Christopher Nolan’s latest installment of the Batman trilogy is full of political symbolism. Here are just two examples.
The Misunderstanding of Peace
In The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham has experienced eight years of relative peace after the murder of Harvey Dent. Three distinct views of peace and war emerge: the people’s, Bruce Wayne’s, and Alfred’s.
The people of Gotham consider the fight against crime and lawlessness to be decisively won, and they therefore turn to idle pleasures. The dismiss the old men of war, like Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, as mere anachronisms in these heady days of pleasure-seeking. Wayne buys in to Gotham’s definition of peace, realizes he is unfit for such a trivial existence, and believes that he is worthless in times of peace. Alfred presents an alternative to the nihilistic relief of Gotham’s wealthy citizens and to the despair of the great men lacking a battle. Alfred realizes that the brief breathing space, won at great sacrifice, will not last long. He urges Wayne to enjoy the fundamental gifts of stability and order for as long as they last: a wife, a family, and the work of rebuilding the city.
The difference between the view of the people and that of Alfred is the contrast between the 1920s and the 1950s. Believing the Great War was the last struggle of the time and a “return to normalcy” was the logical conclusion of a great victory. This veneer merely disguised the worsening problems of Western civilization and served to lure the citizens of England, Germany, and the USA into complacency.
Churchill’s wrote that “the lucid intervals of peace and order only occurred in human history after armaments in the hands of strong governments have come into being, and civilization in every age has been nursed only in cradles guarded by superior weapons and superior discipline.” The Dark Knight Rises supports the idea that there is no such thing as total victory over evil. Instead, there is a struggle that constantly alters its image.
The Hero and the Tyrant
In 1838, the young Abraham Lincoln delivered his Lyceum speech, in which he warned against the dangerous tendency of the people to demand their rights while disdaining their responsibilities. Such a self-centered tendency, Lincoln warned, would inevitably allow the rise of a demagogue who would enslave the people while promising them their rights. Such a villain could only be prevented by the rise of one with the political wisdom and capability to become a tyrant himself -- but who chose to aim towards virtue and preserve the law and the republic.
If Bane had truly believed the populist rhetoric he fed to the people of Gotham, he would have been a dangerous villain. This character, however, is the model of the tyrant who uses demagoguery to deceive the people into believing he offers them true liberty—freedom without the law. What makes Bane a terrifying figure is the fact that he holds these people under the most absolute despotism possible—he intends to murder them all at a moment’s notice. The Dark Knight Rises is a movie that shows the ease with which we can be deceived into accepting the passionate words of a tyrant over the harsh duties demanded by a man like Commissioner Gordon.
The “revolution” that Bane sparks is a farce. The image of a madman perched atop a throne built from the ruins of a once-grand city emphasize that this mob rule is not true freedom. The picture could have been a satirical sketch accompanying Edmund Burke’s denunciations of France’s 1789 Revolution. The blind hatred of the aristocracy and the ultimate emptiness and chaos of this failed regime leaves the theater with a harsh truth—sometimes we, the people, don’t always choose well.
While good superhero movies all share the characteristic fight of good against evil, Nolan’s Batman trilogy takes it a step further. Themes of law, freedom, and democracy carry through each of the three movies and make these films a true accomplishment.