Structures Become Shackles in The Dark Knight Rises
As with the first 2 movies of the trilogy, there a lot of fascinating themes in The Dark Knight Rises. As in The Dark Knight, we see the theme of Batman trying to rely on violence and it not being enough, ultimately leading to a bigger sacrifice in order to achieve lasting victory. As in Begins, we see a good discussion on fear, especially when Batman must escape the pit. We could also could stretch things a bit and discuss discipleship, as Blake (aka Robin) begins to follow in Batman’s footsteps, or the importance of interdependent community, as Batman must rely on others a lot more in this movie than in the first two (Gordon, Blake, Selina/Catwoman, Fox, Alfred, the thousands of unnamed cops). Those are all powerful themes that I saw in the movie in my latest – the 2nd time for me – watching.
What stood out to me the most in this viewing, though, was the degree of anti-institutionalism/anti-authority/anti-inequality. This is summed up in a line by Gordon – always a source of wisdom – and repeated later by Blake after he quit the police form: structures can become shackles. Not that structure always is a shackle, which is important to remember, but that it can often become a shackle.
The easiest way to see this theme is through every epic speech that Bane offers to the people of Gotham, all oriented around the claim that he is offering them freedom. Of course, it is revealed that Bane didn’t really want a revolution to give power to the people. He didn’t give the trigger to the bomb to any ordinary citizen as he claimed and the bomb was also timed so would have destroyed the city anyway. And he also outright says a few times that his goal was for Gotham to tear itself apart before the bomb finished the job. That’s not my point though. Even though he just used the language to incite the city into destroying itself, it’s clear that he realized the powerful truth that when people are being oppressed all it takes is a spark to start a huge fire.
We could also point to the justice system set up by Bane. I already gave a commentary from Begins about the critique of retributive justice seen in the movies. Bane preys on this definition of justice: punish the bad guys, reward the good guys. It is made clear that those in power – economically and through force primarily – are the bad guys according to the average person who is held down by oppressive systems. These people are sentenced to death while people of the city watch and cheer. This should be sobering for those who do have comfortable lives – and if you have a computer to read this, your life is probably pretty good – that there probably are a lot of people who would want to take revenge on our affluence if given the chance. Just as importantly, this is what many oppressed see as justice exactly as most of the affluent do… only with a different of “the bad guy.” Be cautious who you judge.
Economic Shackles: Critiquing the Rich
This theme has been throughout all of the movies: a lot of the problems Gotham faces is because of the huge economic inequality between those who have and those who have not. Most of the people who steal do so because they have to, at least at first (once it becomes routine and they don’t know what else to do, they end up sticking to it). In this movie, some of those critiques become more blatant in language that I’m guessing may have been inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs. The general idea is stated that when there is this much inequality, there will inevitably be a revolution, something that bears true throughout history over and over again.
For one of my favourite examples, when Bane and his men are taking over the stock exchange building, one of the traders say to him: “there’s no money here. You can’t steal anything.” Bane’s response is powerful: “then why are you here?” That’s a pretty good question to ask those carrying out a system that generally is to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. From the stock exchange building, Bane then bankrupted Bruce Wayne in order to do a takeover of Wayne Enterprises, something that absolutely nobody seemed to care about; the sentiment seemed to be that it was a rich guy who did something stupid and lost everything and as stated above, the average citizen thinks that this is only justice catching up to him.
Along with Bane, Selina Kyle (Catwoman) is a great critique of the economic inequality. Not long after being introduced to her, she explains how she only stole what she needed and only from those who had plenty to spare: a modern-day Robin Hood. I wish she had gotten more screen time, maybe even a spin-off movie to establish her back story. She’s an anomaly: started out poor and saw the rich as villains but, unlike most of the criminals taking the survival of the fittest approach, she avoided pushing down others in her fight for survival.
Yes, there is a returning theme throughout the movies that Bruce wants to help the world with his generous financial means and he does succeed in doing quite a bit as his parents did before him. Even then, Catwoman complains when Bruce loses his fortune that even the rich don’t go broke like the rest of us since he still keeps his mansion and most of the contents within the mansion. This is the first time that Bruce seemed to go beyond what was comfortable for him to give and even then he still had more than most of us and he was basically the only affluent person to really care at all.
Violent Shackles: Critiquing Those in Power
The above power inequalities are held in place – as they always are – by violence. Sometimes that is direct violence, sometimes economic violence. Let’s focus on the direct for now, though.
The police are generally looked down upon. This has also been somewhat of a theme throughout the trilogy: Gordon has a corrupt partner in Begins and corrupt police officers are essential to The Joker’s plans including the death of Rachel and the disfiguring of Harvey in The Dark Knight. The theme comes through particularly strong in The Dark Knight Rises, though.
The main 2 exceptions are Gordon, as usual, and Blake, a new rookie-cop character. They consistently work hard for the good of those in the city even when many other cops are giving up and/or ridiculing them. Even Gordon is a little marred when Bane reveals to the entire city that he lied about Harvey Dent; this played a large role in the citizens of Gotham giving up on their police, unable to understand that it was for their own security. The Gotham police are redeemed after they help take back the city, but in general they are seen as part of the problems being the enforcers of the status quo inequalities which made the whole problem possible.
The worst example of police enforcing the status quo instead of seeking the good of everyone comes near the end. Blake is trying to get people out of the city. He’s led thousands to the bridge, but the bridge is being guarded by the military since Bane has threatened to blow up the city if anybody leaves. That in itself should be a red flag: the government was operating on the same assumption that power was what really mattered and Bane had more power than they did in this case. They justify with something along the lines of: “we will not negotiate with terrorists… but we will live in reality…” In any case, as Blake approaches, showing his own credentials and explaining how the bomb was going to go off soon no matter what, they shoot at his feet and then blow up the bridge, leaving everyone stranded. Violence-wielding authority is not seen very highly.
The Place of Structure
Structure isn’t inherently bad. Having money isn’t inherently bad. Having power isn’t inherently bad. These come out nicely through the exceptions: Bruce giving his money to those who need it, just like his parents did; Gordon and Blake using their authority well and other cops being somewhat redeemed at the end. But it is hard to resist that point where our structures replace the point which was originally behind creating them. Police and military exist to maintain law and order but sometimes veer into simply enforcing the status quo. Those with money can do a lot with it, but often settle for padding their own lives instead, often even in the name of security against those who have less.
This theme is one of the driving questions in the emerging church movement. There are a lot of people pointing out that our church structures have become shackles. We are often encouraging the status quo when we should be showing radical love of neighbour and enemy alike. We are often going about our religious business – believing the right things, doing the right rituals, taking part in the right social action, separating yourself from the evils of the world – instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to really speak to us and work through us. We are often settling for retributive justice, containing those who are deemed the bad guys by those in power, instead of seeking the far more challenging task of restoring victim and offender alike.
Those structures – doctrines, rituals, social action – are not bad in and of themselves, just as money is not bad in and of itself. But we can’t afford to stop at them; doing so is nothing short of idolatry. They are pointers to something far more beautiful: the person of Jesus and the mission of his Kingdom that we are all called to join in on. One of our tasks as followers of Jesus is to establish structures when they help and to tear them down in love – before a violent uprising becomes necessary – when they are no longer serving their purpose.