Pop Culture Politics, Vol. 1: The Dark Knight Rises
File under "movies that realllllly hit different after January 6."
Hey team. So. Let’s start with some professional news: I’ll be covering the intersection of politics and culture more at NPR, not to mention politics and demographics, and also just for kicks, the American Left (which overlaps with those other two anyway).
I already kicked off the culture side of things with a fun piece on cancel culture (“fun” may be a loose term depending on your views, but…whatever. It’s a good piece. Go listen and read.).
And furthermore, also speaking of culture, I’m prepping for our next NPR Politics Podcast Book Club, where we will be reading Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement (buy it HERE!). It’s a concise, thoughtful book about how we got this polarized.
Anyway. Let’s talk more about culture, shall we? And while we’re at it, let’s be timely. Let’s be Of The Moment.
Let’s talk about a movie from 2012.
Namely, let’s talk about The Dark Knight Rises, the sweeping Christopher Nolan epic about 9/11 and Occupy that was conservative in its very bones except no, it wasn’t except yes it was, but I guess, if you squinted real hard and did a few shots and punched yourself in the face, there was a Mitt Romney parallel ([heavy sigh] more on this later).
Anyway. I’m calling it right now: I’m naming Dark Knight Rises the scariest movie of 2021.
…Now, OK, quickly, before we get to the meat of this newsletter, let me ask: where are the women in Gotham City? I don’t believe I spotted any on the police force, nor any in Bane’s army. The only two appear to be Anne Hathaway1 and Marion Cotillard … so, in other words, women for Bruce to have sex with. Cool.
So anyway, Gotham is largely mono-gender. Hmph.
BUT. Moving on. Let’s also talk about the scenes that made my blood run cold…for example, the courtroom scenes.
There’s Cillian Murphy playing the judge in this populist kangaroo court, sitting atop a regal and also somehow genuinely frightening pile of desks (bra-VO, production designer), surrounded by the commoners of Gotham, the people who overthrew the nasty rich folk.
Everyone put on trial here — rich businessmen, the top police brass, whoever — is invariably declared guilty and offered the choice of exile or death…the fun twist (“fun” also being a loose term in Cillian Murphy’s court) being that exile (a walk onto a tenuously frozen river) leads to death, and those who choose death get “death via exile.”
Furthermore, there are those scenes of the Gotham have-nots, turning the richest out into the streets and ransacking their homes.
These, by the way, represent the simple turn that the movie makes — you may very much agree with the notion of upending society and Making The Rich Pay…but the movie is also giving you a shaky, sad, “Not like this”2 as it happens.
But to my point: seeing those scenes of mob justice, I thought of sitting on my couch, feeling helpless and near-catatonic as I watched cable news on January 6. And of doomscrolling through the videos since then of people chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and brandishing a noose; a man wandering down the congressional halls cooing, “Naaaancyyy”; groups of people pawing through the papers on senators’ desks, convinced that evidence of … something … was there if only they looked harder.
Like I said: scariest movie of 2021.
The parallels were broader than simple mob justice, as well. The army rampaging through the streets of Gotham was initially egged on by Bane — a LITERAL strongman — who had repeatedly reassured this largely-male crowd that he was simply giving the city back to them.
(My main point here, to be entirely clear, is not some ham-fisted “Trump Is A Supervillain” argument, but rather, that Trump (like Bane) worked very hard to portray himself as a strong, manly leader simply giving the nation (or city) back to His People (who were also, weirdly, largely male). And that in both cases that happened to bring with it a side of mob justice from Trump’s/Bane’s People (who, again, largely male).)
Let’s layer on top of that the cops-vs.-baddies battle that comes near the end of the film, where the cops come out of the tunnels beneath Gotham and [fanfare] saaaaave the daaaaaay by fighting Bane’s men in the streets, screaming bravely as they launch themselves at danger. The seeming intended oomph of this scene (bum bada bummmm here come the herooooes) is, shall we say, complicated by years of videos of police brutality.
(Again, because it’s good to be abundantly clear, not making the argument here that all cops are bad. But it’s very true that many Americans now understand, in soul-wrenching ways we did not before, that there are many cops who behave far less than honorably.)
Now, of course, the film had far different political associations in 2012.
The whole Batman trilogy was in part a reflection on the War on Terror — how do leaders balance democratic values (civil liberties, transparency) against protecting the people they lead?
Moreover, Dark Knight Rises inescapably reminded people of the Occupy movement that had started just one year before the film’s release. And, I mean, makes sense:
“You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us,” Hathaway’s Selena Kyle whispers in Bruce’s ear at one point. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.”
