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Batman vs. The French Revolution

Carol Borden
Posted August 16, 2012

A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hasn’t ended.”

The mask is to show that Batman could be anybody.”

Is saying anyone can be Batman the same as saying anyone can be a hero? Is Batman distinct from Bruce Wayne, so anyone could become Batman? In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman tells the people of Gotham that anyone can be a hero, that anyone could be Batman. But we—and Bruce Wayne—are also repeatedly told: Gotham needs Batman. I’m not sure The Dark Knight Rises backs Batman up.

And this makes me a little sad, because I believe strongly in the idea that we can all be heroes.  Sitting in the drive-in on a summer night, I was distracted by those questions and the obtrusion of the French Revolution while I watched the film.

The Dark Knight deliberately undercuts the Joker’s claim that he has no plan, that he’s an agent of chaos. The meticulousness required for his crimes aside, why believe the Joker when he says, “I’m a dog chasing cars?” The Joker tells three different stories of how he got his smile. The first is horrific and the story’s easy to take at face value. The second story’s confusing because it’s different, but told with as much conviction. The third’s interrupted, but it doesn’t matter because the truth’s impossible to know. The Joker’s established as a liar, an unreliable narrator, especially about himself. And that is genius writing. But I don’t think we’re supposed to doubt Batman, “Could anyone be a hero? Could Batman be anybody?” In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman’s assertion seems to float above the film. It’s not a lie and Batman isn’t unreliable, but he does seem like he might be lying to himself.

Batman’s solution to Gotham’s crisis is not one that anyone could implement. Bane and Talia al-Ghul’s whole plan is tailored for Bruce Wayne; it could not exist without him. They re-engineered Wayne Industries’ experimental fusion reactor into a bomb and deployed it to destroy Gotham because of his actions.  And saving Gotham requires Batman flying the device out of the city with his Wayne Industries hover Batwing.  Who else but Batman could cause or have solved this?  Though, I actually thought, “This looks like a job for Superman.”

Where Superman reminds us to temper our strength, Batman reminds us to try to overcome our limits. Some of the danger in portraying Batman is getting trapped in a technological fix— using Batman’s gadgetry to make his heroics more “realistic.” But Batman’s humanity is central. If he were only his tech, then the power of Batman’s example is undermined. In the film, Bruce Wayne is reduced to the most basic human level in a nameless prison, healing a broken spine by hanging from a rope, before overcoming his own limits to escape and become Batman once more. And, strangely enough, that prison and that triumph come right out of the French Revolution*.

There’s a lot of the French Revolution in the film: the massive oubliette, built as an inverted panopticon tormenting prisoners with hope, in which Bane discards Batman, paralleling Les’ Misérables‘ Bagne and A Tale of Two Cities’ Bastille; the storming of Black Gate Prison and the storming of the Bastille; Gotham’s elite cowering as they await their fate à la The Scarlet Pimpernel; Bane posing as the leader of a popular uprising, which results in show trials right out of the Terror, presided over by the Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane; and Bane reading an incriminating letter that denounces a hero just as Madame Defarge does in A Tale of Two Cities.  All the film needed was everyone addressed as, “Citizen,” Gotham’s calendar set to Year 1 and Madame Defarge, texting beside the frozen Gotham River as the condemned fall through the ice. We did get Commissioner Gordon eulogizing Batman as Sydney Carton and Alfred quoting A Tale of Two Cities over Bruce Wayne’s grave.

But there’s a faulty resonance between Batman’s Gotham and Revolutionary France. I get that in reading The Dark Knight Rises as A Tale of Two Cities, Batman dies for Bruce Wayne, as Sydney Carton dies for his twin, Charles Darnay. There could be a Parisian Batman who saves aristocrats from the Jacobins, but that same Batman would already have been saving peasants from aristocrats. But what would Carton, Darnay or even The Scarlet Pimpernel do in contemporary Gotham? I don’t know. I’m not sure they would even make sense there, fun dandy cosplay aside. And if Batman dies for Bruce Wayne’s freedom, what does that mean for Gotham and its people?

It’s hard to say because the movie shows little in the way of citizen response. It’s unbelievable that Gothamites would embrace Bane as a liberator or welcome the emptying of Black Gate prison as Parisians did the storming of the Bastille. So I assume released prisoners rather than citizens attend the Scarecrow’s sentencing hearings. Any Gothamite movement is more likely to look like Occupy, Anonymous** or The Tea Party, not Jacobins. Bane’s threat would be more powerful if there were some kind of justice behind it, a real populist movement, or even a defined Dent Act and elucidation of Black Gate’s horrors. Instead, there was some fine acting from Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon regretting turning DA Harvey Dent into a martyr to ensure the Dent Act’s passage.

This Gotham is seemingly populated only by Batman, villains, police, the elite, and a schoolbusful of children. There’s discussion of “the people” and what they need, but very little representation of them besides a stadium crowd.  It reminds me of Marx’s patronizing comment about French peasants, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” But if there are no citizens in Gotham, how can anyone be a hero?

Batman believes in the people. Bane does not. Talia al-Ghul sees only a corrupt city to be punished for her father’s death. Their struggle becomes aristocratic in itself—and the story almost a romance, in the literary sense. It’s like some sort of aristocratic accretion builds up from the literary influences. There are interesting parallels between Batman and the Scarlet Pimpernel, for example, but I don’t think Sir Percy’s mission or motive works for Batman. The Scarlet Pimpernel was created by Baroness Emma Orczy whose family fled peasant revolution. Batman was created by Bob Kane, who was many things, but not an aristocrat who believed in aristocrats’ inherent superiority, British Imperialism and Divine Right.

