A little bit ago, Peter Little wrote an essay for this site in which he argued that Dark Knight Rises was the fever dream of a ruling class in crisis:
Although Bruce Wayne has developed a revolutionary source of, “sustainable,” nuclear energy, he has hidden it from the outside world for distrust of the existing social structure’s ability to manage it. It is this very technology which Bane steals and transforms into the nuclear device which threatens Gotham’s annilhation. The ruling class’ implicit understanding of the limits and failures of their dreams of a technocratic solution to the crises of ecology, economy, and culture, are vivid, however, in the moments when Bane’s insurgency takes control of Batman’s arsenal of weapons and toys, employing them against the former ruling order in Gotham City.
The ruling classes’ terror is vividly painted; the possibilities of liberation are more confused.
I finally saw the Dark Knight Rises myself, and I don’t think I agree with this. Specifically, DKR doesn’t feel like a terrified film to me. And certainly, I think saying that the ruling classes’ terror is vividly painted is giving way too much credit to Christopher Nolan, whose imaginative powers, at least in his Batman work, are almost uniformly pedestrian. We never get to “mildly striking,” much less “vivid.”
Peter does a good job limning the ideological positions and tensions of the film, about which I think he’s broadly correct. Nolan is riffing on the financial collapse and the Occupy movement (as I think he’s said in interviews.) Bruce Wayne’s position as beneficent billionaire and technocratic expert is questioned, and the dangers of populist revolt are raised.
But they’re raised only in the most perfunctory manner, and then dismissed via half-assed genre conventions that are, at best, marginally competent. Just as one example, consider the police.
The real terror for a ruling class is always that its own security forces will join the opposition — that the order will be given to shoot the perpetrators of the mass uprising, and instead the police will give them guns. The police are, after all, basically workers in shitty blue collar jobs; they’re definitively not part of the 1%. They’re even (horrors!) unionized. If the ruling class is running scared, one of the things they should be running scared of is the possibility that the police will betray them.
But this is never even hinted as a possibility in DKR. Oh, sure, the police are dumb, ambitious, occasionally venal, at times cowardly, and, at times, too meticulous in the execution of their orders. But they never consider joining their fellow citizens in an assault on the Gotham elite. For that matter, Bane never considers the possibility that the police might betray their masters; on the contrary, he locks the officers up underground, and hunts them down when he can. For Nolan, for Bane, and for the police themselves, the police are always going to be on the side of order. That doesn’t strike me as the vision of a terrorized ruling class. It strikes me as the vision of a ruling class so comfortable that worst case scenarios haven’t even occurred to it.
Of course, part of the reason that the police can’t join the mob is that there isn’t actually a mob. Maybe I blinked and missed it, but as far as I could tell, all the on-screen violence in the film is perpetrated by Bane and his cronies. There are some show trials which I guess are ambiguous…but even those come off pretty much as directed by Bane, and the judge is not some pissed off derelict, but the Scarecrow, a supervillain. Bane does make some speeches in which he urges the people of Gotham to attack their betters, and we see some trashed apartment which seems like it may have been looted by citizens rather than Bane’s thugs (though again it’s unclear.)
But what we never see is actual members of the Gotham 99 percent rioting on their own behalf. The police, in their final showdown, are fighting Bane’s men, it looks like — the battle is against folks armed with machine guns who know how to use them, not against a random crowd with knives and clubs. Of course, there’s some suggestion that Bane’s recruits are from the Gotham underclass…but the underclass is filled with criminals and losers anyway, you know? A ruling class which thinks its foes are the lumpen is not a ruling class that is looking down the barrel of despair. It’s only when you can imagine that even imperial retainers like that lawyer Robespierre are out to get you that you can really start to talk about terror.
Nolan is exploiting the rhetoric of class war because it’s timely and gives his film a patina of contemporary meaningfulness. But I see no indication that he actually cares about the issues he raises, or that they have troubled his sleep for even a moment. The emotional center of his film is not the fear of rebellion against the ruling class. It’s the truly preposterous sequence in which Bruce Wayne climbs out of a foreign gaol pit while his fellow prisoners cheer him on. The 1% will be saved by their love of extreme sports. That’s a profoundly stupid vision…but its stupidity seems born of snug obliviousness, not desperation.
If Christopher Nolan has one rock-bottom belief, it’s that everyone — Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Catwoman, random incarcerated Arabic-speaking ethnics — loves billionaire playboys and wants to see them self-actualize. And, hey, if tickets sold are any indication, Nolan’s absolutely right…which means that the 1% have little if anything to worry about.