The Politics of The Dark Knight Trilogy

I’ve been sitting on this one for a while. Seeing as I have nothing but time (literally) these days I figured I’ll put this up. It’s a long one too, by the way. No one reads this damn Journal anyway…

In advanced let’s put the big ol’ *SPOILER WARNING* up now before anyone bites my nuts off for giving away the ending. Which I will. And then analyse. Deal with it. If you have seen it and care what I have to say, read on.

First and foremost, I loved the Dark Knight Rises. Nolan proves, yet again, that we don’t need empty, vacuous adaptations/remakes or vapid samey films to clog up the box office anymore. People are clever and people want to be challenged and something to chew on more than bubblegum. Wally Pfister delivers his best work to date, the cast are uniformly excellent and Nolan makes a great job of combining a couple of the story threads from different comics.

A little aside to people saying they hated it; Fine. Go and hate it. Stop trying to convince people you’re right though. Why? You are provably wrong. The sheer weight of people who not only like it but have returned several times to see it proves it is not a bad film. At all. Just because you want to appear different and ‘cool’ or even if you genuinely don’t like it and hate costumed heroes etc, the fact is this is a very well made movie and going into denial about isn’t going to change that fact. Accept it. You are in the minority. Do not act superior to me because I like the stupid man in Bat ears or I will look down on you for liking a film about one man and his sled (I fucking hate that film by the way).

Anyway…

By setting these three films in a very real world, a world Batman has never before inhabited, Nolan has deliberately set it among the populace of today and, as such, the politics. Each film has its own agenda politically, or at least it makes its own statement. Batman Begins looked at an extremist group of terrorists hell bent on destroying a public place/landmark sending a message to the world that opulence should die. They do this through ‘Fear’. To combat this, Batman uses the same. Fighting fear with fear. No coincidence that little catchphrase was used by the American administration at the time. Noticing any parallels here? Dark Knight was about a single psychopathic terrorist hell bent on causing chaos, to defeat this madman Batman must overstep his bounds to ‘become the villain’ in order to stop the real bad-guy. He is “Not the hero, he is being something more”. Remember that president who was vilified for doing bad things in order to capture or kill public enemy number one? Rises deals with the much less tangible idea of wealth and the power of the people. Another terrorist swans into Gotham, robs the wealthiest citizen of his money and brings down the law to relinquish power and declare mob rule, flattening the class system and financial elite in the process. Wasn’t there an economics crisis recently? A stock market crash? Didn’t we all say we wanted the bankers strung up for their robbing dirty dealings?

Let’s look at each of those readings. They are all subtexts or overtones that are not really what’s going on but they are definitely there. On the face of it, it really depresses me. Each one of those subplots reinforces the the correctness of Capitalism and seems incredibly right wing in defending the (let’s not beat around the Bush here) US Government’s foreign or home policy at the time. Use fear as a war on an ideal, manifested literally by a group of extremists? Be the lesser of two evils in order to stop the greater? Stop the people rising up, no good would come of it, let the rich retain their riches? More than a wiff of CNN hangs over these ideas.

But let’s chip away at the subplots of these movies. Each of these films is very dense, one of my favourite things about a Nolan script is its depth, this is normally personified by at least two or three stories running parallel to the main one, normally personified by another villain. Begins, it’s the Mob, Dark Knight, it’s Two Face, and Rises its actually Bane himself. Let me explain…

In Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow use a literal Fear-Gas to terrorise the city, they are literally using fear, a metaphor for what all Terrorists use. The mob are evil and use fear too, they are used by the League of Shadows as “Agents of Fear”, but they are afraid. They fear to lose their power, their wealth. Are we supposed to feel sorry for them? No. Are we supposed to see them as punching bags for the Caped Crusader? Hell yeah. What part of the right wing agenda do they fit into? In Dark Knight, Harvey is the DA who turns evil as a result of the death of his beloved at the hands of the terrorist. Harvey a symbol of justice, a “White Knight”, brought down to madness and evil. This is sad isn’t it? Yes. Does it justify him turning into a half-man, half-monster? No. Does it further the argument that you “Either die a Hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”? No. They lie to make him a hero. That’s a little confused isn’t it? In Dark Knight Rises, the millionaire board members are depicted as noble, self-sacrificing gentleman,wronged by the terrorists into taking people’s freedom/lives. And yet Bane is a hired goon. This “necessary evil”, who treats the wealthy, the poor, the powerful, the strong, all with the same unnerving gaze of contempt. Unlike the Joker who desired Chaos with a passionate fervour, Bane is given a task and sets about it with unwavering certainty until it is complete.

