Redemption in Gotham: A Dark Knight DialogueEssays, Film — By Brad Fruhauff on September 4, 2012 at 5:19 am
Eulectus. So, Cuidario, The Dark Knight Rises has been getting some good buzz. What did you think of it?
Cuidario. Maybe you’d better tell me what you thought, first.
Eulectus. Well, don’t scoff, but I liked it. In general, I’ve really appreciated how directly realistic Christopher Nolan makes Batman and Gotham in these films. He takes the hero out of the fantasy world and puts him into one closer to our own—
Cuidario. But still larger than life.
Eulectus. Sure, but that’s the prerogative of the genre, too. Still, this final film was grittier, yet, than even the previous two, which was hard to do. Nolan said this one was about pain, which was clear enough in the sheer physicality of it: Bruce Wayne body is almost completely worn out, he’s up against this hulkish villain, and there’s that brutal pounding Batman takes when he first fights Bane. The finale is a street brawl more than a showdown.
Cuidario. It was physical, I’ll give you that, and I’ll even give you that there was everything you want from a superhero movie respecting chases, fight scenes, playful if campy banter, a certain amount of condescending exposition in the dialogue, a sexy woman in tight clothes—
Eulectus. But you still didn’t like it?
Cuidario. Let me put it this way. It was entertaining and compelling enough that the 164mins. went by quickly—in fact, I would have sat through a longer siege of Gotham. But I felt like there were missed opportunities, and the more I thought about it the less coherent it seemed to me. That’s not the same as disliking, by any means.
Eulectus. Of course not. I’m certainly not going to force you into some simplistic up or down vote; we have enough of that these days. And I already know from Rotten Tomatoes what critics and viewers think. I’m interested in what you thought—beyond the reviews. What do you mean by “less coherent,” for instance?
Cuidario. There are arguably plot problems with the premise that bringing down Gotham will be comparable to bringing down Rome or burning down London. This was there in the first film, too, but attacking one city isn’t going to be enough to really address the inequalities of global consumer capitalism. You could point to the importance of symbols to the trilogy, but we know from 9/11 that our system is resilient against such symbolic actions.
Eulectus. Hold on, though, that’s a sketchy analogy. The symbolic meaning of 9/11 was entirely co-opted by the rhetoric of otherness. It was an attack from the outside. Ra’s al Ghul’s vision was to remove the veil and let Gotham’s own depravity destroy it from inside out.
Cuidario. Bane, Talia, and the League are all marked as vaguely Arabic; the same logic would apply. But that’s minor, as is their apparent willingness to destroy the League in process of destroying Gotham, and as far as they knew they’d be leaving Bruce Wayne to languish in the prison and he wouldn’t actually witness or enjoy their revenge. But more interesting to me is Bane’s anarchist rhetoric and the film’s many visual and plot similarities to the Occupy movement. Hollywood.com explains that the Nolans finished the screenplay prior to the Occupy movement and were more inspired by A Tale of Two Cities, but it’s still hard to ignore the apparent suggestion that if you disassemble a police state you’ll end up with mob rule and a literal mockery of justice. It was like Mitt Romney’s Occupy Wall Street nightmare.
Eulectus. If we grant them the reference to the French Revolution, then it works, though. We actually know, from history, that that is what happened.
Cuidario. And most people will be happy to do that, but you can’t ignore our history and the context in which the film comes out. You have a scary man in a mask saying he’s giving the city back to its people, not unlike Occupy wants to return the economy to the 99%, but it turns out “the people” are largely criminals and those who hold power by force. So the film pits economic versus physical power, with the average citizen basically absent from the mix except as the victims of the criminals.
Eulectus. Sure. They’re only there in, say, the football game, which is a form of ritual community, but I suppose you’d say it’s also a thoroughly consumer activity and so represents the stability of the unequal society.
Cuidario. Yup. This is a problem with superhero narratives in general. Think of Alan Moore’s Watchmen or even Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Those stories actually thought about the hero’s relationship to fascism, vigilantism, and the institutions of the state. In Batman Begins, Wayne and Ducard briefly discuss the difference between the vigilante and the agent of justice, but in The Dark Knight Rises it’s pretty clear that Batman is solidly on the side of the police and the unequal society Gotham represents.
Eulectus. That’s a little too easy. Throughout the series Batman is pursued as a criminal and viewed as a social pariah. That sets up the sacrifice theme of the final film: how far will he go for a city that hates him? And he continues his father’s legacy of using his substantial wealth for large-scale beneficent causes.
Cuidario. Ra’s al Ghul says in the first film that Bruce’s father’s benevolence was enough to thwart the League’s attempt to take down Gotham through economic inequality, but that is just the “realistic” side of superhero thinking: we need a hero, either a guy in a cape or a guy with a big checkbook. Nolan demurs from really carrying his critique of social inequality far enough to be anything more than a plot device. That’s why Bane’s lofty speeches feel so empty; you sense as a viewer that this is all just the machinery needed to get to the big finale. There’s nothing really at stake. Even Batman’s death is mere theater. If anything, the third film damages the cause of correcting inequality with political action.
