Activism in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight Rises’: A look back at a capitalist superhero

When brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan set out to recreate the world of the Batman, their vision was to ensure that “the bar would be raised so high [-]. Audiences could walk out of a movie based on a comic book – based on a superhero – and instead of saying that was a great comic book movie. [They would say,] ‘that was a great film’ (Uslan, 2012).”

Their journey started in 2005 with the release of Batman Begins, where hyper-realism ruled the day. Gone were the heroic Bats of the Adam West era, the rubber nipples from the Joel Schumacher-lead, campy franchise. Now, instead, with Christian Bale firmly in the cape and cowl, the brothers were able to epitomise the dark and twisted nature of what it meant to be Bruce Wayne – a parentless lost soul – a realistic ‘Dark Knight’ with which audiences could identify.

As par for the course with superhero origin stories, Batman Begins spends a majority of its time focusing on the man-behind-the-mask, introducing us to a Bruce Wayne who uses the mantle of The Batman to fight crime but also hide his pain and personal demons behind the persona of the Billionaire Playboy. To Gotham City, Bruce Wayne is nothing more than a spoilt rich-kid but to the audience, we are fully aware that Bruce uses his wealth in an effort to save his city and establish himself as a Capitalist Superhero who we can actually root for.

‘The Joker’ as portrayed by Heath Ledger

It isn’t until Nolan’s follow-up film The Dark Knight in 2008 that the idea of wealth and power corrupting absolutely is established. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe, Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning turn as The Joker cultivated fear within Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and is successful in turning him to the dark side.

Although Dent’s fall-from-grace is more symptomatic of losing his girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in the aftermath of one of Joker’s elaborate traps – rather than any actual monetary or political gain factoring in – it is the coverup at the hands of Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman of Dent’s Heel-turn into Two-Face, where the ethics with regards to the use of Power and Influence become decidedly dicey. Lending credence to future villains’ agendas such as Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

The Nolan’s final film in their Batman Trilogy introduced deeper concepts than ever before. With hotly debated issues such as social standing, revolutionist ideas and criminal identification finding themselves front and centre on screen with the villain of the film, Bane, as the gruesome face of a Marxist Movement.

“Behind you stands a symbol of oppression. BlackGate Prison, where a thousand men have languished under the name of this man: Harvey Dent. Who has been held up to you as the shining example of justice! You have been supplied with a false idol to stop you tearing down this corrupt city!” – Bane (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012)

During the final conflict of the film, we see Bane take control of Gotham City and set free thousands of criminals from BlackGate Prison who have “languished under the name” of Harvey Dent. A seemingly innocent public figure in the eyes of the masses of Gotham City, whose death brought about ‘The Dent Act’, which allows Government officials to hold any suspected criminal without charge for an undisclosed amount of time.

The audience is expected to know of Dent’s fall into villainy (with flashbacks of his transformation into Two-Face presented to jog-the-memory), so the act itself is presented as positive thing by the Capitalist elite in the film which is introduced by the head of Police, Commissioner Gordon, in his speech at the beginning of the film celebrating the Dent Act. Although the filmmakers make it clear that Gordon himself has some consternation about the act – given that its creation is based on a lie – he maintains his part in the conceit because he believes it is for the greater good.

The fictionalised Gotham City is loosely based off New York and Chicago

To understand why Bane therefore would view this legislation as an injustice is to understand the viewpoint in which he has been placed within the context of Marxism, which arises throughout the film.

Up to this point Bane has been portrayed to us as a ruthless criminal because mainly we are told this by people in authority such as Batman and the Gotham City Police department. But although Bane’s actions are unquestionably evil – because conventional narrative storytelling deems murder to be a villainous trait (of which we witness him committing numerous times) – his actions when viewed from a Marxist perspective opens up questions as to who is truly a villain within The Dark Knight Rises.

The idea of social justice and freeing the oppressed drives Bane’s revolution but the idea that he is fighting oppressors and occupying the title of ‘villain’ from a Marxist point of view is one-and-the-same. “The objective reality of social existence is in its immediacy – ‘the same’ for both proletariat and bourgeoisie”. With both sides raising the stakes through immediate action such as violence or institution of unlawful acts, “both classes raise this immediacy to the level of consciousness.” Wherein neither standpoint is rendered invalid, just fundamentally different, “thanks to the different position occupied by the two classes within the ‘same’ economic process” (Lukács, 1923: 150). This argument outlines that anyone can be a hero or a villain because it is us – the passive viewer – that ultimately makes a judgment considered by our societal surroundings.

Of course, it is impossible to discount that Bane’s ultimate goal of blowing up Gotham City and killing everyone – including those criminals that he is successful in freeing from BlackGate prison – is coded as ‘evil’, therefore retroactively sullying the noble ideals of activism. Even so, we have to consider that the revolution at Bane and his followers’ hands does expose a simmering class war within Gotham itself, in which the Nolan’s use to differentiate between villain and hero even though the act of revolting can be viewed from two perspectives that are diametrically opposed. In simpler terms, we are all the hero of our own narrative.

