This review only contains mild spoilers as it focuses on the political aspects of The Dark Knight Rises rather than plot per se.
The Dark Night Rises is a portrayal of a workers’ revolution from the perspective of the bourgeoisie. It is a profoundly authoritarian movie which includes severe criticisms of revolutionaries, but also liberal democracy, bourgeois charity, and the apathetic, ultimately offering a hopeless political vision that only the status quo is tenable and that one should look to one's own personal happiness.
Our first thought on leaving the theatre was, "What kind of society could produce a big-budget movie with such a completely hopeless message about the future of humanity and the inability of ‘the people’ to govern themselves?" Neither of us were able to remember a major motion picture made in our lifetimes that was as openly counter-revolutionary and reactionary as this one, though the politics of this movie are built up in the two earlier films of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and simply culminate here.
It seems that this movie is able to be explicitly counter-revolutionary because revolution itself is beginning to come on the agenda in the advanced capitalist world for the first time since the 1970s. Science fiction has often shown resistance and rebellion to fascistic societies, but “Dark Knight Rises” actually defends the dystopian reality that it presents, a reality not far removed at all from our actual present.
There was a large and visible security presence at the Scotiabank theatre in Toronto where we saw the film on Friday night, and people in the line were half afraid/half joking of the possibility of copycat shootings. During the film both of us wondered what it had been like for those who were watching a Batman movie and suddenly find themselves in the midst of a meaningless terror assault for real.
The movie's plot seems to the result of mixing a topical Occupy theme with a Batman movie. Unfortunately, Batman is the worst possible hero to have in a movie about class war, being clearly on the side of the bourgeoisie capitalists, as well as only being capable of individual vigilantism rather than collective action.
It is interesting however, that the movie has a particular kind of class politics which still presents the bourgeoisie class as corrupt, effete and powerless to change society. Bruce Wayne expresses a severe critique of charity balls, and Wayne’s own foundation fails to ensure that the orphan boys in a home that he funds aren’t simply kicked out when they reach 16, abandoned to work in the literal underground with Bane’s army.
The bourgeoisie are also often ignorant of realpolitik, thinking that money or connections buy power, a mistake when faced with the brutal fighting power and impressive human leadership qualities of Bane, or the combination of complex individual manipulation, stealth and fighting ability displayed by Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
Lower class people are presented as having special powers due their impossibly tough upbringings and lives, which is true for both Kyle and Bane, as well as an honest cop who grew up in Bruce’s orphanage (Blake). The only way that Bruce Wayne/Batman can gain equal powers and be able to fight the lower classes on their own ground is in a sense to commit class suicide. He can only gain/regain his special fighting powers when he is in an underground middle eastern prison among the lowest of the low, just as in Batman Begins, the first movie of the trilogy.
Only after he has gone through this trial and suffering can he fight the lower class characters as an equal, by experiencing equal suffering and overcoming equal obstacles, even though he is still fighting for the interests of capital (although not financial capital—the movie makes a venture capital vs. financial leeches distinction that is playing out in critiques of Mitt Romney’s history at Bain Capital).
At times it was left very uncertain who we were supposed to be cheering for. When Bane and his cadre go after the Stock Exchange, it was clear that the sold-out crowd in the Toronto Scotiabank theatre was cheering for Bane. When a stock exchange capitalist pleaded to the cops that the thugs could destroy the economy and wipe out everyone’s savings, a Black cop tells the capitalist that he doesn’t care because he keeps his savings under his bed, and when another stock trader tells Bane that there is nothing to steal at the exchange, Bane replies, "Then what are you here for?"
Bane’s cadre are often disguised as (or are) service workers, construction workers, shoe shiners, maintenance people etc, heightening the class war aspect of the movie (Selina Kyle/Catwoman sneaks into Wayne’s mansion disguised as a catering worker). The crowd at our theatre also seemed onside with Bane’s terrorists (at least at first) when they set up a people’s court for trying finance capitalists for their crimes. The court was clearly set up to be unfair and arbitrary, but we wonder how the bourgeoisie think their own courts look like to us.
If it wasn’t for Bane’s nuclear bomb and his ultimate plan to destroy Gotham with it, which clearly makes him a terrorist bad guy, it seemed like most of the crowd would have been openly cheering for him. In fact, without the nuclear bomb, he would simply appear to be a very authoritarian communist who believes in revolution from above by a people’s army that somehow requires basically no ideological preparation of the populace, and who are just supposed to follow their lead.
In the context of the movie, this would actually make him appear to be the most sympathetic character, and to be the clear good guy, regardless of the problems with his authoritarianism. However, given his plan to blow up the city no matter what, Bane isn’t actually an authoritarian communist but actually a reactionary in disguise. The plot reveals that he doesn’t even really care about the revolution that he pretends to lead, as his only goal is to blow up Gotham City to fulfill the wishes of his old master in the League of Shadows, Ra’s al Ghul, who believed Gotham’s destruction would help to restore order and balance to a world corrupted by money and greed. The revolution is just a way to toy with the people by giving them false hope before their ultimate destruction.
