Imagining a People (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 4)

Warning: Major spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What then of The Dark Knight Rises, to which I have already alluded so many times?  Although it is not my main interest here, I should not, given our consideration of the “Atonement” at the end of The Dark Knight, omit to mention the Christological resonances which echo throughout the film.  As mentioned above, although The Dark Knight appears to end on the decision to buy peace at the cost of a lie, there remains the possibility that the deception is only temporary, that Batman will rise from his self-imposed “death” to receive public vindication and become the true savior of Gotham.  The very title, The Dark Knight Rises, suggests just such a resurrection motif, and as the film unfolds, this motif is reinforced by so many gestures that it could not be mere coincidence.  Before such resurrection, though, the symbolic death of exile accepted at the end of The Dark Knight must be consummated with a true defeat.  This comes at the hands of a mysterious and inhuman denizen of the underworld who lives in eternal torment, serving only himself after being cast out of the order to which he belonged (in case we didn’t get it, he identifies himself early on in the film as “the Devil.”).  Batman is betrayed into the hands of this enemy by a Judas of sorts.  His back is broken and he is left for dead in a deep pit that is repeatedly referred to as “Hell,” from which he will watch Bane terrorize and destroy his now-unprotected people.  After being told to “Rise,” Batman succeeds in escaping this prison on his third attempt, and returns to Gotham, where he reveals himself in secret to his followers, and then defeats Bane and his cohorts, liberating Gotham from their clutches and receiving his vindication as the city’s savior, not its enemy.  At the end, he disappears into the air, presumed dead by many, though he is not in fact, and he lives on as the city’s symbol, having returned to them hope and the possibility of justice.  Indeed, he leaves behind him a dedicated disciple, who, it is hinted in a Pentecost-like scene (when John/Robin is surrounded by the bats in the cave), will take up his mantle and carry on his legacy. The correspondences are far from perfect—for instance, the first Judas turns out to be an ally in the end, and it is an earlier ally who is revealed as the true Judas after Batman’s return to Gotham; and the “Ascension” at the end functions more like another “Atonement,” since it appears that Batman is in fact giving up his life, rather than merely disappearing to another place.  And there are any number of ways in which Batman is not very Christ-like (though it is notable that all the way to the end, he keeps his “one rule”—even Bane is killed by another, not by him).  Nolan, it seems clear to me, is playing around with the Christological symbolism* to a greater extent than we find in other superhero films, capitalizing on its mythic potential and ability to highlight other themes he wishes to emphasize, but it is not meant to serve as the fundamental locus of meaning even for The Dark Knight Rises.


In many ways, The Dark Knight Rises hearkens back more to Batman Begins than to its immediate predecessor.  Bane comes seeking again the eschatological justice that the League of Shadows had sought, to destroy a city that is corrupt beyond saving.  In doing so, he represents himself as one ready to tell the truth about Gotham, as the city’s authorities have not been willing to.  He reads aloud to the people the speech that Gordon has written, but could not bring himself to deliver, telling the people of Gotham the truth about Harvey Dent.  In so doing, he demonstrates the folly of thinking that Gotham’s peace could be secured by a lie, for the truth will always come out in the end, and rarely at the time or in the way of our choosing.  But as we have seen, this eschatological judgment is not judgment according to truth, because it is “summary justice,” undiscriminating, unmerciful justice that denies the possibility of redemption.  Perhaps it is here that the Christological themes of film become key, for one could argue that it is by taking this eschatological judgment upon himself—going through the death and descent into Hell that Bane has in store for Gotham, and returning from it—that Batman averts such judgment from Gotham and re-establishes the possibility of provisional political justice. 

So how can such justice become even a possibility, much less a reality?  The problem that we have been left with at the beginning of the film is that Gotham is unable to enact judgment according to truth, and to have a true and legitimate agent of justice, because the city has not become a true political community.  The film then explores (among many other questions, of course), how Gotham can achieve this self-transcendence necessary to be a polis.  

The first step, ironically, is provided by Bane, whose judgment visited upon Gotham comes with the awful twist that before destroying the city, he will pretend to give it new life.  In mockery of the sham commonwealth that Gotham had been, he forges the city into a parody of a polis.  First he formalizes Gotham’s isolation from the wider world (which we remarked upon previously), forcing it to become an autonomous political unit, which cannot hope for any outside help.  He declares to them the truth that has been hidden from them, decrying as “oppression” the so-called “justice” founded on falsehood, and promising to liberate the city.  He frees all the prisoners and announces their re-entry into the broader society, thus tearing down one of the barriers that Gotham had erected between groups of citizens.  He offers to the city the opportunity to cleanse itself from its injustices by erecting a mock court of justice that deals out summary execution to the wealthy and powerful oppressors.  Of course, none of this can create a true commonwealth, since none of the schisms that formerly divided Gotham have been truly healed; the balance of power has just been reversed.  The poor, the convicts, the citizenry have been turned against the rich, the judges, and the police.  No genuine unity is achieved, and certainly no concept of the common good stands at the center of the new regime.  

