23 July 2012

The political implications (if any) of The Dark Knight Rises

Big-budget Hollywood movies often aspire to become more than mere movies. They want to be Events, not just "the movie event of the summer" but pop-culture touchstones if not defining memories of moments in history. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was well on its way to being a kind of Event before death imitated art in Aurora CO during a midnight show on Friday morning. It could claim to be a cultural event because it concluded Nolan's trilogy of Batman films, following the reboot of Batman Begins and the epochal The Dark Knight, itself a transcendent Event by virtue of its Joker dying before the film premiered. That the Aurora shooter apparently sought to imitate the Joker, from miscoloring his hair to furnishing his apartment with deathtraps, will raise again the old issue of the corrupting or desensitizing effects of violent fantasy films. But before the suspect made his murderous contribution to the conversation, people were prepared to comment on the perceived politics of Nolan's movies. The Dark Knight invited such discussion by suggesting that Bruce Wayne had gone too far in rigging a surveillance network of all the cell phones in Gotham city, and by having Wayne acknowledge this by destroying the system after it had done its work. The Dark Knight Rises has announced itself with apocalyptic imagery of mobs bursting from prisons and storming rich houses, of plunder and terrorism. The game of political analysis has begun alongside the hand-wringing over the movies' effect on the Aurora shooter, and for the sake of arguments I want to address whether the film itself has a coherent political message. To do this, I'll discuss plot points that will spoil the film for those who haven't viewed it yet. Consider that a Spoiler Warning and leave if you don't want to know too much -- but not before I tell you, without spoiling anything, that superhero movies are never reliably translatable into partisan or ideological terms simply because superheroes, despite their protestations of fidelity to certain supreme values ("truth, justice and the American way," for example) are by definition people with their own moral codes that are no more meant to be imitated than their dangerous exploits. Now on to the spoilers....

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Christopher Nolan has said that A Tale of Two Cities was one of the major inspirations for The Dark Knight Rises. This is both the truth and a tease -- the tease if for those whose familiarity with the Dickens novel may lead them to expect a certain finish. A kind of revolution does break out during the picture, though Gotham seems to skip the liberation part and goes straight to a reign of terror. There are also some perfunctory gestures toward portraying the present as the "best of times" and "worst of times," though we don't see poverty as abject as the upper reaches of wealth displayed. The revolution, such as it is, is instigated by the film's predominant villain, the masked mercenary Bane, for whom the rhetoric of revolution is only a pretext for utter destruction. There is no revolution in the sense of reforming the redistribution of wealth and resources through lawmaking. If anything, Bane's Gotham has become a lawless place where no one feels particularly liberated. He only invites the poor to plunder the rich, it seems, to compensate for their imprisonment within the city, since he has vowed to destroy Gotham with a nuclear bomb should anyone, poor or rich, leave town. Bane is self-evidently a nihilist rather than a leftist, yet his resort to social revolution as a ploy is one element that leads people to label Rises a right-wing film, as if his abuse of redistributionist rhetoric is meant to discredit the very idea of redistribution for the audience. Yet I think people will see Bane plainly enough as an interloper and no stand-in for the mainstream "left" in the U.S. Nor does it follow that Bane's atrocities prove the justice of the existing distribution of wealth, and Nolan suggests no such thing. Rather, to the extent that Rises has a political agenda, its purpose seems to be to challenge those who advocate redistribution to decide how far they'd be willing to go. A better way to get to Nolan's theme, or to determine if he has one, is to follow the other major character to spout redistributionist rhetoric -- a bad guy who turns into a hero.

In comics, Selina Kyle -- still better known to most people simply as "Catwoman," -- has become an archetypal good bad woman. She remains outside the law, but like Batman she has a personal moral code that defines what she will or won't do. This doesn't necessarily make her a trustworthy person by real-world standards, anymore than Batman himself, but it establishes that Selina lives according to some kind of principle. The movie Selina is somewhat less principled than her comics counterpart, since she's willing to kill people -- a willingness that comes in quite handy at a crucial moment in the picture -- but she still draws a line that may be the nearest Nolan offers to the line for the audience to recognize. In the commercials and trailers, she's the one who warns Bruce Wayne that a "storm" is coming, a comeuppance for the greedy, selfish super-rich who haven't shared the wealth with everyone else. This may be no more sincere a statement than any of Bane's, since Selina is primarily interested in her own future rather than social justice. Even when threatening Wayne, however, she draws a line, telling him that she steals only from those who presumably won't miss what she's taking -- never mind that she stole Bruce's mother's pearl necklace under his very nose. You could say that her target isn't wealth per se but luxury. The mobs incited by Bane, however -- and it's unclear whether these are actually "liberated" citizens or simply liberated prisoners -- are out for everything they can lay hands on. The crucial scene for Selina comes after she's been jailed, thanks to an unlikely plot contrivance, and freed in the storming of the prison by Bane's men. She reunites with her sidekick Holly Robinson and finds herself in a looted mansion. She notices a smashed photograph of a family and seems strangely sad. "This used to be someone's house," she remarks. "Now it's everybody's house!" Holly answers. This may be the politically-correct answer under Bane's regime, but it's the wrong answer for Selina Kyle. A home is a home, no matter how rich, and she can't countenance such wholesale confiscation and destruction. Holly's comment may be the closest Nolan comes to portraying a discreditable ideology, a collectivism that denies that anything can be anybody's own. It should be noted, also, that Bane espouses no such collectivism, calling only for social inversion as a lord of misrule. 

In any event, Selina is a changed woman, the change having begun earlier when she recoiled at Bane's sadistic beating of Batman. Changed isn't the same thing as repentant, however. She pointedly refuses to apologize for having betrayed Batman that time, nor does she ever repent her thievery or killing. What she does repent, or renounce, is her own selfishness; given an opportunity to make good her own escape before Bane blows up the city, she returns to the Wall Street battle zone to save Batman's life and help him capture the mobile nuke. In broadest terms, Selina may represent all those who deplore gross inequality and propose remedies while not necessarily endorsing all means to equalization. If liberals want to salvage a positive message from the picture -- which may yet be hard to do when one of its defining images is an army of uniformed cops charging up Wall Street to attack self-styled revolutionaries -- they should look to Selina Kyle as Nolan's vote of confidence that not all the angry people, and maybe even not many, will go as far as people on the right may fear.  She's Rises's equivalent to the hulking black convict who takes possession of the Joker's detonator in Dark Knight and, instead of using it to blow up a ferry as Joker hoped, tosses it into the ocean. Selina may still be an unprincipled person from certain points of view -- and as I said already, so is Batman or any vigilante -- but she has principle enough to stand up for civilization. While a previous incarnation of Catwoman in Tim Burton's Batman Returns refuses a happy ending, Nolan's version earns one. There's your moral ... or at least there's one.

For a different perspective with somewhat different conclusions, here's Ross Douthout's comment from the New York Times website.

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