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Defending the Status Quo in The Dark Knight Rises

Jesse Russell

Abstract

Although not as popular or groundbreaking as his Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s 2012 The Dark Knight Rises is an important cultural artefact of the twenty-first century. The film presents a number of villains who challenge the corrupt social order of Gotham City, which itself stands as a figure for twenty-first century American capitalism. Nonetheless, despite these criticisms, the film upholds American neoliberalism as the best of many flawed systems.

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1Christopher Nolan’s 2012 The Dark Knight Rises is frequently overshadowed by its much more popular and critically acclaimed 2008 predecessor, The Dark Knight. Battered by criticism of the plot as well as complaints that the dialogue of Tom Hardy is unintelligible, The Dark Knight Rises is often presented as the “worst” of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which began with the 2005 Batman Begins. There are, however, critics who find The Dark Knight Rises to be a film very similar to the other two films, and, indeed, the most fertile film for political analysis—script writer Jonah Nolan himself has referred to the film as being “underrated” (qtd. in Shone 236). As Shone has remarked, The Dark Knight Rises is modeled after Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (235). Bane’s revolution is a (perhaps parodic) reframing of the French Revolution, which, at least in some of its forms, sought to retool the French and wider global social order into a radically egalitarian society. Director Christopher Nolan himself has remarked that the film is a “historical epic” and “disaster film” (Shone 235). Both Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight and Tom Hardy’s Bane’s rhetoric is very attractive to a host of individuals living in the postmodern and now postmillennial world, in which many feel a profound sense of alienation vis a vis the state apparatus. Nonetheless, as in The Dark Knight, in The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan ultimately seems to support the dominant Anglo-American order represented by Gotham.

1. Bane’s Seductive Rhetoric

2From his first appearance in the film, Bane presents himself as an adversary of the established order of Gotham as well as the United States. Bane and his mercenary crew, described as “Eastern Europeans” in the shooting script, are able to hijack a US military plane and to foil the plans of the CIA. When greeting the Russian nuclear physicist who will play a pronounced role in the plot, the character referred to as the “CIA Man” says, “Dr. Pavel, I’m CIA.” The CIA Man is standing confidently in front of the plane, certain that he and the American intelligence agencies have the power to nab terrorists. However, as in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the American (Gothamite) state apparatus does not have the power alone to stop Bane— ultimately, Batman must intervene. In this odd scene, the CIA man mimics Batman’s fatal flaw in that he does not kill his prisoners but merely threatens to do so. Martin Fradley writes that The Dark Knight as well as the wider trilogy “systematically fails to condemn torture per se as a moral, ethical, and political obscenity” (18). Regardless, Bane sees through his deception. When the CIA Man expresses his confusion why a hired gun will not talk, he says, “Lot of loyalty for a hired gun!” Bane responds with, “Or he’s wondering why someone would shoot a man before throwing him out of plane.” As in the other scenes in the film, the scrawny but big mouthed CIA agent cannot stand up to Bane’s intelligence or brutality demonstrated by Bane. Bane is both a reactionary and revolutionary force from the old world like the League of Shadows itself in Batman Begins. These people are dedicated to a cause greater than themselves, and their “plan” is more important than their individual worth. These figures like Ra’s al Ghul are dedicated to a plan higher than themselves. They represent an alternative but not necessarily better philosophical order than American liberalism, which Bane and his “mercenaries” challenge throughout the film.

3The stadium scene in which Bane exercises his control over Gotham is also a profound attack on an important American symbol. As the boy is singing “the star-spangled banner,” the football stadium in which the Gotham Rogues are playing collapses. Just as the Joker mocks American sports culture in The Dark Knight, Bane says, “let the games begin.” Bane attempts to destroy the entertainment complex of Gotham as America. Bane thinks that by destroying it he is liberating America. He tells them, “Gotham, take control of your city,” and the nuclear bomb is the “instrument of your liberation.” These scenes are interspersed with a pentagon war room filled with military personal and intelligence analysts. Bane is challenging the establishment of America and presenting himself and the League of Shadows as the new statement. He, like Joker, envisions himself as a purveyor of rival entertainment. He tells the people of the new game he has crafted. The bomb is “mobile,” and there is an anonymous “triggerman.” Bane further uses a deceptive revolutionary message, telling the people, “we come not as conquerors, but as liberators to return control of this city to the people.” The “triggerman” will be prompted to set off the bomb if there is “interference from the outside world or of people attempting to flee,” and, as Bane tells them, the people of Gotham should return to their homes, for “Tomorrow you claim what is rightfully yours.” His language is like Joker’s in The Dark Knight, and he utilizes the mockery of the image of the hero. In addition to physical attacks on American symbols, Bane’s attack on Gotham as America is also rhetorical.

4Much of the controversy over the film deals with the appeal of Bane. The neoconservative commentator John Podhoretz, writing in The Weekly Standard, argues that Nolan put “the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the mouth of” Bane. Slavoj Žižek countered in The New Statesman that the fact that Bane’s rhetoric and (temporary) revolutionary success was a radical gesture by Nolan, for in the age of “capitalist realism” even the mention of socialist ideas is a dangerous violation of a taboo. Taking note of Donald Trump’s use of Bane’s rhetoric in his campaign, Tom Shone argues in The Nolan Variations that “[j]ust as Burke predicted the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, so The Dark Knight Rises could take some credit for intuiting the seismic shifts that would lead to the election of Donald Trump” (251).

