Christopher Nolan revisited: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman in The Dark Knight Rises.
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The conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is rife with prescient political commentary – we take a closer look…

Spoilers follow for The Dark Knight Rises, The Dark Knight and Batman Begins.

While the stranglehold of totalitarianism casts a long shadow over fictional mythology, so too does the freedom of revolution, in which societies break away from the shackles imposed by a system which frequently benefits the few as opposed to the many. It is often inside the heart of revolutionary systems that heroes are born. A recent example of the power of revolution as a national myth, and how it can come to define a society, lies in The Dark Knight Rises.

I’m going to admit something now: The Dark Knight Rises is my favourite of Nolan’s Bat trilogy. The Dark Knight is the best, I entirely believe that, but The Dark Knight Rises has something special. It’s realistically the least cohesive of the three on a narrative level, and at points you can even see the filmmaking join. It nevertheless works as a melodramatic sequel to both previous pictures as it provides Batman with his first significant physical as well as psychological antagonist in Tom Hardy’s wonderfully mellifluous mercenary Bane. He completes the journey Bruce Wayne and Nolan have been on with the trilogy – decrypting what it means to be a symbol. An idea.

The Dark Knight Rises, in ending the trilogy, took this idea to a natural point of conclusion. Batman Begins had given Bruce Wayne an origin story as the Bat grounded in more of a realistic take on Gotham and the character; a city in the vice-like grip of neoliberalism, with corporations such as his own Wayne Industries vying for control against organised crime organisations such as Carmine Falcone’s mafioso. Liam Neeson’s villain, Ra’s al-Ghul, and his organisation the League of Shadows, seeded the conceptual idea at the very heart of Nolan’s Bat-mythology: that Gotham had grown too big, fallen too deeply into injustice, and was in need of ‘saving’.

Ra’s as a villain has a fascinating backstory. Nolan’s films only suggest this, but in comic lore Ra’s is an immortal, supernatural being who has devoted his endless life to destroying civilisations who are losing themselves to despair and darkness. Batman, in Batman Begins, does serve as the ‘hero’ saving Gotham from this external enemy, from an extremism which Ra’s cannot hide, but which ultimately serves a revolutionary, philosophical concept. What if Gotham’s people cannot be saved? What if everything must be razed, turned to ashes, in order for the city to be reborn? Ra’s may be a megalomaniac suggesting mass murder, but he is also a rampant anti-capitalist, and Batman has to serve as the vanguard to protect the existing ‘System’ (with a capital S).

The Dark Knight introduces an element which fundamentally unseats Batman as this conceptual ‘hero’: chaos. The Joker is not just designed to be the other side of the coin to Batman, as the virtue and protector of order and justice, but he serves to expose how Batman needs The System more than the reverse in order to survive. Batman has to sacrifice his own reputation as the hero Gotham needs in order to sanctify the fallen hero, Harvey Dent aka Two-Face, that Gotham wants. The Joker never truly loses in The Dark Knight, if anything he wins; he does not destroy Gotham but he does destroy Batman, and by protecting a corrupt, flawed System—the same System Ra’s was trying to destroy—the Joker achieves his ends.

This means, come the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises and the introduction of Bane, the circumstances are ripe for revolution in Gotham City. It has weathered literal destruction, weathered the terrorist attacks on its soul, and now appears to be reaching for utopia; the corrupt have survived, men like businessman John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn, in peak slimeball mode), by rebranding themselves as part of a deeper corporate structure that has helped the police rid Gotham, ostensibly, of crime. The death of Dent, mistakenly seen as the virtuous ‘protector’ of Gotham, turned him into a symbolic martyr. A dangerous hypocrisy lies at the heart of Nolan’s Gotham by the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, which recalls more than anything the French Revolution.

Taking place in 1787, the revolt of the peasantry in 18th century France may not be the first revolution, but it remains without doubt the most infamous in modern political history. The Gotham of The Dark Knight Rises has similarities to Paris of the 1780’s; led by an entrenched monarchy and ruling class who had taken from the people with little in return, there existed a working class powerfully on the verge of a revolt against the System which was leading them to starvation.

