The Hero We Need: The Political Paradox of Batman and The Dark Knight Rises

Leonard Bopp

Batman 3: The Dark Knight Rises begins with an image of Commissioner Gordon delivering a tribute to Harvey Dent, the former Mayor of Gotham credited with ridding its streets of organized crime. “It will be a very long time before someone inspires us the way he did,” he says; “I believed in Harvey Dent.” Of course, if we are to understand the significance of Harvey Dent and the context of Batman 3, we must return to its predecessor, The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is supposed to be a hero for the city; he is the savior of social order in a world threatened by organized crime. This is, of course, until the Joker unleashes his chaotic terror on Gotham, usurping both the systems of organized crime and the public social order, revealing the ease with which people are pushed towards evil and order gives way to disorder. Harvey Dent is the Joker’s primary victim – by killing Harvey Dent’s lover, the Joker drives Dent, the figurehead of the government, to commit a madness-induced killing spree. The role of Batman, at this moment, is to preserve the city’s faith in the establishment. Batman takes responsibility for Dent’s crimes in order to preserve his image as a savior and the public’s faith in the established order; it is easier, of course, for the public to consider the mysterious renegade a criminal than it would be for them to indict those who are supposed to be their saviors – their government and their police.

In the context of its predecessor, then, the opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises reveals what we already know about Gotham: that the established social and political order is a failing system, indeed, a falsehood. Though Commissioner Gordon perpetuates the almost deistic representation of Harvey Dent, he, of course, knows that he is not the savior; he knows that Harvey was the victim and Batman was his scapegoat. Years after Harvey’s death, however, the city is once again under threat – this time, the villain is Bane, a descendant of the mysterious League of Shadows and the leader of an underground revolutionary movement. The falsehood of the establishment will once again be challenged; the city will once again need a savior, and the Batman must return. The puzzle of the movie, however, is that it is ultimately the very system the Batman is protecting that produces its enemies.

Indeed, the figure of the Batman presents the viewer with a troubling paradox. The Batman is, after all, the altar-ego of Bruce Wayne, the orphaned child of wealthy parents who were murdered by a thief on the streets of Gotham. After being raised by his Butler, Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce vowed to rid Gotham of the type of criminals who killed his parents. Having risen to the top of his family’s organization, Wayne Enterprises, he is entrenched in Gotham’s capitalist economy – indeed, as the city’s wealthiest and most revered businessman, he is its figurehead. This capitalist system, however, has, inevitably, created a disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Indeed, Gotham’s capitalist economic order has fostered the very types of crime Bruce Wayne sought to eliminate. When Blake, a well-intentioned police officer who idolizes Commissioner Gordon, visits the shelter for young boys where he grew up, he meets a young black child who shares that his older brother died while working in the tunnels. “A lot of guys go down into the tunnels when they age out,” he says; “they say there’s work down there.” And as he speaks with Blake about his experiences at the shelter, he draws figures of the Batman in white chalk on the sidewalk. Indeed, this child, and his late brother, have been failed by the very system Bruce Wayne leads, forcing them to search for a way out of the circumstances that oppress them.

In truth, it is the very system – capitalism – of which Bruce Wayne is the figurehead that pushes the economically oppressed people of Gotham towards crime. This, of course, is what drives Bruce to return as the Batman – he is guilty of perpetuating a system that hurts the very people he claims to want to save. The Batman is not fighting the system that causes crime, but the criminals that threaten the establishment Bruce Wayne leads; Batman’s rival is not the capitalist system that has perpetuated Gotham’s social injustice, but it’s alternative, its enemy, its revolutionary counterpart. Inevitably, the movie presents an alternative to this capitalist system – socialism – hidden under the mask of Bane. As Bane stands outside Bloodgate Prison, which he calls a “symbol of oppression,” and demands the release of its captives, he appeals to the people of Gotham with socialist rhetoric; he claims that the people of Gotham have been fed “myths of opportunity,” and calls for an army of the oppressed to rise and “rip the powerful from their decadence.” Furthermore, he demolishes the public’s perception of Harvey Dent as a hero, revealing, by reading an unheard speech by Commissioner Gordon, that Dent, who was responsible for the imprisonment of thousands of criminals, was nothing more than a criminal himself; indeed, that he was a false idol, held up to the city to hide the corruption of the establishment. His aim is to return power to the people of Gotham; indeed, he tells them that his revolution is the “instrument of your liberation.”

