The Dark Knight Rises: bloated film seizes on Western anxieties to deliver a politically conservative message that undermines idealism

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

Eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight”, Gotham City enjoys peace thanks to the Dent Act, named after Gotham City Chief Attorney Harvey Dent, which has allowed Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to bust the power of crime gangs and clean up the city’s corruption. He’s invited to a function at Wayne Manor on Harvey Dent Day and has a speech ready but at the last minute declines to read from the speech (because it is an admission that he and Gotham City have been living a lie which is that Dent died heroically and not as a fallen criminal). A US senator is kidnapped at the function so Gordon later leads a team of police that includes rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to find him; Gordon goes into the city sewers but falls into the hands of arch-criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) who takes Gordon’s speech off him. Gordon manages to escape and is recovered by Blake and hospitalised.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been living a reclusive life in Wayne Manor, allowing it and his company Wayne Enterprises to crumble since he invested in a clean energy project that was to harness fusion power but shut it down after learning the nuclear core could easily be converted into a bomb. Wayne comes to believe that one of his Board Directors, Daggett, has hired Bane to help mount a take-over of Wayne Enterprises. One of the other Board Directors, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is put in charge of the energy project along with Board Chairman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). He decides to return to Gotham City as Batman, at which news Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) walks out on him. While preparing to leave, Pennyworth tells Wayne that his old love Rachel had decided to leave him for Harvey Dent before she died.

Tracking down cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who nicked his mother’s pearl necklace while in disguise as a maid at the Harvey Dent Act function, Wayne as Batman meets Bane who tells him he (Bane) has assumed leadership of the League of Shadows after the death of Ra’s al Ghul. Bane has just stolen the contents of the Applied Science Division of Wayne Enterprises through a heist on Gotham City’s bourse and proceeds to cripple Batman and put him away in Ra’s al Ghul’s prison. There, Wayne learns the story of a mercenary who fell in love with his warlord employer’s daughter and fathered a child with her. He’s thrown into the prison but is later discharged, not knowing that the daughter took his place instead. The daughter gave birth to the child and was later killed by the inmates; the child survives only because one prisoner protected it. The child is later able to escape the prison but its protector was attacked by the inmates. Wayne assumes the child is the young Bane.

Back at the GC ranch, Bane has tricked GC’s finest into an underground sewer trap labyrinth and taken over the city under the pretence of reclaiming it for the city inhabitants. The nuclear core of the energy project is turned into a time-bomb. Gordon goes underground and contacts Blake. Bane reveals the truth about Dent publicly by reading Gordon’s speech before TV cameras. The prisoners Gordon had put away under the Dent Act are released. Various prominent GC movers and shakers, among them the right-hand man of Daggett (Daggett having been killed earlier), are subjected to show trials and either killed or forced to walk across the thin ice of Gotham river.

After several months recuperating and retraining, Wayne escapes Ra’s al Ghul’s prison and returns to GC where he joins with Lucius Fox, Gordon, Blake and Kyle to reclaim GC and stop the time-bomb from detonating and destroying the city. As Batman, Wayne meets Bane again and the two fight: Batman nearly defeats Bane but is cut off by Miranda Tate who reveals herself as Talia al Ghul, the grand-daughter of Ra’s al Ghul who escaped the prison as the child; Bane is revealed as her protector. In the meantime, Gordon has cut off Tate’s remote control to the bomb. Kyle arrives in the nick of time to kill Bane while Batman sets off after Tate who is determined to take manual control of the bomb.

The film is more unified than its predecessor and less dependent on silly skits but still histrionic and heavy-handed in its treatment of its themes. Terrorism as a topic is treated rather simplistically though this is due to the movie format: Daggett, representing big business, works together with the rogue Bane, a catch-all figure for shadowy charismatic terrorists and mercenaries, to subvert the GC elite but Bane through superior cunning subverts Daggett’s ambitions and becomes GC’s warlord. He seizes on the cultural Zeitgeist with its loathing for political corruption and its socialite sycophancy and institutes a Reign of Terror to satisfy the hoi polloi’s desire for vengeance on its leaders. On a more personal level, Wayne learns how to properly use his wealth to benefit the people of GC and discovers physical and existential freedom and redemption; his burden of championing the weak and vulnerable passes onto Blake whose real first name is revealed to be … ha! Robin.

There are little connections with Nolan’s previous flick “Inception”: a cafe scene earlier in “The Dark Knight Rises” repeats at the end of the film in such a way that it can be interpreted as a dream and there is a message about breaking out of a rut and striking out on one’s own. The myth about Harvey Dent which Batman and Gordon had colluded on in the belief that GC would be unable to cope with the idea of Dent as a criminal, and blown by Bane, is accepted as false by GC citizens without too much ado or the chaos and despair that Gordon had feared would happen. Whether the GC people can kill off a myth only by replacing it with a new myth – which might say something “fundamental” about human societies (that no society can function without believing in lies: a Straussian philosophical influence is felt here) – depends on how viewers interpret the second cafe scene.

