*WARNING: This article contains some plot details of The Dark Knight Rises.
The Dark Knight Rises is the must-see event of the summer. Its overarching themes, thrilling action, and gripping suspense transcend the superhero genre and extend to ancient myths, classic literature, and altogether high quality storytelling. So why has this blockbuster been politicized, taking some of the joy out what is otherwise a wildly entertaining epic about the Caped Crusader otherwise known as Batman?
Well, donchya know? It’s an election year! It’s Democratic President Barack Obama in one corner and the Republican nominee Governor Mitt Romney in the other. It’s liberalism versus conservatism, fairness versus freedom, and blue versus red, and they’re always looking to one-up each other by latching on to current events and news. However, most of the political attacks leveled against Romney in relation to The Dark Knight Rises occurred before the movie actually came out. I was privileged enough to see the movie at its midnight showing, and I’ll break down its messages and politics.
In the midst of the Obama campaign’s charges against Romney, Democrats have been especially critical regarding details of his time as CEO of Bain Capital, an investment firm that attempted to turn around struggling businesses or invest in startups. Given that the villain in the new Batman film is called “Bane,” Democrats latched onto the homonym. They saw an uncanny connection between Bane, the merciless mercenary bent on destruction, and Bain Capital, which often closed down factories and cut jobs in order to save a company from complete ruin. (To be fair, Bain Capital has far more success stories of creating profit–and thus jobs–than failures). The Obama campaign is hoping to highlight what they call the “vulture capitalism” of Bain Capital, thereby disqualifying Romney as an elitist who cares little for the people, only for his own financial and political gain.
Christopher Nolan, the writer/director of The Dark Knight trilogy, is a smart filmmaker. According to a consensus of critics and moviegoers, every one of his eight movies are excellent moviemaking (just check out rottentomatoes.com for a list of reviews). Nolan is my favorite filmmaker. The complexity and depth of his movies is on the highest level, with masterpieces like the psychological thrillers Memento and The Prestige, not to mention the mind-bending sci-fi heist movie Inception. Therefore, I do not doubt that Nolan is aware of current events. In fact, he even admitted in an interview that, regarding The Dark Knight Rises, “We were trying to honestly reflect the world we live in.”
Having seen The Dark Knight Rises, I can vouch for its storytelling integrity and greatness as a modern legend. Politics is not at the forefront of the movie. In fact, politics is nowhere to be found, unless you’re really looking for it. Having said that, there are several moments and lines in the movie that speak to the very issues we are debating in this election year. But let me begin with Bain versus Bane.
It’s not just Democrats who have linked Bain to Bane. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh claimed that the comic book creators or Bane meant it as a criticism of Bain Capital. Nolan called this a “peculiar” notion, in his soft-spoken British-American accent. And in a recent interview with the creators of Bane, both men say they are conservatives who had not heard of Mitt Romney or Bain Capital when they were creating Bane in the early 1990s.
But did Nolan make the connection? Let’s examine the character Bane. He is a foreign mercenary bent on the total destruction of Gotham. He is merciless, he is cold. He hates the world, and he cares for almost no one. In his quest to overthrow the government of Gotham, he destroys the infrastructure as well as roads, bridges, stadiums, tunnels, etc. Having just killed the mayor and imprisoned most of the city’s police force, he tells a stadium full of people and those watching on television to take control of their city, to essentially do as they pleased. There are essentially no rules and no authority. He doesn’t care about money, profits, or people. Only destruction.
Here, I pause. Does Bane sound like anyone that you know? Yeah, didn’t think so. Nor does he sound like an institution founded to turn around failing companies. It appears that Nolan does not compromise the nature of Bane for any political message. I actually doubt that Nolan knew anything at all about Bain Capital either when he and his brother Jonathan were writing the script in 2009 and 2010 or when they were filming it in 2011. Therefore, I have to conclude that connections between Bane and Bain are ridiculous.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any political messages at all in the film. There very well may be, but you have to listen very closely. In one of the opening scenes, the cat burglar Selina Kyle tells billionaire Bruce Wayne, “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re going to wonder why you lived so large and left so little for the rest of us.” Selina Kyle lives in near-poverty, and she steals to provide for herself and those she cares about. Selina Kyle ends up aiding Bane, looking forward to a time where the playing field is even (when Bane eliminates the currency and typical justice).
