importantly, that the Gotham government has let them down in the past. The end of Batman Begins has a huge event that is explained in one line, though it has huge implications for The Dark Knight Rises: Gordon tells Batman that the Narrows are “lost.” An entire densely populated area of the city, defined only by its massive poverty, is outside the control of the State; therefore, it is lost.
So ten years later, Bane has made an army out of these people, and uses that army to destroy Gotham from the foundations upward. Of course, the gleeful capitalist ideology enters into the film through authorial voice–of course Bane would never give control of the nuke to an average citizen, aka power is consolidated among a small group. There is no true equality of the people, only an “illusion of hope” that keeps them dreaming of something better until the nuke pops.
But Bane, as a figure, is beautiful. His carnival barker voice, with a hint of high Victorian, mimics both his gathering function as a leader and functions as a parody of the hierarchy that he seeks to destroy. His systematic beating of Batman was, for me, the centerpiece of the film. Everything that Batman used to get the upper hand–his mind, his technology, his body–is replicated and then advanced by Bane. Bane, for all intents and purposes, is the better Batman, motivated by caring and love instead of revenge and death.
Bane presents us with a political stance of pure, egalitarian love.
I am going to end here.