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The Dark Knight Rises (and Falls) in 2016

As it draws to a close, there has been considerable reflection on the fact that 2016 has been a very “strange” year.

Of course, “strange” is perhaps a polite way of phrasing that sentiment. “Harrowing” might be another. “Depressing” could also fit. The year has been physically and emotionally draining for virtually everyone. It was the year that audiences around the world bid farewell to talents as diverse as David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. When it was determined that December 2016 would receive a “leap second”, it felt almost like an insult. Why should 2016 last one second longer than it absolutely has to? (Not that 2017 promises to be better.)

The hole in things.

The hole in things.

However, the biggest shocks of 2016 were political. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump shook the world to its core, and not just because the pollsters somehow failed to predict them. Those public votes were seen as stern rejections of liberalism and progressivism, of an angry and disenfranchised class striking back at what had been seen a disconnected and aloof elite. It was presented as a strike back against the establishment, against vested interests, an expression of rage – whether racial or economic.

Some of the best films of the year helped to capture that sense of anxiety and resentment. The Hateful Eight suggested that perhaps the United States had never reconciled itself following the end of the Civil War and perhaps it never would. Green Room suggested that there was still a primitive savagery lurking just off the main roads, nestled snugly in the heart of the country. The Girl With All the Gifts dared to suggest that those who reacted with panic and fear to change were likely to find themselves consumed by it.

Everything falls apart.

Everything falls apart.

However, the movie that most successfully embodied 2016 was not released in 2016. It was released four years earlier. That film was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to his groundbreaking Batman trilogy of films. Batman Begins had been released in 2005, and its meditations on fear made for a potent superhero story in the midst of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight was released in 2008, and seemed the perfect film to close out the Bush era. It was even described as “the first great post-Sept. 11 film.”

In some respects, The Dark Knight Rises was lost on its initial release. It seemed rather out of place, with audiences unsure how best to read the film. It was not the sequel that anybody had been expecting. Indeed, it seems fair to observe that it was not the sequel that Christopher Nolan would have been expecting as he worked on The Dark Knight. That had been a crime epic with political undertones. The Dark Knight Rises was a revolutionary epic and war movie, an odd combination for a film released in 2012. And yet it feels perfectly in step with 2016.

"Okay, maybe Batman vs. Superman wasn't everything that it could have been."

“Okay, maybe Batman vs. Superman wasn’t everything that it could have been.”

Anger seems to be the defining narrative of 2016. Anger from demographics that feel ignored and betrayed by the direction of their countries, whether the elderly or the uneducated or the white. These are people who feel left behind by contemporary capitalism and multiculturalism. They may not be as economically disadvantaged as most narratives portray, but they are driven by resentment. Resentment of those who seem to be favoured by contemporary society, resentment of those who seem to be cutting ahead.

Some of that resentment is justifiable. Who hasn’t felt a pang of anger towards bank executives who have managed to profit (through golden parachutes and lavish bonuses) from the financial crisis that they helped to cause? It is understandable the people who lost homes and jobs (or know people who did) in the financial crisis would feel anger towards the multinational agreements that favour these institutions and candidates that are seen as catering to the agendas of these shadowy organisations.

Lighten up.

Lighten up.

Some of that resentment is more primal and horrifying. Some of that anger is directed toward immigrants and minorities seen to be encroaching upon spaces previously reserved for white Americans. Immigration was a major part of the Brexit vote, ironically mostly in areas with the fewest immigrants. Donald Trump turned immigration into a plank of his campaign, threatening to build a wall and deport illegals. More than that, there was a conscious backlash against “political correctness” or advocacy for African Americans.

These anxieties are most explicitly reflected in the racist rhetoric of the white nationalist “alt-right”, but they resonate with a more basic fear. There is a strong connection between those who voted who voted for Trump and those terrified of the possibility that the United States might lose its white majority by the middle of the twenty-first century. Many Trump voters have spoken openly about their worries about whites becoming a “minority” in the country. More diplomatic commentators argue that Trump voters resent minorities for “cutting in line” ahead of them.