5Christopher Nolan, however, made it clear that the film is about “a demagogue,” and Bane is the “bad guy” of the film, further arguing that he was trying to capture the psychological or emotional zeitgeist of the period immediately following the 2008 financial crash. Nolan further told Tom Shone, “The film was not supposed to be political. It’s not intended to be; it’s about primal fears. At the time we were writing there was this sense of false calm; everything things okay, we got through the financial crisis, but there are underlying things brewing that could lead to difficult places” (qtd. in Shone 252). In the above quoted interview with Tom Shone, Nolan both recognizes and denies the political implications of the film, stating that although “The Occupy Wall Street movement was right there,” the films in the Dark Knight series are not “political acts”; The Dark Knight Rises in particular is about “the upending of society” (246). Nolan, in an earlier 2008 interview with IndieLondon, had stated that he and his cowriters “try and be pretty rigidly not aware and no conscious of real world parallels in things we’re doing.” Nonetheless, Shone argues, “Written as the 2008 financial collapse began to rumble and shot as Occupy Wall Street movement gathered strength, The Dark Knight Rises shrewdly intuits the press points of the postindustrial economy with its vision of a modern American city torn apart by internecine class warfare” (246). Nolan, who has made a tremendous amount of money from the Dark Knight Franchise, solidifying himself as a “blockbuster” director, may simply being trying to deflect a political reading of the film that would alienated some movie goers. Despite such apparent deflections, The Dark Knight Rises is a deeply political film.

6Benjamin Winterhalter, however, argues that Nolan’s film is more about psychology than it is about politics, and the film’s “political message… is decidedly psychological; it is the politics of the inner: We can only resolve the thorny political questions in which we inevitably become entangled by first tending to our inner lives” (1046). Perhaps the most controversial suggestion is that all of these readings have some truth to them. Bane’s rhetoric is seductive and compelling, and much of the film is about psychological growth—although Winterhalter may be incorrect in seeing Batman’s transition into a more “moderate” conservative. The Dark Knight Rises, like The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, however, ultimately affirms the dominant order that Gotham represents and Batman protects.

7In contrast, Martin Fradley argues that Bane is whatever the viewer wants him to be

rather than having any legible political viewpoint, The Dark Knight Rises deliberately concedes to the individual viewer the authority to decide what it means. One might find in Bane a psychotic radical leftist whose muffled, incoherent proclamations and violent agenda provide a prohegemonic caricature of oppositional politics. Equally, the film deliberately grants Bane more than enough ingenuity, intelligence, and pathos, to allow a less conservative viewer to interpret him as a heroic martyr. (18-10)

8Nonetheless, Fradley concludes that The Dark Knight Rises quashes “the insurrectionary flames in the interests of an unconvincing and untenable status quo” (27). Nolan himself seems to affirm this view of Batman as a champion of the established order, writing in his forward to Jody Duncan Jesser and Janine Pourroy’s The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy, “Gotham was rotting away at its foundations. A new evil bubbling up from beneath. Bruce had thought Batman was not needed any more, but Bruce was wrong… The Batman had to come back.” There is a clear statement here of Bane’s revolutionary ethos as being ultimately evil—despite its allure. Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises might be “polyphonic” and not easily categorized as political propaganda, but it is, nonetheless, a work that affirms the established order.

9Although overshadowed by Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hardy’s Bane and his rebranded “League of Shadows,” presents a powerful argument for its own case. Bane’s recruits are among the poor and marginalized of Gotham as well as Orientalized European, Asian, and African mercenaries. Bane and his crew live in the sewers of Gotham and are frequently shown preparing denotations throughout the city of Gotham. As Shone notes, “[t]he idea of self-detonating buildings is purest Nolan: both constructivist and deconstructivist urges combined.… The Dark Knight Rises is a thunderous paean to unbuilding, detonation, demolition” (249). Bane, however, is not simply a destroyer and builder; he is a master of political rhetoric. He is able to move the people (including the audience) with his words and manipulate them with promises of a utopia.

10Perhaps the most famous piece of rhetoric is Bane’s Blackgate prison speech. After seizing Gotham, Bane comes to Gotham’s prison and announces to its people: “Behind you stands a symbol of oppression. Blackgate Prison.” This statement has been voiced by left wing as well as various black nationalist groups for generations. The prison system in America (Gotham) is ultimately corrupt and built on lies. Bane goes on to explain that Blackgate is a place where “a thousand men have languished for years. Under the Dent Act.” The prisoners are in fact victims of an unjust system. Bane emphasizes that the prisoners have been held under the name of Harvey Dent, who was held up “as a shining example of justice.” However, in the key of Nietzsche and a host of deconstructionists who followed in his wake, Bane announces, “You have been supplied with a false idol,” ripping up the picture of Dent and exclaiming, “to stop you tearing down this corrupt city.” Bane’s rhetoric is deceiving. It is true that elements of Gotham are corrupt, but police commissioner Jim Gordon, who hid helped Batman to hide Harvey Dent’s crimes, has sacrificed him as well as Bruce Wayne for the sake of the city. Also, Bane does not simply want Blackgate prison torn down, but the whole system.

