Lost in the Movies: The muddled message of The Dark Knight Rises

The muddled message of The Dark Knight Rises

This piece, not a review proper but an examination of the film's themes, contains spoilers and is designed for those who have already seen the movie.

Four years ago, when this blog was in its infancy, I offered no less than four pieces touching on The Dark Knight. I was fascinated by the cultural phenomenon it represented, so rare these days. (I don't think even Avatar transcended the cinematic ghetto to the same extent; probably no other film since Titanic has, unless you discount the subsequent disappointment and include The Phantom Menace for its anticipatory buildup.) But I was also compelled by the film itself, which proved a sort of golden exception to my 00s blockbuster aversion. Aesthetically, The Dark Knight shared many of the flaws that turn me off from contemporary popcorn movies (which often seem to be either ashamed of the taste of popcorn or overly enamored of synthetic CGI butter). It took itself and its themes rather seriously; it preferred a muddy, gritty look to visual clarity and beauty; it seemed determined to make a comic-book world "realistic." Yet, in spite of these potential drawbacks, I was fascinated by the tragic, tightly divergent world it drew, as well as by the iconic performance of Heath Ledger as Joker. Even though I did not care for Batman Begins, I was converted to the Nolan Dark Knight camp, and eagerly awaited the next entry in the series. And here it is, cloaked in death like the first movie (following, rather than spurring the hype this time) - and thus assured of notoriety, however undesired by its creators.

The tragedy in Colorado, even more than the death of Ledger, further marks this franchise as a sadly resonant cinematic flagship for the post-9/11 era, an age not just of war on terror but economic decline and social disorientation (increasing connectivity on the one hand, via technology, yet with political fragmentation ever-increasing following the brief flickering of communal feeling in the wake of 2001). Their debt to previous material, so representative of the current cinematic rut (industry executives hit the "reboot" button with the impatience of a frustrated user on an aging PC), also echoes the inability of the American culture at large to reinvent itself for a new era: despite the plethora of new media means the ends still seem awfully familiar. Their visual confusion (thankfully clarified a great deal in this third entry, which finally casts aside the confusing and unappealing Bourne-style fights for clarity and grandeur in a snowy city street battle) also fit into an era haunted by missed opportunities, frustration, and disillusionment; the bright, chipper nineties seem awfully long ago and far away.

But the production history and aesthetic tenor were only the tip of the iceberg; these Batman films proclaimed their cultural relevance quite loudly, casting aside the usual tendency of Hollywood filmmakers to go for a squishy, PC liberalism and embracing a right-wing agenda fervidly if at times somewhat confusingly. Though there were cries of protest when The Dark Knight was interpreted as apologia for President Bush (between the surveillance, rendition, and general use of secrecy and brute force to defeat a crafty terrorist foe, I thought the parallels were fairly undeniable), by Dark Knight Rises, Nolan wants to make sure no one in the audience misses the connection. We got demagoguic populist tirades by the film's villain, Bane, followed by footage of angry crowds invading mansions and beating millionaires. Earlier in the movie, Anne Hathaway's Catwoman (coyly, she's never called such and her "ears" are actually lenses perched up on her head when she's not using them) spouts Robin Hood rhetoric in Bruce Wayne's ear only to come to his aid at film's end when she realizes rich people are people too. Meanwhile an orphanage loses its philanthropic funding when Bruce Wayne's business goes under, overaged orphans flee to the sewer and join a revolutionary army, and Bane's takeover yields kangaroo courts run by the psychotic Scarecrow in which prisoners are either sentenced to "death" or "death by exile."

