If The Dark Knight was about the War on Terror, The Dark Knight Rises puts equal force and fury behind a tale about financial crisis and revolution. It’s the first Occupy Wall Street blockbuster, and that Christopher Nolan’s film was well underway before the OWS movement even got started is a tribute to his perspicacity.
The new film is a pleasure, sprawling in its storytelling, satisfyingly brawny, and occasionally moving, particularly in a terrific final act. In addition to all of that, the movie is so unabashed about its conservative message that you practically expect it to end with a dedication to Ronald Reagan. See if you can think of the last movie you saw that shows hundreds of big-city police officers lining up against a rowdy mob — and the police are the good guys. The movie is a counter-revolutionary document with as much damnation for populist revolt as Dr. Zhivago.
Like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises is slow to get started and features a lot of long, talky, somewhat painstaking exposition before Batman finally appears about 45 minutes in. After staying out of the public eye for eight years, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a mass of scar tissue who can’t walk without a cane due to a bum knee. Alfred (Michael Caine) is more or less a nanny to him, and at a fancy party he is helpless to stop a society jewel thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) from robbing him of his mother’s pearl necklace.
Moreover, thanks to corporate intrigue he’s been marginalized at his company and he’s being hassled by a philanthropist (Marion Cotillard) who wants him to pour more resources into a failed clean-energy project involving a “fusion” reactor that is not only not working but can be converted into a nuclear weapon. With Gotham City at peace, Batman isn’t needed anymore, and thanks in part to the efforts of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), he is regarded as a terrorist psychopath anyway.
Instead, the city reveres the memory of the wicked D.A. Harvey Dent, who died in the last movie but who is credited with saving the city by a population that knows nothing of his collaboration with the Joker. Unloved and forgotten, Bruce Wayne lives in Howard Hughes-like isolation, until an idealistic young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who knows his real identity urges him to get back in the game. A hulking, masked villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) who is so unstable he was excommunicated from the centuries-old anarchist brotherhood the League of Shadows captures Commissioner Gordon and is also working with Selina Kyle to eliminate Bruce Wayne as a potential threat as he plots destruction.
That’s the short version of the story. Nolan, who wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, is sitting at a different table than the makers of the other super-hero movies: He isn’t playing down to the adolescents (like the Spider-Man films) and he is much more interested in getting his audience genuinely disturbed than the Iron Man or Avengers movies. When Batman hits bottom, he really hits bottom.
When Bane goes to work destroying Gotham City, he first heads for the stock exchange to cause a mini-financial crisis (which, somewhat strangely, morphs into a big action scene that is more enjoyable if you don’t think about it too much). As Selina Kyle warns, in a line that could have been written by Occupy Wall Street, “There’s a storm coming….you and your friends better batten down the hatches.” On cue, her associate Bane launches a full-on proletarian revolution in which the meek are given the support of his thug army as they strike down the rich, the police officers having been caged up. This Michael Moore fantasy, though, is treated with no sentimentality at all. Garbage immediately piles up in the streets and justice is dispensed a la Robespierre, with bourgeois dissenters being sentenced to death without trial. Only Batman, an aristocratic capitalist hero, can restore the balance.
Watching a businessman billionaire smite the forces of a nefarious rabble-rouser who purports to speak for the surly mob is a story line we can only hope to see promoted from the entertainment section to the front page this November. But until then, The Dark Knight Rises is a rip-roaring serving of wish fulfillment, the rare summer blockbuster with a lot of ideas in its head and all of them conservative.