Monday, July 23, 2012

A ruminative essay on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - Spoilers replete

I respect Christopher Nolan as a film-maker. He applies an unusual degree of intelligence to genre films and he is not unafraid of radically rethinking a franchise.   At a technical level, I admire Nolan's unabashed commitment to delivering the highest quality, most immersive images to the movie-going audience.  That means that Nolan still shoots on film rather than digitally, with a preference for IMAX.  He does not shoot 3D movies because he understands that 3D technology, as it currently stands, cannot rationalise the point of convergence and the point of focus, and that this subconsciously brings us out of the movie.  Nolan is thus a man of integrity when it comes to his technical approach to film-making and is to be applauded.

All of which is pre-amble to the fact that despite going into this film with high hopes (though not over-hyped), I left disappointed.  It's by no means a bad movie - I loved the thematic material.  But as entertainment goes, the set piece action sequences were impressive technically but didn't set my pulse racing.  There were too many characters and story arcs - too many plot developments that felt unearned.  Ultimately I just didn't care.  


To begin with the thematic material - which I found to be insightful and thought-provoking - the first major discussion was about the MORAL AMBIGUITY OF BENEVOLENT INTERVENTION.

The Gotham of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a peaceful, almost banal place, in which the peace has been bought with a lie and repression.  Batman has taken the fall for Harvey Dent's death, allowing Commissioner Gordon to create support for the repressive Dent Act.  Running through the film is an intelligent discussion about how far with-holding choice from ordinary people can ever be a good thing.  Even if born of benevolence, were Batman and Gordon right to assume that they had to manufacture a "White Knight" to corral public opinion toward crime-fighting?  Shouldn't they have had faith in the public? And even if that faith were misplaced, what right did they have to distort the truth?  They certainly pay a harsh price for their machinations.  In the first hour of the movie we see that Gordon has driven away his family, is about to be sacked, and is lying severely wounded in hospital.  Batman's body has also failed him - his joints wrecked by ill-use and  prior injury.  Their bodies are symbols of moral decay - the literal manifestation of the corrosive impact of living a lie. Ultimately, their lie will be exposed by Bane, but it is welcomed as a liberation.  In a sense, Bane, Gordon and Batman are in agreement.  Founding a repressive peace on a lie was patronising and condescending.  The people deserved more respect.  Gordon and Wayne, agents of a standard patrician comic book world in which an elite makes interventions for the "ordinaries" do not have sufficient radical courage to say it out loud. But once the truth is out, they are all the more liberated for it. 

The theme of questioning the morality of benevolent intervention is further echoed in the use of weaponry in the film.  Wayne/Lucius Fox have developed an array of high spec machines to protect Gotham, as well as buying up inventions that could be harmful, such as the Clean Slate programme that Selina Kyle covets.  They've even mothballed a potential clean energy source because it could be used for military purposes at great cost to their company, and to the horror of do-gooding entrepreneur/militant terrorist Miranda Tate.  But it's those very machines that are used by Bane/Talia to wreak havoc on Gotham, with a particularly superb scene in which Bane literally blasts through into Lucius Fox's so-called secret R&D warehouse from his own under-ground lair.  

A radical question raised by this is whether Batman is himself the true antihero of this movie.  If Wayne/Batman hadn't developed/amassed these tools, would Gotham have been put in such danger?  In other words, just as its better for Wayne to leave his Batman identity behind (whether through death or through a daring autopilot assisted escape to Tuscany), is it also better for Gotham that Batman has left? To paraphrase Monty Python, what have superheroes ever done for us?  This, of course, brings us back to the plot arc that sees Batman ultimately confront the new head of The League of Shadows, Talia al Ghul. The League is basically an elite force of warriors who assume that their elite status gives them the right to direct history so as to "restore balance".  We do well to remember that Wayne was also a member of the League, and while he rejected it, he has kept many of their assumptions about the strong intervening in the lives of the ordinary to put them back on the right track.  The only difference is that he is benevolent rather than malevolent.  The discussion reminds me a bit of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  Maybe it's just bad to intervene whether with good or bad intentions.  Maybe freedom from crime - whether organised in the case of Gotham and the Dent Act - or individual in the case of Alex - is only legitimate if it is engineered by legitimate democratic means. 

The second major theme in the movie is ECONOMIC INEQUALITY. That theme is refracted in different ways by each of the three purported villians.  The trio of villains begins with Daggett - a caricature greedy capitalist bastard who wants to take over Wayne Enterprises.  He is utterly conventional in his view of society and inequality.  He takes it for granted that capitalism distributes material wealth unequally and will play whatever game is necessary to make sure he comes out on top.He never questions the ultimately sustainability of the social order in Gotham, even as he disrupts the social order in minor African nations. Daggett hires the catburgler, Selina Kyle, to steal Bruce Wayne's fingerprints so that he can place fictitious trades that bankrupt Wayne and force him from the board.  He also hires Bane - a super-strong mercenary associated with African coups and mythical stories of having escaped a hellish prison - to make the trades in at attack on the stock market. Of course, as history proves, capitalists who think they can control political zealots always lose control to them, and Bane quickly dispatches Daggett as casually as Daggett might initiate a mass lay-off.  

