Everything is political. J.R.R. Tolkein famously said that the Lord of the Rings books were a linguistic exercise, and that any attempt to view them as a political one was doomed to fail. These are stories where power is a physical object that is passed between characters and corrupts them – how could that be anything other than political? Nevertheless, creators have often claimed their works are not making political statements. When The Dark Knight Rises was released, Christopher Nolan went on record saying just that.
But art has meaning beyond giving form to a creator’s ideas. A film says things on its own, no matter what its director intends. For example, look at the guns given to the inmates of Gotham City’s Blackgate prison: when they are freed by Bane (Tom Hardy), they march out armed with AK-47s. This is the gun of the revolutionary, the radical jihadist and the soviet repressor. That alone says a lot of things, so what does it say that Bane’s closest minions use the sleek, German produced G36, the Mercedes Benz of assault rifles? The important thing is that this difference does say something, even if it’s simply because they didn’t have enough prop G36s for everyone in a such a large crowd scene.
The politics of The Dark Knight Rises are a lot like the rest of the film: there’s a lot of it. Perhaps too much. The script is full of tight little lines and speeches about “restoring balance to the world” and, when Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman crashes a party at Bruce Wayne’s mansion, how the rich of Gotham “will wonder how [they] could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us”. It all feels very political, but it’s quite hard to pin the story as a whole on a broad message. It’s definitely saying something, but what?
In the earlier films in Nolan’s trilogy, Batman’s battle is with the lower order, the criminal and super-criminal, but in the third instalment it’s established that Gotham is free of organised crime. The extravagant rich are the ones who are corrupt – and although he belongs to their class, Bruce has nothing to do with them. His choice not to fight that corruption as simple Mr. Wayne after he retired as Batman is arguably the source of his own undoing (that the story has the feeling of a tragedy is maybe why so many reviewers had a problem with the reveal that SPOILER he survived his own martyrdom).
But Batman doesn’t take them on in any capacity: Bane does, brutally so. In many ways, Bane is the anti-Batman. Bruce was born in light and found darkness. Bane was born in darkness and emerged into the light – a rabble rouser and a liar. He talks in doublespeak about freeing the people while confining them, about justice while setting up kangaroo courts. He is at home with misinformation, a contrast to our heroic Batman and Commissioner Gordon, whose lies come back to bite them. Indeed, the other bit of hubris on Bruce’s ledger is the lie at the end of The Dark Knight about Harvey Dent, which Bane exploits and manipulates to his own ends.
It’s worth nothing that that the method of Bane’s demagoguery – an ill-defined crypto-socialism – is problematic. America has always been far closer to a right-wing revolution than a left-wing one (look up the Business Plot, in which a cadre of businessmen tried to install a fascist dictator in the 1930s) and, because this is all supposed to be a populist ruse to keep the people of Gotham occupied, even in this “in this economy” economy, Bane’s choice of pseudo-bolshevism is just kind of unbelievable.
The reason this is so troubling is that the film so eloquently shows the corruption of the rich – and because Bruce never tried to combat it, his heroism becomes so much more questionable. When he is finally victorious because he has air superiority over Bane’s ground force, we have to wonder if that should be what defines who wins such a conflict – not a moral but technological superiority.
The closest thing to a definitive statement that The Dark Knight Rises makes is in the final battle between the police and the mercenaries. Bane and the League of Shadows have turned Gotham into “a failed state”, an anarchy. The conflict becomes Order vs. Chaos rather than Good vs. Evil. It’s not a particularly cool or idealistic idea that stability is worth fighting for because very often stability is used to maintain a status quo that is not necessarily benevolent or desirable. However, living in a Western democracy, stability is something we normally take for granted and certainly shouldn’t. If you have a situation where evil is fighting evil, siding with stability (while not a perfect solution) isn’t the worst idea either.
Maybe superhero blockbusters just aren’t a great medium for this kind of message. Superheroes are mythic figures; they’re naturally suited to being about Good fighting Evil. This isn’t to say that they can’t talk about complex themes, but men in totemic masks are potent symbols and the Hollywood blockbuster necessitates broad brush strokes. It might be that The Dark Knight Rises tried to be something it couldn’t be. Nolan’s epic is sprawling and too long and, frankly, the narrative is a bit of a mess. This messiness of plots and subplots and its profusion of MacGuffins is only amplified by its confusing political worldview. You can’t separate the artistry and the politics; they define one another.
Going into the closure of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, everyone expected it to be dark, but in trying to be grey, the movie just ended up being muddy. Maybe that should be the lesson for filmmakers going forward: your work will be political, so you had better be aware of what it’s saying because it will matter to your audience, even if it doesn’t matter to you.