Batman Defeats Occupy Movement, Cures Lesbianism!

Personal circumstances prevented me from keeping this blog updated for a while, but I suppose the release of The Dark Knight Rises is as good an excuse as any to climb back in the saddle and see how many trolls my thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman film can attract in the comments section. I already gave my general opinion on the film on Dutch national radio last Friday, but for those few people who don’t understand this particular language or prefer more in-depth complaining, please read on. (Major spoilers and Batman criticism ahead…) 

Right now, the film itself is all but overshadowed by the tragic attack on cinemagoers in Aurora, Colorado and the ensuing debate on gun control (as well as the predictably moronic moral panic about violence in popular culture). The impact of this real-life maniac’s actions does seem to have tempered the beyond-hysterical responses that fans were having to negative reviews of the film, unseen by most at the time. But it’s understandable that the obnoxious size of this Hollywood behemoth and the grossly inflated reputation of its popular predecessor The Dark Knight caused many fans to lose some perspective.

All of this illustrates, as several others have noted, the current hegemony of geek culture, which can now proudly claim the lion’s share of mass popular phenomena as emanating from its own domain, often proudly bearing its official seal of approval. The hostility and often sociopathic-sounding aggression that has met anything that bears even a whiff of criticism seems to indicate the end product of several decades’ worth of cultural marginalization and ridicule: “We’ve all agreed that Batman is cool now, so shut up already! This time it’s our turn.”

Now I don’t mind one bit that guys like Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams have become the ruling class of today’s Hollywood blockbuster industry. As Neal Stephenson once said, “we are all geeks now,” and the current wave of pop culture reflects this very accurately. What surprises me a little though is how absolutely and uncritically the majority seems to embrace this trend, leaving precious little space for reflection and discussion beyond the minutiae of individual texts, and their relationship to their source materials.

Following the discussion surrounding The Dark Knight Returns recently, I began to wonder whether there even could be such a thing as a ‘realistic’ superhero movie that wasn’t in some way problematic. The ones that I enjoy with the fewest reservations (Batman Returns, the Hellboy films, Ang Lee’s HulkRaimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) all remain firmly anchored in the popular fantasy genre, and only very rarely strive for the kind of deliberately allegorical realism that Nolan has affected. More than most other superhero movies, his Batman films buckle under my ingrained belief that vigilante superheroes operating in the real world basically aren’t a very good idea. (Kick-Ass is one of a few films that plays with this question in a productive way.)

Another annoying aspect of Nolan’s style is what Woody Allen described as “total heaviosity” (a quip used by Dana Stevens in her excellent review): his emphasis on furrowed brows, threatening whispers, and pounding Hans Zimmer scores creates the sense that something terribly grand and important is going on in these movies, and that they’re therefore more than ‘mere entertainment.’ This air of pretentiousness would of course be much easier to bear if his films actually deliver the emotional wallop and thematic cohesion the style seems to imply. But instead, this form too often seems to masquerade an undeveloped mass of contradictions that rarely holds together under close inspection. In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s performance brought some much-needed relief amongst all the heavy-handedness, but The Dark Knight Rises has far too little of this, and its pacing problems all but defeat its third act.

The most obvious set of contradictions in Nolan’s Batman movies relates to their politics. As Mark Fisher has pointed out about both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, the protagonist in these films is a right-wing champion through and through, standing up for a nostalgic, patriarchal form of capitalism that is entirely reactionary. And while all three films include rather desperate-seeming references to contemporary socio-political events, they tend to be right-leaning parables with all the ideological problems inherent in the unironic mythologizing of violent macho figures. As Sean Burns wrote in his excellent Philadelphia Weekly review:

The Dark Knight Rises pays a bit of lip service to our recent economic woes, staging shoot-outs on Wall Street trading floors and offering copious Occupy Gotham monologues. Still, there’s only so far you can go in this direction when your movie’s hero also happens to be a billionaire fascist who likes to dress up like a rodent and beat the shit out of people. Anyone who claims they can spot a coherent political agenda in this picture is obviously insane.

So even though its political agenda is obviously full of contradictions, The Dark Knight Rises certainly dramatizes for the umpteenth time the popular fantasy of a rich, white authority figure taking violent action, and inviting its audience to cheer along. It’s a fantasy that’s familiar and therefore comfortable as long as you don’t think about it too much – but when we’re asked to side with an army of policemen bearing down on a group of false revolutionaries who have literally occupied Wall Street, I do find the results somewhat chilling.

And finally, there’s Nolan’s weird problem with women, which once again raises its ugly head in this latest Batman behemoth. While it’s certainly nice to see more female presence than in the previous male-obsessed installments, the way women are included here introduces a whole other set of issues. For although Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is by far the most enjoyable character in the film, the ending ultimately all but ruins it. Throughout most of the movie, Kyle is portrayed as strong and fiercely independent, and given her own set of narrative challenges to deal with. Hathaway plays her with a terrific combination of strength, athleticism and vulnerability, and it is strongly suggested that she is involved in a lesbian relationship, while using her physical charms to seduce and then rob gullible males. The blatant fact that she is costumed and framed as an obvious sex object is slightly mitigated by the screenplay’s attempt to transform her high heels into functional weapons with one of Catwoman’s many amusing lines. But the redundant and nonsensical ending, which incidentally robs the film’s central sacrifice of its poignancy, reduces her to that most offensive of Hollywood clichés: a strong and independent woman in charge of her own destiny, who is ‘cured’ of her lesbianism by the irresistible charms of the male hero.