However, in a way, Bane’s revolution does provide the catalyst that will help Gotham become a people.  The moment of crisis, the absence of any outside help, forces Gotham to realize that they will need to band together and depend on one another.  But significantly, they are unable to do so on their own; they need a symbol, a representative—they need the Batman.


Again, let us turn to O’Donovan for the categories that will elucidate what is going on:

“When we recognize a political authority summoning us to act together in defense of the common good, we recognize ourselves.  We conceive ourselves as a ‘people,’ a community constituted by participation in the common good.  On the relation between the ‘people’ and the authority that summons it, hangs the delicate question of political representation.” (149)

There is a paradox here, which Nolan’s films explore.  To become a people, Gotham must recognize a political authority, a representative.  But to have a legitimate representative, she must first be a people.  This is one of the fundamental ambiguities in political theory: how can authority arise except as delegated from a political community?  But how can a political community exist except as a body under authority?  

Some traditions of political theory, to be sure, have insisted that the political authority logically precedes the political unit, that the sovereign summons his people into being as a polis.  O’Donovan critiques this tradition, saying,

“Political authority does not ‘make’ a people; it ‘finds’ it.  The governing state-structure serves the defense of something other than itself.  The point of the state is not to defend the state but the people.  The people, the subject of the common good, must be imagined apart from its political and juridical arrangements if either people or state is to be imagined properly at all.  Otherwise the juridical unity of the state is simply imposition, not protection.” (154)

However, he critiques equally the liberal understanding that authority is simply a creation of the people, that we come together and make a covenant to be a people, and only then appoint for ourselves authorities to act on our behalf.  In a way, Bane’s parody of a politically-united Gotham is a form of both errors.  Bane is clearly a dictator, a warlord who controls Gotham with a private army and the threat of mass destruction.  He is the sovereign, who makes Gotham a city as his city, summoning into being a political unit merely as a product of his own sovereignty.  On the other hand, Bane pretends at any rate merely to announce a revolution, to empower the people to come together and form their own government, and to stand back in the shadows while they do so.  His sovereignty is largely invisible, lurking behind the facade of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  

O’Donovan describes the relation between the people and the representative in far more mysterious terms, saying,

“The people is imaginatively envisaged when and as its common good is in need of defense.  The idea of the people and the idea of the authority that summons it to defend its common good arise together. . . . In awakening our sense of ourselves as a people, political authority simultaneously awakens us to itself.  We become aware of an authority that commands us, not abstractly but in a concrete form, as ‘our’ government. . . . The representative bears the people’s image, makes the people visible and tangible, to itself and to others.  Yet the representative does not bring the people into existence, but simply makes it appear.” (154, 157)

So clearly does this correlate to the narrative of The Dark Knight Rises that I am tempted to leave it without comment.  Batman summons Gotham to rise to defend the common good, but not on the basis of a prior authority by which he can command their obedience; rather, to be effective, his summons must coincide with Gotham’s awakening to see itself as a people called to take action, and its awakening to see itself in the Batman.  Central to this awakening is the reconciliation that must occur if Gotham is to transcend its earlier divisions and achieve unity.  Accordingly, we find that on Batman’s return, he receives the recognition and support of those who had earlier opposed him, so that united behind him, they abandon their earlier differences.  The police, jealous and suspicious of the powers of a mere citizen, and tempted to use their power against him rather than against injustice, rally behind him, and show their willingness to fight and die on behalf of the city; thus they remove from themselves the stigma of all their earlier corruption, inaction, and distorted priorities, which have dogged them all throughout the trilogy.  The poor, jealous of the privilege of people like Bruce Wayne, recognize that it is possible to use wealth and power for good—this is signified perhaps through the disadvantaged orphans who show their loyalty to the Batman, but also through Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman; though she is never called that in the film), who spends the first half of the film openly despising the fat cat upper class of Gotham, only to gradually come to respect Bruce/Batman (she is one of the few who learns his true identity) and eventually to fight alongside him.  Her role, however, is doubly significant, for she serves as a representative of the criminal underclass that has been divided against the rest of Gotham, a situation only exacerbated, as we have seen, by the Dent Act.  Her regret about the cycle of crime she has become trapped in, and her quest for a “clean start,” serves as a reminder that not all convicts are in jail because they are hopelessly evil.  Many are desperate for a chance to start afresh, to regain legitimacy in the eyes of the world, to be reconciled to the rest of society; it is precisely this, of course, that the Dent Act has categorically denied to Gotham’s criminals, generating the pent-up resentment that Bane exploits.  Kyle’s climactic decision to throw in her lot in with Batman, and with him, with the Gotham that has never had any use for her, the Gotham with which she has no reason to feel solidarity, tells us that the Dent Act and Bane’s revolution are not the only paths; reconciliation is possible, new life is possible.


