Reflections on the Revolution in Gotham: Of Burke and Batman

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

Perhaps the most embarrassing part of the lead-up to The Dark Knight Rises were the frenzied, clumsy efforts to dragoon Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster into contemporary Team Blue-Team Red debates. A Democratic strategist suggested parallels between Mitt Romney’s former employer Bain and Tom Hardy’s homophonous brawler. Republicans, meanwhile, delighted in interpreting terrorist appropriation of Occupy rhetoric to brand the film as a Tea Party manifesto. More observant critics believed that Nolan’s political messaging was both muddy and shallow—insofar as they at least perceived that the film could not be wielded as a cudgel with which to club one’s partisan foes. That Nolan suggests political moods without political prescriptions is true- and precisely why his film is so necessary in our polarized discourse.

Nolan clearly relishes his film’s visual parallels to the French Revolution: the storming of Blackgate as a Bastille (with Heath Ledger’s death depriving us the glorious liberation of a purple clad, grinning de Sade), the show trials purging aristocratic parasites (leavened somewhat by Cillian Murphy’s grimly hilarious “death… by exile” delivery), and of course, the revolutionary ideologues bestriding white-columned government halls, be they Parisian sans-culottes or masked ninjas. While Nolan explicitly borrows from the text of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities in the film’s closing moments, I would argue that his sensibilities owe as much or more to political theorist and Irish MP Edmund Burke (and, to a lesser extent, those of Dickens’s and Burke’s fellow critic of the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville.) Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France cautioned readers to remember the fragility of society—built on the accumulated wisdom of generations and the day-to-day practices of citizens and quiet institutions—unlike the utopian schemes and abstract political theory he believed had brought France to its knees.

Less apparent than the striking images are these skeptical, quintessentially British political mores that the Nolan brothers—despite Jonah’s American accent—have infused into their trilogy. Critic Devin Faraci writes that Nolan embraces the “central thesis that institutions will fail us again and again… But where David Simon’s seminal [The Wire] wrestled with what that means and how we can create change within that environment, Nolan’s films take a decidedly more libertarian slant.” This strikes me as a misreading of The Dark Knight Rises, which celebrates those mediating institutions, what Edmund Burke called “little platoons”: the small, often invisible, and organic structures and bonds that slowly develop into a functioning society. It is not the failure of the federal government that has hollowed out Gotham’s core, but the withdrawal of those intermediate institutions that generated the vacuum Bane claims to fill. This is the fundamental thesis of Tocqueville’s lesser-read but no less perceptive Old Regime and the French Revolution: the later Bourbon monarchs centralized power by clearing subnational governments and corrupting the once countervailing force of the Roman Catholic Church, leaving France to choose between absolutism and anarchy. (Of course, it got both.) Acknowledging these institutions’ failure gets it half right, but critics have erred in perceiving strictly individualist solutions. Nolan’s prescription is not resignation at their impotence but shame to restore them.

Indeed, if one had to describe the film’s “politics” in two words, they would be noblesse oblige. The great sin is not in being rich, or a member of the 1%, but in ignoring the duties and obligations that result. That is not to say that Nolan celebrates plutocracy, as Ross Douthat notes, we are clearly meant to empathize with Selina’s populist barbs and the policeman’s crack that regular people’s money was in a mattress and not on the trading floor. But again, see Burke, who drew a sharp contrast between the old producers and the new parasites: “attorneys, agents, money jobbers, [and] speculators…” who comprised “an ignoble oligarchy founded on…destruction.” Wayne money makes the train run, provides the weapons to defend the city, develops the perpetual energy source, and ensures orphans have places to stay. Like French peasants condemning absentee landlords unable to sympathize during a food shortage, John Blake condemns Wayne less for actively oppressing the downtrodden than for ignoring them. Alfred similarly explains that Gotham needs Bruce Wayne—not Batman—to resume his role as civic benefactor. Wayne, in turn, criticizes the galas for forgetting their purpose and converting charitable obligation into orgies of self-congratulation. Miranda’s admission that she runs her event not only at her own expense but anonymously is what (erroneously) demonstrates her integrity to Bruce. Privilege and obligation are inextricable; prestige does not bring power but duty.

