Thursday, 26 July 2012

Rise of the Batman interpretations


The Dark Knight Rises is a film centred round a prison, possibly in Morocco, a place several times compared to hell; it is an awful pit deep in the ground with a huge circular tunnel leading straight up to the light of day and the world of free men. This escape route is treacherously difficult to climb; when Bruce Wayne arrives there, he is told that only one person has ever achieved it before.

The prison is symbolic for many of the film's themes. Bane claims that the taunting potential for escape makes imprisonment there so much more horrible, because hope, when crushed, creates a despair worse than any other. But the most striking element of the prison is the chant that the prisoners take up each time one of their number attempts the escape. It is a crescendoing, pulsating cry of "Deshi basara", which is Moroccan Arabic for "He rises". The entire populace of this hell gathers and watches in tremulous excitement, the chant growing among them, as the escapee does in fact rise up the tunnel. But, as Bane foresaw, their hope is inevitably crushed when the individual crashes back painfully into the pit.

The Dark Knight Rises is a story about one who did not crash, about an individual who rises to the very summit of the tunnel and actually fulfills the fantastical hopes of the prison's inmates, ecstatically shouting their joy. It is Batman who achieves this feat, and it is Bane who stands as his nemesis, whose life and philosophy is structured on the belief that Batman's act is (as he says when he gazes on the burning bat symbol of return) "impossible".

The film is a story about a man, who, on losing his one hope for a normal life with the death of his beloved Rachel, falls back into hopeless seclusion, failing to achieve anything worthwhile, as Bane again correctly observes, other than that which was based on the lie of the murderous Harvey Dent's heroism. This is a man who fears nothing from death, because he has nothing in life he cares to live for. But just as he rises from the hellish prison, conquering crushed hope, so he is able to rise into a new life of meaning and import. He is no longer happy simply to sacrifice himself for greater good; he regains a will to live, a powerful fear of death that compels him to true heroism.

The Dark Knight Rises, in short, is a film about rising. It is not a film about politics, other than to the extent that it shows how we can rise above politics.

This major point was missed, unsurprisingly, by many commentators, who rushed in this week to share their political insights on the film's "message". The opinions have varied (Rush Limbaugh believes it to be a liberal conspiracy to slur Mitt Romney, of course), but most see the film as an "anti-Occupy Wall St" fable, whatever that means. The logic goes that Bane is a villain, and Bane uses populist rhetoric to cripple society and attempt to destroy 12 million lives, therefore the film is telling us that populism is evil, and Occupy Wall St is somehow linked to this because it's a movement which is, you know, popular. The right-wing blog Breitbart has several fine examples of this argument, e.g. here and here.

There are many fascinating and challenging themes regarding the political status of Batman in general, and as depicted in the Nolan trilogy especially. As a vigilante, Batman seeks to establish law and order outside the official channels, meting out his own justice in whatever he deems is the most morally justified fashion. He refuses to kill anyone, but uses torture, spying and brute force to achieve his ends. He attempts to inspire powerful dread in his enemies in order to further destroy them. Yet he is the champion of the weak and innocent, loved by little children, a symbol of justice and good in a world of violence and evil. Plus he stops baddies from killing loads of people. So is he, politically speaking, good or bad? Is he a conservative paragon of crime-fighting or a liberal crusader against corruption of power and money?

These are in some ways simplistic and petty questions, and the genius of the Dark Knight Rises is to, yes, rise above them. The film moves into themes that are so much more fundamental to human life than mere politics and morality. Comparing Bane's actions to those of Occupy Wall St or any left-wing attempt to combat economic inequality is, frankly, silly. Nolan himself has stated:

"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...We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story."

Let's be clear here: Bane is a terrorist who eliminates a city's police force and contact with the outside world, holding it hostage with a nuclear bomb. He then releases the violent inmates of a major jail, arms them, and tells them to attack the wealthy. Sure, he claims that he is giving Gotham back to the people, but this is patently not the case; the people have nothing to do with it. They hole up in fear in their houses. Hiring a band of thugs to deliver violent retribution whilst nihilistically trying to raze an entire city to the ground has about as much in common with the aims and methods of Occupy as contained cold fusion has with conceivable physics (*relevant science joke*).

It's a ludicrous argument, and also a tragic one, because it misses the whole, glorious, epic point of the film. It's not about whether capitalism's downfall is good or bad, it's about life having meaning beyond the constraints of such petty politics. Originally, Batman aimed to fight against "evil" in general, and "crime" in particular. He was driven by the anger and remorse over his parents' death. In this sense he was essentially nihilist; a futile attempt to destroy his own grief by creating a better world. With Rachel's death, there was no longer anything to live for beyond the realm of this all-consuming mission. Thus, with the mission complete, Batman disappeared and Bruce retreated into the depths of seclusion. From this state, in the events of the new film, he rises. Batman's kiss and subsequent life with Catwoman at the film's end at first seems cliched and unnecessary. But it's actually symbolic of a spectacular re-emergence of life, of the ability to live and love again. If anything, this resonates with the political view that money, say, constrains free life and free love as much Batman's self-imposed exile. But we don't need to make this point explicitly. It is only one of many more concrete interpretations we might draw.

The real message of the film comes, as ever, from Alfred. He is missing for the majority of the story, but he sets the tone at the outset with his pleas to Bruce to abandon the hard-hearted, self-denying strictures of Batman and take up a real, fulfilled life instead. And his return at the film's conclusion shows us exactly how Batman was eventually able to take this advice to heart. By not sacrificing himself, by cultivating our most important human faculty, the fear or aversion to death, Batman rises to become humanity's true hero, rather than merely the hero needed by a corrupt Gotham City in the first two films.

You can't just take a film like that and claim it supports your political opinions. Like the prisoners in their pit, we should treat the film as a beacon and source of hope, an ideal towards which we can attempt to rise, out of the shackles of partisanship and enmity, refusing to let our setbacks forever crush our hope of a better life.

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