The Politics of the Dark Knight Rises and ISIS
Batman couldn’t triumph without Gotham. We can’t succeed without each other.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse October 7, 2014
Tom Friedman just recently wrote a column for The New York times that utilized a bit of dialogue from the movie The Dark Knight, in which Alfred informs Bruce Wayne A.K.A. Batman that “some men [like The Joker] aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Friedman makes the point that the members of ISIS and Boko Haram are more or less in this category, and enters into an interesting discussion of Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, the second volume of a work meticulously exploring the history of political order in human history, using points of Fukuyama’s to explore why in places like the Middle East order is so fragile and chaos so strong.
This made me think of my own piece I wrote some time ago on the politics of Christopher Nolan’s magisterial Dark Knight/Batman trilogy, which very much explored the issue of chaos vs. order. After revisiting this piece, I find it extremely relevant to the world today, and if I rewrote it now, I would add that in addition to the 99% and the 1% needing to work together for society to succeed, the secularists and religious, and member of different faiths and sects, need to work together in order for society to succeed as well. Keeping this additional thought in mind, I offer you my earlier piece here for you to ponder and digest.
“…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” –Alfred, The Dark Knight
The Politics of The Dark Knight Rises
by Brian E. Frydenborg 1/1/2013
Warning: major spoilers for all three Nolan Batman movies, and for Lawrence of Arabia, follow
Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking The Dark Knight Rises, and the trilogy of which it is a part, are unique among superhero movies for the depth, and literary quality, of the themes that run through them. Take, for example, the first three X-Men movies, which may have had an occasional artistic reference, but which did not really carry any broad themes well or deeply from one film to another. The old Superman movies, too, were fun but I don’t think deep is the first word which comes to mind, as much as we all love the late Christopher Reeve. People were aware of this; how can one watch a Christopher Nolan film and not be aware that something deeper is at work as the film unfolds? But I am shocked at how many people, including very intelligent friends of my own, took this as a left-right, Occupy vs. Order ideological battle, from many venues and publications, and how these people, if anything, were imposing their own politics into a film where they did not belong. Then again, I suppose that’s human nature.
As someone who studied politics in college, I suppose one of the many reasons I enjoyed these films was the deeper political and societal message that ran through the thread of all three films. But first we must explore how this thread builds throughout all three films.
Wayne utterly rejects the idea that people, Gotham, or anyone is beyond redemption.
In Batman Begins, a young Bruce Wayne, still bitter and angry over his parents’ murder by a Gotham thug, goes off into the world to learn the ways of criminals so he can fight them, and to find himself. He eventually makes it to Ra’s al Ghul’s stronghold, and accepts the training and ideology of the League of Shadows up to the part where, not wanting to combat the destructive influences of the world, but destroy it and start over, the ideology becomes apocalyptic and clearly states that people are beyond redemption. Wayne utterly rejects the idea that people, Gotham, or anyone is beyond redemption, and refuses to execute the criminal (One has to marvel at this compared to Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia who does execute a man in a situation similar to the one in which Wayne found himself, except Lawrence knew the man he was to kill; Lawrence later even admits that he “enjoyed it,” and the moral corruption that undoes him began at that point. In contrast, the Joker, in The Dark Knight, exclaims to Batman “You truly are incorruptible.” As a student of film, and with Lawrence as one of the most famous and studied films of all time, Nolan, I imagine, had this contrast in his mind in making the trilogy). This starts Wayne’s conflict with Ra’s, whom he is able to defeat with the help of Jim Gordon, a sgt. in the corrupt Gotham Police Department. Wayne, as Batman, with the help of Gordon from within the GPD, starts the cleanup and redemption of crime-infested and corrupt Gotham.