The Dark Knight Rises is more of a pointed commentary on a modern, capitalist system which protects wealth and status inside the bracket of a chosen elite, the kind Bruce Wayne has always rubbed shoulders with. A storm is coming, Mr Wayne, Anne Hathaway’s slinky Selina Kyle aka Catwoman warns him.And when it hits, you better batten down the hatches. Because you’re all going to wonder how you all could have lived so large, and left so little for the rest of us. She’s not wrong.

Christian Bale as Batman and Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

Nolan admits his interest in many of these broader concepts, as he told The Hollywood Reporter:

“We’ve gone to some very extreme places with the content of the film and how much we’ve been allowed to explore, ideas of society, of corruption and decay. People often interpret the films as political; they’re not. They are examining social issues, and we’re really pleased to have been able to follow the threads.”

The storm Catwoman references turns out to be Bane, a zealot who very much continues the work established by Ra’s al-Ghul, but approaches the conceptual destruction of both Gotham and Batman in a literal, violent, and a philosophical and sociological sense. Bane is, absolutely, a revolutionary. He conducts acts which would be considered, on the face of it, close to the reign of terror employed by the Joker, but his means are specifically designed to unseat the wealthy bankers and power-brokers who have taken the rule and sanctity of Gotham for granted. Bane sparks the flame of Revolution by the masses through both the manipulation of the criminal fraternity marginalised and sidelined by society, and by taking down Gotham’s symbol: the late Harvey Dent.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Previously: Revisiting Chistopher Nolan’s Insomnia
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Inception

If Ra’s in Batman Begins wanted Gotham’s rich and powerful to destroy themselves through their own avarice, Bane is the force that, as the Joker stated, gives the city a little push. He is not just a formidable physical adversary, a hulking mercenary terrorist, but he is also a classical psychological tormentor. He promises Bruce such a reckoning. As I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamoring over each other to ‘stay in the sun.’ You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham. Bane presents himself as a sociological saviour, rescuing Gotham from tyranny by providing them with one simple thing Bruce, Harvey and even Gordon have kept from them: truth.

Yet where there exists a hypocrisy within the System of Gotham, there too exists a hypocrisy within Bane himself as a character. He is a revolutionary with no country, and it becomes clear he is being psychologically manipulated by Ra’s daughter, Talia (Marion Cotillard, returning after Inception), who is much less the sociological purveyor of genocide as her father was and more a woman driven by revenge against Batman.

Come the end of The Dark Knight Rises, you realise Bane is the victim, essentially, of Stockholm Syndrome – popularised by the infamous Patty Hearst abduction in the 1970’s, and a key part of films such as late 90’s Bond movie The World Is Not Enough; a situation where the captured victim falls in love with their kidnapper and is psychologically warped into aligning with their actions. Bane is no literal kidnap victim, but in saving Talia as a child he grows into a zealot of her making.

It’s an interesting hypocrisy, because it suggests the fundamental actions of Bane and the League of Shadows in The Dark Knight Rises are, in one sense, a terrible concept. Bane is prepared to drop an atomic bomb on Gotham as part of Talia’s vengeance against Bruce Wayne for the death of Ra’s, but while Bane may be outwardly monstrous, it was his innate humanity which corrupted his soul.

Nolan’s story suggests rather than Bane’s revolution being the ‘terrorist’ act the US Army label it as, once he places Gotham under a siege which lasts months, that there is an innate nobility to his quest. Bane, though under false pretences and built on the lie of Harvey Dent, wants to hand back control of Gotham to the people he, on the face of it, has put in danger. We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity and we give it back to you… the people.