For guys as careful as Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan are in constructing narrative architectures,  they can’t hope to cover everything so it’s inevitable that incongruities should occur: how could Wayne not realise that Tate is Talia al Ghul and how did she manage to inveigle herself and Bane into the GC elite? how is it that Wayne survives having his back put out? why does Bane spare his life? what happens to Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who pops up as Bane’s judge and jury of the GC elite? The ending is too pat and tidy with GC finally taking its place among squeaky-clean utopias, Gordon being redeemed by his heroic derring-do in helping to defuse the bomb and Blake finding his true role in life as defender of helpless and vulnerable city orphans.

Like other bloated Hollywood block-busters, “The Dark Knight Rises” suffers from too many pyrotechnics, stock film tropes like a spectacular opening sequence in which Bane and his myrmidons kidnap the Russian inventor of the project nuclear core, unbearably melodramatic orchestral music, and an essentially conservative message about how billionaires really are good guys at heart and how individuals of different classes and backgrounds can band together to defeat a common enemy and save their city after the Federal government has abandoned it. The Nolan brothers enlist the Occupy message and people’s outrage against crooked banksters and mafia banks to suggest these can be corrupted and made to serve selfish individual agendas that lead to mob rule and the kind of terror that once existed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and in China during the Cultural Revolution (and even in parts of the southern and western United States from 1880 to the 1960s with lynchings of mostly black people, though some white people and a Jew were also lynched); some reviewers will obviously take that as a cynical move on the brothers’ part.

It is unfortunately true that idealism can be subverted by forceful and charismatic individuals whose real motives are sinister. Especially if outrage at institutions and networks that perpetuate class hierarchies can be directed against particular individuals who are then demonised and forced to suffer punishment for the crimes of many; this of course means that the institutions themselves never undergo re-examination and can survive intact with new leaders. Messengers are shot but the message itself is lost in the changeover from old leaders to new leaders. Structures and the attitudes and values associated with them and which maintain them stay in place to corrupt a new generation of leaders. The Batman trilogy’s outlook is cynical about the prospect for social improvement and change, and the message is: don’t question the system / if it ain’t broke, why reinvent the wheel?

The film is loosely based on a three-story series that began with “Knightfall” and continued through “Knightquest” and KnightsEnd”, released by DC Comics in the early 1990s. References to the series and to “Knightfall” particularly in the film include scenes in the sewers where initially Bane has his hideout and an early line about crocodiles living there also (a reference to Batman villain Killer Croc), Bane breaking Batman’s back and Bane’s release of the GC prisoners. “Knightfall” has a theme about Batman realising that he can’t fight underground crime on his own and needs the help of others such as Nightwing, the Huntress and Oracle and her Birds of Prey to clean up corruption wherever it occurs; this idea is present also in “The Dark Knight Rises”. Unfortunately this third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is no great advance on the mythos of the vigilante masked crusader begun by Bob Kane during the Depression years some eighty years ago.






One thought on “The Dark Knight Rises: bloated film seizes on Western anxieties to deliver a politically conservative message that undermines idealism

  1. I found the development of Batman being ‘dragged back into the game’ unnecessarily overdeveloped. I was fascinated that such an obvious cure for paralysis was available, but only in third world prisons, where it routinely practiced. But these could be overlooked were it not for…

    Bane and Tate. As it ended, I wasn’t sure Bane wasn’t a tragic hero. Imprisoned in hell on earth as a small boy, he befriends and heroically saves a young girl from a riotous mob which has raped and killed her mother and has its eyes on her. His noble act leads him to horrible punishment, until the girl returns with her father to save Bane. Upset by the imbalance of wealth in the World (which we all know is horrible when viewed on a global scale), he become somewhat of a Marxist revolutionary. He is kicked out of the league of shadows, perhaps even for believing in a Marxist utopia, or perhaps for being disfigured (certainly not for being to cruel – these people wanted Gotham to tear itself apart in a drug fueled mania). In loyalty to the woman who came back to him, for whom he obviously still has feelings, he agrees to help hatch a plan to allow her to avenge her fathers death and (for a period of five months) conduct a social experiment in forced equality (which obviously goes badly – descends into anarchy). Poor Bane has been thru a lot in his life, but his intentions are well meaning. He isn’t really evil, just badly misunderstood and violent,(but that’s all he understands – he spent most of his life in prison). Don’t get me wrong, it’s not OK to do what he did, but his heart was in the right place. If Batman is going to be dark, the villains needed to be something more than highly capable, misunderstood, tortured souls.

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