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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 increasing – even 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?”
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!”
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.
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.