Watching 'The Dark Knight Rises' and Seeing Politics

The Dark Knight Rises is ostensibly a fantasy. So why does it feel like one of the most political movies of the summer? 

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The Dark Knight Rises is ostensibly a fantasy. It's a movie about a superhero who wears a cape, is trained in martial arts, and has an impossibly cool car. It also takes place in Gotham City, which, though it has things in common with some American cities, doesn't actually exist. So why does it feel like one of the most political movies of the summer?

The film's trailers hinted that this was coming, prompting comparisons to Occupy Wall Street. Plus, Batman's nemesis is named Bane, which sounds just like Mitt Romney's old firm.

It's hard to imagine when production of The Dark Knight Rises began in May of last year that director and co-writer Christopher Nolan was betting that Bain Capital would be driving the political news cycle the week the movie was released. We must admit, though, it seems oddly prescient that in this installment of the trilogy, Bruce Wayne — Batman — faces off with Bane, a formidable foe who broke Batman's back in the comic books. Meanwhile, Obama is waging a war of sorts focusing on Romney's time at Bain. It's just too easy to make the joke. In January the Daily Kos encouraged readers to make memes.

Twitter, of course, has also noticed:

Who was running Bane Capitol?

— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) July 16, 2012

Still, some people are taking the sound-alike more seriously. Back in May The Week posted:

The entire Batman movie could serve as an allegory for the 2012 election, says Rich Watch. From the perspective of progressives, Mitt Romney is Bane, "the toughest match the Dark Knight has ever had to face," while Obama is Batman, "once thought of as a hero, now thought to be a monster, [and who] must return to fight for his ideals." (At the end of the last film, Batman took the fall for Gotham City's corruption, much the way Obama is blamed for the recession, and became a pariah.) 

This all appears to be good news for Democrats, who might want to use the similarity to their advantage. Apparently some GOP supporters are worrying about what the Democrats could do with the fortuitous name game. Per the Washington Examiner yesterday:

Conservative commentator Jed Babbin told Secrets, "Now we have the new Batman movie with super-villain Bane, the comic book bad guy who broke the Bat's back. How long will it take for the Obama campaign to link the two, making Romney the man who will break the back of the economy? Romney can't win if he's constantly on the defensive," he said.

Even GOP advisor Frank Luntz jumped into the fray. "Hollywood does it again," he told Secrets. "[Romney] had to know all this was coming and he should have done a lot more to prepare for it."

But it might not be so bad for Republicans. John Hayward writing in conservative publication Human Events today suspects that Democratic elation over Bane/Bain might not have the effect they desire:

The Democrats gleefully pouncing on the new Batman film don’t appear to have been paying close attention to the trailers, which strongly suggest Bane is more like a brutal expression of the Obama-endorsed “Occupy” movement.  

Yes, the film also appears to touch on themes of the 1 versus the 99 percent that became the rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the trailer from December Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) whispers in super-rich Wayne's ear: "You and your friends better batten down the hatches because 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." Before then the Los Angeles Times reported in October that portions of the film were set to be shot in New York "and, according to a person briefed on actors’ schedules who requested anonymity because production details were being kept confidential, cast members have been told the shoot could include scenes shot at the Occupy Wall Street protests."

A parallel has also been drawn between the film's content and 9/11 imagery. In the Associated Press's not-so-good review of the film Christy Lemire writes:

Gotham is under siege in ways that tonally and visually recall 9/11; what is obviously the island of Manhattan gets cut off from the outside world at one point. Rather than seeming exploitative, it's just one of many examples of the script from Nolan and his usual collaborator, his brother Jonathan, making the franchise feel like a relevant reflection of our times. Identity theft, economic collapse and an uprising of the disgruntled, disenfranchised have-nots against the smug, comfy haves also come into play. 

The movie's predecessor, The Dark Knight, was called by Slate "a bleak post-9/11 allegory about how terror (and, make no mistake, Heath Ledger's Joker is a terrorist) breaks down those reassuring moral categories." That earlier film also, as Annalee Newitz noted at io9, elicited discussions of Batman's fascism.

All of this chatter should surprise no one. Turning pop culture into allegory is not uncommon. Take, for instance, the frenzy of discussion that accompanied the premiere of The Hunger Games back in March. The story of teens forced to fight to the death became in separate instances a story of Occupy Wall Street, the dangers of Big Government, and Jesus Christ.

Our desire to equate our superheroes with our nation's off-screen battles shouldn't be regarded as just a product of our fraught times. Superheroes have always been dealing with villains that sometimes resembled and sometimes were the nation's enemies. Superman and Batman were born in the late 1930s as the country was emerging out of the Depression. During the 1940s superheroes would go on to fight Hitler. (It was no coincidence that Michael Chabon set his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about two Jewish comic book creators, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, against the backdrop of World War II.) In a post from yesterday Charlie Jane Anders at io9 pointed out that Batman was unusual in that he only met Hitler once, "At least during World War II. While other superheroes were busy punching Hitler every other day, Batman barely fought Nazis at all."

From what we know so far of Nolan's Batman is he flawed and dark (really dark, according to the Wall Street Journal's review). He also is clearly a vessel through which we can discuss and impose our political fears.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.