But the movie wants us to hate Bane; he is not a savior, but a threat to public order. Indeed, the Batman is decidedly the movie’s protagonist. His plot line is, after all, guised in capitalist symbolism. After Bane fights Batman nearly to death at his lair, he brings him to a prison at the bottom of a tower that can only be escaped by a near-fatal jump. As Batman, trapped in this dungeon, watches footage of his city burning, he becomes determined to escape, but in order to do so, he must climb towards the light at the top of the tower. He tries twice, tied to a rope to catch him if he falls – and both times, he fails. Only when he is independent, free of the rope’s safety and protection, is he able to make the jump. Indeed, Batman is fated to reach the light at the the top of the tower and save the city – his city, the capitalist system he symbolizes. We are supposed to cheer for the Batman as he risks his life to climb out of the tower; and in doing so, without knowing it, we are cheering for capitalism, and the defeat of the revolution.

But the allegory of the tower is also relevant to Bane and his ally Miranda Tate, as both of them are descendants of the same prison. At the end of the movie, we learn that Tate was born in the prison; her mother, the daughter of a local warlord, had been imprisoned after falling in love with a local mercenary, who was ultimately exiled. Miranda and her mother were treated brutally in the prison – indeed, it is implied that the other prisoners raped her mother. As a child, Miranda was able to escape, to climb to the top of the tower, like the Batman, but only because Bane protects her from the other prisoners – the prisoners who will ultimately cause the disfiguration that forces Bane to wear his mask. Miranda joins her father and is taken in by the League of Shadows, and they later return to the tower to free the oppressed prisoners and recruit them to their cause – the cause that became the basis for the revolution Miranda and Bane bring to Gotham. Indeed, Miranda’s father was the first villain the Batman killed – and now, she has vowed to vindicate her father and finish his work. The stories of Miranda and Bane reveal a fundamental conflict of the film: though the tower is an allusion to capitalism, it is at the same time a symbol of oppression; it both symbolizes the victory of Batman and the oppression of Miranda and Bane. The same, of course, can be applied to the capitalist system of Gotham – the city’s established order is guilty of oppressing those who ultimately threaten its existence. When the Batman hears Miranda’s justification, he insists that her father was trying to kill millions of innocent people – to which Miranda responds, fittingly, that “innocent is a tough word to throw around Gotham.” Indeed, everyone, the entire society, is responsible for the systems of oppression and injustice that the revolution calls attention to; but the movie, in establishing the Batman as the capitalist protagonist, doesn’t want us to care.

And then there is the peculiar figure of the Catwoman, who plays an interesting role in manipulating the audience to cheer the rise of their savior. When we meet the Catwoman, she is undercover as a waitress at an elite gala at the Wayne Manor; her real purpose is to obtain Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints – she is a thief, a criminal, and, in her own way, a woman of unique power. When Bruce finds her sneaking into his safe, she knocks over his cane, pushes him to the ground, and backflips out the window; she is a woman capable of gaining power of Gotham’s most significant male figure. Later, while dancing with him at a Wayne Enterprise gala, she tells Bruce that she “takes what she can from those who have too much” and tells him of the coming storm of the revolution. But ultimately, the Catwoman functions to manipulate the audience to support the Batman. All the Catwoman wants is a clean slate, a second chance to redefine her life – which, of course, is indicative of the capitalist ideal of defining one’s own destiny, the notion that one becomes what they make of themselves. The Batman, as the capitalist savior, becomes her own savior – only he, she learns, can offer her a clean slate – and her transition to Batman’s cause carries the audience towards this ideology. After leading the Batman directly into Bane’s trap, the film cuts back to her as Bane fights the Batman – she looks distraught, appalled, at Bane’s brutality. She tries to flee, but is caught at the airport by Blake; ultimately she confesses to being scared by Bane’s power. This is only compounded by her emerging love for Bruce. When he returns from the prison and offers her the clean slate, she has the chance to flee the city, but in her first moment of genuine emotion in the film, she pleads for him to come with her, saying he can save himself from the burning city. But after Bruce refuses, she ultimately returns to help Batman defeat Bane, submitting to Bruce’s cause, his authority, and, by demonstrating her love, solidifying the viewer’s support of the Batman’s defense of capitalism. Indeed, she is simply reduced from her position of power to a mere romantic object – and in turn, the movie’s capitalist ideology is disguised in a typical love story.

