Something has always bugged me about Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Not their tightly plotted stories or gritty urban-realist design, which make the Burton/Schumacher films look dated and primitive. Nor the justification for vigilantism, which I couldn’t criticize better than comics writer Alan Moore already has. But watching The Dark Knight Rises, I finally realized: Nolan has turned Batman into a fascist tract.
Batman has long represented mighty justice, emerging from shadows to deal swift comeuppance to criminals. But unlike blindfolded, scales-bearing Themis, Batman makes no pretence of impartiality. He maintains hip-pocket alliances with cops, dispenses summary justice that any judge would discard, and openly disdains due process. He’s every frazzled parent’s ultimate Hail Mary pass: stay in line, or some black-clad bogeyman will serve physical comeuppance.
This makes sense in the Depression-era milieu that first birthed Batman. In an age of rampant official corruption, seeing a rich socialite use his wealth for eleemosynary ends must have gratified countless teens. Even today, when sensational crime stories lead nightly newscasts, Batman seems like a bastion against tides of urban lawlessness. Christian Bale conveys this raspy-throated image of bootleg vengeance with understated elegance.
But that description, which accurately embodies Nolan’s first two Batman films, rings hollow here. Once decaying, Gotham has enjoyed eight years of peace, defined herein as “order.” Sharp-suited tycoons feel safe walking the streets. Where contract murder once ruled Gotham, the city has turned a skilled jewel thief into their local celebrity. Gotham has achieved a pre-9/11 state of decadent complacence.
Note that the situation for common Gothamites hasn’t improved. Selena Kyle and her partner live in squalor equal to any number of windows Batman peeped through during crime’s heyday. But the “Dent Act” prevents bottom-feeders from threatening the hierarchy. After eight years, Gotham maintains the same mayor and police commissioner, suggesting that city governance is decided on high; elections occur to ratify decisions over which citizens have no power.
Into this environment of bread and circuses—that is, parties and football—rides Tom Hardy as Bane, who begins as a mercenary but adopts the stylings of populism, repeatedly offering to return Gotham to “you, the people.” By this he doesn’t mean Jeffersonian ideals of an informed, engaged citizenry; instead, Bane constructs an army of riff-raff to enforce his Maoist social design. His first act is to open the jails and establish a convict-run kangaroo court.
Thus Nolan presents Gotham an unpalatable choice: either comply with the hierarchy, or give command of their city to its lowest members. Nolan lards the narrative with allusions to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. His inescapable moral: we choose which form of manifest social injustice to accept. Do we prefer peaceful subservience under the hierarchy, or chaotic Reign-of-Terror rule by the commune’s foulest denizens?
Batman, with his wealth and technology, could use this opportunity to reject both choices. But with his hovercraft, pulleys, and access to vantage points, he literally stands on high, fighting to restore the old order. It’s like if, amid Cold War desperation, an avenging angel chose to reinvest feudal domains and divinely anointed kings. Batman chooses the tyranny of peaceful mediocrity over the tyranny of an uprising he cannot control.
Importantly, when Batman dispenses justice from on high, he doesn’t represent the Christian God. When Bane dynamites the prison gates, he says: “the powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure.” Compare the Virgin Mary’s praise in Luke 1:52-53: God “has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”
Like Nietzsche, Batman rejects Christian and Platonist ideals of justice, favoring something older and more savage. Forced to choose between Bane’s Bolshevik militia and Batman leading a phalanx of uniformed cops, Gotham itself has no choice. The city’s champion chooses for them, throwing his support and physical strength behind a legal superstructure which even Commissioner Gordon admits he built on a lie. Gotham’s citizens have but one choice: to submit.
Early in the film, Bane calls himself “necessary evil.” Commissioner Gordon might describe Batman as equally necessary. But social theorist Jacques Ellul wrote: “necessity never establishes legitimacy; the world of necessity is a world of weakness, a world that denies man.” If Batman simply embodies the form of injustice Gotham can accept, perhaps Ra’s al Ghul was right. Time has come to burn it down and start over.
Holy Vigilante, Batman: