The ‘Dark Knight’ Takes on Occupy

Bhaskar Sunkara

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Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dark Knight Rises, is everywhere. It was the backdrop to horrendous Aurora shooting, still managed to debut with $160.9 million at the box office, and has spawned a crazy amount of chatter in the blogosphere. But the level of commentary on the film has generally been so low that I felt tempted to join in – before actually having the chance to watch the film. I held off and was finally was able to see it last night, but since I’m late to the party, I’ll just point to some of the more interesting pieces on the movie’s politics.

Dark Knight Rises is unabashedly conservative anti-Occupy agit-prop, which makes it all the more interesting because Hollywood, though not quite the Pinko paradise the Right imagines, is dominated by liberals. The film’s villains are demagogic populists who assemble a crew by feeding off class resentment and poverty.

Ross Douthat over at the New York Times defends the film from a conservative perspective:

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.

From the Left comes Gavin Mueller’s argument that Dark Knight Rises side-steps politics, because it doesn’t actually depict a popular movement.

There is barely any evidence of the people” at all – it’s all cops and mercenaries battling it out. So instead of a real insurrection, the takeover of Gotham functions via Baroque conspiracies among elites struggling for status and power.

Nolan is attracted to the aesthetics of protest and class struggle, but can’t help but portray the rabble in cartoonish fashion. Aaron Bady’s arguments overlap with Mueller’s:

It is a measure of Hollywood/Nolan’s chicken-shittedness — in that they love the spectacle of reactionary counter-revolution but don’t have the heart to show us dead leftists — that the entire 5 month period of occupation” is resolved with barely a trace of lingering hard feelings, that after 5 months of dividing Gotham between collaborators and the resistance, everybody’s happy to just call it a day and worship the bat statue or something.


If this movie had any guts, it would have — and almost did — show us Batman fighting against the people of Gotham: as they fall under the spell of Bane’s message of radical wealth redistribution, and as they turn against what used to be the status quo, the only thing Batman would find himself able to do is kill the bejeezus out of whole bunches of them. It mostly pulls back from that; the people we see the cops beating up are not citizens, but a hyper organized criminal conspiracy.

But there’s one striking thing about this conversation and that’s that we’re having it in the first place. The present economic crisis and the emergence of Occupy have managed to change the discourse about inequality and social change to the point where the plot of a film like Dark Knight Rises attracts attention for its political content. A conservative backlash in the form of a summer blockbuster is a good sign. Can anyone imagine something of the sort happening even at the peak of the anti-globalization movement?

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Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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