The Dark Knight Rises

I've been thinking for some time about how fandom reacts when its beloved auteurs fail.  When someone like Aaron Sorkin produces something as preachy, self-satisfied, and misogynistic as The Newsroom, fandom reacts with dismay, but is that surprise justified?  In Sorkin's case, all of these flaws were baked into his work going back as far as Sports Night, and they were ignored, excused, and forgiven because what he was producing was of such high quality.  Is it really surprising that a writer who has been showered with unconditional praise and adulation should feel free to indulge their worst impulses, and revel in bad habits they might previously have worked to curtail?  I mention this because going into The Dark Knight Rises, I was determined not to make this sort of mistake.  The previous volume in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, was an excellent film--thrilling, sharply plotted, one of the best superhero films of the last decade.  It also ended on a risible note, with Batman choosing to take responsibility for the crimes of crimefighter turned psychotic murderer Harvey Dent, on the belief that the people of Gotham couldn't handle the truth of Harvey's fall from grace, and that without his shining example to guide them they would fall into barbarism and criminality.  It would have been easy to ignore this troubling conclusion in favor of the excellent film that preceded it.  To do as fandom is too prone to doing, and say "yes, this story is problematic, but it's also such a good story!"  But this would be to ignore the strain of fascist authoritarianism, of Great Man fetishism, that has run through all of Nolan's Batman films.  In the trilogy's concluding volume--in which, after being relegated to observer status in The Dark Knight, Batman would once again take center stage--it seemed reasonable to assume that these problematic themes would be intensified rather than toned down.

I was prepared, in other words, for The Dark Knight Rises to be an excellent story with a contemptible message.  But what Nolan, along with brother and collaborator Jonathan, has delivered is so much more disappointing.  The Dark Knight Rises is a flabby, talky film, prone to pounding in its points with a hammer, then repeating them several times to catch up the slow audience members.  It has a silly plot whose twists, with one notable exception, are telegraphed well ahead of time, and which hangs together only because the film as a whole is too dreary to arouse the kind of scrutiny that would lay bare its many plot holes.  Most of these flaws can, indeed, be traced back to the Nolans' determination to reinforce their Randian vision of Batman as the only person who can restore Gotham to its glory.  Most noticeably, the film bogs down in its final third because the Nolans whisk Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) away from the beleaguered city for months so that he can gain enlightenment and return to Gotham even more heroic than he left it--a process that is achieved by having various Magical Foreign People spew repetitive cod-philosophy at him while he has a training montage.  But the Nolans also undercut this theme, in ways that, far from granting it the complexity it so desperately needs, only serve to neuter it.  In the end, the Nolans seem to lack the courage of their convictions.

In the early scenes of The Dark Knight Rises, there's almost a sense that the Nolans are about to back off from the high-handedness of The Dark Knight's ending.  In the eight years since that night, the sainted and hollow memory of Harvey Dent has been used to clean Gotham's streets, but only by stripping away the civil rights of those deemed criminal, and the architect of this process, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), is sick with himself over the lie that he's promulgated.  What soon becomes clear, however, is that rather than feeling shame at having lied to the people of Gotham, or at having sold them the fantasy of a savior, what irks Gordon is the fact that he's sold them the wrong savior, and that Batman remains maligned and despised.  As if to drive home the theme of unappreciated heroism, we learn in the film's opening scene that the mayor is planning to fire Gordon.  "He's a hero," Gordon's gladhanding, politically-savvy second in command protests.  "A war hero.  This is peacetime," he's told.  Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is a shut-in, his body ruined by his crimefighting escapades, his mind still reeling from the loss of his lover Rachel.   He's the subject of sneering rumor and speculation, not least from the board of his company, whose fortune he's squandered on a clean fusion project that he later shut down with no results.  He did this, we soon learn, to keep the technology out of the hands of those who could turn the reactor into a bomb.  This echoes the subplot in The Dark Knight in which Bruce builds a machine that can spy on anyone in Gotham, then destroys it after one use because no one should have such unlimited power, and nor is it the only instance of such thinking in The Dark Knight Rises--by the end of the film, the revelation that Bruce has bought yet another company, or concealed yet another technological development, to keep it out of the wrong hands, feels almost like a running joke.  The film, of course, means it entirely in earnest, and accepts that Bruce not only has the right but the authority to decide which technologies are safe enough for the general public to use.

Far from toning down The Dark Knight's message, then, The Dark Knight Rises takes it to even further extremes.  This isn't simply Batman having the moral authority to act as judge and jury on Gotham's criminals.  This is Batman--and Bruce Wayne--as John Galt, the mysterious, reclusive, omni-competent, super-rich industrialist who is the only hope for the future.  The Dark Knight Rises extends Batman's authority past crime, into technological progress, and even into social welfare--when Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Officer Blake, a Batman believer who is one of the first to uncover signs of the film's villain, starts his investigation by following up the murder of a homeless teen, he learns that the boy was kicked out of his group home because the cash-strapped Wayne Foundation has stopped funding it.  In other words, it's not just the police that needs to be augmented by a caped crusader, but every level of government that must be replaced by private enterprise and private philanthropy.  And when that private benefactor is mocked, derided, hobbled in his efforts to keep his community safe and even hunted down for those efforts--why, then he will retreat from his obligations, and the result will be disaster.

That disaster comes, fittingly enough, in the form of a people's revolution--or rather, this being that sort of movie, in the form of a revolution that claims to be on the people's behalf but is really a force of evil.  Bane (Tom Hardy, wasted under a mask that conceals most of his face and in a role that demands little of him but an imposing physique), the last surviving member of the League of Shadows, the villains of Batman Begins, arrives in Gotham seeking revenge.  He steals Bruce Wayne's fortune, defeats and disables Batman, and converts that dangerous fusion reactor from a few paragraphs ago into a nuclear bomb.  This he uses to hold the entire city hostage, an act that he describes as the liberation of Gotham's citizens--from a corrupt government, from Commissioner Gordon's lies about Harvey Dent, and from the oppression of the moneyed classes--but which is really a preamble to the bomb's inevitable explosion.  What follows is equal parts Communist and French revolutions, with Gotham's rich and powerful rousted from their homes and marched into show trials as enemies of the people--in a court which is presided over by Batman Begins's deranged (and, when last seen, committed) villain, Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who looms over the accused from atop a pile of desks.

Now might be a good time to stop and boggle at the fact that the Nolans' Batman films are renowned for their realism.  The image of Crane perched on those desks is a reassuringly Alice in Wonderland-ish touch, a hint that we're meant to take the city's sudden descent into Jacobinism with a grain of salt.  Alas, it's but a brief reprieve from the po-faced seriousness with which The Dark Knight Rises otherwise serves up this plot.  The Dark Knight managed to make comic book characters and plots seem organic to the real world because it injected a single irrational player--the Joker--into a system whose other participants, cops and criminals alike, were rational, and therefore had no idea how to approach a force whose choices and motivations they couldn't fathom.  The Dark Knight Rises fills Gotham with these irrational players--not just Bane but an army of henchmen who seem to have no recognizably human reactions or emotions, and will gladly die at Bane's command--and has them do ridiculous, cartoonish things--Bane traps Gotham's entire police force in the city's sewers, and then instead of killing them he keeps them prisoner for months, at the end of which they march out, uniforms barely mussed, ready to fight Bane's forces--all while pretending that this is a meaningful political statement.

A silly premise might have been forgivable if the film had developed its implications in interesting ways, but, much like The Legend of Korra last month, The Dark Knight Rises uses its villain as a means of avoiding those implications.  Both stories are ostensibly about the cities they are set in and the battle for their soul, and yet those cities--their culture, their norms, and most of all their people--are curiously absent.  Like Korra's Amon, Bane claims to be acting on behalf of the city's underclass, and establishes a policy of violent persecution against the upper classes.  And as we were in Korra, we are kept entirely in the dark on the question of how the people of Gotham feel about this.  Do they support Bane?  Do they oppose him?  Do they think he has the right idea but the wrong methods?  Are they, as seems most likely, divided between these options according to their social status in the pre-occupation world?  The Dark Knight Rises ignores all these questions.  The people responsible for Gotham's suffering are only Bane and his followers (whose ranks are not, as far as we can tell, swelled by Gotham's have-nots), and the people responsible for stopping him are only the few policemen who managed to evade Bane's trap, the authority figures whom he has deposed--no civilians join the resistance.  Anyone who does not fall into either of these groups is completely ignored. 