But let us return to O’Donovan.  He describes as a “false turn” the early modern idea

“that representation is founded in the will.  It is founded in the imagination.  That the representative may act for us, and we in him, it is necessary that we see ourselves in him.  Representation is a case of symbolization; the representative ‘stands for’ our consciousness of our common association. . . . through this particular actor we recognize ourselves as summoned to a collective action.  It is an affective as well as a cognitive movement.  Political recognition is like the recognition we accord to a face or form, the recognition of Gestalt, grasped at once in a moment of acknowledgement and welcome.  Underlying many ancient political conceptions, there is a visual aesthetic.  The language of light, radiance, and display permeates classical political symbolism, in notions such as ‘splendor,’ ‘magnificence,’ ‘glory.’  These elicit something akin to erotic fascination.”** (161) 

Batman’s “theatricality,” then, his visual aesthetic, is not merely incidental.  It is part of his projection of Batman as a symbol.   He must be more than a mere man, for a man is mortal.  He must become “a symbol, a legend,” immortal.  But not for himself, for personal glory—as Alfred frequently worries that he is being tempted by—but for Gotham. Gotham cannot see herself in a mere man, for a political representative must be more than a mere man; the symbol of representation must be immortal as the body politic is to be immortal.  This is why Batman refuses recognition at the end, why he must remain hidden, although Gordon insists that the people must know who their savior is.  No, that would defeat the point, for that would distract Gotham’s attention from what the Batman is meant to be—everyman.  Batman replies to Gordon, “The Batman could be anyone, even a man who gives his coat to a young boy to let him know the world hasn’t ended,” (paraphrase; I don’t have the script) alluding to the scene at the beginning of Batman Begins when the junior police officer Gordon comforts the young Bruce after his parents’ murder.  The point is for the people of Gotham to awaken to the possibility of acting for one another, working together for the common good; the Batman is not a savior from outside, but merely they themselves writ large, and his vocation—the enactment of justice with mercy—is their vocation.  By his self-offering on behalf of the people, Batman becomes a genuine representative, and by their recognition of him, and of themselves, they become a genuine polis, capable of enacting the limited, provisional justice that political authority is to serve.  So we are to hope, at any rate, in that crucial final scene in which the statue of the Batman—not a man but a symbol—is unveiled in City Hall, symbolizing the city’s fresh start. 

The film, to be sure, does not end without ambiguity.  Are public structures of judgment really capable of sustaining truth and justice?  John Blake seems not to think so, at any rate, resigning the police force in disillusionment about the inauthenticity of Gotham’s power structures, and the injustice in the fact that they do not know their liberator.  It is hinted at the end that he will take up the Batman’s role, that an agent of justice outside its public structures will still be called for.  Although the police force has redeemed itself by the end of The Dark Knight Rises, we are still shown at the end how unreliable and unjust the appointed guardians of public safety can be, when American troops fire upon Blake to keep him from bringing the orphan boys out of the city to safety—significantly, it is at this moment that Blake throws away his badge.  No one could accuse Christopher Nolan of being a Pollyanna optimist.  Batman may have redeemed Gotham, but even renewed, it remains fallible, imperfect, and often unjust.

More seriously, it is not immediately obvious that Batman’s faked death and hidden identity does not constitute another lie on which justice is to be built. It is possible to see in Gordon’s speech to the people of Gotham and in the unveiling of the statue a disturbing echo of his speech at the end of The Dark Knight telling the lie about Harvey Dent as Gotham’s hero, surrounded by iconography of Dent; though I think not.  The similarity between the scenes, I think, is intended to display the second as the reversal of the first, a truth-telling that establishes a genuine possibility for justice, for hiddenness is not the same as a lie.  Gordon is telling the truth, for Batman was the true liberator of Gotham, and he did give himself up even to the point of death for the sake of the city,  even though it turned out that death was not the end.  The fact that Bruce lives on at the end, achieves at last the rest for which he has striven all his life, detracts not at all from the magnitude of the sacrifice he has freely taken it upon himself to make for his people.  


I will close with the hauntingly powerful lines from The Tale of Two Cities from which Gordon reads above Bruce’s grave: 

"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. . . .

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."


* We can find other instances of this symbolism going all the way back to Batman Begins, though many of these ideas are fairly standard for the superhero genre.  Batman gives up a position of great wealth and privilege to take up his vocation, but he bears throughout a dual identity—two utterly different natures in one person.  His early encounter with Ducard and the League of Shadows could easily be seen as a “temptation in the desert” scene, in which he rejects their kind of power as his weapon against injustice and embraces a harder road.  Examples could no doubt be multiplied.

** O’Donovan adds, in words well worth pondering: “The affective dimension is entirely absent from official theories of representation in the modern West.  The understanding of ceremonial recognition was lost to Western political philosophy at the point where God was lost to it; for it is essentially an acknowledgment of providence.  The representative is recognized because he is there; God ‘raises up’ leaders of the peoples.  That God does so with patient regularity is no reason to suppress our wonder at it, let alone imagine that we ourselves arranged for it to happen. . . . [Contractarianism] dispensed with the moment of recognition, conceiving the representative relation as achieved by a once-for-all act of the human will.  The point was to establish lawful and binding authority for all existing political orders, deriving them from a supposed contractual agreement in the past, just as the divine-right theory, of which it was a mirror-image, sought to derive them from a past act of God.  Once conceived as a purely contractual status, representation lost touch with the moment of collective self-discovery, reflected in the person of its representative, dawns on its recognition.” (163)