There’s plenty of online discussion flying around now that one of the most anticipated blockbusters of the summer, The Dark Knight Rises, is finally on general release. Is it any good? Does it live up to the hype? Can any film possibly hope to satisfy an audience which has such high expectations?
There’s plenty to say about the film’s scope and ambition – the successes and shortcomings of the finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – and it is a credit to the director that his reputation has earned him the kind of earnest discussion not usually reserved for movie adaptations of comic book franchises.
The Dark Knight Rises clearly aims for the epic, rounding up the themes worked on in the previous two films – vigilantism, corruption, power and its consequences and the breakdown of a decadent society – in a plot that is at times convoluted but well-paced, given the nearly 3 hour running time. It’s also well acted: Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is a surprising success while Tom Hardy’s Bane is effective even if his character arc is a tad anti-climactic, and Christian Bale gets more to work with as Bruce Wayne/Batman than he did in the previous films.
But what’s far more interesting to delve into is the political meta-analysis appearing on the internet. It’s always good fun to read politics into Hollywood movies – the movie industry as a vehicle for propaganda is something worthy of serious study, for instance in Matthew Alford’s book “Reel Power” – and some of the theories around The Dark Knight Rises range from plausible to incredibly tenuous.
The comparisons between Batman and the power politics of the present day began after the release of The Dark Knight, primarily with Batman’s use of mass surveillance techniques (developed by Wayne Enterprises for the Defense Department) to hack into every citizens’ mobile phone to create sonar-style radar used to pinpoint “the bad guys”. The movie paid some lip service to the ethics of such a system and by the end it is destroyed, although the analogy to George Bush’s extensive program of illegal, warrantless wiretapping retains some potency. The film then ends with Batman deciding that the people of Gotham should be lied to in order to keep them safe.
The Dark Knight Rises continues the pop literary psychoanalysis, provoking even bolder assertions as to Batman’s right-wing credentials. An entertaining mainstream news article from the London Telegraph, “How The Dark Knight Rises Reveals Batman’s Conservative Soul“, describes Christopher Nolan’s portrait of the superhero as “the plutocrat’s champion”. It’s easy to see how this conclusion is arrived at – after all, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire (part of the 1% stealing from the rest of us); his corporation is involved in defense contracts for the government; he sees himself as above the law; his enemies are generally low-level criminals (Batman never goes after corporate.political crooks) or anti-establishment groups – the “revolution” initiated by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises bears many striking resemblances to the Occupy Wall Street movement (if you remove the violence). As superhero historian Grant Morrison also argues, “Batman was the ultimate capitalist hero… a millionaire who vented his childlike fury on the criminal classes of the lower orders.”
It’s easy to read too much into popular culture – Christopher Nolan certainly thinks so. When asked out these correlations between his Batman movies and the modern political stage he dismisses any claims that these were intentional, and told Rolling Stone magazine,“The films genuinely aren’t intended to be political. You don’t want to alienate people, you want to create a universal story.”
Yet while the comparisons between Batman and the right-wing politics of the authoritarian capitalist do carry a ring of truth, to others it is little more than yet another example of “liberal Hollywood”, replete with “down with the system” talk from Catwoman. Nothing encapsulates the specious manner in which Batman can be used as a political football than Rush Limbaugh’s connection between Mitt Romney and the Bane villain – Left or Right, it seems, the films reflect any ideology commentators see fit.
It’s all entertaining stuff, and whether a political message was intentional or not is perhaps beside the point. Culture inherently reflects both political and social memes of the time – a snapshot of the current zeitgeist – and the themes found in popular entertainment are, like all art forms, a product of both the times in which they are created and the historical wellspring of concerns which permeate the literature and movies of old.
Ultimately, the viewer is the only one who can decide “it’s only a movie” or read it as a vehicle for propaganda or a political statement. It may well be both.