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My 12 for ’12: The Dark Knight Rises & Blockbusters with Brains…

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #1

There’s a popular idea that just because a movie makes a lot of money, or just because it attracts a large audience, or just because it features fantastical elements, that it is somehow unworthy of discussion and debate. The Dark Knight Rises has been a divisive film, sparking a lot of debate about its relative merits and those of Christopher Nolan, the director and co-writer. Following on from the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan opted for an unconventional approach for his sequel. Structurally and tonally, The Dark Knight Rises represented a significant departure from The Dark Knight. While the The Dark Knight had been an urban crime thriller exploring the wake of 9/11, The Dark Knight Rises was an epic social drama pondering how divided American society had become.

It isn’t quite as fantastic as The Dark Knight, but it was strong, bold, vibrant and challenging film making – proof that budget does not belie brains.

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What little commentary existed on Nolan’s themes in The Dark Knight Rises tended to be a bit weighted – the movie serving as something of a political rorschach test. “Mitt Romney would be thrilled,” wrote the normally reliable Catherine Shoard in The Guardian. Forbes described it as “an instant conservative classic.” Apparently a billion-dollar movie is all it takes to bring out one of the oldest comic book clichés, as the mainstream media latched on to an oft-used truism – with The Telegraph branding Batman “the ultimate capitalist hero.” Only The Atlantic dared to counter this view, and it did so half-heartedly.

To be fair, there’s a lot there to support that reading. The Dark Knight Rises is loosely inspired by A Tale of Two Cities, to the point where Gordon even reads from the book at Bruce’s funeral. As such, it tackles the brutality of revolution, and the idea that those regimes replacing corrupt and decaying systems are not always better. I suspect Nolan rues the fact that his ultimately scrapped plans to film at the Occupy Wall Street protests came to light, because that brief news snippet has dominated a lot of the film’s coverage. Even The Guardian was quick to label Bane’s villainous scheme as “Occupy Gotham.”

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You could argue that these points all lean towards the interpretation that The Dark Knight Rises is an inherently conservative film, condemning any attempt to change the system as tantamount to anarchy and violence. Certainly, the character of Batman lends himself to such a shallow reading. It’s often joked that money is Batman’s true superpower, and a lot of his Golden Age adventures revolved around the idea that – as a rich white man from a powerful family – Bruce Wayne had all the moral authority he needed put on a silly costume to beat up poor people.

However, such a reading is at best shallow and at worst misguided. It reads only particular facets of The Dark Knight Rises, ignoring those that are inconvenient and those which actively undermine the suggestion that Bruce Wayne is anything more than a conservative in a cape. It feels a little bit lazy, and a little bit smug – a little dismissive. I think it overlooks how truly impressively Nolan has constructed his trilogy, with The Dark Knight Rises sitting as the crown on top of the trilogy.

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It ignores the fact that the first villain of the film – Roland Daggett – is a billionaire industrialist who makes a fatal miscalculation when he brings Bane to Gotham. Daggett’s arrogance and hubris allow Bane to spread his influence across the city, and Daggett’s indifference to the people under him has created a climate where Bane can readily recruit followers and adherents. Similarly, Bruce’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the social obligations that his status brings means that there are more kids on (and under) the streets to cause problems, falling into a life of crime.

Indeed, the central idea of The Dark Knight Rises is that Bruce needs to let go in order to really escape the dark pit he finds himself. The pit is the perfect visual metaphor, mirroring the well in Batman Begins. Bruce – like Bane – never really left that darkness, and the emotional climax of The Dark Knight Rises comes as Bruce must pull himself out. In Batman Begins, he made himself “more than just a man”, but here he must reconnect with what made him human.

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And part of reconnecting with what makes him human means shedding the wealth and privilege he takes for granted. Asked how a child could escape the pit, one of the inmates explains, “But no ordinary child, a child born in hell, forged from suffering, harden by pain. Not a man from privilege.” In order to find out out the truth about himself, Bruce even has to part ways with Alfred, who admits that he has served as an enabler to the young man, insulating him from the harsh realities the outside world. Much like Bruce’s trip without money or identification around the world at the start of Batman Begins, Nolan rejects the idea that wealth is what makes Batman into Batman.