Both heroes are wealthy men with secret identities designed to fool others into not taking them seriously. Bruce Wayne is a millionaire who pretends to be a playboy to obscure the work of his life, nonlethal crime-fighting. The Scarlet Pimpernel is Sir Percival Blakeney, an English baronet who acts a vacuous fop to obscure his work rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine during The Terror. If Blakeney’s nice to innkeepers, peasants and beggars, it’s not because he believes they are fundamentally equal and deserving of respect as human beings, possible heroes just like him, it’s because he’s the exemplary aristocrat.

Batman’s focus is not as narrow—empathizing with aristocrats even when they are “Frenchies.”  Batman doesn’t want what happened to a small boy in Gotham’s Crime Alley to happen to anyone ever again. Batman is a democratic hero.  He believes anyone can be a hero, even when the movie he’s in might not.


*Here the French Revolution will stand for the Paris Uprising, The French Revolution, the Reign of Terror and the June Rebellion.

**”The mask is to show that Batman could be anybody.”


They seek her here.  They seek her there.   Those villains seek her everywhere!  Is she in heaven?  Is she in hell? That damned, elusive Carol… el.


11 Responses to “Batman vs. The French Revolution”

  1. ProfessorMortis
    August 17th, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    Amazing! I don’t know enough about the Scarlet Pimpernel or the The French Revolution for all these parallels to have occurred to me, but I think you’re dead on. I also wondered why we only saw cops, crooks, aristocrats, and the main characters and wondered why/how the bulk of Gotham would go along with this. Very strange omission.

  2. Carol Borden
    August 17th, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    Nolan should’ve made a straight-up movie about this history with an aristocratic masked hero, though maybe not El Zorro, rather than stuffing it inside a Batman movie. It seems like Nolan is always more interested in ideas than people, and in this case, he was interested in the “parallels” he could draw. I think most of my problems with the movie stem from that.

  3. ProfessorMortis
    August 17th, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    Yeah, if that was what he wanted, he could have done a Scarlet Pimpernel movie.

    Only, who would have given him the millions of dollars to do it? I wonder if this is a function of Hollywood’s ever narrowing list of things they’ll bankroll.

  4. Carol Borden
    August 17th, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    It’s hard to say, but from the film, I get the feeling he was very excited by Batman’s relationship to the history of masked heroes and the 99% as, well, peasant revolutionaries and the 1% as aristocrats. And all those things are metaphorically the same, but I think the history counts and the accumulation of little differences makes TDKR a little off.

    I think Nolan probably could make a Scarlet Pimpernel or A Tale of Two Cities if he wanted. He got much stranger movies made. It’s more a matter of: could he make it as big as he’d like or get it distributed where he would like? He could be sure of a British and European audience for either.

  5. Tars Tarkas
    August 20th, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

    This is a great analysis, thanks for writing it!

  6. DeMoss
    September 3rd, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

    The moment Alfred began reciting that speech my inner Star Trek nerd and inner literary nerd began a furious nerd celebration. I’ve since read/heard interviews with Nolan (I think for Eye on Film, or somewhere like it) where he bravely admitted not having read Tale of Two Cities until the writing phase of Rises began. He *thought* he’d read it, having absorbed the salient story points through osmosis, but it was one of those things he never actually got around to until he could justify the time spent as “research” for his next project (or he just had a string of truely horrible English teachers who never tested him well). I think that helps explain the “faulty resonance” you felt. The closest thing to an “ordinary citizen” in Gotham is John Blake, an authentic hero cop to counteract all the corrupt bastards from the last movie. Then again, how could any citizen of Gotham be reasonably described as “ordinary”?

  7. Less Lee Moore
    November 13th, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    This is a beautifully written article. My knowledge of the books mentioned is nil and I hated A TALE OF TWO CITIES, but I do see your points. However, I would like to add that Occupy movement began after filming on TDKR started, so I doubt that was much of an influence if at all.

    I do like DeMoss’s explanation. It makes a lot of sense.

  8. Carol Borden
    November 13th, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    Thanks so much, Less Lee!

    I think the French peasants who stormed the Bastille were much more of an influence. I guess I just think that the people of Gotham–if they decided to overthrow their “aristocracy” or sympathize with Bane, would do so more like Occupy, Anonymous or the Tea Party than like peasants crushed under the grinding cruelty of the French aristocracy, if that makes any sense.

    Mr. DeMoss is a smart man.

  9. The Dark Knight and the Bitter Tears of Alfred Pennyworth: Batman and Realism Part 2 | Monstrous Industry
    March 18th, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

    […] a life of crime, in the golden light of an Italian cafe. I had noticed the melodrama, but I was so distracted by the French Revolution stuff, I didn’t think about Merchant-Ivory. I’m curious what […]

  10. Batman vs. The French Revolution | Monstrous Industry
    March 20th, 2013 @ 11:44 pm

    […] (This essay was originally published at The Cultural Gutter). […]

  11. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012): Review « Express Elevator to Hell
    March 2nd, 2014 @ 8:39 pm

    […] not a great film at all. It’s handling of the primary themes and tone of The Dark Trilogy, mainly inspired by the French Revolution-themed ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dicken…, were lazy, halfhearted, and only partially realized at best. The film’s cast, scope, and […]

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