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Monday, July 23, 2012

Shadow of the Bat: Finding the Good in The Dark Knight Rises

I have to confess that I feel doubly hampered in this article. First, because I suspect at least some of what I say is going to be said by other writers in the coming week, and probably it will be far more articulately said, to boot. And second, I'm going to do something a bit presumptuous.

I'm going to try to plot out some of the things The Dark Knight Rises should have done to be a good movie.

I honestly can't tell if I'm apprehensive because I'm being presumptuous on two counts, or because I'm about to incur the wrath of a thousand howling Christopher Nolan devotees.

And really, I shouldn't be so bold with my claims, either. I'm not necessarily going to dramatically reveal the brilliant Sam Keeper Confirmed Method of Making The Dark Knight Rises Awesome. Really, I just think there are some major thematic flaws in the film that damage an otherwise well shot, well designed, generally compelling work. I am not really, in other words, saying that it is a Bad Movie.

So, let me cast off the rope and make this argumentative leap with no net.

Let this put the fear in me good.

EDIT: It occurred to me an hour after posting this that hey, maybe people want to avoid spoilers. As talking about theme and structure without mentioning spoilers is a little, uh, impossible, this article does contain spoilers. So, those people wanting to avoid spoilers will also be wanting to avoid this article.

So, theme is important. I've talked about it before, as have plenty of other critics dating all the way back, in particular, to the New Critics, the Formalists of the early 20th Century, who declared to be a Great Work one needed to have a Great Central Theme that encompassed the whole text. Now, obviously, that's an absurd demand, and it is presumes a lot about the universality of certain themes (i.e. if it's a Great Central Theme according to the old, white, bourgeois men who created Formalism, it must be just as relevant to everyone else, right?). There can, of course, be more than one theme in a work--some of our most beloved works have a high thematic density--and not every scene needs to apply directly to the theme.

But for goodness sake, your themes have to at least avoid directly contradicting one another.

And just about every idea that The Dark Knight Rises puts forth is contradicted elsewhere in the film. It's not in a way that even juxtaposes the idea for dramatic and intellectual tension, like the previous film did, where two opposing ideals are set against one another and the viewer has to decide which combatant ultimately won. No, here there is just a cacophony of soundbites that don't add up to anything.

Don't believe me?

Well, try doing the Formalist thang, as the kids say--try picking out what you think the central question the film addresses, and how it answers that question. Is it perhaps raising questions about whether or not Gotham's elite are really worthy of rule, and critiquing the authoritarian powers of the Dent Act? Uh, maybe, except it seems to be dropped after a few scenes, only to be picked up later... by Bane, who isn't exactly the most neutral of critics. The film seems to come to dramatically different conclusions about this depending on the scene, and much of the time forgets that this is a theme at all, when it isn't shoving the theme in our face with endless expository dialogue. Or is it continuing the theme of chaos and fear, and coming to terms with our own traumas, as was played with in the first two films? Maybe? I don't know, that certainly seems to be Bruce Wayne's character arc, but the previous two films used the villains to great effect--they embodied the themes presented--where here Talia al Ghul (??) is just sort of tossed in as Bane's love interest (??!?) who has been trying to achieve a decade-long revenge (?!?!?!) against Bruce Wayne for murdering her father. ...What? And Bane is just... Bane. God. I don't even have an explanation here. His character suddenly does a total one hundred and eighty degree flip when Talia shows up, and then flips right back, just in time for him to get blown the fuck up by Catwoman in one of the most anticlimactic villain deaths on record. Neither of them have enough character development to really serve as a foil to Batman or a manifestation of the movie's recurring fear/trauma theme. I guess this might be what they were going for with Thalia, but her face-heel turn comes so late in the game, and has such microscopic buildup that it really doesn't play that way.

Basically, any theme that you throw out can be easily discredited with other information from the film itself.

It's one giant contradictory mess.

And that's not even addressing the convoluted twisty-turny plot, although you will note that I could not avoid at least touching on the narrative while discussing the thematic problems.

The thing is, though, I don't particularly like picking apart everything wrong with a piece. I really like examining and exposing what works. And there's a whole slew of places where The Dark Knight Rises almost develops a sound, powerful theme. So, rather than hammer on about everything that doesn't quite fit together in the film, I want to talk about the ghost of the film--the film's dark double. I've done this before, of course, albeit covertly with my reviews of "Manos" The Hands of Fate and Golden Dusk. Here, I want to more directly take some of the scenes and motifs in the movie and explore how they could have been transformed into something greater.

