Friday, July 27, 2012

What Are Ideologies Without Ideas?: The Dark Knight Rises

Author's Note: As the sporadic posting at this blog indicates, in recent months I've struggled to find the headspace — and sometimes just the computer time — to write about movies. In an effort to remedy that, I plan to shamelessly ape the Film Doctor with note-based reviews from time to time when my schedule makes it difficult to organize my thoughts into a single, condensed package. What follows was my first attempt at doing that, but it turned into a ramble, plus some notes. Put another way, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn't have time to write a short review, so I wrote a long one instead. Sorry.

The following is full of spoilers.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is a courtroom movie disguised as an action film. Between bouts of fisticuffs, the characters are constantly grandstanding — assigning blame, deciphering motives and defending seemingly criminal actions. Something is definitely on trial here (sometimes literally), but what?

The short answer, of course, is Gotham City, which each villain in Nolan's Batman trilogy has described as an unredeemable kingdom that must be wiped out. But are the citizens of Gotham stand-ins for us? Are Nolan's Batman movies calls for sacrifice and service? Are they indictments of corrupt government? Are they portraits of terrorism? All of the above? None of the above?

More than ever, I can't tell.

And for all the complaints about Nolan's tendencies toward erratic action sequences, plot inconsistencies and one-thing-at-a-time cinematography (criticisms that sometimes have been taken too far but that are hardly baseless), the biggest weakness of Nolan's Batman series is that it's packed with characters spouting ideologies and yet it lacks a distinct underlying message. (Indeed, sometimes I wonder if Nolan is even aware of the messages he's sending.) Generally speaking, the last thing Nolan needs to do is to become more blatant; already, his films have a nasty habit of leaping from carefully manufactured ambiguity to brazen articulation and back again. Still, if there's an ideological through-line in the Batman trilogy, I can't find it, unless it's as simple as this: symbols are powerful.

Some of my confusion with Nolan's themes dates back to The Dark Knight, in which Batman insists that it's better if the people of Gotham hate him (their actual savior) instead of Harvey Dent (their perceived savior). "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain," he tells Jim Gordon, a line that sounds astute but ignores that Batman becomes the villain by choice, not inevitability. The caped crusader's reasoning doesn't make sense to me, but then neither does Gordon's ensuing assessment that Batman is "the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now."

"So we'll hunt him," Gordon continues, as Batman figuratively ascends into the heavens by riding his customized motorcycle off into the light, "because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's our silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight."

Think about that for a second: In a few sentences Gordon says Batman is a hero, isn't a hero and is a hero — er, excuse me: not hero, a dark knight, as if that's different. This is the kind of stuff that makes me think Nolan isn't interested in communicating a big idea so much as in hitting emotional notes to satisfy individual dramatic moments, much like the R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe often wrote lyrics based on the sounds of the words, not their meanings. If this suspicion is true, the ideologies of Nolan's characters say little about our real world and what Nolan thinks of it, because they're nothing more than plot devices shaped to create a mood.

How else to explain Bane's curious terrorist plot in The Dark Knight Rises? An outcast of the League of Shadows, Bane is nevertheless intent on fulfilling Ra's al Ghul's mission to destroy Gotham. But he attempts to do so in the most curious of ways. First he acquires a time bomb and creates a blockade to prevent escape from Gotham; then he taunts the people of Gotham with said bomb and invites Gothamites to rise up and take matters into their own hands; and then he promises that the bomb will go off in a few months regardless of any attempt to revolt.* Which begs the question: Why should the people of Gotham rise up and against whom? Once Bane puts them under the threat of execution, isn't he the only oppressive force in Gotham worth fighting? Who does Bane think he's preaching to?

*(Update: In the comments below, Joel notes I have this wrong; Bane doesn't announce publicly that all of Gotham will die no matter what. My bad. I think the larger point remains, however.)

And what's the point of letting the citizens of Gotham live for a few more months when you've already determined to kill them later (unless it's just time to let Batman heal up)? It can't be to give them hope (the logical idea behind incarcerating Batman in a prison that invites escape attempts), because Bane eliminates the possibility of hope: They will die. That is a certainty. And it makes everything else an empty sideshow. (Doesn't the League of Shadows have other kingdoms to vanquish?)

Of course, Gotham's citizenry rises up anyway. Well, sort of. In one scene, a few wealthy 1-percenter types are manhandled outside their high-rise apartments while looters rummage through their belongings. But do the looters look like 99-percenter types to you? Nah, they look like a mob of hardened criminals. Ditto for rabble attending the sentencing hearings held by Jonathan (Scarecrow) Crane, one of the villains from Batman Begins. And ditto for the folks liberated from prison by Bane in protest of the Dent Act.

The people aren't rising up here. The people aren't making a statement. Because the people of Gotham City are almost impossible to find in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan's final Batman film is all cops and robbers, and superheroes and super-villains, and criminal minions and orphans. Can't forget the orphans!

This is a glaring oversight not just because so many of the film's subplots revolve around the mood and morals of Gotham's citizens but also because what Nolan's Batman trilogy does best is ground the series in a tangible reality. Borrowing from Chicago's skyline in the previous film (something that seemed odd coming out of Batman Begins) and using the cityscapes of Pittsburgh and Manhattan here, Nolan's Gotham City has a distinct brick-and-mortar character that most CGI-dominated blockbusters sorely lack. Yet because Nolan doesn't allow us to know the people within the city, Nolan's Gotham lacks a soul.

