Batman’s Moral Maze

[This article contains plot details from The Dark Knight Rises. The film is worth seeing, so avoid if you don’t want spoilers.]

‘Take control’ Bane roars to the crowd at the Gotham Rogues stadium (played by the real life Pittsburgh Steelers ground and fans). Take control. The Dark Knight Rises is a film about precisely that: anarchy and control, the two opposing forces that govern human existence. In a week that has seen tragic events taking place in Denver, it is worth looking at the moral maze that exists within the fabric of the latest Batman movie, a film that marks a seminal moment in the politicization of the blockbuster.

The ‘rise’ motif is as crucial to the characters of The Dark Knight Rises as it would be to a group of ED sufferers. It is in the title, it is chanted, it is said. Broken Bruce Wayne has to rise from his grief to become Batman again, Gotham has to rise from the ashes of anarchy to become a cohesive city, Catwoman has to rise from common thief to hero, Gordon has to rise from idealist to soldier. It means, above all, social mobility- the rich and powerful fall, so that the little man can rise. Or so, at first glance, it seems.

It is important that the film is not entirely decontextualized. There’s a reason why Christopher Nolan choose to shoot the film’s climactic clash between police and rebels on Wall Street (even though that’s not supposed to be part of Gotham’s geography). The global financial crisis has turned bankers and their bonuses into villains that hold the same public status as war criminals and dictators. The currency of their crimes is, however, just that: currency. Money is at the heart of this film, as it has always been in the Batman franchise. Bruce Wayne is, after all, a billionaire who runs a company that, amongst other things, deals arms. Bruce Wayne is corporate; his moniker bedecks his company (Wayne Enterprises) in precisely the same manner as the great capitalist superhero, Tony Stark (Stark Industries).

On the face of it, the agenda seems quite liberal. ‘Did you think that you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us?’ whispers Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Wayne and the Gotham elite are certainly shown to be ‘living large’ in their ostentatious parties (that Wayne himself openly criticises) but he is, after all, being given this piece of moral advice by a professional thief. The ‘Occupy’ movement, which has been widely referenced in relation to the movie, would describe the bankers and corporations as thieves and cast them in the role of the villain. Indeed, one of the most important villains in the film is John Daggett, a relentlessly corrupt businessman trying to take control of Wayne Enterprises. He is a thief and Nolan is unflinching in his condemnation. Catwoman is a thief but she is also the heroine of this tale, which poses the question: is it the victim of theft that decides whether it’s a crime or not? Is it morally justifiable to steal from the wealthy (she steals the family heirloom of an orphan- cold, no?), but not morally justifiable to commit large-scale corporate crime that could affect the poor?

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Even Bane, a man who is seen repeatedly cracking the skulls of bystanders, is treated in a more favourable light that Daggett. The Batman series has put a lot of focus (particularly in The Dark Knight) on the fact that Batman refuses to kill his victims, an admirable moral sentiment. So why doesn’t Bane’s violence have more of an impact? Where’s the staunch condemnation of his actions? He is repeatedly referred to as ‘the mercenary’ (as is Liam Neeson’s Ra’s as Ghul) raising immediately the subject of money- he is the villain of the story so long as the audience thinks that he is acting simply for a sack of cash. As soon as Nolan reveals, however, that he is not the film’s primary villain and that his motivation is love, rather than money, our sympathies shift; we pity the monster, he becomes the antihero. Are we supposed to forget all the people that he killed? Are we supposed to forget that, in an earlier scene, he has crippled the stock exchange and devalued currency in the same way as the corporations that the film is demonising?

But is the film really demonising the capitalist ideology? Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a number of roles in the film but his most important one is as a moral barometer. Batman is obsessed with vigilante justice, Bane is an anarchist, Catwoman is a thief but John Blake is an honest cop and, what’s better, he’s an orphan. Wayne Enterprises used to support his boy’s home but has since stopped its donation. Why? Well, as Alfred tells us, a company needs to make profit before it can give something to charity. Oh. So suddenly the machinery of capitalism is not quite so bad, in fact it’s the only thing in the city that can ensure that orphans are properly housed, above and beyond the role that government plays. Small government, big business, gets the job done, right? Not sounding very liberal now.

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But, perhaps, it’s just that the film is anti-anarchy, of any sorts. But, rather than simply restoring democracy (or, indeed, remotely focusing on that part of society), the film champions the resurgence of a police state, governed by unelected officials. By the end of the film the audience is expected to cheer at a scene where the police officers are shown standing with truncheons pointed at criminals’ heads. We are expected to be excited by the knowledge that order has been restored. And who restored order? A billionaire, using weapons he has been privately developing. The NRA might be interested in holding up the Batcave as a symbol of how to successfully defend your home.

It’s left, therefore, to Catwoman to provide us with a liberal moral agenda (supposing we’ve all got over the fact that she’s a thief and killer). Yes, some wealthy people, like Daggett, deserve their comeuppance, but not for simply being rich. He buys Bane’s loyalty and is betrayed as a result, because money cannot motivate someone like Bane. Talia al Ghul earns Bane’s loyalty and he is willing to die for her. Thus, the film’s most important liberal message is taught to us by characters who spend most of the movie plotting a holocaust of Gotham’s 12 million inhabitants. Put that in your ‘Occupy’ pipe.

The Dark Knight Rises is a film that does not offer any real world ‘hope’. Yes, Batman is a symbol- ‘Anyone could be Batman’ says Bruce Waye- but it’s crucial to the story that he’s a billionaire. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s honest cop can (and, perhaps, will) bulk up and fight crime but, without the money, he can’t afford a flying tank. Corporations might’ve brought Gotham to its knees but, according to Nolan’s dystopic vision of the future of a technology driven society, they will also provide it with charity, energy and, most significantly, save it from being blown to pieces by an atomic bomb.