Spoilers galore ahead
1. Dana Stevens’ criticism of the film is serious and needs to be addressed:
The Dark Knight Rises bursts at the seams with the kind of urgent, vague political references that fall just short of being ideas. We are witness to secret black-ops prisons, Kafkaesque kangaroo courts, and a terrorist incident at a crowded football stadium that’s staged with the visual imagination Nolan is justly famed for. It’s clear the director and his brother Jonathan (a frequent collaborator with whom he co-wrote the screenplay) want us not just to enjoy the ambient mayhem, but to think about … stuff. Violence, justice, revenge, the human condition, and whatnot. Exactly what conclusions we should be drawing from this 164-minute cogitation on social issues is never clear, but maybe that’s of a piece with the moral ambiguity of Bale’s Batman, who’s always split the difference between idealist hero and nihilist vigilante.
I didn’t like this comment when I first read it. I like it even less now that I’ve seen the film. A lot of ink was spilled over The Dark Knight and whether it was a vindication or rejection of the War on Terror. You can see how I’ve addressed that concern previously.
The connection Stevens is missing: the characters are the question and the characters themselves are asking whether heroism is possible. The topical nature of the ugliness governments and society engage in is a pretext for deeper themes. But you can’t demand conclusions without first identifying what’s at stake. The story, not the “urgent, vague political references,” has to do the work.
2. So what is the story? A lot about Bane, Miranda Tate, and Ra’s al Ghul is revealed to us up until the final moments of the film. Batman reveals himself most fully at the end, when he isn’t just Bruce Wayne. The moral message of the movie is abundantly clear: we do need heroes and the myths and masks that create them. But what exactly was the challenge to heroism?
3. We could dismiss Bane. We could say his exact identification with pain and love is ridiculous. Yeah, you’d nuke a city for some crazy woman. Whatever. We could dismiss Tate. She loves her father and his quest only after he dies? I confess I’m partial to dismissing both along with our greedy executive – they’re nowhere near the Joker. The Joker could credibly say he wasn’t a freak. He was the ugliness – the terror – that justice is a lie we make do with asserting itself. No wonder he was in direct conflict with a masked hero asserting justice and a certain nobility.
4. We have to reconstruct the villains as best we can. That’s going to require something fundamental from Batman Begins. Ra’s al Ghul’s assertion about Gotham, that it was fundamentally corrupt and needed to perish, isn’t off the mark. Gotham has become a silly city. Without organized crime, everyone has become a criminal. Unemployment soars; orphans die; the rich not only get richer but treat all of political society as their playground. Why not bring in a mercenary to help you crush your super-elite rivals? They get to keep their mansions even when they go broke, after all.
Ra’s al Ghul’s claims about cosmic forces and “balance” are only leading up to the issue of Gotham’s justice. What good is a fundamentally unjust city? Why give it anything? Why even consider giving it everything? More pressing: why bother loving the city, especially when the city caused one to be an orphan?
We see now where Bane is coming from – the exact same point of view as Bruce Wayne. If love is pain, then full embrace of that pain isn’t simply strength, making one better than the rest of man. It also is a claim about justice. Hence, the combination of Bane, Tate and Daggett. Taken together, they invert who Batman and Bruce Wayne are; they break him in combination. Daggett loves wealth for himself, not serving Gotham; Tate never gets over her Daddy issues and adopts his cause wholeheartedly, without any flexibility. But Bane is the link between the two. He’s not elite, whether living in wealth or with the child of a supervillain. He’s self-made, he’s mercenary, he knows he’s working for a fatal end.
The implicit claim about justice is that justice is a luxury. Bane makes this very clear in the first scene – “No one cared who I was, until I put on the mask.” The mask is self-construction. We know under Bain’s embrace of pain is anger, that love cost him everything and will continue costing him everything. That’s why, I think, the identification of Bane with revolutionaries and mercenaries and populism. He knows what he’s offering to Gotham and his own men is a sham freedom, a sham strength. He couldn’t climb out of the pit himself. But he knows it’s good enough for most people. No one can love as he does because no one has his pain; no one else can respect what it means to climb out of the pit.
5. If we take what I’m saying seriously, then Gotham isn’t targeted because of Ra’s al Ghul or Gotham itself as much as Batman. The villains have to break Bruce Wayne and Batman to show they understand something more substantial about justice and the world. Thus, they unravel the myth Batman and Gordon created to make Gotham safer. Of course Dent was a good guy who crusaded for justice. And of course he went insane. The truth about Dent can’t be had through the Commissioner alone; it certainly can’t be had through the reaction of a Batman fanboy such as Blake.
They take Batman’s very own means and use them to render judgment on his Gotham (“sentencing trials”). Justice is a luxury because you are who you are. You can’t be any more; sacrifice only deepens what is personal. The villains have to show Batman that he is a failure in his very conception. Love as pain is manifest in one’s overriding attachment to family and even one’s jealousy that another has more of something. It’s manifest in anger, which causes Bane and Bruce Wayne at key moments to lose control.
6. So the villains contention undoes itself, most unlike Joker. But the central moment in the movie doesn’t concern anger or love or pain. We’re back to fear again, except this time it’s an embrace of the fear of death. Batman is unlearning fully the lesson Ra’s al Ghul taught, that you have to be fearless. He never shared that conviction entirely (Batman Begins is about making criminals feel Batman’s own fear), but now it is outright rejected. And strangely enough, he’s more of a hero because of it.
While the main villains are on shaky ground, it isn’t clear we have anything to truly refute them with. We want to make our heroes villains as quickly as we want to emulate and enshrine them. Bruce Wayne doesn’t make the leap because the prison doctor is some wise genius. Why didn’t the doctor go up without a rope? He willingly buys into the myth that he actually needs to be scared of falling, that someone depends on him, that he can do something and have something. None of that is clear when he is quite literally in the pit. Bane is pretty explicit about how he feels about hope – love as pain does have enormous strength.
Fear isn’t really fear. You can almost see Christian Bale sighing “I hope I make it” when getting ready for the leap. While Robin is awesome, he’s awesome because he doesn’t give up hope. We admire that. We recognize that his giving hope to others is why class resentment is ultimately manipulable and shallow. Inasmuch as Batman is an aristocrat, he not only has the luxury of justice, but he gives it freely. Love isn’t just pain.
I’m not sure what to say about Catwoman. The whole movie is based on her conversion from resentful, self-made, and petty to someone who takes enormous risks for others. Bruce Wayne’s signature virtue in all three movies was that he trusted in others. I think you can track her thinking through the various scenes with her and Wayne. First, she physically sees him as someone who loves family. Then she meets him at the ball and sees him as noble. Then she sees him as masked, battered, and broken. All of this is only prelude, because she still does nothing for others and seems to do fine in the world Bane creates. Even a personal encounter with Wayne a day before a nuclear bomb is set to go off requires a bribe from him. Only when Batman briefly stops his own Wayne Industries turret from massacring cops does she actually carry out the plan agreed. Without hope, you can do a lot in life. But you won’t see any of it, even when it is right in front of your face.