Maybe it's that way by design. Maybe the people of Gotham are an elusive MacGuffin. Maybe all Nolan is interested in is examining the mood and morals of Bruce Wayne and Batman. If so, so be it.

To that end, Nolan's series has never been darker or deeper than the moment during Batman's first brawl with Bane when he lets out a primal scream between blows. The emotional and physical toll of heroic service has been a consistent theme throughout the trilogy, evidenced by injuries and scars and lots of brooding, but that scream says it all. In a fight that begins with Bane calling Batman by his secret/public identity (Bruce Wayne), that scream is the sound of man and myth colliding. (Appropriately enough, the fight ends with Batman's mask shattered, symbolically obliterating any distinction between Batman and Bruce Wayne.)

Personally, I'd have preferred to see that scream at the end of the film — a culmination of everything Bruce/Batman has been through. (Likewise, I'd have preferred for Bruce to escape the prison in the pit not by letting go and untying from the rope — although there's some nice symbolism in that, too — but by finding some alternate route, as if the reason grown men kept failing where once a child had succeeded was because they were fixated on an inviting but impossible leap and had ignored the possibility of a different path.) But, hey, it's not my movie.

What I find so compelling about Nolan's trilogy is that it's dominated by struggle. Batman has some cool toys that give him and edge, and he has battletested confidence. But he sacrifices his soul to achieve victory, and it rarely comes easily. That puts Bruce/Batman in sharp contrast with the big-hat-no-cattle heroes from this year's The Avengers who seem preoccupied with scoring style points and spouting off cocky one-liners and lack the capacity for emotional vulnerability. (No, the Hulk looking grumpy doesn't count.)

Still, I have to believe that the emotional stakes of this trilogy would be even greater and the drama even richer if only Nolan would allow his films to take a breath once in a while. Hans Zimmer's emphatic score doesn't double-underline the significance of every scene quite as consistently as in Nolan's Inception, but Nolan still pilots his film like it's the bus in Speed, as if everything will fall apart if he takes his foot off the gas for just a moment.

To be fair, Nolan's suspicion might be correct. A 164-minute movie gives the attention-deficient people in the audience a lot of time to check Facebook and Twitter.

So maybe Nolan's Batman trilogy does tell us something about these times.

If so, Nolan might not be the filmmaker we need right now. But he is the filmmaker modern blockbuster audiences deserve.

**

Additional Thoughts:

* The Dark Knight Rises provided me with two very pleasant surprises. The first is the tremendous performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I didn't know was going to be in the movie), who demonstrates a knack for interchangeably supporting scenes and carrying them, as the situation requires. The second is Anne Hathaway. I've pretty much always liked Hathaway, but I feared she might be to this series what Sofia Coppola was to The Godfather trilogy — a lightning rod of fanboy disdain and a scapegoat distracting from more fundamental problems. Heath Ledger's Joker is such a hard act to follow, and I wasn't confident that Hathaway could be dangerous enough to take seriously in such a grim series. So I was overjoyed to see Nolan allow Hathaway to play to her strengths as Catwoman — all curves and charisma. It turns out that Nolan's Batman trilogy actually needed a dose of sexy fun (and femininity), and Hathaway brings it. (That said, while Gordon-Levitt could easily support a spin-off series, I think Hathaway's Catwoman is better as a palate cleanser than a main course.)

* As for Bane, well, I missed being able to see Tom Hardy's face, but he gets a lot out of his eyes, his bald dome and his unreal physique. The voice, which sounds to me like Walter Matthau doing an impression of Sean Connery while stuck in an air duct, definitely takes some getting used to, but for me what's off-putting isn't the accent so much as the sensation that the voice is coming from everywhere at once and not from Bane specifically, as if his facial mask is equipped with Dolby Surround.

* With his IMAX-friendly wide shots and patchwork quilt of cityscapes, Nolan does a marvelous job of making Gotham seem sprawling. But he undercuts that, too, in the scenes in which Jim Gordon and friends can easily track the various possible bomb containment vehicles simply by jogging a few blocks.

* Look, I know he's Batman and everything, but when the last place we saw Bruce Wayne was just outside a hole in some far-off desert (and, really, did Bane need to go all the way there to drop Bruce off?), and when Nolan's screenplay makes a big deal about how Gotham is cut off from the rest of the world, it's dramatically inexcusable for Bruce Wayne to reappear in Gotham, with time quickly running out before the big ka-boom, by casually walking up to Selina like it's the end of a Nora Ephron movie.

* I'm also disappointed that Nolan, who is so fixated on amplifying intensity, would craft a scenario in which, after three months of living under the threat of a bomb, Jim Gordon and friends would go through a big adventure to deactivate the remote trigger on the bomb and buy Gotham ... a whopping 11 extra minutes.

* I would have been fine with wondering if Batman survived the blast over the bay. But once we cut to Alfred at the cafe, I'm glad Nolan didn't mimic his ending from Inception by having Alfred's ambiguous expression as the final shot. As Hollywood-conventional as the ending is, generally speaking, for a series so dominated by darkness to wrap on such a carefree image is actually pretty ballsy. (Or, I don't know; maybe it's a sell-out. I suppose if I were deeply invested in this series, I might feel let down.)

* There's at least one instance in The Dark Knight Rises when I would have preferred for Nolan to go with the hyper-cutting that made the fight scenes in The Dark Knight so disorienting. In the scene in which Batman rescues Gordon-Levitt's Blake, we see Batman surrounded by a bunch of guys with guns. They all fight him one at a time, of course, and don't fire their weapons, as if they don't know how to use them. By using relatively few shots, Nolan makes it glaringly obvious that there's an armed man just off screen on the front-left of the action who inexplicably watches Batman kick ass for a while before stepping forward to get his own ass kicked. Some hyper-cutting would have covered that up nicely. It would have drawn complaints, too, sure. But the scene would have been better served.

