Batman: A Tale of Two Gothams
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only… —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
*Warning: this review contains multiple plot spoilers
The final film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is very different from The Amazing-Spider Man. The first two films in the series, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), set the scene for the third film and portray Gotham city as spiralling out of control. The days of the benevolent capitalism of Thomas Wayne (Batman’s father) are clearly over and violent crime and corruption now define the city. Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, motivated by the killing of his parents when he was young, commits his life to battling criminals and fighting to restore his father’s paternalistic plan for Gotham. His efforts eventually lead him to Bhutan where he trains to conquer his fear (in this case a childhood fear of bats) in the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul. After completing his training, Wayne learns Ghul’s true intention: to liberate Gotham by destroying the city entirely. Wayne refuses induction into the League and instead strikes out on his own to fight crime in Gotham and its notorious super-villains including The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) in Batman Begins and The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after Batman defeats The Joker and kills Harvey Dent, or Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) in The Dark Knight. It is both the best and worst of times in Gotham. Because of Batman’s efforts, Gotham is experiencing relative peace with many hard criminals locked behind bars. However, at the end of the second film Batman chose to become a martyr by taking the fall for Dent/Two-Face’s crimes so as to safeguard all the work that Dent did as district attorney to clean up Gotham. As a result, Batman virtually retires from his public role and becomes a grizzled recluse in his mansion. Gotham’s social harmony, however, is precarious and in the city’s sewers a new foe, Bane (Tom Hardy), is organizing a revolutionary army capable of destroying Gotham.
Batman is, once again, needed in Gotham. Wayne’s business rival, John Daggit (Ben Mendelsohn), forms a partnership with Bane and promises him access to a clean energy source that can be turned into a nuclear weapon if Bane helps him take over Wayne Enterprises. However, perceiving that Daggit is up to something Wayne puts philanthropist and businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) in charge of Wayne Enterprises, blocking Daggit in the process. Nevertheless, Bane finds a way to access the energy source, activate it, and hold the entire city hostage under the guise of a “people’s” revolution. In an attempt to end the “revolution,” Batman is led to Bane by Selina Kyle, or “Catwoman” (Anne Hathaway), but Bane breaks Batman’s back and exiles him to a faraway prison. While Bane threatens Gotham with nuclear annihilation, Wayne regains his strength, escapes from prison, and returns to Gotham as Batman to defeat Bane and Tate, who turns out to be the mastermind of the plot as well as a member of the League of Shadows. The Dark Knight Rises is an epic conclusion to this most recent portrayal of the Batman story.
While an action-packed, exciting summer blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises is deeply problematic politically. Much has been made about the film’s anti-Occupy Wall Street sentiment, and for good reason as there are many scenes that undoubtedly tap into the rhetoric and mythology of the Decolonize/Occupy Movement. However, to truly comprehend the insidious, counter-revolutionary politics of The Dark Knight Rises we need to understand more about Charles Dickens. In fact, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan chose Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities as a framework for the film. Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities (1859) in the wake of the 1848 European “springtime” revolutions and chose to tell a cautionary tale about how the French Revolution of the 1790s threatened the aristocracies in the cities of Paris and London. In appealing to his upper class readership, Dickens told his story in a way intended to scare the British ruling classes in the 1850s into thinking that if they continued to abuse their power and the working classes they would be sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Thus, while Dickens is often held up as a progressive writer, A Tale of Two Cities is more a counter-revolutionary reminder to the ruling classes of the importance of cultivating their hegemony over the working poor. The Dark Knight Rises needs to be understood in this context.
The Dark-Knight Rises, then, is not simply an anti-Occupy commentary, but a profoundly reactionary film reinforcing the importance of benevolent capitalism and denouncing the possibility of revolution; the movie affirms a kind of bourgeois justice. Indeed, the film begins by showcasing how Wayne’s neglect of Wayne Enterprises has led to a situation where social services, like the orphanage where John Blake/Robin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) grew up, are no longer being provided. This is, of course, resolved by the end of the film by Wayne leaving his money and mansion to the orphan society, providing the audience with the happy ending they are expecting. In the age of neoliberal cuts to public services such a conclusion reinforces the idea that it is the responsibility of private corporations and rich philanthropists to “invest” in the social good. This kind of rhetoric provides the backbone of the film and, really, the entire Nolan Batman trilogy (in the end Thomas Wayne’s paternalistic vision is restored). Like Dickens, The Dark Knight Rises creates a portrait of Gotham ransacked by revolution to strike fear into the hearts and minds of both the working class and the capitalist class that, ultimately, is intended to justify and rationalize benevolent capitalism as the desired social order.