In The Dark Knight, Wayne is hoping for a time when Batman will no longer be needed, and is hoping to have a life with his childhood friend and great love Rachel Dawes, who hinted to Bruce at the end of Batman Begins that if Batman was no longer needed, and Bruce could be just the old Bruce she loved before he became Batman, then they could be together. That day seems to be approaching as Batman, Jim Gordon (now a captain), and District Attorney Harvey Dent have cleaned up much of the organized crime in Gotham with a number of arrests. With their back up against the wall, the mobsters turn to the mysterious madman known as the Joker to take on Batman. In the Joker’s plan, the citizens of Gotham would turn on each other to show their ugliness, when people on two barges, one filled with criminals, the other filled with regular citizens, are given detonators to explosives on the other barge and told they must blow one up or both would be destroyed; but they surprised him, neither barge of people deciding to act only in self-interest and kill the other people to save themselves. “This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good,” Wayne says to the Joker. In the process of getting to this point, however, Rachel was killed by the Joker, a Rachel who had fallen in love with Harvey Dent and chose him over Bruce, which she explained in a letter given to Alfred, Wayne’s loyal Butler. In this letter, she mentions that she thinks Bruce has become addicted being Batman and that he would still need Batman even if Gotham did not, and she concluded by saying “if you lose your faith in me, please keep your faith in people,” but Alfred, wanting to spare Bruce pain, never showed him the letter and burned it. The Joker sought to corrupt the people of Gotham, and failed, but in killing Rachel and disfiguring Harvey Dent, he succeeded in bringing Harvey Dent, Gotham’s hero within the system, its shining “white knight,” down to the Joker’s level as Harvey became Two Face. Batman ends up killing Dent while Dent is terrorizing Jim Gordon and his family and about to kill them in revenge for Gordon’s failing to rescue Rachel. Both Batman and Gordon realize that the Joker won in tearing Dent down, and realize that if Gotham learns this its people will lose faith; Wayne remarks that “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded,” so Wayne decides to let Batman take the blame for Dent’s crimes so Gotham can still believe in its “white knight” even as they hunt its “dark knight.”
Wayne remarks that “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded,” so Wayne decides to let Batman take the blame for Dent’s crimes so Gotham can still believe in its “white knight” even as they hunt its “dark knight.”
Straightforward enough, but it is in The Dark Knight Rises where things get a little complicated… and more interesting. One especially needs to keep in mind the developments in the first two films in order to properly understand the final, and perhaps deepest, film of the trilogy. Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, Gotham is a far safer city not in need of a Batman, partly because of prosecutions that were able to proceed because of legislation, termed the Dent Act, inspired by Dent’s memory as preserved by Batman and Gordon, who is now Police Commissioner. But out of the shadows comes a mysterious new character, Bane. Bane is bent on destroying Gotham, and now heads the League of Shadows, formerly led by Ra’s al Ghul. He and his League descend on Gotham, and though Batman tries to stop them, he is utterly defeated by Bane who seriously injures Wayne, whom Bane casts into a prison half a world away known as The Pit. Wayne is unable to do anything but watch the news feed from Gotham as Bane takes out the mayor of Gotham and traps nearly the entire police force underground in one fell swoop. The government is taken out, and right after Bane reads a prepared resignation speech of Commissioner Gordon, never delivered, detailing the truth about Harvey Dent and the cover-up of his actions, shattering the people’s faith in their government, Bane tells the citizens of Gotham
“You have been supplied with a false idol to stop you from tearing down this corrupt city…We take Gotham from the corrupt, the rich, the oppressors of generations who kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you, the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere, do as you please. Start by storming Blackgate [prison] and free the oppressed. Step forward, those who would serve, for an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened, spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive as they learn to serve true justice. This great city… it will endure. Gotham will survive.”
And here is where the pundits really got confused and started to get things wrong, from Andrew Breitbart on the right to Matt Taibbi on the left. Bane hides nothing from Bruce Wayne as to his intentions; he makes it clear to him that his plan is to reduce Gotham to “ashes,” and mirrors the words of Ra’s al Ghul from the first film when he says to Wayne “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the uninitiated… but we are initiated, aren’t we Bruce? Members of the League of Shadows!” These pundits clearly aren’t initiated, and forgot that Bane was only talking the talk of revolution and class warfare as a means to his end of destroying Gotham; he cares nothing for the people and intends to murder them all. There is nothing in the film that suggests Nolan is trying to make any statement about the Occupy movement, whether for or against, or for or against Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the 99% or the 1%. The scenes of the wealthy being dragged from their closets and of kangaroo courts, scenes brilliantly executed, are not so much a warning against the Occupy movement, but, if anything, it shows a breakdown of society that should be guarded against, a breakdown that occurred in Charles’ Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the novel which Nolan specifically cited in interviews as inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises.
The breakdown occurs when the different parts of society cease to work together.
