‘The Dark Knight Rises’ And The Limits Of Christopher Nolan’s Batman

This consideration of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy contains mild spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.

Halfway through Batman Begins, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne family’s loyal butler, points out to Bruce (Christian Bale) that his anti-social behavior and strange injuries will invite comment, and suggests that he find a way to live a public life to minimize prying. “What does someone like me do?” Bruce asks him. “Drive sports cars. Date movie stars. Buy things that are not for sale. Who knows, Master Wayne?” Alfred tells him. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, complete this weekend with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, has been an extended meditation on the power of symbols, the juxtaposition between fascism and anarchy, and recovery from trauma. But it’s also intermittently a story about what billionaires are for and what they do, a question The Dark Knight Rises seems to want some credit for posing, but not responsibility for actually answering.

Nolan’s vision of Gotham has always been sharply divided: we see billionaires and the very poor, but with the exception of the prisoners on the Joker’s barges or the ticketholders to the football game that Bane bombs, and the police themselves, there is no visible middle class in the city. The poor and the criminals who prey on them are often literally an underclass. In Batman Begins, district attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) drives Bruce below an underpass to confront crime boss Carmine Falcone, telling him “They talk about the depression as if it’s over, and it’s not.” Poverty goes unseen because it is physically subterranean. In The Dark Knight Rises, an orphan who lives at the same boys home where Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young police officer who maintains his faith in Batman even as Gotham has reviled the vigilante as a criminal, grew up tells Blake that the boys who age out of the program, which has cut back on services because the Wayne Foundation’s funding has dried up, are disappearing into the sewers because “they say there’s work down there.”

While the trilogy is clear that threats to Gotham rise from that underworld, Nolan also appears significantly pessimistic about the ability of charity to permanently ameliorate the conditions that contribute to crime. “Gotham’s been good to our family. But people less fortunate than us are suffering,” Bruce’s father tells him as the family rides the monorail to their fateful night at the opera. “So we built a new, cheap public transportation system to unite the city.” That same monorail becomes the delivery weapon for Ra’s al Ghul’s weapons later in Batman Begins. In that same movie, Alfred reflects on the elder Wayne’s strategy after Bruce decides to return to Gotham, noting that “In the depression, your father nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combatting poverty. He believed that his example could inspire the wealthy of Gotham to save their city.” When Bruce wants to know if the strategy worked, Alfred tells him “In a way. Their murder shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action.” When Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent have dinner during The Dark Knight, Bruce promises Dent that “you’ll never need another cent,” after Wayne throws Dent a fundraiser. But it’s not enough to secure the fortunes of a promising politician if he goes bad. Reform is a process, not a dinner party. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce is bitterly critical of the approaches of those who emulated his father, complaining that the proceeds of a charity function sponsored by the investor Miranda Tate will only go to pay for a lavish spread, rather than reaching their intended recipients. “It’s about feeding the ego of whatever society hag put it on,” he tells her.

Though The Dark Knight Rises is deeply skeptical of the charity of the wealthy, more than any previous movie in Nolan’s trilogy, it also expresses a clear disgust for irresponsible or capricious stewards of Gotham’s economy. The Wayne Foundation’s funding has dried up because Bruce Wayne’s neglect of the company means it’s no longer profitable. Specifically, he bet big on a renewable energy project championed by Tate, only to halt production when the reactor showed some risk of becoming dangerously unstable. “If you funnel your entire R&D budget into a fusion project you mothball, your company is unlikely to thrive,” Lucius Fox tells Bruce drily after his boss emerges from seclusion. His decision to put Gotham’s safety ahead of Wayne Industries profits may have been a good one, but there’s something disturbing about his drift from the company afterwards. In one of the movie’s critical setpieces, Bane prepares to execute a daring con at the Gotham Stock Exchange. The movie lingers on traders who are getting their shoes shined. “Wayne coming back is change,” one of them declares confidently. “Change is either good or bad. I vote bad.” “On what basis?” asks his friend.”I flipped a coin,” the original trader tells him, amused by his own arbitrariness. Bane’s amused when the man mistakes him for a simple bank robber, and reduces the brokers to shrieking, hapless hostages strapped to the back of getaway motorcycles.