Eulectus. I won’t try to justify all the details of the plot. I’ll even grant you that they don’t hold up well to realistic scrutiny. But that materialist form of reading misunderstands art, human nature, and the role of symbols, as the films say, in structuring individual action.
Cuidario. That’s quite a claim. I think I know where you’re going, but go ahead.
Eulectus. Any reading of the film will entail assumptions about society, individuals, state violence, etc., but especially about how we engage with narratives. You act as though the average viewer imagines him or herself as the spectators in the stands or the passengers on the train. The whole point of the superhero is that you imagine yourself as the superhero. You identify with Bruce Wayne’s fears, his integrity, his fight for justice, his perseverance. You respect his commitment to nonlethal force where force is necessary. You’re not passive, but supremely active in a way you cannot be in real life.
Cuidario. I don’t know. I rather think we identify with the damsels in distress—that’s why there always is one. As the viewer, I fear the kind of insurmountable evil represented by the supervillains, and I want the hero to come deal with the problem, to save me like I’m Lois Lane or Rachel Dawes or whoever. That’s also why the heroes always have extraordinary bodies.
Eulectus. Okay, I’ll give you that, but that just brings me back to symbols. The hero is someone who inspires us, then, who reminds us what we value and that some things are worth fighting for. Bruce understands this well enough that he creates the deception of Batman’s self-sacrifice. Or, rather, Batman does actually die (or is handed down to Blake/Robin or whatever that sequence was suggesting). It’s not important that Bruce survives because Batman was more than just Bruce. This is admittedly an intellectual rather than narrative satisfaction. It would have been better in terms of the emotional impact to see the bomb go off, then learn that the autopilot worked, but not know whether Wayne actually survived or not (maybe like the end of Inception).
Cuidario. I might be able to buy that, but doesn’t it mean you have to approve of noble lies? They’re just like Bruce Wayne’s fusion reactor/nuclear bomb device. It may be innocuous or even relatively beneficial under the right regime, but it quickly becomes dangerous in the wrong hands. Can a democratic society really accept that kind of logic?
Eulectus. Blake and Gordon briefly discuss the noble lie of Harvey Dent, and though the film didn’t develop that motif much, it was clear Gordon shouldn’t have been complicit. Batman, however, always depended on illusion and theatricality; his was a performance from the beginning, and everyone knew it. Thus, it’s not a noble lie, really—
Cuidario. Right, and it isn’t entirely one-sided; it depends on Batman living by a certain recognizable code, particularly regarding nonlethal force.
Eulectus. And when it comes down to it, do you really doubt that Batman wouldn’t have flown the bomb out over the bay if he hadn’t fixed the autopilot? It was a way out for Wayne, and a suitable theatrical conclusion to the Batman story, one that offered Gotham the moral symbol it needed.
Cuidario. You accept, too, then, the Christianized reading that it’s a story of redemption and Batman is a Christ-figure?
Eulectus. Not if you leave it at the level of cliché like that. First, I’m not sure about redemption. I know at least one Christian blogger argued this, but I don’t see Bruce Wayne paying for any sins so much as seeking transcendence, getting beyond his limitations for the sake of the good.
Cuidario. So he is a Christ-figure, then? The first film explicitly puts Bruce and Ra’s al Ghul in the place of god. When the bad cop says, “I swear to God,” Batman says, “Swear to me!” and Ra’s al Ghul and the League put themselves in the role of judges of history.
Eulectus. Well, in the sense that he gives everything, his life, for people that despise him, I think we have to say he’s a Christ-figure, but maybe we have to emphasize the “figure” part. They don’t compare on a lot of important points. Christ serves the Father, conducts his ministry more or less openly, and spreads a gospel of love, peace, and justice—including freedom to prisoners. Batman serves an impersonal ideal of justice, conducts his work in the shadows, and spreads hope for the law-abiding by spreading fear among criminals.
Cuidario. So, you agree, then, that a logic of power underlies the whole film?
Eulectus. Uh, yeah, I suppose I do. But I don’t feel that I have to dislike it altogether because of that. I’m not surprised by it, after all.
Cuidario. I guess my concern is that we’re too ready as Christians to shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s how the world is, and I want to see movies,” or whatever it is.
Eulectus. And I’m wary of attributing too much agency, direct or indirect, to works of imagination, as though the mass of people are always being duped by cynical corporate execs.
Cuidario. But that’s just it. Films like this portray people as basically sheep who, without heroes, will be at the mercy of hooligans.
Eulectus. Doesn’t the doctrine of the sin nature imply that something like that would be true?
Cuidario. What about common grace? Plenty of people choose to be good without acknowledging God. Whatever the theological status of that choice, it seems clear there is something in us that responds to or is drawn to the good.
Eulectus. But we need a Moses, a Samuel, a David, and in particular Jesus to show us the best, true way, right? Maybe Batman’s redeeming Gotham. He gives them a powerful story to remind them of what is most important and worth fighting for. It’s still up to the individual to do it.
Cuidario. Now that is something I agree with.