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the dark knight rises: batman’s noble/reactionary message (warning: spoiler alert)

July 23, 2012

Just saw The Dark Knight Rises. One of the things I liked about it, as with the previous two in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is that it’s not just your typical, effects-heavy superhero action film, but one that contains a number of interesting themes and tensions within it, making it intellectual stimulating as well as visually entertaining. One of the things that struck me while watching The Dark Knight Rises, for example, was how prevalent the underlying theme of the ‘noble lie’ seems to be in the last two films of the series—a concept that makes its first known appearance in Plato’s Republic, where it’s mainly intended to persuade the citizens of Plato’s ‘just city’ to collectively care for their city and each other (414c–15c).

If Gotham City can be compared to a decaying and corrupted (i.e., fallen) version of Plato’s just city, then one of the main underlying theme of The Dark Knight is the noble lie as a necessary evil — as seemingly argued in the Republic (415c–d), and represented in the form of Commissioner Gordon’s/Batman’s myth of Harvey Dent as an incorruptible hero — while the underlying theme of The Dark Knight Rises is the failure of the noble lie as a unifying and guiding force in the just city. From this perspective, then, Nolan’s trilogy can be viewed as type of optimistic parable about the struggle of the just city, which is also a metaphor for the just individual, to handle the truth (as painful or dangerous as it may be), endure adversity, and ultimately triumph (i.e., rise) despite all of its/their inherent imperfections and failings.

The Dark Knight builds up to, and sets up, the noble lie, grooming Dent to be the new hero of Gotham only to have him turn into another violent lunatic who almost murders Commissioner Gordon’s son right before his eyes. The noble lie of Dent as an incorruptible hero, which was partially based on his actions as District Attorney, is then created by Batman because that’s what he believes Gotham needs, who ends up taking the fall for his death upon himself. In doing this, if we’re to compare Gotham City to the just city in Republic, Batman takes the role of the reluctant philosopher-king, the highest role in the Republic‘s ruling hierarchy of the ideal city. In the Republic, the regular citizens in the ideal city, mostly artisans and labourers, have little say in anything of consequence, and the noble lie or ‘myth of the metals’ is intended to persuade the citizens of Plato’s just city to collectively care for their city and each other, and to go along with the rule of the guardians (soldiers) and philosophers (elite among the guardians) willingly because it’s for their own good.

In Gotham, the police play the role of guardians, and Batman, along with Commissioner Gordon and selected politicians (e.g., the mayor), play the role of philosophers. Batman is obviously the philosopher-king extraordinaire, however, being both mentally and physically superior to Gordon et al. He believes that the myth of an incorruptible Harvey Dent is what the city needs, and in The Dark Knight Rises we see that it’s worked for 8 years, keeping order in Gotham City and giving the guardians (police) free range to do whatever is necessary to maintain that order, just as Plato argues in the Republic. Eventually, however, the noble lie falls apart, with the truth being revealed by Bane, who’s taken over Gotham. This is done in part to demoralize the people and spread chaos, panic, and rebellion, as Bane ultimately wants Gotham to tear itself apart before nuking it into oblivion. But this doesn’t happen, of course, as Batman returns to once again save the day, the guardians are all set free from their underground prison by fellow guardian and proto-philosopher-king Robin Blake, and the rebellious Selina Kyle, who possesses guardian/philosopher-like qualities, aides Batman in defeating Bane and reinstating the rule of the elite guardians, who take out the rest of Bane’s revolutionary army of homicidal maniacs.

In this, the film is rather reactionary/conservative in tone, as the revolutionaries are portrayed as villains, and the police, as an institution of the state, is portrayed in a fairly heroic light (although it’s interesting to note that the army/national guard are portrayed decidedly less so). As Mark Fisher points out in his review in the Guardian, “Bane talks about returning Gotham to ‘the people’, and liberating the city from its ‘oppressors’. But the people have no agency in the film. Despite Gotham’s endemic poverty and homelessness, there is no organised action against capital until Bane arrives.” And when he does arrive, the people are held hostage by him, his small army, and the convicts who were locked up without parole under the Dent Act.

When viewed from that perspective, and taking into consideration how class warfare is generally portrayed, I agree with Fisher’s conclusion that The Dark Knight Rises “demonises collective action against capital while asking us to put our hope and faith in a chastened rich” — not to mention the heroic guardians of the Gotham City Police Department — and not the average, powerless citizens of Gotham. But that’s to be expected, I think. Batman is a heroic billionaire playboy, industrialist, and philanthropist after all. Whatever the case, I found The Dark Knight Rises both entertaining and thought provoking, and I’d give it an 8/10 overall.

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