And Gotham’s poor finally have a spokesman more compelling than Joe Chill, the poverty-stricken criminal who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents, or the Joker, a prophet of the distorting effects of social dysfunction who preaches “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger,” and worships anarchy for aesthetic rather than social reasons. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) arrives on screen as a maid working the Harvey Dent Day celebrations held at Wayne Manor, and immediately begins skewering social conventions. “You wouldn’t beat up a woman any more than I’d beat up a cripple,” she tells Bruce, who finds her lifting his mother’s pearl necklace out of an uncrackable safe after she’s delivered on a silver tray. “Of course, sometimes exceptions have to be made.” They meet again on the dance floor at Miranda Tate’s fundraiser. “You don’t get to judge me just because you were born in the master bedroom of Wayne Manor,” Selina tells Bruce. “When you start out doing what you have to, you don’t get to do what you want to…You think all this can last? You and your friends better batten down the hatches. There’s a storm coming…You’re going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

The storm arrives in Gotham the form of Bane, a hulking pseudointellectual strawman with whom Batman does vigorous, fisticuffed combat in the city’s sewers. Given Bruce’s hiatus from Batmanning, or any other form of productive social interaction, Bane’s a more than worthy physical antagonist for Batman, and Nolan shoots their brutal fights without a score to distract from the sound of fists on flesh. But he has none of the Joker’s visionary verve or coherence, and is the occasion for some of the worst writing in The Dark Knight Rises. “We take Gotham back from the corrupt…the oppressors who have kept you down with myths of opportunity,” he tells a crowd of reporters at Blackgate Penitentiary, where he’s convened them to read a speech Police Commissioner Gordon wrote, but never delivered, that reveals the truth about Harvey Dent’s false legacy, which has been used to justify suspending paroles for Gotham prisoners. “The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests and cast out into the cold…Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive as they learn to serve true justice. This great city will endure.” In Bane’s formulation, people who are concerned with income inequality are conflated with, and rendered invisible in favor of, violent criminals.

Nolan’s said repeatedly that his inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises is Charles’ Dickens tale of the French Revolution, but there are no Gaspards or Defarges here, and no honest or extended exploration of what “myths of opportunity” mean in Gotham. Nolan gives us kangaroo courts without exploring the frustrations of those denied justice elsewhere, the wealthy turned violently out into the streets with no regard for the plights of the aged and infirm without seeing what might make the jarring redistribution so appealing to Gothamites. Bane doesn’t represent, as Rush Limbaugh suggested, Bain Capital, though he is briefly allied with a vulture capitalist, and he doesn’t stand in for the Occupy movement, either. He doesn’t represent any real constituency, any actual scheme of reform advocated by anyone, and it makes The Dark Knight Returns a less powerful contest as a result. The briefness of the movie’s residence Bane’s Gotham also makes it less entertaining. The time we spend in those mock courts, presided over by an entertainingly familiar character, provide The Dark Knight Rises with one of its few truly striking images, and the resistance network made up of cops and Wayne Enterprises board members gets a sadly cursory treatment. Splitting The Dark Knight Rises into two features might have produced two more balanced and intellectually rich movies. At almost three hours, the current movie still manages to feel cramped, slighting important issues and potentially terrific plots.

Among those is the time Catwoman bides in Gotham. There’s no real disappointment in watching Selina’s growing disgust at the arbitrariness of Bane’s rule, because he never posed a credible alternative in the first place. She’s initially sourly amused when Bane’s con bankrupts Bruce. “They’re letting me keep the house,” he tells her. “The rich don’t even go broke the same as the rest of us,” she responds in one of the truer statements about inequality in the movie. Later, as she and a friend wander through apartments that have been turned into squats, Selina remarks “This was someone’s home.” “And now it’s everyone’s home,” her friend says. “There’s a storm coming, remember? This is what you wanted.” It’s not, really. In Nolan’s trilogy, there are no social institutions other than law enforcement—the police in The Dark Knight Rises become the occupiers, sleeping in tent cities and clashing with Bane’s mercenaries—and the boy’s home where Blake grew up, and no visions for systemic reform outside of Harvey Dent’s anti-crime crusade. Bane’s rule doesn’t disprove anything, because it doesn’t actually stand for anything.

In The Dark Knight Rises, a convenient dodge lets both Nolan and Bane off the hook, a tactic that serves Bane better than the man who conjured him. Nolan’s always stood above other comic book movie directors precisely because he gets credit for using the medium towards more elevated ends than the simple joys of watching the Hulk batter around Loki like a rag doll. “The city needs Bruce Wayne, your resources, your knowledge. Not your body,” Alfred tells Bruce in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan might deserve all the credit he gets for transcending genre if he was willing to weigh that proposition seriously.