Lest there be any doubt; Nolan puts the words of Burke’s foe Thomas Hobbes—and arguably Ayn Rand, Hobbes’s modern day materialist disciple—in the mouth of scheming board member John Daggett. Compare the Leviathan’s notorious teaching that “the ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price,” with Daggett’s efforts to intimidate Bane. Repeating an earlier conversation with Miranda Tate, Daggett explains that money serves as a marker of his social worth, and in turn, justifies the power he wields over others. “I’m in charge….I’ve paid you a small fortune!” Bane calmly rests his hand on Daggett’s shoulder and, with his wonderfully weird intonation balancing total authority and childlike curiosity, inquires, “And this gives you…power over me?” Daggett simply cannot conceive of a man wholly unfazed by the splendor of riches. “What are you? …. You’re pure evil!” is all he manages to stammer when confronted with one animated by belief instead of lucre.

Nonetheless, civil society, in both the Nolan and Burkean visions, encompasses far more than dueling aristocrats heaping guilt trips on one another. Gotham under siege almost gleams with an unnervingly clean cityscape; the streets are not filled with garbage (indeed, five months of terror seem kinder to the gutters than a single night of New Year’s Rocking Eve), nor does society appear to have collapsed. Online nitpickers chalk this up to a plothole, but read in light of the preceding film’s message—of citizens stepping up to do what is right and validating Bruce’s belief in their goodness—I think it may be more that Nolan defaults to such a Burkean expectation. His extremely detail-oriented filmography and massive budget suggest this is a function neither of absent-mindedness nor of nagging accountants; Gotham isn’t burning because he trusts its citizens not to burn it. Bane certainly isn’t deploying his men as firefighters, as he had relished an inferno as proof of Gotham’s depravity. Note too that he rallies almost no one to the revolution undertaken in the people’s name—even though most plainly resent the increasingly selfish upper crust. A few malcontents assault men in suits and jeer at the show trials, while Selina’s friend smirks contentedly at the Zhivago-like communal living. Otherwise, citizens go about their day-to-day lives, with a few particularly brave souls helping the displaced or collaborating with the police resistance—but most simply provide the quiet, invisible dignity of an organic society. While Nolan’s camera focuses on the local police as the most visible symbol of this background order, the films’ message is repeated and universal, as applicable to a priest at an orphanage as a beat cop: heroism, and a well-functioning society, consist of spontaneous gestures as small as comforting a grieving child. You may not be a billionaire, but you can do right by your fellow man. Or, in a maxim sometimes misattributed to Burke, but certainly derived from his vision, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” (The parting Robin fanservice aside, this appears to be the purpose of Nolan’s emphasis on the upstart Blake, who learns this message is equally true whether or not he wields the formal authority of a GPD badge.)

As Burke observes, “mechanic philosophy” can never “create in us [the] love, veneration, admiration, or attachment” necessary to act like that.

Instead, the quiet familiarity of symbols and sentiments—“the decent drapery of life”—binds and inspires such community. Here, Nolan has plenty of company: such iconography is standard imagery for the superhero genre—whether in its pervasive, disturbingly commercialized form as Iron Man merchandise in The Avengers’ conclusion, or the strangely counterproductive embrace of individuality by wearing identical Guy Fawkes masks in V for Vendetta. However, The Dark Knight Rises parts from those other works in gazing on more than the hero’s trademark (and trademarked) logo. Thus, Bane launches his scheme immediately following the national anthem—a song whose text, after all, places the political community within the American flag itself. To depict the ravages of Bane’s regime, Nolan quickly moves through executions to fix his camera on the desecration of that flag: frayed American banners with so little fabric remaining that they cannot even drift freely, but must hang inert in the wind. Resistance, in turn, mobilizes around the bat icon—seared into the bridge by Batman, lit by Gordon, and finally scrawled in chalk by the faceless members of the underground in a sort of rebellious communion. What gives a particularly Burkean flavour, however, is the depiction of Deputy Police Commissioner Foley, Nolan’s mouthpiece for the self-interested cynic and showpiece for martial honour. First seen as an ambitious climber within the Gotham PD and then reappearing as a cynical coward shirking his duty, Foley, shamed by Gordon, eventually embraces it.

In order to create cover for Batman, Foley leads the police to their deaths in a futile, Tennysonian charge into a hail of automatic weapons fire. That he dies is of no interest; the repentant sinner must. It is that he dies in crisp dress blues, accented by gold epaulettes and gleaming white gloves- now stained with blood—his own, and that of the men he inspired to help save Gotham.

