Or, as it might have been called…
Flashback! To “The Dark Knight Rises…!”
There’s an important thing you should know about this movie, which is that I hated it. Full disclosure. I’m the guy who praised Batman Begins to the heavens for the way it made its inconsistencies serve its theme, and I’m also the guy who was thrilled by the way Christopher Nolan managed to make the continuity of The Dark Knight come positively unglued, all without any of us noticing (and even when we noticed, we didn’t really notice), because we were so busy peering into his sleeves to verify that, yes, he had nothing up in there…that we missed the card in his hand. So the worst I think you can say about The Dark Knight is that the pledge and the turn were wonderful, but some people just blinked and missed the prestige…which, you know, is a perfectly fair criticism if you didn’t like The Dark Knight, but I still think both those movies were kind of brilliant, and more importantly I thought they were good Batman movies. Though at first, I didn’t want to see either of them. I didn’t want to see Batman Begins, but then I thought it looked good, and then my friend Ed told me I had better go and see it…and I was unimpressed with the idea of a bleak, painted Joker (because like all Batman fans, I’ve seen that one a couple times before) so was initially put off by The Dark Knight, but then there just started to be something in the air about it, something that brought back that feeling of the summer of 1977 to me…and so it was I found myself irresistibly drawn to it by the tips of my tingling fingers and sizzling ears, just attracted by the mysterious vibration of it through the ground. Not that I thought everything about The Dark Knight was good, you understand — I could still do without Gary Oldman’s closing speech, to call out just one thing — but so much of what was good was so exceptional, in particular for the way the movie’s deliberate problems troubled the plot and its putative moral, that it made the non-deliberate problems easy to forgive.
But with The Dark Knight Rises, that pattern reversed itself. At first I looked forward to it unreasonably, was even willing to see a Big Two superhero movie in this case because I felt so invested in Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman…but then…gradually…
Or, not so gradually. Shall we begin with the title? It is really an awful title, one of those verbal constructions that stops up my mouth so it’s hard for me to say it; I’m actually rather pleased with myself that I’ve been able to write it twice now without feeling compelled to slap up sneer quotes around it! “The Dark Knight Rises”, I wish I had the time to unpack the wrongness of that for you, Bloggers! But I don’t. No one does. One thing an editor has to learn in a hurry (at least, if he has any ambitions of retaining his sanity) is that there are two kinds of bad sentences: one where the sentence is bad, and another where the idea of the sentence is bad. And the first one of these badnesses is more or less easy to repair, but the second variety is a black hole. One bad sentence of the second type can fatally undermine everything for a thousand words around it in every direction, irretrievably warping the page into a twisted mockery of itself, and the editor can get sucked into it in the act of trying to fix it; because some things can’t be fixed.
Hmm, and maybe now would be a good time to talk about “TDKR” (gah! even the damn initials sting!) as a movie in which the more questionable aspects of Nolanesque Bat-politics finally emerge beyond the ability of this viewer to ignore them, fairly boiling up out of its substrate? Or, no…maybe that could wait a while. I’m not really all that good at pinpointing the “racefail” (charming coinage!) in texts, because even if there was such a thing as vanilla-flavoured mayonnaise I’d still be whiter than that…and as far as being a creature of patriarchy goes why I am practically a walking Old School Tie, so more advanced feminist readings are probably beyond my humble skill set. About the Occupy business staining the surface of “TDKR” I could probably say quite a bit, but the problem with the movie’s politics in that sense is that I’m not sure it genuinely has any…I’m not sure it actually gives a shit about any of that particular topical stuff, though of course it probably should (and that’s the disaster, here), because it easily could, but it doesn’t…
It just doesn’t, and so all the Tale Of Two Cities crap — for that’s what it is! — crap! — looks more than a little bit like somebody chose to throw good money after bad, covering up that horrid old wallpaper with some more horrid old wallpaper. The black hole beckons: none of this is where the true politics of “TDKR” lies, so it can’t be fixed. I spent a long time analyzing The Dark Knight, to see where its culpae might be reconstructed as felix, but for its successor I just don’t want to make the effort, because I know a bad sentence of the second type when I see one. Well, if you minted as many of them as I do, you’d know it too…!
