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 Hulk, Raimi’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?