[Spoilers from all 3 films]
There has been no shortage of reviews labeling The Dark Knight Rises as an allegory celebrating populism, capitalism, libertarianism and liberal democracy itself. No doubt, it’s impossible to see images of young, angry populists marching through Wall Street and not suspect the film might have something to say about recent political squabbles, especially during an election year. But in the full context of the trilogy I think the third installment is far bleaker than any political stance.
In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne decides that his violent, corrupt city needs a symbol, a benevolent lie that will channel the best intentions of the people of Gotham, granting them the hope and the will to make the city into something better. By the end, it seems as though Wayne is well on his way, having confronted his own fears and saved the city from the plotting of a self-righteous zealot.
Yet, in The Dark Knight things haven’t improved much. Rather than inspiring Gothamites to do better, Batman has inspired incompetent vigilantes and a brilliant mad man, thrilled by the challenge provided by the superhero’s ingenuity.
Wayne rethinks his plan, seeking to replace his elusive phantom with “a hero with a face”, a flesh and blood man to reform the city’s institutions from the inside. But even chiseled blond Harvey Dent’s good intentions can’t last long in Gotham, as the Joker’s manipulation transforms him into a chaos-seeking monster.
Wayne retools once again—instead of a hero they can touch, Gotham will have a martyr, a man who is incapable of letting everyone down because he exists only in legend.
When The Dark Knight Rises starts, it appears as though Wayne’s Plan C has worked— at least, as well as any plan to save Gotham can work. A draconian law passed in the wake of Dent’s death has cleared the most violent criminals off the street (even if a few innocents were swept up in the process). There is still inequality and corruption but the city seems to have fallen into a kind of equilibrium that will have to suffice.
But the same city that was made complacent by one lie—that Harvey Dent died a hero—can just as easily be manipulated by another. Enter Bane and his populist rhetoric, calling on Gotham to take its city back. That rhetoric has been enough for some to compare Bane to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but, of course, Bane is no populist. Like Wayne and Gordon, he is telling a lie in order to inspire the populace to act in ways he’d prefer. We discover in the end that his only motivation is loyalty, and the same holds for the person giving him orders.
As it turns out, Bane’s attempts at manipulation are far more effective than those of anyone else in the trilogy. Whereas Wayne has struggled for a decade to nudge people into action, Bane gets immediate results, as angry citizens pull the hated rich from their homes and set up kangaroo courts.
Even the Joker, for all his brilliance, was not so successful. Near the end of The Dark Knight, he rigs two boats with explosives and offers the passengers on each the opportunity to blow up the other in order to avoid being blown up themselves. The Joker fails to get people to destroy each other because he relies on naked self-interest, an instinct too easily overridden by loftier ideals. Bane succeeds by offering a convincing, uncomplicated story of good and evil, and inviting Gothamites to join the side of good.
Bane doesn’t have to convince everyone, just a critical mass of violent revolutionaries eager to act on their fears and resentments. Presumably, these fears and resentments are not so different from those that made people look the other way as Gotham’s accused were denied due process in the name of public safety.
While the zealots institute their Reign of Terror, the rest of the city follows a strategy of going along to get along, exemplified by Anne Hathaway’s understated (and by “understated”, I mostly mean “not campy”) Catwoman. Though she is both bothered by inequality and repulsed by the acts of the duped populists, her instinct is not to try to change either, but to survive both.
In the end, Catwoman answers the call, Bane and his co-conspirator are foiled, and a fourth Batman film is nicely set up. Batman will continue to scheme to save Gotham, unwittingly inspiring villains to become more ferocious in order to defeat him. If this volley of victories between good and evil represents any philosophy at all it is that of the Joker, who turns out to be the only truth-teller in all three films:
Do I look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it, you know, I just do things. The mob has plans, cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. They’re schemers, schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.