And it isn’t that there’s no cleverness there, but that only makes it worse; identity is more flexible (and so, consequently, is meaning) in this effort than in either of its predecessors, but it fluctuates over a depressingly narrow range of possible values compared to them, and worst of all it’s a terrible Batman movie. Which is actually the worst thing, the very worst thing, that you can say about it. Because let’s not kid ourselves about the cultural significance going on here!
This isn’t “Batman, un filme de Jean Cocteau”!
But this is Hollywood product, and for the first time in this series I really did feel that it is. So many strange notes about women were buried in The Dark Knight that it all almost became ominous — as in: “fulla omens” — but I accepted this as a natural development of the Boy’s Adventure that I took Batman Begins to be at its core. Here, though, I just don’t know if it’s got, or even can have, a thematic excuse in hand for that kind of stuff. In a way, this is the Batman movie whose feminist reading should have been the most complex, and instead it seems to be the least so…unless you fall into the black hole, but my basic objection to Nolan’s third Bat-creation is that in this case, and for the first time, I am not willing to do “whatever is required” to fix the problem: am not willing to work hard to find a metatextual solution or explanation for every problem, because up one more meta-layer I perceive there’s yet another context that would beggar that attempt at rehabilitative interpretation anyway. Because if The Dark Knight was about destabilization, this movie’s straight-up about collapse — things are clearly meant to collapse here if they’re so much as “meant” at all, and the point of the collapse is to leave no meaning behind it. This isn’t a magic trick; not even a vanishing act. This is all just a question with no answer: a question that may not even be a question at all. “Why would someone threaten to shoot someone, before throwing them out of a plane?” Well…
They wouldn’t, don’t you see?
Or to put it another way: suppose you have a nuclear reactor of some kind, and it has what you could meaningfully call a “core”. What, then, may be presumed to surround the core? Anyone from any sort of technical society answers immediately: a cooling system.
So what happens when you remove the core, from the cooling system?
There is a sense in which this movie tries to take a mile, based on the inch we’ve given it. The title, and the equally-horrible poster — that was the thing that, finally, made me realize I didn’t want to see it — scream it out in All Caps: Batman will lose, but it won’t just be Batman! Because the viewer will be implicated too. And if this all reminds you a little bit of the final page of Mark Millar’s “Wanted” (something, I hasten to point out, that didn’t actually bother me personally), then you’re not far off the mark…there is, after all, a slight sense of Millarishness to this movie, the “my Bond Villain will be Sean Connery” angle, the “Bruce Wayne has utterly failed to change the world except to make it worse” angle…oh, he really has, you know! All that foolish talk about clean energy, don’t we liberals know that’s all a bunch of eyewash? Here’s where the bad sentence starts to kick in: Batman Began because the police were corrupt, and the Dark Knight came when Batman’s superior military might proved capable of overwhelming that corruption so thoroughly, that it changed the whole environment in such a way that even Batman didn’t understand it. All these contemporary superhero fables emblematize a post-Cold War world, in many cases subtly and even subliminally but never secretly; not when The Terrorist is so explicitly the enemy in question, and first it’s this version of him and then it’s that one, and then it’s another but it’s really always the same guy, as genre franchises tend to run out of ideas after the first act of Movie #1. Indeed, for all the talk of The Dark Knight’s bat-sonar as standing in for George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretaps, the execrably-named “TDKR” takes the emblematization of post-Cold War drama further still, and paints it in broader and more garish strokes: this is not far off at all from the first Iron Man movie, except that in that one at least Tony Stark had a damaged heart, and all Bruce Wayne has here is…
…Problems with women.
