Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight, Unleavened

Uh, spoilers?

In broad stroke, my reaction to The Dark Knight Rises is very similar to my reaction to The Dark Knight: a perfectly competent film with moments of greatness and thematic depth that nevertheless manages to epitomize everything I dislike about the character of Batman. On the most basic level it suffers from the same problem that has always crippled Nolan's films: 10 pounds of plot in a 5 pound bag. It's as simple as that - if they cut 1/3 to 1/2 of extraneous plot the film would have been so much more satisfying.

There is a certain spot in hell reserved for people who criticize movies based on what they wanted the movie to be and not what the movie actually is, so I am conscious of the hazards of spending too much time complaining about the film's portrayal of Batman as an excuse not to talk about the movie itself. But still, it's worth pointing out because the litany never gets old: Batman is the World's Greatest Detective, as well as a skilled gymnast and acrobat who has mastered half-a-dozen martial arts. In the most basic terms, Batman moves - he's an athlete and a sophisticated fighter, and his mind is even more nimble than his body. He's not a brawler. He doesn't - or, he shouldn't have to cover himself in head-to-toe armor so that he can barely move. I don't understand why, if they can make a convincing Spider-Man costume that allows the character to be just as athletic and flexible as we expect, Batman has to become a lumbering tank. Now, considering how deeply Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns is inscribed into the DNA of the Nolan films, it wasn't really any surprise that they took the bits from the story about Bruce Wayne's body falling apart and him having to rely on strength and brutality to push him through when finesse failed. But even in Miller's story there was always the inescapable sense of Batman as a physical creature - someone with muscles and tendons and bruises, who really felt the weight of years of punishment. There is some of that here in their treatment of Bruce Wayne as an old and frail recluse, but we only really get a sense of that when Batman is out of his costume. When he puts on that armor he's a tank - at least until he encounters Bane, who is more of a tank. (And it's worth pointing out that the problems with his knee - the same knee that we are told is completely stripped of cartilage and completely useless - somehow disappear when he gets tossed into Bane's prison hole. I guess the old blind doctor has some cortisone shots in his pile of soiled rags.)

Now, obviously not every Batman story can be about Batman's super-sleuthing skills, or his ability as a martial artist, or his athleticism - but the problem with the Nolan movies is that these skills just aren't part of the character at all. When Batman is broken and exiled to Bane's middle eastern prison, all we see is him doing isometric exercises in order to regain his core strength - bulging biceps and rippling abs. (Plus, there's that whole bit about healing from a broken back by being, um, hit real hard in his lumbar vertebrae? I'm no chiropractor but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't work - at least the comics understood the importance of being able to hand-wave that kind of shit away, with the use of Shondra Kinsolving's mystical MacGuffin healing powers.) All of Batman's strategic aims and tactical goals throughout the story can be solved by hitting or shooting. I am really, really not a fan of the "where does he get those wonderful toys?" school of gadgetry, and Nolan's movies unfailingly hinge on Batman's awesome paramilitary toys. There's only one scene of Batman using a wire to get around rooftops and sides of buildings, and it's a brief scene when he rappels down the side of a hospital so he can visit Commissioner Gordon - not even in Batman costume. And really, if that's not the most bass-ackwards way of accomplishing the goal of visiting Gordon, I don't know what is. Throughout the story, all of the supporting characters do important things that don't in any way involve using Batman's expertise or deductive skills - the GCPD figure out how to locate the bomb, Lucius Fox figures out how to defuse it, etc. I understand on one level the idea of showing how important Batman's supporting characters are in terms of providing him the necessary tactical and logistical support - that's been a staple of the comics for as long as the character has been around - but at the same time, having so many of the most important events in the movie occur completely independent of Batman puts the character in the unique position of being a supporting player in his own film.

But with that said, one of the things with which I was genuinely pleased about the film was seeing just how much was taken either directly or indirectly from the comics themselves. Whereas the previous two Nolan films have taken extensive liberties with Batman's mythos, I was heartened to see that this movie had taken a number of elements from some unsung corners of the Batman myth - specifically, the oft-forgotten / ignored mid-to-late 90s run. For instance, 1996's "Legacy" is about as obscure a crossover as you can find, but the connection between Bane and R'as al Ghul is drawn directly from that, including the relationship between Talia and Bane. And while "No Man's Land" certainly isn't one of the better remembered Batman events, it's worth noting that (if you put that storyline together with its prelude, "Cataclysm") the damn thing ran for a year and a half in all the Bat-books. The second half of The Dark Knight Rises takes a lot from "No Man's Land," including the very premise of Gotham City shut off from the rest of the country and left in the hands of a few police officers fighting Bane and a number of other villains. At the time I know a lot of fans - and more than a few creators - disliked "No Man's Land" because the premise was so improbable. And then a few years later Hurricane Katrina happened and we did see the federal government evacuate and declare martial law in a city ravaged by natural disaster. So within the general realm of fantasy I think "No Man's Land" holds up as more than a bit uncomfortably close to reality, and the movie plays this element as being similarly uncomfortably close to something that could happen as the result of a massive terror attack. 

