the dark knight rises...but not very high

Be warned! Here there be spoilers...

The third and, if Nolan is to be believed, final film in his Batman trilogy is arguably as satisfying an end as one could hope for – provided one relinquishes ambitions stoked by The Dark Knight and an allegiance to past interpretations of the character. Owing its narrative kernel, structure, and impression to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises brings Bruce Wayne full-circle to the origins of his caped persona in a film that’s smarter and brawnier than the average action movie but also derived from the the genre conventions Nolan & Co expressly rejected in The Dark Knight. Hence, Gotham City is once more under threat of being exploded by agents of the melodramatic League of Shadows, and it falls to Bruce Wayne to dust off his armour and re-engage with the city he abandoned. Apart from an over-the-top opening aerial scene in which terrorists mutilate a plane in mid-air as part of a scheme to kidnap a scientist (and, unintentionally, audience credibility), the film convincingly pops the corn at a gripping pace that leaves implausibilities and nit-picks for the post-credits autopsy.

Although Gotham City remains a characterless amalgamation of grand US cities, a consistent weakness throughout the trilogy, Nolan’s production team delivers stunning industrial design in the forms of Batman’s costume, gadgets, and vehicles, including an intimidating flying version of the tumbler called the Bat. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is safe in his envy of Batman’s beautiful toys in Burton’s vision – more or less. If engineering ever matched aesthetics in its capacity to drop jaws it would have to be in the impressive technology Nolan’s Batman wields.

In keeping with the grounded production design, Nolan’s nominally realistic approach to the material delivers gritty urban action that fascinates without drawing on our culture’s easy fetishism for violence. It is curious, however, that his staging of spectacle such as the collapsing stadium creates a cerebral rather than strongly visceral impression of shock, an impression that achieves its effect yet nevertheless keeps emotions at a safe distance. In this regard, the film achieves an all-too-even tonality, rarely expressing outrage or other great emotion.  Nolan’s self-restraint is commendable for events that, handled by other directors, risk becoming amplified to histrionic excess but comes with the price that some events remain too understated to make a connection with audiences.

Counteracting the tendency towards a flattened affect , thankfully, is Michael Caine, who returns as Bruce Wayne’s butler and surrogate parental figure. He imbues the film with its most genuine human emotion. It is somewhat unfair to single Caine out, however, since series regulars Morgan Freeman, as technologist extraordinaire Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman, as the put-upon Commissioner Gordon, respectively bring bemused compassions and world-weary gravitas to the film – that is, a measure of humanity distinct from Christian Bale’s grim Wayne. Among the newcomers, Tom Hardy as the masked Bane makes for a towering villain, physically commanding and possessed of a certain wit, whose flair for the theatrical is underwritten by the sustained promise of controlled but volatile savagery. Nolan & Co aimed to present Batman with both a physical and intellectual threat, and their conception of Bane works effectively in this regards. Hardy exudes menace and intelligence in equal measure, transcending the limitations of his face mask to deliver a worthy antagonist ever-so-slightly deflated by an undeclared origin concept. Also effective, if low-key, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cop who runs hot but honestly towards an intriguing plot twist, and Marillon Cotillard as a Wayne Enterprises executive pushing the reclusive Bruce to use his fortune and company for noble purposes.

But what, we desperately want to ask, of a certain feline femme fatale? Wisely, Anne Hatheway’s sharp rendition of Catwoman steers clear of Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic portrayal, setting aside the latter’s erotically charged menace in favour of an urban Robin Hood portrayal. Yet while Hatheway has the charm and intensity for the role, she lacks support from a script whose divided attention fails to fully take advantage of everything the character, arguably the most interesting addition to the ensemble, has to offer.

