The Dark Knight is one of the great examinations of American life and politics post-9/11. Christopher Nolan’s best Batfilm is not just a fun crime story, it’s also an almost on-the-nose allegory about living in the world of color-coded terror alerts. While Nolan’s film does play as an apologia for the Bush administration’s overreaches into our personal privacy, the film is too complex to dismiss. Yes, Batman’s sonar gizmo and its use are a defense of Bush’s policies (the argument the film makes is that these extreme steps are necessary to save lives, and that we must trust that the men making these choices are making them honorably, and not for personal gain), but the film’s escalation themes also point a finger back at the US for the rise of global terrorism.
That moral complexity, and the way it is well-integrated into an exciting superhero story, is what elevates The Dark Knight to another level (the defining Joker performance by Heath Ledger certainly helps as well). While other superhero movies have had political metaphors they have usually just dallied with ideas; The Dark Knight is all about the political questions at its center.
When Christopher Nolan began making The Dark Knight Rises it seemed like he might be again bringing an exciting, current political meaning to his film. Nolan himself said that Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was a major influence on the story, and combined with early reports that he considered shooting at Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City it seemed like The Dark Knight Rises might focus on the ever-growing income inequality in this country. The divide between haves and have-nots continues to grow, but where does Batman - a dyed in the wool have who has dedicated his life to defending the have-nots (from other have-nots, to be fair) - stand?
We’ll never actually know, because The Dark Knight Rises pays some passing lip service to those concepts, but never actually engages them. Bane comes to Gotham City and assembles a faceless horde - we’re briefly told that some of the city’s homeless are joining his movement - with rhetoric that indicates he’s a class warrior. He attacks the Gotham Stock Exchange and talks about how stock brokers are thieves, but his goal isn’t to strike at the capitalist system. And when he takes over Gotham City he institutes a revolutionary reality that reflects the Jacobin Terror from the French Revolution, and from Dickens’ novel.
But all of this is a facade; Bane doesn’t care about the poor and the powerless. He intends to kill all of them along with the rich and powerful when his very, very, very, very patient bomb explodes. Have and have-not will be united in one fiery blast, reduced to perfectly equal ash.
So what, if anything, is the movie saying about income inequality? This isn’t a new problem - A Tale of Two Cities is very current. It would be easy to assume that Nolan, who wrote the film with his brother Jonathan, is taking the basic Dickens line; the author sympathized with the revolutionaries, but only up to a point. While he believed they were right to fight back against a system that was created to keep them down, he balked when they got into power and began instituting a reign of terror as terrible as the injustices perpetrated by the aristocrats.
But reading into Bane’s plan we see that Nolan has no empathy for the lower classes. The only representative of the lower class who is not a criminal in The Dark Knight Rises is an orphan boy, a pathetic figure caught in the middle of a battle between larger forces. Nolan steadfastly refuses to give the normal Gothamite a voice; while Bane speaks to the people we see none of the people. We don’t know how they react to him and his cause, or what their lives were like before he came to town. The closest we get is when Selina Kyle, who warned aristocrat Bruce Wayne that a storm was coming (a heavy handed nod to Book Three of A Tale of Two Cities), comes to see the wrongness of the revolution in its most basic form.
That’s because it isn’t important to Nolan. The film takes a view of the Ocuppy Movement that is similar to how conservatives saw the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s - he is an evil demagogue who is taking advantage of some legitimate complaints to overthrow a decent system. J. Edgar Hoover and the John Birch Society were convinced that the Communist conspiracy was behind the Civil Rights Movement in an attempt to fracture the American population. The Dark Knight Rises presents an income equality movement that is also manipulated by foreign forces for their own nefarious reasons (in this case a fanatical need to prove the dogma of a dead leader, while also enacting revenge on a hated enemy). Even when Bane is right - the film makes no bones of disliking the brokers on the Stock Exchange - his reasons for going after the corrupt institution are just as corrupt as the institution itself.
In the world of The Dark Knight Rises social movements are only about manipulation and attacks on a flawed, but respectable, status quo. This continues the philosophy of the last two Nolan Batfilms, where the people of Gotham were essentially mobs and sheep, pushed around by fear gas, foolish misunderstandings of Batman, the machinations of an anarchist or a bald-faced lie about a public figure's legacy. What’s strange is that while the films continuously uphold the status quo (the arc of the trilogy is almost as much about the redemption of the police department as it is about the story of Bruce Wayne), every thematic element is about the way institutions fail. .
Christopher Nolan is probably a fan of The Wire, and its central thesis - that institutions will fail us again and again - looms large in the Batman films. But where David Simon’s seminal TV show wrestled with what that means and how we can create change within that environment, Nolan’s films take a decidedly more libertarian slant.
There is no institution that works well enough for Batman. The League of Shadows is shown to be a demagogue-ridden den of fanatics. The Gotham police department is corrupt at best, ineffectual at worst (see the first half of The Dark Knight Rises, where John Blake is continuously stymied in his attempts to do the right thing by a GCPD figurehead who only wants the glory of capturing Batman). The US government totally cops out in the face of Bane’s threat. Even Wayne Enterprises is, in the final estimation, a complete failure - unable not only to bring clean energy to the world* but basically incapable of maintaining services for the city’s most vulnerable.
In fact the entirety of John Blake’s story in The Dark Knight Rises is showing how a good man is so frustrated by the restrictions and stupidity of the system that he is forced to go outside of it, and eventually to become the Batman. In Nolan’s world the individual is everything, but there’s no place for the individual within the system. It’s the ultimate get-off-the-grid mindset. The only institution that can ever work in this world is the one-man institution of Batman, which is needed even after the defeat of the resurgent League of Shadows (something that indicates Bruce Wayne learned nothing about escalation from the last film).
Where the politics of The Dark Knight were complex but intriguing, offering deep levels of criticism, solution and meaning, the politics of The Dark Knight Rises are a muddled mess. A Tale of Two Cities ends up offering only plot resonance (Bruce Wayne as Darnay, Batman as Carton) but no larger thematic meaning. Where Dickens wrestled with both empathy and disgust for the revolutionaries, Nolan gives them scarcely a thought. Even his own individualistic stance collapses in the end as he gives in to the fascist joy of an army of blue-clad cops beating the shit out of wrongdoers in the streets. The film opens with the idea that what Gotham needed was just a harsher sentencing law that penalizes the lower classes, not any sort of reform that targets those in control. Of course that feels very much like the modern conservative viewpoint, one where the government is to be considered ineffective... until you need their force to beat down those you dislike.
So where The Dark Knight supported certain neocon beliefs while critiquing others, The Dark Knight Rises feels like it is composed entirely of knee-jerk conservative nonsense. It’s a movie that doesn’t even take into account the people of Gotham, that doesn’t trust the very concept of social reform and eventually comes down very much on the side of Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face.
* Interestingly, the film takes a fairly anti-green energy stance - not only is clean energy not feasible, it's actually incredibly dangerous.