Gotham spends months under Bane's rule--months that you'd expect to have a profound impact on the social, psychological, and cultural life of the city--but upon his defeat all we see are its citizens stepping out of their homes (as if they'd spent all that time indoors), ready to resume their lives as if the very fabric of their society hadn't been ripped to shreds.  What's interesting is that the Nolans had an opportunity here to reinforce their authoritarian message and show why Batman is necessary--because when stripped of both their white knight, the lie of Harvey Dent, and their dark knight, the citizens of Gotham turn to Bane, a false savior.  The film could have shown us Gothamites turning on one another, informing on their neighbors and signing up to do Bane's bidding--the nightmare scenario that justified Batman's choice to take responsibility for Harvey Dent's crimes.  Instead, the Nolans prefer to serve up a fantasy of docile, patient goodness, of a populace content to wait for Batman to save it without doing anything--good or evil--on its own behalf.

Since Bane is planning to blow up Gotham, his claims of populism are easily dismissed--can be taken, in fact, as an attack against the very notion of popular, anti-capitalist protest.  Even more disappointing, however, is the fact that The Dark Knight Rises squanders the opportunity to address the class struggle in a more nuanced way, through the character of Catwoman.  For a lot of Batman fans, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight had to clear an impossible hurdle in the form of Jack Nicholson's turn as the character in Tim Burton's Batman.  For me, the iconic Batman villain performance is Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, and I was very nervous to see what the Nolans and Anne Hathaway would make of the character--not least because, let's face it, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have a woman problem.  It's not as pronounced as Aaron Sorkin's or Steven Moffat's--the Nolans' women are generally competent, rarely hysterical or weepy, and have interests other than landing a husband--but it has nevertheless marred most of their films, in which women are either love interests (often dead ones), or minor plot tokens with little in the way of personality or motivations.  So it was something of a surprise to discover that Hathaway's Selina Kyle, though she doesn't hold a candle to the scary intensity of Pfeiffer's performance, is one of the Nolans' best female characters (and my favorite part of the film), followed close behind by Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate, the visionary who contracts with Bruce to build the fusion reactor.  Both women have their own agenda and aspirations which are given their own space in the narrative, not just as they reflect on the hero's journey or his feelings--the first time this has been true of a woman in a Nolan film since Carrie-Ann Moss's character in Memento.  Hathaway's Selina, in particular, has her own arc of growth over the course of the film, and she is also the one who gets to defeat Bane (though only after it's revealed that he is actually the film's secondary villain).  At the film's end, she is the only character in the cast whose further adventures I'd like to learn about.

All that said,  the cost of this compelling character arc is that Catwoman's rough edges are filed off, and with them her politics.  Perhaps wisely given their track record with female characters, the Nolans choose to veer away from the angry feminist slant that Burton gave Catwoman, and instead make her a class warrior.  A jewel thief, she justifies her crimes simply by the fact that she steals from those who have so much, and tells Bruce Wayne that "you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."  Unlike Bane, Selina says things like this in earnest, and also unlike him, she is for the most part a sympathetic character, whose moments of villainy are usually the result of straitened circumstances rather than malice, and whose bitterness over having been dealt a bad hand that has forced her to make increasingly bad choices shines through her disaffected mask and lends moral authority to her views.  Through her, then, the film could have given us another perspective on the class struggle that Bane sparks, one that could have suggested that he is playing on a legitimate grievance.  Instead, the film uses the earnestness of Selina's convictions to dismantle them.  When she sees the violence that has accompanied Bane's revolution, the suffering of the rich whom she had previously reviled, Selina repents of her desire for revolution, and by the end of the film she is fighting by Batman's side to defeat Bane.  The message here is clear--capitalism, however predatory, is still better than the alternative--and it's Selina's own believability as an enemy of capitalism that helps to sell it.  What's more, the fact that she's positioned as a love interest for Bruce Wayne--the very representative of everything she despises--helps to undercut Selina's convictions, which are overpowered by her affections for Bruce.  One can't help but compare this turnaround to Pfeiffer's last scene in Batman Returns, in which she tells Batman "I would love to live with you in your castle ... I just couldn't live with myself."  That Catwoman had the strength to give up what she wanted for the sake of her beliefs; the Nolans' Catwoman doesn't.

Of course, by the time this turnaround happens, Batman himself has backed away from the authoritarianism, the Randian dogma, that permeated the first half of the film.  The crux of Bruce's long sojourn away from the city (which is the reason that Bane's occupation of Gotham lasts so long despite the fact that the film can't convincingly portray the effects of such an ordeal, and indeed glosses over most of that period as far as Gotham is concerned) is that he is courting death.  This echoes Albert's repeated admonitions in the film's first half, and indeed the tone of the entire film is slanted to both warn us and lead us to expect Batman's death.  In case we weren't clear on just what kind of death he's heading towards, the film has Selina offer to leave Gotham with Bruce, because "you don't owe these people any more.  You've given them everything."  "Not everything.  Not yet," is his reply.  And if that were not enough, the film's surprise villain stabs Batman in the side.  That's right.  After three films, including one of most critically lauded superhero film in years, and a mass of critical and fannish buzz building up to a consensus on the uniqueness and depth of the Nolans' vision for Batman, their final statement on the character is: Batman as Jesus.  The same tired, unoriginal, hokey theme that has shown up in just about every superhero film in the last decade.  (Adding insult to injury is the fact that Batman's self-sacrifice is nothing of the sort; though he tells the other characters that he is embarking on a suicide mission, he knows that he has a chance of survival and has merely chosen to fake his death.  The film, in its fetishizing of this "death," completely ignores this inconvenient wrinkle.)

At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Blake, who has spent the film as Batman's de facto apprentice, laments to Gordon that no one will know who truly saved Gotham.  This is such a whiny thing to say that it's unbelievable--who cares who saved the city or whether they're acknowledged?  Surely what's important is that the city was saved, and surely that's all a true hero would care about?  But Gordon himself seems to be of Blake's mind--the last thing he says to Batman before sending him off to what he thinks is his death is that Gotham deserves to know who saved it.  The conclusion that both Gordon and Blake reach is that Gotham knows who its hero is--it's Batman, whether or not the city knows that Bruce Wayne was the man behind the mask.  And indeed, Gotham unveils a statue of Batman in one of the film's final scenes, even as Blake, who has resigned from the police force (because, he says, he now feels that the system is preventing him from doing good), discovers the Batcave and becomes the new Batman.  But this is only to reinforce the mealy-mouthed conclusion to which the Nolans' have brought their vision of Batman the Great Man.  The truly authoritarian, Frank Miller-style Batman doesn't care about the public's accolades--nor, indeed, their condemnation.  He acts because he believes his strength and competence give him the authority to act and the ability to know which act is right, regardless of what the public or government think of him or try to do to him.  A work like Miller's The Dark Knight Returns forces its readers to face up to the inherent fascism of such a worldview, and challenges them to either fall in line or get out of the way.  The Nolans, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it too.  Their Batman, Blake's Batman, and even Bruce Wayne's Batman are all Batmen in desperate need of approval.  They want a moral authority that transcends government and the will of the people, but they also want the government and the people to like and appreciate them.

As objectionable as I find the Great Man fetishism of the Nolans' Batman films, I might have still respected it had they, like Miller, taken it to its logical conclusion, but instead the Nolans' Batman trilogy concludes not with an examination of Batman's right to act, but with a reinforcement of the notion that it is tragic that his actions are not properly appreciated.  In this scheme, the persecution that Batman suffers isn't just the cost of doing business, but a necessary component of his apotheosis.  Like Jesus on the cross, he has to be mocked and tormented by a small-minded mob before he turns around and magnanimously saves them all.  What The Dark Knight Rises amounts to is a great, self-pitying cry of You'll see, one day I'll be dead and then you'll be sorry.  I'm mainly sorry that I didn't stop with the previous film.


Anonymous said…
A while ago, Deepa D. had a post about words you'd want to be mainstream. I didn't comment at the time, but reading this, all I can think is that you could basically replace the whole thing with manpain (perhaps repeated several times, with varying emphasis, exclamation marks, and so forth) and be done with it.

(And looking at comments at Deepa's, I see that manpain was suggested there a couple times, unsurprisingly.)
Unknown said…
Great analysis, but I think you mean Alfred rather than Albert. I agree with everything you say, except about Hardy as Bane. There was more to the performance than than just being muscled. The wrestler-like cockiness and confidence with which he carried himself combined with his self-amused, sing-songy voice helped to make him a frightening figure, and I think the actor deserves some kudos for that. Other than that bright spot, though, the film was a boring, muddled mess.
r smith said…
I haven't seen this film yet, nor am I in any hurry to. I'll have to completely disagree with you about the previous; I feel that The Dark Knight is one of the most overrated films not only in the last decade, but in the history of film. Over-long, derivative and predictable, I saw the purportedly transcendent theme to be obvious and rather dull. The performances of Heath Ledger and Michael Caine were the only parts of the movie I could stand, and those were impressive indeed, but not enough to save this bloated, conceited, not-even-sophisticated-enough-to-be-pretentious film. Christian Bale, a decent actor himself, is COMPLETELY wrong for Bruce Wayne/Batman, and always was. Batman Begins was atrocious, The Dark Knight even worse, and I therefore have no reason to suspect that the third film would be any better. I'll wait for a coupon at my local video store, or Netflix instant. Either way, I can DEFINITELY wait.
Anonymous said…
My big beef with the movie is that the fusion bomb is just so hellishly complicated to introduce on-stage. Why not just use a homemade nuke on a timer? Aside from the in-joke of Talia supporting green energy, the only benefit it seems to offer is another example of how Bruce Wayne's initially promising efforts to help Gotham inevitably fail, and there have to be better ways to service that theme. It echoes the weird sci-fi overreach in "Begins", as if the trilogy feels an ashamed compulsion to out-ham Doctor Evil in the midst of being hard 'n gritty. Weaponized fear toxin? Sure. Weaponized fear toxin released by using a microwave superweapon to vaporize the city's water supply? Eh....

