Occupy Gotham: Wealth and Revolution in The Dark Knight Rises

SPOILER ALERT!  SPOILER ALERT!  SPOILER ALERT! 

Dagget:  I’m in charge here! 

Bane: Do you feel in charge?

Dagget: I paid you a small fortune. 

Bane: And this gives you power over me? 

Selina Kyle: You think this can last.  There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne.  You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it comes, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us. 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of The Dark Knight Rises is its depiction of wealth and class warfare.  The trailer even gave a pointed hint that much of The Dark Knight Rises would turn around class warfare and revolution; greed and envy.  Selena Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that a “storm is coming” when the have-nots will rise up against the haves.  Many people who identify as progressives feel that this movie is a thinly veiled attack on the Occupy movement, and a support for unregulated, free market capitalism.  (Someone once said that Batman’s superpower was tremendous wealth.  Indeed, Forbes Magazine once calculated how much money Bruce Wayne would need in order to be Batman, not even Bill Gates or Warren Buffet could do it.)

I don’t pretend to know anything about Christopher Nolan’s political and economic views for the simple reason that I don’t care.  This is a non-political blog, and I will never make reference to a politician or election or an issue, and any comment about one of those things will be deleted.  I’m not kidding.  Try me.  And yet, I think it is very fair to examine the role of wealth and social unrest, greed and envy, in The Dark Knight Rises.  (I should explain that when I say envy, I don’t mean the desire for something, ie greed.  By envy, I mean the desire to take something from someone else.  Think of it as the toddler who takes the toy from his brother, and then sets it aside.  He doesn’t want the toy, but he doesn’t want his brother to have it either.  By envy, I mean, “If I can’t have it, no one should have it!” thinking.)

First of all, I do think it is fair to compare Bane, Selena Kyle, and their uprising to a more radical or Marxist agenda.  Selena definitely harbors resentment for the rich, and hopes for the day when wealth is equally distributed.  When Bruce Wayne loses his money but is permitted to keep the house, she mutters, “The rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us.”  She tells Wayne that she is sorry he was robbed, and he replies, “No you’re not.”  Selena also speaks with scorn about the rich people at the charity ball that both she and Bruce Wayne attend.  This underlying bitterness about her poverty in the face of others riches finds a fuller expression in Bane’s revolution.

When Bane takes over Gotham, he promises to return Gotham to the control of the people, promising that he comes as a liberator.  Christopher Nolan mentioned that he and his brother were inspired by the French Revolution, and sure enough, Bane and his followers lead an assault on Black Gate Prison.  Most strikingly are the kangaroo court scenes, where the prisoners much choose between death or exile.  (Even before I knew about Nolan’s inspiration from the French Revolution, I thought of Robespierre and the Terror when I saw that scene.)

However, the film also reminded me of Dr. Zhivago, which takes place during the Russian Revolution.  There is a scene in the movie when Dr. Zhivago comes back home to Moscow, only to discover that the Russian Revolution has turned his world upside down.  His family home has been carved up by the Bolsheviks, who tell him that his one house had room for several families.  I thought about that scene when I saw images of the people living communal style (with fires lit in the middle of the room) in a large skyscraper.

There is no doubt that The Dark Knight Rises finds the idea of a Marxist/Robespierre style revolution to be completely undesirable, and possibly immoral.  There’s a scene when Selena Kyle walks through a room of a large mansion, and finds a photograph.  She picks it up and says, “This was someone’s house.”  For a lifelong thief, this is a striking moment of conscience.

(I would also like to point out that the French Revolution was not a Marxist revolution.  However, Marx used the French Revolution to develop his theories.)

However, I don’t think that the film necessarily holds to an Ayn Rand philosophy either.  Early in the film, one of the villains is Dagget, who runs Wayne Enterprises.  He cares for nothing but money, and hires Bane as a mercenary to facilitate his takeover of Wayne Enterprises.  He shows just as little disregard for human life as Bane does (his goon was planning on killing Selina Kyle) and shows little respect for women (after Bane’s attack on the stock exchange, Dagget wants to celebrate with prostitutes).

In one of the most famous scenes in The Dark Knight Rises, Dagget shows the dilusional affect that wealth and power can have on a person.  When the board votes Miranda Tate as head of Wayne Enterprises, Dagget yells hysterically at Bane.  The audience is struck by the absurdity of this scene; Dagget, a average height man with a thin build is yelling at Bane, who towers over him and is incredibly strong.  Dagget has no fear of Bane, and barks “I’m in charge!” to which Bane responds by placing his hand on his shoulder (his hand seems to dwarf Dagget’s head) and asks, “Do you feel in charge?”  In that moment, the balance of power shifts completely.  Dagget begins to whimper in disbelief.  “I paid you a small fortune!” to which Bane replies, “And this gives you power over me?” This scene shows how many small men (small physically, psychologically, and morally) use money, and the power it brings, to tower over others.  Bane then kills Dagget, but the audience’s sympathies in this scene are completely with Bane.  Dagget is a small man, deluded by greed and power, and at that moment, his murder seems almost just.

This theme is continued in the charity ball.  The dresses that the women wear in the scene, as well as the masks, are similar to the style in Louis XVI’s Versailles.  In a way, the apartment building itself is reminiscent of that era, with the gilded walls.  Bruce Wayne also criticizes the charity events of the rich, talking about how the purpose of charity balls are not to raise money for charity, but to stroke the ego of those who attend.  Indeed, before arriving at the charity ball, he is mobbed by paparazzi.

In this scene, Bruce Wayne’s discussion with Selena Kyle also shows that the idea of opportunity is somewhat more complicated than the surface suspects.  Selena Kyle is apparently a very intelligent woman, and yet she is denied the opportunity to succeed in Gotham because of her past mistakes.  “I did what I had to do.  Once you’ve done what you’ve had to do, they’ll never let you do what you want to do.”  “There’s no fresh start in today’s world.  Every 12 year old with a cellphone can find out what you did.”  She is absolutely right.  People may argue with most of her points, but no one can argue that, with the advent of the internet, Facebook, and Smart Phones, our ability to hide from our past, or move on from the past, is almost nil.  Faulkner’s words “The past isn’t dead.  It’s not even past,” have never been more true.

So, does the film point to free market capitalism as the solution for society’s ills?  I think that’s ultimately a bit of a Rorschach test.  Obviously, people with more progressive leanings see in The Dark Knight Rises the implication that the rich can solve all of society’s ills, and that socialism is a force for evil in the world.   Conversely, some conservative film viewers find the message of the film to be the opposite.  They see in the heroic actions of the police, and the corruption of Gotham’s citizens, the message that only the government can bring about social good.  (I have read comments to that effect.)

Personally, I think that the ultimate message of the film can be found in Batman Begins.  Rachael challenges Bruce Wayne, asking him, “What chance does Gotham have if the good people do nothing?”  Rachael does not identify the good as being the rich or government bureaucrats.  Fortunately, in a comic book universe, the world is much simpler than that.

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2 Responses to Occupy Gotham: Wealth and Revolution in The Dark Knight Rises

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