However, more bluntly than that, there’s the fact that The Dark Knight Rises seems rather pointedly structured in such a way as to counter the conservative reading of the ending to The Dark Knight. The Wall Street Journal argued that the end of The Dark Knight was a defence of George W. Bush. It saw Batman illegally wire-tap an entire city for the greater good, lie to the populace for their own benefit and depart the scene hated by a city that owed him an impossible debt. It was actually a fairly convincing argument, until The Dark Knight Rises exposed the fact that this was not – by any stretch – a truly happy ending.

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In his first conversation with the Batman in eight years, Gordon concedes that The Dark Knight Rises is about the sins of The Dark Knight coming back to roost. “Now this evil rises from where we tried to bury it,” he tells Bruce. The lie at the end of The Dark Knight makes it easier for Bane to tear Gotham apart. It almost manages to turn Blake against Gordon. “Your hands look plenty filthy to me, Commissioner.”

The climax of The Dark Knight saw Batman devise a technology that allowed him to listen in on every mobile phone in Gotham. In contrast, The Dark Knight Rises saw Bane exploit a piece of technology devised by Wayne for his own evil ends. Imagine how dangerous Bane might have been with that eavesdropping technology. Similarly, The Dark Knight saw Batman perform his own version of extraordinary rendition. In contrast, The Dark Knight Rises saw Bane use the tactic against him.

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The entire structure of The Dark Knight Rises exists to deny the reading of The Dark Knight as a conservative film. Like all good closing films in a trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises cleverly takes what we’ve seen before and ties it all together. The pragmatic politics of The Dark Knight allowed Bruce and Gordon to win the day, but that sort of corruption and decay comes with a cost and a high price at that. I wouldn’t argue that The Dark Knight Rises is a liberal film – instead, it’s a movie that explores the political divide in the United States.

For all the attention that Bane attracted because his revolution seemed to evoke Occupy Wall Street, nobody seemed to notice that it also rather overtly referenced America’s foreign policy. Driving tanks designed for desert warfare (and in desert camouflage) through a major city, Bane declares his men “liberators” and vowing to take power from “the corrupt” who have betrayed their people. The outside world watches as he turns what was once one of the most culturally important places on the planet into a “failed state.” It’s no coincidence that, all the way back in Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul compared Gotham to Constantinople.

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Those commentators who note that The Dark Knight Rises is a conservative’s nightmare version of Occupy Wall Street are entirely correct, but they miss the point. Bane’s “liberation” of Gotham is a parody of a liberal’s nightmare version of American foreign policy. Nolan doesn’t use these comparisons to endorse one view or the other.

As Nolan has argued:

What was surprising to me is how many pundits would write about their political interpretation of the film and not understand that any one political interpretation necessarily involved ignoring huge chunks of the film. And it made me feel good about where we had positioned the film, because it’s not intended to be politically specific. It would be absurd to try to make a politically specific film about this subject matter, where you’re actually trying to pull the shackles off everyday life and go to a more frightening place where anything is possible. You’re off the conventional political spectrum, so it’s very subject to interpretation and misinterpretation.

Looking at the film as a whole, it seems almost to be an appeal to moderation or common sense, by illustrating how dangerous things get out on the edge.

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Ice has been a recurring metaphor throughout the film series, and it works as a metaphor for the delicate balancing act Batman must conduct. Batman Begins saw Ra’s and Bruce practising on the ice, with Bruce rather memorably ending up standing on ground that went out from beneath him. “You’ve sacrificed sure footing for a killing stroke,” Ra’s Al Ghul notes, and it’s a rather potent metaphor. The moment Bruce allows himself to think he is superior to the system he protects, the moment he feels justified in taking a life, Batman will loose his grounding, his “sure footing.”

Being a vigilante, Batman must be especially careful of how he operates – and of losing sight of what keeps him human. The ice image resurfaces in a big way in The Dark Knight Rises. The opening track on the soundtrack is On Thin Ice. The Scarecrow sentences the wealthy of Gotham to walk across the ice on Gotham Bay. The ice is treacherous. It’s easy to lose your footing. Watching the citizens of Gotham move across the ice, there’s a sense that society itself is somewhat similar.

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If you believe the Joker in The Dark Knight or Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, society is “a bad joke” that will collapse when the faintest pressure is applied. “They’re only as good as the world allows them to be,” the Joker assured Batman, and sometimes the ice separating us from the abyss collapses. Sometimes everything we know breaks down. Gordon worried about escalation at the end of Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Rises is the culmination of that – Gotham is occupied by a hostile foreign force, its infrastructure destroyed or corrupted, law and order subdued.