The breakdown occurs when the different parts of society cease to work together. It is two members of the wealthy elite of Gotham, Dagget and Stryver, who invite Bane to Gotham, hoping to further their own ends. Dagget tries to tell Bane “I’m in charge!” Bane then puts his hand on Daggett’s shoulder and asks “Do you feel in charge?” to which Dagget replies. “I paid you a small fortune.” Bane, in one of the bluntest exchanges in the film, responds “And this gives you power over me?” Dagget is dumbfounded and asks “What is this?” Bane tells him “Your money and infrastructure have been important… ’til now!” In horror, Dagget asks “What are you?” “I’m Gotham’s reckoning. Here to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on,” he replies. “You’re pure evil!” exclaims Dagget, to which Bane responds, “I’m necessary evil!” Stryver has left the room but still hears Dagget’s screams as Bane kills Dagget. Stryver, named after the same-named character from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, is later discarded by the farcical court that Bane has set up and is given the “death by exile” treatment. Thus, some of Gotham’s rich and powerful, in their greed and lust for power, help to unleash a madman on Gotham that is later their undoing.
Just like The Pit, which provides a view of escape that inspires false hope and make the imprisonment there all the more unbearable, Bane is giving false hope to some in Gotham with his words of revolution and fighting oppression and corruption before he plans to wipe them all out. In Bane’s Gotham, prison inmates form the core of Bane’s new followers, but some of the masses, most notably Selina Kyle’s blithe friend, played by Juno Temple, seem to be enjoying themselves in this “next era of Western civilization,” totally unaware that they are merely being toyed with by Bane for his own amusement and are the targets of his planned nuclear detonation. While we see a bellhop drag a hotel patron by her fur coat and secretaries popping champagne when the bosses have presumably been apprehended by Bane’s minions, there is nothing to suggest all or most of the masses are enjoying this or that even a majority are. It would be safe to assume that many are just terrified and holding their heads down (as is the case in most revolutions), and Batman more than ever cannot win this one alone. The thousands of cops trapped below are part of the working class, too, and they hardly are keen on joining Bane’s revolution. Earlier in the film, when Bane is attacking the stock exchange and one of the exchange employees is trying to get to the cops to help, Deputy Commissioner Foley responds “I’m not risking my men for your money,” and when the exchange employee remarks that “It’s not our money, it’s everybody’s!,” the officer next to Foley quips “Really? Mine’s in my mattress.” The boys in blue are hardly agents of the elite, but are regular people trying to protect their city. One in particular, John (Robin) Blake, was an orphan who grew up in an orphanage funded by Wayne Enterprises, and it is fitting that he ends up being one of Wayne’s most helpful allies. And while some of Gotham’s people fall for Bane’s ploy and join in the “revolution” in contrast to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight who inspired Wayne and showed the Joker people weren’t all ugly, Selina Kyle, one of the masses and a new ally of Bane, skirting on the fence and potentially descending into really becoming a bad person, instead chooses to help Wayne and Gotham in the end, inspired by Wayne himself who kept telling her that she was better than a common criminal, saying to her “There’s more to you than that” repeatedly. This, in turn, is in contrast to the shining “white knight” Harvey Dent, who was brought down by the Joker, so now in this case Batman is able to do the opposite of the Joker and save Selina Kyle from herself. And no one helps Bruce Wayne more throughout the three films than Alfred, whose cockney English accent makes it clear he, too, was no man of privilege and comes from a humble background. In the end, Wayne, the cops, and Kyle overthrow Bane’s grip on Gotham, rejecting both the nihilism of Bane and the narrow self interest of both those of the masses taking advantage of the “revolution” and of those types of people who brought Bane to Gotham in the first place.