So then, is Dark Knight Rises a conservative warning against radical rabblerousing, and a gentle reminder to the rich to perform their social duties (not only for the good of humanity, but the presevation of their own privilege)? It would seem so, but Nolan pulls a lot of his punches, something he didn't do in the last Dark Knight. There, the assertion of vigilante prerogative was quite bold, bold enough that it could afford some ambiguity: Batman knew he was doing the right thing, but also that this entailed a distrust of the public and a sacrifice of his own reputation. The authoritarianism had a tragic aura and the fact that Gotham's caped crusader wound up an outcast and martyr made his distrust of the people and assertion of strict law enforcement more palatable to those who might not have agreed with it. The film was honest about its convictions, and also honest about the possibility that they might even be misguided. It all made for a fascinating and compelling mythological allegory. At its center was the ambiguous nature of the public, at once the masters Batman serves, and the sheep he must corral: could they be trusted with their own fate (as the boat scene suggested) or must they be controlled with larger-than-life lies (as the conclusion asserted)?

In Rises, however, Nolan both disenfranchises and absolves Gotham's population, making for a less interesting dynamic on both ends. On the one hand, the heroics belong exclusively to Batman, his ambiguous allies (a friendly woman who turns out to be a villain, and an opponent who winds up in his arms), and especially the police force, which forms a kind of surrogate "people" in this film in a rather odd maneuver. Meanwhile, the only "ordinary people" we see are the cowering crowd at a football game (none of whom seem to be responding positively to Bane's rhetoric), the lovable little orphans, and Catwoman and her girlfriend(?), the film's vision of two broke girls in the big city even though one of them is a brilliant jewel thief with highly-placed underworld (and overworld) connections. By and large, "the people" of the previous film are absent: when we see large groups ransacking the rich enclaves, it's unclear whether they are the prisoners Bane just released, Bane's own henchmen, or ordinary folks. Since we don't see the discontented masses, the film's warnings about populism have a hollow feel. As fellow blogger Bob Clark put it to me recently, "it's demagoguery without the crowds."

This leaves the impression that Nolan wanted to condemn the 99%ers but didn't quite have the guts to do so. Indeed, it's a lot easier to be right-wing about law and order than economics in a mainstream blockbuster and so here we wind up with a bizarre condemnation of populism which lets the populace off the hook. As such, it's perhaps an appropriate reflection of contemporary conservatism's incoherence, as the Tea Party simultaneously tries to appeal to disgruntled voters with libertarian appeals for smaller government, while clinging to a more traditionalist distrust of disorder (represented by the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall). Yet ultimately the Tea Party has succeeded where Dark Knight Rises fails, consolidating its argument (emotionally if not intellectually) by positioning itself as a middle-class social movement, oddly combining the shrill tone and apocalyptic rhetoric of late 60s leftists (for all their condemntation of Obama's links with Saul Alinsky, it's the right that has most astutely adopted the radical agitator's methods) with the keep-America-great, good-old-days mentality of late 60s "Silent Majority." Odd, but effective: many boomers grew up accepting the strategic and symbolic forms of their generation's political upheaval, but ultimately rejected the content in favor of their parents' values.

Claiming the mantle of the middle class is how American conservatism has always reconciled its defense of an elite with the rhetoric of populism (demanded by America's political traditions) yet there's no middle class in Nolan's movies. Choosing a comic book dichotomy of rich and poor, he leaves himself with little ideological ground to stand on (the only possible exception is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's orphan-turned-cop, but the social implications of this are underdeveloped, again because Nolan demands that the cops be both cops and ordinary-people-surrogates at the same time). When the status quo is restored at the end of the movie, we're left wondering exactly what has been resolved. Since Gotham's economic issues were not particularly well-established from the get-go, and since the public was never really shown to "fall for" Bane's rhetoric, we're left with the impression that the egalitarian revolutionary rhetoric of Bane's takeover didn't arise from any actual resentments (the contrary is only subtly suggested by the orphans' migration to the sewers and Catwoman's class warfare), but merely suggested inequality and disenfranchisement where there wasn't any. This easily plays into the rather lazy right-wing notion of revolution and radicalism as smokescreens for naked power-grabs, a rhetorical ploy allowing the more paranoid (or opportunistic) conservatives to paint Obama as at once a cynical, corrupt Chicago manipulator and a hardcore, true-believer Marxian ideologue.