And for all that the movie ends on a positive note, I can't help but think of the Joker's speech in TDK, about how the mere presence of Batman has changed things forever and there's no returning to the old order. Even Bruce's "death" doesn't put an end to Batman, the idea lives on in Blake. Which in turn means there will be another Joker or Bane or Talia to rise up and challenge Blake, subjecting Gotham to another round of horrific supervillainy. Again and again and again.
Sean Amber said…
I quite agree with every thing you say here, Abigail, but my main objection to the film is how terribly written is the script. There is hardly a single thing that makes any sense. Plot holes make their quite conspicuous appearence every five minutes and character motivations are on holiday. Alfred leaves Wayne Manor why exactly? Blake intuits Batman's identity? Talia poses as Wayne's ally to what purpose? The nuclear bomb has a decay rate that can be quantified to the second? No matter how mishandled the greater themes may be, this alone would've made the movie a sloppy affair, which doesn't even have the redeeming quality of being fun.

In fairness, you'd probably have a hard time telling a story about Batman - a character motivated by his anger over the murder of his parents - without featuring even a bit of manpain. But it's true that the Nolans' Batman takes this to new extremes - most notably by adding a refrigerated love interest to the dead parents. The nadir of this attitude in The Dark Knight Rises is a scene in which Bruce, having learned that Alfred lied to him about Rachel's choice to leave him before her death, cuts ties with the man who's been his father for thirty years. For me that was the moment when I checked out of caring about what might happen to this whiny, self-pitying person.


I think you mean Alfred rather than Albert


It's possible that I'm being too hard on Bane because I found his overdubbed voice so obviously and distractingly false. This was clearly a response to complaints that Bane was unintelligible in the film's early trailers, but the needle seems to have swung too far in the other direction. Still, I maintain that the mask hobbles what should have been a terrifying performance.


In the comments to this post by Scott Erik Kaufman there's a persuasive argument that Nolan's original vision for The Dark Knight was as a face-off between Batman and Harvey Dent, and that Heath Ledger's scene-stealing tilted the film in the Joker's direction and distorted its intended message and story. Whether or not that's true, I think there's an argument to be made that the film works simply because of the Joker and the way the story that surrounds him builds. That says, it's been several years since I was the film. I was very impressed by it at the time, but it hasn't lingered well enough that I could mount a coherent defense of it now - which may be a point against it.


The problems with the bomb as a McGuffin fall, to my mind, under the umbrella of the film's unacknowledged cartoonishness. There comes a point where what's happening on screen is so ridiculous that the film's serious tone becomes unsustainable - for me this was the politics, but you're right that the quasi-SFnal technology is also a problem.


Yes, it's a sloppy script. I'm most annoyed by the fact that we never find out how Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after escaping from Bane's prison. I suspect the answer is that the Nolans handwave that by no means trivial achievement because they couldn't come up with a convincing solution for it.
Anonymous said…
This film had me from start to finish and that was just exactly what I wanted, especially from the last installment in this perfect trilogy. It’s going to be a shame not seeing Christopher Nolan doing Batman flicks anymore, but maybe this will allow him to pull off some more original flicks like The Prestige and Inception. Look forward to his future. Good review Abigail.
Anonymous said…
I'm most annoyed by the fact that we never find out how Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after escaping from Bane's prison.

I suppose the intention there was, "Recovering and getting out of the pit was his big challenge; in comparison to that, getting back to Gotham should be no problem for someone as resourceful as The Batman."

But that didn't really work for me: these three films have presented themselves as having a strong emphasis on plausibility (at least superficial plausibility), and so I wanted something a little more specific than that.

I quite liked not being told exactly where the pit prison was, and I didn't mind not being shown exactly how Bruce was able to cross the frozen Gotham river (the scene in Batman Begins where we saw Ra's al Ghul teaching him to "mind his surroundings" on thin ice was enough of an explanation for me). But there should have been some hint of how he got back to the US: a phone call to Alfred, reconciling with him and asking for his help, perhaps?
I found your assessment of the movie spot on. I was also wondering when this movie was going to make sense. At least the other two films had better plotlines. I started to suspect that this film was suffering from 'committee-itis' (ya'know, somebody telling the Nolans they had to include this scene or that scene or this effect etc). The "vision" of the movie was all over the place, and as a result, got so muddled, it was hard to really care about the characters. And then I started thinking about the price of the ticket I just paid for this three hour ball of wax ( a huge "no no" in Hollywoodland). I'll be honest, though, I wasn't a fan of the Bane arc of the Batman comics, so I went into the theatre with VERY LOW expectations, and yet,I was still bummed out. Too much Bruce Wayne, not enough Batman. Too much angst, not enough action. Too many "off camera" resolutions and not enough clever interactions (ala H.L.'s Joker).
Christopher Nolan says he wants to do a Catwoman movie with Hathaway and I can see why. She was good in the role (and in the suit) and I have a strong feeling he was probably thinking up 'cool stuff' for that movie, and was less focused on this one. Plus, I imagine a Catwoman movie would not have the same kind of uber-oversight 'board of directors' type thing that a Batman movie incurs. I'm guessing here... As far as the ending goes, I like to imagine that Catwoman just hangs with Bruce for awhile and then (like every other millionaire playboy) ends up leaving him with a bag of his money and disappears. Hey, it could happen... She's freaking Catwoman.
Anonymous said…
I'm most annoyed by the fact that we never find out how Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after escaping from Bane's prison. I suspect the answer is that the Nolans handwave that by no means trivial achievement because they couldn't come up with a convincing solution for it.

"Batman Begins" offers a good explanation for this, as Bruce spent a few years living on his own without money, trying to understand the criminal mind by living as one of them. So he should know how to get by on his own. Chalk it up to another example of "Rises" leaning heavily on the first movie in order to understand it.

As for getting back into Gotham itself, there's the Batplane. The last time we see it before he gets that signal jammer for Morgan Freeman's character, he parks it in the Batcave after intercepting Bane's men following their attack on the stock exchange. So I presume that he went to Wayne Manner, which wouldn't be quarantined since it's not on the main island, flew the Batplane in under the cover of darkness and parked it on top of that skyscraper.
Lewis J. said…
This film was a mess. Nolan is an interesting but somewhat limited filmmaker and his reputation is out of proportion to his fandom and critical accolades. This is not to say that he is untalented, but his stories suffer because he’s prone to emphasize narrative themes instead of narrative plot. That is to say, he’s so interested in presenting an interesting and challenging set of ideas to his audience that he doesn’t seem to pay close attention to tightening his dramatic structure. You can see this as early as Memento. Early in the film, Leonard says that the last thing he remembers is his wife dying but later tells Teddy about the subsequent investigation, from memory. You can see this in Batman Begins, half of which was taken up with Thomas Wayne, Alfred, Bruce, Rachael, and Ra’s talking about crime, grief, duty, and “falling down.” (Why do we fall down? So we can get back up again. Ugh) Nolan does a better job when he can find ways to fuse his ideas with his plot. The Joker’s philosophy matches perfectly with his violence and the cycle of retribution in The Prestige (Nolan’s best film) matches perfectly with the pronouncements the characters make when confronting each other.

In The Dark Knight Rises, however, this tendency of Nolan’s gets completely out of control. He’s so busy writing philosophical speeches for his characters he ignores gaping holes in his plot. For instance, when Bane attacks the Gotham Stock Exchange and manipulates the computer system to bankrupt Bruce Wayne, why is it difficult for Bruce to prove that the transactions were fraudulent? He wasn’t present at the exchange, there’s video of Bane attacking the security guards, multiple witnesses who saw Bane’s henchmen take the trade floor hostage with guns, multiple witnesses who saw them tamper with the computer system, officials outside warn that Bane could use the exchange computers to tamper with people’s money, and, later, Bruce, as Batman, recovers the computer that Bane used to make the fraudulent transactions, which has a record of all the transactions made. Yet somehow, despite all this evidence, they can’t prove fraud. This problem pales in comparison to how Bruce makes his way back from wherever the pit was. Is everyone in Gotham, including Batman, blind and stupid? Nolan stages all this so he can further his discussions about wealth and poverty and the class tensions between the rich and poor by making Bruce suffer with those whom he’d never before had contact. Only, those discussions don’t work then they’re based upon events that couldn’t plausibly happen in the real world without everyone suffering from either collective amnesia or stupidity.

