Before the shooting incident at a Colorado theater, The Dark Knight Rises found itself gaining political traction of another sort when talk radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed the film’s villain, Bane, was a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney whose venture capital firm Bain Capital has been a source of criticism by the Obama reelection effort. Limbaugh commented:
This evil villain in the new Batman movie is named Bane. And there’s now a discussion out there as to whether or not this is purposeful and whether or not it will influence voters . . . This movie, the audience is gonna be huge. A lot of people are gonna see the movie, and it’s a lot of brain-dead people, entertainment, the pop culture crowd, and they’re gonna hear Bane in the movie and they’re gonna associate Bain.
Limbaugh was not the only one to fear the political influence of The Dark Knight Rises. In an op-ed for The Daily Beast, Harrison Schultz attempted to head off any potential parallels between Bane’s revolution and the activities of Occupy Wall Street:
If we are to talk about this film as if it has any connection to reality, which we should not, because it does not, then I would argue that this film is about revenge more than revolution, and the two are not at all the same thing. Revolution is not the violent overthrow of privileged classes by exploited classes. Revolution is not a violent revolt as it is depicted in The Dark Knight Rises. Rather, it is a social healing process and the resolution of violence between opposed social strata if it is successful.
Part of what is interesting here is the acknowledgement by men with very different political perspectives that pop culture matters and that it shapes public opinions about issues that are apparently unrelated to the content of the film. Limbaugh’s predictions are mostly laughable, at least in the way that they insinuate a coordinated effort to slander Mitt Romney, since the Bane character was created in the 1990s and the script for The Dark Knight Rises was finished by early 2011. But Harrison’s comments are off the mark as well, and not just because his definition of “revolution” has less connection with reality than your average superhero flick. There is an undeniable political subtext to The Dark Knight Rises and to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that has very much to do with reality.
This cycle of Batman films, which started with Batman Begins in 2005, continued with The Dark Knight in 2008, and ended with last week’s release of The Dark Knight Rises, has been a barometer of the times in which the films were made. Batman Begins was released when the United States was in the midst of the Iraq War and the War on Terror and one of the major thrusts of the film was the difference between justice and revenge, with the key conflict occurring between Batman and the League of Shadows; the former wants to redeem the city of Gotham from crime and corruption while the latter wants to unilaterally destroy it. It may be too much to say that the filmmakers of Batman Begins were actively commenting upon the politics of the moment but at the very least we can observe the way those politics crept into the story.
In The Dark Knight the political subtext was more visible. Organized crime lords of Gotham find themselves facing the combined efforts of Batman, Police Commissioner Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent, and the mob turns to anarchic super villain The Joker for help. In this follow up, the themes of Batman Begins were amplified in ways that made the influence of the War on Terror even more visible: The Joker is referred to as a terrorist and Batman operates outside the boundaries of law, using techniques like including kidnapping, wiretapping, and torture in an attempt to foil his arch villain. When The Dark Knight was released, rightwing commentators claimed that the film vindicated Bush-era tactics like rendition and warrantless wiretapping. This reading of the film conveniently ignores the tragedy of Harvey Dent, who is corrupted into becoming the very thing he fights. This is not to say The Dark Knight was made with partisan goals in mind but that the film reflects a greater complexity to these issues. Again, the filmmakers may not have deliberately tried to make a definitive point about the post-9/11 world, but the anxieties and imagery of this period did shape what ended up on the screen.
With the release of The Dark Knight Rises the themes established and developed throughout the previous pictures are brought to an endgame as super villain Bane leads a revolution that turns Gotham City into what one character compares to “a failed state.” Harrison is right that Bane’s revolution is not a metaphor for Occupy Wall Street, at least not specifically. As he points out in his op-ed, co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan has acknowledged that one of the inspirations for The Dark Knight Rises is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which is set in the aftermath of the French Revolution. However that should not diminish the fact that the imagery of Rises also recalls news footage of Occupy demonstrations as well as other events across the globe such as the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the civil war in post-liberation Iraq, and the protests of The Arab Spring. In fact, the character of Bane proves not only to be a powerful warrior but also an adept politician, publically promising liberation while privately working toward genocide, making him a symbol of the pernicious ways revolutions are co-opted. Here again the filmmakers have created a character and a conflict in which contemporary issues are distilled and dramatized.
And this is what The Dark Knight Rises gets at, why it is a relevant work of art, and has everything to do with reality. Audiences are not going to see The Hurt Locker or Green Zone but they will line up around the block for the newest Christopher Nolan Batman adventure. Part of that is to do with the fact that these are very well made films and they are entertaining. But, for at least some of the audience, the attraction of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is also that it is a way for viewers to confront their anxieties through the safety of a metaphor. The Dark Knight Rises may not be about Occupy Wall Street specifically but it is about revolution and Occupy activists should take note about what it has to say, lest they wake up one day and find their movement has been taken over by a Bane (or Bain) like character.