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:
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:
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.