Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros., Legendary, Syncopy, DC, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Dark Night Rises, third and last in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and to my mind by far the best of the three, rivaling the 1943 Columbia serial and the first Tim Burton Batman from 1989 as the best Batman films ever made. I’m not sure why I liked this one so much better than its two predecessors — like them, it’s grim and almost unrelievedly dark, both physically (most of it is played in shadows and half-light, appropriate for a film whose central character is a man who took the bat as his alter ego) and thematically. It’s grimly ironic that the movie’s history was permanently impacted — and its commercial success probably damaged; it was a huge hit but not the enormous blockbuster Warner Bros. was clearly hoping for — by the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting that took place during a first-day-of-release midnight screening (and was allegedly committed by a man who identified himself with the Joker, villain of three previous Batman films, so much that he dyed his hair red to match the appearance of the Joker in the Batman comics — so the Batman mythos was evidently part of his homicidal madness, as the Beatles had been of Manson’s; he didn’t pick The Dark Night Rises just because it was obviously going to be the top-grossing film of the year and thereby supply him with an abundance of targets in the audience), which made it almost unbearably ironic that Charles and I were watching it in the aftermath of another mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. In a way it’s appropriate because The Dark Night Rises is not only one of the darkest films ever made but one of the most openly radical — probably the second most Left-leaning mass-audience blockbuster the capitalist movie industry made in 2012 (next to The Hunger Games), even though the ultimate message is a reassertion of representative democracy and the authority of the police (just as in the two sequelae to The Hunger Games — the Suzanne Collins novels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, which haven’t been filmed yet — the original book’s socialist message is transformed into an anarchist one; the hopes raised by the revolution are dashed as the new bosses turn out, in Pete Townshend’s immortal line, to be the same as the old ones, leading to a Voltairean ending in which the heroine literally tends her garden). Rush Limbaugh was rightly ridiculed when he said that the movie was an obvious attack on Mitt Romney because the principal villain is named Bane and Romney’s company was called Bain Capital (he either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the difference in the spelling), but if he actually watched the movie he’d have found quite a lot to hate about it.

It takes place eight years after The Dark Knight, during which the late Harvey Dent — killed at the end of The Dark Knight after his previously upright character was turned into the villain Two-Face — has been held up as a symbol of law and order, and the city government of Gotham has passed something called the Dent Act, which appears to be a law for the preventive detention of people with criminal tendencies whether or not they’ve actually done anything. Police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) defends the Dent Act against the efforts of civil libertarians to repeal it on the ground that it’s worked — Gotham’s crime rate has nosedived since the utter corruption and climate of fear vividly depicted in the previous movie — and there’s still a criminal element that needs to be kept under tight control. The rhetoric behind the Dent Act can’t help but remind one of the USA PATRIOT Act and the similar proclamations by the Bush administration and its defenders that it was aimed at “terrorists” and that they were a new breed of enemy against whom we couldn’t afford such niceties as due process of the law. The film gets even more radical as we see the jockeying for power among members of the 1 percent; while Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, holing up in one wing of Wayne Manor, and the stories circulating about him make him sound like a cross between Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson, other ultra-rich people are circulating around his company like vultures, and one of them, Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), hires master criminal Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway — making this the second Batman film in a row to feature a member of the Brokeback Mountain cast), a.k.a. Catwoman, to steal Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints so he can make fake trades on the stock market in Wayne’s name that will impoverish him and leave his company ripe for the picking. (This does rather sound like Bain Capital’s investment strategy.) He’s also hired Bane (Tom Hardy), whose name and appearance seem to have come from the infamous case in San Francisco in which a particularly vicious dog, named Bane and part of a breed called Presa Canario, bred for fighting, clawed a woman in a San Francisco apartment where the dog was being kept by the attorney girlfriend of a white supremacist criminal who was running a market for such dogs from behind bars.