But Daggett's most significant hire, as far as I'm concerned, is his sidekick Stryver, played by the marvelous Burn Gorman (just watch him as Guppy in the BBC's recent Bleak House).  Stryver is to me the most authentic character in the whole movie - symbolic of most City workers I know, who do their jobs well, fulfil their briefs, never once questioning the morality of the entire system they are part of. They're the aggressively upwardly mobile investment banking analysts who perform their tasks with absolute efficiency and dexterity in bonus maximisation - meanwhile the economy is crashing down around their ears.  Stryver, clumsily named, symbolises that faith in the capitalist system, where if we all work that bit harder, get a better degree, kiss-ass for promotion, we too can ascend to the elite. 

Selina Kyle is a more conflicted villain. She portrays herself as a kind of Robin Hood, only robbing the rich to feed herself - never taking from people who can't afford it.  She is seen to have the most insight into the corrosive nature of extreme material inequality and is also, on a tangent, insightful about the impossibility of getting a clean slate in a digital world. There's a lot to like about her character, not least that the Nolan's have not written her as a typical quasi-comedic fetishistic sex-kitten.  She has clear purpose, no self-delusion, and provides the only "zingers" in the film.  And in a three-hour film that often feels ponderous, ill-paced, and ill-plotted, Selina's wit is a valuable commodity indeed. 

In the middle section of the film it is Bane who emerges as the true match for Batman and Wayne - with his militant anti-capitalist forced "liberation" of the masses inside their new prison-Gotham.  Wayne becomes financially, as well as physically crippled: Batman is intellectually and physically broken by Bane - the broken mask and broken back.  In that sense, Bane is (in this middle section at least) the complete inverse of The Joker.  The Joker was petrifying because had no back story, no motivation, no logic. How was one to negotiate with such a man? How was one to out-think him, when his every action was seemingly anarchic, random, impossible to predict?  By contrast, Bane is a rather conventional, if particularly well-armed left-wing militant, complete with almost anarchic redistribution of wealth and kangaroo courts trying the former elite.  A lot of the footage reminded me of documentaries and history books about the Russia after the 1917, with luxurious houses occupied by multiple families, arbitrary judgments - the revenge of the oppressed. Only Selina voices the fact that these are people too - these apartments used to belong to people.* 

The only thing that doesn't make since, given Bane's stated anti-capitalist popular protest, is the fact that he arms a device that will explode in five months no matter what.  There is a contradiction in his liberating the people only to destroy them which is unsatisfactorily resolved when we realise that he is really a stooge for Talia's nihilistic destruction. To that end, I felt that Bane's project, character and force as a super-villain had been blunted by turning him into, essentially, a pussy-whipped patsy.  All of which brings us nicely to what I perceive to be the major problems with the films narrative arcs, character development, plot twists and pacing.


So here's my problem with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: I didn't care. And I didn't care because there were too many characters doing too much stuff that was either illogical or unearned.  Let's start with Bruce Wayne.  Wayne starts as a broken man, mourning for the future he could have had with Rachel Dawes.  He meets earnest entrepreneur Miranda Tate at a charity ball, then she comes to his house, and within about three lines of dialogue he tumbles into bed with her, despite the whole Rachel-brooding-thing.  I didn't buy it.  And then Selina Kyle is suddenly magically in love with Bruce, just because he "believes in her", kissing him passionately before he flies off with a bomb.  We're meant to be massively moved by this but come on - when did this love triangle have time to be established?  When did we, as an audience, get time to buy into this? And when did Selina  and Bruce fall sufficiently in love to end up together in Tuscany?!  

I came to the end of the film with the strong impression that this would've been a far better movie if Miranda/Talia simply hadn't been a character. This would've prevented the inclusion of a forced rom-com cheesy, unearned love triangle. It would also not have undermined the logical purity of Bane's mission as well as cutting of his metaphorical balls. It just didn't sit right with me that this hulking intellect - the first real match for Wayne/Batman - would basically be a love-sick pup, although I acknowledge that his tears at the end could've been because his pain meds were cut off as the mask was ripped, rather than an emotional response to Talia/Miranda rehearsing her back story.

Next problem - why are we introduced to so many small characters who have no bearing on the plot, distract attention and bloat the run-time?  Do we really need to see Stryver pushed out onto the ice? Do we really need to see the Scarecrow sitting in judgment?  Do we really need to see Matthew Modine's incompetent cop turn coward?  Do we really need the little orphan Robin story - and what a completely obvious and facile plot twist THAT was -  for any reason other than as franchise-fodder for Warner Brothers? All of these digressions took time away from Gordon and Fox. I wanted to see more of Gordon suffering for his part in the Dent lie. I wanted to see more establishment of the Love Triangle storyline if that was indeed the direction they were going in.