Clearly, Selina Kyle holds a Robin Hood-like mentality that is similar to that of President Obama. He often speaks of the rich paying their fair share, paying more taxes, etc. Early on in the movie, it’s established that Bruce Wayne had been helping to fund an orphanage. When his company stopped being profitable, the money stopped going to that orphanage. One character in particular confronts Wayne on “paying attention” and “apathy,” regarding his charitable giving. It’s an interesting few moments, but does it indicate the liberal ideology of redistribution of wealth, or voluntary charity? I suppose it’s up to the viewer to decide that.
Later on in the movie, once anarchy has taken control of Gotham, Selina Kyle has a moment in the house of a rich family where she is looking at a picture in a broken frame. “Somebody lived here,” she says introspectively. The moment she had strived for her whole life, when the playing field would finally be leveled, was not as triumphant as she thought it would be. Selina Kyle realizes thats what she considered to be “good” for everyone else, was a tragedy for another family. Her character goes through a long journey of selfishness which is confronted by Batman’s sacrifices. After betraying Batman, she becomes more compassionate and wants to help save Gotham.
In a few scenes that echo A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Crane (or Scarecrow from Batman Begins) is a judge. Anyone who is brought before his court is either rich or a policeman, and he sentences all of them to death without due process or proper evidence. To be fair, many of the rich are displayed as corrupt, and some of them employ Bane, thinking he will deliver a fortune to them.
In the epic climax, Bane and his mercenaries/convicted felons confront Batman and the police force. This scene was made famous during production, because it was filmed during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s popularity. There was speculation that Bane’s minions could represent the Occupy crowd. It is worth noting that the film would have been written around the time of the Tea Party, however, there had also been several riots in Europe during that time. It seems to me, however, that the fact Bane utilizes a sort of anarchy that leveled the playing field with mass poverty is not a great argument for the Occupy message.
Finally, we come to Bruce Wayne. Billionaire owner of a large company who wants to save his city. If anything, this sounds somewhat like Mitt Romney, who is worth at least $250 million and owned Bain Capital for several years as its co-founder. He often speaks of “saving the soul of America” in his speeches.
I have touched on various aspects of the film in regards to possible political undertones, but I don’t have a definitive answer, only to say that I don’t believe the franchise or this film in particular is motivated by politics, but by story and characters. Connections made between Bane and Bain are ridiculous, but there are echoes of certain themes regarding class warfare.
The theme of the movie is rising. Bruce Wayne rising above his own psychological turmoil, the villains rising out of Hell on earth, orphans rising from poverty, Gotham rising from the ashes. Along the way, there are several places where Bruce Wayne or other characters are helping the needy. Wayne tosses a rope to some prisoners. He donates to orphanages. He helps Gotham’s citizens, which are mostly portrayed as helpless. Selina Kyle helps those closest to her. Alfred helped Bruce as a child. This list goes on.
There is a scene in a dark prison at the bottom of a large hole in the earth wherein it is revealed that only one person has ever climbed to the top, a child. This symbolism would seem to indicate that those in society who rise to the top have a responsibility to help those who don’t. Liberals believe this is accomplished by higher taxes on the rich and more entitlement spending. Obama calls it “giving back.” Conservatives believe in helping the needy, the disabled, the old, and the young as well, but mostly through charitable giving. Or perhaps it is only meant as a metaphorical parallel for the mythological Phoenix, who rises out of the ashes.
I cannot know for sure what the Nolan brothers meant when they wrote it, but I suppose people will read into it what they wish to. Other people can obsess over it, but I just love the movie. It is truly a rare piece of cinema that carries with it a triumphant and inspiring message in these dark, perilous times of economic and political uncertainty.
Check out my review for The Dark Knight Rises.