11Bane does reveal the truth of what happened. Bane unveils an inconvenient truth that Gordon himself had hoped to reveal. The Dent Act is thus simultaneously good and bad in as much as it did imprison genuine criminals, but it also harshly imprisoned potentially good men like the prisoners who prevent the ferry explosion in The Dark Knight. Reading from Jim Gordon’s letter, Bane says, “The Batman didn’t murder Harvey Dent—he saved my boy. Then took the blame for Harvey’s appalling crimes, so that I could, to my shame, build a lie around this fallen idol.” The idol of Dent here represents various institutional powers that keep peace and order in society. Bane’s revelation of the corruption of the system is an unveiling or disclosing of truth, but it is a painful truth that may have been better hidden. Bane further quotes Jim Gordon, “I praised the madman who tried to murder my own child.” This line is very curious in light of the revelation that Barbara, Commissioner Gordon’s wife, left him and moved to Cleveland; she was perhaps all too aware of Gordon’s lie and hypocrisy, and Jim Gordon’s willingness to sacrifice the truth for Gotham. Reading Jim Gordon’s words, he further argues that he can no longer live with his lie and must resign. Jim Gordon did not resign for a variety of reasons. Perhaps he wanted to retain power. Perhaps he genuinely wanted to help Gotham. We know that Gordon’s kindness was appreciated by Batman, who, in The Dark Knight Rises, thanks Gordon for comforting a young Bruce Wayne after his parents had died. Perhaps he, like many of Nolan’s characters, was addicted to the thrill of the chase: in much of the films Gordon is helping Batman chase down villains and even fakes his own death in The Dark Knight in order to help catch the Joker. The ambiguity here is the film’s overall point as it is for all of his characters in his films: the truth of the matter is ultimately complicated.

12Bane, despite some sympathetic depictions of him later when Miranda reveals herself as Talia al Ghul, has corrupt intentions in his seizure of Gotham—however strong his criticisms of Gotham might be. Once unearthing the corruption of Gotham, Bane hopes to exploit the situation for his benefit, like Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow, and the Joker, and to topple the entire system. “Do you accept this man’s resignation? Do you accept the resignation of all the liars?! All the corrupt?!” Bane is not entirely wrong here. The Dent Act and much of Gotham’s functioning is built on a lie. Batman is built on a lie. All of these figures are corrupt and are “liars.” However, perhaps the central theme of all of Nolan’s film is that everyone is a liar. Everyone, from Memento’s Leonard Shelby to Insomnia’s Will Dormer to Inception’s Dominic Cobb, grasp hold of a lie that they desire in order to give meaning to their happiness. What Bane is doing is simply focusing on one of the many lies that structure much of social reality. This is not to suggest that all ideas are lies or that Nolan does not believe in truth. Rather, it is to suggest that Nolan, throughout his films, points to the tenuousness of truth.

13The rookie orphan cop Blake points out the terrible nature of the Dent Act and the consequences it had on the men who were sent to prison: “These men, locked up in Blackgate for eight years, denied parole under the Dent Act. Based on a lie.” This passage is important because Gotham is, in effect, acting like the League of Shadows in as much as it is exercised brutal (legal) force to keep order. As in Nolan’s earlier Insomnia, a lie cannot last forever. Jim Gordon attempts to defend his actions, saying, “Gotham needed a hero.” The manufacturing of the hero, which cost Gordon his family, now is revealed to be a lie. Blake tells Gordon, “It needs it now more than ever. You betrayed everything you stood for.” Gordon explains, “There’s a point. Far out there. When the structures fail you. When the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re shackles, letting the bad get ahead. Maybe one day you’ll have such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did. To plunge their hands into the filth so you can keep yours clean.” This is the noble lie with which Jim Gordon has lived. The rule of law is effective only to a point; eventually, one must cross over the law in order to affect a greater good. However, this crossing of the law has consequences which Gordon and the city of Gotham must reap. Moreover, as Blake tells Gordon: “Your hands look pretty filthy to me, Commissioner.” There are few “innocents” in the Nolanverse. Some are perhaps more noble than others.

14Bane, however, sees things, like Ra’s al Ghul before him, in purer terms. There are corrupt and noble people. There are those who must be destroyed and purified. This does not mean that Bane considers himself to be among the pure, but his “plan” is pure. In his Blackgate speech, Bane tells the people of Gotham that he will take Gotham and give it to the people, allowing them a Saturnalia: “We take Gotham from the corrupt. The rich. The oppressors of generations who’ve kept you down with the myth of opportunity. And we give it to you, the people. Gotham is yours none shall interfere. Do as you please.” Bane’s critique, repeated by various left and right wing revolutionaries, is that Gotham has oppressed the people and given them false idols to adore and empty promises. This is not entirely false, Selena Kyle, Joker, and a host of other figures have echoed this point. The very existence of the “narrows” in contrast to the opulence of Wayne Manor in Batman Begins echoes this point. However, Bane himself is a false idol or at least the creator of false idols, and the Anglo-American order, reflected in Gotham, is something worth fighting for. Bane provides a whole series of lies and half truths to seduce the people of Gotham into overthrowing the established order. He commands them: “But start by storming Blackgate and freeing the oppressed... Step forward, those who would serve. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests and cast into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. the police survive as they learn to serve true justice. This great city. It will endure. Gotham will survive.” This is all an elaborate lie, for Bane plans on destroying the whole city.

2. Selina Kyle and the Second Voice of the Proletariat

15On one hand, the shots of poor and working class people storming the homes of the urban rich are disturbing and depict the common people of Gotham stealing from the rich as being the acts of vicious animals. Bane’s mercenaries give military grade weapons to the prisoners of Blackgate. An elderly wealthy man is drug out from under his dresser by marauding citizens, and a woman in a fur coat is drug away by what looks like her doorman. However, the film’s depiction of the working class is complicated. Selina Kyle herself is a figure for the revolutionary working class as well. She kidnaps a congressman, outfoxes the mob, and penetrates Wayne Manor, stealing Martha Wayne’s pearl neckless. She also outfoxes the police, feigning a damsel in distress pose. She and her friend Jen rob a “yuppie” of his watch and $60. Bruce Wayne and Selena argue during the ball, and her class consciousness and insecurity come to the surface. Noticing her cat ears, Wayne says, “Brazen costume for a cat burglar.” Selina responds, “Yeah? Who are you pretending to be?” Wayne states, “Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire.” This line is ironic, for the “real” Bruce Wayne is something and somebody else. It may be Batman, or it may be the scared boy who never grew up after his parents death, but the eccentric billionaire is a role that Bruce plays.

