Visions of Conservative Triumph: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises

Bane as Stalinist Revolutionary

Reviewed in this essay: The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan. Running Time: 164 minutes.

With a quarter of a billion dollar budget, nearly three hours of screen time, and creative carte blanche, one could not but hope for a masterpiece from Christopher Nolan’s long awaited The Dark Knight Rises. One is sad to report, however, that behind the film’s sensuous visuality, grand set-pieces, and bombastic score lies a political heart that can be described as nothing short of conservative.

This time out a melancholic Batman is forced out of professional exile to take on Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked, hulking boar of a villain. Compared to the vital, anarchistic energy exuded by Heath Ledger’s Joker – a performance whose iconoclastic menace still invokes controversy – Bane seems downright pedestrian. Hardy can’t come close to the sheer terror – made all the more powerful because of its joyfulness – that lent Ledger’s performance such skin crawling power. Although to be fair, Nolan’s decision to keep half of Hardy’s face hidden under a mask hardly helped the actor in his bid for expressive intensity. Nolan also introduces us to Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who steals out of anger over the class oppression that defines Gotham City.

Bane will eventually lead an uprising against Gotham’s upper classes, taking over the city with the help of an underground army of outcasts. And it is precisely here that Nolan’s narrative reveals itself in all of its conservatism. For Nolan wants to have it both ways. In the early stages of his film, he uses Hathaway’s character to launch a critique against the capitalist greed that defines Batman’s beloved city. As she eloquently puts it: “There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne…when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” At these moments, it seems the film is channelling Occupy’s populist outrage, giving it much needed political heft.

And yet Bane’s “revolution” to give the people of Gotham back their “freedom” becomes nothing short of a totalitarian nightmare, replete with Kangaroo courts, militaristic executions, and brutal looting. In the guise of Bane the film suggests that any “revolutionary” attempt at overcoming class oppression will lead to nothing but immoral, unproductive violence. That Bane’s violence is not a revolution at all – in that it doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem of the ownership of the means of production in Gotham City – should barely need to be mentioned. And yet, in positing Bane as the emblem of social revolution, Nolan produces a vision of radical politics as leading directly to Stalinist atrocity.

The Defender Of The Bad Old Order?

Batman, as Bane’s opponent, then ironically becomes a force to restore order – that is, the bad old capitalist order that Hathaway’s Catwoman (rightly) pointed out was so violent in the first place. Is Batman nothing, for Nolan, but a reactionary force to maintain a failed status quo? In making his film a warning against Stalinist violence as a solution to social inequality, Nolan (wittingly or not) participates in the ideological fantasy that continues to sustain neoliberal Capitalism: that while we know this system is structurally incapable of producing just social relations, it is the least worst system we have, so we shouldn’t bother changing it. Any attempts at doing so will, like Bane’s uprising, only lead to more social chaos than the system currently produces. In this way, Nolan’s film asks us to leave our woefully unjust social world unchanged – a conservative wish writ large for the multiplex masses.

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One response to “Visions of Conservative Triumph: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises”

  1. I half agree and half disagree with Mr. McConaghy’s compelling criticism of this film. I do think Christopher Nolan provided very little in thinking alternatives to the market driven world that made Batman/Bruce Wayne possible. In this the movie was disappointingly conservative. It was even more conservative in the sense that the ideal given in the end was Catwoman and Batman sitting at some cafe having drinks. I mean, COME ON!! So instead of the Dark Knight whose life has been fundamentally scarred by childhood trauma, who must experience the world in a radically different way, we’re left with a Batman that dreams of love and roses and coffee houses?! How banal. This makes Nolan little more than an Alexander Payne with a bigger budget and a better SFX designer (or does it? more on this below). My only point of disagreement with Mr. McConaghy’s insightful review, however, is that I don’t think a Stalinesque type totalitarianism was the ideology driving the antagonists in this film. If we recall, the aims of the League of Assassin’s from the first film were not to take over Gotham city. They only wanted it destroyed. They weren’t communists. They were “anarchists” that enjoyed to play with the image of order or authority, but always with chaos as their final goal (with the understanding that this is a deeply flawed characterization of the principles of anarchism). Chaos was also the driving force behind the Joker in the last film. This doesn’t make Nolan any less conservative, but it does allow in an inadvertent counter-narrative that makes all three films somewhat redeemable. I always like to think there was an anti-Nolan hiding in Nolan that wanted to write an inverted morality tale with these films by showing us the banality of our desires, while writing his villains as the embodiment of a weird utopian unconscious. If we abandon the idea that chaos was driving Batman’s villains, we’re left wondering what kind of world they were dreaming of. With the Joker, it was simple: a world free of hypocrisy. In this, his arguments were far more compelling than Batman’s. With the League of Assassins, they only wanted a world free of corruption, while Nolan provided nothing in the story to counter the arguments they gave. Was Gotham fundamentally corrupt? Yes. Was there a massive division between rich and poor? Yes. Meanwhile, we are always left with these banal dreams of love at the end that are fundamentally unsatisfying, ones we know can only be bought via Bruce Wayne’s wealth (dare I call them bourgeois fantasies?), and ones that we know hide all the hypocrisy and corruption that drove Batman’s enemies. In the end, I like to think these three movies were narrated through the eyes of another well known Batman character: The Riddler. He drew us in, twisted the tale, made black seem like white, up seem like down, and played his trick on us to brilliant effect. Now he’s chanting in the background, “Riddle me this. Riddle me that. What would be better than the dreams of a bat?” I like to think this. Unfortunately, there’s is plenty more evidence in these films to argue otherwise.