Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film shows the inhabitants of Gotham wrestling with issues of the real world, namely: money, class, and power.
The scent of money is everywhere in The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s alternately wrenching and lugubrious capstone to his Batman trilogy. Those who don’t have it, want it, and those who have it seem both weighted down and perplexed by it. That the film gives even a glancing nod to conflict between the haves and have-nots was enough to ignite a small op-ed brushfire war over whether the film was an Occupy-style indictment of capitalism or a pro-One Percent manifesto.
This emphasis on money is appropriate, given the amounts of revenue that Warner Bros. and its various partners have raked in on this franchise. But it’s also a curious focus for a superhero film, a genre that usually operates in a universe where issues of filthy lucre are either ignored entirely or explained away by the hero’s being self-financed. It’s a sharp turnabout from one of The Dark Knight’s most striking images, that of the Joker tumbling merrily down a mountain of looted cash before he sets it aflame.
Bane takes Wall Street
In Rises, Bruce Wayne, flesh-and-blood billionaire with issues, is more the issue than Batman, abstract symbol of fear-filled justice, and Bruce Wayne needs money. Those increasingly space-age vehicles he drives and flies around Gotham in are available for use only as long as Wayne Enterprises is a going concern. When the brutally anarchic Bane (Tom Hardy) launches his assault on Gotham, their first big target is the stock market. This is the real financial hub of the modern city, not the laundered cash that the Joker robbed and burnt so carelessly, but the invisible spine of the city’s employers and businesses and everyone’s retirement accounts; as one security guard outside points out, “It’s our money.”
Bane’s Wrestlemania moves and mystical indestructability prove problematic for Batman, though his feigned sense of social justice bring the heat down on Gotham’s ruling class -- not to mention Wayne Enterprises, Batman's bank account. His calls for revolution are terrorist window-dressing for deeper and darker aims, but that doesn’t stop the city’s downtrodden from trashing the homes of the well-heeled and dragging them into jury-rigged courtrooms for some Jacobin justice. This isn’t so much a comic-book call for upheaval in the style of V for Vendetta (the Alan Moore vision, at least) as it is a reflection of how these things tend to go in reality: Class inequality is exploited by those interested in nothing but power, resulting in short-lived spasms of violence and looting that leaves the mob back where they started.
The truest form of a conscience for the city can be found in one of Batman’s other nemeses: that old purring standby Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, fickle and petulant as any feline). Batman has always had the city’s interests in mind, though the Nolan films have heavily weighed the scales towards Wayne’s vigilante interests being driven by personal vengeance/self-destruction more than any true civic duty. He’s been exorcising his demons, not so much the city’s. But when Selina first comes into frame, it’s as a servant working a charity bash at Wayne Manor and happy for the opportunity to bring a meal into the now-reclusive Wayne’s quarters. When Wayne (bearded and caned and exhausted-seeming, eight years out of the cape and looking all the deader for it) twigs to her being a burglar who’s just swiped his mother’s pearls, he barely seems to care. He’s intrigued instead of enraged, because he can afford to be; it’s a nonchalance that enrages her.
Like Frank Miller’s Selina from the Batman: Year One graphic novel –a truer inspiration for the Nolan films than Miller’s original Dark Knight Returns quartet -- Nolan’s take puts her on the wrong side of town from Wayne Manor. Although seen only briefly, Selina’s apartment is a darkened hole filled with trinkets and scraps of her grifts, the street outside a gritty and scuzzy reminder of the crumbling and crime-ridden Gotham that doesn’t otherwise make much of an appearance in the Nolan films. (In them, Gotham crime is the work of psychotic individuals and corrupt politicians, not the everyday burglaries and assaults that people in neighborhoods like Selina’s deal with.) Like Wayne with his caped alter ego, Selina steals for many reasons: to make a living, to escape, to have fun putting one over on people, and to take more from the city’s upper classes than the scraps they would normally allow to fall from the table.
Catwoman tells Batman how it is
The long-simmering resentment that Selina has built up for Gotham’s gilded classes gets a hearing during her dance with Wayne at a masked charity ball:
There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.
There’s a joke in there with Selina’s reference to Wayne and his “friends”; this is not a man with friends, only allies. Also, the trilogy has made quite clear the fact that Wayne feels an outsider in his own circle; a sharp exchange at that same benefit has Wayne snarkily referring to all the money wasted at such events to put on a lavish spread.
But Selina’s warning is still one of those ice-water moments which Nolan and his brother/co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan scatter throughout this overly baroque film; they help snap it into place. Though the second half of the story is about Wayne getting his comeuppance from Bane, all that sadistic breaking-down doesn’t carry a fraction of the weight of Selina’s reminder of just how much daylight there is between the two of them, between their classes.
That distance is highlighted in another of the screenplay’s more bracing moments (one of the few where Nolan turns down the over-amped sound design and lets his actors just talk), when Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the real star of the film), a patrol officer whom Gordon has his eye on, reminds Wayne of their similarities. By telling about his own childhood as an orphan in an institution funded by the Wayne family, Blake reminds his one-time benefactor of how alike they are under the skin (“Not a lot of people know what it feels like to be angry in your bones”) but also of the gulf that separates them. Later, Wayne realizes that in his exile from crimefighting he’s let some of the details fall by the side, in this instance, the funding of the orphanage that Blake grew up in. It’s the sort of careless oversight of the aristocrat that would make Selina’s claws itch.
The Dark Knight Rises is no editorial grounded in reality: if nothing else the epic improbability of the great, stirring third-act street battle between the Gotham PD and Bane’s henchmen, should make that clear. Nolan isn’t staking out a side in the current, or any, political debate. That is, unless noting that the more oppressed a city’s underclass feels the more easily swayed it would be by a powerful demagogue, is choosing a side.
But by taking economics ever so slightly out of the realm of mere cops and robbers (i.e., currency as a mere McGuffin to be stolen and retrieved), returns it to a realm in which money matters; most especially to those who don’t have it and crave the freedom they believe it can impart.