Volume 30, Number 2, Winter, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy

Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

The final film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has been attracting conservative and libertarian notice as a seeming political allegory—specifically, a negative portrayal of the Occupy movement. Nolan himself has protested that the script for the film was written before the Occupy movement emerged, and drew instead on older political imagery, particularly the French Revolution. The reading of a passage from A Tale of Two Cities at a key point in The Dark Knight Rises is consistent with this. Certainly parallels can be drawn between the film’s scenes of mob violence in Gotham City and of a revolutionary “court” conducting show trials of the wealthy, and the Occupy movement’s propaganda about “the 1%”—but that’s a question, in Tolkien’s terms, of applicability rather than allegory, of the freedom of the viewer and not the purported domination of the writer.

What’s striking about The Dark Knight Rises is something more fundamental than any political message: Its stylistic return to the very roots of the superhero mythos. Batman Begins was a contemporary superhero film, with overtones of martial arts; The Dark Knight looked back to the pulp literature of the decades before the first superhero comics, with its scenes of criminal gangs and the heroism of James Gordon and Harvey Dent; but The Dark Knight Rises looks further back, to the romantic novels of the nineteenth century.

There has been a lot of critical discussion of where the figure of the superhero comes from; Zorro is often cited as a prototype, or the Scarlet Pimpernel, despite his lack of an actual costume—his dual identity, his secret mission, and his superlative abilities all set a pattern that later superheroes followed. But much of that same pattern can be seen in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, whose hero in some ways is an even closer precursor of that pattern, with the first part of the novel being a model for the obligatory superheroic origin story. The Count’s traumatic beginnings leave him set apart from human society, trained in an amazing range of skills, inconceivably wealthy, and driven to the secret pursuit of vengeance against his enemies. All he needs is a terrifying disguise as a creature of the night.

The Dark Knight Rises repeatedly evokes the tropes of nineteenth-century fiction, of which Dumas’s novel is an example. As Nolan acknowledged and indeed made a point of, its scenes of a city in turmoil, though inspired by a supervillain’s plot, evoke the French Revolution, whose conflicts were a recurrent theme of romantic novelists such as Dumas and Hugo. Some of its key scenes take place in an underground prison very much like the scene of Edmond Dantès’s confinement. It has not only an attraction-of-opposites story about Batman/Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, but a rivalry between Selina and the more conventional Miranda Tate, modeled on the choice between Dea and Josiana in Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, or Rowena and Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe. And beyond these tropes, it shows a delight in surprises and unexpected revelations, of the kind that inspired Ayn Rand’s remark that the three most important features of a good novel are “plot, plot, and plot.”

The Dark Knight Rises fits another part of Rand’s conception of romantic fiction as well. The characterization is somewhat abstract, and focused on moral choice—which is a feature of the superhero genre at its best: well conceived superheroes are embodiments of moral themes. (For example, Batman is an embodiment of vengeance.) The conflicts between them are moral conflicts. This is often summarized as “good versus evil,” but there’s more to it than that; in fact, Batman’s central conflict in this film involves rethinking his fundamental moral goal, and in doing so, finding the ability to recreate himself. And this rethinking is encouraged by his relationships with other characters, especially the newly introduced Selina Kyle and John Blake, each of whom is also shown in an abstract, stylized way. Established characters such as James Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth also have their own questions of principle to confront.

And in the end, this focus on abstract principle is what makes this film “applicable” to today’s political conflicts—even, perhaps, despite or against the intent of its creators. Abstract themes bring out the common elements in an unlimited range of concrete situations. An abstract portrayal of what is involved in an attack on civilization, and what it takes to defend it, can apply to many concrete political conflicts, and can bring them a clarity they often lack in news stories. Nolan has made brilliant use of the ability of film to give abstract themes a visual and narrative form.

And at the film’s conclusion, he has managed to achieve the actuality of the often mocked concept of “poetic justice”: He has confronted each of his characters with the realized meaning of their own actions. The viewer—at least this viewer—goes away feeling that all of their fates were fitting, in a way that was not the case at the end of The Dark Knight. Not that that’s a fault of The Dark Knight: It was intended as the middle film of a trilogy, and as such could not be complete, but had to demand a further completion, which The Dark Knight Rises has now provided.

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