16He then asks Selina who her date is. She responds, “His wife’s in Ibiza. She left her diamonds behind, though. Worried they’d get stolen.” Throughout the film, Selina has advanced through her wit and ability to subvert the system. However, Bruce unmasks her and humiliates her noting, “It’s pronounced ‘Ibeetha.’ You wouldn’t want these folks realizing you’re a crook not a social climber.” The shooting script refers to Selina as being overcome with a “flash of anger.” In order to defend herself, Selina questions, “You think I care what anyone in this room thinks about me?” Bruce responds with some sarcasm, “I doubt you care what anyone in any room thinks of you.” Selina defends herself: “Don’t condescend, Mr. Wayne. You don’t know a thing about me.” Most of the villains in The Dark Knight trilogy have mysterious pasts that enable to slip away from being easily categorized. Like the other villains, Selina thinks this protects her. This scene echoes the dance between Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, although Pfeiffer’s Kyle is more bluntly aggressive, pulling out a gun to kill the robber baron Max Shreck.

17In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce, however, has used his surveillance technology to gather information about Selina, which he presents in an insulting manner: “Well, Selina Kyle, I know you came here from your walk-up in Old Town—modest place for a master jewel thief. Which means either you’re saving for your retirement—or you’re in deep with the wrong people.” Bruce Wayne is uncharacteristically snobbish toward her, but he pushes the right buttons with Selina. Moreover, we here clearly see the social divide of Gotham, which has been present throughout all three. Ra’s al Ghul, The Joker and Bane have some validity to their claims of the corruption within Gotham’s class divide. Selina gives a typical response that Bruce was simply born into power: “You don’t get to judge me because you were born in the master bedroom of Wayne Manor.” Bruce responds with even further condescension: “Actually, I was born in the Regency Room.” Selina then, à la Fredrich Engels and Alain Badiou, shows Bruce the reality of the poor, which the rich often cannot see, explaining, “I started off doing what I had to. Once you’ve done what you had to they’ll never let you do what you want to.”

18They then discuss the problem of being a criminal in a digital world with Selina saying, “There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did. Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks.” Selina curiously is describing what the audience knows what Bruce and Lucius did in The Dark Knight; she is one of the people who are victims of the surveillance grid that the establishment (of which Bruce is a part) laid over the people of Gotham. Wayne calls her actions “stealing,” while Selina explains, “I take what I need to from those who have more than enough. I don’t stand on the shoulders of people with less.” Wayne mockingly asks, “Robin Hood?” Selina, however, responds, “I think I do more to help someone than most of the people in this room. Than you.” Rob White, in an interview in Film Quarterly, states, “in terms of outright political content, it’s surely Selina Kyle… who gives Robin Hood-style voice to Occupy’s ideas about economic equality.” On one level, the audience knows this is false: Bruce Wayne has given nearly literally everything for Gotham. Wayne himself states, “you think you’re assuming maybe a little too much.” Neither Selina or Bane are entirely accurate in their understanding of Gotham or Bruce Wayne. He, along with Jim Gordon and others, sacrifice themselves for the city.

19Selina attacks the rich as being just rich, but she is assuming. Thus, the film appears to be defending the wealthy establishment. Whatever the criticism the villains have of the establishment, the establishment itself must remain in power. Selina even explicitly threatens to overthrow the establishment: “You think all 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 to the rest of us.” This is a threat to the established (Anglo-)American order, just like the one Bane provides. This threat is, in fact, realized in all three of The Dark Knight films. In each film, the villain presents a convincing case that the corruption in Gotham must be upended, but, in the end, the audience is drawn back to supporting Batman’s re-establishment of the status quo. In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne comments, “Sounds like you’re looking forward to it.” Selina responds, “I’m adaptable.” What Selina does not realize is that Bruce Wayne is Batman and is adaptable. In a profoundly symbolic gesture, the wealthy Bruce Wayne reasserts his rule over the poor Selina, telling her “These pearls do look better on you then they did in my safe.” He says, “But I still can’t let you keep them,” taking them from her. Selena then upends Wayne by stealing his Lamborghini.

20Later, after Bane seizes power over Gotham, Selina’s comments are revisited as she realizes that the rich of Gotham are more complex than she initially thought. Foraging through the apartment of a wealthy family, Selina and her friend Jen comment on a destroyed framed picture of a family. Selina states, “This was someone’s home.” Using communitarian language, Jen responds, “Now it’s everyone’s home.” She further refers back to Selina’s own words: “‘Storm’s coming,’ remember? This is what you wanted.” The message here is that she did not get what she wanted. Revolutions do not usually grant what they promise and the new situation, in Nolan’s view, is worse than the previous. However, this does not mean that Gotham and the America that it represents are not beyond reproach in The Dark Knight Rises.

