Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises

>> Monday, July 23, 2012

I think the superhero movie may be dead. Sort of dead, in a kind of figurative way, not an actual one--they're going to keep making these things, and some of them will have Batman in them. But mostly dead. Artistically dead. Some of the ones coming may be enjoyable and amusing and exciting and even good (whether that's really good or "good for what it is" good); but it's hard to imagine they'll be necessary. Christopher Nolan may have done the genre in. Not in a bad way at all--he did it in the way that involves going down in epic fashion and whatever's left is put on a ginormous dragon-shaped boat and set afire before it's pushed into the ocean to drift out until the roaring flames melt into the sunset.

Not that I'm saying superhero movies were ever necessary in the first place. I like them, but maybe they weren't quote-unquote "necessary" in the first place. But I guess the next batch will be less necessary.

I don't know that I want to do a straight-up review of The Dark Knight Rises (DKR). First of all, because I think I want to watch this one several times on DVD before I have a fully coherent opinion. And second, because I think it's hard to talk about DKR without getting spoilerey; e.g. there was a casting spoiler months ago that had me knowing there would be a particular kind of late-act plot twist though I didn't know which way it would go and so any surprise was blunted when it actually happened, and I sort of worry any little thing I could say might lessen the impact of one thing or another. And third, you know, a lot of ink and pixels will be spilled on this movie anyway, and yet another review is unlikely to add much of anything.

But I can't just say nothing.

Because what Christopher Nolan (director, screenplay and story on this trilogy--Batman Begins, The Dark Knight (TDK) and DKR); his brother, Jonathan (screenplay and story on TDK and DKR), and David S. Goyer (screenplay on Batman Begins and story for all three)--what the Nolans and Goyer have done is an achievement; a clever, subversive achievement that manages to perfectly capture the source material while totally unraveling it and knitting it into something different, while spending a lot of Hollywood money to make movies Hollywood should instinctively hate and would hate if the films weren't making money hand over fist. I am a little in awe about what they've done, here.

You have to remember--I think you know this already--you have to remember that the way Hollywood likes to make franchise movies is you milk the cow until it's nothing but leather wrapped around dry bones attached to a flattened udder that looks like the remnants of a whoopee cushion after a fat man's through with it. You make features until nobody is lining up at the theatre, and then you make straight-to-video productions, and then you decide whether you want a reboot or a crossover. And this is why there are something like three hundred Highlander movies and someone is probably in pre-production for A Nightmare On Elm Street XIX/Friday The 13th The Really Truly Final Chapter/Hellraiser 57--Return To Heck/The Return Of The Son Of The Creature's Third Cousin's Nephew From The Black Lagoon (in which Freddie, Jason, Pinhead and a motion-captured CGI fishman modeled after the original Universal Pictures rubber suit slash/saw/pierce/glub it out). This, actually, is what was sort of supposed to happen to the Batfilms: the original intent was to do a fifth entry in the Burton/Schumacher series until Batnipples cratered at the box office, at which point rival pitches for Batman: Year One and Batman Versus Superman began respective Dantean tours of development Hell.

Indeed, Nolan and Goyer's Batman Begins is the most conventionally conceived film in the Nolan trilogy: while it's often inspired in its presentation, the plot is mostly a straightforward superhero origin story with action beats and laugh lines in the right places. It seems conventional, especially compared with its sequels, because it is conventional: whatever Nolan or Goyer dreamed they might be able to do, the studio's thought process was that this was a flexible reboot that could work variously as a prequel to the existing Batman films, a relaunch for the franchise, something to be ignored if it flopped, etc. Whether Nolan or Goyer would come back would have depended, I imagine, on how well it did (it did very well), and if the film shows some of Christopher Nolan's stylistic tics (and it has fewer than the sequels--Begins is a much more generic looking film, I think), those could nevertheless be ignored by whomever picked up the next Batproject.

I think in a visual and thematic sense, the Nolan "trilogy" is really a duology: Begins is an odd duck that leads into and is referenced by the Dark Knight movies, but doesn't quite look or feel like either one of them. And yet it has to be there: it gets referenced obsessively in DKR from the title to the plot to the visual callbacks (e.g.--and I don't think this spoils anything--the well-like construction of an underground prison visually references the well young Bruce Wayne falls into in Batman Begins, and there's even a flashback to the earlier film to make sure you notice the reference), etc. Begins has the same amber-and-indigo visual palette of nearly every other action film made in the last decade or so, a dramatic contrast against the washed-out, icy palettes Nolan uses in the Dark Knights (and in Inception). And Begins doesn't go nearly as deep as the Knights do as far as mining ideas about consequence and causation, responsibility and guilt, truth and deception.

The Dark Knight Rises is very much about the characters paying for the choices they made in the previous two movies, especially The Dark Knight. We begin the movie with people whose lives and bodies have been destroyed, and then it gets much worse.