Take Bane, for example. Now, there's a rather interesting moment in the film where Bane declares that his detonator is somewhere among the People--it is out in the hands of some ordinary citizen. Now, when I heard that speech, I sat up and started paying attention, because it reminded me of another line:

"When the chips are down, these civilized people... they'll eat each other."

Remember that? That's the Joker speaking there, summing up one of the many things he wishes to demonstrate to Batman and the city of Gotham as a whole. And for a moment, it seemed like this idea, which the Joker explored with his boat detonator trick, might get an even more detailed treatment.

Of course, it wasn't. This idea was pretty much ignored for the rest of the film, besides occasional references here and there at pivotal moments. It ended up being another thing that was sort of thrown in, seemingly as an afterthought.

But we can start to imagine just what might have happened with that declaration. It goes back, I think, to fear and the idea of the ability or inability to master personal demons and traumas--one of the major themes that the film almost articulates but ultimately fumbles. It's particularly intriguing because it works with that theme on multiple levels. First, there is the fear of the average citizen, the paranoia, the realization that anyone around you could be the person with their finger on the button. How do you react to such a fear? Then, there is the individual that has the trigger--Talia al Ghul. Can she pull herself up from her traumas as Bruce Wayne did and become something more? Or is her power and civilization simply a mask for the monster inside her? Can she, in short, be redeemed?

The movie, of course, comes firmly down on the side of "Oh, man, I dunno." We never really see the reaction to Bane's declaration, or any sort of exploration of what that means. And Talia's turn to the dark side comes so late in the game that there is simply no time to explore what her decision to push the button means for her character, beyond more horrible expository dialogue. (Show, Don't Tell is a terrible, terrible phrase, because it mixes sensory idioms. That said, the concept it represents, however poorly, is an important one: a work is far more interesting when we learn a character's personality through their actions and words rather than through their own--or someone else's--explicit explanation of what they are feeling and why. Compare Talia and Bane's late game backstory reveal with the Joker's mannerisms, body language, and tendency to let hidden sides of himself slip occasionally.)

But, even though this material isn't explored, we can see how it might have been. Does that make sense? We're reaching toward a shadowy echo of the film that might have been.

And that's not the only interesting theme drop. There is, too, the intriguing moment when we discover that Bane's importation into the city has been effected by one of Bruce Wayne's business rivals. This is an intriguing point for the movie to make, as it suggests again the fundamentally corrupt nature of the supposedly innocent upper classes.

It is also one of the points of the story where The Dark Knight Rises lurches toward something resembling real political allegory. After all, the suggestion here is of a demagogue, supported by insurrection and revolution, who is secretly backed by the vast hidden interests that keep the oppressed... well, oppressed. This is, quite frankly, a near spot on allegory of the American Tea Party, a proto-fascist organization that is funded by major corporate interests.

This is another example, of course, of a theme that never quite gets off the ground, but it's an interesting cautionary tale for those great corporate entities who have achieved such overwhelming power in the political arena: be careful of the monsters you create, for they may turn upon you.

Contrast Daggett, the creep who brings Bane into the city in the first place, with Bruce Wayne and his relationship with both Blake and Catwoman. Wayne's relationships are based on mutual respect and understanding--although it is, due to its grounding in reality, a rocky and imperfect understanding--that crosses class lines. Daggett seeks only to exploit Bane and his henchmen, and pays the ultimate price.

And while we're talking about Blake, our young Robin, let's examine some of his thematic purpose.

One of the absolute best moments in the film, one of the moments where I found myself totally engaged, was when Blake/Robin found himself in a fight with two workmen who, it turned out, had been pouring dynamite-laced concrete all across the city. (This is another thing to add to the list of Intriguing Ideas Never Explored Fully--after all, you would have to have a pretty big construction company under your thumb to enable that kind of infiltration, no? Again we see the looming spectre of corporate-sponsored terrorism.) Robin shoots both of his assailants and then, realizing that he's about to lose his one lead, desperately questions the dying cement truck driver.

Realizing that he has failed, he glances down at his gun and, with a look of disgust, tosses it aside.


