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The Politics of Nolan’s Batman Films…

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I think it’s fair to say that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is quite an accomplishment. I think there’s a valid argument to be made that the series can be successfully measured against other classic film trilogies like the original Star Wars trilogy or even the more recent Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, I think it’s also notable just how much political discourse and discussion the trilogy has generated, particularly for its political content. It’s quite impressive that Nolan’s three films about a masked pulp hero have provoked such debate, and I’d certainly argue that The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are easily two of the most politically complex and fascinating blockbusters in quite some time.

A caped social crusader?

Of course, a lot of big budget blockbusters come with political subtext. Michael Bay, for example, might as well have superimposed an American flag over most of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which featured delightful scenes like those heroic Autobots dismantling the pesky Iranian nuclear programme. However, such politics lack nuance, falling straight into black-and-white categories like “Transformers and America good” and “Iran and Russia bad.”

Even the more consciously political films of the past decade have struggled in trying to address the massive cultural and political shift that occurred since September the 11th. Rendition and Lions for Lambs were offered with all the earnestness of an after school special. There was no real attempt to engage with the complex re-structuring of global politics. The nuance of these films frequently extended as far as “American foreign policy is bad, y’all!” Films like Syrianaweren’t attempts to explore or understand a rapidly-changing world, but a loud attempt to shout a political point down a mega-phone.

Copping on to the political implications…

Of course, the “other side” of the political spectrum was similarly simplistic in its representation and its exploration. Michael Bay’s films had a political subtext that seemed to shout “military power is awesome!” 24 presented a world where everybody was trying to destroy the United States, all invasions of civil liberty were justified and torture pretty much always worked. Except for that one time they got the wrong person. Or that time when the writers decided to phase out its usage, following allegations it inspired actual torture at Guantanamo Bay.

The point is clear, though. There was no real nuance or depth to be found in mainstream cinema’s exploration of the modern world. The War on Terror was either entirely justified or the worst thing to ever happen to mankind. there was no room for nuance – either the steps taken to combat terrorism were entirely justifiable, or completely immoral. Everything broke down into a neat dichotomy of “right” and “wrong” – with a clear “correct” answer suggested to the situation.

Bane was less than pleased with how Daggett managed his pension options…

Curiously, Hollywood has tended to stay away from the recent economic strife, save for a few token films dedicated to presenting bankers and investors as the worst people on the planet – apparently American film makers are wary about lecturing the public on economic hardship from their mansions and holiday homes. There have been a few effective dramas like Up in the Air exploring the implications of the crisis, but no real attempt to dig into that palpable sense of frustration.

So it’s quite surprising that the most nuanced political commentary of the past decade should be seen to come from a series of films about a guy who dresses up as a bat to fight crime. However, what is absolutely fascinating is that nobody can quite agree on what that political commentary is saying. Nolan refuses to allow his scripts to be easily summarised as a treatise from either political direction. Instead, he dares to explore the issue facing modern America from a decidedly apolitical and amoral standpoint, leaving the ideas to stand while the viewers make their own interpretations.

Not-so-enhanced interrogation…

And the viewers certainly have made their own interpretations. The Dark Knight was famously interpreted as a neo-conservative defence of President George W. Bush and the actions his government took to fight the War on Terror:

There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past. 

And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society — in which people sometimes make the wrong choices — and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

Such a reading, however, could not have foreseen that virtually every extreme step that Batman takes in The Dark Knight comes back to haunt him in The Dark Knight Rises. The attempt to cover-up Harvey Dent’s crimes buy eight years of peace, but all hell breaks loose when the truth is revealed. Batman might have managed an extraordinary rendition of Lau from Hong Kong, but Bane makes Batman a victim of one here, shipping him off to some anonymous (and literal) hell hole for “torture.”

On thin ice…

Even within The Dark Knight itself, Batman’s brutality is shown to be completely unreliable. His “enhanced interrogation” of the Joker tells him nothing, with the fiend only revealing the information on his own schedule. It isn’t just costumed freaks either. Batman brutally snaps the legs of a gangster in an alleyway, but he gets nothing in return. In fact, the Joker’s presence in Gotham is a direct response to Batman’s harsh refusal to avoid “due process.”

Batman’s “extreme measures” have created a set of circumstances where a monster like the Joker could evolve, mirroring the suggestion that American foreign policy does encourage the rise of various militant terrorist ideologies. Nolan never quite condemns the Caped Crusader, he simply suggests that the world is too murky a place to divide into simple ideological categories. Batman takes actions that (immediately) help to save lives, but his actions provoke dire consequences later on. That doesn’t mean that his action was unjustifiably monstrous, but it does mean that there is a cost.

Laugh it up…

Even without the sequel to explore the consequences of the actions hinted at above, it’s clear that the morality of Batman doesn’t break down into a simple “right or wrong” dichotomy. After all, foreign policy experts and governments have yet to find a “right” answer to the issue of global terrorism. The Joker is referred to as a “terrorist” and broadcast public executions while causing panic and destruction for the sheer joy of it. He is a terrorist, much as Ra’s Al Ghul was. (Albeit in a more metaphorical sense – literally spreading fear and terror.)

