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Politics and Morals, Myths and Hope: Reading Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 13:55

Obviously, a lot of noise surrounded The Dark Knight Rises, starting with the hype and anticipation. Then came the extreme reactions to some early negative reviews. And then the midnight-screening mass shooting in Colorado appropriately redirected attention to important matters.

The deaths of 12 people and the injuries to dozens more in that Colorado movie theatre on July 20 highlighted that neither a movie nor Batman is anywhere near as important as human lives.

Yet the arts are still integral to our existence, and whatever you think of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy as films, these movies will stand as key markers in the lives of many millions of people and in the movie business, and they will be viewed as reflections of their cultural and political time. Like the original trio of Star Wars movies, we can already see them as significant pop-art artifacts.

For those reasons alone, Nolan’s Batman movies deserve close scrutiny. They also reward inspection and consideration, as the writer/director has conceived and executed them with a rigor and density unusual to blockbusters. (Expect spoilers, although I’ve tried to be circumspect about late developments in The Dark Knight Rises until the final section.)

A flow chart of relationships in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Click for a larger version.What might not be obvious to those only casually familiar with Batman is how thoroughly Nolan has bent the DC Comics universe to fit his ideas, respectful but not beholden. His choice of villains and how they interact are indications of the writer/director’s thoughtful approach to the series. In 2005’s Batman Begins, he turns Ra’s al Ghul into Batman’s first mentor and a father figure (and combines him with another existing character, Ducard), and then makes Scarecrow a co-conspirator in the plot to destroy Gotham. In 2008’s The Dark Knight, the Joker creates Two-Face both literally and, through a bedside conversation, psychologically. And in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is an adherent of Ra’s al Ghul’s corruption-purging absolutism.

Bruce WayneSpend some time exploring the comic-book histories of many people found in the movies – not just the major villains, but everyone from Lucius Fox to Selina Kyle to the mob bosses to corrupt cop Flass to mugger Joe Chill – and you’ll begin to appreciate the care with which Nolan has constructed the films and connected the characters, and the extra resonance he’s able to generate as a result. In a way, Ra’s al Ghul begets Batman, who begets the Joker, who begets Two-Face. Bane and Batman are nearly brothers, yet they are visual negatives of each other – light and dark, hulking and sleek; on their heads, Bane exposes what Batman covers, and vice versa. (And this repeats a contrasting-mask motif from the climax of Batman Begins.)

Yet the series is also surprisingly rich in other ways, and The Dark Knight Rises recasts the trilogy in moral and mythic terms while (probably intentionally) undermining attempts to read it politically.

Corruption as Political Outlook

Nolan has said the movies’ references contemporary and historic – terrorism, mass surveillance as a response, and the French Revolution, to name just a few – are merely references, not indicative of a larger political agenda or philosophy: “We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that’s simply a backdrop for the story. ... It’s just telling a story.”

Some critics have still considered the series’ philosophy and world view and deemed them murky or vague, or alternatively found evidence that they support or critique some current policy or another.

I’ve done some of the latter, but – with the benefit of perspective – I now disagree on all counts. The politics ain’t pretty, but they’re pervasive, persistent, largely consistent, and deeply cynical: Citizens lack the will and power to change a rotten system, yet those with the will and power are rotten, too.

Corrupt cop FlassGotham features at least six distinct levels of corruption, each represented by characters in Batman Begins. There’s the street-level criminal at the bottom, personified by the man who kills Bruce Wayne’s parents, followed by mundane organized crime, in the form of Tom Wilkinson’s powerful but very ordinary mob boss. On the corporate level, we have Rutger Hauer’s Wayne Enterprises CEO, more concerned about public relations than public safety. And we have the bought-and-sold public servants, in the form of Mark Boone Jr.’s cop and a judge, who ensure that all of the above can operate with relative impunity. In Nolan’s vision of Gotham, the wicked control everything, and it is in that context that Batman is born. (Or one could say that those who control become wicked – a subtle distinction that might better align the statement with the series’ outlook.)

Above those pedestrian evils – which operate only for survival or profit – are the more-traditional superhero foils. There’s the deranged, in the person of Scarecrow; he’s the only villain in Batman Begins whose purpose appears wholly evil, because he doesn’t have a core philosophy or a long-term profit motive.

Ra's al GhulAnd lastly there’s Ra’s al Ghul, an invading warrior who believes, perhaps correctly, that cities need to be torched every now and again to be healthy; that idea gains traction as it becomes increasingly clear that Batman is facing a depth and breadth of corruption in Gotham that no person, no matter how strong, can overcome.