With the help of semiotics theory, it is made clear that the filmmakers want us to view the film from a specific viewpoint. Vladimir Propp’s (1968) published work the Morphology of the Folktale identified an alignment of character types which crop up through many folktales (or fairy tales as they are conventionally known) around the world. “Based on his study, he identified 32 basic [spheres of actions] which he called ‘functions’ [or character types]” (Bennett, 2005: 92), with the Hero and the Villain being two such ‘types’.

With Batman absolutely being identified as a hero, Bane becomes the photo-negative by being positioned in the villain role. This interpretation of characters is backed up by current film theory that posits the high degree of typing within traditional feature films, transforms the characters that appear from individuals into “a collections of traits that are required to realize the prototypical causality of action” (Tan, 1996: 164). Essentially Bane must inherit the villain moniker in order for the narrative-space to make sense, because after all, Batman can’t be a hero without his villain.

But to identify Batman as a ‘Hero’ actively goes against the Marxist ideals that Capitalism is inherently bad. An ideal that the filmmakers actively negate given the immense wealth that Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) has at his disposal and is the story’s narrative hero.

The idea of Capitalism – and the Nolan’s stance on the matter – is revealed earlier in the film when Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Bruce Wayne meet for the first time. Where she (a renowned Cat-Burglar) is scouting for her next con, and he (a renowned Playboy Billionaire) is attending a charity ball under the pretense of retrieving property Kyle has stolen from him.

Although their formal meeting serves to connect these two characters that go on to create a romantic relationship towards the films end. The filmmakers took time to highlight themes of social standing and power hierarchy that pays dividends throughout the entirety of the movie’s activism through line later on with Bane’s attack on Gotham City.

When Bruce dances with Selina the pairs sexual tension is apparent but so too is the different worlds they come from, with Wayne going so far as to give Kyle a grammar lesson on how to pronounce the word “Ibiza” properly, pointedly stating afterwards that “You wouldn’t want these folks realising you’re a crook, not a social climber” (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012). Wayne at this point is fully aware of Selina Kyle’s criminal past so his patronising attitude towards her grammar shows an open disdain for her as a criminal and takes the chance to belittle Kyle, exposing his preconceived negative connotation of someone from a different social standing to him.

We see this when he refers to her as a “social climber” which inherently carries negative connotations of its own.

Social climber as a term comes from French word Parvenu, which means to reach, arrive or to achieve something. The word typically describes a person who has recently ascended the social ladder, with that person often being referred to as nouveau riche or ‘new money’. The French philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1882) highlighted the concept of nouveau riche when referring to the sovereignty’s (those in power) lack of compassion for those under them, stating: “les souverains rangent aux parvenus” (‘the sovereign put themselves before the parvenu’).

What Nietzsche highlights is reflected in Bruce Wayne’s own perspective of Selina’s social status. Given that he is from ‘old money’ and has a reputable amount of power in Gotham City, the fact that he knowingly uses a word charged with negative connotations shows an inherent aggression towards her and trying to turn her into an “irrational victim of male rationality” (Scannell, 2007: 46).

What Bruce Wayne is exampling is the Capitalist elite inherent fear of the lower class rising up and messing with the social hierarchy, a fear that is seemingly not misplaced when Selina Kyle responds with “You don’t get to judge me because you were born in the master bedroom of Wayne Manor” (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012), which displays a learnt distrust for the wealthy and a trait that is shared amongst the film’s coded villainous characters.

Consequently the elite’s own disdain for the proletarian that inhabit Gotham City and its prisons come back to bite them in the ass with Bane’s revolution. In watching the film “one is presented with things in a way as to become really fearful of the terrorist “revolution” and sympathetic to the persecuted upper class and police authority, whatever their moral defects or bureaucratic shortsightedness.” While this is certainly true, social politics dictate “that the crisis caused by the megalomaniac Bane would not have happened had the elites, police and masses put more belief, faith and trust in Batman and been more charitable” (Haig, 2012). In a sense, had the GCPD and Commissioner Gordon trusted the ‘normal’ citizens of Gotham with the truth behind the Dent act, then Bane wouldn’t have been able to use the unlawful legislation as a blanket excuse for his criminal deeds.

Although Bane’s actions are violent which automatically codes them as ‘evil’ and ‘villainous’ to a mainstream audience, his primary agenda nobly seeks to bring together the proletarian workforce – in this instance the criminals of Gotham – in achieving “the willing surrender of power [and] the fracturing of the paradigm by which power would matter, [by] changing it [into] something else” (Nolan, 2012: 14). For all intents and purposes Bane is able to bring Gotham’s criminals together because of the corrupt paradigm that exists within the city which ultimately leads to its downfall. Not because he is a super-villain looking to cause destruction with no end but to usher in “the next era of western civilisation” (Bane, The Dark Knight Rises).

It is reasonable to discount much of what has been argued here considering that Bane is nothing more than Talia Al Ghul’s (Marion Cotillard) flunky and by extension The League of Shadows’ foot soldier in a war to burn seemingly failed societies to the ground. But in the context of conventionally Hollywood narrative storytelling, the idea of hero and villain is ultimately blurred when many of the themes presented by the filmmakers themselves deal with societal themes that are prevalent to our lives today.

It is without question that Batman is a Hero. His actions dictate, convey and confirm the characteristics in which today’s standards would deem a person to be ‘Heroic’. But when existential ideals are factored, the lines between Hero and Villain are blurred dependent on your societal, political and ethical background.