But see how uncomfortably stylized they are made, and to what little purpose, by the bad sentence. Between movies the Dent Act is passed, I guess basically giving the police a licence we in the real world would call “unconstitutional”. What else, after all, could it possibly mean? One wonders at the sort of person who idealizes America as the land of highly-restrained and -watchdogged police forces…wonders what else might they believe, you know? Well, one of the things they evidently believe is that “corruption” can only mean “in the pay of the Mob”, and no other thing could possibly count as corruption; obviously if this were not the belief at work then Batman would have more reason than ever to patrol the streets as a hated-and-feared vigilante, because absent this belief there would be no functional difference between a corrupt police force and a police force given extraordinary powers. Indeed, Batman should’ve been against the Dent Act from the very beginning…but you could argue, if you wanted to be charitable, that his real motivation for going into seclusion with a bum knee is the terrible guilt he feels for having supported it. Then he throws all that lovely bourgeois money away on his ARC reactor — a lesson for bleeding-hearts, there! What about the jobs that will be lost if Wayne Enterprises goes under, eh? So he’s just failing and failing all around, a shell of his former self, as Gotham returns to goatshit equilibrium. Alfred is of course there to provide helpful hysterical freakouts as always — in the end, nothing pleases Alfred! — but Bruce has probably learned to tune the old fucker right out by now. Hmm, good continuity fix, there…
“But why hasn’t Bruce Wayne killed Alfred?”
“Two words: bat-earplugs.”
Although we really can’t blame Alfred too much: hormone replacement therapy is a tricky business, and besides the story seems to need him quite badly as a repository for whatever passes in Hollywood as “feminine emotions.” Well, at least there are some, even if their conception is hard to tolerate. Sorry, did I say “hard to tolerate”? I think that’s putting it maybe just a little bit too mildly, when poor old Alfred obviously has something wrong with his womb…
Yeesh. But if Alfred were the only problem here, that’d just be a case of a sentence that needs a spellcheck. The real problem is Bruce Wayne’s mopey retirement, a painful-to-the-same-degree-it’s-obvious shoehorning of Frank Miller’s DKR into Chris Nolan’s “TDKR”, only here the shoe just can’t be made to fit, even if we did all love DKR. Bruce’s splendid self-pitying isolation is of course interrupted by a woman, his recall to Bat-life is of course complicated by women, and in the end there is no part of the whole situation that isn’t because of a woman…and so the bones are all there, and if you squint at them you can do a pretty good job of convincing yourself that they make up a skeleton, and in any metatextual tour-de-force or ring-around-the-rosy it’s very easy (simply having a bunch of bones in hand) to throw responsibility for the skeletonization of such bones back onto the reader or viewer…but, here’s the thing: this doesn’t work every single time. This isn’t a cure-all, it isn’t just magic. You get lucky when this kind of thing works, and the luck makes you look like you planned it all along, but what if you’re not lucky?
If the bones look vaguely like a skeleton, but still can’t be made to stand up, you can’t just turn around and say it’s because the reader is just doing such a piss-poor job!
I mean, what are you going to do about that, you can’t exactly fire the guy who just paid twelve bucks to go see a fucking Batman movie, right? If he thinks it sucks?
Or if he’s right about it sucking?
But maybe my Batman isn’t the same, any longer, as everybody else’s. My Batman is still on the job, you see, by the time this movie opens — and notably NOT playing “spot the utterly gratuitous Grail reference” — and being on the job is making him more and more conflicted all the time. The Mob is gone, and the Joker’s in jail, and the Joker didn’t “win”, but…his problems keep coming even so. They hunt him; they chase him. Perhaps they injure him. Perhaps he starts to doubt what he’s doing it all for. Just to fight the thing he enabled, in a fight he can’t possibly win.
And then Catwoman shows up.