And there, ladies and gentlemen, you have one key aspect of the Batman mythos encapsulated in a single scene. It's a wonderful moment that marks a profound transformation of one character's understanding of combat, and his relationship to the legendary power of a man who rules not by fire power but by fear power.

This is, of course, totally tossed out the window when Bane gets an artillery blast to the chest courtesy of Catwoman.


What so baffles me about these scenes is the fact that the film is clearly reaching for something, some deeper mythologizing purpose, but it is such an incoherent muddy wreck that it just ends up working at cross-purposes with itself. What in The Dark Knight would have been a profound character moment here is a strange vignette that is never remarked upon again.

But once more, we can see here the ghost of something greater. Consider Robin's character from this standpoint. He has been taught three major lessons in the film:

First, he discovers the corrupt nature of the system and how seemingly beneficial structures can become the unrelenting architecture of the status quo.

Second, he discovers the capricious power of firearms, their dark side, their promise of an easy way out.

And finally, he discovers the corrosive nature of authoritarian command structures, and how they draw strength from fear.

Where does that last one come up? Why, the attempt to get across the bridge, and the prat on the other side who wouldn't listen to reason. That man, driven by fear of the nuclear blast, chose to fall back on his orders rather than to choose the path of courage. In that sense, two of Robin's lessons are about the danger of having a high power distance index. For those unfamiliar, the idea is that some groups of people--organizations, nations, and so on--have particular ways of reacting to power. Falling high on the index (and someone please let me know if I'm remembering this backwards) means that your civilization tends to show high deference to authority. And that can be a catastrophic problem in certain situations--like when you're the copilot trying to alert the pilot of a plane to immediate danger, or when you're faced with the decision of whether or not to let those school kids cross the bridge.

And that's a great message, and once certainly present elsewhere in the film. It's stymied once again by the attitude elsewhere in the film that people need authoritarian forces keeping them in check, but as a myth arc for Robin it's absolutely great. Robin--and, by extension, Batman--is a necessary force of disruption, a challenge to existing power structures.

If we want to take this even further, imagine if this Robin was black. Or latino. Or a woman. Or queer. I mean, we've already got Batwoman as a very overt example of an individual marginalized by authority taking power for herself.

Hell, just the fact that Robin is from the lower class makes a huge impact on his character. He can take over as Batman--in fact, he SHOULD take over as Batman--because having Gotham's protector be the son of the 1% simply isn't cutting it--there's just too much of a disconnect between Bruce Wayne's ideals and the reality of life in the pit of class inequality.

I think the fundamental problem with this--with ALL of this--is that there is too much going on. The thematic density, and the sheer number of plot threads, is too damn high (just like, apparently, the rent in Gotham City. Ahaha). I've only touched on three themes, and we've already practically got three different films ready to go! And that's not even getting into things like Jim Gordon's personal transformation, the motif of the cracking ice, the reappearance of the Scarecrow as the judge of the Terror Court, and on and on and on. There's so much going on in this film that its confusion and incoherence isn't a surprise, IT'S A BLOODY INEVITABILITY.

And what's more, it's a bizarre mistake from the perspective of Nolan's wider film career, where he shows a keen interest in particular themes that are explored in detail in single films. Sometimes he'll play with more than one idea in a film, but never, ever, at least in the films that I've seen, has he packed so much into one movie.

From that perspective, I honestly can't understand how this film even happened.

You know, though, I'm reminded of a friend of mine, who tends to react to movies in... well, sort of an unorthodox way. She once told me that she prefers the prequel Star Wars trilogy to the original trilogy. How is that possible? Well, she has this weird ability to jump right through the actual film to its shadow double lurking in the background. She embraces the possibility of the ghost film and even manages to rewrite her memories so the shadow takes the place of the original. The doppleganger, the mask, the secret superhero identity supplants the original, taking it over. By the time her brain is done parsing a film, there's no Bruce Wayne left.

There's only the Bat Man.

That's not possible for most of us, of course, except in minor ways. However, I think there's some worth in looking beyond the flaws in the film itself, the weak, cold, somewhat unlikeable Bruce Wayne, to find that shadow. If nothing else, it can be a useful exercise that allows us to pick apart not what did go wrong but what could have gone right.

Just because something ultimately fails doesn't mean we should give up. There is a value for the viewer, for the scholar, for the creator, even in failure.

After all... Why do we fall down?

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