Our comrade Peter Little wrote this review of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and published it at The Hooded Utilitarian. He explores the film’s conservative politics as an expression of ruling class anxieties about revolution. We hope to promote more of this sort of writing on our blog: we are not just interested in theory and strategy, but also want to engage in more discussions of art, media, and popular culture, both because they’re relevant to our politics and because both producing and discussing art enriches our lives. -Fray
The Dark Knight Rises: Nightmares of a Ruling Class in Crisis
by Peter Little
As for his appearance in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is a force for evil and the destruction of the status quo,” Dixon said. “He’s far more akin to an Occupy Wall Street type if you’re looking to cast him politically. And if there ever was a Bruce Wayne running for the White House it would have to be Romney.”
–Bane creator, Chuck Dixon
Echoes of the Arab Spring, European and Asian strike waves, the Occupy phenomenon and a host of new popular upsurges haunt the psyches of a global ruling class attempting to navigate the ever unfolding crises which continue to spiral outward. It is in this light that the newly released Dark Knight Rises, third in the Dark Knight series, is a stunning, if terrifying reflection of the deepest anxieties of a ruling class with few options, fewer ideas, and no shortage of increasingly threatening social contradictions menacing its psyche.
The plot itself is predictable-but with notable twists. The film’s villain Bane, long incarcerated in a prison pit he describes as,”hell,” has nurtured a revenge desire against Gotham City. His rage, however, is not only driven by personal experience-he has adopted an ideological conception of Gotham as representative of the causes of a myriad of injustices embodied by his life of incarceration and brutality. The mission of Bane’s large insurgent force? Destroy Gotham with a nuclear weapon.
Early on in the film, a small crew of armed men, led by the anti-hero Bane, bursts onto the Nasdaq trading floor, randomly firing weapons, and taking the entirety of the trading floor hostage. While they attempt to tap into the trading circuits on the floor itself, Bane stands over a trembling trader. The trader, in a vain attempt to dissuade Bane and his crew, tells him,”There’s no money to steal here!” to which Bane hisses,”Then what are you people doing here?”
Noteworthy also is the recurrence of Bane’s populist themes during the pursuit of his goal. Recruiting from orphaned and homeless youth, Bane has trained a small army in the sewers of Gotham City. Midway through the film, Bane lures thousands of police officers into the sewers, detonating explosives and trapping them underneath, unleashing his insurgency on the city.
Soon after, we see Bane at the steps of a prison in the heart of the city, the site where, we are told, the forces of organized crime have been held on lengthy sentences under the,”Dent Act.” To establish the Dent Act, Gotham’s incorruptible Police Commissioner Gordon knowingly allowed Batman to be framed and publicly scapegoated. In a nod towards former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s,”tough on crime,” policies, the Dent Act is heralded as bringing an era of unprecedented social peace and stability in Gotham City, and thus justifying the dishonesty behind Batman’s downfall. The foundational myth of Gotham’s “peace” is not just a lie, we come to see, but a total inversion of the truth.
Standing on the steps of the prison, Bane appeals to the citizens of the city. Encouraging them to rise up against those who have robbed them, oppressed them, and imprisoned them, his men blow open the doors of the prison and he urges Gotham’s citizens to set the prisoners free. We next see hundreds of armed prisoners, still in their orange jumpsuits, surging through the open doors of the prison into the streets of the city.
As official order is derailed, and at Bane’s urging, we see the poor and impoverished ransacking luxury hotels, pulling the wealthy from their homes and cars. We see police officers and the wealthy dragged before barbaric people’s tribunals where guilt is already determined-the only ruling to be made is whether the sentenced to death by execution or sentenced to exile (a trial by ordeal) across a partially frozen bay surrounding the now isolated island of a city.
Bane and his actions represent the deep seated anxieties of a ruling class in crisis. Unable to resolve the global economic crisis themselves, they nonetheless reject popular movements -the attacks on Wall Street, the striving from the excluded, imprisoned, and forgotten for power. All of these are seen not as possible forces for freedom and the resolution of the crisis, but instead as demagogic, Machiavellian, and terroristic threats only capable of producing destruction and barbarism. Bane is not a product of the actions of masses-by the film’s authors, the initiatives of the masses are a manipulated, controllable product of the actions of Bane’s armed vanguard.
Although Bane espouses notions of democratic urges against wealth, decadence, and the oppression this crumbling system doles out, he is clearly painted as sadistic, brutal, and opportunistic. He has no genuine interest in human freedom. In the end, he himself is only a pawn of an entirely misanthropic leadership whose sole goal-even if it means their own destruction-is the destruction of everything Gotham is-including the very masses Bane pretends to appeal to and whose power he momentarily unleashes. In the trembling subconscious narratives of official society, the possibilities of the unleashing of that social force are reduced solely to acts of barbarism against their former oppressors, but are incapable of offering a vision towards freedom.