* I haven't seen Batman Begins since its release. I've seen The Dark Knight several times and own it on DVD. I have no doubt I'll see The Dark Knight Rises again, although I don't have a burning desire to do so immediately. All of that said: In this era of series that I don't care about (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, Bourne, etc), including superhero series I don't care about (Spiderman, Ironman, etc), I have to give Nolan's Batman trilogy major props: Usually I give up on these series or stick with them only out of obligation. Although three movies is more than enough, I'm genuinely sorry to see the series go. Underneath all the speechifying, there's a gritty ferocity to these pictures that I cherish.

32 comments:

FilmDr said...

Nice analysis, Jason. Your point about how the people of Gotham lack any clear characterization reminded me of when and how other superhero films bring in the common man. The Amazing Spider-Man has a stirring moment when the crane operators decide to help the wounded Spidey get across town by lining their cranes in a row, but the scene still begs the question: why can't spiderman just sling from building to building as he normally does? The Avengers has a policeman responding to Captain America by helping set up a coordinated police action. I think the best example of human interaction occurs in Spiderman 2 when Peter passes out on the subway, and the people their gently lower him to the ground in wonder that "he's just a boy," and then come to his defense. Nolan might say that he hasn't got time to include common Gothamites, but one still gets the impression that he's playing lip service to OWS instead of really engaging with the idea of mankind needing to revolt against economic injustice. Bane says that he's "Gotham's reckoning," but for what? And against who? The Dark Knight Rises perhaps conveys the befuddlement of a rich person trying to figure out why all those poor people are protesting. Instead of seeing protests, we get glorified policemen fighting the bad guys in a big street brawl.

John said...

Jason,

I agree with you that Nolan is often unclear in his argumentation, but looking at the series as a whole you can see a few characters that come to represent Gotham (and, by implication, us). The police, collectively, are for sale in the first movie, fearful in the second, and ultimately courageous in the end. That opens up a whole other can of worms, but the implicit suggestion is that they will now be able to do their duty and Gotham no longer needs Batman. Likewise, Selina Kyle and her roommate suggest that an excess of anti-System ideas can ultimately lead to cynicism (and exploitation) rather than something productive. I actually thought we'd have a seen showing Selina's roommate get her comeuppance, but perhaps that was left on the cutting room floor.

There's a conservative strain in that line of thinking, but I think there's also a strong element of communitarian liberalism, if you want to call it that...we owe something to our society, particularly those of us who have benefited from it. That stretches throughout the entire series as well--remember that Bruce Wayne's father built the monorail because "Gotham has been good to us," and at the end his son makes the ultimate sacrifice for the city.

P.S. Longtime reader, first-time commenter. Love the site and the Conversations, so reviews of any length are wholeheartedly welcome.

Tony Dayoub said...

I disagree on only one point. Nolan should end all his films ambiguously with Caine looking into the camera. He should even retroactively change the ending of THE PRESTIGE, so Caine's ambiguous expression mirrors that of the perplexed audience trying to figure out what that last shot actually means.

Joel Bocko said...

"I didn't have time to write a short review, so I wrote a long one instead."

God, do I know that feeling! LOL

I took the same approach to The Dark Knight Revisited in my own recent post. But while I agree that this particular film is rather confused in its ideological expression (I think there's a specific reason for that, though) I did not think the last Dark Knight was - indeed, I thought its philosophy was admirably clear.

Also, I'm pretty sure (unless I missed something) that Bane never actually tells the public the bomb will go off. He lets them think there's a triggerman - a sort of a physicalized "conscience of the revolution" who'll detonate it IF and only IF they try to escape. Granted that's not much of reprieve but it's still far from a nihilistic death sentence.

But this is right on the money, and echoes my own feelings exactly:
"The people aren't rising up here. The people aren't making a statement. Because the people of Gotham City are almost impossible to find in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan's final Batman film is all cops and robbers, and superheroes and super-villains, and criminal minions and orphans. Can't forget the orphans!"

As a friend of mine put it, it's demagoguery without the crowds, which suggests Nolan was too nervous to follow through on his defend-the-1% logic.

Jason Bellamy said...

Film Doc: For me one the key difference between Nolan's use (or non-use) of the common man and that of other superhero flicks is that Nolan's Batman trilogy constantly states itself to be a referendum on the common man. In most superhero movies, the common man is nothing more than a potential victim -- of physical harm or of brainwashing by a calculating villain. Here, Nolan's films keep insisting that all of this is happening precisely because of the character of Gotham's citizens ... but then he fails to make a character out of them. And that's where I wonder if they're just a MacGuffin. Nolan seems to be "playing lip service" to A LOT of the issues in this movie that SEEM like important themes at the time that they're blatantly stated by the movie's main characters but might actually be little more than verbal pyrotechnics.

Jason Bellamy said...

John: Welcome to the comments section! Thank you!

"...looking at the series as a whole you can see a few characters that come to represent Gotham (and, by implication, us)."

I think that's probably right, although I find it odd that Nolan would use the police as a metaphor for the common man. But I suppose next to Batman they are a bit more common.

(And I agree with you about Selina's friend. I thought her comeuppance was coming, too, even if I wasn't quite sure what Nolan would be punishing her for.)

Jason Bellamy said...

