Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is notable for being much more explicitly right-wing than almost any Hollywood blockbuster of recent memory.
In addition to effectively exploring the anxieties of a civilization threatened more by nihilists and world-burners than by traditional geopolitical rivals, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is notable for being much more explicitly right-wing than almost any Hollywood blockbuster of recent memory. I had thought that some of the conservative attempts to claim 2008’s “The Dark Knight” as a brief for the Bush-era War on Terror were overdrawn, but after watching the final movie’s faux-revolutionary villain appropriate the themes and exploit the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement in order to launch a 21st century Reign of Terror, I don’t really think the saga’s rightward political tilt can be denied. And it’s a testament to how rarely one sees that political tilt in American cinema, I suspect, that the mere existence of conservative themes in a major summer movie has inspired extraordinary overreactions from ideologically-inclined movie writers. For instance, here’s Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, whose title calls the Batman movie “an evil masterpiece,” and who writes:
It’s no exaggeration to say that the “Dark Knight” universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It’s simply a fact. Nolan’s screenplay (co-written with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and based on a story developed with David S. Goyer) simply pushes the Batman legend to its logical extreme, as a vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society. Maybe it’s an oversimplification to say that that’s the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much.
Without digging too deep into why O’Hehir’s characterization of fascism’s supposed “purest form” manages to distill away just about every defining aspect of fascism as it actually existed, let me just submit that a genuinely “fascistic” Batman movie would have concluded with the Caped Crusader using the chaos wreaked by terrorists and revolutionaries as a justification for setting aside Gotham’s existing political institutions and ruling the city by fiat, with Wayne Enterprises merged with City Hall, the bat signal emblazoned on every public building, and the collective will of the public channeled through the superior individual will of Il Batman (and his successor, Der Robin, presumably). And the fact that Batman does not seek such power — that he serves anonymously, vanishes in times of peace, and generally has more in common with a batsuited Cincinnatus than with a would-be Caesar — illustrates one of the crucial differences between a fascist understanding of a Great Man’s role in history and a more conservative understanding of the same.
For an equally preposterous reading of the movie from the right, meanwhile, I give you Breitbart.com’s John Nolte, waxing enthusiastic about Nolan’s political themes:
[In “The Dark Knight Rises”], Gotham is going about the business of letting down its guard — a weakness that always invites aggression.
Aggression has already arrived in the form of Bane (Thomas Hardy), a hulk of a man burning with resentment against a society whose only provocation is being prosperous, generous, welcoming, and content — instead of miserable like him. In Gotham’s sewers, Bane recruits those like himself — the insecure thumbsuckers raging with a sense of entitlement, desperate to justify their own laziness and failure and to flaunt a false sense of superiority through oppression, violence, terror, and ultimately, total and complete destruction.
No one in Gotham even suspects the cancer of dangerous childish resentment growing beneath their feet …
Actually, the Batman movies pretty consistently portray Gotham as corrupt, chaotic, unequal and unjust, not “generous, welcoming, and content.” In “The Dark Knight Rises,” while the corruption and chaos have been reduced through the mass incarceration of gangland figures, the city’s basic inequities seem to have increased, and the movie gives every appearance of endorsing all of the nasty digs that Ann Hathaway’s Catwoman character takes at the Gotham elite. What’s more, the only time that we learn why a specific Gothamite has joined Bane’s underground army, the volunteer is a teenager who’s graduated out of an orphanage that lacks the resources to care for kids past the age of 16, and we’re specifically told that young men like him are going down into the sewers because there’s no work to be found up above — which suggests that something other than “laziness” is creating would-be revolutionaries. (Bane himself has been even more ill-used by the world, if not by Gotham itself.)
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.
Anyway, in case you can’t tell, I really liked the movie — and since I’m both a confirmed anti-superhero filmgoer and someone who preferred Tim Burton’s Batman movies to the good-but-overpraised “Dark Knight,” that’s saying something.
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