The Dark Knight Rises: Batman’s secret is adapting through the ages
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) gave us Batman as a black-ops vigilante engaged in counter-terror torture, extraordinary rendition and the infringement of civil liberties for the greater good. Nolan insisted it had nothing to do with 9/11.
Now his trilogy’s conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises, shows bourgeois homes looted, the stock exchange overturned, cops charging protestors on the streets of Gotham, and threats of revolution. Nolan insists that the movie was conceived long before the Occupy movement, and that it bears no deliberate resemblance to real-world events.
Unsurprisingly, critics of various political persuasions are already rushing to pin down The Dark Knight Rises as propaganda. The Telegraph’s Robert Colville cheers Batman as a ‘Caped Conservative’, rooting for his battle to uphold the established social order, while Catherine Shoard, in the Guardian, decries an ‘audaciously capitalist vision’ that demonises the 99% and celebrates the ‘wish-fulfilment of the wealthy’.
We’ve seen these arguments before, in the aftermath of The Dark Knight. Conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, Andrew Klavan and Spencer Ackerman declared that Nolan’s Batman – taking the tough route against terror – offered a ringing endorsement of Bush policy, and that his shadowy heroism made him the living embodiment of Vice-President Cheney. More liberal critics identified Batman as the ‘black half’ of Obama, reading the film as a paean to the ‘politics of hope’ and a demonstration that torture, surveillance and rendition simply don’t work against terrorist threats.
Clearly, The Dark Knight meant very different things to different people. Shouldn’t we expect the same from the sequel? It seems a little soon to be labelling The Dark Knight Rises as an anthem to conservatism, whether you applaud that message or not. Nolan is cleverly playing his cards close to his chest and denying any deliberate intention, to avoid alienating a section of his market; Democrats and Republicans both buy movie tickets, after all.
But the new film itself, like its main character, is complex and flexible. The Caped Crusader has now been active in popular culture for 73 years; he didn’t survive that long by remaining rigid, by representing only one thing. If he was merely a propaganda tool, he’d have lost his popularity at the end of World War Two, when the anti-Japanese sentiment of his first film serial no longer suited the prevailing mood.
In Dark Knight Rises, he seems at first to be the perfect example of a bourgeois One-Percenter, protected by privilege, until Selina Kyle whispers a warning that ‘there’s a storm coming… and when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.’ Wayne asks how she’s going to weather that storm. She smiles. ‘I’m adaptable’.
And that’s the lesson Batman needed to remember; to remain adaptable. That’s the secret of his success. He survived World War Two and a 1950s Senate Sub-Committee trial that accused him of corrupting the nation’s youth. He survived the 1960s pop art fad and the short-lived graphic novel trend of the 1980s. He even survived Joel Schumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin movie of 1997.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman loses his fortune, is evicted from Wayne Manor – ‘From Billionaire to Bum’, says the headline – and faces the world afresh, stripped of his riches. The crowds welcome him sardonically as one of them, a man of the people. When he’s broken by the revolutionary warlord Bane, Batman sinks even further, reduced to his most basic essence; not a playboy billionaire, but simply a man at the bottom of a deep pit. And he treats it as a blessing; a way to rediscover the nomadic, anonymous wanderer he became during Batman Begins. His wealth and class status had become a prison; losing them makes him free. Returning to Gotham, his first act is not to take on Bane one-on-one, but to raise a mob of his own, an army of working men and women.
Yes, Batman’s army is the Gotham City police force. Yes, he improves their odds by flying his military chopper over the Occupy-style street conflict; and yes, the film’s intriguing questions about class struggle and privilege are sidestepped in the last reel when the story becomes purely personal, a matter of fulfilling a father’s legacy and individual revenge. Bane is revealed not as a revolutionary, but a soldier in a family war, a bodyguard rather than a general. Instead of a struggle over the social order, Batman’s final battle is against a conventional femme fatale.
Nolan’s Batman dodges easy definitions as he falls and rises; he’s a fluid, constantly transforming figure, rather than a placard-holding protestor or a diehard One-Percenter. Does that mean that the Dark Knight, like the director, ducks the issues and wears political topicality like a convenient badge, a temporary mask? Maybe. But that’s the nature of Batman. Like every folk myth and cultural icon who’s stood the test of time – and like the feline fatale, Selina Kyle, who easily crosses class boundaries from society dame to waitress, from lady of leisure to working girl – he’s infinitely adaptable. Those critics who try to claim him as a propaganda mascot – for either side of the spectrum – should remember that if he was that easy to pin down, he wouldn’t have survived so long.
Will Brooker is Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and author of Hunting the Dark Knight (I. B. Tauris, 2012)Tagged in: 9/11, Bane, batman, Batman & Robin, batman begins, christopher nolan, film, Gotham, occupy#, politics, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises
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