3. The Unmasking of the Law

21The Dark Knight Rises begins with a partial lie. Commissioner Gordon says that he knew Harvey Dent and was his friend, “And it will be a very long time before someone inspires us the way he did.” Gordon’s statement here is not a total lie. He did, indeed, know Harvey Dent, whose actions were initially well intentioned in trying to clean up Gotham—although we do see that the inmates whom Dent locked up prove themselves to have noble qualities in the boat scene. Gordon further states, “I believed in Harvey Dent.” This is clearly a connection with the “silent protector” scene at the end of The Dark Knight. The audience knows that, upon becoming Two Face, Harvey Dent became a murderer and even threatened Jim Gordon’s family. However, Dent’s noble lie was necessary to reward the faith of the people of Gotham. On the other hand, this noble lie is constantly under threat and must be countered by the Gotham PD, the military and intelligence agencies—specially the Central Intelligence Agency in the dark Knight trilogy, as the next scene, which has Bane and his minions destroy a CIA plane and upend the CIA’s “plan,” a popular and important word in The Dark Knight trilogy. Within the Blackgate prison speech, we also see the unraveling of the lie of Harvey Dent. The people of Gotham (and the people of the world) learn that Harvey Dent was in fact a murderer and that Jim Gordon lied to them. While it would be foolish to commit the cardinal sin of criticism and look for real world parallels between post 9/11 American The Dark Knight Rises (although many have done so), there is nonetheless a parallel between the sense of anger and frustration at both the Bush and Obama administration’s seeming deceptions and failures in the prosecution of the War on Terror.

22Despite this disenchantment, Nolan crafts in his film a vision of the importance of the political and social order of Gotham. While celebrating “Harvey Dent Day,” the mayor says, “Harvey Dent’s uncompromising stand against organized crime and, yes, ultimately, his sacrifice, have made Gotham a safer place than it was at the time of his death, eight years ago.” This is a paradox, for, like Batman, the “uncompromising stand” of Harvey Dent ultimately led to his downfall and threatened Batman’s own. The major enumerates several positive outcomes of the Dent Act: “This city has seen a historic turnaround. No city is without crime. But this city is without organized crime because the Dent Act gave law enforcement teeth in its fight against the mob. Now people are talking about repealing the Dent Act. And to them I say... not on my watch.” In this case, the teeth are not simply strict laws, but also the violence of the state and its adjutant, Batman.

23As the mayor notes, Bruce Wayne is paying for the event: “I want to thank the Wayne Foundation for hosting this event. I’m told Mr. Wayne couldn’t be here tonight, but I’m sure he’s with us in spirit.” Wayne’s money has paid for the event, but the money of the establishment of Gotham (America) is not enough to protect the people of Gotham from figures like Bane. It is Batman who is needed, a person the Mayor ironically calls a murderous thug in a mask and a cape. A thug who showed his true nature when he betrayed the trust of this great man…. And murdered him in cold blood.” The irony is here, as the audience knows that it was Batman who was able to protect Gotham and defeat the mob and then Joker. However, the noble lie is necessary to prop up the state.

24Interestingly, the film shows that the description of the “enemy” can also be a lie as well since Batman is somewhat innocent of the accusations the mayor levies against him. There is an ironic and tense scene in which the Mayor says, “Jim Gordon can tell you the truth about Harvey Dent…. But I’ll let him tell you himself—Commissioner Gordon?” Gordon explains, “I have written a speech telling the truth about Harvey Dent.” However, he states, “Maybe the time isn’t right.” These comments in the film are interspersed with images of the wild Two-Face threatening Gordon’s son. The repressed does return, but it can only be hidden for a brief while. Gordon continues, “Maybe right now all you need to know is that there are a thousand inmates in Blackgate Prison as a direct result of the Dent Act. These are violent criminals, essential cogs in the organized crime machine.... Maybe, for now, all I should say about Harvey Dent’s death is this...it has not been for nothing.” The truth will eventually come out, but there is a time for the lie to stabilize the social order.

4. The Need for Order

25The importance of the Batman myth and the broader myth of the hero in the work of Christopher Nolan is emphasized in the scene in which John Blake meets Bruce Wayne and reveals that he knows that Wayne is Batman. Like Wayne, Blake is an orphan and he understands the pain of losing one’s family as he tells Bruce Wayne, “See, my mom died when I was small. Car accident, I don’t really remember it. But a couple of years later my dad was shot over a gambling debt. I remember that just fine. Not a lot of people who what it feels like, do they? To be angry. In your bones. People understand, foster parents understand. For a while. Then they expect the angry kid to do what he knows he can never do. To move on. To forget.” He has been traumatized, but he turned to a life of service of the state and others as opposed to a life of crime like Scarecrow, Joker, Ra’s al Ghul, etc. He further explains that he understands the importance of masks and lies. Blake tells Wayne, “We made up stories about you. Legends. The other boys’ stories were just that. But when I saw you I knew who you really were.... I’d seen that look on your face. Same one I taught myself. I don’t know why you took the fall for Dent’s murder, but I’m still a believer in the Batman. Even if you’re not.” Batman is something bigger than Bruce Wayne. In The Dark Knight, there is a famous scene in which the police discuss the investigation into who Batman is, and the camera pans to a board with images of Elvis, Bigfoot, and Abraham Lincoln. Although perhaps simply humorous, this scene also refers to Batman’s status as a mythic figure like Bigfoot, an American celebrity like Elvis, and an enforcer of the law through “extra-legal” means like Abraham Lincoln. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s money is necessary to help the orphans of Gotham, and the image of Batman as the defender of Gotham is essential for the city’s functioning.