But the notion that revolution is simply gangsterism in radical drag is not only politically cheap (avoiding a real engagement with opposing ideas and methods), it's dramatically not very interesting. True, in the end we find out Bane and his secret master Talia do have a cause but you'd have to re-watch Batman Begins to clarify it beyond simple revenge, and when you do it turns out not to be revolutionary at all; indeed its destructive nihilism makes Batman's noblesse oblige seem positively enlightened. What's missing from the film - suggested by Catwoman's resentments, but left hanging by her lack of any program (except crime) to address her frustrations - is a sense of a coherent opposing ideology which Batman must grapple with. In this it reverses the previous film in which crime was a cover for and demonstration of philosophy; despite his seeming amorality, Joker actually had a very coherent and even compelling point of view which Batman had to battle. Here Bane's (and, implicitly, Gotham's) populism is never given teeth, and hence when Catwoman flees to Florence with a rich husband it seems less like an abandonment of principle than an acceptance of inevitable social reality.

The movie's compromised philosophical standing is a reflection of other compromises: the storytelling seems oddly fragmented - important scenes seem to be missing, and at times even cuts from one shot to another appear abrupt as if something was chopped out; aesthetically, the franchise continues to represent the perversely uncinematic trends in big-budget filmmaking over the past decade. As Richard Brody notes in his brilliant takedown:
[I]t’s neither more nor less than the sum of its parts, all of which are crafted with extraordinary care, none of which suggest spontaneous or surprising leaps of imagination or dazzlements of fantasy. Nolan doesn’t make images; he doesn’t even take pictures. There are no moments of affecting plainness—a person walking unportentously or even moving with any sort of undetermined impulse, instinct, or distraction. (See the head toss at 1:17.) Yet, at the same time, the movie is surprisingly, blandly uninflected, devoid of anything off center or disproportionate—or even incisively angled or hysterically restrained—that would elicit a feeling of synaptic leaps, of subjectivity made physical.

...“The Dark Knight Rises” is not a movie of conspicuous consumption but of conspicuous production, with Nolan himself playing the unfortunate Atlas who bears a cinematic world of dour doings on his lonely shoulders, all the while needing viewers to know how hard he’s working for them. The problem with the movie isn’t any lack of warmth or humanity (qualities that don’t need to be displayed because they’re often effectively evoked through cold and inhuman means) but a lack of wonder. Nolan never seems to surprise himself, and his own inventions have little inspiration but, rather, a sense of a problem solved.
Now, here's the thing: I liked the film, despite agreeing in general terms with Brody's frustration (as I noted below his piece, it seems that big films are trying too hard to be like small ones - in the wrong ways - while small ones aren't trying hard enough to big). I had "a good time at the movies," though The Dark Knight Rises was noticeably less satisfying than its 2008 predecessor. I enjoyed the action set pieces probably more than those in the previous two entries; I thought Bane - contrary to some opinions - was a great villain, with his cool mask and especially actor Tom Hardy's digitally warped Scottish burr; I was very pleasantly surprised by Anne Hathaway's capability (she seemed miscast at first glance, but hers was probably one of the most enjoyable performances in the film); and, however fumbling, the movie's attempts at social relevance were at least compelling (in their failures if nothing else). All in all, I would recommend the movie. Yet when sitting down to write a piece, it was the movie's shortcomings that seemed most worth discussing. That's not entirely over-analytical perversity either - because here we have a franchise that set out from the beginning, and committed itself whole-hog by the second entry, to being about something other than big-screen spectacle. That it falls short doesn't mean it isn't still a fascinating attempt.

Anyway, I invite anyone interested to comment below. Sometimes it seems these Dark Knight films are Rorscasch tests, and I've been startled in the past to hear what others read into it. As far as I know, Nolan himself is not on record with his own views (correct me if I'm wrong) so what he's after, especially in this more muddled film, is a matter of educated speculation. I'd like to hear yours...

For my previous pieces on The Dark Knight: The Dark Knight details my first reaction to the film, The problem with comic books (and movies) investigates my ambivalence about the comic-book trend in movies (this has become even more true for me in recent years), The Dark Knight (revisited) does just that, and Dark Knights for Different Eras explores the similarity between Birth of a Nation and The Dark Knight.


