The Politics of the Dark Knight Rises
“You think this is part of some revolution?” — Jim Gordon
One major criticism of The Dark Knight Rises is the film’s perceived stance on politics. Specifically, despite repeated denials by director Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer that the film is not an intentional commentary on on the Occupy movement, people as notable as Glenn Beck are praising the film (or critcizing it) for how it “confirms a conservative worldview.”
Anyone who thinks The Dark Knight Rises affirms the power of the wealthy needs to watch the film more closely. This film is a clear critique of the danger of power, and how to wield it properly.
The Dark Knight Rises critiques both the 99%’s desire for power and the way the 1% wield it.
The confusion stems from misunderstanding Bane’s motivation. Bane makes it clear that he is going to finish what Ras a Guhl started in Batman Begins: namely, the destruction of Gotham. But when Bane drops Bruce in prison, we learn that destruction isn’t enough for Bane. Gotham must despair. As he elaborates:
“There can be no true despair without hope… I will let them believe they can survive so you can watch them clambering over each other to stay in the sun.” — Bane
We must interpret everything else Bane does in the film through this lens: the point is to provide false hope.
The most potent source of false hope is power: the conviction that we can save ourselves.
Bane manipulates the power structure of Gotham so that every citizen will strive for power, for control over Gotham. Ultimately, Nolan uses Bane to critique our lust for power, and the illusion that we can use it to save ourselves.
Wanting Power is Dangerous
The film’s critique of our lust for power is most obvious, and is what has led to accusations that the film is pro-1% or conservative. When Bane takes over Gotham, cutting it off from from the rest of the world, he tells “the people” that Gotham is theirs, that they can do whatever they want and no one will stop them. At the time, he’s addressing citizens outside Blackgate prison and the inmates inside.
Bane clearly and intentionally targeted those in Gotham most hurt by the current system. He offered them power, recruited them for his army. Though the film doesn’t explore this nearly as much as I’d have liked, the implication is that Bane establishes an alternative government ostensibly of, by and for the people of Gotham. It has a kangaroo court, and Bane’s army functions as the police force (though their main function seems to be preventing the old system from interfering with the new).
The relative chaos that characterizes Bane’s new world order represents the injustice that usually follows the fall of any regime.
It’s often the case that no matter how oppressive a fallen regime may have been, those who replace them – usually representatives of whomever led the coup – turn out to be just as corrupt and unjust as the leaders they replaced. It’s no wonder Aristotle claimed that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Keeping Power is Dangerous
While Nolan’s critique of those on bottom is clear enough, no one seems to be picking up on his critique of the powerful. Early in the film, we meet Dagget, a wealthy CEO Bruce Wayne-foil who wants to take over Wayne Enterprises. Miranda Tate summarizes his character nicely when she tells him
“You only understand money and the power you think it buys.”
— Miranda Tate Talia al Guhl to Dagget
Turns out Dagget has hired Bane to help him take over Wayne Enterprises. It’s Dagget who hires Selina Kyle to steal Bruce’s fingerprints, which Bane will then use to bankrupt him. Dagget sees himself as the man with the plan, one in charge. But when his plans fall apart, Dagget finds himself cowering under Bane, who asks him:
“Do you feel in charge?” — Bane
I’ve paid you a small fortune. — Dagget
“And this gives you power over me?” — Bane
It’s in these moments that Dagget realizes his sense of control was a total illusion. He understands that, far from running the show, he’s a small act, a single cog in Bane’s engine of destruction. His money is nothing in the face of “pure evil” – what he names Bane in his final moments.
The message couldn’t be clearer: no matter what you think, money does not equal power. Money can’t save us.
Even more damning, however, is the film’s demonstration of the fundamental insufficiency of human power structures (such as government and police). After Bane attacks Gotham, the President effectively abandons the city.
Commissioner Gordon and John Blake are the lens through which we see much of Bane’s new world order. These are two men who’ve dedicated their lives to serving within the institutional structures. Gordon knows how weak they can be – he lived in a Gotham cowed by the mob and sustained by a lie.
When Blake confronts him about the Dent cover-up, Gordon warns that we can’t put our trust in rules and laws to save us:
“The structures fail you and the rules aren’t weapons anymore; they become shackles that let the bad guy get ahead.” — Jim Gordon
Blake learns this for himself when he tries to get his kids (and many more Gothamites) across the single remaining bridge out of Gotham. Rather than letting them cross, and with just minutes left before the bomb goes off, the police choose to follow their orders and blow the bridge rather than let Blake and his Exodus across. Furious, Blake berates them:
“You killed us just following your orders.” — Blake
By using Gordon and Blake, the film walks the fine line of affirming the basic good that human structures give us while also recognizing their limitations.
Some sort of political and social structure is inevitable and good. These systems provide some basic social stability and justice. Commissioner Gordon is one of the best people in Gotham, and he chooses to work mostly within the system.
But the film also acknowledges that these systems easily become corrupt, and even at their best aren’t capable of dealing with true evil. Blake recognizes this and abandons the police force, taking up the mantle of Batman to be that symbol of Good that works outside the system as a check to hold the system accountable to itself.
No matter which side of Gotham you connected with – Bane’s faux-99% revolution that wanted power or the Daggets and Gordons who wielded power, The Dark Knight Rises warns that power won’t save you.
Power is only good when you give it away
Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle model good uses of power in the film. They’re from opposite sides of the fence – Bruce is a 1%-er and Selina welcomes the coming Proletariat revolt… until it happens. Bruce and Selina come together and use their power not to save themselves, but for the good of Gotham.
This is the use of power Jesus models in the Scriptures. He warns
“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” — Mark 10:42-45 (NLT)
Bruce is the anti-Dagget; Selina is the anti-Bane. Rather than trying to acquire power for themselves, they give their power freely. This is why Bruce is a Christ figure and Selina the Bride of Christ figure. Both give up their lives for the good of Gotham (when Selina chooses to stay in Gotham, she’s sure it means death).