Massive inequality hasn’t gone away. Questions of civil liberties at a time of sweeping public fear haven’t gone away. Which is to say, it’s not that Dark Knight Rises was work of prescient political genius. It’s only natural that it would resonate differently at different times. Anti-elitism, inequality, questions about civil liberties in times of widespread panic, people’s capacity to succumb to authoritarianism…these are more or less permanent political topics.
What I wanted to get at here is that this movie highlighted for me just how much we have changed in the last four years.
I remember seeing this movie in 2012. I have hazy memories of the political conversations surrounding the movie, because political conversations were all we were doing in a presidential election year. And it seemed that every political commentator (OK let’s be real it seemed to be mostly the men commentators) took the time to try to overlay this film on 2012 presidential politics.
From one Batman-and-politics piece, in The Week:
From the perspective of progressives, Mitt Romney is Bane, "the toughest match the Dark Knight has ever had to face," while Obama is Batman, "once thought of as a hero, now thought to be a monster, [and who] must return to fight for his ideals." (At the end of the last film, Batman took the fall for Gotham City's corruption, much the way Obama is blamed for the recession, and became a pariah.)
OK, first off, please join me for a few minutes of sitting back and giggling at the idea of Obama doing that back-of-the-throat raspy Christian Bale vigilante voice. Or, for that matter, Romney doing the wheezing, sing-songy Bane voice.
What I’m getting at (at length, but you’re here and I’m here and I like you so keep trucking with me) is two things.
First: the very fact that Mitt Romney could be compared at all to Bane4 from my 2021 perspective makes me think about what sweet, summer children we were back then.
This is of course not to endorse 2012 Mitt Romney. Rather, it’s simply to be reminded that our conversations in 2012 weren’t about whether or not American democracy is on life support, but rather, what it meant that a presidential candidate once worked in private equity, and what does his record there of creating or eliminating jobs tell us about his truest beliefs and who would have ever thought this sentence could calm me down so much but holy shit just the idea of even that small level of political nuance feels like a Xanax.
Second: I am no superhero movie connoisseur5, but I do know that things are heightened in these movies. Can you imagine? the superhero movie seems to ask.
What is so upsetting about watching those scariest parts of Dark Knight Rises is that, no, we don’t have to imagine anymore. We saw, if only for a day, the world turned on its head, and we’d prefer these things to remain securely in the Hollywood realm, thank you.
This performance from Letterman in 2014 continues to make me happy every time, and by God, look at that, it’s nearly its 7th birthday. (Plus, hearing Dave yell, “I’LL TAKE ALL OF THAT YA GOT!” is a balm for the soul.)
How are you coping with the pandemic? For me this week, it’s revisiting “Happy Endings” and obsessing over my tarot deck and upping my anxiety meds and doing some retail therapy, with an emphasis on expensive hair products and also candles, and can we talk by the way about how upsetting it is for one’s favorite candles of the pandemic to be un-enticingly branded “Boy Smells”?
Album of the week: Interstate Gospel, from the Pistol Annies.
David Byrne wants to teach you how to dance. Aaaaaaaaaaa this delighted me.
You need better coffee mugs. The “INTENSE” coffee mug here is one of my morning BFFs, and 4% of why I’m surviving this pandemic. Yes, a friend makes these. Yes, I’m using my newsletter to shill for him. BLAMMO.
An aside here: Ms. Hathaway is the best part of this movie by far and also is, infuriatingly, basically the superhero equivalent of Jenna Maroney announcing that she’s going to use her sexuality to accomplish her goals. (At one point — I am not making this up — Hathaway in full latex bodysuit pins some bad guy’s wrist to a wall, above shoulder height, with her high-heeled boot. “Isn’t it hard to run in those heels?” some other bad guy (they’re all interchangeable) says behind her. She kicks/stabs him with her heel. “I don’t know. Is it?” she purrs.)
Come to think of it, The Matrix might be a more-fun movie to attempt to apply politics to.
Both arguments, by the way, make me want to launch myself out the window, because ugggghhh look. Christopher Nolan appears largely interested in putting people in masks-that-render-their-lines-unintelligible underneath a thwomping Hans Zimmer score and if doing that has any political leaning, it’s anarchist, we can all agree.
As a side note, it’s a hell of a ride Romney has been on in the last few years…he went from progressives’/Dems’ 2012 supervillain to Never-Trumper to Trump dinner date to The Republican Who Voted Twice To Convict Trump. I don’t know if it’s quite worth doing a piece on, but…wild.
True story: I have yet to see any MCU movies beyond Black Panther and until recently could not tell you with confidence what “MCU” even stands for.