Outside of the street criminal, these types reappear in the remainder of the series. The mob boss is replaced. Wayne Enterprises, in The Dark Knight Rises, is the target of parallel plans that give new meaning to the phrase “hostile takeover.” The Dark Knight makes clear that Jim Gordon isn’t merely a rarity; he might literally be the only honest cop in the city. The fall of Harvey Dent suggests that anybody can be corrupted. The Joker is Scarecrow taken to an extreme, a freelance terrorist instead of one employed in a larger mission. And, of course, Bane’s primary goal in the final movie is to finish the job that Ra’s al Ghul didn’t in the first.

This seemingly hopeless vision might be a reflection of Nolan’s world view, or it could merely a be a comic-book-style construct. Regardless, the effect is to make any throughtful political reading of his series both dystopian and elitist.

There are precious few “little people” in these movies, and throughout it’s clear that ordinary citizens lack the tools to fix Gotham through peaceful democratic or economic channels.

The mob bossEven before the appearance of Batman or any of his foes in Batman Begins, organized crime rules the city, and the conventionally powerful are effectively powerless. The philanthropy and public works of Bruce Wayne’s billionaire father – a healer by trade – only go so far, and the “great” man and his wife are gunned down by Chill in an alley.

On the political and justice-system fronts, the aggressive sweeps of Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight promise only temporary relief and are explicitly noted as abuses of law-enforcement power.

In terms of public policy, the Dent Act actually clears Gotham (between the second and third movies) of organized crime, but it’s premised on a lie – that a rogue, masked vigilante murdered the gleaming, upstanding district attorney. And just as Batman’s surveillance techniques at the end of The Dark Knight are clear violations of privacy and civil liberties, the new law – whose mechanics are never articulated – presumably achieves security through the further erosion of rights.

The basic philosophy at work is spun by Harvey Dent: “When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city.” Yet many of Gotham’s enemies come from within, and even its “saviors” are sullied or venal.

Jim GordonIf we view Batman, Gordon, and pre-Two-Face Dent as heroes, we’re asked essentially to accept the well-intentioned but problematic actions of self-appointed, appointed, and elected guardians without question. Yes, Batman might have blown up your car and listened to your phone call, but he’s looking out for your best interests. Your shoplifting cousin might have been locked up for 10 years in Dent’s name after an illegal search, but it’s for the public good.

Selina KyleWhich brings us to The Dark Knight Rises’ revolutionary references. As has been widely noted, the trilogy’s conclusion casts itself in Occupy and class-warfare terms. Selina Kyle whispers threateningly into Bruce Wayne’s ear about the coming “storm” that will wreak havoc on the rich, while Bane promises to return Gotham to its citizens and points to the stuffed prisons as proof of the oppression by the ruling class. You could say they make some valid complaints.

Yet even setting aside the issue of whether we should pay much attention to the political views of criminals who wear a unitard and a scary mask (respectively), this rhetoric of upheaval is almost prima facie self-serving and invalid in The Dark Knight Rises. As has often been the case throughout history, the populism here thinly disguises a grab for treasure and power.

BaneSo the grassroots revolution is actually an armed coup, and when war does come, it’s one trained army against another in a street fight, Batman’s cops charging Bane’s criminals in the winter sun and flitting snowflakes.

This daylight battle highlights that Nolan’s Batman movies have primarily dealt with oligarchical and authoritarian structures and militant responses. There are regular references throughout the series to the people of Gotham (and their aggregate character), but it’s an abstraction to the arbiters of their fates – be they forces largely for good (Batman) or evil (Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker, Bane). Key public officials conspire to evade the spirit of the law, working toward a “common good” without regard for individual rights. The movies promote a blithe collectivism, with the goals and means defined by those (evil, deeply flawed, corrupted, or corruptible) people with money, political power, or cool weapons.

The bleakness of the series under Nolan flows directly from this. Batman Begins asks the audience to decide among crime-ridden streets, a safer community cleaned up by the unaccountable Batman, and destruction. The Dark Knight pits terrorism against a surveillance state. The Dark Knight Rises contrasts the status quo of strictly enforced peace with revolution followed by military occupation.

These are easy calls, but they’re menus of extreme and false choices. If these movies have anything relevant to say in political terms, it’s a trite generalization about power and means and circumstances compromising ideals.