In truth, Batman 3 can be reduced to capitalist propaganda; indeed, the movie wants us to root for the Batman to save himself and his city against the evils of Bane’s revolution, and, in turn, wants us to hate those that challenge it, that see it as unjust. When Blake investigates the inner workings of Bane’s underground society, he approaches two men operating a cement truck, suspecting that they might be affiliated with Bane’s revolution – he targets the working class, treating them as criminals. Sure enough, they were Bane’s operatives – they have poured cement laced with explosives in a ring around the city, designed to trap the police officers sent into the tunnels to destroy the underground revolution – so Blake kills them. Indeed, we are supposed to hate them and the revolution they represent; in actuality, the movie wants us to fear the poor.

But these political underpinnings are communicated through more than just socialist rhetoric; Bane is quite literally attacking and destroying a traditional American society. When Bane and Batman face off in the tunnels, Bane blows a hole in the ceiling, revealing an industrial center, where old-style cars are produced by laborers on an assembly line – the same kinds of laborers that formed the early American trade unions – which fall beneath the crumbling floor. Furthermore, when Bane first introduces himself to the people of Gotham, he actually does so at a football game in the stadium of the Pittsburg Steelers – and he blows it up, the football field falling beneath the players’ feet, right after a boy soprano sings the American national anthem. In these scenes, it is the society of the Rust Belt, the Pittsburg-to-Detroit center of old American industry, that Bane is destroying; and the height of the Rust Belt, the height of American industry, was during the second half of the twentieth century – the era of the Cold War.

Indeed, the politics of the Cold War looms large in this film. The fundamental threat of Bane’s socialist revolution, after all, is that he has a nuclear bomb that can destroy the city – and it is a Russian physicist that created it. The conflict in the movie between capitalism and socialism, then, is indicative of the Cold War political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and, in particular, the resulting nuclear crises. But the film is not just about the threat of the Soviet Union – it goes beyond that; the film is, more broadly, about the politics of globalization, with Bane representing all that threatens the ideal of American greatness. In the film, Bane destroys the old industrial centers of the Rust Belt; but in reality, those industrial centers were lost due to the rise of international trade and the globalization of the economy, through the NAFTA agreement and the creation of the World Trade Organization, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Lastly, the movie directly responds to the rise of terrorism. Bane’s first attack on the city of Gotham is, not coincidentally, on the trading floor of the Gotham Financial Center, the embodiment of Gotham’s capitalist system, just as the World Trade Center was the embodiment of American economic power. Indeed, the prison in which Miranda Tate and Bane lived, and that Bruce Wayne escaped from, is in the middle of an Arabian desert, indicative of an American association of the Middle East with terrorism. And as the film shows the destruction they caused to the city of Gotham – its buildings burning, its bridges exploring – the camera pans along the Hudson and the East River, past the Queensboro and George Washington Bridges, towards the Empire State Building and the abandoned site of the World Trade Center. The Gotham of Bane’s revolution is, in fact, is a post-September 11 New York City.

Indeed, Batman 3 is a fictional representation of the very real-world political conflict between the American establishment – capitalism, industry, and democracy – and the revolutions that threaten it – socialism, globalization, and terrorism. And how does this film resolve this political conflict? Bane and Miranda, the revolutionary leaders, are killed by the Batman and Catwoman. The Batman flies Bane’s nuclear bomb out over the Atlantic Ocean, saving the city from its blast. The people of Gotham survive. The Batman’s legacy is that of a hero, and his political allies erect a statue of that Batman in the capital building.

Indeed, such is the paradox of the Batman: by saving the very political and economic oder he represents, he is able to reconcile his guilt in perpetuating a system that creates its own enemies; and as the Batman saves his city from the revolution, so we are saved from ourselves.