I appreciate that Nolan wants to give his films thematic underpinnings but he needs to refocus on writing cogent narratives first or else those themes are going to fail. Social or philosophical themes aren’t meaningful when the characters behave in ways that are alien to how real people would behave in the real world. You can’t explain this problem away by claiming that The Dark Knight Rises is just a “superhero” movie. Superhero movies, like all movies, work because they present humans who act in ways similar to the ways that ordinary people would if confronted with a situation similar to that in the narrative. Spiderman behaves the way a person would if they were suddenly granted extraordinary powers. Batman behaves the way a person would if they were rich, well-trained, and confronted with a crime ridden city bedeviled by a corrupt and ineffective police force. The X-Men behave the way people would if mutants with superpowers really did start springing up. That realism is what allows superhero movies to function. When it’s ignored, as it is in TDKR, the movie fails.
sfortune said…
Some more wrong questions about the movie....

About the prison:
Why is there a rope in a prison? Why is a man holding a rope to let people fall 30ft after a failed jump? Why does the rope hang above the level of the jump? Why is there a rope waiting to be let down on top of the prison? Why is Bane not informed about someone escaping the prison, when he is in charge about the prison?

And... about the villain:
Why does Miranda (the main villain) has millions to spend with the rich and famous to arrange diner parties? Why does Miranda have sex with Bruce Wayne and asks him to leave Gotham City with her?

I hope someone can help me with this.....
Bill K said…
To sfortune:

1) The rope leading up and out of the prison is meant as a sick joke to crush the spirits of prisoners. As Bane explains to Bruce Wayne as he dumps him there (as recorded on IMDb):

Bruce Wayne: Why didn't you just... kill me?

Bane: You don't fear death... You welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe.

Bruce Wayne: Torture?

Bane: Yes. But not of your body... Of your soul.

Bruce Wayne: Where am I?

Bane: Home, where I learned the truth about despair, as will you. There's a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth... Hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy... So simple... Many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope. So, as I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamoring over each other to "stay in the sun." You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny... We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to die.

As for why Bane isn't informed about Bruce's escape, I can only assume it's stereotypical supervilliany hubris. :)

2) As best I can recall, the movie doesn't definitively explain how Talia al Ghul got the money to support her supervillainy long-simmering "revenge is a dish best served cold" plan to insinuate herself into Gotham's high society as Miranda Tate before unleashing her plan that will ultimately just destroy Gotham with a makeshift neutron bomb. That said, there was the brief mention in the movie by Talia that her father Ras eventually took revenge on the "warlord" who condemned her pregnant mother into the prison. As such, Ras and then Talia might've come into a solid, warlording revenue stream. And besides, they're the successive heads of the League of Shadows! What good is an Illuminati-esque secret society that decides when civilizations should fall if that doesn't come with a substantial expense account. ;)
As for why she sleeps with Bruce Wayne:

a) She needs to gain his trust to get access to the fusion reactor she wants to turn into a neutron bomb.

b) Bruce killed her father Ras. Recall that

i) Ras let her mom and herself fester in some hell-on-earth prison pit roughly a decade, never mustering the wherewithal to rescue them until she miraculously escapes on her own, and then

ii) Ras, adding insult to injury, ostracizes Bane from the League of Shadows because Bane being the only man who was decent enough to protect his wife and daughter while they festered in the aforementioned hell-on-earth prison pit reminded Ras too much of his failures.

So, in short, beyond any practical plan to use her feminine wiles to trick Bruce Wayne into giving her access to the fusion reactor, Talia/Miranda was probably working out some freakishly major Daddy issues by sleeping with Bruce.
Anonymous said…
We actually don't understand all the criticism, this was by far the best movie we have EVER seen!

Hope that you guys agree.

Z said…
At a certain point I think one has to conclude that Batman's power is being the one Randian ubermensch in the world who actually does the right thing. The most charitable interpretation might call him a Margaret Meade-inspired "thoughtful, committed citizen"- both liberals and conservatives have uses for mythological rulebreakers. That may lead to a bit of fence-straddling, but I don't think the results are entirely execrable. The mere fact that Nolan thinks highly enough of his viewers to construct puzzlebox plots allows me to excuse that they occasionally snarl.

While it could have used more lip service in this outing, I feel that all three films did nod in the direction of Batman being a morally problematic creation- Gordon expressing concern about escalation in the first, Bruce himself contributing to Harvey Dent as the legal, desirable alternative to Batman, and in this final chapter in the form of Alfred lecturing Bruce for not offering his resources to the police or the city at large. All three seem to suggest that Batman is first and foremost a response to corruption, and a transient one at that, and while that might still make my democracy-loving skin crawl, it is at least defensible- revolutionaries and whistleblowers and the like, regardless of political disposition or eventual outcome, are inherently outside the rules.

I will heartily agree that more screen time should have been directed towards the notion that Bane is digging in fertile ground, and that Bruce, as his adversary, is in a problematic position visa via the people he has sworn to defend. Having Bane employ street kids was a start, but then he's shooting them and is planning on incinerating them all in a few months, and Batman is clobbering them after they pull old men from their beds and the thread falters. If Gotham's sequestration was meant to recall the French Revolution, we could have used a bit of acknowledgement of the ambiguity of that revolt here-perhaps in the form of one of the aformentioned street kids spending some time as a viewpoint character. Similarly, it might have been less rapidly authoritarian if Batman's resistance forces had included some ordinary citizens (maybe the little boy from the Narrows in Batman Begins) and not just cops and Wayne Enterprises honchos.

Bane (and Raz al-Ghul before him) both suggest that they are necessary evil, a sort of cultural rototiller, but if that was the case, Bane would simply have set off the bomb, or would have used it exclusively for its blackmail value- the whole timebomb element was notably problematic. Having Bane be wholly craven wasn't a wise choice- devoting more time to Bane's history of suffering, and noting that in his case, it led him to a dark and terrible place, might have been another way of suggesting that Bruce's extralegal choices are not legitimized by his suffering, and that he strays very close to his enemies.

Sigh..what can I say. I want a Batplane.
Andrew Lavigne said…
I'm still stunned that Nolan directed a "revolution film" that ignores the common people except for in dialogue. The finale is begging for one of those scenes where someone comes in and rallies the people to fight, but instead Batman rallies the (fascist) police?

There's even lead ups to it: a lot of Dark Knight revolves around people's perceptions of Batman (the Batmen who imitate him, etc.), we have Blake set up a side kick, Selina seems to be inspired by him in the same way the Batmen were (as Joker said, he changed things), and the presence of the children who tag the city with white bats.

Nolan would even get to ironically quote the earlier scene of Bane being devoured by the crowd of prisoners by having Bane be swallowed by the common people he claimed to be "saving"!

The fact that it ends up being so similar to the Avengers is disheartening. (No people are affected by the events, heroes are "Above" everyone.) At least Amazing Spider-Man understands the value of class and blue collar heart.
Anonymous said…
The Dark Knight, was an excellent film--thrilling, sharply plotted, one of the best superhero films of the last decade... The Dark Knight Rises is a flabby, talky film, prone to pounding in its points with a hammer, then repeating them several times to catch up the slow audience members.

To me, both films are very badly plotted, very talky and very audience bludgeoning. I like them both despite this (for the individual scenes and the supporting characters) but I think it is completely wrong to draw such a sharp contrast between the too. For example, the cobblers with the bomb is no different to the cobblers with the Joker's explosives and serve the same two purposes: spectacle and opening broad moral questions.

The bomb itself is a huge silliness and completely unnecessary since it is just a ten-a-penny 4 megaton nuke. You could probably pick one up for a couple of groats in that nice, clean Hell on Earth sicular prison. But I think it is the pattern you identify - "by the end of the film, the revelation that Bruce has bought yet another company, or concealed yet another technological development, to keep it out of the wrong hands, feels almost like a running joke" - is spot on and the real problem with the film. The Nolans are repeating themselves

Oh and on Bane, I'm with Brendan. In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane says Bane's mask is "a disastrous burden for Tom Hardy, whose mouth, sensual and amused for such a tough customer, is his defining feature." True enough but I do still think you get a bit of that in his voice, regardless of the fact it is overdubbed.
Niall said…
"The bomb itself is a huge silliness and completely unnecessary since it is just a ten-a-penny 4 megaton nuke"

No it isn't; they make a big deal about the fact that it's a novel type of bomb that nobody knows how to disarm (except for putting it back in its cradle, which is also ruled out) -- which structures the choices made at the film's climax.

