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The Dark Knight Rises is not a conservative film.

[ 58 ] July 28, 2012 |

At least not in the way that conservatives think it is. Christian Toto contends that “everyone not blinded by liberal ideology” can see that The Dark Knight Rises is critical of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that the film is therefore “downright conserative.” There are two significant problems with his claim: logically, it is not necessarily true that any cultural artifact that’s critical of the Occupy movement is conservative; and visually, the optics of Bane and his followers don’t correspond to those of the Occupy movement. The logical problem is easy enough to dismiss: I can criticize the rhetoric and tactics of the Occupy movement without being instantly transformed into a conservative. The visual problem isn’t that much more complicated, because this is what Bane and his followers look like:

The-dark-knight-rises1
I would like to ask Toto and John Nolte and every other conservative whose claim that the object of the film’s critique is the Occupy movement is predicated on obviousness whether the heavily armed fatigue-garbed lot pictured above look more like this:

Occupy wall street
Or this:

Mujahideen-afghanistan-1984
I would like to ask them to examine these images closely and count the number of raised weapons in the first and compare that to the number being raised in the second and the third. Then they can tally up the number of bandoliers and re-purposed fatigues and wrapped heads there are in each of these images and compare those too. If they possess a shred of intellectual honesty they’ll have no choice but concede that Bane and his cohorts more closely resemble Afghan mujahideen from the 1980s than Occupy protestors from last year. Toto claims that only those “blinded” by ideology could fail to recognize the similarity between the people in the first and second images. But it seems to me that only someone who is actually blind could be convinced that there’s a greater correspondence between the first and second than the first and third.

There’s a solid reason that Bane and company more closely resemble the mujahideen than the Occupy protestors: they’re from the same part of the world. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne being recruited in a Bhutanese prison and then scaling the Himalayas to train with the League of Shadows. The prison pit in The Dark Knight Rises is located near the northern Indian border with Pakistan, and the majority of those imprisoned in it aren’t chiroptophobic American billionaires. That Fu Manchu mustache sported by Ra’s al Ghul belongs to a tradition of racist caricature of people who come from China and Japan and India. The geographic and narrative cues align with the visual to demand that the League of Shadows be seen as an old school Oriental menace whose politics amount to whatever-frightens-white-people.

Only in this last sense can the projection of conservative politics onto The Dark Knight Rises be understood:the only thing the League of Shadows shares with the Occupy movement is an ideological commitment to frightening white people. That both are successful says nothing about the film, but speaks volumes about the conservatives watching it, who have invested so heavily in their illegible projection that they makes claims like:

Gotham City is thriving as the third film in the trilogy opens. Harvey Dent’s legal legacy is so profound there’s no longer a need for Batman. He’s retired, bum knees and all, while crime continues to decline. So clearly the city’s punitive system isn’t corrupt, and we certainly don’t see mass economic woes.

Toto is wrong on all counts. Far from “thriving,” Gotham is a city in which orphans have taken to living in the sewers to survive. Dent’s legal legacy may be “profound,” but it’s also founded a lie and maintained by mass incarceration. Crime “continues to decline,” but the prisons overflow with criminals whose prosecutions were legitimate, because “the city’s punitive system isn’t corrupt,” so all those prisoners must have committed the crimes of which they’re accused. Finally, Toto fails to “see mass economic woes,” even though, to return to where this chain of inept summation began, ophans have taken to living in the sewers to survive.

In this case, the competing political interpretations of The Dark Knight Rises are not the result of the multivalenced nature of all aesthetic objects so much as simple incompetence from one of competitors. There are sophisticated arguments that the film’s politics don’t square with contemporary liberal or leftist thought—see Aaron Bady or Henry Farrell or Jeff Spross and Zack Beauchamp—but it’s no coincidence that those analyses are eminating from the left. Conservatives aren’t accustomed to considering cultural artifacts with the seriousness they merit, and so on the rare occasion they want to claim ideological kinship with one, they have no idea how.

Comments (58)

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  1. greylocks says:

    Far from “thriving,” Gotham is a city in which orphans have taken to living in the sewers to survive.

    That’s conservative utopia. It’s the orphans’ own damned fault that they’re in the sewers. Or liberals’ fault for not legalizing child slavery labor at sub-minimum wages.

    • SEK says:

      One aspect of the series I want to touch on eventually is its Dickensian lilt. It’s not just that Nolan’s English and has explicitly claimed that A Tale of Two Cities inspired The Dark Knight Rises, either. The films are about the effects of childhood traumas on orphans, and the doubling of the wealthy/impoverished orphans in the final film is a classic Dickensian technique. (Even the Joker’s lack of an singular origin has parallels with disfigured characters like Quilp.)