"...so Caine's ambiguous expression mirrors that of the perplexed audience trying to figure out what that last shot actually means."

Tony: That would be outstanding! And it would improve what I think is ultimately Nolan's most disappointing film, because THE PRESIGE is quite gripping ... until we see how it all ends and what it all means and the illusion turns out to be not an illusion at all.

Maybe Caine could randomly pop up somewhere in MEMENTO, too!

Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: Thanks for the correction on Bane. You know, when I wrote that, a little voice told me I might not have that quite right. I've made a note of it above.

Yeah, I'd agree with you that the themes of THE DARK KNIGHT seemed to be clearer -- although there also seemed to be pretty blatant forgiving allusions to George W. Bush that people wanted to reject, which might have been just partisan politics but also might mean that Nolan wasn't as clear as I/we thought. But then this movie comes along and it makes me think, gee, maybe I wasn't following along quite as well as I thought.

"...it's demagoguery without the crowds."

Yep! That pretty much nails it. It's strange: With the major exception of the football stadium scene (in which everyone was clearly directed to "look surprised and confused!"), many of the scenes are structured like a stage play, with someone preaching toward unseen masses that apparently we're supposed to just imagine.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah I wonder if they ended up on the cutting room floor. Even though it was already pretty long, Dark Knight Rises left me with the impression that it needed another hourgo flesh out its ideas and characters. And some of the abrupt cutting from scenes or even shots reinforced that impression. Is it odd to say that, at the height o his power and prestige, Nolan seems to have delivered his most compromised film? I enjoyed the show, by and large, but it felt more like the movie of a big-budget first-timer than someone who may be the most artistically free blockbuster filmmaker of his generation.

jake said...

So glad to read this, I feel very similar about the film and about this genre in general. Your "extra thoughts" category at the end was great, you touched on so many things that I kind of had a problem with but didn't mention to my friends or family because I thought I was being too critical.

But, seriously, how the hell does Wayne get from what looks like the middle east to a barricaded city so casually? Stuff like that drives me nuts in a movie whose director is constantly talking in interviews about how he just wants his superhero movies to be logical and believable.

One other thing about the final shot. Doesn't Albert mention that it's a recurring dream he has? I kind of needed Batman to die in order to feel okay about this series (especially after lines like "I haven't given everything yet"), and so we kind of assumed that he did and that we were just being shown another one of Albert's dreams? This way, Nolan satisfies both sides - those who can't handle dark, sad endings can assume it's real, and those of us who don't necessarily need a happy ending every time can assume it's a dream.

Great, review, I'm forwarding it to my Batman obsessed friends right now.

Jacob

jake said...

p.s. I mean "Alfred," not "Albert!"

Jacob

Jason Bellamy said...

Jacob: Yeah, but it's a double-edged sword. I agree, there's something appropriate about thinking that Batman dies in the end, and gives it everything. But then that would mean that Nolan would be ending his trilogy with a misleading dream sequence, which would be a pretty lame way to go out.

I think the way Albert, er, Alfred would look at it is that Batman/Bruce realizes that he DOESN'T need to die to give everything, that risking everything is enough, and that fighting to the death is a pointless way to prove one's devotion. So in that sense, the final shot isn't just a happy ending, it's an ending that shows that Batman/Bruce has come around, matured.

But I think your reaction underlines what I think is the weak point of Nolan's generally solid and often excellent trilogy: there are so many double-underlined ideologies in the series that it's easy to get confused what the director feels is important, what he's saying.

jake said...

Yeah, that makes sense, you're right. It would be a lame and misleading to end it that way. Alongside your notes here are my dad's thoughts about the ending:

"One way to look at it is that Bruce Wayne gave up everything in the end but his life: could not that be a living death?"

I dunno. It's hard to know how to feel after the whole thing. Especially when I feel like I was kind of being prepped throughout the movie for a somewhat tragic ending.

Marilyn said...

Jason - Coming clean right at the top that I have not seen this or any of the other Nolan Batman films. So dismiss my comments if you will, but I have seen his crappy film Inception and have seen other ideologically incoherent films, and my husband is a W.O.W. addict. It is my opinion that such films are not aimed at film fans, but at gamers. Moral ambiguity is not a problem in W.O.W. You can go to a pastoral setting and fish or kill as many avatars as you like - they are all of a piece. The object is to have fun, to aggressively NOT THINK. That's why my husband plays W.O.W. The world is too depressing for him to face right now, and I understand how he feels. People like Nolan have their niche and, unfortunately, it is a very big, profitable one. I also think that's why people who criticize him get death threats - these fans are used to killing things in games and don't really internalize that they are talking to real people. Anyway, that's my thumbnail diagnosis.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jacob: I'm not sure if that's a "living death" or not. I think the implication is that Bruce has healed himself of his burden and Batman. So to me "living death" is a better description for Bruce's life at the start of the movie.

And, yes, I agree: all indications are that there will be a tragic end.

Jason Bellamy said...

Marilyn: Thanks for weighing in ...

"The object is to have fun, to aggressively NOT THINK."

I wouldn't say this describes Nolan's Batman trilogy at all. I have my doubts about whether Nolan actually gives us stuff worth thinking about -- stuff that he's actually thought through -- but he constantly seems to be encouraging thought, implying that there's depth here. I think much of the controversy for these films stems from that: he's encouraging people to think, but I'm not sure his films hold up under that kind of scrutiny, which makes fanboys feel offended when they see the movie "nitpicked" (their word of choice, it seems), and yet those same fanboys remain insistent that Nolan's trilogy is a 'thinking man's' superhero story.

