BATMAN AND THE POLITICS OF TRANSCENDENCE
Rarely have so many spoilers been packed into one review. You’ve been warned.
As soon as I saw Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT RISES people were asking me what I thought about the “anti-Occupy” rhetoric. It would be just naive to pretend I didn’t know what they meant. Images of huge crowds of thugs and police charging at each other conjure images of Oakland; Salina Kyle warning Bruce Wayne that the people have become fed up with how well the rich live while everyone else suffers; people looting mansions and declaring them for themselves. I don’t believe this is just coincidence.
I also don’t believe its that simple.
I am going to reach deep into the recesses of my memory and examine all the details of this film and suggest there is more here that meets the eye. I can see it now. Hopefully you will, too. I don’t even know if the writers and directors saw it.
This isn’t going to be an aesthetic review. Aesthetically the movie is great and I give it three and a half stars and all that.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s go all the way back….
The League of Shadows is back doing what they did in the first one: They want to destroy Gotham. Before the movie takes place the Gotham police department has enacted the Dent Act. We don’t know what this is exactly but apparently it has given the police draconian authority to fight street and organized crime. And did they! There are now thousands of people in prison thanks to the Dent Act. The police don’t even have anything to do anymore thanks to the Dent Act.
We should already recognize a problem. The police have basically used a false hero (Harvey Dent, who was a monster by the end of the last movie) to grant themselves sweeping powers to fight street crime. Everyone feels secure. But it turns out the police were after the wrong dog: Street crime was never the threat. The real threat comes about as the result of a greedy, white collar business man named Roland Daggett.
Daggett is desperate to take over Wayne Enterprises and to that effect hires a mad super villain called Bane to secure fortunes for him in West Africa. This lets Daggett buy so many shares that he gets on the Wayne Board of Directors.
Maybe the police should have been more worried about this guy instead of street crime.
Meanwhile Daggett hires Salina Kyle, a cat burglar, to steal Bruce Wayne’s finger prints so that he can use them to access a computer program that will ultimately bankrupt Bruce Wayne.
Salina Kyle remains an interesting mystery throughout the film. Her only interest is a computer program that Wayne Enterprises developed that will erase her past from the electronic grid and let her start anew. It turns out Bruce Wayne develops a lot of dangerous stuff (nuclear fusion, military weapons vehicles, software) that he never releases. He is sort of myopic. Deep down Salina Kyle seems like a decent person just trying to find her way back to a decent life but trapped in a life of crime to survive. Perhaps had the system been more compassionate she would never have been forced into this life.
Foreseeing problems, Bruce Wayne has handed control of his fusion system/nuclear bomb over to Miranda Tate.
This might have seemed smart, especially after Bane and his henchmen attack the Gotham stock exchange. There are some great anti-capitalist lines here. We see capitalists insist that the money in the stock exchange belongs to “everyone.” We get a great joke from Bane about how bankers are just stealing.
The horribly dangerous fusion reactor that Wayne developed becomes Bane’s ultimate weapon of terror. Bruce Wayne is imprisoned in some hell hole. Bane reveals the truth about Harvey Dent and urges the people to free all the imprisoned street criminals. Vigilante justice becomes the norm while the police are trapped underground. The one good cop left above ground, Blake, works behind the scenes to try to stop Bane’s nuclear bomb from killing everyone. He also works to save orphans. He also tries to get Foley, the deputy commissioner, to join him; the deputy commissioner heroically hides in his house.
The people have resorted to mob mentality. They are really as poor as ever and yet act like a revolution is underway. Meanwhile, they are all about to be killed by a nuclear bomb.
You can’t blame them for being angry, though. The capitalists really did ruin Gotham. But we also see this anger at its worst. This reminds me of the Kennedy quote: Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. In Gotham, the inevitable has come to fruition.
So let’s line up these characters and their morality:
Bane: Wants to kill everyone.
Saline Kyle: Desperate criminal trying to escape her past.
Bruce Wayne: Kind of a jerk.
Police: Except for Blake, useless and obsessed with the wrong targets.
The People: Willing to follow anything that moves, from football games to Bane’s “revolution.”
Alfred: Abandons Batman when the city needs him most.
Commissioner Gordon: Honest but not useful.
Daggett and the other corporatists: Killed by their own greed.
Miranda Tate: Hands Gotham’s most dangerous weapon to Bane.
Are there any sympathetic characters here?
Well, Batman. Now maybe you’re thinking he is the same as Bruce Wayne. Well, materially he is. But as a good little Thomist I am all about the formal distinctions, rather than the material.
In this movie, Batman represents something that transcends Bruce Wayne. He is something that comes out of Wayne, even when Wayne wants to bury that part of his life. He ultimately sacrifices himself to save a city that everyone else says isn’t worth saving. Batman rises above the “Us versus them” mentality.
And make no mistake: Batman does die at the end. We see him in the cockpit seconds before the bomb blasts. Batman is dead. But there is also resurrection: Batman died to save everyone, including Bruce Wayne, who can finally continue on with life the way Alfred predicted he should.
I don’t think this movie is anti-Occupy. I think this movie is about transcendence. This is about overcoming pain, both social and personal; it’s about transcending our limitations, whether they are the limitations imposed by fear, greed, anger, hatred, and even mortality.
This isn’t a movie about the police are good and the populus bad: When the police shoot at Blake, when the police start beating the crowds, we can hardly call them “good guys.” The only good guy is Blake, who realizes how useless the police really are and throws his badge over the bridge. He realizes that the future isn’t in authoritarian structures, but is in good works, which we see in him as he assists the new orphanage.
In fact, the whole movie’s theme can be summed up in Batman’s last line, spoken to Commissioner Gordon, about how anyone can be a hero, sometimes just offering a kind word to a child makes your a hero. It’s when we all go outside of ourselves that we begin to make the world a better place; to transcend is to be heroic.
The bad guys in this film are characters limited by their pasts, like Bane and Miranda Tate. Others are limited by their anger and avarice. But the good guys transcend: They overcome their past, like Salina Kyle and Batman.
And at the end we see what appears to be a happy, orderly Gotham. Apparently, somehow even the people overcame the tensions and barriers they had constructed.
Some people have accused DARK KNIGHT RISES of lacking deep character development. But the next time I see it I am going to pay special attention to the character arcs, because I feel like it is only those who awaken to something greater than themselves who become the infinite and those who fail to do so are those who die in their own self-imposed limitations.