The Dark Knight Rises; or Why Simple Hollywood Mythmaking is Preferable to Pretentious Attempts at Philosophical Depth

At least in a summer Hollywood blockbuster, that is. Last night, I finally got to see the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, and I thought I would lavish upon the world my thoughts on this subject, every tedious one of them. So here it goes.

First of all, the film itself is highly enjoyable: Nolan is a fine director at the height of his powers, and the movie does not disappoint in terms of action, snappy dialogue, or sex appeal (i.e., Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard). Mr. Nolan has, as usual, put together a phenomenal cast, with Bale putting in what I believe may be his best performance in the trilogy, and a host of other actors either returning from the first two films including Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Michael Caine (Alfred), Morgan Freeman (Virgil Fox), or actors from other Nolan films, such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake) and Cotillard (Miranda Tate). I especially enjoyed Ms. Hathaway’s performance, and not just because of my long standing, juvenile crush on this talented actress. I had read or heard somewhere of objections to her being cast in the role of Cat Woman (who is never called by that name in the film), partly because of concerns about her abilities and partly because, apparently, the performance of Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is considered sacrosanct by that section of the American movie going populace that is completely lacking in taste (obviously, I did not think quite as highly of Batman Returns as some did). As to Ms. Hathaway’s talent, I confess I had only seen her in one film all the way through prior to this one, in Get Smart, where she played the straight woman to Steve Carrell’s character.  I believe she did receive rave reviews and some sort of award nomination for her performance in Rachel Getting Married, a film I have not seen. She has also, as I recall, done other films of a more adult nature (i.e., sex scenes) in order to convince audiences that she is not merely the minor star of cheesy, adolescent Disney movies. In any case, I thought she was excellent as Nolan’s Selina Kyle, pulling off the sassy lines and projecting the sort of morally ambivalent character Nolan is drawn to while prancing around in a tight leather outfit—and yet still projecting that same innocent, Bambi-like visage onto the screen that is such a large part of her appeal. This is in no way an easy thing to do, and shows that she indeed is a mature actress. In the future, I will have to seek out more of her films to watch.

Sassy, sexy, cynical, and yet still sweet: Hathaway as Cat Woman

As I must also do with Nolan’s films. Besides the Batman trilogy (all of which I saw in the theater, a rarity for me these days), I have only seen Insomnia and The Prestige, both of which I enjoyed, though I found The Prestige to be morally disturbing. I was not even aware of who Nolan was when I saw Insomnia, but remember being suitably impressed by the film. I have not as of yet seen his Memento, but it along with his first film The Following is now at the top of my Netflix queue. The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight, with Bruce Wayne having become a recluse in his mansion. He is moved out of his slumber by the machinations of the movie’s main villain, Bane, who manipulates both the corrupt echelons of government and corporate elite to take over Gotham. As others have note elsewhere, Bane invokes populist ideals in taking over the city, but in a transparently cynical way, while the institutions of law and order are seemingly all corrupt to one extent or another—even Gordon, whose memorializing of Harvey Dent creates the conditions for Bane’s success in the film. Despite the parallels that some have drawn between the film and contemporary events (the Patriot Act and the Occupy Movement readily come to mind), Nolan still manages to suggest such references without doing so directly, and so staying at a general enough level to avoid explicit discussions of politics, which doom so many other films. In fact, though I have several friends whose opinions I respect who insist there must be some sort of consistent political commentary in all this, or that the film has some kind of coherent political philosophy to it, I believe the film is successful precisely because it lacks any real political message. One can understand this better by comparing the last film with the first two parts of the trilogy.

Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus!

Nolan has said in interviews that he wanted to bring a sort of realism to the Batman story, moving it away from the comic book style of Tim Burton. He certainly accomplished this in Batman Begins, and though I probably enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises more, the first film is still probably the best in an artistic sense of the three. I say this because it manages to do what Nolan wanted without trying to do too much, which for me was the besetting sin of The Dark Knight. Perhaps it making the Batman story that realistic for more than one film was too much to ask, but whatever the case, Dark Knight definitely tried to do something different.  That film tried rather too hard, in my estimation, for a sort of philosophical depth which is hard to capture in a film, much less in a Hollywood blockbuster.   The exchanges between the Joker and Batman, the Joker and Harvey Dent, where Joker “explained” his “philosophy” were clever, but not necessarily terribly profound, and Gordon’s speech eulogizing Batman at the end would have sounded corny without an actor like Oldman pronouncing it. (“Because he’s the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him…because he can take it…because he’s not a hero…he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…the Dark Knight.”) The Dark Knight Rises makes no such pretensions; Blake does challenge Gordon on his “noble lie” with regards to Dent, but that almost seems like Nolan apologizing for such pretensions rather than indulging them. And the most you really get with regards to a coherent philosophy is when Wayne tells Blake that “anybody could be Batman,” and that Batman was only meant to be a symbol. As Batman tells Gordon at a crucial moment in the film, it doesn’t matter who Batman is, since “anyone can be a hero.” One enthusiastic review in the New York Times thought the film hinted at a sort of egalitarian suphero ethic, perhaps because of lines like this, but this surely is not the case. First of all, such lines sound suspiciously like the populist pandering of Bane, and secondly, they directly contradict several of the premises of the earlier films. For example, one of the things Nolan wanted to do in Batman Begins was to give a full account of who Bruce Wayne was, and how he became Batman in the first place. The ending of The Dark Knight Rises suggests that Wayne will have a successor as Batman, one who was A) not a billionaire, and therefore cannot produce the gadgets necessary to fight crime, and B) someone who, unlike Wayne, did not endure several years of training with the League of Shadows (neither did Selina Kyle, apparently, who can hold her own just fine without such training). The fact is that it mattered very much who Wayne is in the first two films, and all of the pablum about anybody being a hero feels like Nolan playing to his contemporary, consumerist audience.   The film’s imagery somtimes suggests this as well, purveying a message at odds with the quasi-nihilistic themes of Nolan’s other films like The Prestige and Inception. For example, Wayne climbs out of the prison in the bowels of the earth where Bane puts him in a rather unlikely manner, whereas the main character in Inception never manages to climb out of the rabbit hole of his mind. And the final image we see of Bruce Wayne reminds one of those clever Dos Equis commercials: “I don’t always leave my superhero responsibilities and run off to Florence with beautiful women, but when I do, it’s with Anne Hathaway.” Which is why Batman is not only The Most Interesting Man in the World, he is also the hero of nerds everywhere, myself included.