It's also the major example of *positive* technology that Bruce hides from the world. It's one thing to say society isn't ready for high-tech weaponry, or for identity-erasing software; it's another to say people shouldn't have clean energy because it has weapon potential. The bomb is one worse than the Joker, it's a problem Batman causes by choice, rather than simply by existing, and as such it's one of the strongest elements of critique of Batman in the film.

I actually ended up rewatching both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in the last week, and having done so I am certainly inclined to withdraw the "sharply plotted" part of my description of the latter - possibly to be replaced with "impeccably paced," since the film's saving grace is that its story moves swiftly and compellingly enough that the problems with its plot don't register until the credits have rolled.

That said, I don't agree that "the cobblers with the bomb is no different to the cobblers with the Joker's explosives." For one thing, The Dark Knight itself draws a distinction between the two McGuffins in the scene in which the Joker burns his enormous fee for killing Batman because "I like knives, guns, and gasoline, and what they all have in common is that they're cheap." The Joker is a low-tech guy whose genius is in finding new, inventive, and most of all, as I say in the review, irrational ways of using very simple tools. Bane's bomb, in contrast, is a high-tech thingamabob. Which - and this is my second objection to your comparison - isn't a problem in itself. I hope I'm not so demanding as to be unwilling to cope with absurdly SFnal plot tokens in a superhero movie. The crazy-making gas in Batman Begins, for example (and the microwave weapon that would spread that gas through the city by aerosolizing the city's water supply) didn't phase me at all.

No, the problem isn't the bomb but the way it's used in the plot, and more importantly, the way it and the threat it represents are reacted to - the city's cowed acceptance of Bane's rule, the absence of civilians among both Bane's forces and the resistance, the cheerful tolerance of Terror-style tactics, the trapped police officers' readiness to fight after five months of incarceration. These are the heart of the film, and they make no sense.

In fairness, you are right that the very same problem afflicts The Dark Knight, which is also a story that works only if you accept that no one in it behaves like a normal human being, from the Gotham police's inability to grasp that they are repeatedly walking into the Joker's traps, to the Joker's preternatural ability to infiltrate and corrupt even the most secure and secret echelons of Gotham's government and law enforcement. The difference, as I say, is in the two films' pacing, but more importantly it's in where the films place their thematic weight. In The Dark Knight, that weight lies in the conflict between Batman and the Joker (or, you could argue, in the Joker alone) and the implausibility of the plot only serves to highlight it. In The Dark Knight Rises, the film's emphasis is on its most ridiculous aspects - on Bane's revolution and its implications for Gotham's citizens and leaders. It draws attention to, rather than distracting from, its own plot holes and implausibility.

On the Nolans repeating themselves, I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do think they are writers with very limited palettes which are close to being exhausted (an earlier version of this review made more of the similarities between them and Sorkin, as well as Steven Moffat, but I haven't quite got a handle on that argument yet). Interestingly, it's the rumored Catwoman movie that gives me hope. She's the freshest thing in the film, and for the Nolans to have recognized that - or been driven to recognizing it by her positive reception - may indicate a willingness to extend themselves.

You had me until "[the bomb is] one of the strongest elements of critique of Batman in the film." That critique is yours, not the film's. The film validates Bruce's choice to withhold the clean energy technology, not only by confirming his fears that the reactor might be turned into a bomb, but by revealing that this was always its purpose - that Miranda Tate came to Bruce with the reactor idea so that he could build her a bomb, thus sullying the technology at its source.
Niall said…
I disagree very strongly. The revelation about Tate merely highlights and reinforces that Bruce made the wrong choice. Had he gone public with the reactor, Bane/Tate's scheme would very likely have been derailed, on the presumption that a) other people would have had the opportunity to study and understand the technology, b) it would have been rather better protected, and c) conditions in Gotham (and elsewhere) would have been improved, leaving less fertile ground for Bane's rhetoric.

Now, none of this is to say that Bane/Tate couldn't have come up with an alternate scheme, but I think the film is very clear that Bruce made the wrong call about the reactor.
Once again, you're imposing your own views on the film even though it doesn't support them. Clearly, in the real world, Bruce makes the wrong decision when he conceals the reactor. Clearly in the real world it's the job of government to regulate and secure power sources and hazardous technology. But the world of the Batman films is a world in which nearly every function of government has either been abandoned or superseded by private individuals, in which law enforcement, welfare, and yes, the regulation of technology, have been left to vigilantes, industrialists, and philanthropists. You and I can agree that that's a bad thing, but the films don't.

Is there a single shred of evidence that the film expects us to condemn Bruce for not handing the reactor over to the government? The fact that it is turned into a bomb doesn't count - that's circular reasoning, assuming that the film takes place in a world in which government intervention is a viable option and then taking the bomb's creation as condemnation of the fact that that intervention wasn't invoked. When one could just as easily take the bomb's creation as condemnation of Bruce's failure to hide the reactor as well as he could, or even destroy it. He could have flooded the reactor as soon as he lost his company, but he holds back because of its potential as a power source, and chooses to entrust it to Miranda. I think it's that failure that the film condemns, which is a reading that seems to me to be supported by the trilogy's worldbuilding and the cast it puts over Bruce's choices, whereas your reading isn't.

The fact that Bruce arrogates to himself the right to decide what happens to the reactor and doesn't invoke the government's powers at any point is a valid criticism, but it's a criticism against the film, not within it.
Niall said…
The problem is that I reject your framework. I don't think the Nolan Batfilms take place in a world where government and other systems cannot work; I think they take place in a world where such institutions often fail, and the central question is how to make them work, how long they can made to work for. The answers, consistently, are that they need symbols to guide and inspire them, and that this will work for a little while. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne searches for a lawful replacement for Batman -- and finds one, but only by constructing another symbol, another mythology, to supersede that of Batman. The Dark Knight Rises similarly ends with the removal of Batman as active agent, but this time the symbol that remains is Batman himself, albeit transfigured from vigilante to noble self-sacrificer. I think the implication of Blake's ascension is that the cycle will go round again: things will fall out of balance in some way, the heroic individual will act to restore the balance, and will in doing so cancel themselves out.

Now, I am more optimistic about the world and collective action than that, but as a framework for fiction dramatising the role of the individual within society this works fine. And it means that I see the films as constantly asking, "to what extent should an individual act? What is justified?"; I see them asking us to judge every action that Bruce or Batman take. Not entirely neutrally -- it does feel like there's a thumb on the scales at points -- but leaving space for a viewer to disagree.

So far as hiding technology goes, for me, one of the key points, as I already mentioned, is that the things Bruce hides are not equal. Add to this the fact that Bruce at the start of The Dark Knight Rises is wearier and more cynical than in The Dark Knight -- not in heroic mode yet -- and there seems to me to be an unavoidable, implicit appeal to the audience: which of these decisions is justified, which is not? Military technology: you can make a case that not putting weapons into general production is a good thing. The clean slate: you can make a less convincing case that the harm would outweigh the benefit. Clean energy with the potential to be weaponised: you really struggle to make much of a case at all for that. In this context, it seems screamingly obvious to me that we're being encouraged to see hiding the reactor as -- at best -- a big strategic error on Bruce's part. Handing it over to Miranda seems to me a further error not because she's evil, but because he is acting for the wrong reasons. He's not handing it over because he's started to trust the people, he's handing it over because he personally is no longer powerful enough to protect and shepherd it; and so he hands it over to someone who abuses it.

I have no doubt this feels as alien to you as reading your review did to me! I do think it's fascinating that we've come to such diametrically opposed readings of the film. I suspect the major reason why is that I didn't feel hectored to admire Bruce Wayne or Batman; I'll be interested to watch it a second time, with your reading in mind, to see if that holds up.
Anonymous said…

Tim O'Neil has a review (linked below) that looks at the TDKR from more of a comic nerd perspective, but the real draw is in the comments section, where there's a discussion about the differing ways Bane's revolution is viewed from a Russian POV verses American POV.

Leaving aside the question of whether there's a meaningful difference between a system in which the government is inherently incapable of performing its regulatory function and one in which it is theoretically capable but has failed in practice, where I strongly disagree with you is your assumption that the films' treatment of law enforcement, welfare, and the regulation of technology - and the effectiveness of individuals taking over from government in each of these spheres - is identical. You are right that the trilogy assumes that there ought to be a functioning law enforcement system, and that a vigilante is but a substitute for it. There is even a degree of ambivalence in the films - particularly The Dark Knight - over whether Batman actually succeeds in this role.

