In the weeks after the release of The Dark Knight Rises, which was dominating the American box office 10 years ago this month, director Christopher Nolan steadfastly denied that he'd embedded a political perspective in the final film of his massively successful Batman trilogy.
"What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open," he told Rolling Stone in a response to a question about whether the film's villain, Bane, leading an uprising against Gotham City's 1 percent was explicitly mirroring (and criticizing) the then-relevant Occupy Wall Street movement. "We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story."
That story, however, is undeniably imbued with political symbolism. Nolan's final Batman film builds on themes that were central to both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight—the blurry line between heroic individualism and chaotic vigilantism and questions about the nature of justice—but the movie's fulcrum is a parable about the dark places that populism can lead.
Or, rather, where it can be led. "If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person," Nolan said in that same Rolling Stone interview, tipping his hand ever so slightly. "That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham?"
Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises is not a narrowly drawn critique of the Occupy movement but is better understood as a full-blown critique of populism in general—and, more accurately, of the ways that populist movements are cynically used by leaders who seek power for themselves rather than as genuine expressions of the will of the people. In that regard, the movie is perhaps even more relevant now than when it was released.
It's no accident, surely, that Bane's revolution begins with a fiery speech encouraging the people of Gotham to storm a prison. Nor that the revolution soon devolves into show trials and public executions. The French Revolution, perhaps the ultimate historical example of populism gone awry, is a recurring motif throughout the film—near the end, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon eulogizes Batman by quoting from A Tale of Two Cities, just in case you hadn't already gotten the point.
At first blush, that parallel might lend a sort of old-school conservative ethos to the movie. "What passes for a right-wing movie these days is The Dark Knight Rises, which submits the rather modest premise that, irritating though the rich may be, actually killing them and taking all their stuff might be excessive," quipped New York magazine's Jonathan Chait in his review of the movie.
But it's overly simplistic to view The Dark Knight Rises as a warning about the chaos that could descend if the institutions running society—the prisons, the political leaders, the police—are torn down.
After all, Nolan spent the first two films in the franchise highlighting various ways in which the institutions at the center of Gotham's society are nearly hopelessly corrupt. Bruce Wayne is initially motivated to take on the cowl and cape in Batman Begins in order to confront a criminal mob that's untouchable by law enforcement. That corruption is personified in the fall of reform-minded District Attorney Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Those with the power to make a difference are either gone (like Wayne's parents) or indifferent, Rachel Dawes explains to Bruce in the first film. Gotham, we are repeatedly told by various characters throughout the trilogy, is beyond saving.
At the same time, we're shown that the people of Gotham are fundamentally good. The most memorable example: When given the chance by the Joker to blow up a ferry full of convicted criminals in order to save themselves from the same fate, a group of random Gotham civilians refuses to do so.
To read The Dark Knight Rises as a conservative warning about the importance of institutions and the dangers of mobs would require throwing out much of the moral framework that Nolan built into the trilogy. Something more subtle is afoot.
In fact, it's the institutional corruption that invites Bane's and Talia al-Ghul's plot to destroy the city in the third film. That the villains have chosen a populist uprising as the form of Gotham's destruction is a cruel joke perpetrated on both Batman (who insists on the fundamental virtue of the people, despite the mob violence) and the people of the city themselves, who only believe they're seizing power but will actually be obliterated. "As I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls," Bane explains at one point.
To put it all together, then, the movie is a warning about populism and about the ways in which corrupt, failing institutions invite populist takeovers that are little more than cover for authoritarians. In the end, it's not the police, the banks, or the military that can be trusted to stand against such a threat. It's actually just people, motivated to do what's right even without a governmental structure around them. It's not just Batman who thwarts Bane's and al-Ghul's plot; it's an entire resistance movement that slowly rises from within Gotham (notably, this happens without Batman's help, as he is detained elsewhere for much of the movie's second act).
"He may not be a hero of the Randian variety, but Bruce Wayne's willingness to sacrifice for the good of others is a cinematic depiction of the best that free humans are capable of," Reason's Stephanie Slade wrote for U.S. News & World Report shortly after the film was released a decade ago. "His heroics underscore one of the foundational precepts of the libertarian movement. It doesn't take big government to make the world a better place—it takes people choosing to do the right thing."
Of course, having a flying Batmobile never hurts.
In the 10 years since The Dark Knight Rises hit theaters, Batman has already been rebooted on the big screen twice—as a brooding, warped loner with a vendetta against Superman and as a…brooding, warped loner with a vendetta against criminals. With his wealth, cool gadgets, and penchant for vigilantism, Bruce Wayne is always going to be something of a reactionary figure, and the newer films have (as Nolan's did, though to a lesser degree) questioned whether Batman should be seen as a hero or problematic billionaire with a mental disorder.
But Nolan's version of the caped crusader has staying power that other iterations of the character lack, in no small part because of how his Batman films grappled with questions about what makes society work—and what could make it fail.
In the first two movies, Batman's foes fail in their efforts to use fear and chaos to destroy Gotham. In the third, they try politics—and for a while, it succeeds.