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Politics Of Batman: Do Nolan’s Films Carry A Liberal Or Conservative Message? [Op-Ed]

Nolan's Batman films: Conservative or Liberal

It’s on everyone’s mind, but cast and crew play coy. Do Christopher Nolan’s unfathomably popular Batman films carry a political message? Is that message in-line with liberal Hollywood? Or does it play to opposite, conservative values? With today’s release of the third entry, The Dark Knight Rises, and the marketing campaign leading up to it, many have opined that Nolan’s Batman films have a rather subtle way of “rattling the cages” of social and cultural issues.

“The films genuinely aren’t intended to be political. You don’t want to alienate people, you want to create a universal story,” said director Christopher Nolan in a Rolling Stone interview. Well, that settles it, doesn’t it?

The correct answer is that it should but it doesn’t. It didn’t stop damn-near everyone from interpreting the early trailers as winks and nods to the Occupy Wall Street Movement (whether for or against) and it didn’t stop Rush Limbaugh from foolishly running his mouth about the film’s villain Bane (a villain created for comics 20 years ago, mind you) being a not-so-subtle reference to Mitt Romney’s own Bain Capital and all of the controversy crafted thereabouts, just because their names sound the same.

Yes, liberal Hollywood is attacking good old-fashioned apple pie conservative values by blatantly naming a villain (two years ago during pre-production, longer if you want to go back to the comics) after a Mitt Romney pseudo-scandal that has only been on the media’s radar for a month.

Is it... Bane? Or Bain? I'll check my 90s comics and get back to you, Limbaugh

“The conservative themes coursing through The Dark Knight were no accident,” and The Dark Knight Rises “pushes the ideological envelope even further,”says Christian Toto in a review of the film that makes a pretty-tight pro-conservative case. But then, early marketing clearly whispers themes of rich versus poor, 1% versus 99%, Occupy, and all that. Rises has a clear “down-with-the-system undercurrent,” writes Jordan Zakarin for The Hollywood Reporter. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle espouses “clearly populist talk, and her character is a thief, stealing from the rich.” (Remember the “When it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us,” line from the trailer?) Zakarin also calls Batman himself “a full fledged member of the one percent” and a “benevolent dictator” regarding matters of law.

Here's a nice picture of Catwoman, for good measure

Indeed, Batman broke a ton of laws in 2008’s The Dark Knight to catch the Joker, a terrorist, adopting measures that didn’t just border on fascism – they jumped the fence and carried the baton of full-fledged fascism. And that film was praised for its conservative message, with some comparing our hero to George W. Bush. Remember how Dark Knight ended? With Batman as the sacrificial lamb?

[Spoiler time]

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS [You have been warned.]

I saw The Dark Knight Rises just today. I was watching for political undertones because I, too, was taken in by early trailers and reading a full-blown Occupy nod at the time, though I wasn’t sure which way that nod tilted. And honestly?

It’s exactly as Nolan says.

His Dark Knight Trilogy, particularly the final two entries, do absolutely speak to the sociopolitical issues of the time in which they are released. They ask those questions; those big, tough questions, and they explore them with uncompromising bravado. Yes, Bruce Wayne invests in Green Tech that doesn’t work and nearly bankrupts him. Yes, the villain Bane attacks the Gotham Stock Exchange. Yes, he is brought in and allowed to run the city into the ground by a corrupt, smug and smirking corporate bureaucrat whose only lines have something to do with “increasing his holdings,” or “growing his company,” or something that would titillate 99-percenters seeking some fictional wish-fulfillment.

But the film also shows a Gotham without infrastructure. Once Bane takes out the economy, effectively bankrupting Bruce Wayne and the rest of Gotham, the bottom takes over. And criminals down there are just as bad as the ones on top. Social anarchy might be a wet dream to some ideological nut-bags, but boy does it look like a bitch in Rises.

“We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks,” says Nolan. “We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that’s simply a backdrop for the story. What we’re really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open.”

“I’m not being disingenuous when I say that we write from a place of ‘What’s the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?’ He’s going to come in and turn our world upside down. That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham? We want something that moves people and gets under the skin.”

I want you to look out for a scene when you go watch The Dark Knight Rises. It’s right before Bane attacks the Gotham Stock Exchange. A harried-looking stock broker played by Fredric Lehne rushes out of the building and says something to Matthew Modine like, “Get in there and stop them from stealing all the money!” To which Modine smugly responds, “I’m not risking any cop’s lives for your money.”

The stock broker fires back, “It’s not my money, it’s everyone’s money.”

Then a cop throws in, “My money’s in my mattress at home.”

To which the stock broker responds, “And if this place goes down, that money is worth a lot less.”

That little interaction between a bunch of nobody characters is about as pointedly political as the film gets. Did you notice that everyone got a say in there? And that everyone had a decent point?

Something to think about while you’re watching The Dark Knight Rises. You can come back and leave me your thoughts afterwards, but honestly, I’m sticking with “It’s not political, but you’ll take away the political message you want to take away from it.”

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Comments

6 Responses to “Politics Of Batman: Do Nolan’s Films Carry A Liberal Or Conservative Message? [Op-Ed]”

  1. Corey Costello

    Exactly right. I felt that it had just as many right leaning messages as it did left leaning. I think Nolan is an image of what every director should try and be. He has an opinion, but doesn't let it be shown through his movies. To him, it's truly a personal opinion.

  2. Victor Torch Napeñas

    You got it wrong about Rush Limbaugh….he got it right. The (liberal) Democrats WERE going to make Bane out of Bain Capital and link Romney to it.

  3. Joel Bocko

    But you haven't proved it's non-political, you've shown that it's manifestly political, just from perspectives one usually doesn't see together: in this case, a belief in right-wing political authority and a disdain for an irresponsible Upper class. That's easily explained by the notion that Nolan – in both films, is coming from a more old-fashioned, traditional conservatism which is less about celebrating the individual and the market than upholding social cohesion. This means that the public can't be trusted with democratic authority (a premise questioned by the boat scene in Dark Knight but affirmed by its lie-to-the-people-for-their-own-good finale) but also that those who do have power have a social responsibility to go with it. Think the end of Rises (spoilers obviously): Wayne leaves his home to the orphans and jets off to Florence. There's a great deal of paternalism in the DK films and while lately right-wing rhetoric has tended greatly towards an extreme every-man-for-himself ethos, traditionally paternalism is a value associated with the right while the left, theoretically at least, is more egalitarian. Whatever else they are, Nolan's films are not that. Does Rises try to have its cake and eat it too? Yes, by leaving the public out for the most part (when bane makes his rabble rousing speeches we don't see any rabble to be roused, except perhaps for prisoners being released from jail; likewise when 'the people' stand up for Gotham it's an army of cops instead of ordinary folks). I think Nolan wanted to go after populism without going after the populace (who are, after all, his ticket-buyers) an approach which is essentially a cop-out. Still, of the message is muddled, the intention seems clear enough. His neat bit of sophistry in the Rolling Stone piece notwithstanding.

  4. Joel Bocko

    Breezy if, while you accurately establish why the film isn't Randian, your piece still seems to believe (correctly, I think) that the movie is paternalistic and establishes a false dichotomy between the status quo political structure and a faux-populist movement run by ruthless warlords. As such, aren't you in fundamental disagreement with the lead article?

  5. Jason Sobel

    No. Why link a villain who acts like an Occupy Wall Street protester to a scandal that would be the target of such a protester?