No trip to Austin was going to stop me from seeing The Dark Knight Rises. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing this film at the Alamo Drafthouse on 6th Street in Austin. If you are in Austin, I highly recommend seeing a movie at one of their many locations. They have themed events, regular movies, and serve alcohol and food as you watch your movie. And they do so in an unobtrusive way.
So let me talk about what I love about this movie. And I love this movie. It wraps up one of the great film trilogies ever, just below the Toy Story and Lord of the Rings moviesand just above the original Star Wars trilogy. (Sorry, I have great love for these films but… ewoks.) The movie also drastically improves on some of the weaknesses of The Dark Knight to create something that brings together all the best qualities of the first two Batman movies with few of the weaknesses.
This is not a popular idea, but I really believe that The Dark Knight was actually a weak movie rescued by one incredible performance. Heath Ledger prevented us from being too bothered by Christian Bale’s obnoxious Batman voice, his stilted chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhal, and the frenetic pacing and editing that led to plot inconsistencies and a lack of character drama. For this movie, Nolan slows down the pace and restrains the soundtrack (unending during The Dark Knight) and allows the characters to breathe. And for us to empathize with and care for them as they develop. Scenes between Bruce Wayne and Alfred, in particular, are perhaps the most dramatic and engrossing character scenes of the whole series.
Beyond that, the sexual relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyl (Catwoman) is simply brilliant. Selena as a character is a better fit for Wayne than the angelic (gender archetype alert!) Rachel Dawes. And Anne Hathaway is up to the task of matching wits with Christian Bale.
And that’s really all I want to say on the film aspects of Batman. Now I want to talk the philosophy of TDKR, what I think this movie is trying to say about humanity and society at large, and some problems I have with it.
The Oddly Authoritarian Gotham Spring
Chris Nolan’s movies come back time and again to a question of how people respond to humanity at its most evil. Our hero and each of his villains has their own spin on this question. Ra’s Al-Gul had his own Old Testament answer: Cleanse the society of its villainy through large scale destruction. The Joker merely hoped to create chaos, and to show that coming face to face with villainy made humanity evil. Bane brings back the League of Shadows mythology to the Batman story (and makes TDK become an odd outlier in the story; one wonders how this story would have evolved if Heath Ledger had lived ), and carries out Ra’s Al-Gul’s vision. And becoming a maniacal tyrant of Gotham in the process, a Robespierre of the 21st century, freeing the prisoners and dispensing public justice on the wealthy.
As Bane builds his empire of death, Batman is nowhere to be found, defeated by Bane and trapped in the desert. This is, by the way, part of what makes this movie so compelling. As our hero goes through his own personal journey in the prison (little bit of Shawshank here?), we get to see Gotham fight a dictator without him. Most comic book movies take this moment to assure us that the hero will save everyone. That’s exactly what The Dark Knight does: raise the Joker high and the people low so that it is clear that only Batman can swoop in to save the day.
Don’t worry: Batman does save the day here eventually. Sadly, Nolan does not go quite as far as Alfred to suggest that Gotham does not necessarily need the Batman anymore, but he only does so after great delay and a chance to allow other characters to breathe. We get to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop, Blake, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) organize resistance efforts against Bane. Catwoman protects her own neighborhood from Bane’s goons. Nolan even gives Morgan Freeman something to do, as Lucius Fox works to sabotage his fission reactor turned doomsday device. In short, this movie branches off from most comic book movies that came before it, in that non-superheroes do something more than play bit parts for the hero. They are the reason Gotham functions while Mr. Wayne figures out how to escape a hole in the ground.
So why do I call this the “oddly authoritarian Gotham Spring”? Well… guess who comes to the rescue to be Batman’s army in the climactic battle?
The Gotham Police Department! This was the end goal of everything Gordon and Blake do throughout much of the movie.
Anyone find this imagery a little disconcerting?
This movie is partially about Bruce Wayne’s own hero saga, but it is also about how characters and a society overall respond to a true maniacal dictatorship. This is a pretty profound concept in 2012. In the last year, we watched as authoritarian governments were overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and now possibly Syria. We watched similar protests pop up (and get put down) in at the least Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran. All of these protests faced relentless persecution from law enforcement.
Here in the United States, the most poignant images of the Occupy movement so far have been of police beating protesters. New York City has been the sight of widespread police corruption scandals during this year, most notably the clear evidence of racial profiling in its “stop and frisk “ policy and its almost secret policy-style campaign of spying against Muslim Americans. In Sanford, Florida, the police practiced clear negligence in failing for months to indict the killer of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman. In White Plains, New York, a group of policemen shot an unarmed, former U.S. Marine while shouting racial epithets at him.
Yet in Nolan’s world, the people of Gotham silently and invisibly wait while a small cadre of heroes and the Gotham Police swoop in to defend them. The climactic image of the movie includes thousands of uniformed men bearing down on the villains: ununiformed former convicts. The average citizens of Gotham, though, are completely silent.
This is what is, at its core, so disappointing and disempowering about Nolan’s philosophy in this movie. Gotham at that moment needed a revolution, and we have seen clear evidence in the past year that when you oppress a people, they will subvert, resist, and sometimes even overthrow that system. Nolan does not leave room for that possibility here. And while I am definitely not saying that the police need to be the enemy, I am saying the people should have some sort of voice.
Oh and a word for the convicts
So just who were Bane’s goons? Well they were the convicts who were thrown in jail under a law known as the Harvey Dent law, which allowed suspected mobsters to be arrested and jailed regardless of their crime without parole. The movie makes it clear that
a.) This law was the reason Gotham was now free of mob violence. (Yep. No gray area there.)
b.) All of these convicts when released basically turned into vengeful, power-hungry thugs.
Bane makes some disingenuous speech about how it is an injustice that these criminals were arrested while noting Jim Gordon’s big lie to the people of Gotham, namely that Harvey Dent was a hero cruelly murdered by Batman. But other than that he does not go into detail.
Now I’m not asking for Chris Nolan to get on a political soapbox about the injustices of the prison-industrial complex or make a critique of capitalism, and explain the correlation between poverty and high crime. I don’t need my movies to preach my politics back to me. But at the very least, could we have some empathy for people who end up in prison? Because I just have a hard time imagining that all of these men were evil people in jail or would become evil when they left. Sometimes people become criminals, because they feel they have no other recourse for sustaining themselves. Sometimes, they made stupid mistakes. And sometimes, they find redemption in prison. Outside of Selena Kyl, we never get to see that story. We see only the faces of thugs fighting with the forces of chaos and tyranny against the forces of law and justice.
So why is this important?
First off, like I said, I loved this movie. Great films often exist both as stories and as statements, and one can love the story without liking the statement. And Chris Nolan deserves credit for pushing the genre conventions of superhero movies (and superhero myths in general) as far as anyone ever has, and continues to push the story here.
But we need to understand that statement and the implications of it. This movie, as does many Hollywood movies, ask us to respect symbols of militarism and authority and often disrespect the ununiformed masses. If we don’t critique that message and accept it unquestioningly, think about how that informs our politics. How, for example, do we approach prisoners if this is how they are portrayed in movies? How do we approach claims of police corruption if this is how we see police? Maybe you, the reader, are critical enough of art to recognize that statement and question it, but many of the kids and teenagers I saw in the theater today are not.
I’ll be curious to know what other people think of this, and hope others enjoyed this film, and don’t mind thinking critically about it.
Road trip new: I’m leaving Austin today, and heading north to Oklahoma. I will post when I can, though I may be a little lax, as I’m working on finishing up a project for submission in August.