That’s not this movie, of course. Because that movie, already in just that sketch of a set-up, plainly has aims that would be entirely at odds with “TDKR”. Oh, it shares the same structure! But its accent is different, because as the third part of Nolan’s Batman Trilogy “TDKR” must execute an interpretation of what’s gone before it, so must choose an interpretation of what’s gone before it, and it does choose such an interpretation but it only chooses the most limited one. You can draw many lines through the two previous movies to arrive at a third one somewhere a bit further on in Bat-space, because for all their flaws (and, as I’ve mentioned, especially because of them too) they were tolerably complex little edifices, whose essential teeteriness was the point of them from the beginning, and this actually gives a pretty wide field of approaches to any conclusion. In fact, in the most basic summation of the most obvious throughline you can see how Teeteriness the only thing around that’s capable of driving some sort of thematic conclusion in a third movie: for if Batman Begins was about how it’s impossible to both grow up and adhere to a pre-existing moral code, to such an extent that when Foreshadowing Dude shows up to warn against climbing the mountain then even Foreshadowing Dude (!) is doomed to be compromised — because the meaning of your fate is so completely up to you that it cannot co-exist with foreshadowing, you see — or with Sage Advice, for that matter — then once the recursive factor known as the Joker shows up in Movie #2 with his endless buzzing feedback it signals nothing less than the fact that you can’t give up one point of surety without giving up them all…can’t give up just some predictability of pattern, can’t be a little bit pregnant, can’t Fill-In-Cranky-Homily-Here, anyway the point is that a Boy’s Adventure story is always in some sense going to pit the Boy in question against an oppressive Order, but a grown-up variation on the same theme is going to take off those training wheels and drill with live ammunition so growing up is never the end of the story…
…But obviously, just its beginning. Well, it’s right there in the title, isn’t it? So along comes the Joker, that living proof of how the League Of Shadows is quite a stupid organization really; in whose presence no foundational assumption can ever remain unshaken; in the vicinity of whom nothing is what it seems to be, and nothing comes out according to expectations. Everything in this movie is actually a lot like it was in the first movie, if you pick it all apart…yet isn’t this the way of life, that the same problems recur again and again, but you change between the waves? Batman Begins was a young man’s crisis, but along with The Dark Knight’s more adult inflection of those same principles of conflict comes a more ambitious formal design, which makes all the difference: because it isn’t just a re-do, but it’s multiple re-dos at once, all side-by-side and all equal and all subverted — a heist that isn’t a heist, a romance that isn’t a romance, a self-sacrifice that isn’t a self-sacrifice, a political commentary that isn’t a political commentary…oh, gosh, well, let’s just say it!
A puzzle that isn’t a puzzle.
So you can’t believe the narrative of The Dark Knight, because it lies to you constantly, about what both you and it are doing; yet this isn’t why it works, you know? But only how it works…
And if we wanted to, we could follow that “how” in a fairly straightforward fashion. “Escalation”, as Gordon says in Batman Begins: the amplification of chaos that Batman himself began. Clearly in The Dark Knight we’re shown that Gotham City can be made much more unstable, given only the presence of a really cool car that can jump bridges and a cave full of bats back in the Eighties…the instability is right in there with the bats flapping, a black ripple in the pond of the atmosphere, it’s in there from the beginning of the beginning: every action has its consequences, and the consequences can’t be controlled. Batman is begotten, and soon begets the Joker in his turn; and neither of them can stop it, but the Joker doesn’t want to stop, so Batman can’t stop either. This is where it first comes in, you see: that he’d like to stop.
But that’s only part of another pattern, that makes up the skein of what love’s supposed to be like, and what a happy ending is supposed to be composed of…so it’s a bit of backsliding for Batman, because he has already unwoven all patterns but now he is trying to pick and choose between the ones he’d like to get rid of and the ones he’d like to save. Which isn’t really necessary, because after the shelter of moral consistency is abandoned (so Batman Begins tells us), and the patterns of its belief-systems cast aside, there is still something to believe…in fact there are just as many things to believe as there ever were, and maybe even more, because the rejection of a belief-system doesn’t eliminate the facts it built itself around: it’s just that the facts don’t justify the system anymore.