Bane wears a doglike mask and speaks in a barely discernible growl (as, for some reason, does Batman whenever he appears — which is surprisingly little in a film about him; Christian Bale, becoming the first actor to play Batman in three theatrical films, has far more screen time in the character’s Bruce Wayne identity than he gets in the Batsuit), and he’s the sort of thug hired by the 1 percent (or the 0.001 percent in this film) because they think they can control him — only to find that his sheer physical strength and the dedication of the men in his fighting force mean he can overturn the established order and make himself dictator any time he wants. Selina Kyle crashes a super-rich party and starts spouting dialogue that makes her sound like an organizer for Occupy Gotham. Bane targets the Gotham Stock Exchange for one of his terrorist attacks. The film has been criticized on the Left for making the Occupy movement look ridiculously easily manipulated by Bane, who manages to organize mobs into a revolutionary fervor (I suspect director Nolan — who also co-wrote the film’s story with David S. Goyer and its script with his brother Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the original story for Christopher’s breakthrough movie Memento — studied Eisenstein’s Russian Revolution film October when working out how to stage these scenes), but the critics missed an important cue: when Bane’s forces are approaching Gotham to start their reign of terror, he announces, “We come as liberators, not conquerors” — the famous line the Bush administration told the Iraqis just before they attacked in 2003. I would read Bane’s movement as far closer to the Tea Party than Occupy — a fascistic cult leader of strength and power manipulates people into thinking the fascist leaders are genuine populists and acting in a way that only destroys their own interests — and (perhaps because the Nolans are British by birth and therefore the sport doesn’t have the emotional tie to them it does to Americans) they even do a marvelous plot twist ridiculing Americans’ cult of football: the climax of Bane’s first attack on Gotham (the setting off of explosives concealed in concrete Bane’s construction company has laid underground under the guise of rebuilding Gotham’s subway system) occurs during a big football game and leaves the audience unscathed but opens a big crater where the playing field was previously.

There’s a grimly ironic shot in which one of the players, having grabbed the ball on the opening kickoff, has to run for the end zone not to score a touchdown but literally for his life as the field disappears into the earth just behind him (reminiscent of the scenes in the movie 2012 where characters similarly had to flee just ahead of the collapsing earth), and the Nolans and Guyer thrown in one more radical twist: during the final attack, as police captain John Robin Blake (James Gordon-Levitt, who virtually steals the film from the principals) organizes an evacuation as a nuclear super-bomb Bane has stolen from Wayne Enterprises is about to explode and destroy the city (though there’s a hint in the dialogue that it’s actually a neutron bomb, designed to kill Gotham’s population but leave its buildings and property intact) — and a police squad in the neighboring state threatens to shoot Blake and his evacuees, and dynamites the bridge to keep them on Gotham’s side — an obvious reference to the city government of white-majority Algiers, Louisiana, who deployed their police force on the bridge across the Mississippi from New Orleans to Algiers to keep Black New Orleanians from evacuating during Katrina. The Dark Knight Rises has its flaws, including the horrible-sounding voices of both Batman and Bane (it’s supposed to make them ferocious but only makes them sound like they’re trying to talk and gargle at the same time), some pretty transparent plot twists (including a major reversal at the end involving Bruce Wayne’s seeming love interest, fellow 1-percenter Miranda Fox, played by Marion Cotillard — Nolan had to reschedule the film to shoot all her scenes last, because she was pregnant when she signed for the role and he had to wait until she had her baby) and a weird ending in which Batman seems to sacrifice his life to fly the super-bomb out of Gotham in his weird half-car, half-plane “The Bat” but then turns up at an outdoor café leading the life of an aimless expat, while Captain Blake embraces his middle name (the first time we’ve heard it in the film) and seems to be setting up a non-Nolan sequel. (The reason Robin didn’t appear as a character in the Nolan Batman cycle was that Christian Bale refused to play the Caped Crusader if he did.)

I’d still like to see the makers of these films do one lighter in tone, if not all the way over to the campy extremes of the 1960’s TV shows and the one film based on them at least with some sense that a superhero adventure is supposed to be fun (I’d love to see a scene with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson in Wayne Manor reading an article denouncing them as “a wish-fulfillment fantasy of two homosexuals living together” and getting livid about it — the line comes from an actual book, Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, in which psychologist Dr. Frederick Wertham actually said that about the Batman and Robin relationship), but The Dark Knight Rises is a quite impressive film (and the end sequence of Michael Caine as the Wayne butler Alfred Pennypacker mourning Bruce’s supposed death and reflecting that he outlasted both Wayne and his parents is unexpectedly moving and tragic), helped by the fact that no one in it is as horrendously miscast as Heath Ledger was as the Joker in The Dark Knight. (Yes, he won an Academy Award for it, but that was partly because he’d died and therefore the Academy voters knew they’d never have another chance to give him one, and partly a “consolation Oscar” because he hadn’t won for Brokeback Mountain.) I had mixed reactions to the first two Nolan Batman movies and utterly loathed Inception (mainly because he used its plot about manufactured dreams as an excuse to take his movie anywhere and do anything whether it made sense or not — though in retrospect Inception reveals the same cynicism towards the 1 percent and their unscrupulous treatment not only of the 99 percent but of each other as well that’s at the heart of The Dark Knight Rises), but The Dark Knight Rises is a surprisingly effective movie and a well-crafted and thoroughly moving take on the Batman mythos. And to think that when I wrote about The Dark Knight I said I had no idea how they’d be able to make a credible sequel to it!