This has an odd third-worldist element to it as well, with Gotham representing the heart of capitalist decadence and even the majority of its lower classes being totally corrupted by money and greed, with this imperialist metropolis being seen by Ra’s and Bane as beyond salvation and deserving of punishment. Many of Bane’s cadre are shown as foreign, perhaps Russian or Middle Eastern, thus contributing to the othering of terrorism and the third worldist vs. First World theme.
Catwoman/Selena is the only major Gothamite character we meet who is at all sympathetic to Bane’s revolutionary army; she is in an ambiguous middle position of despising the bourgeoisie, but only working with Bane to some extent out of fear. Bane is ultimately also a counter-revolutionary for whom the people’s courts and the redistribution of wealth is only a method of toying with the population of Gotham before he fulfils his plan to liquidate the city and its population.
The movie’s position on the police is particularly confused, reflecting a general confusion about the police in the real world, especially in the wake of the Occupy movement (are they part of the 99 per cent?). The Occupy sub-theme of the movie makes the presence of the police especially weird, as the creators of this film have generally given up on pretending that ‘Gotham’ is not New York, with New York subway signs and the like being plainly visible. So, given the role of the police in brutally repressing protests in New York and elsewhere, how then are we supposed to view a police protest in the movie where these same cops advance as protesters on Bane’s army as heroes representing the population?
This scene is also very weird to watch because of its complete lack of realism, as the NYPD would never stand up to an army of the kind Bane had assembled, unless they heavily outnumbered them and had superior weaponry, which did not seem to be a case in the film. In police actions generally, cops will try to protect their own safety first, and do not generally charge on small armies with AK-47s without having any shields or riot gear whatsoever, and will even run away when faced with unarmed protesters at the G20 or in the Quebec student strike.
However, the heroism the movie cops display in TDKR visually links them with working class demonstrators who take on the actual cops in real life. The deputy police commissioner even wears a gold braid reminiscent of the retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis who took part in some Occupy protests. But anyone who has been to any protests in the past few years has seen charging police not as saviors but as attackers—during the movie it was at times unsure whose side we the audience were supposed to be on.
There were other contradictory portrayals of the police in the film: as incompetent stooges who refused to investigate anything that would make their statistics look bad; as goons who follow orders, blindly dooming civilians to their death; as brave representatives of the population; as keepers of vital secrets from the population in order to ensure long term incarceration without proper trial; and as representatives of the good people of Gotham. One cop decides to bury his uniform and hide with his family: this response is held up as cowardly despite the general message of the movie that the silent majority is what really represents "the people."
At the end of the film everything goes back to normal—Gotham normal anyway. Bourgeois charity ensures the orphans get a better orphanage, and the surviving characters retreat into family and their personal lives rather than trying to make any substantive difference. The silent majority gets their city back, having survived Bane’s attempted revolution through hiding in their homes, and Commissioner Gordon appears to be the most powerful surviving political figure and tries to rebuild the police force in order to guarantee stability. A secondary hero, the working class cop Blake, turns in his badge in frustration with the limitations of the police force to change society and act ethically.
Despite its reactionary politics, TDKR is a great summer blockbuster with interesting characters, a fairly complex plot and good special effects. The only other major problem is that the plot is a bit marred by trying to combine an Occupy theme with Bane’s plan to blow up Gotham, making this part of the story slightly bloated and more difficult to understand in terms of its logic (though still highly entertaining to watch as it plays out). The "fake" revolution is also often awesome to watch at times, especially in a big-budget movie on a big screen.
Ultimately, the movie seems to justify an authoritarian liberalism that is essentially anti-democratic and supportive of the status quo as the best of all possible worlds. We are supposed to trust a good progressive bourgeois like Bruce Wayne to look out for our interests as workers and even save us from our own revolutions as well as the limits of legal bourgeois democracy through their personal heroism and vigilantism.
Clearly, without these great bourgeois visionaries and benevolent protectors, we would all be lost. The political message of the movie is that we need progressive authoritarian leaders (some of whom work in secret) who will give us mild reforms towards a better life when we are ready, but that we should never attempt to take them for ourselves, as this will only result in tragedy.
Essentially, this is a kind of hopeless pro-Obama message considering the political context in which the film is being released, as the Democratic Party is supposed to represent the liberal, reforming wing of the bourgeoisie despite authoritarian and imperialist policies. The political messaging of this movie reflects the general confusion and hopelessness among liberals, and represents a failed attempt by the bourgeoisie to stabilize their ideological hegemony by discounting any positive possibilities for revolution.
Michael Romandel and Megan Kinch are members of the Toronto Media Co-op, where this movie review first appeared.