The Dark Knight Rises attests yet again to how Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicament of our societies. Here is a (simplified) storyline. Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, the previous installment of the Batman saga, law and order prevail in Gotham City: under the extraordinary powers granted by the Dent Act, Commissioner Gordon has nearly eradicated violent and organized crime. He nonetheless feels guilty about the cover-up of Harvey Dent’s crimes (when Dent tried to kill Gordon’s son before Batman saved him, Dent fell to his death, and Batman took the fall for the Dent myth, allowing himself to be demonized as Gotham’s villain), and plans to admit to the conspiracy at a public event celebrating Dent, but decides that the city is not ready to hear the truth. No longer active as Batman, Bruce Wayne lives isolated in his Manor while his company is crumbling ling after he invested in a clean energy project designed to harness fusion power, but shut it down after learning that the core could be modified to become a nuclear weapon. The beautiful Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, encourages Wayne to rejoin with society and continue his philanthropic works.
Here enters the (first) villain of the film: Bane, a terrorist leader who was a member of the League of Shadows, gets hold of the copy of Gordon’s speech. After Bane’s financial machinations bring Wayne’s company close to bankruptcy, Wayne entrusts Miranda to control his enterprise and also engages in a brief love affair with her. (In this she competes with Selina Kyle, a cat burglar Selina Kyle who steals from the rich in order to redistribute wealth, but finally rejoins Wayne and the forces of law and order.) Learning about Bane’s mobilization, Wayne returns as Batman and confronts Bane, who says that he took over the League of Shadows after Ra’s Al Ghul’s death. Crippling Batman in a close combat, Bane detains him in a prison from which escape is virtually impossible: inmates tell Wayne the story of the only person to ever successfully escape from the prison, a child driven by necessity and the sheer force of will. While the imprisoned Wayne recovers from his injuries and retrains himself to be Batman, Bane succeeds in turning Gotham City into an isolated city-state. He first lures most of Gotham’s police force underground and traps them there; then he sets off explosions which destroy most of the bridges connecting Gotham City to the mainland, announcing that any attempt to leave the city will result in the detonation of Wayne fusion core, which has been taken hold and converted into a bomb.
Here we reach the crucial moment of the film: Bane’s takeover is accompanied by a vast politico-ideological offensive. Bane publicly reveals the cover-up of Dent’s death and releases the prisoners locked up under the Dent Act. Condemning the rich and powerful, he promises to restore the power of the people, calling on the common people to “take your city back” – Bane reveals himself to be “the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99% to band together and overthrow societal elites.”1 What follows is the film’s idea of people’s power: summary show trials and executions of the rich, streets littered with crime and villainy… A couple of months later, while Gotham City continues to suffer popular terror, Wayne successfully escapes prison, returns to Gotham as Batman, and enlists his friends to help liberate the city and stop the fusion bomb before it explodes. Batman confronts and subdues Bane, but Miranda intervenes and stabs Batman – the societal benefactor reveals herself to be Talia al Ghul, Ra’s daughter: it was she who escaped the prison as a child, and Bane was the one person who aided her escape. After announcing her plan to complete her father’s work in destroying Gotham, Talia escapes. In the ensuing mayhem, Gordon cuts off the bomb’s ability to be remotely detonated while Selina kills Bane, allowing Batman to chase Talia. He tries to force her to take the bomb to the fusion chamber where it can be stabilized, but she floods the chamber. Talia dies when her truck crashes off the road, confident that the bomb cannot be stopped. Using a special helicopter, Batman hauls the bomb beyond the city limits, where it detonates over the ocean and presumably kills him.
Batman is now celebrated as a hero whose sacrifice saved Gotham City, while Wayne is believed to have died in the riots. As his estate is divided up, Alfred witnesses Bruce and Selina together alive in a cafe in Florence, while Blake, a young honest policeman who knew about Batman’s identity, inherits the Batcave. In short, “Batman saves the day, emerges unscathed and moves on with a normal life, with someone else to replace his role defending the system.”2 The first clue to the ideological underpinnings of this ending is provided by Gordon, who, at Wayne’s (would-be) burial, reads the last lines from Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some reviewers of the film took this quote as an indication that it “rises to the noblest level of Western art. The film appeals to the center of America’s tradition – the ideal of noble sacrifice for the common people. Batman must humble himself to be exalted, and lay down his life to find a new one. /…/ An ultimate Christ-figure, Batman sacrifices himself to save others.”3
And, effectively, from this perspective, there is only one step back from Dickens to Christ at Calvary: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:25 26) Batman’s sacrifice as the repetition of Christ’s death? Is this idea not compromised by the film’s last scene (Wayne with Selena in a Florence café)? Is the religious counterpart of this ending not rather the well-known blasphemous idea that Christ really survived his crucifixion and lived a long peaceful life (in India or even Tibet, according to some sources)? The only way to redeem this final scene would have been to read it as a daydream (hallucination) of Alfred who sits alone in the Florence café. The further Dickensian feature of the film is a de-politicized complaint about the gap between the rich and the poor – early in the film, Selina whispers to Wayne while they are dancing at an exclusive upper class gala: “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.” Nolan, as every good liberal, is “worried” about this disparity and he admits this worry penetrates the film:
- Tyler O’Neil, “Dark Knight and Occupy Wall Street: The Humble Rise” Hillsdale Natural Law Review, July 21 2012.
- Karthick RM, “The Dark Knight Rises a ’Fascist’?”, Society and Culture, July 21, 2012.
- Tyler O’Neil, op.cit.
- Christopher Nolan, interview in Entertainment 1216 (July 2012, p. 34.)
- Interview with Christopher and Jonathan Nolan to Buzzine Film.
- Karthick, op.cit.
- Tom Charity, “’Dark Knight Rises’ disappointingly clunky, bombastic”, CNN, July 19, 2012.
- Forrest Whitman, “The Dickensian Aspects of The Dark Knight Rises”, July 21 2012.
- Quoted from Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, New York: Grove 1997, p. 636-637.
- Quoted in McLaren, op.cit., p. 27.
- Op.cit., ibid.
- One should note the irony of the fact that Neeson’s son is a devoted Shia Muslim, and that Neeson himself often talks about his forthcoming conversion to Islam.
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.