"I also think that's why people who criticize him get death threats - these fans are used to killing things in games and don't really internalize that they are talking to real people."

On this point, I suspect you're right on. I don't want to trivialize death threats -- ever, but especially after Colorado. But I have little doubt that many of the anonymous folks issuing those threats see them as an extension of some online fantasy world and genuinely don't realize how far their stepping beyond the bounds of a healthy society. To them, it's all part of the same game, the same illusion, the same distraction. That said, this is a small "them." Even the vast majority of Nolan trilogy fanboys enjoy the series responsibly.

Marilyn said...

Jason - You are most likely right about Nolan's aspirations to encourage thought, but there's no there there. Nolan and his creative teams are not first or even second-class thinkers. Theirs is a solidly middlebrow sensibility, not deep nor well-informed. I hate to say it, but it's true. As for people watching responsibly, I agree they are the vast majority. I don't like or take death threats lightly, but they are a default position for some people and not connected with action, fortunately. I myself was threatened with a lawsuit by the subject of Errol Morris' film Tabloid. It was worrying, but ultimately not serious

Thomas Junne said...

I'm curious as to why you can't see any ideological messages in this series.

Batman represents justice. He's all about eye for an eye and he's an absolute conservative who'll go to any length to violently remove criminals from the people he's trying to protect.
Nolan's trilogy goes to show the interaction between this ideology and the aspects of others.

The first movie establishes the symbol of Batman. There's no interaction, really, it just establishes how justice works - that's compassionate justice, not just destruction as that which the Leage of Shadows would want. This destinction is what makes Batman the hero, and Ra's al Gul the villain.

The Dark Knight introduces the Joker; Batman's all-time nemesis. The Joker represents anarchy - or at least the way anarchy looks from the perspective of an ultra-conservative. The Joker gives the people the power to take out Batman (the justice system) and rule the streets on their own - just for laughs, 'cause anarchy needs no cause. All this while Dent almost renders Batman obsolete by representing justice without the mask and the violence. Dent tries to sacrifice himself for the girl (who I think represents the people), but is rescued by Batman and begins to violently deal out punishment although without any compassion for anyone.
The Dark Knight ends with Batman - true law and order, taking the blame for the faults of the non-violent who's been broken down by the nature of the anarchist.

In 'Rises' we get introduced to different degrees of socialism. Selina Kyle is the democratic government, which steals a bit from those most wealthy, and gives it to the poor. Bane is her evil older cousin - communism, which takes everything from everyone and leaves the people in charge of sharing everything equally. The people aren't free to do anything - as the Joker would have them, but they're kept in this form of society by Bane and his muscle. That's it, really. Bane demonstrates how brute force - and enough of it - can take down law and order (because law and order basicly uses that same tool - brute force).

The lovely bit is where Kyle shows that she's about the people after all, which is why she won't abandon Batman to a cruel fate.

The trilogy is a discussion on conservatism. It's a demonstration that society must be built on justice and compassion for it's people. And that's it. - And some really nice special effects :)

Jason Bellamy said...

Thomas: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I've read through it three times now, trying to see how well it describes the trilogy, and I've come to the conclusion that, for me, your description captures elements of the trilogy quite well, and yet I don't think your description is an accurate reflection of what the trilogy actually is, by accident or design.

Is Batman a symbol of justice? Sure. Is the Joker a symbol of anarchy? Sure. Does Selina make Robin Hood-esque references, and perhaps resemble them? Yep. Does Bane represent communism ... well, uh, I dunno.

But my larger point is this: You may watch Nolan's Batman trilogy and think it's wrestling with conservatism. But, gosh, I don't feel much of a struggle.

I know Batman and the villains are constantly talking about the mostly unseen people of Gotham, and Batman is always blabbing about what Batman means as a symbol. But for all that talk is Nolan's trilogy really decidedly different than any other good-vs-evil faceoff in which the selfless principled hero stands up against the selfish heartless villain? I don't see it. I see good vs. terrorism. And maybe in this era that's an important theme. But it's also a fairly traditional theme, the boilerplate for any superhero drama.

So I could quibble with your analysis to a degree: (1) Dent doesn't make Batman obsolete. Maybe that's his aim. But the Joker makes it clear that Gotham needs more than that. (2) Dent's turn to the dark side doesn't really have to do with the Joker's anarchy -- it has to do with the death of someone he loves. But, again, your larger points line up with the trilogy rather well.

So, sure, there are some ideas mixed into Nolan's trilogy. But those ideas, in the end, feel like thematic glitter to me. Watching these movies I don't think Nolan is wrestling with, say, conservatism, even if he happens to do so every once in a while.

Jason Bellamy said...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the series isn't void of ideas. But in the end I think most of the deep philosophical rambling of the characters in this series is simply decoration.

Thomas Junne said...

Well, I'd say it's a character portrayal disguised as a super hero action movie.

Batman is an interesting character because, with all do respect, he's walking a quite fine line between hero and villain a lot of the time. Alan Moore - creator of Watchmen, came up with Rorschach as an image of what Batman would be like if he were found in a world closer to the real one: A man with his own moral code and no hesitation to beat the bejeebles out of anyone who doesn't act accordingly.

I think the trilogy is a way of exploring that way of thinking - and it's being done by sort of attaching the narrative to the subject matter.

The ramblings of the characters I agree with - the dialogue is a lot more important to the story than it is to the personification of their ideals.

