Gotham City: The Dark Knight Rises; decadence, crime and the French revolution


I may be a few years late in watching The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s perfect timing for some cultural analysis, having also just read City of Darkness, City of Light– a dramatic recounting of the French revolution by Marge Piercy.

Gotham City is a fascinating dumping ground for a number of ideas about cities and human or American society as represented by the collective of inhabitants. I’ve always loved the bleak and morally arrogant film noir depiction of the city as a corrupt cesspit of crime and degeneracy in need of ‘cleaning’, an imagining which is devotedly repeated in all the films in the Batman series. This idea itself has a long history, from the gin soaked Dickensian hellholes of the industrial revolution all the way back to ancient Rome, where the moral degradation of Roman civilisation was discussed among its own inhabitants, while the lives of the noble savages of the Germanic tribes were vaguely envied. That topic deserves much more time than this.

The angle of this film, however, went slightly off kilter when they decided to build a plot around a simplified dramatisation of a revolution played out in the streets of Gotham, led by a band of ambiguous quasi-communists with a range of vaguely European accents, who all seemed to dress in the ‘paid a lot of money to look like I paid no money’ fashion of  the average Brooklyn hipster. The actual loyalty of the fickle Gothamites remained unexplained during the whole affair. The masses clearly got in on the looting,  but the fighting appeared to be done only by released criminals and European socialists, so its left to the viewer to assume the ignorant masses were being led. Or perhaps behind the scenes, the poor really were celebrating when the baddies took control. We’ll never know.

The moral ambiguity of this film, as well as it’s cultural and historical references, were a delight to deconstruct. I shouldn’t separate the film from the whole Batman history as a comic etc and analyse it alone but its too much fun not too, so I’m going to anyway and many of these ideas can apply across the history of the franchise.

To break it down:
1. Gotham city as a representative city of broader American urban society – based mainly on Manhattan –  is a cesspit of organised crime, corruption, huge inequality and is essentially the scene where the concept of ‘decadance’ of the rich plays out against a mass of misery endured by the poor, who then become perpetrators of crime.
2. Despite this inequality,  the bad guys are socialists arguing for equal distribution and the good guys are millionaires, weapons manufacturers, an above the law vigilante developing nuclear reactors under the city without residents knowledge apparently, policemen, and a lone femme fatale who is comfortable thieving from the rich on an individual level but whose conscience kicks in during the societal level reshuffling of private goods. The treatment of the revolutionaries during the takeover is drawing on and caricaturing the French Revolution and Robespierres infamous public ‘trials’ and executions of Paris, during which time the city apparently actually stank of blood.

3. Another cultural reference that I love plays out in this movie, and in many of the Batman series come to think if it- the concept of the subterranean city, the idea of the sewers as the refuge for outcasts, lepers and political dissidents- a place beyond the law and dangerous because it is unseen, like illness below the skin. This is an old idea which also has roots in the catacombs and sewers of Paris and other ancient cities.

3. Poor old Gotham City, it’s buildings and residents are again the victims of much collateral damage during the fight between what Lenin would definitely describe as revolutionaries and capitalists. The capitalists win,  predicatably because this is an American film, and the weird moral of it all seems to be that inequality causes crime and rich peoples decadance will bring about the end of society but also criminals are evil and should be punished and also rich people should keep their money and poor people should wait to be helped by millionaire philanthropists because revolutionaries are actually weird evil members of a gas mask cult in disguise.

This brings me to the final point which is that this whole confusing message is actually an exact representation of the crisis of American capitalism right now, and that Gotham City is a fairly transparent metaphor for this society, and that even though by the end I really wanted it to be over already, I loved deconstructing the demented imagining of Gotham City as a site for a dumb Hollywood version of American revolution in this film. So many more points to explore.  Decadance, film noir, subterranean cities… more posts to come obviously.


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