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The Philosophy of The Dark Knight Rises: questioning the underlying ideological assumptions

This post inevitably includes spoilers. These spoilers will not be enough to destroy the movie for you, since I will not discuss the ending of the movie. The main purpose of this post, is to discuss the flawed ideological assumptions underpinning the movie.


I’ve watched the new Batman movie, called The Dark Knight Rises last night. I liked it. In this film Nolan (imdb, wikipedia) defended his reputation as the best director of Batman movies, mightily. He didn’t have something to prove, as he is beyond doubt one of the best directors of our time, but nonetheless, he had to meet the funs’ expectations, who considering the brilliant plot and the excellent performance of Heath Ledger (imdb, wikipedia) as the Joker in the previous Batman movie, were extremely difficult to satisfy.

I should start with some introductory remarks. In this movie, the villain is Bane, a terrorist, and an excommunicated member of the League of Shadows, whose former leader, Ra’s Al Ghul, was defeated by Batman in the first of Nolan’s trilogy called Batman Begins. The choice of the villain is the key aspect of the movie, since it is where the success or the failure of the film hangs. Bane was excellent in every respect. I liked the character, the actor, the story behind the villain, and the ending of the villain. It was absolutely brilliant; The Dark Knight Rises is a movie worth watching if only for the sake of Bane.

Now, let’s talk about the politics of the movie. Bane is a terrorist, who wants to bring the rich of Gotham, which are greedy and corrupt, to their knees, by giving ‘power to the people’. His master-plan is underpinned by an utter pessimism, since his ultimate goal is the total destruction of Gotham with a nuclear bomb. This bomb is supposed to blow up five months after the people seized the power. Bane acts as the ideological leader, who gives big speeches about freedom and who coordinates the abolition of the former regime, basically, coordinating and empowering the chaos. It is important to note that Bane inherits and adopts the life-plan of Ra’s Al Ghul, the former leader of the Legion of Shadows that we saw in Batman Begins, who believed that Gotham was beyond repair, and that in order to make the city moral, a reboot was needed. So, whilst the people were either causing or navigating the chaos, the clock of the nuclear bomb was ticking, a fact that was kept hidden from them. Everything was steered towards the final destruction that would kill the people of Gotham, which were considered by Bane as being beyond saving.

Let’s talk now about ‘the people’. To be fair to Nolan, ‘the people’ were not actually ‘the common people’, but rather the criminals that were in prison following the ‘Dent act’ that was introduced in The Dark Knight. This was a bill that gave more power to the police to arrest criminals. Once these criminals were released by Bane, they joined him, becoming his army. It is important to note that after their release, it is not clear whether ‘the people’ were solely the former prisoners released by Bane or the prisoners along with ordinary citizens. I take it to be the second.

The people organised public trials, where officials and members of the ruling elite were called to justice. The two options were ‘exile or death’, where exile meant that they walk on an iced lake up until the ice cracked and they drowned. In one case where the option of ‘death’ was chosen, the sentence was ‘death by exile’, caricaturing in effect the whole trial process, showing that it was a fascist farce, since the people just wanted to kill upper class members out of spiteful revenge, without an underlying political-ideological agenda; to be honest, it reminded me of the commentary on the ‘looting’ in England earlier this year, where the analysis was limited to saying that it was underprivileged teenagers who found the opportunity to steal–nothing beyond that, and nothing that could actually explain their behaviour.

The way Nolan portrayed these ‘people’ rests on three flawed ideological assumptions. Firstly, that the people are unable to self-regulate their society, since without a ruling elite, or a billionaire in a bat-suit, they would inevitably kill each other and destroy any symbol of civilisation. Secondly, that those who oppose the riots, the violence and the looting, would stay locked in their houses and leave the rest destroy everything. So, according to the second assumption, those who don’t destroy, passively accept the chaos since fear overpowers any personal or collective value that would urge them to take any opposing action of resistance. Thirdly and most importantly, ‘the people’ are eager to follow an obvious psychopath, only because he promises them more power. They have no hesitation to follow the new leader blindly and no reservation to commit horrible acts in his name.

Before I discuss these three assumptions and the ideology underneath them, let’s say a few words about the alternative ‘well-ordered’ society that Nolan portrays as the ideal society, and the role of the police within the ideal city. The ideal city would not need Batman, since everyone would act according to the values of Batman. In this city, the state is controlled by the police, which is made up of people like Gordon (the head of the police, which was a key character in The Dark Knight). These policemen and women will not be corrupt and will not have a lot of work to do since people would be moral anyway. Those who are immoral or pose any kind of threat to the well-ordered society, will rot in prison. In this respect, this society is like the ideal Christian society, were the main premise is that everyone ought to be good for and in themselves, but if not, they will go to a horrible place and burn indefinitely. [No, I’m not saying that Batman is Jesus, I’m saying that the principle is similar.]

This leads us to the way the police force is presented. The members of the police force are heroic, since they march towards men who have machine guns pointing at them and they are the ones who inspire the people to react against the anarchy inspired by the terrorist. This is obviously opposite to reality, where the police has control over the means of violence, and who are the most likely to turn their guns towards innocent and unarmed persons. At the same time, they are the first to run away from danger, especially when they do not have superiority in the aforementioned means of violence.

So far, we talked about Nolan’s three assumptions, about the way the police is portrayed and about the alternative ideal society that Batman is striving for. What are we to infer from this?

My impression of Nolan’s political argument was that Bane was similar to someone like Stalin and that a society regulated by a framework of governance alternate to liberal democracy would inevitably bring chaos and destruction, since people are inherently incapable of any form of self-governance. In this respect, the movie seemed to be inspired by anti-communist sentiments, but also to attack anarchist ideas as well. The people were described either as frightened passive nobodies who were locked in their houses or as stupid idiots who became seduced by the terrorist-orator. So, the political motivation of the movie inspires a revision of the existing state of affairs, where everyone ought to be a tiny bit more moral within the existing framework of governance and justice. This tiny bit of a change will obviously impact the society immensely, but it would be just enough to sustain an extended status quo, maintaining in effect the existing class structure and the existing power relations. It reminds me of ‘Green Capitalism’.

Overall, it was a good movie because it showed the humane face of what was in the pre-Nolan era an indestructible superhero. In the Nolan movies, the superhero is human, and rises because he is a human, and not because he is a millionaire or because he has supercool gadgets (hello, Iron Man). The casting was absolutely brilliant, with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine as excellent father-figures in the roles of Fox and Alfred that keep Bruce Wayne sane.. and alive. Marion Cotillard was brilliant as always, and Anne Hathaway was perfect for the role of the cat-woman. My partner is inlove with Christian Bale, so as you can understand, I don’t like him, despite him being the second most successful Batman (after Michael Keaton that is, a fact, that I am sure many of you will dispute). Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the good men of justice were also very good fits for the roles. The best of all, was Tom Hardy in the role of Bane, who I dare say, managed to fill the shoes that Ledger left empty with his death. I liked the fact that the producers of The Dark Knight Rises did not include a Joker character, respecting in this way the brilliant performance of the late Heath Ledger.

All in all, a good movie. Go watch it so that we can disagree and call each other names.

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  1. I’ve seen this happen in my country – leaders freeing criminals and letting the worst take the lead. Normal people, who have something to loose (children, families) turned out to be no match. Especially since they were never as organized. Add propaganda to that and you have the recipe. Civil war, poverty, rise in criminal… You name it.