An underused Catwoman, however, is only a symptom of a film that delivers a thriller plot largely stripped of the thorny sociological challenges stirred up in The Dark Knight. The film’s weakness: a failure to logically explore the consequences wrought by Commisionner Gordon and Batman’s decision to whitewash Harvey Dent’s reputation. Although we are presented with the personal costs of choosing to hold Batman responsible for Dent’s murder spree as Two-Face, paralleled by Alfred’s decision to withhold a letter to Bruce from Rachel Dawes explaining her love for Dent, we are not given an account of the cost extracted from Gotham’s citizens. Commissioner Gordon, an honest man, predictably suffers from both the tragic fate that befell Dent as well as the injustice inherent in blaming an innocent man for crimes he didn’t commit. Bruce, his ability to function as Batman undermined, becomes a recluse with nothing to cling to other than the mistaken belief that he could have found happiness with Rachel had she survived the Joker’s machinations. Yet other than the mention of a Harvey Dent Act, the direct product of Gordon and Batman’s whitewashing that is instrumental to clearing Gotham of organized crime through draconian limitation of criminals’ civil rights, it is far from clear what price Gotham had to pay for its reduced crime rate. At the very least, one would expect that a reduction in criminals’ civil rights would spill over into a reduction of all civil rights, one whose very toughness on crime earned by relaxing safeguards sweeps the innocent as well as the guilty. What if, reasonably enough, the Act had resulted in the police force adopting Batman’s vigilante methods as a systemic policy, effectively institutionalizing extra-legal methods? Illustrating the debate between security versus freedom, presenting Gotham as a police state would have raised a deliciously complex ethical scenario further enriched by the topic of the individual as vigilante versus a legal institution. It is in this dichotomy that the link between superheroic vigilantism and fascist thuggery, raised by Watchmen and sustained by some comic book critics, could be explored as the politics of scale; what works for a lone individual may not work so well as a social paradigm. And then, naturally, after establishing the fragile status quo the film would throw in a grenade, namely, by exposing the city’s duplicity and, consequently, tearing down Dent’s heroic image.

The nature of the threat posed by Bane – an external force assaulting the city –largely prevents The Dark Knight Rises from fully confronting the aftermath of The Dark Knight, a narrative effort that requires introspection. Equally deflating is Nolan & Co’s lack of attention to the people of Gotham themselves except as a flock of sheep to be shepherded and protected. Without an exploration of how larger events influence the people who provide the major characters with their rationale for action, the film leaves questions raised by The Dark Knight unresolved and unexamined. When Nolan & Co finally toss the grenade into the fray, the end result is good PR for Batman, who is now free to resume his heroic role untarnished by Dent’s crimes, and good for inciting criminals to stage a prison break. It is, however, ultimately without significance.

Bane’s character concept is problematic both in general and in terms of his terror reign over Gotham, especially considering the view by some critics that the film is a “fascist epic” which, as self-described poet/lyriscist/philosopher bard Phil Rockstroh states, portrays “members of an Occupy Wall Street-type popular insurgency as boilerplate, comic book villains who rise from the city's underbelly, compelled by murderous grievances, to inflict a reign of chaos, reminiscent of Terror-gripped, late 18th Century/ early 19th Century France, on the city's economic elite.”  Yet here’s the rub for this perspective: at no time does Bane ever evince a sincere belief in the populist, Occupy Wall Street rhetoric he spouts. It is simply a means of manipulating Gotham citizens into a frenzy until such time as a nuclear bomb can be detonated to destroy the city. Aside from the fact that Bane’s motives are tied to the nebulous aims of the weakly-conceived League of Shadows introduced in Batman Begins, Bane’s efforts are also aimed towards the psychological torture of Bruce Wayne/Batman, whose death Bane wants to achieve only after forcing Wayne to watch the destruction of everything he loves and believes in. Only Catwoman espouses views in sympathy with Occupy Wall Street, but her character, as with her politics, are set aside in a plot that resides in the physical survival of Gotham rather than its sociopolitics, ideology, and very identity as a civic body.

Despite Harry Knowles profound disappointment that The Dark Knight Rises over the film’s lack of fidelity to the comics, Nolan & Co’s vision of Batman does share a similarity to previous incarnations in films and comic books. And that common denominator is this: Batman is typically pitted against extraordinary foes, thereby creating space of operations distinct from the space occupied by the police and ordinary citizens. There are certainly many smaller, more intimate stories that deal with street-level crime and the personal lives of various Gotham individuals within the comics canon, but for the most part Batman is pitted against a menagerie of grotesques to the point that the crime noir aspect of the character is diluted. This is another reason why the charge of fascist sympathies leveled against Nolan & Co. is empty, because Batman’s actions are the actions of an individual against another, not a manifestation of systematized/institutionalized policy.