The two Gothams possible (revolutionary or benevolent capitalist) are embodied in the characters of Bane and Catwoman. Bane is the representative of the revolutionaries who seek to “liberate” the “oppressed.” From the beginning, Bane is portrayed as an authoritarian revolutionary that invokes the imagery and mythology of a stereotyped communism: from militant comrades in fatigues willing to die for his cause without question, to his men (there are no women!) “burrowing from within” by moonlighting around the city as workers (i.e., shoe-shiners, construction workers etc.). At first viewers are encouraged to identify with Bane by celebrating his hit on the Gotham stock exchange. In perhaps the most obvious appeal to Occupy rhetoric in the film, Bane confronts a sleazy trader inside who claims that there is no actual money to steal in the exchange. Bane responds by punching the trader out and proclaiming “then why are you here!” However, from this point on, viewers are supposed to become disenchanted with Bane and his “people’s” revolution. Instead of abolishing the wage system, radically redistributing wealth, and fighting, say, for equal access to health care, education, housing, and food, Bane’s first action is to release the scary criminals from jail and then he encourages a culture of looting and lawlessness that sees many of Gotham’s wealthy being attacked and robbed, creating scenes of rioting and property destruction so frowned upon recently in global corporate media. This deliberate narrative strategy is intended to frighten people into abandoning their sympathies for Bane.
Instead of cheering for Bane and his brutal revolution, viewers are encouraged to identify with the more reasonable strong female character of Selina Kyle, or Catwoman. Whether or not Catwoman is actually a feminist character is debatable, as pointed out by celebrity blogger Lainey Gossip. Nevertheless, Kyle is clearly a working-class thief who steals from the rich in order to “eat.” Kyle is not a pathological criminal like The Scarecrow, The Joker, or Bane, but is only trying to find a way to get a “clean start.” Kyle is intended to be an allegory for the agitated masses of today who are disaffected and dissatisfied with current corrupt status quo. When she meets billionaire Wayne, she reminds him that “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.” Like Bane’s hit on the stock exchange, Kyle’s statement will resonate with those familiar with the “Occupy” rhetoric, but, again, is really more of a Dickensesque warning to the ruling classes that their neglect of the social order will be their downfall.
Catwoman undergoes a profound transformation throughout the film and the viewer is expected to follow along. Indeed, after making her “there’s a storm coming” speech, Catwoman finds Bane’s revolution distasteful. In one scene, she and a friend are ransacking a rich person’s home when Kyle suddenly becomes uncomfortable with the fact that a happy family used to live there. Kyle’s friend tries to reassure her that their actions are just by saying: “now it is everyone’s house.” Catwoman’s uneasiness with the reality of revolution and such a radical redistribution of wealth is a message to working people that in seeking to abolish private property, everyone will be reduced to nothing and that revolution is not about social justice but rather chaos and lawlessness. Thus, as the film ends Kyle’s sympathy for a badly stereotyped portrayal of socialist justice is discarded and she chooses to side with Wayne’s view of bourgeois justice: the restoration of the social good through benevolent capitalism. It isn’t the kind of justice Gotham “deserves” but it is the kind of justice that the city (as a representation of our own civil society) supposedly “needs” and must ultimately accept.
The Dark Knight Rises is a fundamentally counter-revolutionary film. Like in A Tale of Two Cities, the people of Gotham are denied agency in the film and are portrayed as selfish individuals looking out for themselves in their homes hoping that someone brave enough will save them. This time, though, it is not a working-class kid from Queens that saves the day but a billionaire dressed up in a bat suit; “the people” are not encouraged to take their own political action; they are content to be represented by heroes (i.e., Batman, politicians, and the police!). Moreover, it is important to note that in the end Batman does not give the city back to the people to democratically decide how to redistribute the wealth for the social good. Rather, it is implied that Batman helps to restore Gotham to his father’s ideal: a paternalistic capitalist society where people work to make profits for the rich and in return the rich throw a few crumbs to the poor to placate their revolutionary demands for more. In the end, then, The Dark Knight Rises reinforces reactionary politics and is meant to convince the working class and the ruling class of the necessity of benevolent capitalism. Dickens would have liked The Dark Knight Rises very much. We must be more critical.
The Amazing-Spider Man and The Dark Knight Rises are undoubtedly two of the most popular and enjoyable films of the summer. Millions of people will watch and re-watch these movies and have conversations about them with each other and their friends, families, and fellow workers. But amidst all the pomp surrounding these mega blockbusters, let us not forget that these films have important messages about justice, politics, and class struggle today that we need to unpack and critique. Thus, there is an opportunity for those of us on the left to critically engage with these popular films (and others that will come after them) and have conversations about what such films say about the tactics and strategies for social transformation in the twenty-first century. Hollywood films do not have to be dismissed as weapons of mass distraction if we use them to think and act politically. But as Rage Against the Machine warns us, we must remember that the front lines of class struggle are everywhere, even at the movies.
- Sean Carleton is a PhD student in the Frost Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. He is a founding member of the Graphic History Collective and an author of May Day: A Graphic History of Protest.
Part I of this review can be seen here.