“You think this can last?” says a master-thief Catwoman to Batman. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
I like to think that fiction, though it is (and must necessarily be, contrary to what the postmodernists had hoped) a structured dream, a slave to convention and the narrow limits of a satisfying human story arc—though fiction is all these things, that it can be more; and I leave that ‘more’ undefined, because it must be. Fiction is not a panacea; it is not an oracle which can predict the future. It cannot deify us. It is not revelation, to be used as a lens through which to interpret and explain every whim of fate and development of the news. It doesn’t have that much power. And it certainly isn’t an efficient vessel for philosophy, contrary to what Ayn Rand clearly wished. All fiction can do is reflect (imperfectly) our world, and all we can hope is that we can learn something from those discrepancies. And be entertained in the process.
Well, Christopher Nolan’s final piece in the Dark Knight trilogy does seem to reflect our world—strikingly. In Gotham City, we have a world unsure of itself. Where the normal distinctions between right and wrong, between good and evil, are in such a late stage of breakdown, that questions about a character’s morality almost cease to be relevant—replaced, it seems, by convoluted contests of ego. We have small-minded corporate men who, in their blind hunger for wealth and consolidation, unleashed forces they had not the foresight to see would destabilize and engulf their own fragile power structure. We have leaders who, after building lie upon lie to protect the people from a horrible truth about the lesser evils they once had to commit, have lost sight of what they were even trying to accomplish in the first place. We have a massive research juggernaut turning out marvels of technology, only to see them repurposed and used against the very ones they were designed to protect. And we have a people so misguided, faced with so many unanswered questions, that they see phantom enemies in every shadow, and are willing to accept any creed that will afford some modicum of certainty. And remember, I speak here not about America, but about Nolan’s Gotham City (those who haven’t seen the movie will have to trust me on that).
And what arises from this kind of listless confusion? None other than our old friend, Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism shines a light amidst the moral darkness. It gives the hopelessly lost a strictly defined path to follow. It gives a sense of purpose to those who might believe their condition meaningless and futile. And above all, it gives us a simple story. It reorganizes an unfathomable chaos into clearly defined camps of good and evil, of us and the other, makes the world intelligible again. It speaks to a kind of Bronze Age nostalgia for simplicity, for the desire to not compromise or question oneself.
The Dark Knight Rises is a movie, above all else, about fundamentalism and its consequences. Its villain, Bane, recruits orphans and cast-offs of the system and spouts rhetoric that would be at home in the mouth of a Goebbels or of a certain Dark Ages religious unifier and general whom I choose not to name here. The parallels between Bane’s takeover and the early stages of the French Revolution are so obvious as to come off as a little heavy-handed. Bane leads a popular coup, and plays a convincing Robespierre to the disenfranchised and angry Gotham citizens’ Parisian mob. An economic leveling ensues. Socialites are turned out of their posh apartments. A court sans jury or appeal (headed by a deliciously imperious Cilian Murphy) orders the death of various loyalists to the previous order. A pseudo-Bastille (Gotham Prison) is even stormed! The allusion is complete.
Can what’s left of Batman, the recluse and former billionaire (penniless due to the aforementioned stock market shenanigans) get his act together and beat ‘the bad guys’ (always a tricky label in the Batman series), or is his vision of justice just as outmoded as Commisioner Gordon’s, or anyone else’s, for that matter? Can he play the role of a beleaugered and compromised, though still thoroughly dedicated hero, the very symbol we (and I mean we as Americans, just as much as the Gothamites) desperately need? Or are heroes just a pop culture throwoff, a naiive dream?
As stated above, I have nothing much to say about the real-world parallels I see in Nolan’s epic. I can only outline them as I have, and (without spoiling the movie) leave the audience to decide precisely what the director was trying to tell us. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it was just great entertainment. And great it was: I give The Dark Knight Rises five melodicas out of five.