Final problem, so many micro choices didn't make sense.  If you invent a massively powerful energy source you have to be an idiot not to realise that any power source can be used for good and evil.  Why act all surprised when some scientist creates the trigger?  And if you have all this stuff that's dangerous why not just destroy it. Why keep it hanging around just in case you might at some unspecified future date be able to use it safely.  How come Bruce Wayne can strap on a super knee brace and suddenly run around like everything's all okay? (As I'm recovering from a fractured ankle right now - that really rubbed me up the wrong way).  How come Bruce can reach peak physical fitness in one training montage and then hop, skip and jump back from Jodhpur to North America and penetrate a locked down island, all the while secretly plotting to fake his own death (and falling in love with Selina)?  You get my drift....


Perhaps the best thing about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is that it is technically accomplished.  Wally Pfister's IMAX photography is superb.  But there are still two problems. I hated Hans Zimmer's over-bearing score.  And I found Bane's mask problematic.  His speech was too indistinct and it unfairly turned Tom Hardy into a Vader parody.  Poor chap.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is on global release.

*Of course, many commentators have drawn the obvious contemporary analogy between Bane's radical condemnation of capitalism and the Occupy Movement.  All I can say to that is that I respect the logic of Bane's argument, but I've  never seen anything like such a cogent programme from Occupy. 


  1. Fast Jimmy24/7/12 4:08 PM

    I love the title "do-gooding entrepreneur/militant terrorist." Any thoughts on the War on Terror symbolism, e.g., the Special Ops bodies being strung from the bridge?

  2. Hey hey Jimmy J, I thought the GWOT references were interesting: the obvious analogy of the Dent act to the Patriot Act; the Dent lie as analogous to the faked intelligence; Gordon et al using terminology like "war" and "peace" to describing a domestic policing issue (pre Bane).

    In terms of visual imagery I didn't even pick up on the fact that they were special ops but I was probably too bored and eye rolling by then. I thought they didn't really make a big enough point with the kids versus army on the bridge scene. Any others I missed?

  3. To clarify, the bodies on the bridge looked like the Blackwater contractors who were strung up in Fallujah in 2004. In the movie, the Special Ops guys no sooner show up than their mutilated corpses are hanging from the bridge, which suggests they existed purely so Nolan could get that shot. There was also the extensive use of news footage to show the Gotham siege from the perspective of the rest of the country, which is a major break from the previous films but is very much like how Americans experience GWOT. And the Matthew Modine stuff was a pretty unsubtle reference to the Sunni Awakening and the intimidation of pro-Western elements.

  4. Not to mention, of course, that Batman thinks his Mission was Accomplished and withdraws, only to discover that a power vacuum allows Bane to take over; Gotham must be perpetually occupied by Batman. Oh, and a potential anti-GWOT point: Gotham was a cesspool in the first movie. You can see why George W. Batman was tempted to intervene. But that intervention clearly touched off successive waves of terror and oppression far more horrible than what existed before. Even assuming that Gotham will now be peaceful, do you think it was worth it?

  5. I have to say I didn't find the use of news footage extensive, and the cut away shots to a concerned looking general pretty lazy stuff. As for Modine, I definitely think you're taking a leap too far!

    The stuff in your second comment is nearer the mark. The way in which Batman is shown to have misjudged, but Gordon, who always believed Gotham was still at war, is vindicated, could be seen as Nolan going "24". Then again, the fact that there is so much criticism of what the Dent Act did, and how it was pushed through, contradicts that stance....

    I of course don't think it was worth it - and I think that's what Nolan is saying too. Batman's intervention has netted out. As much as he helps, he also attracts crazies. In the end, Bane is right - give people the truth and trust them to deal with it. And if they make dumb choices, well that's democracy.

  6. Fast Jimmy25/7/12 4:44 PM

    One last thing I'm not clear on: in what sense is the Dent Act depicted as bad? There certainly doesn't seem to be any evidence that the people who got locked up were innocent or undeserving. It was a reaction to a false narrative, but nobody stands around in the final scene and argues that it should be repealed. Certainly Nolan doesn't seem to argue that the prisoners have been rehabilitated and should be paroled. I'm obviously biased on this point, but the Dent Act sounds like a long-overdue bit of reform.

  7. There is some dialogue with Gordon reacted to the release of prisoners and he mentions (I can only vaguely remember at this point) how mad they are going to be because they have been unfairly denied parole based on a lie. But yes, you're right, the Dent Act is seen as being more compromised in how it was brought to pass than in its actual content.