The mere fact that the characters seem to be aware of the flaws in their ideas: The joker knows that he has no idea why he'd want to go to his planned end (the dog chasing cars line), Bane knows that what he's doing to Gotham will destroy it and doesn't really seem to believe the bull he's letting out about workers being entitled to seize their employers property. This makes it pretty obvious to us that they're the villains - they WANT to do harm. Most harm in the world has been done by idealists wanting to do good. Including the likes of Batman.

Now, these topics are very interesting, and I see them coming alive in the trilogy - which they don't so much in, say, the (now) old spider-man trilogy. The story - well, stories I think are quite well thought out and also beautifully executed.

Now again, I wouldn't argue against major problems with Bruces quick return to Gotham from the middle of nowhere or the fact that it's the last 11 minutes of 5 months of bomb threat that's going to be the most pivotal - but I saw the headline of this blog: "What Are Ideologies Without Ideas?" and was excited about discussing Batman ideology - so that's what I did :)

Jason Bellamy said...

And I appreciate that you did!

Again, I think a lot of what you're saying is true, at least broadly. But here's an example that I think does well to articulate the differences between the trilogy you see and the trilogy I see:

"Most harm in the world has been done by idealists wanting to do good. Including the likes of Batman."

See, I think that's the idea that Nolan's trilogy keeps floating. But is there any actual evidence that this is true? Batman doesn't keep Gotham entirely safe, but time and again we see that Gotham would be far worse without him. Over and over again in the series, damage is done by terrorists. Now, in the second film, Nolan seems to be playing with the idea that a true hero results to any means necessary to stop that terrorism. But I don't feel he carries through with that same examination in the third film, even if he nods toward it a few times.

Not trying to beat a dead horse here. But I thought that was a good example of where differ on what the series is doing.

Thomas Junne said...

Well, to be fair, only Dr. Crane in Batman begins is a terrorist. Nobody else uses fear in order to control people - except of course for our hero, who takes the terror and turns it on the criminals of Gotham.

The Joker utilizes the people in order to destabilize the system, and Bane destroys capitalism and uses brute force to keep the entire city in line.

Thing is, the films are made from Batman's point of view. Communism doesn't look like what Bane is doing, if you're a communist. Anarchy doesn't look like what the Joker's doing if you're an anarchist (I am, actually)

In 'Rises' Batman actualy becomes a rebel. Gotham was lost to Bane - it was conquered "fair and square". He now needs to overthrow the rulers instead of helping them. He is the threat to the society.
This angle is pretty hard to get through the silver screen, 'cause you'd have to like Bane and/or what he was doing in order to see Batman as the enemy - but the fact of the matter is, that he's now fighting to bring down something that others might enjoy.

That part of the discussion is probably not meant to be the central point of the trilogy. I think the lessons learnt are something along the lines of the following:

Batman begins: Justice is for the sake of the people, and you need to care about the people to be righteous.

The Dark Knight: You can only protect people from outside threats. When you start fighting the people in order to protect them, it's time to pack up and leave.

The Dark Knight Rises: The work isn't done until the people embrace the idea themselves.

Something like that anyway :)

As of why Gotham only survives because of the bat - well, Gotham exists in a universe where powerful people wish to destroy it because of their own beliefs. If you buy that premise, any society will need protection. But try and think it one step further - what if Batman were to discover a society based on the League of Shadows? What would it take to make him go out and draw first blood? - In that case, the roles would be reversed - he'd be the powerful enemy, set on destroying what he believed was evil.

This kind of dualism doesn't work well in a superhero movie, though, which is why I think Nolan made the bad guys as bad as he made them.

But all isn't lost - we're sitting here discussing pretty deep moral, political and philosophical topics because of the films, so he must've done something right :)

Adam Zanzie said...

Yeah, these films work for me in terms of action and entertainment, but intellectually they can only do so much. Nolan is definitely straining to be philosophical in all three films, but hell if I know what his central philosophy is. I don't deny that he's trying to make some kind of point, but at the same time I don't really think he makes his points very well.

Our generation treats these three films the same way the LOTR films were treated in 01-03. Any possible criticism of them was out of the question as far as fanboys were concerned. When the LOTR films came out, I was middle school, and I thought all three of them were, like... the best movies ever made. Today I can see the flaws in them, even though I still admire them a great deal. But I suppose childhood nostalgia keeps me from viewing them 100% objectively.

Similarily, kids who are growing up with Nolan's Batman movies will defend them to the death. I like all three movies, but since I'm in my 20's now and have seen way more movies than I did when I was younger, I can't help but find all sorts of things wrong with The Dark Knight Rises, even though I ultimately would recommend the film. But of course I don't expect to walk up to a random person on the street and see if they share my point of view. Most of the audience members who see this movie are loving it, and any contradictions in Nolan's brand of philosophy probably won't occur to them. I guess that's condescending for me to say, but at the same time I can appreciate this level of audience innocence. Blockbusters are rarely this intelligent (even if their intelligence is up for debate) so I'm trying not to mind so much that Nolan's Batman flicks get the love that they do. Nolan's catered magnificently to a majority that likes these movies, he's succeeded, he now has the power to make any movie he wants, and I envy him for it.

(continued...)

Adam Zanzie said...

A few things about the movie. Anne Hathway's performance was fine, and God, she looked incredibly sexy in that Catwoman suit, but... I simply did not like the way that the Selina Kyle character was written. We are given no idea who this woman is and how she got into all the underworld stuff. A couple of hints about her under-privileged background, and that's about it. No sudden transformations or anything. Her character remains the same throughout the whole film. And why would Wayne end up eating dinner with her at the end when she's still a vigilante who not only likes guns, but prefers killing criminals to knocking them senseless for the police? That makes no sense.