The police, by and large, play a contradictory role throughout the film. We are introduced to Police Commissioner Gordon as he prepares to acknowledge his prior role in allowing the film’s hero, Batman, to have wrongly been defamed in order that he may pass his”Dent Act.” Throughout the film, the police as a force are easily led into traps and rendered useless. They attack civillian populations they are charged to assist, and are utterly unable to resolve the social contradictions which Bane manipulates to tear Gotham apart. Even in their redemption — leading a,”return to order,” rebellion against Bane and his mobilization of the marginalized, — they are only useful as auxilliaries. Even then, they are so inept that as the film closes and order is returned. the city’s one honest officer, Batman’s unacknowledged,”Robin,” throws his badge into the river in disgust.
Who is Batman in this context? The dream of a technocratic solution to a problem of social contradictions. Bruce Wayne, though orphaned, is a child of privilege. A billionare, who in his forties is still waited on hand and foot by his caretaker butler, Bruce Wayne’s finances are bouyed by his ownership and investment in military technologies developments. Alongside his superhero role, Bruce Wayne funds philanthropic and,”sustainable energy,” projects in vain attempts to mitigate his own unresolved anger (and his rage shines as a stand-in for the repressed social conflicts his very wealth is rooted in.) Bane, his nemesis, draws his recruits from the same orphanages that the failing Wayne Foundation ceases to fund as its finances become imperiled. Throughout the film we find Bruce Wayne, a man whose body has been so traumatized from his vigilante acts of years past that he must walk with a cane, is redeemed physically, returned to superhuman prowess by technological adaptions to his human form. When he is incarcerated and almost killed by Bane, he escapes and makes his way back to Gotham just in time to participate in the,”law and order,” rebellion led by Gotham’s resurgent police force. In the midst of it, he seeks out the head of his technological development firm-knowing Batman alone is useless without his expensive military toys.
The flipside? Although Bruce Wayne has developed a revolutionary source of, “sustainable,” nuclear energy, he has hidden it from the outside world for distrust of the existing social structure’s ability to manage it. It is this very technology which Bane steals and transforms into the nuclear device which threatens Gotham’s annilhation. The ruling class’ implicit understanding of the limits and failures of their dreams of a technocratic solution to the crises of ecology, economy, and culture, are vivid, however, in the moments when Bane’s insurgency takes control of Batman’s arsenal of weapons and toys, employing them against the former ruling order in Gotham City.
The ruling classes’ terror is vividly painted; the possibilities of liberation are more confused. For example, though the filmmaker appears unable to understand her potential as representing a liberating social force, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman takes the stage as a working class hero. As a gifted street fighter and cat burglar, she finds herself unknowingly in a bargain with Bane’s agents. Her goal is a piece of software which can erase the electronic history of a person permanently — their credit, their debts, their arrests, all electronic record of their ever existing — giving them a blank slate.
In exchange for the promise of this program (and she assumes, a new freedom), she pulls a heist on Bruce Wayne himself. Obtaining employment in the Wayne property as a servant, she breaks into Bruce Wayne’s private grounds. Beyond her assigned recognizance role on Wayne himself, she takes a valuable pearl necklace for her own keeping. When caught, she justifies herself to Wayne by saying she only takes from those who have more than they could ever use for themselves. She then leaves Wayne with a warning that his class will soon face their own reckoning.
Throughout the film, we see two mutually existing conflicting conceptions of the world. At times, Catwoman engages in acts of solidarity with poor and oppressed people; at other times, she acts solely in her own self interest. She even sells out Bruce Wayne despite her developing sympathies for him. It’s only at the moment of total social upheaval that she casts off all self interest, using her considerable talents and skills, risking her own life when she could easily guarantee her own safety, to assist the civilian population of Gotham City in escaping the nuclear threat about to engulf them.
Between the lines of Dark Knight Returns grim, dystopian reflection of a bankrupt official society we also see nods towards its own failures and brutalities. Hints of Katrina can be seen as police open fire on civilians attempting to cross bridges to flee Bane’s bomb, we hear Commisioner Gordon refer to Gotham as a,”failed state,” and see agents of the U.S. Security apparatus acknowledging Bane as a less than ideal but negotiable,”warlord,” over Gotham.
In The Dark Knight Rises, philanthropy, technology, and institutions all fail to mitigate intolerable social crises. In this context, Batman represents the sad clamoring of the ruling class for a hero that even they don’t truly believe in.