I saw The Dark Knight Rises over the weekend and was utterly shocked by how good it was. I don't think it even had the right to be that good. I think it's the best of the three, and the best superhero movie ever made, with Superman II close behind.
But more than that, I think an attempt to look at the movie as a kind of right-wing manifesto has more to do with the season, than with anything that's actually in the film. My old colleague Ross Douthat makes the case, at its most nuanced, here
All of which is to say that Nolan isn't trying to push a crude, Ayn Rand-esque parable about heroic Gotham capitalists threatened by resentful, parasitic looters. His model, as the movie's literary references make clear, is "A Tale of Two Cities" rather than "Atlas Shrugged," which means that he's trying to simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse. Across the entire trilogy, what separates Bruce Wayne from his mentors in the League of Shadows isn't a belief in Gotham's goodness; it's a belief 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. This is a conservative message, but not a triumphalist, chest-thumping, rah-rah-capitalism one: It reflects a "quiet toryism" (to borrow from John Podhoretz's review) rather than a noisy Americanism, and it owes much more to Edmund Burke than to Sean Hannity.
There certainly are echoes of La Grand Peur running through the second half of the piece. And it's also true that Bane musters some rather rough anti-plutocratic, populism. It's all true that the cops help restore order by fighting it out in a magnificent brawl with Bane's terrorist mob. With that said, I think it's deeply telling that in order to brand The Dark Knight Rises as a "conservative" movie Ross has to eschew the conservatives of today (Hannity's), and even the conservatives of 50 years ago (Ayn Rand) in favor of the "conservatism" of nearly 200 years ago. In the present the greatest evinced of a "quiet Toryism" is the Democratic candidate for president.
The most trenchant feature of the League is utter and complete cynicism, it's lack of faith in government itself. This is not exactly a liberal talking point. Indeed it would be very hard to claim that today's conservatives are the ones who believe in any city's "goodness," or claiming "that compromised order can still be worth defending." To call this movie conservative is to overlook the conservative right-now in favor of a selective history. I would argue that Bane and his horde have more in common with Ben Tillman and his Redeemers, than with Occupy. It was the Redeemers who claimed to want rid the South of the Northern industrialists looking to swindle the small farmer under a sham Reconstruction.
I've seen a lot of comparisons with Occupy, but I think those comparisons miss something very crucial. Whatever Occupy's other problems (and I have catalogued a few) the movement has generally been nonviolent, and cited the Civil Rights movements of the sixties not, Alexander Berkman. Narrowly focusing on the fact that both Occupy and Bane are interested in inequality misses the point. Bane isn't wrong because of his ill-formed socialism, he is wrong because he wants kill, presumably, millions of people. It's not Bane's belief in equality that makes him villainous, it's the fact his idea of equality is oblivion.
Which is not to say that The Dark Knight Rises is a liberal film. It is to say that it's just a film--which takes its inspirations wherever it can find them. It certainly takes inspiration from economic inequality, just as it takes inspirations from this era of mandatory minimums and no parole. Good story-tellers don't have the luxury of believing that all the demagogues are on the same side. That way leads to agitprop.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power