I’d like to take a closer look at Bane. His story revolves around Ra’s Al Ghul’s prison The Lazarus Pit (never named as such in the film but trust me Nolan wove that particular story in pretty well), sadly for me this was one of the things that annoyed me about the film. In advance of release people had already guessed Marion Cotilliard’s identity but as I sat and watched and the “Heir of Ra’s Al Ghul” was mentioned I knew instantly what was going on and how it was going to end. A shame really but anyway… The Pit is in Unspecified-istan that appears to be within walking distance of Gotham despite it having Persian architecture and a “Warlord” (??). What this does shout is a bizarre apprehension of Colonialism. Bane has a confused accent, but its plummy tones are unmistakably British. He wears a sheepskin flying coat, traditionally associated with ‘Tally-Ho, chocs away!’ Britannia. He wears military-combat gear in general along with his militia. Britains army invaded almost every nation espousing their desire to free the people with trade and wealth whilst oppressing the populace under one flag. Bane appears to embody British Colonialism in a very overt way.

BWUH?

What purpose does that serve? It might have been pertinent a hundred or even 60 years ago but NOW? You could argue that it is making a point against the foreign policy of the US by doing the same with middle-eastern nations but a minute ago the films were defending this idea. People saying Dark Knight was almost one long Bush apologism yet now the master villain is Bushes evil administration invading the people’s country and destroying its delicate infrastructure? Sorry, no sale. And why does the Dark Knight spend such a long time with dear old Harvey? So we are led to believe the Mob are bad but so is the legal system that Harvey embodies? Or is it that Chaos can ruin even the greatest man? If so surely that makes Batman an actual villain as well, he does bad things after all? Scarecrow suffers the same fate as the leader of the Mob in Begins. So what are we trying to say there? The Mob is merely a playing piece of real fear? That sort of negates their villainy in the next film if that’s the case. This is a pretty confused message Nolan is trying to convey, no? All these subtexts are as much ‘there’ as the subtexts about the terrorists, Bush administration, the economic crisis, etc so why are these ones ignored? If Nolan is so intent on getting a political message across why do these subtexts/overtones not appear in Memento or even Inception?

My theory is this:

Nolan is a very clever man and most importantly, understands film. Minutely. Every work of art is a sponge to its context. i.e. The time you make a work of art will shape it and help define it. This is because we ourselves are also sponges. Nolan knows this and knows the theory behind it. The biggest selling and most popular works of art are the most reflective of the times. This is normally lazily referred to by writers as ‘Zeitgeist’. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, ET, Harry Potter, The Beatles, all have reams and reams of paper critically analysing their place in the context of their culture. Nolan was no doubt under a lot of pressure to make a blockbusting superhero movie yet it is clear Nolan is an art house filmmaker. He plays with the conventions of narrative and uses every trope of film to create an overriding effect. In all his other films he stays focused on character as opposed to an overriding political thread. I imagine it doesn’t interest him. The fact is he knew he needed to make money and the best way to do that was to create a film that reflected our times and spoke to us and everyone’s fears. He does this in each film and he was right. Dark Knight and Rises are HUGE successes, despite being very long, character focused, dialogue heavy, art-thouse films because he found a political and cultural sub-structure to hang his story on that the public would respond to. Admittedly Avengers did better but that had a 5 film trailer to back it up and was very much a popcorn movie intended to be explosive and colourful, which it was and is also a great film.

I think each Dark Knight film has at least 3 or four different agendas, deliberately. People latched onto the most pertinent one and either lauded or lambasted it because of it. That’s canny writing and savvy filmmaking right there. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

Also I love Ledger’s Joker still but I actually prefer Hardy’s Bane as a villain. There. I said it.

“Now this review is over…

…You have my permission to whine”
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