Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises stands on its own, undiminished by the success of 2008’s The Dark Knight or even 2005’s Batman Begins. Nolan delivers a story that takes clear inspiration from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Eight years have passed since the events of the previous two films. Batman has effectively retired. Gotham City, much like Eighteenth Century France, is a land of obvious socioeconomic disparity. Though the city has been virtually crime-free due to the enacting of a Patriot Act-like law, the poor and dispossessed, as represented by an underfunded home for orphaned children and an overflowing prison, have been neglected, while the wealthy elite, represented by Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and his friends, have been “living large,” as Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman puts it, all of them blissfully unaware of the powder keg they are sitting on. Wayne, having hung up his cape and cowl now sulks around his mansion in a Howard Hughes-like existence, tended to by his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and pursuing a romance with a lovely Wayne Enterprises board member (Marion Cotillard).
This tranquility is shattered with the arrival of the masked villain Bane and his army of mercenaries. Bruce Wayne is eventually convinced to don the cape and cowl once more in order to confront the threat to his city, aided in his efforts by the techno-savvy Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the battle-weary Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and a heroic young beat cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It would seem that director Nolan is running the risk of leaving his film overstuffed with characters. However, Nolan manages to avoid this problem by successfully creating a narrative in which every character’s role is intertwined to the benefit of each. This is in direct contrast to Sam Raimi’s bloated 2007 Spider-Man 3, where none of the many supporting characters seemed to relate to each other or contribute much to the larger storyline.
Of all the many characters in TDK Rises, Bane offers the most material for analysis. Tom Hardy, succeeding the late Heath Ledger’s electrifying Oscar winning performance as The Joker in TDK, wisely presents a low-key portrayal, preferring to let the movie’s subtext carry the role. Bane is more of a crypto-Stalinist representation than a larger-than-life villain. Upon the necessary elimination of Batman, Bane’s agenda, obviously inspired by countless revolutions, is to lead a revolt of Gotham’s lower classes to overrun Gotham and “return the city to the people,” preaching “we have come not as conquerors, but as liberators.” What makes Bane seem Stalinist is the ever-present reminder that he is a strongman who leads his revolution from the top down, with him firmly in control. The complicated plan in which this is to be accomplished need not be spelled out, other than that it involves the employment of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Hathaway), a raid on the Stock Exchange, the destruction of a football stadium, and the detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
There are many references to A Tale of Two Cities, including Commissioner Gordon’s recitation of the final passage “it is a far, far better thing that I do” and (for aficionados of Dickens’ book who listen closely) the introduction of a minor character named Stryver, a direct reference to a supporting character in Dickens’ novel. In one of the best sequences of the movie, following Bane’s successful siege of Gotham, angry hoards of revolting “peasants” storm the Park Avenue penthouses of the ruling classes, helping themselves to their material spoils, and herding the dethroned members of the elite out onto the street. These unfortunate aristocrats are then subjected to mock show-trials where they are forced to choose between public hanging and “exile” onto the thin ice of the frozen harbor.
Many commentators have detected a right-wing message in this movie. It can be argued that the revolting masses are portrayed as a force to be feared and disparaged and that it takes a wealthy Christ-like capitalist savior to repel the barbarians at the gate and turn back the tide of the revolutionaries’ repressive violence. Bruce Wayne/ Batman is to Gotham City’s anarchist siege what the Scarlet Pimpernel was to France’s post-revolutionary Reign of Terror—a masked counterrevolutionary hero. Indeed, it is hard to miss the real-life parallels with the Occupy Wall Street protests that have shaken America throughout the past year, which have made the country’s wealthy elite very nervous and much more likely to throw their support to Mitt Romney (who could very well be the real world’s Batman/Scarlet Pimpernel capitalist savior) in the upcoming presidential election.
Contrary to the charges of Rush Limbaugh-esque conservatism, TDK Rises comes off not as a deliberate right-wing backlash attack on the 99 Percent movement, but rather as a liberal commentary on the social conditions that lead to revolution and the vengeful excesses that follow the current regime’s overthrow. This is the same message that Charles Dickens conveyed in A Tale of Two Cities. Nolan is therefore establishing his liberal reformist credentials, where Batman represents not Mitt Romney, but instead Barack Obama, the consensus builder designated to curb both the excesses of revolutionary activity and the wealthy elite’s exploitation of the masses.
Though not as well made as the previous two films of the trilogy, TDK Rises makes for a nicely fitting conclusion to what has been a superior trilogy. The film affirms Christopher Nolan’s status as one of Hollywood’s finest directors, if not merely one of the most imaginative.