Incidentally, I can't help but feel a tiny bit vindicated by the movie's portrayal of Bane. For years now I've been telling people how awesome Bane is, but so many folks have been unable to see past his Chromium Age origins to the awesome character underneath the die-cut covers. I know Bane has his fans, but there are also any number of people who have refused to accept Bane's status alongside the "classic" rogues gallery because of his relatively recent vintage. If this movie did one thing well, it got Bane's character exactly right - from the overwhelming physicality to the truly formidable intellect, he was all there. Anyone who is unwilling to accept his temporary subservience to R'as al Ghul should probably go back to the aforementioned "Legacy," where he became Abu and (temporarily) R'as' heir. I even like the fact - not explicitly stated in the movie but definitely present - that after defeating Batman Bane always finds himself at something of loose ends. He enjoys sowing chaos in Gotham but he hardly has any interest in "ruling" the city, whatever that means. He likes seeing Batman's city destroyed, but beyond the actual act of gloating over Batman he doesn't have as much interest in what comes after breaking the Bat.

I do think it's unfortunate that they whitewashed the character - after all, Bane is perhaps the most prominent Hispanic character in mainstream comics. I can maybe understand why they wouldn't have thought the luchador visual wouldn't have played as well in Nolan's far more grounded milieu, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that they couldn't find a Hispanic actor to play a Hispanic character. That's not in any way a knock on Tom Hardy, who is simply fantastic - and every bit a match for Ledger's Joker - just an observation.

I also think it's funny - not "ha ha" funny, but darkly-ironic-funny - that the movie manages to seem topical while also being, necessarily, just a bit behind the curve. Certainly, the widespread acknowledgment of income inequality and an even more widespread distrust of capitalism has been a fact of life since the economy crashed in '08, and it's not hard to see that Nolan's story builds on that in much the same way that The Dark Knight built on anxiety over terrorism and the government's over-reaction to the same. But The Dark Knight Rises has been in the process of being made for a long time. The story was already set in stone when the Arab Spring happened, and filming was mostly done by the time the Occupy movement began to appear in headlines. So while it is interesting to see the movie concerned with a few aspects of our modern crisis, it is also true that the movie fails significantly in this regard by failing to predict just how strongly some of the images on display would actually be felt. Which is a fancy way of saying: Bane is the "villain," yes, but it's kind of funny that in this day and age we're supposed to respond negatively to seeing thousands of policemen imprisoned, prisoners jailed over unfairly harsh sentencing laws released, and the rich being publicly executed. I can't be the only one who applauded when Bane stormed Gotham's Bastille, or when the rich were being lined up for sentencing. I am sure the scene at the Gotham stock exchange was conceived as something that was supposed to make the audience uncomfortable by sympathizing with Bane's actions - but I didn't feel uncomfortable at all.

There's a really, really stupid scene when Selena supposedly expresses her doubts over how far Bane's revolution has gone - her street urchin hooker friend asks her something along the lines of, "isn't this what you wanted?" and the audience is supposed to look around at the carnage of the homes of the rich and powerful being ransacked and see that Bane's men have indeed "gone to far." On the contrary, Selena's sudden crisis of petit bourgeois sympathy is powerfully sad, because what we see in that moment is that Selena was not so much a revolutionary as a petty criminal who aspired to the same wealth and luxury she had supposedly disdained as a member of the criminal underworld. Jewels and money only possess value so long as existing power structures remain firmly entrenched, and once the rich of Gotham are gone there is no ideal of material wealth for her to idolize. Her class-consciousness was completely false.  

But no: if there is one image I take away from this movie, it's not Batman as a force of counter-revolutionary repressive violence, it's the grim satisfaction of seeing the rich and powerful utterly and completely destroyed by a wave of revolutionary violence. That is the kind of visceral image that lingers in the imagination, an association that is all the more unavoidable given the terrible circumstances of the movie's release. I would not be surprised if Bane's distinctive mask becomes as much a symbol of underclass ressentiment as the Guy Fawkes mask. How about as a symbol of the way the gun control debate has been manipulated by conservatives as a weapon of unambiguous class warfare, with disastrous and repeated consequences for the health and safety of the body politic?


Gnip Gnop said...


Unknown said...

Although an average film watch32 , "Batman Begins" had a dark, brooding quality and got off to an interesting start about the origins of the caped crusader before turning dreary. Unfortunately, this followup takes up right where the previous one left off - still dark but also dreary and even sillier. The script is atrocious and the plot line involving Two-Face is unbelievably lame. The most interesting thing in this tiresome film is the mesmerizing farewell performance from Ledger. He is simply fun to watch as the Joker. All the other actors look bored, a result of Nolan's dull direction. At a length of two and a half hours, it seriously overstays its welcome. Time to make "Batman Ends."
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