Bloody business.

Bloody business.

It goes without saying that this is not a viable long-term solution to anything, and that this anger and resentment and fear can only beget more suffering for everybody. Unsurprisingly, there have certainly been films and television shows exploring these themes over the course of the year, stories suggesting that violent reaction to chance and growth will have horrific consequences. The film narrative of 2016 seems to be that violence is an inevitable result of these attempts at repression or backlash.

The Girl With All the Gifts featured a group of (primarily white) protagonists struggling to survive in a radically changing world. The movie begins as a zombie film, focusing on a bunch of young children who have been changed by a strange fungus. The movie starts as a standard apocalyptic thriller about the human race stubbornly clinging to life, before pivoting in its final act to find sympathy for the monster. When a (white) dying soldier confesses to a young (black) zombie that it is the end of the world, she replies, “It’s not over, it’s just not yours anymore.”

Dark arts.

Dark arts.

Similar sentiments resonate through the first season of Westworld, a show in which the human guests and staff of a violent amusement park find themselves confronted by a race of robots on the cusp of rebellion against their tormentors. In the season finale, the robotic Dolores confronts the man who tormented and abused her in the premiere. As she beats him brutally, she insists, “This world doesn’t belong to you or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who is yet to come.” This is an angry and violent process of revolution.

While these movies are undoubtedly sympathetic to these revolutionary acts of violence, there is also a sense of ambivalence and regret. These horrors are only inevitable because of the choices made by dying generations who decline to embrace change and who refuse to look beyond the world as they long to see it or understand it. In both of The Girl With All the Gifts and Westworld, there is an explicitly racial component to the backlash with mankind facing extinction in the same way that these reactionary strands of white British and American voters face their own obsolescence.

Copping on to himself.

Copping on to himself.

That racial subtext is largely absent from The Dark Knight Rises, but is a film that feels very much of a piece with the mood of 2016. Indeed, the film seemed an oddity when it was first released, arriving at the end of Barrack Obama’s first term. The Dark Knight had been the perfect movie to close out the Bush era, but The Dark Knight Rises was very much at odds with the zippy cautious optimism of the Obama White House. JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek was perhaps the best cinematic encapsulation of that mood.

In contrast, The Dark Knight Rises stood out. It was a dark film in terms of tone, with Gotham finally managing to tear itself apart while Bruce Wayne was physically and mentally broken by his newest opponent before being consigned to a forgotten prison in the middle of nowhere. It was a film about the breakdown of social order, and the collapse of institutions. It featured anarchy in the streets and systematic oppression of an entire American city. Compared to that, the devastation in The Avengers felt light and zippy.

A Loki introduction.

A Loki introduction.

Indeed, reviewers frequently struggled with what to make of the politics of The Dark Knight Rises. The film’s revolutionary elements were read as knee-jerk reactionary criticism of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, with commentators somehow missing the fact that the revolutionaries in The Dark Knight Rises were wearing desert camouflage and driving army vehicles. Even in the context of 2012, the scenes were clearly pointed references to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Bane describes his men as “liberators”, while John Blake describes it as an “occupation.”

In that context, The Dark Knight Rises was clearly intended as a rejection of the pro-Bush reading of The Dark Knight most vocally championed by writers like Andrew Klavan. The Dark Knight Rises is very much constructed to repudiate that reading, from the opening scene of the CIA operatives with their black hoods to the deconstruction of the lies at the end of The Dark Knight to the invasion of Gotham that is consciously and conspicuously framed in terms of the worst legacy of the Bush era.

They bagged him on a deep cover mission.

They bagged him on a deep cover mission.