Bruce Wayne, hero to NERDS everywhere

Is any of this a problem? Not really.  On the contrary, I regard it as the main strength of the film that Nolan seems to have embraced the limitations of the type of film he was making, and simply gave the audience what they wanted to see. I knew about half way through the film that he had dispensed with the “realism” he was striving for in Batman Begins, and I didn’t care one bit. Nolan, whatever his reasons, decided to close up shop on his Batman trilogy by giving his customers what they wanted: a rollicking good time wrapped up with a feel good ending that suggests, implausibly, and in the most self-flattering “democratic” manner possible, that we all can be superheroes. (In doing so, of course, he also sets up a future reboot of the series, and so the message of “we are all heroes” could be also just be about selling more tickets.) Strict logic and critical thinking are not really essential to a good film; film is basically about using images to manipulate the emotions of your audience, and not about probing the depths of political philosophy. (This is why, after the film industry came of age in the 1920s, the Fascists in Italy, the Nazis in Germany and the Soviets in Russia all saw the potential of film for propaganda purposes and exploited it to great effect; you can go on Youtube and see how well they did this in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which is disturbing precisely to the extent it draws you in to the world of Hitler’s Germany.) This is not to say that it cannot be done, or that Nolan could not do it; on the contrary, he already has, and I hope he continues to tackle more complicated themes in his movies, but not in a Batman type of film.  (In one of the movie previews, I saw that he is a producer on the new Superman reboot coming out nexst summer, so maybe not.) Like Ridley Scott, whose travails I have detailed before, his talents lie mainly in his use of images (though he is much better at dialogue than Scott), and this is important for more popular types of films, whose stories more faithfully deal in what Aristotle said drama should deal in: simple universal types that everyone can admire and aspire to be. This is why The Dark Knight Rises succeeds:  it suggests political themes without exploring them in any detail, and avoids the fate of films that get too specific, too partisan to be successful. The Dark Knight Rises works because all the little kids can aspire to be Batman (the film actually has a little kid in a minor role, pining for the return of Batman), and all the balding, underemployed, thirty-something losers like myself can imagine themselves sitting in a café in Firenze with Anne Hathaway, and not because of its gritty, physical and psychological realism, or because of its “deep” explorations of contemporary political life. And the fact that the third film in the trilogy undermines and contradicts what he was trying do in the other two underscores to me what a good filmmaker Nolan actually is, in that he is willing to try different things, to experiment. The fact that each film in the trilogy is different and can stand on its own is a testament to his abilities.

Enough of this philosophy crap. Let’s have some ‘splosions!

None of what I have written should imply that film cannot do things like be “realistic” or explore political themes, only that a film does not need to do so in order to be successful as a film. Like every art form, at its best, film presents us with a certain type of truth—a dramatic truth, in the case of film or theater. What the medium of film does almost by its nature is create a world that is essentially utopian in its purity, just as the novel can create the illusion of individual interiority and subjectivity. And especially in a movie like The Dark Knight Rises, this ought to be the main goal: to retell in an exciting, dramatic way the same utopian myth we all want to see. And Nolan has done this brilliantly in my estimation. If you want a really good exposition of political philosophy, you are going to have to read books, I’m afraid. (Perish the thought!)
But what would a more penetrating “philosophical” film look like? For a more genuinely “philosophical” film, one might want to consider the philosopher cum filmmaker Terence Malick, and his film The Tree of Life, which came out in 2011. Which I will get to eventually, so stay tuned and be there next time when I discuss the Book of Job, sexy mother figures, and the proper use of CGI—same Bat Time, same Bat Channel!

Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on August 4, 2012.

One Response to “The Dark Knight Rises; or Why Simple Hollywood Mythmaking is Preferable to Pretentious Attempts at Philosophical Depth”

  1. […] last time I wrote about Christopher Nolan, I praised the denouement of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  In the intervening years, he has […]

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