Of all the afflictions tormenting the many anguished souls of TDKR, perhaps the least bearable is the severing of family memory. Burke dreaded this corrosion of the human spirit as the most traumatic consequence of political unrest and social dislocation: “no one generation could link with the other, [and] men would become little better than the flies of a summer.” Although a less prominent theme than in Batman Begins, the omnipresent burden of family ties constantly weigh on Bruce, who struggles to preserve Thomas and Martha’s inheritance—even though fulfilling their legacy of service requires him to outwardly trash it. While acknowledging its costs, never is the righteousness of this duty to preserve the trust of generations questioned. In the first film, an older member of the Wayne board, upon seeing Bruce’s affected inebriation, cuttingly laments the disgrace of a cherished family: “The apple has fallen far from the tree, indeed.” (The actor delivering this meditation on family duty is John Nolan, the filmmakers’ uncle.) Unlike most modern corporations, the founders’ name remains on the Wayne company letterhead and demands proper stewardship of both assets and employees; no golden parachute can spare his family dishonour and the resentment of his employees should he run it into the ground. (One could speculate, as I think Burke would, that the replacement of such trans-generational obligation with ephemeral, fungible contracts has contributed mightily to the sick cultures and short-term vision of too many modern boardrooms.) Tocqueville, for his part, similarly dreaded the slow erosion of such bonds, when “each man forget[s] his ancestors …..[The belief that one “owe[s] nothing to anyone”]… hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”)

That solitude is precisely where Alfred fears Bruce has trapped himself, neglecting his stewardship of the family legacy and refusing to create a new one in pining for the dead Rachel. Faded photographs and reminders of orphanage loom heavily over the now tomblike Wayne manor, trapping Bruce in a loneliness without either past or future. We know that Selina too has ended up there: she pauses in mournful contemplation at the sight of family photos, remembering both what she never had and her desperation to erase the sordid life that followed. Her palpable anguish at stumbling onto a once happy family’s smashed memories ultimately breaks her “practiced apathy” and triggers her eventual decision to side with Gotham and its caped steward.

Against critics who deride Nolan as a reactionary, TDKR treads a fine line, warning that guarding the future does require painful, but necessary steps from the familiarity of the past. A society, Burke famously observes, “without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” and, in the end, Bruce is unable to claim his nominal birthright. Wayne Enterprises has been seized in disgrace. The bulk of his family fortune has been lost (although we presume that the Wayne Foundation and Alfred will recoup the money from the fraudulent trades eventually, as Fox explained.) He can never again live in the ancestral estate, lovingly rebuilt “brick by brick” after its destruction by Ra’s Al Ghul in the first film. His new persona requires him to cede even his own name to a granite tombstone beside his parents’, an epitaph memorializing the Wayne clan while simultaneously casting him out of it. And yet, while Bruce may be unable to partake of the fruits of his victory personally, he has protected the city his family so cherished, and dedicated their home—with a prominent, permanent placard–as an eternal memorial to them and future generations of Gotham children. As Burke observed, and the film all-but-bludgeons the viewer in repeating, one must have more than an intellectual commitment to society: one must feel a stake in its future in order to truly undertake the sacrifices to protect the best of its past. By shedding the Batman and embracing a possible new life (with Selina), Bruce has preserved the Wayne clan—though not the Wayne name—and found the strength to save what it has held dear for generations.

The Dark Knight Rises proposes that what America needs is not so much a set of policy prescriptions but an ethos. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Nolan disavowed efforts to read a specific political message into his film, instead averring that “what we’re really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open.” We should take Nolan at his word that these films are not his entry into electoral politics; their Burkean sensibilities forbid easy translation into left-right debates. (As Samuel Alito cracked in a Columbia Law School panel, political observers have applied the Burkean label to a most unlikely trio of the justice himself, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin). But to say Nolan’s films are not easily pigeonholed into contemporary debates does not mean they lack perspective: they clearly challenge us to think of, and join with, the institutions that must do their part. Amidst the wheezing voice of Bane and the thunderous roar of the Batpod, The Dark Knight Rises offers a quiet reminder to cherish the important and enduring things in life, and to remember one’s obligations to friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. It may indeed be putting a coat on a child—or towing a neutron bomb out to sea.