But that's the Batman part of the film. Philanthropy and industry are the Bruce Wayne part of it, and in those spheres there is absolutely no indication that his actions are intended to compensate for the government's failure. Rather, the world the films construct is one in which welfare and the regulation of technology are left to the rich and powerful, and no one seems to think that this is a failure along the lines of the GCPD's corruption and incompetence. Consider, for example, that there are no analogues to Gordon or Blake who represent Gotham's welfare apparatus (the closest we get is the boys' home administrator, but he's entirely passive and quickly superseded by Blake) - even if Bruce's function is to inspire the system to work properly, there is in the films no system to inspire. When Blake learns that Gotham throws foster children on the streets when they turn 16, he responds with utter equanimity. When he learns that the Wayne Foundation has stopped paying for those boys to stay in their home, he's incensed - and Bruce Wayne accepts his anger. At the end of the film, Bruce parallels his rescuing of the city by rescuing the boys (the same boys who were condemned to die by the policemen guarding Gotham's bridges) when he donates his house as a group home. There is in this ending none of the ambivalence that accompanies Batman's actions - Blake's reaction, in particular, seems to indicate that it represents Bruce fulfilling his proper role.

The reactor, meanwhile, is clearly a parallel to the train in Batman Begins, a project initiated, designed, funded and built by Bruce's parents, and maintained (or rather allowed to fall into disrepair) by Wayne Enterprises. Thomas Wayne builds the train as a way of helping Gotham's poor, which is also Bruce's purpose with his clean energy project. The film presents this entirely positively - as the healthy and proper alternative to Bruce's nocturnal activities. There's never a suggestion that either Bruce or Thomas are acting because the government has failed to act, but because they're the only ones who can. In Batman Begins, we also learn that after the murder of Bruce's parents, the other wealthy people of Gotham were galvanized into pulling the city out of the economic depression it had been mired in - and again, there's no suggestion that they had to do so because government wasn't doing its job.

To draw a distinction between law enforcement (as the proper, and perhaps even primary, function of government), welfare (which is something that ought to be left to the charitably inclined rich), and regulation (which ought not to exist at all as it stifles innovation and business) is of course a common conservative stance, and one that I think is amply supported by the trilogy's worldbuilding, not least the way it positions Gotham's wealthy - and particularly the Waynes - less as capitalists than as aristocrats, who act on behalf of Gotham's poor out of a sense of noblesse oblige.

have no doubt this feels as alien to you as reading your review did to me!

I don’t think what you’re saying is alien. I just don’t think it’s supported by the text.
The Phrase 2012 said…
I truly enjoyed reading all of these well thought-out posts. It's like a think tank on how this film should/could have been completed to make one feel better about the movie.

I for one enjoyed this entertaining trip to the theater. As a fan of Batman, the Nolan's fooled me as this isn't a superhero movie as much as traditional hero legend disguised as a Batman movie. It hasn't, nor should it, have had anything to do with the citizen's of Gotham. It is the Legend of Batman. It is about how on the 3rd day, Batman Rises in all of the citizen's of Gotham. They were lemmings before Batman and needed this Legend to move them forward. Every Citizen of Gotham is Batman, not just Robin John Blake, but every person that refuses to allows either the government, big business, or the League of Shadows run their lives.

As with any Legend story or tale, the storyteller rarely focus on the citizens around hero. They are usually collateral damage representing the downtrodden masses that will be greatly effected in the end. The Legend is intended to focus on the Hero and those few key players (Apostles/Argonauts)assisting the Hero. I know it would have been nice to see the Regular Joe rise up out of his home to join the fight against tyranny, but that comes after the Hero dies. That comes as a direct result of the empowerment that this type of Legend creates inside of all Gothamites. The Legend of the Batman will forever change the citizen's of Gotham and empower them to no longer sit on their hands and wait to see what happens. It is so wonderfully shown in The Dark Knight when neither the citizens nor the convicts push the button to blow the other boat up. They are afraid and have no source material to guide them (no god, no hero to emulate). Gotham is run by business only. One convict takes the trigger and throws it out the window - Beautiful symbolism revealing the window into empowerment that will come to more after the Legend of Batman is told and retold.

Batman dies in order to give hope to the people around the hero. The fact that Batman actually dies but Bruce lives is a clever end to the character arc of Bruce Wayne. As we see in the end, there is a statue of Batman for all of the citizens of Gotham to pay homage to. (This was my favorite part of the movie). It's what we do to honor our hero's, our god's. Batman made a promise to his parents - By empowering every citizen of Gotham to rise and fight against the forces of evil fulfilled this promise allowing Bruce to put his inner demon's to rest and live the life his parents and Alfred intended for him to live.

Christians are called out to be "Christlike" in their actions, and in this movie, Gotham City is from this point forward will be "Batlike". The Legend of Batman will now allow others to follow in the footsteps of Batman thus opening the door for more masked hero's to rise up and defend the city. Yes, this potentially creates chaos, but makes for a very busy Hollywood as there are plenty of idea's and Hero Character's in the DC vaults to take advantage of.

One wish -
Despite this being a Hero Story, it would have been cool to see other DC characters in the crowd during the battle scene at the end. The effect of the Batman did get the police chief out of his home to join the fray so it would have been nice to see a young Oliver Queen shooting arrows at Bane or a Penguin character taking advantage of the masses by selling food and water in back alleys. Only in a perfect world...

Have fun and enjoy the light.
Anonymous said…
Niall: No it isn't; they make a big deal about the fact that it's a novel type of bomb that nobody knows how to disarm

Um, it is a film. To achieve the same effect they just need a extra to say: "oh no, we can't disarm the bomb." Its sole function is to blow up and be impossible to stop. This doesn't require Bruce Wayne to have secretly solved the holy grail of engineering and then hidden it in his basement. Nor does it require to be precisely one person in the world (a Russian, obvs) who knows how to weaponise it. Where are all the nuclear scientists who built it? Has Wayne got them looked up in another easily-floodable basement? It is a very silly - unnecessarily so - premise on which to hang the whole film since its existence is unrelated to Tate/Bane's goals.

Abigail: its story moves swiftly and compellingly enough that the problems with its plot don't register until the credits have rolled.

This is where we have to agree to disagree as I can appreciate both films on this level (and wouldn't want to watch them too many times for that reason). But I think I've been a bit unclear on my point about the comparison of the way the Joker and Bane act. Both of them carry out low-tech conventional bombing campaigns against Gotham. In fact, Bane's bombing campaign is better plotted since the film references the infrastructure he uses to achieve this whereas the Joker simply relies on magic. In both instances, however, I'd suggest they are cobblers though. They also both attempt to make the citizens of Gotham complicit in their bombing campaigns: the Joker with his ferry bombs and Bane with his super-duper nuke. Again, in both instances I think it would be hard to argue that these supposed dilemmas are successfully handled (as I think you agree in your comment).

Oh, and as I perhaps clarified above, I don't object to the bomb because it is absurdly SFnal, I object to it because it is unnecessarily absurdly SFnal. The fear-gas in Batman Begins fits completely with the antagonist and the tone of the film. Here it seems like glitter for the sake of it, glitter that draws attention to the problems with the film.

Finally, I'm looking forward to their Catwoman film too.
Niall said…

There's never a suggestion that either Bruce or Thomas are acting because the government has failed to act, but because they're the only ones who can.

What is an economic depression if not a government failing to care for all its citizens?

I see no suggestion in the trilogy that the wealthy elite are *the only* ones who can act. I do see examination of how the wealthy elite should use the power to act that they have. In that light you have Thomas Wayne, who acts out of a sense of social engagement; the other old elites of Gotham, who act out of a sense of outrage and self-preservation when one of their own is murdered; the present-day elite of Wayne Enterprise's board, who don't give a crap about social engagement; and Bruce who, I argue, flunks a crucial test when he hides the reactor. His father would, I think, have given that reactor to the world; so the comparison between the train and the reactor aligns Bruce more with the other old elites, who don't act until forced, than with his father.


The fear-gas in Batman Begins fits completely with the antagonist and the tone of the film.

But the reactor/bomb fits in TDKR in exactly the same way. It's a sophisticated brute-force weapon, as Bane is a sophisticated brute-force antagonist. It's a macguffin that means salvation or destruction depending on who is wielding it, much as Batman and Bane have come from the League of Shadows but put their training to different uses. And it is a macguffin that means Bruce Wayne has engineered the ultimate threat to the city he loves, which very much fits with Bane/Tate's goal of twisting the knife in his soul.
What is an economic depression if not a government failing to care for all its citizens?

A deliberate attempt by the League of Shadows to destroy Gotham through economic forces, as stated by R'as al Ghul at the end of Batman Begins?

You literally could not have chosen a better example of how the films discount and elide the role of social and government structures in directing and affecting the course of citizens' lives except in the sphere of law enforcement. The depression isn't the result of bad social policy or the failure of government - it's a supervillain's evil scheme.