Remember in Batman Returns when we first see Selina living her life innocently, feeding her cats and listening to her answering machine, and then -- once she's murdered and revived -- goes back to her apartment and goes through the same process all over again (feeding her cats, listening to her answering machine), only she's more deranged the second time? That montage alone was a masterpiece in Tim Burton's film, and it's a testament as to why Michelle Pfeiffer -- to me -- will always be the best Catwoman.

Hardy's Bane was another matter. Scary as hell. Dominated every scene he was in. Sure, we never got to see his entire face, and in some ways that robbed him of personality, but I didn't mind too much because the character itself is made to be so unbeliavably terrifying. After that dungeon sequence, I was convinced there was just no stopping him.

The ending, with Alfred in the restaurant, was touching, but I wish Nolan could have made it more emotional -- this IS, after all, the last film in the series. I personally despise it when Nolan tries to be "amiguous" with his endings. The Prestige ended with Bale's character getting reunited with his son, and it was made all the better for it, in my opinion. Thus, TDKR should have ended with Alfred running towards Wayne in the restaurant and giving him a big hug, grateful that he was alive. That's what I would have done if I was Alfred, at least. Nolan shouldn't be afraid to allow a little sentimentality when it might actually do some good every once in a while.

Thomas Junne said...

So, Selina Kyle..
I think we know enough about her to make qualified guesses about her past. She's an absolute master at what she does, yet the only thing that keeps her going, is her determination to find a way out. She does indeed seem to enjoy killing bad guys and that seems to be part of her struggle with changing her ways.

Hathaway has talked about wanting to make a catwoman movie based on that character, provided it was set in Nolan's Gotham and kept the integrity of the Batman trilogy. I really hope they don't do that, since I think it's absolutely fine to keep the audience guessing.

Bruce ends up having dinner with her, because she's wiped her slate clean - which he has too by staging his own death.

Your suggestion to the ending would probably ruin the Jesus theme that went through the film - which is why I'd actualy prefered if we hadn't seen what Alfred saw at all, although I hear that would mimic the ending if 'Inception' - which I regretfully haven't seen yet.

Adam Zanzie said...

@Thomas:

So, Selina Kyle..
I think we know enough about her to make qualified guesses about her past.


Maybe if you've read the comics. But I haven't read them, and I know next to nothing about Selina's origins because they're always explained differently in each film. In Batman Returns, she started out as Max Schreck's nebbish secretary. In that horrid garbage Pitof directed in '04, she had a different name (Patience Phillips... where the f%$# did they get that name!??) and started out as an innocent clerk at a makeup company.

Meanwhile, Hathaway's Selina is just... some chick.

This is another problem I have with Nolan's Batman movies. His villains always come straight out of nowhere. I want to know more about how they got to be who they are... and that goes for Ledger's Joker, too, who -- despite being a memorable villain -- wasn't provided with the satisfying background of Nicholson's Joker (hell, even Mark Hamill's Joker had a backstory in Mask of the Phantasm). Ledger's Joker drops hints about being abused as a child and having a miserable wife. Okay, but what else? I wanted more. Although, to be fair, Bane is slightly given a backstory in TDKR, so for that I was grateful.

And another thing: Nolan's villains always make clumsy exits in each film. Scarecrow got tased while he was on a horse and then galloped away (not to be arrested until the opening of TDK). Two-Face just... falls off the edge of a parking lot. Bane gets shot with a grenade launcher (or something) and we're supposed to believe that one shot from that weapon kills him? Come on! Even Todd McCarthy, who loves TDKR, complained about this in his review: "His final moments onscreen feel almost thrown away; one feels a bit cheated of a proper sendoff."

So, to sum up that whole rant of mine, Nolan's good at casting his villains. Not so much at developing them and dispatching them, though. Burton did that better in his two films.

Anyway, about this whole conservatism thing, do you really think Batman is "eye for an eye"? He doesn't kill criminals -- not ones he's forced to, at least. That's why he tells Selina, "No guns! No killing!" Selina's eye-for-an-eye, certainly. But Wayne refuses to be, probably because (as Rachel reminded him in Batman Begins) his father would have been ashamed of him if he was.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good thoughts, fellas. Some thoughts back ...

Thomas: Yeah, in the context of this conversation I suppose I used "terrorist" too broadly. Good point. But help me out on this one ...

"The Dark Knight: You can only protect people from outside threats. When you start fighting the people in order to protect them, it's time to pack up and leave."

So when exactly does Batman start fighting the people in order to protect them? The closest thing I can think to this is when some of the Batman wannabes try to play hero and get in the way. But, let's be clear, they're a symptom of the problem. No villains, no wannabe superheros. So, throughout, Batman is always fighting true villainy, and that film -- like this one -- shows again and again that these true villains are much more dangerous than any common person in Gotham (no matter how much the villains suggest otherwise) and that Batman is essential to Gotham not falling under their control.

Or is that wrong?

Also ...

"In 'Rises' Batman actualy becomes a rebel. Gotham was lost to Bane - it was conquered "fair and square". He now needs to overthrow the rulers instead of helping them. He is the threat to the society.
... Now he's fighting to bring down something that others might enjoy."

