In the weeks before The Dark Knight Rises came out, I rewatched the first two Christopher Nolan batman movies. It wasn’t specifically on purpose. I’m not one of those fans who worries that he’ll miss some reference or call back or restatement of a visual theme, it just happened that way. I had only seen Batman Begins once, in the theater, and felt like seeing it again. Once I’d done that, it just made sense to rewatch The Dark Knight. Right? It makes sense! Batman Begins is really good, by the way. It’s quick and fun and there’s Batman and a monorail and while it does do what every origin story does and spend a little too long worrying about HOW THEY GOT THEIR COSTUME, at least in this case the story has a mildly interesting para-military element and isn’t just Bruce Wayne up all night at a sewing machine by the light of his dead dad’s office lamp or whatever. But for as fun as Batman Begins is, it’s practically nothing in comparison to The Dark Knight, which stands out from all other superhero movies for being such a straight up GOOD MOVIE, superhero stuff aside. The acting is real good, the plot is clever and convoluted, and there are brief but plentiful moments of artistic beauty. Sure, the commuter ferry stuff is kind of boring, and the Harvey Dent plotline is rather thin soup, but for the most part it’s just great great great. All of this is to say that I was kind of prepared to be at least mildly disappointed by the new batman movie. And I was! But only mildly! Let’s talk about it.
When I was rewatching The Dark Knight I kept remembering how many great scenes that movie had. I would be watching the opening bank robbery scene, which is just incredible, and that is when I would remember the Shanghai building jump airlift scene, which is great, and during that scene I’d remember the chase scene, and the interrogation, and the hospital, etc etc. That movie was just wall to wall fun, exciting scenes. Wowowowow! It’s hard to do the same thing with The Dark Knight Rises. There’s, what, the plane crash scene, and the first fight with Bane in the sewer scene, and the football stadium, and what else? The motorcycle chase scene is so-so. The prison stuff is dull. The final fight between Batman and Bane and the criminals and the police serves an important purpose, but it’s not like, HECK YES! It’s like good, yes, good, punch him. On the one hand, from the perspective of a person watching the movie, this makes it less “fun” than the second movie and probably less fun than the first movie, too. But it’s too simple to say that this is because the movie is “worse,” it’s not. It’s because this movie is supposed to be less fun. This movie is dark and grim and scary! It is decidedly not “fun.” And that’s the whole point. I think. So let’s take the movie on its own terms.
As a culmination of Christopher Nolan’s batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises does what it’s supposed to–raise the stakes–to an almost comical degree. A STRAIGHT UP NUCLEAR BOMB? It’s just like Chekov said: if there’s a nuclear bomb in the first act, it has to go off in the third act, because of drama. (The movie also raised the where does he get such wonderful toys stakes with “The Bat,” which was kind of annoying looking and dumb, but anyway.) This is a culmination of the first two villains, both of whom to varying degrees were trying to accomplish what Bane almost accomplishes: the sowing of nihilistic, anarchic panic as some kind of…retributive cleansing ritual for the depraved society that created these monsters in the first place? Is that about right? But so now you’ve got the nuclear bomb, and Batman is an old cripple who can’t even do nothing, although that Ace bandage that he puts on his knee that allows him to kick through brick walls seems PRETTY DOPE. It’s not enough, though, because then he gets his back broken and his mask punched in. Ouch! Batman! Are you OK?!