However, watching the film four years later is insightful. The Dark Knight Rises reveals a world in which the fears of the previous films have slipped into the background. ISIS might still be a source of fear in the real world, but the United States has consciously scaled down its involvement in the Middle East. The War on Terror informs and shapes certain aspects of the modern election cycle, particularly concerning the immigration of Muslims, but the fear of a big attack is not as severe and the issue of civil liberties is framed in terms of racial profiling and minorities.

By the time The Dark Knight Rises opens, the crime that plagued Gotham in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is long gone. “No city is without crime,” concedes Mayor Anthony Garcia. “But this city is without organized crime.” It is implied that Commissioner Gordon is largely redundant. “He’s a hero,” protests Peter Foley. “War hero,” his congressman colleague corrects him. “This is peacetime.” It is clear that Gotham is emerging from a period of relative prosperity, where the old high-profile terrors are long past. There has been no successor to the Joker.

Chalk it up to success...

Chalk it up to success…

And, yet, there is something bubbling beneath the surface. Although Batman and Gordon have managed to purge Gotham of street crime and organised crime, The Dark Knight Rises makes it clear that there are other forms of crime that have taken root. Indeed, it is telling that The Dark Knight Rises slots industrialist John Daggett into the role of “tertiary antagonist figure” that had been occupied by mobsters like Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins and Salvatore Maroni in The Dark Knight. The crime in The Dark Knight Rises is more economic and social in nature.

There are lots of small suggestions that things are amiss. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan construct The Dark Knight Rises as a sort of Dickensian social fable, something they acknowledge by offering a social striver the very Dickensian name of “Stryver” and by having Jim Gordon read Bruce Wayne’s eulogy from A Tale of Two Cities. Similarly, the real problems in Gotham are shown to be so deep-rooted that they are festering in the sewers right under the city’s nose. Bane is raising an army in those tunnels.

"I have no idea what the Dickens is going on any longer..."

“I have no idea what the Dickens is going on any longer…”

The men driven to those tunnels are the poor and the hungry and the dispossessed, victims of a failing city infra-structure where people are allowed to just slide out of view once they “age-out” of the few protections that the city offers. While Batman and Gordon might have locked up gangsters and hustlers, they have done little to combat real injustice. The powerful still prey upon the weak. The wealthy still protect themselves from any sense of social obligation. Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises takes pains to hold Bruce Wayne to account for his own failure.

Perhaps owing to his British background, Christopher Nolan is very clearly attuned to issues of class in the Batman mythology. Of the entire trilogy, The Dark Knight is the only film in which Bruce Wayne spends the whole film with access to his family fortune. For Nolan, part of making Bruce Wayne a hero lies in divorcing him from those resources and that wealthy. Indeed, the early scenes of The Dark Knight Rises demonstrate that Bruce Wayne’s failure to live up to his civic responsibilities actively empower Bane.

"Mistletoe can be deadly if you... wait, wrong film."

“Mistletoe can be deadly if you… wait, wrong film.”

The character of Selina Kyle very much embodies the anger underpinning all of this. At one point, she infiltrates a lavish charity dinner. “There’s a storm coming, Mister Wayne,” she scolds Bruce. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Kyle is hitting on the anxieties of a working and disadvantaged class that feels left behind as the rich get richer.

The Dark Knight Rises arrived towards the end of the so-called Great Recession. In that context, it seemed a little melodramatic. By the time the film was released, there was a sense that order was being restored to global markets and that things might be balancing out. Even Iceland was interpreted as having recovered from the worst of the crash. There were few overt signs of an impending market, and people were still scraping by. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that the worst had passed, and people would carry on carrying on.

Empty promises.

Empty promises.

In hindsight, there was an incredible naivety to all of this. It seems that the anger and resentment only festered and grew as those people who had weathered the Great Depression found themselves running to stay in place. The middle class found itself shrinking. The rich found themselves getting richer and the poor found themselves getting poorer, the gap between them increasingeven in education. There was never a single bold lightening strike. Instead, that sense of disenfranchisement only swelled in the shadows. By the time it lashed out, nobody was expecting it.