Sorry, not buying that. In fact, if this is what Nolan is trying to do, I think this proves my point. Because what evidence is there that the people of Gotham are enjoying these new rulers? Unless you count the looting mobs, who seem to be in the minority to me, but who can really tell because Nolan contrasts them with the stunned onlookers at the football game and the orphans on the bridge and that's about it. But, really, just because Bane gets a little further in his conquest than the Joker doesn't mean that Batman is something different in this film than he was in the previous one. Batman is Gotham's salvation. Period. The only difference is that there's this strange period at the beginning of this final film in which, due to a lie that Batman made up, the police think Batman might be part of the problem. But that means Batman makes himself a "rebel." It has nothing to do with Bane.

Jason Bellamy said...

Adam ...

"TDKR should have ended with Alfred running towards Wayne in the restaurant and giving him a big hug, grateful that he was alive."

Oh, Adam. I want to hug YOU for that, because that's exactly how your boy Steven Spielberg would have ended the movie. So, bless you, you're consistent!

Within Nolan's Batman universe, I think that shot of Alfred and Bruce sharing that look is pretty touching and sentimental indeed, actually. A hug could have worked, but only if it was accompanied by Zimmer's score going, "BWWWAARRRRRRRMMMMM!"

I kid. But only a little.

Jason Bellamy said...

Adam & Thomas ...

As for the Selina Kyle debate:

Adam is of course correct that Nolan's characters mostly seem to come out of nowhere, with the exception of Bruce/Batman. In fact, it's all too appropriate that we seem to know Bane's origin story only to find out that, oh, well, not so much.

But while Nolan can be generally criticized for lack of character development, I actually find the way he brings characters into the series to be rather refreshing. Here's why ...

Superhero movies tend to be dominated by their origin stories. That's usually what the first film is largely about, and often it's the most interesting part of any superhero series. Once a superhero (or supervillain) reaches his/her potential, it tends to get boring. Because, well, superheroes are super. And once that it established where else is there to go?

What Nolan does is rather daring. He essentially says, fuck it, does it really matter WHERE this evil comes from, HOW they get to be where they are? No. Evil just appears, and it does its damage.

This approach works for me -- and I'm not a comics reader -- because it's consistent within this world that Nolan creates; I can accept that the Joker just suddenly appears as if out of nowhere. It also works because real life is a lot like this. For example, look at the Colorado theater shooting. No doubt, by the time it's all over, we'll have discovered things about the shooter's life and we'll have made desperate attempts to figure out the root of his rage, as if it's that simple. But the fact of the matter is that on that awful night he just appeared, fully-formed, as if from nothing.

No doubt, I love the way Burton's movies explore the origins of the villains. But usually those origin stories create the idea that evil is created by some strange tragic accident or freak event. There's almost always a bit of black magic involved. And that black magic element contrasts with the realism that Nolan's going for in this series. So in Nolan's world, like this one, sometimes seemingly regular people become monsters. I like that interpretation. It's convincing, and fresh.

So, no doubt, you have to just accept that we don't know much about Selina. But it isn't hard to imagine why Bruce would find a comfort with her. She's one of the few people who can relate to his life, not just because she has a secret identity but also because she's spent her life running from her past.

Harder for me to understand is where the Bruce/Miranda passion comes from. In retrospect, Miranda was being calculating...although what she's trying to achieve, I'm not sure. But their sudden passion truly comes from nowhere. THAT is something that could use fixing. In the end, Bruce does seem to be settling for the latest warm body to come his way, which I don't think is the emotion Nolan's going for.

Thomas Junne said...

Okay, I have to admit that my memory on the end of The Dark Knight is full of holes - I'm tempted to sit down and watch it again just to get a better vantage point in these blog comments :)

Well, I remember the scene where Batman is suddenly viewing tons of screens, essentialy spying on all of Gothams citizens, because they could all be doing the Joker's business. Batman as a protector even becomes controversial, because as long as he's operating, the Joker holds the city hostage - While some people still believe in him, most want to get rid of him, and if he fights that, he fights the people. And he can't very well do that and still be the symbol of justice.

True - you and I know, that Batman is fighting true injustice, and that only the Joker can be held responsible for his madness, but we can see why a big part of the city would begin to see Batman as a liability - especialy those who didn't like him in the first place.

As for Batman as a rebel i third film: You don't rebel against the people, you rebel against the rulers. Batman rebels to protect the people, which goes to show, that he's about the people rather than the city itself - if he just supported any form of government, he'd be out the helping Bane.

I think Batman is only essential to Gotham in the sense that otherwise, the league of shadows would come along and blow it all to hell, because of their totalitarian beliefs. In a regular society that hasn't incurred the wrath of a super badass collection of self-rightous villans, Batman would cause more problems than he fixed - but then again, I told you: I'm an anarchist :)

As for the Selina Kyle stuff, I don't read comics, and I agree with you Jason.
The only villain story I ever really liked was Star Wars and the Vader origin - because it's a tragedy and that's because you're supposed to like the guy before he turns evil. That really requires a lot of work: First establishing a sympathetic character, and then - follow his spiral down far enough that you wouldn't mind him being taken out by the hero.
The fast route is the one Burton used - girl falls to her death, gets revived and is now different. Boom. That doesn't make you understand the character better, it just buys you a background story.

Good backgrounds are a problem because A, they take too long, and B, they end up being an excuse for the villains. Take Spiderman's enemies in the trilogy. Green goblin was ok, he just got gassed and turned insane. Dr. Octopus was ok, he just ended up being controlled by his own invention. Sandman was cool, he was just misunderstood.

In Batman, we REALLY don't like the Joker. He's up to no good and it's not because he was orphaned or because he was bitten by a radioactive clown - he's just bad news.

Excuse me, I'm off to watch the Dark Knight while the family's not home :)

Thomas Junne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.