Batman's political right turn
"How long do you think all this can last?" Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) asks Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne amid the opulence of a high-society charity ball in The Dark Knight Returns. "There's a storm coming." A storm of a rather unexpected kind gathered over the film on Friday, with the appalling massacre in Denver. But the film was already enmeshed in political controversy in the US, when conservative US radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed the name of Batman's adversary in the film, Bane, was a reference to presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his former company, Bain Capital.
Yet as Limbaugh also noted, it is not Bane but billionaire Bruce Wayne who most resembles Romney, while Bane's rhetoric seems like a nod to the Occupy movement. Rightwing commentator John Nolte argues that the film has forced Occupy Wall Street into "damage control" and praises the director, Christopher Nolan, for "using the kind of conservative themes that most of artistically bankrupt Hollywood refuses to go near any more". Fellow rightwinger Christian Toto argues that it is impossible to read the film except as an anti-Occupy Wall Street treatise. "Bane's henchmen literally attack Wall Street, savagely beat the rich and promise the good people of Gotham that 'tomorrow, you claim what is rightfully yours'."
Such readings spuriously conflate Occupy Wall Street's anti-capitalism with the indiscriminate violence used by Bane and his followers.
When Nolan revived the Batman franchise in 2005, the setting – Gotham in the midst of an economic depression – seemed like an anachronistic reference to the superhero's origins in the 1930s; 2008's The Dark Knight was too early to register the impact of the financial crisis. But The Dark Knight Rises clearly attempts to respond to the post-2008 situation. The film isn't the simple conservative parable that rightwingers would like, but it is in the end a reactionary vision.
The storm Hathaway's character prophesies is a time of reckoning for the wealthy, and what stops the film being a straightforward celebration of conservative values in the way Nolte and Toto want is the relish it takes in attacking the rich. "You and your friends better batten down the hatches," Kyle continues, "'cause 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." An early scene features the stock exchange, where we have the pleasure of seeing Bane manhandle some predatory traders. Later, when Wayne tells Kyle that although he is supposedly bankrupt, he has kept his house, Kyle acidly observes that "the rich don't even go broke like the rest of us".
Anti-capitalism is nothing new in Hollywood. From Wall-E to Avatar, corporations are routinely depicted as evil. The contradiction of corporate-funded films denouncing corporations is an irony capitalism cannot just absorb, but thrive on. Yet this anti-capitalism is only allowed within limits. The Dark Knight Rises draws clear lines: anti-capitalist comment (of the kind that Kyle makes) is fine, but any direct action against the rich, or revolutionary moves towards the redistribution of property, will lead to dystopian nightmare.
Bane talks about returning Gotham to "the people", and liberating the city from its "oppressors". But the people have no agency in the film. Despite Gotham's endemic poverty and homelessness, there is no organised action against capital until Bane arrives.
At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman had sacrificed his reputation to save the city, and it's tempting to read The Dark Knight Rises as an allegory for the attempts by the elite to rebuild their standing after the financial crisis – or at least to preserve the idea that there are good rich who, if suitably humbled, can save capitalism from its worst excesses.
The sustaining fantasy of Nolan's Batman films – which does chime uncomfortably with Romney – is that the excesses of finance capital can be curbed by a combination of philanthropy, off-the-books violence and symbolism. The Dark Knight at least exposed the duplicity and violence necessary to preserve the fictions in which conservatives want us to believe. But the new film demonises collective action against capital while asking us to put our hope and faith in a chastened rich.