Naturally, The Dark Knight Rises has provoked the same sort of political discussions. Naturally, they come from the opposite side of the aisle. Rush Limbaugh has been quick to interpret the use of Bane as a thinly-veiled attack on Mitt Romney. In contrast, The Guardian has rather crassly (and with no hint of depth) suggested that The Dark Knight Rises is a thinly-veiled attack on the “Occupy” movement:

So it should be no surprise that The Dark Knight Rises so firmly upholds the financial status quo. Christopher Nolan’s film indulges in much guttural talk of the gap between the 99% and the 1%, but it is the former who are demonised, whose revolting actions require curbing and mutinous squeals muting. Your average Joe, it turns out, requires a benevolent, bad-ass billionaire to set him straight, to knock him sideways, if necessary.

Court of public opinion…

The notion, of course, relies on a fairly simplistic interpretation of Batman. After all, it seems like this is the first time that the journalist has noticed that Batman is a really rich person who spends his nights beating up the poor, the mentally handicapped and the socially disadvantaged. The character of Batman has been dealing with class implications for years, since his very creation.

In fact, Nolan’s Batman Begins went out of the way to make sure that Bruce spent time with the impoverished, so that the billionaire might understand what it is to be so hungry that one might steal. Bruce confesses, “The first time I stole so that I wouldn’t starve, yes. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong.” Nolan’s films were the first to really portray Joe Chill, the man who murdered Bruce’s parents, as a character who had motivation for the murder beyond greed.

Facing the gauntlet…

Chill is presented as a victim of the recession, despite Bruce’s hatred of him. “Sure,” he confesses, “I was desperate – like a lot of people back then – but that don’t change what I did.” In Batman Begins, Bruce is contrasted with Ra’s because he seems to understand the relative complexity of the criminal situation. “When you lived among the criminals, did you start to pity them?” Ra’s asks his young student at one point, chiding him for showing potential weakness. It’s implied that the moment Bruce becomes more than just an angry young man looking for vengeance is the moment he acknowledges the wider social implications at work.

However, even within The Dark Knight Rises itself, there’s room for nuance. While Bane launches a socialist coup of Gotham, releasing prisoners and organising kangaroo courts for the most wealthy and successful Gothamites, it’s worth considering that the first half of the film is populated by white collar criminals and an upper class oblivious to anything bigger then their own priorities. Bane first appears as a mercenary in the employ of John Daggett, an industrialist out to bankrupt Bruce Wayne.

Putting a Dent in his public reputation…

Early in the film, Wayne attends a charity banquet early in the film, but takes care to point out that only a very small amount is ever really raised, and it’s an excuse for the rich to feel good about themselves. Nolan is sure to show us scenes of the wealthy revelling in their decadence. Appropriately enough, the woman organising the party turns out to be a much bigger threat than Bane or any of his liberated lower classes. Even Bruce is (justifiably) accused of neglecting his social responsibility. Due to his failure to notice that he’d ceased funding a local orphanage, several of the young boys are killed.

Bane’s new society is, of course hostile. It’s the darkest desires of the “Occupy” movement carried well past the extreme. This is involuntary redistribution of wealth – literally seizing from the wealthy to give to those deemed more deserving. It is brutal and violent, just like the riots in Greece. According to Nolan himself, the explicit reference is A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution. However, it should be observed that the “99%” do not hold the monopoly on violence or brutality here.

How Bane truly broke the Bat…

I think that’s what separates Nolan’s films from other “socially minded” Hollywood films. The director remains curiously detached from one side of the argument or the other. He doesn’t pick a particular side to trumpet, and thus his movies are spared from becoming one-dimensional political diatribes. Instead, he dares to suggest that such issues and problems are bigger than simplistic categories like “right” and “wrong” – that there’s no easy solution or fix to these challenges facing the modern world.

Nolan’s Batman trilogy is wrapped in contradictions. Is Batman the solution to Gotham’s problems, or the cause of them? Can despair ever truly exist without hope, and, if so, what of vice versa? Is it possible for somebody to do something immoral without becoming immoral themselves? Is Batman simultaneously better and bigger than Bruce, or does he exist to do the things that Bruce can’t justify doing? None of these questions have simple answers, and I think Nolan’s smart to avoid them. After all, if the real world problems were so simple they would have been solved years ago.

Here to help…

A lot has been made of the fact that all these insights come from a British director. He works with a recurring cast built primarily of “outsiders.” Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Tom Wilkinson, Heath Ledger, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer and Juno Temple are all non-Americans. Anne Hathaway, Eric Roberts, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal are the only Americans to play a major role, outnumbered by the foreigners in the cast.

