This article contains multiple spoilers. If you are beside yourself in excitement and haven't seen the movie yet, and have Batman posters on your basement wall, then read this later.
As soon as the trailer appeared for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in his Batman Trilogy, people were speculating about its apparent political content because there appeared to be a prevalence of scenes that played on the theme of economic inequality.
The trailer features Selina Kyle, played by Anne Hathaway, whispering in the ear of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) about the oncoming storm where the majority of impoverished people take on the wealthy and powerful: "You think this can last? There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."
Bane, played by Tom Hardy, is a brutal mercenary who begins the film employed by a rival corporation to Wayne Enterprises. Wayne ultimately has to bring his vigilante alter ego Batman out of retirement to do battle with Bane and help save Gotham.
The film has opened to mostly positive reviews although some standard movie critiques have come out, including the complaints of too many characters, a muddled and overly complex plot, and some other general criticisms we come across in film.
Holy reactionary ravings from the right, Batman!
Unlike most mainstream movies there was present the above-mentioned political element. There have been complaints from different sectors of the politically-minded landscape. One commenter on a review site compares Bane to Obama:
The Obama administration, including his czars and along with his closets Progressive supporters, are planning a manufactured insurgency against America. He is using the media to his advantage to garner both sympathy and support for his unfinished goals. He is desperately seeking a way to remain in office, even if it means the surreal prospect of an indefinite postponement of elections -- if it can be pulled off. So far, he’s got the support of the majority of the DHS “brass” behind him, according to my source.
Rush Limbaugh, (in)famous right-wing commentator in the United States, saw a similar conspiracy, clearly cementing Limbaugh in the category of putting the reaction in reactionary:
Bane. The villain in the Dark Knight Rises is named Bane. B-A-N-E. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran, and around which there’s now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time, the release date’s been known, summer 2012 for a long time. Do you think that it is accidental, that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?
Rush Limbaugh was unaware that the character of Bane had been in the Batman comics since the early 1990s. Again, a Conservative's gut feelings fail in light of facts taken from reality.
Critiques from the left
Now, the political critiques to be examined more seriously are the ones that charge that the film's plot and overall conclusion are largely reactionary and conservative themselves.
The bulk of these criticisms come from those who see an allegory about the Occupy movement, particularly on its emphasis for direct political collective action and its views on the injustices of a system with a large gap between the wealthy and rapidly growing impoverished majority.
Some of these reviewers appear to believe that the film's director and co-script writer Christopher Nolan had consciously based the film on the Occupy movement. This has turned out to be false, as the Occupy movement was sparked in New York City in September of 2011 while the film had started production in May 2011. There was no direct intention of portraying an Occupy Wall Street type story.
Many progressive critics have labeled the film as counter-revolutionary since it portrays a revolution -- the seizure of Gotham by the villainous Bane -- with an aftermath and results that are chaotic, repressive and bloodthirsty. The hero, Bruce Wayne/Batman, a capitalist by birthright, ends up ending this revolution, but also saves Gotham City from complete destruction in the process.
The Toronto Media Co-op has published an in-depth analysis and criticism of the film that demonstrates the plot's focus on the saviour mentality of Batman and Gotham's elite. Bane, the leader of the militias that seize Gotham, uses revolutionary, many would say “left-wing sounding” rhetoric. What follows is a violent revolution where many of the powerful of society are killed by armed mobs led by brutish mercenaries. The Media Co-op article makes a compelling point, and these were some of the first things that came to mind with many, including myself, but I also saw other political dramas playing out in it. I'll get to those in a minute.
Let's examine the analysis concerning the apparent reactionary and conservative aspects of the film. This picture, particularly the imagery of wealthy houses being robbed and looted, is not without historical precedent. There have been periods in history that comes to mind where inequality between social classes did come to such a point of complete societal collapse where the bulk of people violently overtook the elites.
Christopher Nolan has in fact noted that The Dark Knight Rises was inspired in part by his reading of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, with its historical setting in the French Revolution. The guillotine was invented in this period of France's history as there were many people who were beheaded. The tragedy in human suffering was immense and many leaders came to power during and after the revolution who did not act enlightened or democratic in the least, and the post-revolution reality did not resemble anything that could actually be called socialist, or grassroots democracy, social democracy -- or whatever left-leaning term we want to put out there.
It's difficult to view this time period in our present day considering all factors and how complicated the dynamics were during the French Revolution, but there is no doubt that the violence of the revolution, that spark that started it, came about as a direct result of massive and inhumane inequalities between the majority of people and the established elites of the time, in this case the landowning gentry that was tied to the monarchy.
Now let’s look at our villain, Bane, the one who brings on the film's revolution. He is a masked mercenary that fights for corporations to take land from others in order for the company to exploit it. This doesn’t sound like much of a Che, or a Trotsky, or Louis Riel character to me.
Fascist warlord, with some left-sounding rhetoric
Bane is a false populist, a mercenary for hire, things a genuinely left-leaning or progressive person wouldn't be. He works for a corporation and kills people who stand against it for money. He eventually takes over the corporation and blows up a bunch of buildings in Gotham too. At one scene of devastation in a stadium Bane tells the people of Gotham that he comes as a liberator. People in Gotham are probably wondering at this point: "How could this guy be liberating us by bombing and killing us and placing tanks on our streets?"
I think that Christopher Nolan has packed this film with political dramas, ideas and concepts. Gothamites get conquered by a warlord who manages to momentarily secede the city from the United States. He does this with a nuclear bomb. There's here an element of geo-politics, and how might makes right in global realpolitik. Bane is a mercenary with no political ideology from what I could tell; if anything I would argue a fascist interpretation.
Bane is essentially a strong man who is manipulating people and uses violence as a means of cementing his power. Fascists, although usually considered ultra right-wing, have historically used left-sounding rhetoric. They were also funded by corporations to come to power.
I'm just saying that maybe there’s more than one political message here. Or maybe it's pretentious and Nolan is just using political elements and themes, but not trying to give any message or moral per say. At the end of the day Bane really was just trying to blow everyone up.
The character of Selina Kyle, a character we sympathize with, appears to actually believe in equality, but was disillusioned with Stalin's -- I mean Bane's -- revolution. In many ways she represents the reality of poverty, something Bruce Wayne knows nothing about. She was a loner, and one act in particular in the film seems to echo another iconic character in cinema (particularly geek cinema).
So how do we read The Dark Knight Rises? I think that’s open to interpretation, at least to some extent. Let me also state that I agree with many of the points brought up by critics and commentators who see a film dedicated to critiquing the Left -- I just don't think it was the only metaphor or theme present. I wanted to open up some debate on my interpretations as well.
Finally, as a film, it was entertaining and had some amazing sequences and characters, especially Bane, played by Tom Hardy. Nothing can oudo Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight (2008), and ultimately that rendition of Joker will always be the most popular thing about Nolan's trilogy.
Jesse Zimmerman is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.