The Masked Morality of the Batman Trilogy

Midway through a matinee viewing of The Dark Knight Rises, I had a sinking feeling that many progressives would interpret it as a conservative film. It’s the most obvious reading. In a thinly veiled reference to Occupy Wall Street, the main villain, Bane, spouts facile leftist slogans about “equality” and “the people,” and the only man who can conquer him and save the city is billionaire Bruce Wayne.

But if you look at the entirety of the Batman trilogy, the politics are more complex. In each installment, director Christopher Nolan plays with different approaches to crime and capitalism. There are no easy dichotomies. By the end of the third film, a clear argument for balance between authoritarianism in the name of order and an anarchist view of people power emerges.

The previous installment of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, ended with a seeming endorsement of authoritarianism, after Batman used an extensive surveillance system to track and eventually defeat the Joker. He employed a traditional excuse for this violation of privacy: The circumstances of the times demanded it. To make matters worse, Batman and Commissioner James Gordon misled the public into thinking district attorney Harvey Dent died a hero when in fact he had turned evil. For all of Batman and Gordon’s supposed faith in democracy, they had undermined citizens’ privacy and intentionally misled them.  

But the abuse of power catches up with Batman. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman and Gordon’s lie kicks of the series of events that allow Bane to take over the city, mostly because the power the police have makes them complacent. Bane reveals to city authorities that Gordon lied about Dent’s death to pass draconian legislation, and Officer Blake confronts Gordon about the deception. The message is clear: By violating human rights to deal with crime, Gotham opened the door for Bane’s extremist reaction.

The films also offer a nuanced critique of the criminal-justice system. Selina Kyle’s (Catwoman) story looks at the way a corrupt justice system ends up creating more violent crime. Selina is a jewel thief who would very much like to get out of the life of crime, but her long rap sheet makes it impossible for her to make a living in the straight world. Instead, she ends up committing increasingly serious and deadly crimes in an attempt to dig herself out of a hole. She gets involved with Bruce Wayne after she’s hired to steal from him in exchange for a (broken) promise of having her record wiped clean. Her story echoes that of ordinary Americans sent to prison for non-violent crimes, and who come out with the designation “felon” that costs them employment opportunities and increases the likelihood they will commit more crimes. Selina pays her debt to society by helping save Gotham, and in exchange, gets a “clean slate.” If only we could offer a clean slate to others who do their time, then many of them could go on, as Selina clearly does, to become law-abiding citizens.

When it comes to the market, The Dark Knight Rises evades the easy pro-capitalism/anti-capitalism dichotomy. Yes, the bad guys attack the stock exchange while spouting a bunch of leftist rhetoric. But they do so on behalf of a capitalist who has hired them to distort the markets so that he can benefit. The sequence of events reads like a dark satire of bankers and corporations. 

Nolan even undermines the story of the good billionaire, showing how people in authority have too much wealth and power. It’s the fusion reactor created by Wayne Enterprises that becomes the bomb, after all, a potent symbol of how even the good work done by corporations can be turned into a negative force. That Bruce has to lose his entire fortune in Wayne Enterprises to finally be free and happy didn’t strike me as a ringing endorsement of unfettered capitalism. Watching the super-rich be pulled out of their homes and murdered can be read as a slam against the left, but it felt more like the ugly result of allowing the rich to gobble up too much of the pie in the first place.

During the long prison sequence meant to establish that Bruce must live as the poor and the downtrodden do in order to regain his moral authority, a hallucination about his former enemy Ra's Al Ghul comes to him. Ghul leans in and reminds Bruce that he once fought against the “decadence” of Gotham. But Bruce ultimately believes that Gotham can be saved from its own destructive forces without wiping the slate clean in a violent revolution. The middle ground that balances order with human rights and business interests with economic justice may be more difficult to implement than that of a simplistic ideology, but it’s the only sustainable system in the long run. 

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