The Muddled Politics of The Dark Knight Rises

To the extent that we can talk about the movie’s politics it’s a matter of interpretation, not explicit messaging.

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This undated film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, left, and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in a scene from the action thriller "The Dark Knight Rises."

I wrote last week about Rush Limbaugh's silly comments about the homonymous coincidence of the name of the villain from the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, Bane, and the name of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's most touted resume item, Bain Capital. But given some of the political overtones of the films trailers—"You think all this can last? You and your friends better batten down the hatches. There's a storm coming," Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle asks Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne, sounding every bit the Occupy Wall Street radical. "You're going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."—I was curious about the film's politics. Having seen the movie on Friday night, I can say they're mixed, at best, and ultimately incidental to the film's larger themes, like the relationship between truth and justice. Be warned: There are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead—don't read on if you haven't seen the film but plan to.

Let's be clear to start: The Dark Knight Rises is not a political film. It doesn't have an overriding political message or theme (like, for example, the laughably heavy handed Avatar). To the extent that we can talk about the movie's politics it's a matter of interpretation, not explicit messaging.

[Check out our gallery of political cartoons.]

The irony of Limbaugh's rant last week (which he quickly walked back after it had its presumably desired effect of bringing attention to the clown prince of political commentary) is that contrary to the notion of Bane being a stand-in for the rapacious capitalist Mitt Romney, the hulking character, played by Tom Hardy, is, ostensibly at least, a radical anticapitalist. Indeed, the character was created in 1993 by a self-described life-long conservative. As my colleague Tierney Sneed wrote in her review of the film last week, Bane and his gang are like a version of the Occupy Wall Street movement (literally occupying the Gotham Stock Exchange at one point) "gone horribly, horribly wrong."

But Bane's revolutionary rhetoric—"We take Gotham back from the corrupt…the oppressors who have kept you down with myths of opportunity. … The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests and cast out into the cold" and so forth—is a ruse, an attempt to give Gothamites hope while a crippled, helpless Batman watches from afar, before snuffing them out with nuclear fire. He is not interested in raising up Gotham's 99 percent as much as in sacrificing them to advance the League of Shadows' nihilistic vision of bringing balance back to society. "Gotham's time has come," Liam Neeson's Ra's Al Ghul tells Wayne all the way back in Batman Begins. "Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we've performed for centuries. Gotham ... must be destroyed." Bane is just trying to finish that job.

[Photo Gallery: Occupy Wall Street]

But it's not like the radical left is alone in getting a nasty caricature in Christopher Nolan's vision of Gotham. With one notable exception, the 1 percenters are portrayed as greedy, vicious, officious, and dumb. In Batman Begins, for example, Rutger Hauer's Earle turns Wayne Enterprises into a weapons manufacturer and is possibly complicit in the plot to destroy Gotham. And Dark Knight Rises, as Alyssa Rosenberg has written , "expresses a clear disgust for irresponsible or capricious stewards of Gotham's economy." Ben Mendelsohn's Daggett's greed and stupidity bring Bane to Gotham, inadvertently setting the city up for disaster. And of course the ostensible face of benevolent, charitable wealth, Miranda Tate, proves to be the movie's ultimate villainess.

Then there's the notable exception: Bruce Wayne, the Batman himself. To the extent that one wants to read politics into the Wayne character, he is arguably an antilibertarian repudiation of Ayne Rand's everyone-for-themself philosophy, where wealth equates to virtue (especially since Rises leaves Wayne financially ruined). Wayne and his family make a point of giving back. "Gotham's been good to our family. But people less fortunate than us are suffering," Thomas Wayne tells his son in Batman Begins, a statement that would not only make Rand do cartwheels in her grave, but also implicitly buys into the notion President Obama inartfully offered when he suggested that successful business people don't operate in a void but are able to succeed because of the fostering infrastructure and atmosphere of society.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

There is one other aspect to the film that bears on politics, in a way more directly because it relates specifically to one of the movie's main themes: the relationship between truth and justice. As the movie opens, Gotham is in an era of peace (if not broad prosperity), having vanquished the organized crime that dominated the first two films. The instrument for this victory was a set not Batman himself but a new law passed in the name of fallen hero Harvey Dent which give law enforcement extraordinary authority, including an end to parole (the Dent Law seems a stand-in for the PATRIOT Act). Of course the Dent Law is built on a lie—Dent was no hero in the end—which raises the issue of whether the ends justify the means in this situation, which a disillusioned Blake would say they do not. Indeed, the placid scene of Gotham remains illusory, covering a rotting society where the upper classes literally don't know what's going on under them until the whole thing collapses out from under them, literally and figuratively. If Batman had not been forced into hiding by the original lie and were on the case and the police on their toes, would Bane have been able bring Gotham down in this way?

If you've seen the film weigh in below—does it have a political message? Or is it just a ripping good yarn?

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