Christopher Nolan's Occupy Problem

By Kevin Lawrence

Take that you Billionaire Super Hero!
Christopher Nolan hates Occupy Wall Street and he hates it so much that he makes some rather injudicious, really, wildly inappropriate comparisons between the movement and the Nazis in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In one of the showpiece scenes of Dark Knight Rising, Bane and his cohorts rip law-abiding citizens from their homes and strip them of their possessions, just like the innocent Jews of Schindler’s List. Nolan’s visual and thematic quoting is both obvious and over-the-top. That it doesn’t make sense isn’t the issue. The real question is why he feels the need to do that, which leads to some surprising aesthetic and ideological problems with the Dark Knight trilogy. Now, Nolan is certainly a gifted filmmaker and an effective spinner of fantasies and so at first the Schindler reference doesn’t seem out of place. After all, Americans have gone crazy for things and so having them unfairly taken away seems, rather humorously, a grave injustice—“Please don’t take the DVR!” It cuts right to the heart of our consumerist economy and suitably spawned a middle school spitball fight between the right and left over what all this mayhem and loss of consumer goods meant.

In July 2012, Columnist John Nolte wrote the article “‘Dark Knight Rises' Review: Nolan Masterpiece Slaps Obama” on that The Dark Knight should “make the left, the media…Barack Obama and the cretins of Occupy Wall Street squirm.” Nolte also suggest that the Occupy movement is “attempting damage control,” as if the film is a direct representation of what’s going on in the political life of America and from an Englishman at that. He even goes so far as to explicitly state that the Occupy protesters are the villains of the piece. I would say that, too, but not for the reasons Nolte gives. Nolte’s argument is essentially reductionist and circular—Bane and Occupy are both evil and therefore they are the same, as the movie and life proves—whereas I hope that what I am arguing about Nolan is an aesthetic explanation of a cultural problem and one specific to the actual logic of the Dark Knight trilogy.
I wish these occupy freaks would get out of the way!
Harrison Schultz in his July 2012 article “Don’t Occupy Gotham City: A Protester Reviews “‘The Dark Knight Rises’” for, gives the left version of the argument, claiming, “that Bane’s Revolution is less of a social revolution and more of a one man’s personal vendetta against civilization.” Schultz adds that the media tends to avoid real social issues by “talking about fictional portrayals of real social issues as if they were real social issues,” which is, of course, the central problem with Nolte’s argument. Schultz makes a distinction between Occupy, the actual social movement, and “Bane’s Revolution.” The first and most obvious is that “his occupation” was “waged by highly disciplined terrorists” from the again, very fictional “Black Gate Prison” armed with weapons and “a big nuclear bomb,” compared to poor “peace-seeking protesters” armed with “iPhones.” The second major distinction is the force and violence that Bane and his underlings bring upon the people of Gotham. It’s clear that Occupy has neither the resources nor the desire to keep America under that kind of control and to suggest otherwise is ludicrous. I am in total agreement with Schultz that the Dark Knight is just a movie and that it’s naïve to use the film, or any film or that matter, as a political weather forecast of what will happen next with the Occupy movement.

On the other hand, we should notice how readily both the right and the left took up arms about the movie and how important politics is to the film’s reception. The fact that the movie instantly became newsworthy tells us that we should never underestimate the political environment that a film or any piece of art enters when released. The problems become amplified when the film is part of a trilogy and is released over a period of years or in the case of the Dark Knight trilogy, six years. A lot can happen and change over the course of five or six years. When the trilogy began no one particularly had a problem with millionaires or billionaires and so Batman/Bruce Wayne’s wealth was neither problematic nor dramatically interesting. But by the end of the release of the second film, the political climate was changing. Nolan was faced with releasing a film about a billionaire protagonist, while most of his audience was being hit hard by the country’s most serious recession since the Great Depression. The emergence of the Occupy movement only further complicated Nolan’s dilemma, because whether or not people are a part of Occupy, for or against it, or somewhere in the middle, the economy was in the tank and billionaires were on the hit list.

Well, Bruce Wayne is rather rich
So Nolan had an aesthetic dilemma that has real political roots and he tried to solve it in two different ways. The first is thematic and only moderately successful in that it is little more than an acknowledgement of the problem. When Wayne attends a society gala and Catwoman steals his supercar, the only thing he is worried about is his wounded pride. Even when he loses all his money, he’s allowed to keep his house and to this Catwoman comments, “The rich don’t even go broke the same as the rest of us.” Yes, he’s a hero, but the truth of the matter is that he lives in a different world than the rest of us. Again, this is just a light ideological makeover to a much deeper problem and it is Nolan’s second response that is both more resourceful and politically explosive.

He must do something radical, but what?
Given the political winds, Nolan only has one choice and that is to give Batman some kind of massive transformation. And so, Nolan sends Wayne to prison and specifically to Blackgate prison, the trilogy’s source of fear and evil and the origin of all the present problems. That the prison is located underground and that the only way out is a tricky and puzzling climb to freedom is almost classical in its symbolism. Wayne must become criminal or, better put, treated like a criminal in order to become a hero. His climb to freedom, only achieved by one person (spoiler alert: Catwoman with the help of Bane), is a way for Nolan to rechristen Batman. The stint in prison both recognizes his criminality and at the same time makes him worthy and heroic. Everything that happens in the prison (the beatings, the fear of falling in order to escape, the affinity with the other prisoners) is ideological preparation for the new Batman and allows Nolan to take Wayne’s negative qualities and unleash them in new and complex ways.

Now that Batman has been ideologically and politically reordered, a seeming character transformation, Batman is able to easily beat Bane and his minions, the negative representation of the same criminality Batman represents. Batman/Wayne now has the grit and strength that his privileged upbringing lacked. But just being able to physically beat Bane wouldn’t be enough to win against what the villain stood for ideologically. Even though Bane is clearly the representation of the charismatic terrorists, he still challenges a corrupt system that even Wayne himself detests. They are enemies on the same side.

We see eye to eye and now it's eye for eye
As wrongheaded as Bane is, he does represent giving the power to the people and decentralizing the wealth of Gotham City. In a way he makes Batman/Wayne superfluous and so Nolan has to go one step further to completely resolve the political contradictions that the times presented him with. His decision to martyr Batman resolves the tensions of the films’ logic. Wayne’s empire falls with him. Strangely enough, in one of the oddest epilogues you could imagine for this ideologically nimble film, we see Bruce Wayne and Catwoman (Selina Kyle) having lunch in a Parisian café. I guess in the end if you can’t solve your problems in America, you can always go to Europe and enjoy the benefits of laissez-faire socialism.

©The CCA Arts Review and Kevin Lawrence

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