The Dark Knight Rises, through Bane’s rhetoric, seems to predict the tide of ultranationalist conservatism which has gripped the United States, the United Kingdom and numerous other Western democracies, in the wake of years of economic austerity, media propaganda and the threat of terrorism from the ‘Other’ – which recalls the fear of Communism, in how it leads people to begin sacrificing their personal freedoms for the sake of being ‘protected’ by the state, an idea Nolan returns to directly in Oppenheimer.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

Nolan’s film seems to understand that democracy lies on a knife-edge, being controlled by the all-powerful, corporate institutions in league with big government, and the kind of power brokers controlling the media who had the financial means to help someone like Donald Trump become President. Bane’s words echo across the years: The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed.

Bane ensures hardened criminals are released from Gotham’s Blackgate prison, many of whom Batman no doubt spent years ensuring were locked up. An example is the Dr. Jonathan Crane aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), one of the other villains in Batman Begins (and briefly The Dark Knight), who presides over one of the kangaroo courts which crop up meting out the macabre kind of justice the underclass believe the established justice system will simply never provide. Your guilt has been determined. This is merely a sentencing hearing. Now, what will it be? Death or Exile? he declares, with punishments including letting those deemed as lawbreakers (such as police officers) survive on an icy lake.

Gotham is ‘sacked’ essentially in the manner Ra’s described the sacking of Rome, historically, in the secret history of the League of Shadows across the centuries, and ultimately the people find themselves terrified of the very revolutionary who has promised them ‘freedom’ from the tyranny of corrupt, American government and corporate institutions.

It takes the return of Batman, the culmination of Nolan’s entire three-part story, and his assumed sacrifice, to defeat the revolution being staged as a cover for the revenge of an extremist. Nolan’s point is that Batman cannot, however, save Gotham alone – it takes the unification of the people, from the common workers to police officers such as Commissioner Jim Gordon, through to even crooks on the wrong side of the law like Selina Kyle, all fighting on the streets to defeat Bane and his revolutionaries. An army will be raised, Bane prophesies at one point, upon completing his stranglehold on Gotham, but it happens not in the manner he expects; the symbol, Batman, returns to lead the people of Gotham, out of the literal Lazarus Pit (into which he falls, as per a recurring Nolan trope), and he restores the power of that symbol in sacrificing himself to save them.

In the end, Bane’s ‘alternative truth’ about Gotham is quelled by Bruce’s return as Batman, leading the police and citizens to revolt against Bane’s proxy revolution, which disguises a terrorist attack ultimately built on vengeance. Nolan didn’t quite believe Gotham was beyond saving and while the saviour himself had to be sacrificed, the Dark Knight would rise again. NYPD cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also returning from Inception) prepares to take on that mantle at the end of the film. The symbol of hope endures. Yet by presenting a Gotham open to corruption, to manipulation of truth, to powerful rhetoric and near self-destruction, Nolan voices a level of anxiety about world politics that had not yet truly been felt. Recession was in full swing by 2012. Banks had closed. Conservative governments engaging in austerity were on the rise. The European Union faced economic shocks such as the collapse of the Greek economy. Things were changing.

The Dark Knight Rises, therefore, questions the nature of our democracy, and fears the rise of ultranationalism tied into the all-consuming power of big business. It does not believe utopia, as presented in the first act as a Gotham largely free of crime, can be achieved through such a monopoly, but it also doesn’t believe a revolution can be achieved by the few, and especially not at the point of a gun or the Damocles sword of an atomic bomb. Bane may describe himself as a necessary evil”, but The Dark Knight Rises wants us to believe we don’t need heroes or villains to change our world, but that we can collectively do so by uniting and working together.

There is so much about The Dark Knight Rises that, for me, people seldom discuss. When you look deeper, it is one of Christopher Nolan’s richest films, riven with thematic subtext, historical allusions, symbolic myth-making, political commentary, and that’s not even discussing the strength of a tremendous ensemble cast who transform the climax of Nolan’s Batman trilogy into a sometimes overblown, sometimes unexpectedly comic, but consistently thrilling and fascinating picture.

As Jim Gordon says about Harvey Dent at the beginning, I believe in The Dark Knight Rises.

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