In addition to the raised stakes, there is also the underlying (or is it overarching?) theme of economic inequality and Occupy Wall Street and chaos vs. order and violence begets violence and what have you that has been kind of running throughout the whole saga. Elmo Keep and Maria Bustillos had a discussion about the movie over on The Awl today in which they claimed that the movie’s depressing message was a defense of billionaires to whose economic control the only alternative is deadly chaos. Well, that’s actually not THAT FAR from the truth. Look, the capitalist system is FILTHY in its attempts to consolidate and preserve wealth at the expense of millions of human beings. Hopefully one day we will fix this. But the other result of the capitalist system is that Americans, all Americans, enjoy one of the highest qualities of life in the history of the known world. (And a few developed western countries have it even better than we do!) There’s also the complex and not-at-all-clear-cut problematics of the world’s economic engines that make it so, for example, the sweat shops we all decry and loathe are actually a quantifiable benefit to the people who work there. Should everyone in the world have fair working conditions? Oh God damn it, yes, and there is no clearer example of just how unfair this life can be than the fact that we are even talking about this on a blog that it is my JOB to write. What on Earth? At the same time, the world is a fucking nightmare game of Jenga at this point, and there was a real moment when Lehmann Brothers collapsed–just as an example–when it seemed like the world as we knew it was going to end. (You could make the argument that the world as we know it has to end in order to make way for a better world, and that’s cool, but let’s not pretend like the prospect and many of the variants for the new world that are not at all better at all aren’t fucking terrifying.) The system is stupid and broken and fragile, and for the moment, it’s the best we have.
TOO BANE TO FAIL
But I disagree that The Dark Knight Rises is even saying that much of that. For one thing, it’s a goddamned comic book movie about a make believe guy who DRESSES UP LIKE A BAT AND SOMEHOW THAT IS COOL OF HIM. Of course, a superhero movie can and usually does have plenty to say about power and politics and race and nationalism. But the ultimate message of this movie did not, at least to me, seem to be some kind of coded defense of the 1 percent. For one thing, the 1 percent in the movie is not the real 1 percent. We should be so lucky as to have a 1 percent that in any way resembles Bruce Wayne, who dedicates his fortune to good works. Not that it mattered! Money did not solve any of his problems. It did not save his girlfriend. It did not save the city. It did not save the cartilage in his knees (or maybe it did, forget this last example). But when Bruce Wayne loses all his money you don’t feel bad for him. You do not feel bad for the rich people thrown out of their fifth avenue apartments. Fuck ‘em! And it’s the wealth of these guys, drained from their investment accounts and plucked from their private armories that leads to their own destruction. (The class warfare element doesn’t even make sense anyway. What is the difference between the police state of the capitalist system and the police state of Bane’s criminals?) That’s not the point. They aren’t heroes. Ultimately, what this movie was about was the fact that THE BOMB WILL GO OFF. For all of us. Maybe you can escape it for a little while, but ultimately you can’t. We’re all, in our own good time, done for. When Bane blows up the football stadium and the bridges and nothing that he says about giving the city back to its people makes any sense, you are filled with the same dread that you are filled with when you realize that absolutely nothing that you do in this life will ever keep you from dying. We are all just trapped on this island, wondering when the fire’s going to come. SUMMER BUMMER!
But, so, it was good. I don’t really like Anne Hathaway, but she was fine in this, very good at kicking. Joseph Gordon Levitt is a little bit self-righteous, but I’m sure we all forgave him because he’s the new batman now, dawg. Also, wasn’t Lucius Fox angry at Batman at the end of the last movie and says he won’t help him anymore but now he helps him some more? (If anything, the politics of power and control and money are way hazier in the second movie when Batman is basically a one-man PATRIOT ACT.) Fine. In any case, the final scene with Michael Caine and his tiny glass of Fernet Branca was great. Yay!
I do wonder why these villains are always stabbing the heroes in the side with tiny knives. It never seems to do anything! There’s always, like, two seconds where the hero gets stabbed in the side with a tiny knife right when you thought they were going to win and then you think they’re definitely going to lose but it’s always just a brief pause in the winning. That stab wound never stops them, villains! Shoot them in the face, maybe? On a similar note, why didn’t they just blow up the bomb right away? What were they really trying to prove by not blowing it up? That people would loot an apartment? We already knew that from every real riot this country has ever experienced. At the very least, why did they keep it a secret that the bomb was going to blow up no matter what? Wouldn’t that be part of the experiment? To see how people react to the total inevitability of their approaching doom? PLEASE ANSWER MY QUESTIONS BANE AND LADY BANE!
Guys? Yes or no, guys?