26However, it is hard for Bruce to return. He very much represents the post 9-11 European and American male who is wounded by desires to keep fighting. As Alfred tells Bruce, “That was then. And you can strap up your leg and put the mask back on. But it won’t make you what you were.” Nevertheless, Wayne tells Alfred that he wants to keep fighting to protect Gotham from Bane: “If this man is all the things you say he is, then this city needs me.” Alfred, on the other hand, envisions Bruce Wayne as a philanthropist as opposed to the brutal Batman, as he tells Bruce: “This city needs Bruce Wayne. Your resources, your knowledge. It doesn’t need your body or your life. That time has passed.” Wayne, nonetheless, sees the social order of Gotham as being flawed and in need of help.

27The police are not entirely trustworthy and there is a need for Batman to support the system. When Wayne returns as Batman, Alfred questions him on it being the police should be gathering the evidence. However, Bruce responds, “They don’t have the tools to analyze it.” Alfred retorts, “They would if you gave them to them.” Bruce Wayne, however, does not trust the police, stating, “One man’s tool is another man’s weapon.” After some banter, Wayne further states, “The police weren’t getting it done.” Alfred notes that Bruce must become something more powerful than the Batman he is in order to beat Bane. Showing Bruce a surveillance video of Bane, Alfred says, “Take a good look. At his speed, his ferocity, His training. I see the power of belief. Of the fanatic. I see the League of Shadows resurgent.” This scene precipitates the revelation that Rachel left Bruce for Harvey Dent and the split with Alfred. Bruce must once again hit a low point in order to come back stronger. He must confront the truth. As Alfred says, “I’m using the truth, Master Wayne. Maybe it’s time we all stopped trying to outsmart the truth and just let it have its day.” The truth must be kept away from the people at times, but it is something the hero must confront. Bane is a new devil who resembles the earlier fears of bats that Bruce thought he could overcome. He must become a better version of Bane like he became a better version of the bat in order to fight Bane. However, Bane is something new and more powerful.

28Throughout Batman Begins, Scarecrow was able to play upon the fears of his victims. For Bruce, there was a connection between bats, the death of his parents, and the devils in the Mefistofele opera that the Wayne family was watching the night the parents were killed. There is thus a sense in which Bruce’s maturation includes overcoming the fear of the devil. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is this devil. This reality is emphasized in the scene in which he murders Daggett. When Daggett expresses his frustration at Miranda Tate’s rise to power, asking where Bane is, Bane announces, “Speak of the devil… and he shall appear.” Like the mobsters in The Dark Knight, Daggett must learn that there is a “plan” bigger than his own greed. As Bane, says, “The plan is proceeding as expected.” Bane shows his tremendous strength, asking Dagget, “Do you feel in charge?” Daggett attempts to reason with Bane over money, telling him, “I’ve paid you a small fortune.” Bane however, responds, “And that gives you power over me?” The plan is bigger than Daggett’s financial scheming. Also brute force is more powerful than money. Bane explains, “Your money and infrastructure have been important. Till now.” When Daggett asks, “What are you?” Bane explains, “I’m Gotham’s reckoning. Come to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on.” Unable to understand this evil force, Daggett calls Bane “pure evil,” while Bane responds, “I am necessary evil.” This scene shows that there are forces more powerful than money and, as we will see, even more powerful than military and police force. Rob White describes Bane as “a Shock Doctrine fundamentalist, who wants to use Gotham as a lab to see what happens when people are no longer shackled by regulation.” Mark Fisher, however, refers to the Bane’s plan as “fascist project” (“The Politics of ‘The Dark Knight Rises:’ A Discussion”). Whether a devil or a fascist, Bane is something, like Joker, outside of capitalism. This scene immediately contrasted with Bruce Wayne and Blake talking about the mask. Like Joker, Bane is outside the capitalist system. So, however, is Batman, who protects the system. Ultimately, he tells Blake, “The idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody, that was the point.” Batman tries to protect while Bane hurts; Batman uses compassion; Bane uses violence and pain. Nonetheless Batman must get stronger.

29Wayne, like the “Last Man” living at the “end of history,” has gotten weak and frail after the victory of the Cold War. As Bane tells him:” Peace has cost you strength. Victory has defeated you.” When Batman attempts to use the tricks he learned in the League of Shadows, they do not work on Bane as the brute explains, “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents… to the uninitiated…. But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?” Moreover, Batman’s fighting is immature as well: “You fight like a younger man with nothing held back. Admirable. But mistaken.” Finally, Batman attempts to utilize the darkness he befriend, but, again, Bane has a response, taunting him, “You think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it. Molded by it.... I didn’t see the light until I was already a man. And by then it was nothing to me but blinding.” Bane is smarter than Bruce. Bruce’s methods that were used to defeat Scarecrow and Joker no longer work. Something else is needed. Bruce needs a greater spiritual and physical strength, and he must thus go back to the Old World to find it, Bane tells Bruce: “I will show you where I’ve made my home while preparing to bring justice. Then... I will break you.” During this scene, Bane also steals American technology, stating, “Your precious armory. Gratefully accepted. We will need it.” Bane pulls off Batman’s mask. He is the deconstructionist who unveils and destroys, but returning to the East is what makes Batman strong.

30When he brings Bruce East, Bane further explains how the pit transformed him and how he will use it to destroy Bruce; he tells Bruce that is where he “learned the truth about despair.” He will give Bruce the illusion of hope with the light coming down from the well and with the people of Gotham as well. He will make them “believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamber over each other to stay in the sun.... You will watch as I torture an entire city to cause you pain you thought you could never feel again. Then, when you have truly understood the depths of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny. We will destroy Gotham. And when it is done...when Gotham is ashes...then you have my permission to die.” Bane here reveals that he does not believe in the goodness of the people but has a fundamentally reactionary worldview. The people are in fact animals, but it is Bane who has reduced them to this state, not Gotham or Wayne, or Anglo-American capitalism.

