Part Three: Born in Darkness
The Dark Knight Rises in a Sociopolitical Context
Christopher Nolan has always had larger social issues in mind when crafting these films, and in many ways, his Dark Knight saga is just as rooted in broad sociopolitical theory as it is in character-based psychological deconstruction.
In Batman Begins, part of what compels Bruce Wayne to don the cowl is the idea that society itself is broken. As I wrote in “Why Do We Fall?”: “That Gotham resembles recognizable American cities more and more with each passing film is no coincidence; the films are set in our world, and in Nolan’s view, our world is falling out beneath us. Criminals run the streets, officers look the other way, politicians act in their own self-interest, and though ordinary citizens pay the price time and time again, even they are not without blame. A profound apathy has settled over Gotham; so long as individuals avert their eyes and allow an increasingly flawed system to perpetuate itself, the destruction will continue unchecked.” This is a society so fundamentally unsound that, in Bruce’s view, the only way to affect meaningful change is to operate outside existing institutional parameters, hence the creation of Batman.
With that in mind, The Dark Knight Rises takes this essential underlying issue to the next level. If society itself has failed utterly, and cannot be repaired from the inside, is full-blown revolution justified?
The answer, of course, is no, as the film’s voice of revolution is Bane, who is not only unrepentantly evil, but also believes that Gotham is so far gone that not even a restructuring of society will save it; he only gives the people their revolution to torment them, to give the lower class a brief glimmer of hope before the nuclear device wipes them all out.
Nevertheless, the concept of revolution lies at the heart of the film. Bane’s methods are, of course, wicked and misguided on every level, and that may lead some to oversimplify their reading of the material. Bane’s rhetoric – about taking Gotham ‘back’ from the rich, power, and privileged to put it in the hands of ‘the people’ – undoubtedly echoes that of America’s ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, and I am positive some conservative commentator will therefore read the film as a stern indictment of what they like to call ‘class warfare.’
They will be wrong. Nolan rejects Bane’s terrorist methods, but he does, at multiple junctures, give credence to the concept of desiring revolution. Bane is only able to manipulate the people of Gotham by preying on their primal urges, and for the masses, that involves the promise of leveling the playing field. It is not an unreasonable desire. As a stand-in for America at large, Gotham is beset by the same crippling economic problems affecting our nation’s middle and lower classes. Namely, issues of growing income inequality and a near total lack of social mobility have become too large to ignore, and while there are those would dismiss their importance, Nolan is not one of them.
Were he, Selina Kyle would not be interpreted as a sympathetic representation of the 99%, and Bruce Wayne would never have to confront the fact that he is exorbitantly wealthy in a time when many are struggling worse than ever before. Bruce is, of course, a good man who uses his wealth for largely selfless goals, while Selina is a burglar with a highly compromised moral compass. Yet both believe they do right by the contexts in which they were raised, and Nolan makes it clear that neither is entirely justified in their actions.