Bruce who, I argue, flunks a crucial test when he hides the reactor. His father would, I think, have given that reactor to the world

You're changing the argument. Your original claim was that the films intend for us to see Bruce's choice to hide the reactor as a mistake because government regulation could have kept it safe from Bane and Talia. Now you're saying that Bruce should have given the reactor to Gotham for the same reason his father built the train. That was, in fact, his plan, which he stalled because of his fear that the reactor would be misused. What you haven't demonstrated is that, in the film's world, that fear was unfounded - that there existed a government apparatus powerful enough to prevent Talia from gaining control of the reactor.
Niall said…
The depression isn't the result of bad social policy or the failure of government - it's a supervillain's evil scheme.

Made possible by the implicit failure of government. I think merely pointing to Ra's al Ghul understates the level of symbolism operating in the trilogy -- I think all of the villains can be understood as personifications of social forces. But when Ra's al Ghul creates a depression, he is still creating a depression; by definition his success is a failure of government.

You're changing the argument.

I'm not. I gave three reasons why Bruce shouldn't have hidden the reactor. Security was reason b); social well-being was reason c).

What you haven't demonstrated is that, in the film's world, that fear was unfounded - that there existed a government apparatus powerful enough to prevent Talia from gaining control of the reactor.

Whatever the outcome of going public, it couldn't possibly have been worse than a supervillain creating a bomb that nobody in the world knows how to disarm and then using it to hold an entire city hostage for months. That's the definition of a worst-case scenario, and in and of itself it makes the initial decision look wrongheaded.
Tom Elrod said…
Similarly, it might have been less rapidly authoritarian if Batman's resistance forces had included some ordinary citizens (maybe the little boy from the Narrows in Batman Begins)...

Unless, of course, that little boy grew up to be the most authoritarian monster of all.
Anonymous said…
"As objectionable as I find the Great Man fetishism of the Nolans' Batman films" ... mmm, perhaps it's all the black leather. And things are further corrupted: I'll find it hard to watch Star Trek TNG or DS9 without thoughts of Great (Bald) Man fetishism, ;).

It's interesting you mention how good the Dark Knight was (I haven't see any of Nolan's Batman trilogy yet), because after hearing about Heath Ledger's psychotic performance, and subsequent overdose and death, I wonder if the "realism" is worth it. And now a shadow has been cast over the new film.

Are there parallels between Gotham and the Middle East? $1 billion dollar film revenues ... imagine how that could be used to help create quality of life in the West Bank or Gaza, instead of an increasingly police state of walls, sensors and a profitable arms industry that benefits from eternal strife (this applies to the US as well, especially its border with Mexico).

Consider former CIA officer John R. Stockwell's account ("In Search of Enemies") of US covert and political interference in Central America and Africa. From your review Gotham seems sane compared to this: John spoke about state leaders and CIA officers chatting about family by the poolside, while they ordered the murder of civilian leaders, by mutilation or having their heads run over by trucks. It's interesting that the taxes a state collects, while it's citizens work and play, are used in such distant and cruel ways.

Sorry for the diversion, but after reading some of this post and comments, it seems the film was trying to be an allegory on capitalism and modern society. Unfortunately, evil is much more
"bane-al" in real life.
MCPlanck said…
Just wanted to say I really enjoyed the discussion between Abigal and Niall. Well done on both sides, although in the end I think Abigal has it right.
Anonymous said…
Just thinking about the themes on this blog, and realized I have already posted about this, but with your indulgence, would like to add one idea to that list here:

I kept thinking about 1984 vs Brave New World, and how in the BNW, there were many distractions so people didn't want to challenge the status quo. I love movies and television, especially scifi, but sometimes they (and our reviews) feel like diversions (both in money and attention) from real problems in western culture, like poverty, alienation, consumerism and damage to the earth (climate change). I understand that movies can be a great escape, but I wonder if they represent our collective avoidance (or despair) of real world problems: similar to how government will form a committee, and channel people's emotions, but then essentially use time to dilute and forget about an issue. That, thankfully, or the Super Bowl and the Olympics ;).


Original post (Game of Thrones, June 2012):
"One theme that's raised on your blog repeatedly is the role of gender, especially women. I'm glad I live in a time when men and women are more free to be equals and share life as equals. I'd agree that people can be petty and jealous at times, using race, religion, gender or some difference as a means to put the other down and compete. Men and women can help and support one another, bring out the best in each other, and cinema can reflect this.

Another theme I find, is that of being autonomous versus being a victim, and no matter how much we've been hurt by another, at some point we have to take responsibility for being good, or noble if you will, in spite of our losses. The character of Kira Nerys from DS9 comes to mind, in that at times (but not always) she is able to help others, be the Starfeet ideal, despite past wrongs (such as the episode "Duet" or when Kira helps free Cardassia from the Dominion). Holding onto pain and blame is not enough, finding a way to move past (even with difficulty) and build something better and inclusive is.


Vancouver, BC
Anonymous said…
Very nice & thorough analysis. The whole proletariat mob-rule revolution revealed a disturbing outlook on the masses. But it's not surprising for a franchise that centers on a hero who's an ultra-rich savior who beats up people who commit crimes.

But you left out one of the most perplexing points of the plot, involving Batman's chin. See here (mid-post):
As much as I like your reviews and analyses, I think you're getting a little lost in trying to see a political allegory behind every single character and event in this film series. Frankly, even though they deal with certain thought-provoking topics, they're still comic book films at heart, and they're meant to reflect on reality only loosely. That said, I'd like to adress some issues I have with the analysis in this article.

First off, I'm getting really tired by the "Batman must be a fascist !" meme. As an accusation, it fits with the sort of (predominantly schlock) output that overrated hack Frank Miller has done for the Batman comics. (Sadly enough for Batman as a character.) The Wayne and Batman of Nolan's films, however, couldn't be further from such a reading. Let me count the ways...
If Nolan's Batman is really a fascist, then
- why is he so eager to provoke courage in people and provoke reforms in the existing system, rather than wanting to depose the existing system and replace it with himself and his lackeys as all-surveilling busybodies denying people their freedoms ? If Wayne or his Batman persona were sympathetic to fascism or any other totalitarian ideology, they'd try to destroy the existing system and brand themselves as the only solution. Wayne/Batman doesn't want to destroy the existing system. He's opted to work alongside it or somewhat outside of it, but always in favour of it. He needs dependable, reasonable individuals with proper backbones to help reform it, rid it of its worst shortcomings. That's why he looks up to James Gordon, Harvey Dent or to Rachel Dawes. He considers them a ray of hope for Gotham, with himself as just a temporary wake-up call. He even openly expresses the idea that Batman might not be needed anymore, if Harvey lives up to the image of Gotham's "White Knight". That of course fails due to the Joker, and Wayne is determined to sacrifice Batman's good reputation just to perpetuate a lie that preserves Den't image and might help the city. An authoritarian would level the blame at someone else, never himself, to inconvenience himself. Wayne deems Batman's loss of good PR (the very thing he tried to build up for the sake of Batman as a symbol) an acceptable sacrifice for the good of Gotham and its police. A fascist would instead never hesitate to take all the credit and milk it for propaganda value and his own benefit.
- why does he value the life of individuals (even complete strangers) so deeply, and why doesn't he want peoples' lives to be taken over by an authoritarian statist regime ? Fascists abhor individualism, especially individual freedoms and the worth of an indvidual's life. To fascists, individual people are just replacable cogs in the machine. Nolan's Batman takes the exact opposite approach.
- why does he have a strong moral code against killing and against the kind of macho posseurism that fascists would applaud ? Why doesn't he cheer the Batman copycats in the prologue of The Dark Knight ? A fascist would be elated to have jackbooted thugs to do his bidding. What does Batman do instead ? He stops them before they could cause harm to others and themselves, ties them up along with proper crooks and tells them clearly that what he does is not something to be copied. That's a good insight into Wayne's attitudes: He wants people to be shaken out of apathy, but not in a way that opts for violence. He'd prefer if they worked for the betternment of Gotham's civic society, since that's the only long-term cure for all the corruption problems, crime and inequality in the city. A fascist would go ballistic if someone suggested to him that the citizens should improve the community/state by their own effort, on a democratic and just basis. In turn, this scene is also important for Batman's character development: He admits his vigilantism, while helpful, can easily set a bad example for others and isn't something to be followed. He's Batman, he has to be a bit mad to do what he does, but others shouldn't hazard their lives and sanity in the same way.
If Nolan's Batman is really a fascist, then
- why does every single film in the series put Wayne's grasp on the situation and sensibleness in question ? And why is Wayne, despite frequently being stuck in his ways a bit, willing to consider understanding things differently ? Fascists are not one's to stand any sort of criticism. Their only reaction to everything is "might makes right" or shutting up people who dare question them. Wayne might talk back, but when Alfred, Rachel, Lucius and plenty of other characters he considers friends give him a talking-down, he listens. He admits he can forget himself and become too overzealous in his crimefighting, and his friends are often the real heroes, injecting reason into him when he's tempted to throw it away and give into the beast inside him. Tellingly, when he outright harms Sal Maroni in The Dark Knight to gather intel on the Joker, he's regretful afterwards. He crossed a line there. He wasn't just intimidating, he unfairly harmed someone, even if that man is an unscrupulous mobster. "I see now what I would have to become to stop men like him...", he comments somberly on his anger at the Joker. And the Joker himself constantly temps him to give into rage, to kill him, to break the humane vows he adopted as Batman. He succeeds with Harvey, whom he turns into that sort of judge-jury-and-executioner authoritarian loon, but eventually fails with tempting Batman to become the same. If Wayne was so okay with becoming a fascist, why would he be so mindful of the Joker tempting him, instead of just easily giving in ?