The title might more aptly be called The Dark Knight and Friends Rise; it is a story of how a very rich man, from very rich family, a family that never tired in its quest to serve the people, going back to Wayne’s great-great-grandfather who helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, rises above the greatest of challenges to continue his family’s mission of serving others but also learns that having the passion to do must also come from a desire to live for the sake of life as well. What would it say about Wayne if Wayne worked so hard to save people when he himself had lost the will to live? The sacrifice of a man who has something to live for, as opposed to someone who has given up on life, is that much more valuable. The fear of death found itself again in Bruce, and it made him a better fighter for it, as the doctor in The Pit explained to him. And it is fitting the Bruce falls in love with the woman he never lost faith in even when she had betrayed him, that in discovering the good in Selina Kyle and making her see it in herself, Bruce could get over Rachel Dawes, after Alfred finally explained that Rachel had chosen Dent over Wayne, and find love in a woman who transcended her shadows with Wayne’s help; in the process, he transcended his own shadows and found a reason to live beyond Batman. Bruce Wayne, archetype of the 1%, depended on the working-class cops, including an orphan-turned-cop, and cat-burglar Selina Kyle, but also a key board member of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox, to defeat the scheme of Bane and Talia al Ghul, Ra’s’ daughter, and to reverse the division of Gotham’s people upon which their plan depended. Batman formed a coalition of the rich and the poor, law enforcement and criminal, to rise over Bane, selfishness, and nihilism. Rejected is libertarian, anarchist nihilism and revolutionary, Marxist demonization of the wealthy, but also the selfish callousness of many of the elite. Bruce Wayne and Friends showed that even the greatest of evils can be overcome when people work together despite their differences. In the end, the 99% and the 1% needed each other, and society only triumphed and functioned when they came together. Thus, the politics of The Dark Knight rises can be described as centrist and in favor of coalition action, not partisan agendas. It shows that society divided will fall, but united, it can rise.
Bruce Wayne and Friends showed that even the greatest of evils can be overcome when people work together despite their differences. In the end, the 99% and the 1% needed each other, and society only triumphed and functioned when they came together. Thus, the politics of The Dark Knight rises can be described as centrist and in favor of coalition action, not partisan agendas. It shows that society divided will fall, but united, it can rise.
Jim Gordon, at the funeral service held for Bruce Wayne when it is supposed he died saving Gotham from a nuclear bomb, reads a passage not from the Bible, but from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution:
I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss…
I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy…
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; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
These are the last lines of the book, and Sydney Carton’s final unspoken thoughts before he is executed by the Guillotine. Carton is one of the main characters in the book, and he spends much of it brooding in a state of cynicism and self-pity, much like Bruce Wayne. He falls in love with a woman and loves her so much that he is willing to lay down his life to save the man she loves in order for her to be happy. This other man is a French aristocrat whom Carton helps in England; when the aristocrat returns to Paris, he is arrested as a enemy of the French Republic and sentenced to death. Carton, who bears a striking resemblance to the aristocrat, switches places in prison with him. The book ends with Carton about to be guillotined but, though cynical for most of the book, he dies in a state of hope, hope for the city of Paris currently tearing itself apart, hope for its people, hope for the woman he loves and the people she loves, and for future generations. For Carton, it is the best thing that he has ever done in his life and he achieves a state of peace with himself in saving others that he has never known before. Bruce Wayne was prepared to sacrifice himself not so much out of love for one person, but for a whole city, for Gotham, the great love of his life because his father and family had put so much of themselves into it. It is a fitting tribute for Bruce by Gordon, reading the dying thoughts of a character who performs one of the most selfless acts of sacrifice and love in all of literature in tribute to a man whom he thought had sacrificed all for Gotham. Moments later we find Wayne has survived and is living abroad secretly with Selina Kyle, who is the perfect representation of a city that, though it had disappointed Wayne at times, rose to greatness and helped to redeem Wayne and redeemed itself, helped him to reach a state of peace with himself and happiness he had never known before. Wayne loves Selina in part because she is Gotham, and Gotham is she.
…we find Wayne has survived and is living abroad secretly with Selina Kyle, who is the perfect representation of a city that, though it had disappointed Wayne at times, rose to greatness and helped to redeem Wayne and redeemed itself, helped him to reach a state of peace with himself and happiness he had never known before. Wayne loves Selina in part because she is Gotham, and Gotham is she.
Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film is a fitting tribute to the spirit of Batman, A Tale of Two Cities, and humanity itself. While the film’s clear focus is on Bruce Wayne himself, it takes the development of its major themes to a far broader and deeper level that transcends Batman and the comic book genre of filmmaking and that is why the film, and the whole trilogy, are something special that we as moviegoers have not experienced before. At a time when our own government has just fallen off the so-called fiscal cliff and can barely function because of partisanship, the film’s message of working together across divides to rise to greatness and redemption is as urgent as ever.