As for the lack of faithfulness to the comics, Knowles does have a point in his doleful review at Ain’t It Cool, although he invites the rejoinder that if someone wants comic book Batman then he/she should read the comic. More important than individual details such as Alfred and Bruce’s falling out – an absolutely no-no according to Knowles – is the overall impression Nolan & Co’s create of the character, which does diverge significantly from the comics and Burton’s vision in the only other Batman movies that count. Despite attempts to extrude a cerebral dimension from the character subsequent to Batman Begins, in the form of Batman’s detective abilities, we are never offered the professional Batman who operates with a steely, steadfast resolve that is as moral as it is intellectual and physical. The excellent Mask of the Phantasm, for example, offered both suspenseful mystery and riveting drama in one of the best Batman films. We are given instead a reactive, volatile Batman, who begins the series as an anguished individual, continues as a tormented reactionary, and ends up bitter and reclusive only to pull back into the role of tormented reactionary when recalled to action. It’s enough to consider that Nolan & Co actually succeeded in subverting the Batman mythos by presenting us with a character who never achieves stability. There is the suspicion that Nolan & Co don’t truly believe in their Batman. For evidence, consider the film’s thematically weak ending. Unlike The Dark Knight, which gives us a chance to contrast Batman and the Joker when the two antagonists finally share a moment’s discussion, The Dark Knight Rises ultimately reduces any potential for ideological conflict to mere physical confrontation. Even then, however, Nolan & Co undermine Batman’s ideals – the morals that actually distinguish him from fascists such as his no-guns no-killing standard – by having Catwoman come blazing in at the last moment and unceremoniously shooting Bane to death. Her quip about being uncertain about Batman’s refusal to use guns amounts to low-brow mockery of a principle that deserves to be taken seriously.

If that’s not enough to view Nolan & Co’s Batman as a character to be pitied, however worthy of  respect risking his life to defend against physical threats, consider that only one character’s perspective on Bruce Wayne and Batman becomes validated in the film: Alfred’s, whose belief that Bruce Wayne would be better off leaving Gotham to find his happiness is proven correct at the end. Suggesting that the best Batman is one who doesn’t exist, what remains for Gotham is a city – guided by Commissioner Gordon’s example – that has developed a dysfunctional dependence on a vigilante incapable of driving the policy changes necessary for meaningful civic evolution.

The Dark Knight Rises is an interesting and often exciting interpretation, albeit one that counters expectations, and entertainingly realized on many levels. In the end, however, when I want my Batman served authentically gritty and noir, my preference remains with my favourite printed story, which surpasses even the legendary Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory: Dean Motter’s seamless and superlative Batman: Nine Lives.


Catherine said...

A definitive Batman is probably untenable at this stage, due to the character having gone through so many permutations over the years (in fact the early Batman was not above dropping villains from buildings). Since I no longer read the books, I can't say but what motivated Batman during the Golden/Silver Age was street crime where Batman would be seen rescuing innocent civilians. It was the post-Frank Miller years where Batman's energies turned almost supernatural given a noticeable decline in America's actual crime rate. So Batman's energies turned more to villains with either white collar or nihilist ambitions.

I have not seen the last of Nolan's trilogy in part due to my extreme disappointment (Heath Ledger and William Fitchner notwithstanding) with the previous film. Regardless of the interesting points you make, I have yet to see one that even tips me toward ambivalence let alone a desire to throw away three more hours of my life. The narrative doesn't work not only because it bears no relation to the real world but also because it conforms to no logic even in a total fantasy scenario. That this passes the screenplay sniff test tells you how out of touch privileged white men are from the real world.

Frederik Sisa said...

I'm not sure it's possible to have a "definitive" Batman, precisely because the nature of mainstream comics is to periodically reinvent the character. Or, the character is somewhat unintentionally reinvented whenever a new writer and/or artist become involved. It does seem like Frank Miller, whose work I generally dislike, injected a great deal of cynicism into the character. I wonder if his take on Batman is the root of the Batman-as-fascist idea. Then there's the idea of Batman as just a different kind of crazy from the Joker, as demonstrated in Grant Morrisson's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.

By contrast, Paul Dini's work on Batman in the outstanding animated series presented Batman as sane, professional, upstanding, however much he was anguished by the death of his parents.

As for your ambivalence, I'd say it's entirely justified. I don't think Dark Knight Rises' strengths offer anything to someone who doesn't buy into Nolan's vision from the get-go. Some glaring narrative glitches and such don't help. Personally, I thought the movie in some way diminished my enjoyment of the previous two, because in the end it does subvert the Batman mythos instead of trying to make it work.

And yes, the privileged white men thing is an issue. I was quite disappointed in how little Catwoman was given in regards to presenting a counterpoint to while male privilege. Of course, white males are Hollywood's target demographic, so I suppose we shouldn't be surprised.