I admit it: I bought tickets weeks in advance for the midnight opening showing of the Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. I found the film wildly entertaining, and well-executed. The plot of the film revolves around Batman coming out of retirement in order to fight the fearsome Bane who seeks to destroy Gotham City.
But it is a piece of slavish propaganda. It warns against the danger of questioning founding myths, promotes ideology favoring a savior hero, and ultimately celebrates the triumph of law and order over what it portrays as a ‘dangerous classes’ of criminals.
The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after its predecessor, the Dark Knight. Gotham has changed. Organized crime has largely been crushed, and the streets have been made safe.
In the previous film, Batman had taken the blame for multiple killings that were actually committed by Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham.
Dent was portrayed as Gotham’s “White Knight”, one who purged the city of organized crime. But after suffering a hideous scar he transformed into psycho villain Two-Face, killing mob bosses and those he deemed corrupt.
Batman and Police Commissioner Gordon, the one “good cop” in Gotham, cover up the truth about the killings because they do not want to tarnish the myth of Harvey Dent, a supposed selfless crusader against crime.
This myth justifies a whole set of draconian laws called the Dent Act (similar to the Patriot Act) which brings sweeping powers to the police and leads to a thousand arrests and convictions. In one of the opening scenes, Commissioner Gordon wants to reveal the truth, but refrains from doing so. He knows that the myth of Harvey Dent has helped to create a seemingly safer city and he doesn’t want to undo all that.
For most of the Dark Knight Rises, there seems to be fear among the “good” characters – Batman and Gordon –– that unveiling the truth about Dent will destroy the whole edifice of society. And that seemingly comes true in the Dark Knight Rises when Bane releases those imprisoned as a result of the Dent Act. Bane then uses the freed prisoners rule and terrorize the people of Gotham.
The movie suggests that disturbing the founding myths of society is bound to lead to chaos.
Compare this with a real world example. In the post 9/11 world, the US bombed civilians in its campaign of ‘shock and awe,’ and conceded instances of ‘collateral damage’ in what was otherwise a just and patriotic cause. Government and media deceived the public, suggesting that the wars comprised an enterprise involving humanitarian aid or the spreading of democracy.
Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks helped blow apart this facade by revealing evidence of widespread US atrocities and violations of international law.
The myth of US benevolence at home and abroad contrasted with the facts, which included murder, torture, the Patriot Act, and various other violations of civil liberties and human rights. When Julian Assange and Wikileaks revealed facts about US crimes, critics chose to denounce the organization and he, rather than the perpetrators of the war crimes.
Evidently, the leaders of the USA grew exasperated at Assange and Manning for revealing information contrary to the narrative of the ‘noble lie’ that the United States is a benevolent country upholding high ideals like liberty and democracy at home and abroad. This exasperation has resulted in Bradley Manning being thrown into prison and locked in solitary confinement.
Now let us go back to the figure of Harvey Dent. Prior to sustaining a devastating and disfiguring injury, the Dark Knight portrayed Dent as a dedicated public servant going up against the criminal underworld. Yet even before Dent became Two-Face, his convictions against criminals relied upon extralegal acts, such as the vigilante activities of Batman.
Arguably, when Dent became Two-Face, this was not the twisting of a good public servant to the forces of evil; rather it was revealing the truth of what was already there. Can we not say the same about US imperialism?
When the film begins, the bourgeois of Gotham go to parties, plot against each other for greater market share and, at best, donate to charities. Take Bruce Wayne, who has given up fighting crime and lives as a recluse in Wayne Manor. Wayne is a cripple who is indulging in his family fortune, which is slowly slipping away. Wayne seems to be a representative of a bourgeois class in decline with no vision of the future.
The bourgeois of Gotham (exemplified by Bruce Wayne) have no inkling of the storm that will sweep them away. Yet Bruce Wayne takes up the cape and cowl again, not merely because of Bane’s plans, but because a police officer named Blake threatens to reveal the truth about the killing of Harvey Dent and shatter the founding myth of the new prosperous and ‘crime-free’ Gotham.
Batman fights Bane, but is defeated – not just physically but also financially and spiritually. Bane sends Batman to an underground prison and wants him to watch the total destruction of Gotham before he lets him die. Batman slowly regains his physical health and eventually manages to escape.
Batman is able to escape from the prison or ‘rise’ after learning that he fears dying, not living. This is central to the ideology of the Dark Knight Rises. Bane’s revolution is shown as having no staying power and is just a vision of death. Yet Batman comes to represent a new vision of life that is needed to overcome his nemesis and rally the people (or rather just the police) of Gotham. Batman is the savior needed for Gotham City, while the masses of people are just supposed to be grateful while he restores law and order.