Bane’s revolution seemed excessive and fanciful in the context of 2012, as things seemed to be getting better. However, there is something all the more chilling about his crass populism in the context of 2016. When he storms a stock exchange, he does it using infiltrators disguised as service staff – as shoe shines and janitors that are largely unseen. “This is a stock exchange, there’s no money you can steal,” protests a trader. Bane responds, “Why else would you people be here?”

Taking stock.

Taking stock.

As Bane cynically promises to give back Gotham to the citizens, he uses language that resonates with the rhetoric that brought Trump to power and which led Brexit to victory. “We take Gotham from the corrupt!” he boasts. “The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you… the people. Gotham is yours.” His rhetoric is not about rising the disenfranchised up, but on tearing the wealthy down. “The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure.”

Of course, it is all a lie. Bane ultimately hopes to destroy Gotham, just as Trump will ultimately do little to protect working class whites and Brexit will hurt those most economically vulnerable. Bane is in no way invested in the people he claims to represent, just in harnessing their energy for his own ends. Gordon (quite correctly) laughs at the idea that Bane has handed power to the people. “You think he’s given control of that bomb to one of ‘the people’?! You think this is part of some revolution? There’s one man with his finger on the button – Bane!”

Boy, the Gotham media sure blew that "Gordon notes" scandal out of proportion.

Boy, the Gotham media sure blew that “Gordon notes” scandal out of proportion.

Any number of eerie parallels suggest themselves. Trump promised to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue his political rivals, while Bane has League of Assassins associate Jonathan Crane sit on “courts” to sentence the opponents of the revolution. Trump promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who committed violence on his behalf, while Bane frees all the prisoners in Blackgate. Bane makes a big deal out of private notes stolen from Gordon, while Trump and the media made a huge deal of his opponent’s email scandal.

Perhaps the most insightful and timely aspect of The Dark Knight Rises is the suggestion that these sorts of cynical revolutions driven by anger are ultimately more about punishing others than elevating the disenfranchised. Bane never hands control to the people, he simply gives them an excuse to indulge their darkest impulses. The montages of people being dragged into the street and houses being stormed, of families destroyed and horrors unfolding, recall horror stories about the huge spikes in hate crimes and violence that followed both the election of Trump and the Brexit vote.

Power to the people.

Power to the people.

The Dark Knight Rises is a film that feels eerily and uncannily relevant in the social and political context of 2016, a film that suggested the horror of the War on Terror would give way to a social backlash driven by anger and resentment. The real kicker? Although The Dark Knight Rises was released only four years after The Dark Knight, it was set eight years following that film’s events. The Dark Knight Rises is indeed a film for 2016.

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5 Responses

  1. Interesting article. I would argue that Revenge of the Sith has also become highly relevant. After all, the whole premise of that film is that people have become disillusioned with their politicians that they turn to someone who promises to make the Republic great again. Furthermore, the arrogance of the Jedi in that film is their undoing, as they are so convinced that they are in the right that they never truly understand how someone, in this case, Anakin, could turn against them. Similarly, the democrats were so confident in their candidate that they never made a compelling case to the layperson of why they were a better alternative to Trump, who after all promised to do all of these wonderful things for said layperson.

  2. Great essay. I’m still amazed at the general reaction to this movie. I think you nailed it when you mention that the malaise of the film didn’t really match the world’s mood in 2012. I always enjoyed how when Batman finally shows up in the movie, I feel like I really need that relief from hopelessness and despair.

  3. Interesting and thoughtful essay.

    To be honest though I disagree with most of it, and I think in some respects you are trying to force a narrative – and in particular a very political narrative – that isn’t quite there. I don’t blame you at all, God knows I carrying my own biases into seeing everything.