Batman, by his nature, operates off the grid. It’s a delicate balancing act, and Nolan is smart enough to demonstrate that it doesn’t always work. The Dark Knight Rises is anchored in Batman’s failures – his murder of Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins and his cover-up in The Dark Knight. Batman is a very powerful idea – he’s a symbol, a legend, a myth. Batman can endure more than Bruce, because is merely a man.

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However, Batman is also a dangerous concept – unchecked, he can eavesdrop on the city’s inhabitants, kidnap foreign nationals and engage in otherwise morally questionable conduct. Indeed, Bane is pretty much Batman without Bruce Wayne. His tactics, his technology, his training all recall Batman’s. We’re told that “the mask keeps the pain at bay”, and it does something similar for Bruce. We’re even introduced to the character in an opening scene that mirrors the closing action sequence of Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight Rises is essentially an exploration of how important the human element of Batman is, and how dangerous it is to lose sight of the individual in favour of an ideology. Batman doesn’t simply increase Bruce’s ability to fight injustice. Instead, both Batman and Bruce are co-dependent, and Bruce’s humanity is an essential part of that equation. Bane lacks Bruce’s human element, and that is the key. Bane destroys Batman’s mask; Bruce endures. Batman breaks Bane’s mask, and that’s the end of Bane as a credible threat.

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The key revelation for Bane – the moment the myth of the character implodes – comes with a whispered confession. “I broke you,” he almost whispers. “How did you come back?” Bruce suggests that Bane is arrogant to assume that only he could escape the pit. Bane reveals, “But I never escaped.” Just like Batman never escaped the pit. Bruce escaped the pit by embracing that “most powerful impulse” that he abandoned to create Batman. Bruce must accept fear again, and learn to be human.

That’s the key to Nolan’s Batman, and to The Dark Knight Rises. It’s about the humanity of it all. It’s not about the extreme left or the extreme right – it recognises the damage that such an extreme ideology can do. Instead, The Dark Knight Rises suggests that embracing humanism might be enough to save the day. The Dark Knight Rises acknowledges the power of ideals and symbols, but it suggests that these must be tempered by humanity and by compassion – it’s far too easy to lose sight of these things when buried in the cave.

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It has been argued that Nolan’s trilogy reflects modern America, and I’m hard pressed to disagree. It’s worth noting that the majority of the headlining talent involved in the three films came from outside the United States – perhaps suggesting that it takes an outsider to offer an honest and objective opinion. At the same time, The Dark Knight Rises is never too forceful in its metaphors or its commentary. Instead, it leaves the audience to really reach their own conclusions – and perhaps that’s why so many see what they want to reflected back at them.

The Dark Knight Rises is not a right-wing film, nor is it a left-wing film. Instead, it’s an exploration of how the humanity of it all can be lost in these grand ideological debates and discussions. In a world where followers of one party suggest mass migration after the results of a general election, perhaps it might be worth embracing the humanity of it all.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

04. Cabin in the Woods

03. The Muppets

02. Shame

01. The Dark Knight Rises

6 Responses

  1. My favorite theme was that money doesn’t give you any moral authority to do anything, despite the means to do so. Just because Daggett had money didn’t mean he controlled Bane, for example. Once Wayne lost his money and climbed out of that pit, he gained the moral authority to be Batman.

    • It’s actually something that recurs throughout the series, and I think Nolan does an excellent job illustrating that Batman’s strongest foes are ideological, and that Batman’s humanity (combined with his mythic status) is what defeats them.

      Carmine Falcone is easily dismissed by the Scarecrow, who is easily brushed aside before Ra’s Al Ghul.
      The mob is pushed out of the way by the Joker.
      Daggett is exploited by Bane.

      Humanity (Batman) >>> Ideology and mythology (Bane, Joker, Ra’s) >>> Money (Falcone, Maroni, Daggett)

      Part of me thinks that’s why Nolan’s Scarecrow winds up getting so easily thrashed. He’s half-way between the mob and the big bad. He has an ideology (fear) and an iconography (Scarecrow), but hasn’t completely transcended basic avarice. In Begins, he plans to hold the city ransom. In the Dark Knight, he’s selling drugs. Perhaps the reason we don’t see him getting beaten in The Dark Knight Rises is because he looks to have abandoned the pursuit of money. (Or, you know, there just wasn’t time in the film.)

  2. Something I’ll be waiting for in 2013…

  3. Fantastic essay! Not that I know Christoper Nolan, but I think he would approve of this.

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