Perhaps the best political commentary comes from the outsider looking in. I think that Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is already a classic on its own terms, a fine set of films that will stand the test of time together. However, I also think that they possess a rather insightful and nuanced exploration of the American political climate, albeit one far more powerful because if refuses to break down these complex issues into simplistic soundbytes.

6 Responses

  1. Again, right on target. Speaking of which, the one political stance that you didn’t address (which I believe you did in a previous article) was that of gun control. Batman refuses to use guns, yet is saved by Selina Kyle using one. The film makes an argument on both sides of the issue, allowing the viewer to interpret it whichever way he/she sees fit. Trusting the audience to be intelligent enough to make independent decisions about what happens onscreen (or in some cases offscreen) is a Nolan trademark, and I highly appreciate that.

    • Thanks. I am sorry to say I didn’t make that point. But I’m envious: it’s a good one.

      I love how even Batman is morally ambiguous. After all, it’s Batman who lets Bane get away in that spectacular car chase. If he hadn’t have shown up, the police might have been able to apprehend Bane, but Bruce’s ego got in the way and obscured the objective. Alfred even makes the point that one of the reasons that the police are ill-suited to investigate Bane is because Bruce is consciously and selfishly withholding the tools from them.

      (And, true to form, and in keeping with the theme, Bruce replies, “One man’s tool is another man’s weapon.” Nolan’s politics aren’t necessarily right- or left-wing. They’re politics of pragmatism – concepts and ideas are inherently amoral, it’s what we do with them that defines them. Bane is Batman turned evil. As Bruce quotes at the end of Begins, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”)

  2. Great read. Much like life, The Dark Knight trilogy really emphasises the grey areas. Nothing is ever black or white. And that’s where previous TV shows and films have felt less than realistic when there’s a specific side the film sides with. It doesn’t feel real. Whereas this world that Nolan has created does feel more real with a man dressed as a bat because all of the underlying notions are not cut and dry.

    I think some people out there think that that’s a sign of lack of commitment on Nolan’s side, but for me personally, it makes for a whole lot more interesting when you can see both sides of the tale equally.

    • Thanks Jaina. I think that there’s a tendency in the US to “pick a side” as it were – to firmly identify on one side of the line or the other. I think that the fact Nolan is British perhaps explains that there’s a bit more pragmatism in his politics. Batman can be good and bad, often at the same time.

      Consider the lie at the end of The Dark Knight. Taken on its own, it looks like an endorsement of the idea that it’s justifiable for a government or authority to lie to its people because of some nebulous “greater good.” Those opposed to the idea would suggest that it never works – and that it’s inherently a bad idea. However, if it were such a bad idea and if it never worked, no government would ever consider it. Nolan concedes that it can work – it cements Gotham and buys the city eight years of peace.

      However, The Dark Knight Rises explores the consequences of that lie. Were those eight years of peace worth Bane’s reign of terror? If the lie hadn’t have been told, would Gotham have been able to hold it together even this long? You can see why Batman told the lie, and why Gordon went along with it, but Nolan leaves it up to the individual in question to weigh up the decision and to make our own judgments.

  3. ‘The director remains curiously detached from one side of the argument or the other.’

    I’d sort of dispute that. Making references to the French Revolution and ‘a Tale of Two Cities’ while having your main ‘revolutionary’ an ugly, unpleasant, thuggish character without any redeeming qualities whatsoever suggests that Nolan is subtly taking sides.

    That said, the Batman films are ultimately about getting bums on seats and making money, so no such film is going to make any unambiguous political statement for fear of alienating would-be customers, especially in somewhere as polarised as the US. Genre films like this like to touch on real world events to seem relevant but they’re always careful to throw bones to red and blue states. (For another good example of this see for example how Iron Man is both pro defense / military and also a bit of a right-on bleeding heart…)

    • On the other hand, he also points out that the reason Wayne can’t escape as easily as the child is because he lived a life of “privilege.” Meanwhile, the mayor boasts that Gotham is free of “organised crime”, while John Daggett operates with impugnity. (Daggett being a white collar criminal, but one complicit in several murders and attempted murders within Gotham and financially backing a coup run by Bane in “a more ancient part of the world.”) Daggett is at least as unpleasant as Bane. The only difference is that Bane is bigger, stronger and smarter than Daggett ever was.

      Bruce himself is shown to be oblivious to the suffering of Gotham and negligent to his social responsibilities. Those dead orphans who left because the Wayne Foundation couldn’t fund the programme are on him. And Alfred is, to be fair, more than a little correct when he points out that the cops let Bane get away because Bruce led them on a “merry chase” and also that they are completely unable to deal with situations like this because Bruce refuses to share his advanced technology. And even Bruce, who is hardly the most objective person, knows that any efforts made by the wealthy to help the impoverished just exist to feed the ego of the “society hag” hosting the function. Even when that doesn’t turn out to be the case, the “society hag” in question turns out to be a psychopath determined to destroy Gotham.

      On the other hand, Selina is more of a face for the disenfranchised than Bane is, and she’s horrified by the violence perpetrated by some of her fellow citizens.

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