Civic Progress in <em>The Dark Knight Rises</em>
(There’s a lot in here that could be construed as spoiler material, so approach it with that in mind.)
As most reviews have mentioned, The Dark Knight Rises has very muddled politics, and Chris Nolan (and presumably his screenwriting partner/brother Jonathan) seem to want to have things both ways in many instances. Corporations are filled with lots of selfish monsters, but they’re also our best means towards innovation and creation, and a few people at the top should get to decide if and when citizens can access it; the people of Gotham hold great promise, but they’ll also be mindless revolutionaries the minute a weirdo who sounds like an underwater Sean Connery tells them it’s allowed; police are mostly okay, but maybe the best men on the force should resort to vigilantism; etc.
However, there’s a way to read this approach as consistent, though it contradicts the positive message on which the superhero narrative stands. In most of these stories, a great hero like Batman gets a downtrodden people to believe in themselves and the good inherent in Western society. These costumed heroes also save cities that have lost hope, or that fail their citizens in the same way a lot of our real-life governments do. If there were someone to stand up for what’s good, maybe we’d remember what brings us together in the first place and overcome what ails us.
Nolan’s Batman says he stands for those ideals, but in practice he is woefully ineffective at doing anything other than saving Gotham from destruction. At the end of The Dark Knight, he takes the fall so that Harvey Dent’s legacy might live in — the result is eight years of lies so that those in charge can hold criminals (the same people we were led to believe would act nobly in that movie’s ferry scenario) without parole. Naturally, there are still orphans and poor people and shitty parts of the city, because the structure of the society contains great flaws. Yet that infrastructure isn’t really holding anyone back from greatness. When Gothamites are given free reign after Bane’s takeover, they resort to all out hostilities against an upper class that arguably deserves it. There are isolated cases of heroism and kindness, sure, but for the most part Gotham looks like a city beyond help.
The only people who can save it are preternaturally talented people lucky enough to have access to great fortunes that allow them to develop amazing weapons. At best, they keep Gotham’s eventual decay at bay for a few months or years until a new problem comes along. Success is relative — everyone has to be reminded of their supposed capacity to believe in the common good after every victory, because at every opportunity they don’t display a willingness to act in that spirit. It’s a deeply cynical point of view: supervillains hasten the city’s downfall, but the citizens are always complicit.
I have always been a little dubious of this trilogy’s status as “the realistic superhero story,” because there’s a fundamental inconsistency to having a supposedly ordinary man do psychopathic things like dress up as a bat to fight criminals. (The idea that Batman and Catwoman would be happy traipsing around Europe like regular American tourists is particularly laughable.) But if we take the state of Gotham as I describe it above, then these films actually take the superhero myth very seriously. Introducing a caped crusader into a system full of institutional rot won’t lift up the everyday citizens in a transformative way. It’ll do little more than protect them from clear and present dangers. Batman does good but can’t bring about change — he wins battles but not wars.
In Batman Begins, there’s a continuous debate over whether Gotham is worth saving — it only ends when Batman gets Liam Neeson’s train to collapse (public services fail us again!). The series answers many times over that the city isn’t worth destroying. But it depicts a city where salvation could be impossible, as well.