Naturally, there’s much more one might say about The Dark Knight Rises, both in a positive and in a negative sense. Like its two predecessors, there are some nicely staged moments of spectacle and excitement that make the most of the New York locations. And as before, the cast is uniformly excellent, and populated with terrific character actors who pop up in little more than bit parts. On the downside, the overall plot seems to make little sense, there are some glaring continuity issues (like day suddenly becoming night in the middle of a high-speed chase), and the Nolan brothers quite obviously bit off more than they could chew with the whole urban revolution narrative. Yes, it’s more ambitious than most superhero movies. But ambition in and of itself isn’t necessarily a quality worth celebrating, is it?

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6 Responses to Batman Defeats Occupy Movement, Cures Lesbianism!

  1. Julius says:

    Fully agree. The most frustrating part of the movie for me was the incredibly vague ‘Dent act’, which seems to come down to ‘treat prisoners badly.’

    The scene I most fondly remember is the one where Alfred points out that Bruce Wayne could help Gotham City a lot more than Batman. Maybe I’m misremembering and that moment was not as poignant as it is in my head, but I was really hoping for it to become more relevant. Would have been a good ending: Wayne realizes Alfred was right, throws away his Batsuit and starts using his influence as a billionaire businessman to actually do something useful.

    • Yes, although that does of course once again open the door to a scenario in which it’s up to the benevolent capitalists to save the world from the problems they themselves have caused. Another avenue that was opened up but left completely unexplored was the Wayne bankruptcy: aside from a single snide comment from Selina Kyle about Bruce Wayne being allowed to keep his mansion, this in no way affected his actions or abilities, as he still had access to all the expensive military equipment he had before.
      On a less serious side note: I’d love to see a version of the film in which he responds to Alfred’s suggestion by saying: “That’s a great idea, and it makes a lot of sense. But there are thousands of people out there in the audience who have paid good money to see Batman blow shit up real good, and I’m not about to let them down!”

  2. Julius says:

    Haha, that would have been great.

    Still, it’s possible to make a superhero movie that has both heroes blowing shit up and a clear, acceptable political agenda. See Robocop and, probably, the Watchmen movie that exists in the Snyderless alternate universe.

    I don’t even think Nolan wanted to make a convervative movie; he just doesn’t seem to understand or care about the politics of blockbusters. He references politics to make the movie ‘intelligent’, then goes: ‘that’s that, now back to the epic’.

    Come to think of it, the only conciously political Batman movie is probably the 1966 version, with its adorable closing scene.

    • I even think Nolan’s in some way convinced that he makes liberal, socially progressive films. But like James Cameron, his naïve and superficial take on politics and ideology results in films that are reactionary to their very core.

      RoboCop is definitely a great example, and I think the Hellboy films are similar genre exercises that ‘deliver the goods’ without being completely retarded in the process.

      • Julius says:

        Also: Starship Troopers, although a depressingly large portion of the audience seems to think that was genuine army glorification.

        It’s a shame blockbuster creators seem to think an audience won’t accept too much complexity, and it’s a necessity to stay relatively dumb in order for a film to be profitable. History shows that any intended blockbuster that contains star power and big special effects and is effectively marketed as an event movie, will inevitably make enough of its money back to satisfy the studio (except for financial mistakes like Cleopatra, although even that movie started being commercially successful in the ’80s). As long a the key ingredients are present, filmmakers can take any risk they like in terms of politcal content. And I believe Nolan could probably do better in that area if he put his mind to it. But maybe I’m naïve.

  3. Dan

    I’ve not seen the movie yet, and so can’t comment on it specifically, but I do recall Grant Morrison’s slightly tongue-in-cheek take on the right-wing nature of the character who is basically a billionaire beating up working class schmoes: “[…] Batman is a billionaire, and he beats the hell out of junkies. Batman’s mission becomes different when you think ‘Why is this billionaire going and beating the crap out of poor people who can’t afford to pay the rent or afford their next fix’ [Laughs]” (Wizard, 216).

    I wonder if the whole ‘right-wing’ reading of TDKRs is really an unintended consequence of Nolan and Goyer trying to make the character more ‘real world’ by invoking the cultural and political zeitgeists of the time. Personally I’ve always had a problem with the attempt to make the character ‘plausible’ in these movies (I think I prefer Burton’s two Batman films for their ‘gothic fairytale’ vibe).

    As for Kick Ass, I think ‘real world’ goes out the window with addition of Hit Girl (although for me, the character makes the film): I think I preferred Hal Haberman’s Special, and James Gunn’s [somewhat derranged] Super for playing with the tropes in a way that Nolan never would (or could).

    Anyway, interesting article!

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