31The fact that Bane wants to destroy Gotham as well makes him a villain. Batman thinks he can reform Gotham. Bruce Wayne is stripped of wealth. There must be more to Batman, Bruce Wayne, Gotham, and America than its wealth and technology, which can be appropriated and taken away. Wayne must reorientalize himself and relearn the teaching of the east. This is demonstrated in his ability to make the climb. The prisoner in the pit contrasts Wayne with the child who escaped who is “No ordinary child.... A child born in hell. A child forged by suffering, hardened by pain.... Not a man from privilege.” Wayne was born into privilege but his suffering strengthened him; he proves he is just as strong as the reactionary Old World by climbing out of the pit.

5. Joining with the State

32While he is gone, the American military apparatus tries to protect Gotham. In The Dark Knight Rises, the military comes in on bridges with conventional weapons. However, as Bane’s lead mercenary tells them: “Tanks and planes cannot stop us detonating our device.” The police and the military can help, but Gotham needs something more. The film reinforces the idea that Gotham is representative of the United States when the President of the United States (William Davane) refers to Gotham as America’s “greatest city” and using language redolent of that used for New York after 9/11: “The people of our greatest city are resilient. They have proven this before, they will prove this again.” He further states in very post-9/11 terms: “We do not negotiate with terrorists, but we do recognize realities.” Like the terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Bane’s mercenaries are trying to topple a powerful symbol of America. However, like Occupy Wall Street and other revolutionaries, they are trying to establish a new order. Interesting, as Martin Fradley notes, there is a further connection between The Dark Knight Rises and terrorism, for, during a screening of the film in Aurora, Colorado, a young man named James Holmes killed 12 people, “resulting in a tragedy that doubled as something of a grim metaphor for the fate of a generation doomed to be lost in the long-term socio-economic aftermath of the global economic meltdown” (15). The Dark Knight thus became an important culture touchstone in the rise in domestic terrorism in the United States as lethal violence committed either for political or personal motives increased in frequency. Fradley further comments that “the massacre of a predominately youthful audience became synergistically incorporated into the promotional machine of The Dark Knight Rises when widely disseminated footage of millionaire actor Christian Bale, visiting survivors in the hospital, uncannily mirrored images’ of Bale’s character, philanthropic capitalist Bruce Wayne, in Nolan’s trilogy” (15). The key point here is that regardless of Nolan’s intent, The Dark Knight trilogy is charged with a political messaging that was in (occasionally violent) dialogue with day to day “current events” in America.

33One of the most pronounced and explicitly political scenes in the film is when one of Bane’s mercenaries arrests Jim Gordon. After the mercenary places him under arrest, Gordon asks, “On whose authority?” The mercenary responds, “The people of Gotham.” This scenario has been repeated throughout various revolutionary events in which the power that was previously in authority is overturned, and a new government is established in the name of the “people.” Bane’s mercenaries here represent a direct challenge to the system of Gotham, which itself is an image of America. When he is standing before Jonathan Crane’s court, Gordon asks, “No lawyer, no witnesses. What sort of due process is this?” Here the film is pointing out that the allegedly egalitarian regime of Bane is in fact a draconian and illiberal state far worse than the corrupt Gotham—in The Dark Knight, there was a lot of talk of “lawyers,” which were even provided to the mob. Crane’s response, in the shooting script, packs a much bigger punch than the lines that made it to the big screen. In the shooting script, the initial script used for production prior to changes, Crane says, “More than you give Harvey’s prisoners, Commissioner.” This is a direct and perhaps even a legitimate critique of Gotham’s harsh criminal justice system. In the film, Crane responds, “Your guilt is determined, this is merely a sentencing hearing. What’s it to be, death or exile?” The only option in Bane’s system, which is far worse than the admittedly harsh system of Gotham is death. Crane frames his court as a revolutionary tribunal seeking justice for the poor and accuses Philip Stryver of having “lived like a prince off the blood and sweat of people less powerful.” The sentence meted out to Stryver is unfair, but it resonates better with the viewers, Philip Stryver had himself helped to bring about Bane’s reign, and, like the other mobsters in the Nolanverse, he serves as a symbol of capitalism without a conscience or the shadow side of Anglo-American liberalism. This dual nature of capitalism or perhaps the wider reality of political power is further represented by the nuclear fusion reactor in the film, which can either be a bomb or a source of clean energy depending in whose hands it ends up. The rule of Bane is, as Blake himself says to the special forces soldiers who attempt to liberate Gotham, the rule of a “warlord” under a “failed state.”

34Nonetheless, once again, the film emphasizes the fact even though Gotham itself is corrupt and harsh and built on lies, it is far better than the alternatives. As Peter Foley says when charging Bane’s mercenaries: “There’s only one police in this city.” Foley makes the ultimate sacrifice for Gotham, giving his life, and there is some irony in this, for as Cat woman states, she and Batman may be “suckers” for sacrificing themselves for Gotham. A likely hallucination of Ra’s al Ghul tempts Bruce while he is hanging from a rope in the pit attempting to fix his back: “You yourself fought the decadence of Gotham for years. With all your strength and resources, all your moral authority. And the only victory you could achieve was a lie. Finally, you understand...Gotham is beyond saving. And must be allowed to die.” This belief has been disproven frequently throughout The Dark Knight. There are wicked elements in Gotham, but there is good as well, and the American system, of which Gotham is a part and which the city symbolizes, best enables these good elements to flourish. As Talia notes, like her father before her, Gotham is not “innocent,” but contrary to the belief of the Joker in The Dark Knight, it is redeemable.