      • OK, yes, he quotes from A Tale of Two Cities, but then he cheats and allows Batman to live, but only after wringing emotion out of us, which is manipulation of the most base and despicable kind. At least Dickens had the cajones to actually write a tragic ending.

        I agree with you that Nolan is trying to be Dickensian, but I feel sort of similarly about his Dickens-like as I do about fundamentally bad, ordinary movies and television shows becoming “postmodern” by talking about themselves or breaking the fourth wall.

        If you don’t understand what you’re doing, or if Hollywood’s plot formulas keep you from committing to it, claiming the prestige of a valuable artist or artistic tradition is just false advertising.

        • SEK says:

          which is manipulation of the most base and despicable kind

          (*ahem* Little Nell *ahem*)

          • Well played, sir, but there just based on my dissertation you know where my sympathies lie: “It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” -Oscar Wilde

            Also, that cough sounds terrible! I don’t want to immediately jump to thinking it’s consumption, but if you’ve been exposed to a lot of Dickens recently, you can’t rule out the possibility…

          • “It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.”
            -Oscar Wilde

          • jameson quinn says:

            Seriously. Dickens had skillz, but to hold him up as an exemplar of lonely artistic integrity is bizarre.

          • John says:

            Dickens actually killed Little Nell, too, though. While Dickens was obviously not above crass emotional manipulation, it does seem as though he earns it by actually doing heart-breaking things like killing Carton and Nell, whereas Nolan just makes us think he killed Batman for five minutes.

  2. BenjaminJB says:

    The prison pit in The Dark Knight Rises is located near the northern Indian border with Pakistan

    How did you figure that out?

    • SEK says:

      The Mehrangarh Fort is in Jodhpur … and I’m married to a woman who studied Ancient Sanskrit Philosophy in grad school.

      • Anonymous says:

        Of course the prisoners speak Arabic, which complicates matters. Just like Gotham is a generic East Coast city, the prison seems to be a generic Middle Eastern hellhole.

        • SEK says:

          That’s not the only thing that complicates matters: as I noted in the previous post, the fact that there’s no explicit transition to the prison, no establishing shot, made me wonder where in Gotham this giant hole full of Arabic speakers was located. But when he emerges from the pit, people who know from India know what they’re looking at. (Or so I’ve been assured.)

        • Medrawt says:

          Foreign languages in Hollywood are selected for reasons that have nothing to do with accuracy. Why, only two weeks ago I was subjected to an episode of White Collar where it turns out Cape Verde is full of pale-skinned Spanish speakers!

          • DrDick says:

            Or all the Sioux speaking Navajo (gossiping about the stars and telling dirty jokes, no less) in John Ford’s films.

  3. I totally agree with what you’re saying (in general) about the film’s politics, although I think the representations of Bane’s army are very confused, and do sometimes intentionally echo the Occupy movement — other times the Taliban, and still other times various incidents from the Terror during the French Revolution. I don’t know whether Nolan thinks Occupy is like the Taliban, or whether he thinks al-Qaeda is like The French Revolution, or what. Even if the film suggests that Bane’s populist rhetoric is hollow, it’s not sophisticated enough to mourn the lack of real populism, because the only people it really cares about are police officers. Furthermore, Catwoman’s best moment, her whispering “there’s a storm coming,” is totally Occupy-esque, forcing the concern that even if this isn’t a depiction of the current moment, it might be an idiotic “warning” about “what could happen” if Occupy gets too big.

    But are such issues even worth untangling? The worst thing about The Dark Knight is all the political overtones; while the political overtones of Batman Begins are somewhat less annoying, they’re also not profound. They precisely echo plotlines I remember from Dungeons & Dragons, with Liam Neeson as a version of the True Neutral character alignment. The only thing that was ever profound about this series was its psychological insight: into fear in the first film, and into chaotic/anarchic impulses in the second. Bane doesn’t represent any sort of comparably interesting principle; he’s basically just a political figure. (Catwoman, on the other hand, is very interesting, but doesn’t get enough screen time.) Not only does this make the film tedious and overlong, it somewhat ruins the whole series for me. I just don’t think Nolan is in command of his symbols, however good he may become at staging them.