Batman returns to Gotham where he is able to free the police from their prison. Batman and the police then engage in a pitched battle with Bane and his supporters for control of Gotham with the cops shown as the underdogs. Yet time is running out, since the nuclear bomb is set to go off and destroy the city. Batman is able to fly the bomb out to see where it explodes harmlessly, but seemingly at the cost of Batman’s life (not really, he gets to live and enjoys sunny days in Florence).
What has happened at the end of the film is the establishment of a new founding myth. This one celebrates a Gotham that was liberated from the clutches of Bane and his ‘revolution.’ A statue of Batman is erected in Bane’s former headquarters to commemorate this victory.
Although Batman has retired, the heroic police officer John Blake retires from work. He does not want to be bound by structures of the police force. The film ends with Blake entering the Bat Cave, ready to fight new and unknown forces of evil.
There is a tension even at the end of the Dark Knight Rises between a seemingly new order and threats to the new founding myth. The movie portrays threats to this order –– criminals and others who can again threaten to bring capitalist civilization down to the depths of barbarism.
The defenders of this civilization cannot be bound by their own structures of law and morality. They supposedly need the extralegal methods of Batman, which are inherent to maintaining the facade of a just society.
The Dark Knight Rises has been criticized on at least one website as “Batman hates the 99 percent.” And certainly, the film has nothing but contempt for working class and the ordinary people of Gotham, save for the police. The people of Gotham are portrayed as having no independent role, but exist strictly to be manipulated by either Batman or Bane. Whereas Batman’s manipulation of the populace is guided by an urge to live, Bane’s vision is one of death
The film shows that the end result of Bane’s “revolutionary” vision is the destruction of civilization and mass death, symbolized by a nuclear bomb countdown. It takes Batman liberating the police from underground imprisonment to restore the normal functioning of society. Ironically, the film twists reality by portraying the police as the oppressed prisoners.
The film’s villain, Bane, has a two part mission: 1) the “revolutionary” goal of toppling Gotham’s decadent elite rulers; and 2) destroying the city completely. Bane targets some of the same enemies as Occupiers and Marxists, such as the privileged, the one percent, and the bourgeois. Furthermore he targets institutions of capitalism for destruction such as the stock exchange and prisons.
Yet Bane’s methods have nothing in common with Occupy, pro-democratic or Marxist visions, which see either the 99 percent or the working class as capable of taking hold of their destiny in order to build a new society. Bane’s methods show only contempt for the ability of ordinary people to make a revolution. Rather, Bane is best identified as a Blanquist, a term derived from the methods of Louis-Auguste Blanqui, a 19th Century French Revolutionary; who believed that a small tight-knit conspiracy and an educated dictatorship, not involvement of masses of people, is needed to bring about a revolution. Bane, like Blanqui, acts in the name of the people of Gotham, but never lets them get involved in building a new society.
The Dark Knight Rises sees no positive vision resulting from Bane’s attempted ‘revolution’, which eventually results in Bane seizing Gotham via the acquisition of a nuclear weapon and a well-orchestrated scheme that traps most of the police force underground and cuts the city off from the outside world.
Bane then proceeds to build not socialism in Gotham City, but rather a mix of dictatorship and anarchy that is reminiscent of the worst stereotypes of Eastern Europe or various failed states. In Bane’s Gotham: commerce has come to an end and life appears gray and drab. The police are persecuted and hunted down with only a few officers struggling to organize an underground resistance. Show trials are conducted against Gotham’s bourgeois with the verdict either death sentences or forced exile across an ice-covered river where drowning is likely.
Yet Bane’s “revolution” has a literal half-life. The nuclear weapon he uses to hold onto power is unstable and going to explode at a certain point. The film shows that the logic of Bane’s vision leads not to the creation of a better society, but to a nightmare that leads to total destruction which will kill millions. Any social question about who should rule and in what way is not allowed to intrude into this narrative. The film reduces all this to a stereotypical false dichotomy: good vs. evil, or survival vs. total destruction between an elite savior hero and a ‘revolutionary’ villain with a nightmare vision.
The Dark Knight Rises is engrossing and well-executed, yet it portrays a reactionary message. It warns the viewer that challenging the foundational myths of a society can lead to forces being unleashed that bring no positive vision, only the “truth” of total annihilation.
The Dark Knight Rises acknowledges the excesses that root the normal functioning of our capitalist society, but not to criticize them, rather the movie lauds them as heroic and necessary.
Apparently, the common people just can’t handle the truth. The Dark Knight Rises intends to make us all feel comfortable, fortunate to have noble police and secret billionaire vigilantes working behind the scenes with unaccountable and extralegal powers. Batman and the police are shown to always act with the people’s best interests at heart, and never with their own agenda.
Such myths exist not only in the movies, but also in real life. And the Dark Knight Rises warns us to accept them, implying that otherwise we will wind up with something worse.