Max said...

Here it is, straight from the pages of Rolling Stone issue 1162:
RS: In the new movie, you have Bane...trick Gotham's 99 % into rising up against the rich - is that intended as an anti-Occupy Wall Street statement?
CN:...If you're saying, "Have you made a film that's supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?" - well, obviously, that's not true.
RS: But the movie suggests that there's a great danger of populist movements being pushed too far.
CN: If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed.
RS: You must have your own opinions on all this.
CN: Oh, I've got all sorts of opinions, but this isn't what we're doing here. I love when people get interested in the politics of it...
RS: Some people would say...Batman is a right-wing character...
CN: Yes, if you assume Gotham is the same as a place like New York City, but that's not the case...The films genuinely aren't intended to be political...
RS: A lot of people would argue that all art is political.
CN: But what's politics?

Straight from the horse's mouth!

Joel Bocko said...

Sounds like the horse is talking out of both sides of his mouth, haha. Well the hedging on what it all means is consistent with his halfwaying it in the film itself. Regardless, whether or not Bane's revolution 'stands in' for ows or Batman 'stands in' for Bustheir Gotham 'stands in' for NYC) the films are manifestly political on their own terms; they are concerned with the relationship between the public and the individual, the nature of political authority and law & order, and the importance of mythology to inspire the state. To say that movies featuring a district attorney (whose public actions are a central feature of the plot) as a main character, and a socially-frayed city taken over by demagogues and kangaroo courts is NOT intended to be political...well, apparently Bruce Wayne is not the only one with a secret identity! I'll have to check out that whole interview, looks pretty interesting. While I would expect Nolqn to be cagey, I'm a bit surprised to see him blatantly hide behind the 'Aw shucks, it's just a movie' defense which he appears to be doing here...

Max said...

Yeah, it's blatantly political and to suggest otherwise is actually a little insulting to the intelligence of the audience. That's part of the appeal of the series is that it touches on topical political subjects. Gotham is implicitly supposed to be a broad facsimile of NYC.
Also, here's another point I think was never addressed in the movie: Bane exploited the anger of Gotham's citizens at the cover-up of Harvey Dent's death. The citizens are justifiably angry about the subterfuge and to a degree revolt against the class establishment. Batman saves the day by taking the nuclear bomb out to sea where supposedly he sacrifices himself to save the city, everyone is indebted to him, statues are raised, blah blah blah. Guess what, he's not really dead! Ha Ha! Another lie by the establishment to placate the simpletons! What happens when some tabloid photographer notices Bruce Wayne in that cafe in Florence? Another populist revolt? He really should have rewarded the faith of the citizenry by, you know, actual sacrifice.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, the whole 'shame' over te Debt coverup was kind of weird, like Nolan thought he should express some doubt about whether Batman's decision at Dark Knight's end was correct, but he didn't know how to do so. I mean as someone pointed out (might have been you actually) isn't the bad thing about the Dent Act that it curtailed civil liberties, not that it was 'based on a lie'? I've herd a lot of claims lately that Nolan's franchise is politically ambiguous or even liberal but the examples used (regret over the 'big lie', catwoman's 99% rhetoric, Bruce's philanthropic gestures) actually do more to pinpoint Nolan's philosophy than to obfuscate it. Basically he is a more traditional conservative than we're used to seeing in American politics, almost European-style. He's less about Randian 'every man for himself' super capitalism and more about advocating social cohesion, with top-down leadership than anything else. Since in the US it's more likely to be self-described 'liberals' who advocate a form of paternalism and social responsibility (think the Kennedys) - although not quite the same form as Batman does - people misidentify the Dark Knight's ideology. But I think in the bigger picture, it's clearly right-wing. Which is fine - I just wish Nolan would be less coy about it, both in the press and (at least in Rises) onscreen.

Joel Bocko said...

*should say 'shame over the Dent act' not debt act

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