Spoiler warning: There are going to be a lot of spoilers in this review. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, you might not want to read this.
The eagerly anticipated final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is finally here. I will admit I went to see it with some trepidation: the trailers looked like shit, it couldn’t possibly be a patch on The Dark Knight, and what the hell was up with casting Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. It looked set to be the too-many-characters clusterfuck of Spiderman 3, and I went in thoroughly prepared for disappointment.
Perhaps my low expectations paid off, because I really rather enjoyed it. As a film, it worked. As a final installment in a trilogy, it worked really well, tying together the themes from the first two installments. It was well acted, and well-directed, though some of the dialogue was a little clunky. It wasn’t a patch on The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan retains his record of never having made a bad film. Of course it was problematic as hell, but it’s perfectly possible to be a fan of problematic things and overall, I’m going to say I liked it.
Of course, most of you read this blog for two reasons: to nod along with my anger at social problems, or to tell me to shut up because I’m wrong about social problems. So I feel it’s only right to go through the problems with the messages The Dark Knight Rises is trying to convey.
Quite a few people have pointed out that the film–and Nolan’s Batman trilogy as a whole, and arguably the entirety of the Bat-canon–is right-wing as hell. This is certainly true. It repeats, uncritically, plenty of right-wing myths of both the authoritarian and socially conservative flavours.
The central theme of The Dark Knight Rises is order. The film opens with a big celebration of how Harvey Dent’s legacy has led to a thousand baddies being in prison. Everyone is very happy about that, and nobody mentions the possibility of community rehabilitation for people who are probably small-time crooks (the possibility of better treatment of the people with mental health problems who are sent off to Arkham Asylum is also never addressed, but that is less relevant as for once, the Big Bads of the film are unrelated in any way to the asylum).
As part of the shit-hitting-the-fan moment, Bane (who you can tell is a bad guy by the fact he is bald, wears a mask and keeps murdering the shit out of people) manages to successfully bury almost the entire Gotham Police Department in the sewers. He explains rather dramatically that he has done this to liberate people. Do the people of Gotham at this point embrace their freedom from a rather corrupt police force that seems utterly inept as it is more obsessed with throwing every police car in the city into chasing a grown man dressed up as a rodent? Does FULL COMMUNISM spontaneously break out due to the sudden lack of coercive state forces? Of course it doesn’t. This is partly because Bane is actually kind of a dick and hasn’t bothered reading up on his anarchist theory and has decided to be in charge himself, partly because of the imminent threat of a nuclear bomb, and partly because the film just can’t imagine any possible upside to doing away with all the coppers.
Needless to say, eventually the police manage to get out of the tunnels, and there’s some interesting imagery as they do battle with Bane’s militia: demoralised and disarmed from spending months living down the drain, the cops are a rag-tag bunch in black. Haphazardly, they charge the more regimented and better-armed oppressors. It looks a little bit like riot footage, and we’re supposed to root for the police, who, just for a moment, stripped of their power, are playing the role of the rabble. Unfortunately, at this point, Nolan sees fit to explain to us who we’re meant to be supporting in this battle by showing the cop-bloc tearing past a fluttering, tattered Stars and Stripes, which rather spoils what could have otherwise been quite a cool scene.
Ultimately, the film teaches us, order comes from giving the right people power: the “good” cops like Commissioner Gordon should get to police the city; the “good” rich men like Bruce Wayne should look after all the dangerous weapons and wield them well; only good eggs should be in charge of a big fuckoff nuclear reactor. Anything else, we are shown, leads to loads of people dying. In the Nolanverse, this happens so much that one would think Gotham’s authorities would have a “city held hostage in a metaphor for urban life” plan in place by now.
Individualism and the greater good
A second, minor theme in the film is social mobility. Characters discuss opportunities for orphans in getting out of the ghetto (unfortunately, it seems a lot of the poor kids have taken to working for Bane). Catwoman explains that she is an improbably-skilled jewel thief because she wants to make a better life for herself, something Bruce Wayne was born with. Bruce Wayne himself loses his entire fortune in a slightly baffling attack on the stock market from the baddies. Later, he is cast into a prison which is a huge hole that anyone is free to leave if they climb out of it, which is definitely not a metaphor for lacking privilege.
After moping for a bit about how much it sucks being stuck in a hole, and failing to climb out of
poverty the big hole, Bruce finally has a bit of a pep talk from a nice old man who tells him not to use welfare a rope. Bruce Wayne manages to climb into the light, surprisingly not by pulling himself up by the bootstraps. He returns to Gotham and is reunited with his Bat-copter. We never hear from the other people in the hole again. Presumably they just didn’t try hard enough to get out.
Thrown in with all this is the concept of doing something “for the greater good”: Catwoman’s rejection of self-preservation to help save Gotham is a major turning point for the character, Batman dresses up as a giant rodent and beats up people for the greater good, and then there’s all the nonsense about how only some people are fit for power. It’s not exactly a collectivist message, though: ultimately, it shows us that one has to look after oneself in order to be able to get rid of the guy in charge if he happens to be the wrong guy.
There are two major female characters in The Dark Knight Rises, both of whom are quite essential to the plot. First we have Selina Kyle/Catwoman, an antagonist and later ally of Bruce Wayne/Batman. She dresses in the impractical leather-and-heels costume beloved of femmes fatales, but is shown to be a clever and resourceful woman in her own right. Even her cat ears have functionality: they double up as little goggles that do… something (no doubt if Bruce Wayne owned those goggles, we would have been treated to a lengthy exposition of their operational parameters from Morgan Freeman). She weaponises her femininity, getting out of sticky situations by performing tearful or sexy, which is not unproblematic, but better than most straight-up uses of tears and flirting. Selina is fiercely independent and individualistic, but eventually Does The Right Thing and helps save Gotham.
Our other major female character is Miranda Tate, who is slightly foreign and quite hot and rich. She’s, um, not as well-developed a character as Catwoman. She agrees with all of Bruce Wayne’s ideas then has sex with him. Then it turns out she’s been a baddie all along and is absolutely crazy and wants to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb because she has daddy issues.
The film even passes the Bechdel Test: there’s a scene where Selina explains to her friend Jen why she isn’t that happy with the chaos Bane has wrought in Gotham. I think there’s also a bit where she teaches Jen how to be a better pickpocket, but they’re talking about thieving off a dude there, so it’s a borderline case.
Unfortunately, if we look at where our main female characters end up, it’s another story entirely with each ending up with one of the two Hollywood Approved Character Arc Termini For Female Characters. Miranda ends up dead. A minute before the nuclear bomb goes off, she gloats about how her unstoppable plan has been realised then just sort of dies, despite nothing appearing to be wrong with her. At least she died happy, not knowing that mere seconds later Batman totally foils the shit out of her unstoppable plan. Meanwhile, Selina ends up in the arms of a man, enjoying a Florentine pavement coffee with a not-dead-after-all Bruce Wayne.
Overall, not brilliant representation of women, but better than average for Hollywood.
Go and see it anyway
As I said, the film is problematic, but it is nonetheless enjoyable. Yes, it’s conservative and yes, it’s sexist, but so is pretty much every film ever made, and most of them don’t have well-directed scenes of people in fetish wear beating the living fuck out of each other.