The most anticipated film of the year puts social inequality front and center, asking viewers how much they trust their countrymen with the fate of the world.
SPOILERS FOR THE DARK KNIGHT RISES FOLLOW. “This is a stock exchange,” cries the young broker, “there’s no money here for you to steal!” Bane merely chuckles, asking, “Then what are you people doing here?”
Director Christopher Nolan pulls no political punches in his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Premiering amidst the worse economic slowdown in nearly a century, Nolan crafts a cast of characters who’d find themselves right at home in a time of Tea Partiers and Occupiers (particularly the latter; besides the scuffle at the Gotham Stock Exchange, Rises features a literal citywide occupation). Social commentary abounds, as one might expect in a film following a billionaire’s crusade to save a downtrodden world from its wealthy, powerful, and corrupt masters.
The basic plot of Rises should be familiar by now; eight years after defeating the Joker and taking the fall for Harvey Dent’s descent into madness, the Batman is no more. Bruce Wayne has not left the confines of Wayne Manor since its reconstruction, broken by the death of his childhood friend and lover Rachel Dawes. When a masked terrorist with ties to Bruce’s past arrives in Gotham, however, he’s forced to confront what his inaction may cost the city. The story would be thrilling enough on its own, but Nolan goes further. As evidenced by the earlier exchange, Bane styles himself a savior bringing justice to a city ravaged by economic inequality. A key part of his plan involves giving the detonator to a nuclear bomb to an average citizen to use at will, demonstrating his total faith in the people.
Bane hardly has the best interests of the people at heart, of course. A member of the enigmatic League of Shadows, he plans to finish the work of Ra’s al Ghul, the villain from Nolan’s Batman Begins and Batman’s one-time mentor. Ra’s believed there was nothing left of Gotham worth salvaging, rejecting Wayne’s belief in salvation in favor of its annihilation. Much like Bane, he cared for the people only so long as he could use them as a weapon to further his goals. Once riots and looting had brought Gotham to its knees, both would gladly sacrifice millions in the name of progress. And that “key part of his plan”? A fabrication; the detonator never left the League’s hands. So much for faith in the common man.
Less than a year after Occupy Wall Street flooded cities nationwide and made “inequality” the talk of the times, it’s hard to ignore how welcome Batman might be to our own world. As Bruce and others have remarked throughout the series, the Dark Knight is more symbol than flesh and blood—an icon promising a brighter tomorrow despite the horrors of the night. It’s not necessarily the cape and cowl that safeguard Gotham, but the strength Batman’s example gave to its people. The Joker’s plans were undone when the city refused to make murderers of themselves to save their own lives; Bane ruled through fear alone, and when fear no longer sufficed, the city rallied to overthrow his occupation. We have no caped crusader prowling in the dark, but we have leaders aplenty fighting to give us hope that together, we can accomplish anything.
Entertainment should, whenever possible, remain entertaining. Films, literature, and television should never become so bogged down by politics that they sermonize rather than amuse. Using the different mediums to comment on the state of our world—and how it may be bettered—however, has always been a critical element of human society. Christopher Nolan neither blesses nor condemns any of our varied political factions, maintaining relative neutrality against such larger-than-life figured. Bruce Wayne is the hero capitalist, using his vast wealth to fight against evil, yet faces constant betrayal from his less-altruistic fellows; all three Nolan films have demonstrated how power corrupts, particularly power bought by money. Bane easily serves to discredit those in favor of “economic justice,” but Batman finds a crucial ally in Selina Kyle, a master thief who shares the basic tenants of his supposed worldview.
In some ways, it seems a cheat to build and destroy each case over the course of the film, committing to neither without offering a “middle of the road” alternative. Then again, that may be exactly the point. We don’t always need a larger-than-life figure to show us the way. Sometimes, believe it or not, the people can do it all on their own. Bruce Wayne (largely) trusts Gotham’s future to its people in the end. Similarly, our Constitution puts its faith in “We the People.” Until our own Dark Knight rises to the occasion, we’d do well to heed its wisdom.