    For instance take the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy. Undoubtedly it isn’t a paen to Bushesque America as some have claimed but I could very easily read ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ as a devestating attack on 20th century Trotskyitism where the mob is shown as fickle sheep easily duped by a glamorous rebel with an ulterior motive – the character of Selina Kyle’s all but brainless room mate is an extraordinaryly unsympathetic representative of the lumpenproletariat. The day is saved by an aristocrat, his girlfriend who has leapt at the chance to shake off her working class roots to wear designer clothes and live in Italy and two cops, one of whom goes into business for himself in a triumphant example of entrepreneurial capitalism.

    Of course I don’t really think the films are an attack on Communism, but it does show how easy it is to interpret what one wishes to see in them. I’m reminded of our discussion over ‘The Girl With all The Gifts’ which you liked far more than I did and I still feel is essentially a validation of Trumpist mentality, even if that film’s particular sympathy lies with the left rather than the right.

    That is I suppose my main problem with the thesis, because the far left is insurgent and populist too in many places. Granted there has been no left wing equivalent of Trump (yet) but in the past two years left wing populism swept away sixty years of established Labour party rule in Scotland, and that same Labour party was pulled back from the centre by the most left wing leader in decades. In Greece PASOK, another establishment left wing political party was eaten alive by SYRIZA. Even in America Hillary Clinton was in for the fight of her life against Bernie Sanders.

    The other night I went to see ‘Snowden’. It was a good film, not great, but reasonably good but what was interesting was it that it ferociously attacked the Obama administration – and by implication Clinton, though she wasn’t named – from the LEFT (perhaps with a dash of American libertarianism.) I don’t neccessarily agree with the films politics but I thought it was very revealing because it showed because the problem is not simply confined to right wing racist populists. There are populists of all stripes out there and just because Bernie Sanders is saner and smarter than Trump we shouldn’t pretend he didn’t tap into many of the same problems.

    I can understand why you are depressed about 2016. I’d much rather a do-over myself. But life can be complex and strange and maybe it is delusionally optimistic of me but I’m prepared to go looking for a silver lining even in Brexit and President Trump.

    After all, the most beloved American president in the past century was a millionaire blueblood who shamelessly misled his nation about his health in office to the extent of being criminally negligent in matters of succession in the middle of the largest war in history. The most hated president was from a religious minority and came from a family so poor he couldn’t afford to accept his scholarship at Harvard because he was needed to mind the store. Life is complex and even the most cartoonish people can surprise you. I wouldn’t have voted for Trump and I’m sorry he won but he might prove better than the grotesque he seems.

  4. You are the only one I have seen to make this observation and I think you are spot on. I enjoyed this film a lot when it was released but it did feel out of place. Released the same summer as The Avengers, it felt out of its time and unnecessarily downbeat in that context. Prophetically, it fits very neatly into late 2016.

    There are too many observations on the Trump and Brexit votes (I’m American so I’m speaking mostly about Trump – I do think there are many similarities but also some key differences) to address all of them but I think your claim that they were “ultimately more about punishing others than elevating the disenfranchised” is maybe the most accurate and most important to both those votes and this film. People were not upset about what they did not have. They were upset about what others had that they believed wasn’t deserved. When you get these sentiments in your corner politically, the game becomes very easy because that resentment can be pointed in a lot of different directions. But this is where calculating a response to Trump is different than a response to Brexit. Democrats have long opposed (at least in ideology, not so much in voting record) Republicans’ march toward free markets, free trade and, ultimately, globalization. This message never caught on, however, because Democrats lacked the xenophobia necessary to truly oppose free international trade. When Trump tapped into that message, which was in opposition to years of Republican efforts to expand free trade, he did so from the perspective of the American worker. To the factory worker in Indiana or Wisconsin, there is not much difference between a plant being relocated to Mexico and a Mexican immigrant being hired. Either way, she’s losing a job to a Mexican worker. This is the danger in the progressive agenda of trying to protect American workers and why I think the response to free trade must be fair trade. Tariffs on companies moving jobs to foreign countries should not be based on the fact that the jobs are being filled by foreign workers. They should be based on the working conditions those companies are subjecting those foreign workers to. Maybe Canada gets more favorable rates than Mexico. Maybe South Korea gets more favorable rates than China. And Maybe the US should take closely examine what standards it is going to use to place tariffs on other countries and apply those same standards here (minimum wage, paid leave, etc.). I’ve digressed.

