The Real Message of The Dark Knight Rises

This sort of thing happens far less often in Piscataway. Photo: Richie Buxo / Splash News/�©

Somehow the three hours of my life I devoted to watching The Dark Knight Rises has been matched by an equal amount of time reading ideological analyses of what pretty much everybody agrees was a so-so film. Aaron Bady has a monster essay in the New Inquiry arguing that TDKR is fascistic. John Podhoretz and Ross Douthat call the politics “quiet Toryism.” Jamelle Bouie calls the message of the film liberal, and Matt Yglesias sees it as an attack on mainstream liberalism. Somehow I find all these analyses persuasive, which is to say, the movie has certain political ideas, mostly right-wing, but not enough coherence to make any of them stick.

There is, however, one strain of thought that runs consistently through not only TDKR but the entire trilogy: an almost pathological New York–centrism. All three movies are about powerful criminal gangs that are fanatically devoted the reducing the quality of life in one particular municipality, Gotham, which is obviously New York City.

Two unstated assumptions are at work here: First, there is no point in unleashing this sort of hell on any other city, despite their being softer targets lacking superhero protection. And second, at no point can things get bad enough that the people of this city will actually, you know, leave. They can endure blackouts, nerve gas attacks, sadistic attempts to make them kill each other, and evil clown rampages, and they will simply think to themselves, “This is pretty bad, but what am I going to do, move to Jersey?” In this way, the Dark Knight trilogy is merely the flip side of a Nora Ephron movie.

Now, it’s true that the third movie furnishes a plot device to explain why Gotham residents would not ultimately flee, but also little evidence that they would want to. The villains also establish a new legal regime in which anybody convicted of a crime is given the choice between death and exile. What is “exile”? In the context of the movie, it means crossing the Hudson river to New Jersey. I realize that many of my colleagues here at New York, and our readers, would axiomatically concur. But really, isn’t there some upside here — cheaper housing, good schools, not to mention a dramatically lower chance of being mauled to death by costumed sociopaths, even if you can’t get Thai food at 3 a.m.?