Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Magic Mike, the Dark Knight and the Repercussions of Economic Distress

Josh Larsen


July 27, 2012

By Josh Larsen 

And I thought we went to Hollywood movies for escapism. 

Two of this summer’s big films—the surprising box-office hit Magic Mike, about upwardly mobile male strippers, and the final installment in the latest Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises—tap into the economic dread and desperation that still lingers a few years past America’s economic crash. Don’t get me wrong, both pictures are fun—Magic Mike is full of rousing musical numbers, while Batman gets a cool new plane—but what I also appreciated is the way each shines a cinematic spotlight on the repercussions of economic injustice. 

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on the actual experiences of star Channing Tatum, Magic Mike centers on an aspiring entrepreneur in Tampa, Fla. Mike juggles three or four jobs and businesses, but he makes most of his money by taking his clothes off for bachelorette parties at a Tampa club. In between the dance numbers—and there are many—Soderbergh is careful to detail the ways Mike struggles financially to get ahead, including a scene in which he’s denied a bank loan for his custom-furniture business despite the fact that he has a sound strategy and a considerable chunk of start-up cash. 

Morally conventional in many ways, Magic Mike recognizes the spiritual cost of its hero’s seedy lifestyle (you can even sense it in the way Soderbergh emphasizes the dismaying grayness of Tampa’s early-morning skies). In a way, the movie poses a question similar to one explored recently by Tim Fall at Think Christian, where he wrote about a family law case he presided over in which a mother was seeking custody of her son and listed exotic dancer as her occupation. Though custody was granted, Fall still wondered, “What kind of society do we live in?” In other words, what sort of economic justice can there be in a social system where stripping is the most promising career option? 

Such concerns are given an apocalyptic twist in The Dark Knight Rises, which pits Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) against the villain Bane (Tom Hardy), who seeks to subject decadent Gotham City to a terrorizing social experiment. Taking over the stock exchange and releasing the city’s prisoners, Bane instigates a revolt in which the less fortunate begin dragging Gotham’s elite from their penthouses. “Take control of your city!” Bane commands, and the resulting chaos resembles an unholy combination of an Occupy sit-in, a Tea Party rally and the French Revolution. 

Is The Dark Knight too fantastical a depiction to have any real-world resonance? Well, consider that earlier this year we saw a book like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which Timothy Sherratt described in these pages as cataloguing nothing less than a “slow-motion social disaster.” Murray’s book, which charts the increasing segregation by income and intellect among America’s population, could serve as the first act of The Dark Knight Rises. The Gotham orphans in the film who choose to work for Bane in the sewers because there is more down there than “up here” could be among the book’s subjects. 

It’s that stagnation and hopelessness that is a common thread from The Dark Knight Rises to Magic Mike to actual American streets. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) turns to thievery in response to disenfranchisement, justifying her choices to billionaire Bruce Wayne by saying she at least doesn’t “stand on the shoulders of those with less.” Mike, unable to get the funding to launch his business, strips instead. So does the woman in Fall’s real-life courtroom. Economic opportunity is being denied in all three cases, and as Michael J. Gerson recently said in a KDCR radio broadcast, Income inequality can be just - but only if it is accompanied by economic mobility.  People must have a reasonable expectation that their effort will matter.” 

If The Dark Knight Rises and Magic Mike reflect reality to any degree, such expectations are fading fast. 

—Josh Larsen is editor and film critic for Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”