And what I find really interesting here, other than how well this works dramatically, is how it really digs under a standard trope and then kind of crashes it. What I mean is, there's a standard-issue superhero movie thing, sometimes done in the second act of a movie if they're not sure if it'll make a franchise, or in a sequel if it is a franchise, where the hero decides he's going to have a normal life and tries to quit, only to get dragged back in again and put the tights back on (e.g. Superman II, Spider-Man 2). And this is usually handled as the hero is running from his destiny but can only be complete--and heroic--if he embraces his destiny and that his heroic side is his "true" persona, though he only learns this when he sees how bad things can get in his absence (General Zod threatens to take over the world, Doc Ock goes on a rampage, etc.).

Now, all this happens in Nolan's movies. Only, funny thing is: the hero dumps his costume and tries to retire offscreen, between the second and third movie. And he doesn't try to have a normal life, because what he thought was going to be his normal life got blown up in the second movie, so when DKR begins, Our Hero has basically gone all Howard-Hughes-ey. And when he comes back, there's as much a whiff of self-loathing suicide about the whole thing as there is an embrace of his responsibilities; he even gets accused of fucking things up by creating the necessity for his own existence. And his comeback is presented as... well, if not an outright bad idea, at least a dubious one. And it isn't exactly a triumphant return.

What I'm trying to get at is this (and it goes back to the whole "killing the genre" thing): on one level, the Nolans and Goyer are telling you the exact same superheroic fall-and-rise story you've already seen at least a half-dozen times already in assorted comic-book movies since 1980. And if that were the only level, it wouldn't be all that interesting, however well done. But the way the Nolans and Goyer do it--well, it's basically kind of fucked up and it's done in a way that's deliberately meant to mess with the audience. There's this intentional, "We know you've seen the hero throw away his costume or powers, so we're going to skip over that part entirely and get to the part where he's facing his comeback; only, see, we're going to make his throwing the powers away part a charade based on a bunch of two-faced (pun intended) duplicity and we're going to totally question his motives for coming back, plus the reasons he has to come back are basically his own birds coming back to roost anyway so it's kind of like the whole thing is his fault."

It's kind of amazing.

And this is the whole series. I think if you sit down and chart out the trilogy on a piece of paper, it doesn't come off all that differently from the Superman movies or Spider-Man movies or Iron Man movies or a whole bunch of one-offs like Daredevil or Green Lantern. It's when you get to the execution that all these classic tropes are being used basically for the purpose of undermining them. If that isn't art, I'm not sure what else qualifies.

There's another thing I wanted to mention, which is the interesting way a lot of people can overthink and underthink something at the same time, reaching around what's right in front of them and scrabbling around behind it thinking they're plumbing hidden depths when really they're just slapping around dust bunnies. Of course I'm talking about all the economic or social critiques you're seeing of DKR--it's anti-Occupy, it's a blistering critique of the rich, blah-blah-blah, and if you just look at the film, I think the answer is it's kind of anti-everybody. The Nolans have said they were inspired by The French Revolution and subsequent Terror, and that's fairly self-evident if you just watch the damn movie instead of looking through it for something more obviously contemporary.

I mean, nobody comes off terribly well in this movie. The rich are out-of-touch cowards, knaves, liars, fools, corrupt and greedy and sniveling and clueless. The poor and middle-class either join the easily-gulled mob and are manipulated by elites with selfishly utopian agendas or hide, impotent, behind closed doors. Those elites with their selfishly utopian agendas are a mess: some of them are nihilists and anarchists, others have compromised their honor with growing mountains of lies that, individually, all seemed like good ideas at the time and necessary, but now have left the entire edifice of their civilization worm-eaten and crumbling (I have completely mixed metaphors there, but I'm not changing a word).

I suspect if there's a message there, it's merely the one that people who actually understand history already know: that things can get very, very ugly in a society in which there are gross economic disparities, and there will be few heroes and much tragedy and horror. Our modern one percent indeed fail to understand they are flirting with a possible return of show trials and public executions; what some reformers may not understand is that if this happens, they will not be remembered as heroes. Nor will anyone who ends the bloodshed in the streets: Napoleon may have ended the Revolution, but he's largely remembered as a tyrant, not a savior.

In short, I think anyone looking at DKR for some kind of contemporary symbolism is basically missing the point: the only symbolism is what's there insofar as the movie sets up a contemporary version of what happened in France two centuries ago, and if there's a critique of contemporary circumstances, it's only to the extent our era might mirror revolutionary France. (And if you accept the hypothesis it does to any degree, I think you have to accept that nobody came out of the French Revolution with clean hands.)


Anonymous,  Monday, July 23, 2012 at 12:28:00 PM EDT  

"A Nightmare On Elm Street XIX/Friday The 13th The Really Truly Final Chapter/Hellraiser 57--Return To Heck/The Return Of The Son Of The Creature's Third Cousin's Nephew From The Black Lagoon"

I'm sure you meant it as satire but I totally want to see this.

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