Grand Ole Threequel: The Conservative Politics of The Dark Knight Rises

Opinion

  on August 02 2012 12:38 PM

Rush Limbaugh recently accused The Dark Knight Rises of naming its villain Bane to draw attention to Mitt Romney's ties to Bain Capital. Putting Republicans' collectively guilty conscience aside, Limbaugh's statement may have some merit. Wait, no, actually, it may be the most short-sighted, idiotic, ill-informed comment that Limbaugh has made in the past few weeks.

Batman is a hero that stands apart from many of his peers. As opposed to the plebeian background of many of his fellow heroes, Bruce Wayne comes from a life of luxury. Superman is raised on a farm, Storm is a thief from the African country of Kenya, and Captain America has the humblest of Brooklyn beginnings. These outsider origins -- the feelings of being an economic and social outcast -- are an entry point for many young people to enter the realms of superheroes, science fiction, and fantasy. If you look at many of the heroes in these genres, they often fit an outsider mold.

The challenge for Christopher Nolan, director of the successful Dark Knight trilogy, has always been to take this debonair billionaire playboy slash caped crusader and make him an outsider, a man of the people with whom the audience can identify.

While the second film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight, deftly explored Batman's loner status vis-à-vis his unique relationship with arch nemesis The Joker, the third movie ultimately fails at casting Wayne as an outsider by focusing too closely on his economic background. Bane, a far less successful villain than either the Joker or Scarecrow was, attacks Batman physically and Wayne financially -- leading a quasi-veiled Occupy Gotham movement meant to rectify the gross inequalities happening in Gotham City. That the movie moved locations from Chicago to New York City, and filmed in the New York Stock Exchange, does not help in hiding the blatant parallels.

Many in the OWS movement were happy when they heard the third movie would feature a parallel to the movement -- it meant they were maintaining their status as part of the cultural zeitgeist. I'm sure, however, more than a few Occupiers were disappointed with their portrayal.

Bane, and the people who are part of the "Occupy Gotham" movement, are the villains of the movie after all. Bane is an almost mindless brute -- you later find out he is being completely puppeteered by Marion Cotillard's character -- and his henchmen are a gang of released prisoners.

Is this Nolan's comment on who makes up the OWS movement? That is not to say that criminals are bad people. In fact, criminals in our current criminal justice system are often just victims of racial and class inequalities that play out in unfair policies.  The problem behind the portrayal of the Occupy Gotham movement is that not only are all the criminals portrayed as uneducated brutes, but that the movement itself is made up of nothing but street-smart thugs. Instead, the actual OWS movement is a well-organized machine that has a CEO, a CFO, a structure, and a good head on its shoulders.

While those in the Occupy Gotham movement are portrayed as illiterate thugs, the good guys, the ones who save the day and Gotham City from the wrath of Occupy Gotham are cops. One of the main themes of Nolan's Batman trilogy has always been chaos (mostly in the second film), but as Gotham descends into chaos in the third film, Nolan christens the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD), more so than Batman as the film's heroes.

The movie is not only surprisingly pro-cop, it's rather black and white about an issue that anybody knows is exceedingly grey. This is nothing new, obviously. The movie series has often embraced conservative values in the name of order -- the entire last stunt in The Dark Knight rests on Wayne using everyone in Gotham's cell phone as a wire-tapping sonar device. Excuse me, the Patriot Act is calling, and it wants its extremism back.

Some of Nolan's script could've used a stop-and-frisk -- his gender and racial politics as a director and writer are also a bit questionable. The litmus test for representing women in film is called the Bechdel test, and it was invented by renowned lesbian author Alison Bechdel. While passing the Bechdel test does not make a film a good one, the litmus test is to see whether the writer accurately portrays women, or if the movies female characters exist only in relation to its main characters -- the men.

The Dark Knight Rises meets only one of the test's three criteria:  1.) having two named female characters, 2.) having any of the two named female characters speak to each other, and 3.) having the two named female characters speak to each other about anything other than a male. The only named female characters, Miranda Tate and Selina Kyle, never speak to each other, and though in one short interaction Selina Kyle speaks to her associate about economic inequalities, the character (named "Holly" in the comic book world) is not named in the film. Yes, Selina Kyle is probably the most fully realized character in Nolan's entire Batman universe, but that doesn't give him a pass here. Many readers will probably use that as an excuse, and say I'm being too harsh, but it is important to realize that movies as a medium are largely controlled by white men.

Every time we see a movie, we have to realize that we're usually hearing a story written, modified, directed, or mediated to use through the eyes of a white male. It's less of a criticism and more of a reality. We the movie-going public are saturated with images that have been realized by only one subset of the public. We are hearing stories from only one side. This is also a concern regarding The Dark Knight Rises as Nolan chose to portray villain Bane, who throughout the comics is South American, with a white actor.

Now, Tom Hardy is a great actor, and he did the best he could with a less-than meaty (story-wise, not physically) role. However, it's disheartening to see a role written as a brilliant South American man reduced to a white puppet. Rises toes a line between high art and fun popcorn escapism, but it can never truly be other. It lacks the political insight and authenticity to be high art, and it's hard to call something escapism if all it does is remind us of the oncoming global economic meltdown.

If this essay is meant to prove anything, it is that, unlike with most movies, Dark Knight Rises is one that invites you to think critically, not leave your brain at the multiplex ticket booth.

Mathew Rodriguez is a graduate of Fordham University, where he majored in English and comparative literature and minored in women's studies and creative writing. Mathew is a published essayist, new media journalist and academic. He plans to pursue a PhD in English with a concentration in gender studies. Mathew is also a social activist who embraces the tenets of feminism and works for LGBT rights. When not writing, he currently works for the LGBT health/ medical services nonprofit APICHA Community Health Center as its program assistant. Follow him on Twitter @mathewrodriguez 

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