    • SEK says:

      I think the representations of Bane’s army are very confused, and do sometimes intentionally echo the Occupy movement — other times the Taliban, and still other times various incidents from the Terror during the French Revolution. I don’t know whether Nolan thinks Occupy is like the Taliban, or whether he thinks al-Qaeda is like The French Revolution, or what.

      I think only literally, in that they assault something resembling Wall Street at one point, but even there, the connection fizzles. The OWS movement never launched an attack against Wall Street, and if they had, it wouldn’t have been to short-sell some Wayne stock at the behest of a bureaucrat. It’s one step forward, two steps back for the Bane as Occupier argument.

      I just don’t think Nolan is in command of his symbols, however good he may become at staging them.

      I think this is true of The Dark Knight Rises, but I think he showed a deft touch with fear as a visual and thematic element in Batman Begins, and that his confusion was at least productive in The Dark Knight. Not so much with this last installment.

      • I think you underestimate the extent to which conservative commentators look at OWS and still see Taliban. Liberals look at the Tea Party the same way, but at least in that case the guns are really there, as is the theology….

        • Jonathan says:

          Liberals look at the Tea Party, a group of old, conservative, mostly Southern, mostly rural/suburban, White Christians talking about “taking our country back,” and see the Klan, the Birchers, and White Supremacists. Because, you know, they’re the same people.

          • Heron says:

            Exactly. When I look at the Tea Party what I see are Segregationists, because that’s literally what they are. You don’t even have to scratch the surface; the folks driving the movement along make bigoted statements at least once a month.

            • Jonathan says:

              the folks driving the movement along make bigoted statements at least once a month.

              That’s not true. They do it a lot more but just on their own e-mail rings and message boards.

      • Medrawt says:

        Of course, with Batman Begins the thematic heavy lifting had been done for Nolan. Whereas the Batman/Joker dynamic and the politics of superheros are things that get rewritten and repurposed with each new writer’s assault on the mythos, the dynamic of fear as Batman’s inspiration and the role of the Scarecrow as a specific mirror of that element of the character’s world (like the Riddler is the counterpoint for Batman’s mighty intellect, and the Joker is the counterpoint for whatever the current writer thinks he is – Batman’s mania, basically) have been pretty much locked in stone for several decades, and all that’s in flux is how well adjusted Bruce Wayne is at a given time. So Nolan and his collaborators only had to work their art upon material which was already well understood, whereas the thematic material in the second film (and I’m presuming the third) is closer to being Nolan’s spin on much-reinvented elements of the Batman continuity-shambles.

  4. DrDick says:

    *sigh*

    Always so sad and pathetic to see wingnuts desperately trying to grab any marginally well made film as their own and a legitimation of their depraved and evil philosophy.

    • Some Guy says:

      Don’t you get it? The auto-pilot sub-plot is a metaphor of how Reaganomics works! And handing the mantle off to Robin endorses Iran-Contra, and the correctness of laissez-faire manifest destiny.

      It’s also possible that a movie about a guy suiting up in a costume to save a city from a giant bomb doesn’t actually have any relevant point regarding domestic politics, but thinking that makes you stupid.

    • calling all toasters says:

      The only one that really works for them is It’s a Wonderful Life, if you assume (as they do) that all ordinary people are scum and all angels are evil.

  5. Haystack Calhoun says:

    It’s a big-budget action movie based on a comic book character. I don’t expect its politics, such as can be extracted, to be coherent or relevant.

  6. Jonathan says:

    But it seems to me that only someone who is actually blind could be convinced that there’s a greater correspondence between the first and third than the first and second.

    I think you got that backwards.

    • SEK says:

      I had it correctly at first, then hyper-corrected, reconsidered, then hyper-corrected again. It’s the doublethink that grading all day begets, and it’s bemoanable.

      • Jonathan says:

        Meta-cognition is basically the most difficult mental process humans do. And we’re really bad at it. We’ll fail at 86% of all attempts. About a third of the American populous is all but incapable of meta-cognition.

        We understand ourselves at about the level of a stranger.

  7. TT says:

    Conservatives aren’t accustomed to considering cultural artifacts with the seriousness they merit….

    Right. Conservatives judge everything–not just movies, but everything–based on its political value to conservatism.

  8. Didn’t we just go through this with wingnuts claiming vindication from The Dark Knight because OMG WARRANTLESS WIRETAPPING SHOWEMHOWITSDONEBATMAN!!!!?

  9. mark f says:

    Shorter Jonah Goldberg:

    The law permits too much freedom to rabble like OWS, which is why a benevolent bully like Batman needs to tramp them down in service of their betters. Because liberals are the real fascists.

