Batman: Gotham's Reformer

My colleague Tom Carson makes an excellent point about The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy:

The real joke, as Rush [Limbaugh] might have learned if he’d crammed his posterior into a theater seat before venting, is that The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most deeply conservative movies to come out of Hollywood in years.

Understand, I mean “conservative” in the traditional, more or less honorable sense that Rush and his fellow napalm-eaters have done their best to make obsolete. To a large extent, that’s built right into the source material. To much grimmer effect than his rival, Superman—all that sunshine palaver about “the American way,” feh—Batman has always been the guardian of a social order against chaos, with a pretty dour view of unbridled license and plenty of pessimism about humanity’s prospects for improvement.

It’s absolutely true that Batman is a conservative character, and that this conservatism carries over into both Rises and the Nolan trilogy writ large. Bruce Wayne comes from the monied establishment of Gotham, and Batman exists to defend that order against disorder and radical change.

But Nolan’s Batman isn’t a complete defender of the status quo. The first movie, Batman Begins, emphasizes the extent to which Bruce Wayne comes from a family of reformers; his parents built a cheap transportation system for the city, and his ancestors—as explained by Alfred, the Wayne family's loyal butler—helped transport escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne has an essential faith in humanity’s ability to improve itself. He sees Gotham as a city that’s lost hope, and with Batman, he seeks to restore it. Hence the scene, again in Begins, where Bruce explains the rationale for Batman to Alfred:

Building on that, he explains to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in The Dark Knight Rises that “anyone could be Batman, that’s the point.” Indeed, the main plot of The Dark Knight centers on Batman’s hope that Harvey Dent—the district attorney who eventually becomes the villain Two-Face—could take his place as a legitimate defender of Gotham.

Some critics have drawn a link between the stated grievances of Bane, the chief antagonist of Rises, and the Occupy movement. Carson notes how Bane’s first attack is on the stock exchange, and how he declares “war on privilege with a rabble-rousing slogan of ‘Equality!’” and thus: "Those who ought to be most offended by the movie are Occupy Wall Street’s 99 percenters and their sympathizers.”

If Occupiers are offended by Nolan’s broadside against radicalism, then they would also be offended by a considerably more liberal Batman. After all, both liberals and conservatives see the value in preserving aspects of the status quo. Liberals seek to change the status quo in favor of those with less power, but to do so from within, through accommodation with power. The simple fact is that a liberal Batman would be just as hostile to left-wing radicalism as a conservative one.

To my mind, the best way to understand Nolan’s Batman is as a counterpoint to Frank Miller’s vision, which has cast a long shadow over the Batman mythos. Miller’s Batman is a distrustful authoritarian, who—in multiple stories—shows contempt for ordinary people, and a fascistic attraction to power. In The Dark Knight trilogy, by contrast, Batman is—at the core—a reformer and humanist who wants the people of Gotham to rise to their full potential.

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