A Dark Knight for Romney?

Stop me if you've heard this news flash once or twice before, but Rush Limbaugh got it gloriously wrong. On Tuesday, the Porcine One took to the airwaves to froth about the coincidence—no, wait, there's no such thing in Limbaugh-land—that the villain of The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, a homophone for "Bain." Plainly, this was a case of Romney-bashing propaganda by a Hollywood nefariously in league with the White House.

"You may think it's ridiculous," Rush said stoutly, locking a barn door through which whole herds of ponies have fled over the years. "I'm just telling you this is the kind of stuff the Obama campaign is lining up. The kind of people who would draw this comparison are the kind of people they are campaigning to."

Even by his standards, this was gaga enough that Limbaugh was in full-on fudging mode by Wednesday. "I didn't say there was a conspiracy theory," he said. "I said the Democrats are going to use it." But if they try—and at least one Dem flack (Chris Lahane) fairly witlessly has—I wish 'em luck. The real joke, as Rush 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. That may be why the 1960s TV version boomers loved had to be campy, since presenting Batman with his dignity intact would have left Dragnet's Jack Webb looking like some damned hippie-lover. But Christopher Nolan, the director of TDKR and its two predecessors—2005's Batman Begins and 2008's mega-smash The Dark Knight—has hardly been shy about bringing out the saga's implicit political philosophy.

If The Dark Knight ended up as the ultimate pop-culture reflection of George W. Bush's Global War on Terror—and it did, from the way audiences couldn't help seeing Heath Ledger's destruction-bent Joker as Osama bin Laden to Batman's harsh "the ends justify the means" moral ambiguity—the new movie ups the ante, in a way. Lacking even the Joker's twisted charisma, Tom Hardy's Bane is about as far from a Romney stand-in as could be imagined; he's a sullen, lower-depths menace, with a musculature seldom encountered outside Soviet-era sculpture gardens. Though his ultimate plan is to blow up Gotham—c'mon, they all want to blow up Gotham—he means to torment a captive Batman first by turning the city into a stew of every conservative's worst nightmares.

It's not exactly an accident that the first place Bane wreaks havoc is the Stock Exchange. Declaring war on privilege with a rabble-rousing slogan of "Equality!," he incites mobs to throw the rich out of their fancy homes and take over. Moscow-style show trials are held to condemn anyone who objects. It's a pastiche of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, urban rioters, Bolshevik terror, and punk nihilism, incidentally letting Nolan eat his cake and have it too: In practice, anarchy and totalitarianism haven't been known to mix well. The point is that we're seeing all of Batman's fears—not to mention those of his investment-capitalist millionaire alter ego—mashed up to demonic (and demotic) effect.

In other words, those who ought to be most offended by the movie are Occupy Wall Street's 99 percenters and their sympathizers. Thanks to a trailer that included Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, taunting Bruce Wayne to ultra-topical effect—"There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. … When it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us"—all sorts of people were in a tizzy at the thought of a Batman movie that tackled income inequality. But did they really expect he'd be on our side? What the OWS'ers are protesting is the system he's devoted his whole caped life to protecting, capitalism's hierarchies most definitely included. In any case, everything Bane says is treated as pure demagoguery, making moot any real-world validity his spiel might have.

Yet none of this is a reason to condemn The Dark Knight Rises out of hand in my book. It's not as if we didn't always know what Batman stands for—he's a vigilante, for Pete's sake—and I can't help admiring Nolan for making it explicit. It should also be said that I have no idea what the director's own politics are; he's just being true to the logic of the character's nature, and trying to turn Batman into some kind of liberal to make nice would have been far less forgivable. Besides, these days, it's almost tonic to watch a movie able to remind the likes of me that conservatism can be a principled attitude—one that actually stands for a certain set of values that we can agree or disagree with, you know, not just a cacophony of hatreds. If The Dark Knight Rises is an inherently right-wing epic, the irony is that it's an infinitely better right-wing epic than today's Republican Party deserves. 

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