    • vacuumslayer says:

      You’re not getting me this time, markf!

    • Cody says:

      Somehow when I read his argument about:

      When you remove law — and law enforcers — from society, you don’t usher in an age of liberty, but an ecosystem of bullying

      I read: Without strong government, the rich will bully all the poor.

      Is Jonah Goldberg advocating a Welfare state?

  10. I wrote a piece for the Prospect arguing that TDKR is basically endorsing a liberal middle way:

    http://prospect.org/article/masked-morality-batman-trilogy

    Selina’s story particularly doesn’t make sense if you think the movie is *endorsing* a conservative point of view.

    • SEK says:

      Would that she had gotten more screen time. It’s almost as if Nolan didn’t want the most charismatic member of his cast running roughshod over his movie again, and so he denuded her legitimately menacing statement about The A-Coming Storm by relegating her to a secondary role. That the film ends with her hanging off of Wayne’s arm is especially disappointing.

  11. JL says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but this makes me think of something that I noticed with the previous installments of this trilogy. A lot of people have a hard time with the idea of a villain – not a morally ambiguous shades-of-gray villain, of the sort that we’ve kind of gotten used to, but an unquestionable baddie – still sometimes saying things that are correct.

    • SEK says:

      Yes, all villains should only say terrible things in foreign languages, lest they be mistaken for someone with a legitimate gripe.

  12. brent says:

    Part of the problem here is that Nolan refers to economic disparity but doesn’t really have anything to say about it. I mean, Selina Kyle talks about the rich “leaving so little for the rest of us” but we never really see much of an indication of how that works. Is Kyle wrong about the depredations of the wealthy on society’s resources? Based upon the text of the film, we have no real way of knowing. All we really know is that that is what she thinks. I have liked the Nolan Batman (although this one, not so much) but one of my criticism of the whole series is that they tend to raise issues that they have no intention of addressing in any detail.

    So, it really doesn’t surprise me much to have a commentator come along and attempt to map his particular political proclivities on top of a very vague presentation of class struggle.

  13. [...] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}If you don’t care whether Batman’s not a spanked up Newt or not, that’s fine. Fine. But riddle me this: people in Mississippi are still apparently racist. [...]

  14. [...] There is, unbelievably, more. SEK has a good takedown of all of this, but here he really gets to the crux of the problem: [...]

  15. [...] firing decisions anyway!) An Open Rant to Those Who Insist on Conflating Both Parties as the Same The Dark Knight Rises is not a conservative film Nevada Education Ranked Last In Country By ‘Kids Count’ Report, Parents Consider Moving [...]

  16. mark f says:

    Holy hell. I finally saw the movie yesterday and, thanks to SEK’s latest Nolte post, went back and read the full BH review. Aside from calling the last one “a touching tribute to George W. Bush,” Nolte actually claims for some reason that Christopher Nolan doesn’t use special effects.

    • SEK says:

      I hate to do this, but … he’s actually right about that. You can see it in this video, and click on the ones on the right hand column for more. The only special effects in either of the last two films were when the Bat-pod was climbing a wall and turning (Dark Knight) or when not-Catwoman set its wheels spinning sideways (Dark Knight Rises). The only other special effect he employed in Rises was digitally erasing the helicopter and ropes swinging the Bat-copter around or, as in the video, the truck carrying it.

      And yes, obviously, I’m the sort of person who watches the DVD extras.

    • mark f says:

      And also that Nolan’s pacing and humanity will be studied “for decades”! And paints Nolan, making a series of fucking Batman movie, as someone heroically battling against the entrenched interests and common practices of Hollywood, like he made some quirky Big Fat Greek Wedding thing that succeeded by pluck!

      WTF?

      • Hogan says:

        some quirky Big Fat Greek Wedding Atlas Shrugged thing that succeeded will succeed any day now by pluck!

        FTFY

  17. [...] occuers in the third issue of Batman Incorporated, which unfortunately doesn’t end the “Is Batman a conservative?” debate by having the Batman repeatedly punch this Goldberg-proxy in the face. That said, [...]

  18. bradP says:

    I just watched the film last night, and I was a little disappointed in that it did seem to take a decidedly conservative tone.

    With all the talk about orphans and Bain’s rhetoric about the mirage of social mobility, I thought there might be a social statement coming from the film.

    By the end, when all the cops were charging as a great army of good and they were erecting a statue of Batman, I realized that the message was that the system is great, and that even orphans can be heroes!

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