The Objectivist accusations ("Randian hero", "Batman as John Galt", etc.) make even less sense to me. And here's why:
- to an Objectivist, greed and self-interest is everything, with the defense of such practices being flimsy self-justification at best. Why does Wayne throghout Nolan's trilogy, once he's old and experienced enough to know better, become very outspoken about not seeing topics like justice-injustice or poverty in a black-and-white manner ? That makes no sense for anyone even remotely sympathetic to Objectivist "philosophy".
- why would Wayne generously sell off his entire remaining property to a rival company (Doggett's corporation), to city charities (including donating Wayne Manor to a children's home and school), to Alfred (for Alfred's benefit in his old age), and leave behind his remaining tech and toys for Blake if he'd like to follow in his footsteps as a protector of Gotham ? This sort of "Oh, I don't need this anyway..." generosity is the polar opposite of how an Objectivist would approach the whole thing. Wayne isn't even interested in heirs and inheritors, he just gives up all the property for the benefit of Gotham and his friends, and to underline that he considers his old life dead. Bruce Wayne must stay "dead" to Gothamites, so that Batman could remain as a symbol of hope, their very own folk hero of sorts. And Wayne is perfectly fine with that, not bemoaning the loss of wealth. Given some of the final scenes in the third film, Wayne seems much happier without the burden of wealth and fame. Antithetical to the "you need to be a self-made genius who won't share anything with anyone and needs to be proud of his hoarding of wealth" premise of Objectivists.
- why is Wayne fully capable of being self-critical, without seeing it as a personal attack on him, and increasingly shows his appreciation for being selfless and paying a high price for the benefit of others, not himself ? Characters from Ayn Rand's wet dream preach-fiction would never behave like that. They see regular people as utterly unworthy. Wayne, in contrast, vows to protect all of Gotham. He tells Ra's al Ghul that he wants to fight injustice and prey on those who want to harm the weaker, less fortunate and fearful. He only reiterates it further when al Ghul later returns, starts burning down his mansion and tries to nonchalantly convince him to just give in and drop any pity or responsibility he feels for Gotham. "I'll be standing where I belong. Between you and the people of Gotham." All this happens after he had previously refused to take a life at Ra's al Ghul's command and even saved him from certain death, despite not being obligated to. Sorry, but this sort of concern for the lives of people (even murderous and sinister bad guys) and for the well-being of a whole community/society is light years away from anything an Objectivist or Randroid would cook up for his personal worldview.
- why were Wayne's parents clearly shown as genuine philanthropists who not only threw money at things, but worked closely on developing helpful city infrastructure and social programmes, with Thomas Wayne even continuing to work as an ordinary surgeon despite his wealth ? An Objectivist would simply go "Screw the poor, I am superior ! Because reasons..." and other hogwash. You never see that attitude from Bruce's parents at all. While Wayne might be an angry young man at first and almost becomes a selfish prick, Alfred's and Rachel's appeals to him and his own conscience and common sense bring him back from the brink. He's a wayward son, but he matures and takes full responsibility for his own actions and the legacy of his parents, and this is already before he creates Batman. Wayne could just become the spoilt playboy for real and not bother, but he knows he can do better, the memory of his parents deserves better, and his home city and friends also deserve better.

Nolan's Wayne/Batman is just too self-aware of his own flaws to be an authoritarian. Not the least because he has a tendency to blame himself for his own failures near-constantly, and has friends to chew him out if he does stupid or inconsiderate things. One of the hallmarks of authoritarians is that they're numbed to the suffering of others and have barely any doubts about their own superiority complex and self-centered worldviews. Even if you had a self-sacrificing authoritarian who's portraying himself as such purely for propaganda value, there would be cracks in the masquerade sooner or later, and they would expose his true intent.
The reason why Bane's "revolution" in the third film is not portrayed all that flatteringly isn't because Nolan thinks revolutions are inherently bad. After all, the theme of the whole trilogy is about Batman trying to become a stirring symbol that will make citizens reevaluate whether there's really nothing they could do on their own to make Gotham at least somewhat better. Batman wants a quiet revolution to occur in people's hearts and minds, the kind of revolution Rachel and like-minded people were hoping for. Not a revolution imposed by him, but one created by the citizens themselves, by regaining their sense of idealism and realising they have certain things to live up to (like protecting Gotham's most vulnerable groups). In contrast, Bane's pseudo-revolution is just a Potemkin village facade to cover up his real intentions. He doesn't at all hide the fact that he's just utilising demagoguery, violence and intimidation to achieve what suits his goals. Why should he hide it ? The only thing he has interest in is to humiliate Batman and finish what Ra's al Ghul didn't (i.e. the complete destruction of Gotham). Mind you, we see that Bane isn't just a one-dimensional villain either. He showed human compassion in his earlier years (as seen in a flashback) and he's an intelligent and cunning adversary to Batman, not just a cartoonish load of muscles. If Batman's a somewhat tragic antihero, Bane's a tragic villain (for all his evil).

It's deeply ironic that by far the most "people's revolution" moment in the film is when the Gotham policemen finally grow a pair and decide to work together as a team to help an enemy-surrounded Batman. Including that one policeman who previously held open contempt for Batman. They don't do this because Batman commands them to. They do it because their conscience nags at them - after everything Batman has done to help protect the city, now it's time to repay that debt a little, and have a little faith in themselves as policemen. In essence, this accomplishes what Wayne wanted Gothamites to accomplish: "Stop giving into corruption, stop being ignorant of your fellow citizens in need, you can be better than this. All of us our imperfect, but all of us can be heroes if we really try. All of you can work to make Gotham a better city, where fear and violence won't hold sway over anyone." That Wayne-as-Batman tells commissioner Gordon very earnestly he was the real hero, the ordinary man who comforted him as a scared child and always tried to be a honest cop, is a testament to how Nolan's Batman always put Gotham and the safety of its people before himself. Any authoritarian worth his salt would make the whole thing about his own ego. He'd hardly acknowledge he would never have made it this far without the support of his friends and helpers. People who weren't just yesmen, they were outspoken moral compasses who held him back when he might have given in to the kind of darker impulses he wanted to banish from his life and mind. Anyone with an authoritarian worldview would dismiss such a thing. I have yet to seen autoritarians without at least some egomania about them being right, about others being "unworthy to judge them", and other lame excuses. Nolan's Wayne/Batman is a man who could indeed be susceptible to adopting authoritarian views, but the point of the series is that he fights that temptation at every turn and instead wants to work on himself to be the best person he can be. Whatever his own personal flaws and biases, his vision of Batman is of a compassionate and just heroic symbol, despite the dark and mysterious image on the outside. As Gordon aptly notes, Batman is not really a hero. But he is Gotham's silent guardian, its watchful protector, and the city and its people are at the very center of its heart.
Wayne being the flawed antihero that he is (rather than true superhero), it's also telling that he only finds personal happiness with someone as eccentric and somewhat nutty as himself - with Kyle/Catwoman. They're both manchildren of a sort, but that barrier between them and more saner society is what ultimately brings them together and allows them to start over again, now as a part of that society.

P.S. Sorry for the long comments. Echoing George Orwell, I think people's mania with labelling everything as "fascist" is intellectually lazy. And a bit dangerous, given that it detracts from the actual threat an ideology as vile as fascism can pose. Nolan's series gives the characters plenty of ambiguities, but I've never seen a single scene that would argue support for fascism, nazism, objectivism, communism or any other whatever-ism ideology is what it's trying to get across. Like most noir stories, I just view this series as a tale about people trying to figure out and defend humane ideals in a setting that's not exactly welcoming to them (due to various factors, from individual arrogance/greed/ignorance of the powerful or wealthy, to more general social strife that robs people of hope {especially the hope in the "better angels of ourselves" and in the merits of democracy).

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