The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008) evoked a country menaced by social collapse and anarchy. A film of the post-2001 era, when external conflicts and internal dissension challenged the nation’s stability, the film touched on concerns about security measures adopted by the U. S. Congress that, in the name of public safety, gave the government access to the private lives of individuals in a way more intrusive than before. The film ended with a paradox: a public servant named Harvey Dent, heralded for his civic virtues, had gone over to the dark side. He conspired with the Joker to kidnap Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend and the police commissioner’s son. Batman rescues the boy, but the girlfriend dies. The city is saved. But because Batman believes the city needs someone positive to believe in, he allows the people to believe that Harvey Dent died a hero, and he is blamed for killing him. The logic of that decision never quite made sense to me.
Eight years later crime has largely disappeared in Gotham City, owing mainly to the Harvey Dent law, which gave law enforcement new rights and powers to deal with lawbreakers. In The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012) we move beyond 2001 to the post-2008, Great Recession, Occupy Wallstreet period. The conflict is defined in terms of the haves vs. have nots, those in power who clawed their way to positions of prominence by exploiting the weak and the dispossessed. The villain is a man named Bain, who wears a metal mask over his jaw to reduce debilitating pain, who himself grew up in a Middle Eastern prison to which the weak and dispossessed are condemned by their oppressors.
One would expect the numerous twists and turns in this sort of film, but director Nolan imbues the narrative with ambiguity from beginning to end. The wealthy businessmen and company owners are among the villains too. Wealthy philanthropist Bruce Wayne, who spends much of the film a recluse or prisoner, is himself one of those who hold power and money, and though he uses his position to support charities and philanthropic causes and serve the public good, there is no missing the fact that he is one of those whom Bain seeks to overturn. Some of Bain’s allies, until he manages to kill them, are among the movers and shakers of America’s corporate and economic power structure (some of the movers and shakers oppose Bain too, so this is not a black and white treatment). Wayne himself is a torn and conflicted character—grieving for eight years over a dead girlfriend, selfish, hell-bent on violent retribution, party to deception, self-destructive, interweaving his own personal torments with those of his world. The film to its credit never resolves his character.
Despite all this, the film does side with Batman and with Bruce Wayne, with an orderly society even if it is one that includes social and economic inequities. By making the point that some of Bain’s complaints may have validity, the film plants the notion that change is needed, that the problems of the nation can’t be reduced to binary distinctions of good and evil, of criminal and law-abiding behavior. There’s no doubt about Bain, however. He exploits and terrorizes and deceives everyone, kills without regard for his victims, unleashes anarchy and mayhem, seeks the total destruction of Gotham City by a nuclear blast, so that however you might feel about our problems there’s no doubt as to how you should feel about Bain, unless you are, like he, a psychopathic monster.
The film riffs on themes of sacrifice, of overcoming one’s moral failings to assert virtue, of truth vs. falsehood. It shows a revolution in which the dispossessed overthrow the power structure and place former public servants, police officers, and corporate owners on trial and then execute them. There are shades here of the French Revolution, and of more recent movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wallstreet. As evil and misanthropic as Bain is, the wrongs of which he complains, or that at the least he uses as excuses for his misdeeds, are no doubt just complaints. What is service to the public good, this film asks? Who defines the meaning of right and wrong? When does a government reach such a point of falsehood and corruption that it loses its right to govern, or to define what is good and right and what is not?
The film drags in its concluding scenes, and in the scenes that show Bruce Wayne in prison. And it also, at the very end, blinks. But for the most part it’s a somber, bleak, fast-moving film that may be the best of the Dark Knight trilogy. Anne Hathaway, despite all contrary expectations, is quite good as Catwoman, as is Michael Caine as the Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, and Joseph Gordon Leavitt as a policeman and detective who becomes Batman’s close ally.
In general, Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy offers us the most complex, nuanced, ambiguous, and morally compelling portrayal of a comic book hero that any of the super hero films have thus far managed.
One misstep: as Batman and Catwoman and the police commissioner rush to deactivate a nuclear bomb whose timer is ticking down towards detonation (less than five minutes to go), everyone suddenly stops and listens in a casual way to one of the villains (Marion Cotilliard) speak her dying words. It’s as if time has stopped, and the bomb is no longer ticking down, but time moves on, and the timer counts down.