First off, let me direct you to this Batman thread from the old No Left Turns site. Second, I saw The Dark Knight Rises and here are my thoughts below:
There has been some discussion about whether The Dark Knight Rises is critique of Occupy Wall Street. The most obvious villain (though as it turns out not the main villain) Bane stages a violent revolution against the government of Gotham in the name of radical equality, imposes military law with his army of ideological fanatics, begins mass expropriation of private property and holds show trials against enemies of the regime in which the judge is the psychopathic Jonathan Crane (the Scarecrow.) I think it is fair to say that Christopher Nolan is no fan of North Korea’s government.
But I don’t really buy it as a critique of Occupy Wall Street. For one thing, Occupy Wall Street came too late in the movie’s writing and filming to be much of an influence one way or another. Ross Douthat interprets the film as arguing that “a compromised order can still be worth defending, and that darker things than corruption and inequality will follow from putting that order to the torch.” I think there is something to that, but The Dark Knight Rises is also about the foundings and deformations of democratic polities and the risks a political culture takes when it lies to itself about its past and its present. Let’s start at the beginning of the Nolan Batman trilogy.
In Batman Begins, Gotham is basically a failed state. The city’s civic institutions are partly an extension of organized crime and partly just another parasite. Those decent figures within government either keep their heads down or await their own murder. The first film is basically an exploration of the challenges of establishing the reign of personal justice in a situation where the rule of law is temporarily impossible. Batman uses his own power (along with strategic alliances with officer Jim Gordon and assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes) to establish a modicum of public safety, but Gotham still lacks a legitimate and functional government.
The second movie in the trilogy deals with the problem of transitioning from the rule of personal justice to the rule of law under conditions of pervasive and existential threat from the Joker’s campaign of terrorism. When The Dark Knight came out, there was some commentary that the film was an allegory of the problems of setting up a functional Iraqi government in the midst of a radical terrorist campaign. I don’t think that is how it works in Nolan’s movies. Iraq might (or might not) have inspired the central conflict in The Dark Knight, but that doesn’t make Bruce Wayne George W. Bush or the Bin Laden the Joker. The problem at the heart of The Dark Knight (like the problem of Batman Begins which was what to do with a decadent and collapsed polis) is ancient and human.
The Dark Knight found a solution to the problem of finding popular legitimacy for the transition from the rule of personal justice to the rule of law, but the solution was ironic and unstable. Bruce Wayne understands that the rule of personal justice can’t last. Gotham’s symbol of justice must stop being Batman and start being District Attorney Harvey Dent. As Bruce Wayne says at a fundraiser “I believe in Harvey Dent.” The problem is that Harvey Dent cracks under the pressure and tragedy of the Joker’s terrorism campaign and becomes a murderer himself. So the central irony is that the rule of law is preferable to the rule of personal justice, but the man of personal justice turns out to be a better man than the man of the law. It was decided that this complicated truth was too much for the people of Gotham to bear. So the lie was concocted that Batman killed Dent. Dent became a martyr and Batman (willingly) became a reviled fugitive. The popular legitimacy of the rule of law was founded on a lie.
The Dark Knight Rises is partly a story of how that lie comes apart. The popular appeal of Bane and his army has more in common with the New Left terrorist groups of the 1960s and 1970s than with Occupy Wall Street. The New Left terrorist groups weren’t asking for a somewhat more egalitarian distribution of wealth and less student loan debt. Those terrorist groups viewed American society as poisoned to the root and all of American history as a lie masking radical oppression. Slogans like “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” and “give me liberty or give me death” only existed to obscure slavery, imperialism, and exploitation. They wanted to tear everything down.
Nolan doesn’t share the terrorist desire to tear everything down. Nolan clearly loathes the rhetorical tropes of left-wing terrorism and the governing strategies of left-wing totalitarianism (and this has earned him enemies he should be proud to have.) But that’s not really the most important thing. Some large fraction of Gotham’s public is ready to hear Bane’s message because Gotham’s polity hasn’t come to terms with the reality of its past and present. An exaggerated sense of the polity’s virtue ends up being a fatal weakness. When Bane reveals that the founding was based on a lie, it is shattering to public morale. One can see here a metaphor for America’s coming to terms with the enormity of white supremacy in the 1960s and how the suddenness of this accounting gave plausibility to the indictments of left-wing radicals, but it is more than that a metaphor for a particular time and place. By the end of the movie, Gotham refounds itself on the basis of something very close to the truth about its past and present. Nolan suggests that it is safer for a democratic society to honestly face its (inevitably) ambivalent past and present, and that doing so doesn’t open the door to nihilism, but instead makes it easier to defend what is good in the civic order.