6. A Tale of Two (Imagined) Cities

35The ending sequence of The Dark Knight Rises seeks to recapture the pathos of The Dark Knight’s own powerful closing, which helped shape the understanding of the image of the hero in the film. However, the ending of The Dark Knight is more about the city of Gotham than it is about the legend of Batman. While the shots of the poor and working-class districts of Gotham pan on screen, Commissioner Gordon reads from Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.” As the Gotham PD patrol around the defeated and apprehended mercenaries of Bane’s rebranded League of Shadows, Gordon continues with the extract from Dickens: “I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.” While Gordon further reads, we eventually see he is reading in the family cemetery at Wayne Manor: “I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” Both Gordon and Bruce Wayne have sacrificed themselves and their families for the sake of Gotham. Just as the rescue of Gotham would not have been possible without Batman, so too were Gordon and Lucius Fox and a host of other unsung heroes necessary for the continuation of Gotham. The scene is thus connected to Batman’s earlier statement to Gordon: “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” Who Batman is does not matter. Nolan is inviting the audience to be a hero as well—Nolan had played with this idea in Inception and would revisit it in Tenet. In Nolan’s view, the hero must serve the system while occasionally clashing with and transgressing it.

36This point is reiterated in the initiation of Blake aka Robin into the world of Batman. After quitting, Blake tells Gordon that he cannot work within the system of the Gotham PD due to its corruption: “What you said about structures. About shackles. I can’t take it. The injustice.” He further explains his frustration at how noble lies are necessary for the functioning of Gotham, telling Gordon, “I mean… no one’s ever going to know who saved an entire city.” Gordon responds with “They know. It was Batman.” However, it is important to note that Commissioner Gordon is not clapping when the Batman statue is unveiled at the end of the film. Perhaps Gordon himself realizes the ultimate hollowness of many political symbols. Nonetheless, there is another sense in which Batman is a symbol that must be maintained in order for Gotham to function. The image of the hero must be upheld and then filled by heroes who come every generation in order to do good—this point is emphasized by Nolan’s ending shots of the orphans in the school bus, who, like Blake and Bruce Wayne, could possibly become the next generation of heroes. The final shots of Gordon patting a new Batsignal as well as Blake entering the Batman cave further emphasize this idea. There is also a curious link with the historic black American football player who affects a similar pose as Robin after the Bane blows up Gotham stadium. This is an interestingly link between the continuation of Batman and a revolutionary ethos—especially in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick protests. Like Batman those who kneeled in protest of the National Anthem found themselves simultaneously part of the American system and in an act of rebellion against it.

37Finally, however, the scene of Bruce and Selina in Florence is itself another noble lie. Some critics have even suggested that this scene is merely Alfred’s imagination. In The Traumatic Screen, Stuart Joy argues that this scene, since it is shot from Alfred’s point of view, “undermines its own structure as an object reality, especially when considered in relation to Alfred’s own experience of trauma regarding Wayne’s apparent death” (66). Moreover, the film introduces the notion of a hallucination with Bruce’s vision of Ra’s al Ghul in the pit. Nonetheless, as with Inception, for Nolan the answer does not matter. Certainly, Bruce and Selina are two very wounded individuals, who have likely lost all their money and will have a rough go of it together. However, the happy ending of them together in Florence validates the notion that everyone can be a hero and change—and is capable of good. And all of this is made possible by the American liberal capitalist order that the heroes of Gotham defend.

7. Conclusion

38To argue that Christopher Nolan ultimately supports a frail and deeply corrupt (Anglo-) American world order in The Dark Knight Rises (and his other films) is not to claim that the Anglo-American director is a propagandist. Rather, it is to contend that Nolan’s films depict American late capitalism as the best of a series of bad systems. The Dark Knight Rises, in a certain sense, is a validation of Mark Fischer’s notion of “capitalist realism” or zombie capitalism. As Fisher notes, “Since 2008, neoliberalism might have been deprived of the feverish forward momentum it once possessed, but it is nowhere near collapsing. Neoliberalism now shambles on a zombie” (“How to kill a zombie”). Many across the world have realized the limits of capitalism and neoliberalism, but they are unable to see an alternative. As Fisher state writes, “It is by no means clear that the public has ever embraced neoliberal doctrines with much enthusiasm—but what people have been persuaded of is the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberalism” (“How to kill a zombie”). The Dark Knight Rises trilogy, although entertaining various revolutionary ideas, ultimately shows the viewer there is no alternative to the capitalist world order that Gotham represents.

39In The Dark Knight Rises, although built on a series of (noble) lies, Gotham as a symbol of America is a place that allows anyone to be a hero, and its leadership, although corrupt, contains a number of unsung heroes. This system is challenged from without and within by various reactionary and revolutionary forces, represented in various forms by Talia al Ghul, Bane, Selina Kyle, as well as the various members of the marginalized poor and working class who are drawn into their orbit. It is not as though these villains are entirely incorrect in their critique of Gotham. However, the alternatives that they provide are ultimately far more brutal and worse than the America that Gotham represents, which despite its flaws, is still, in the film’s view, a city shining on a hill.

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References

Electronic reference

Jesse Russell, Defending the Status Quo in The Dark Knight RisesEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-2 | 2022, Online since 04 July 2022, connection on 12 August 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18220; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18220

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About the author

Jesse Russell

Jesse Russell is Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University. He has published in a variety of journals, including Literature and TheologyTexas Studies in Literature and Language, and Religion and the Arts. His book Irony, Liberalism, and Fantasy in the Films of Christopher Nolan is forthcoming from Lexington Books.

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