    I’ll add to your observation about Wayne’s wealth that even in the Dark Knight, he is removed from his mansion and living in an apartment in the city. Then, as you point out, the most time Wayne ever spends associated with his wealth is the 8 years prior to TDKR, while, without any fanfare, the disenfranchisement swelled in the shadows. So what is Nolan’s solution to this complicated mess? It seems to be “a hero can be anyone.” It is probably more accurate to say that everyone becomes the hero when empowered by institutions. Bane was just a loud authoritarian who abused people’s fears to overthrow those institutions that gave those same people power. Batman reintroduces the idea that these institutions are useful when truly controlled by people. If there is a central theme to the three Nolan Batman films it is that. Institutions are meaningful and should be protected from corruption. In fact, the essence of Batman is that sometimes we have to step outside of social norms but that does not make those norms meaningless.

  5. I’ve only seen the movie once in theaters, and might change my mind upon a rewatch with this in mind.

    I do remember, though, that Abigail Nussbaum’s review of TDKR (http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/search/label/batman) perfectly captured my basic objections to the movie, and especially my objections to its so-called “message” or “commentary.” Good review as a whole, but the money sentence is this: “A silly premise might have been forgivable if the film had developed its implications in interesting ways, but, much like The Legend of Korra last month, The Dark Knight Rises uses its villain as a means of avoiding those implications. Both stories are ostensibly about the cities they are set in and the battle for their soul, and yet those cities–their culture, their norms, and most of all their people–are curiously absent.”

    Bane is never shown as a populist rabble-rouser until he’s already taken control of the city. We first see him as the leader of a terrorist cult, who comes to Gotham with some of his people and then swells their ranks by releasing all the criminals from Blackgate Prison. That’s what the occupation of Gotham is. Where are the ordinary citizens? We don’t know. The closest thing we see to one is Selina Kyle, and by “the closest thing” I mean “someone who’s also a professional criminal already, but is given vaguely sympathetic motives.” We see some looting of rich people’s homes, but nothing to suggest that it’s actually pissed off and radicalized citizens doing it – seems at least as likely that it’s just Bane’s army. We see Bane’s people living in sewers, but I don’t think they ever suggest that these people are radicalized poor people, just Bane’s troops. Bane’s troops disguise themselves as workers and infiltrate menial job sectors – again, key words are “disguise” and “infiltrate.”

    All of which is especially glaring when this movie is the sequel to The Dark Knight. The Joker got regular people out to play *all the time,* successfully or not – the Wayne Enterprises employee who nearly exposes Batman, the number of people (including a cop) who try to shoot him, the ordinary people who demand that Batman be surrendered, the people on the ferries who nearly blew each other up. That was a huge part of what made it a great movie, and a great post-9/11 movie especially. A sequel that was also taking a stab at showing an even worse kind of social breakdown, should’ve put at least as much of a spotlight on how the ordinary people are reacting to the whole thing, but as it is, they’re barely background extras.

    All of which is to say that to me, any attempt to make TDKR a sort of social commentary on populism, social movements, and revolutions (including by the film’s writers) simply falls flat. Whatever their flaws, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party Movement, and (given the Dickens theme) the French Revolution all involved the radicalization of ordinary citizens. You can’t make a meaningful point about the phenomenon if you ignore those people in favor of terrorist cultists and hardened criminals.

    Throw in Bane and Talia’s basic motive – which it turns out isn’t even League of Shadows ideology but just revenge against Batman for having gotten a terrorist killed years ago – and you don’t even have the “how far are we willing to go to fight crime” theme from the first movie left. TDKR is basically Die Hard With A Vengeance, minus Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jeremy Irons, plus some zany gizmos and costumes.

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