Don’t tell that to a man in love, though…especially when he should know better, because how can he not be aware that he himself is the one who set loose those forces which can now never be called back, and that picking-and-choosing is now impossible? In the end, the Joker is able to challenge Batman because Batman wants things, because Batman retains his desirous nature even though the world he’s made is a desire-smasher…and so Batman has forgotten that his greatest responsibility is to see things clearly, and thus overcome paralysis.
(Which is pretty good stuff, isn’t it? We never really see it in the comics; or, rather, we see it in every panel of the comics so we simply take it all as read. But to see it in a movie: that’s different…)
And of course that’s why I ended up with such misguided faith in Christopher Nolan (not to mention why at first I thought all the stuff about the French Revolution would be a good fit), because I figured he understood all that, just as once I thought Steven Spielberg and George Lucas understood that Raiders Of The Lost Ark was special because Indy was as much Rick Blaine as Lash LaRue…
Which apparently they didn’t…
…But in any case: the amplification of chaos. It’s certainly a way to go, and Nolan goes there; but it isn’t the only way he could’ve gone. The spirit of 1789 being found primarily in Batman rather than in Bane, the Dickensian mash-up and the Scarlet Pimpernel shout-out (not to mention the Robespierre stand-in) never really all gels…is just a bunch of stuff Nolan thought reasonably symbolically-contiguous so he jammed those pieces together and hoped for the best, but since the best didn’t come then it’s hard to say anything proves these really were the “natural” conclusions to try to draw out. So, “escalation”, sure…but it didn’t have to be just escalation. As alluded to above, these movies could as easily have been how a man’s maturity is bound up with learning to see women as human beings instead of idealized angels of narrativization…as fellow desirous and somewhat-grimy subjects, rather than merely desirable and essentially-aloof objects. The bones are certainly there: Rachel slaps Bruce in Batman Begins, in more than one way, because she wants him to wake up. And in the end he does, but he only wakes to adolescence: the Boy’s Adventure always preserves the iconic nature of the Girl, by evading the present nature of the Girl…when the Girl remains exclusively as potential, the reality she represents is made unthreatening to the dream of action and purpose the Boy has learned to entertain. Is Rachel there on the pillow, using her own human agency to insert herself into the Business Of Bruce Being Batman? Of course she isn’t: this is comics, and if the Girl discovers the Secret then as we all know Love must be indefinitely postponed. Only in comics, folks, do our beloved Thin Man movies look this sheerly progressive, you know? I used to joke (only it isn’t really a joke) that for any aspiring actress to secure a lucrative career in Hollywood she must only master the following formula:
HERO: I’m going out there.
GIRL: I’m going with you!
HERO: It’s too dangerous.
GIRL: Damn it, they’re my kids too!
By which I mean, she must only master the formula to the point where she can effortlessly improvise on it. The Hero’s lines, of course, always stay exactly the same, but in the Girl’s responses there is room for variation, room for skill, room for a peculiarly-constrained art, and that’s what sells a movie like this; and of course, they’re all like this. Just as the commercial is the real audition, so too (I used to joke) the ability to put artistic topspin on this incredibly tedious essentialist call-and-response bullshit is what makes the Anne Heches of this world…and really, have you ever seen anyone ride that fine line between convention and disgust with such amazing felicity as Anne Heche? Fifteen years ago, what a Rachel Dawes she would have made…a Mary-Jane Watson, too…a Lois Lane, even? No, not quite a Lois, I guess…
…But a Lana, yes; yes, she would’ve made that part sing pretty well.
But, pardon me: off-topic. I could actually go on for quite a while about Anne Heche’s entry into the key Marley/Victoria role on Another World, so many years ago now, and ramble on at infuriating length about a soap opera’s ability to instruct an actor about the precise location of bullshit essentialist lines and the manner in which they may be artfully ridden…my, but she was yar…which of course would all be very very trenchant stuff if Anne Heche had ever been Rachel Dawes, but of course she wasn’t, and to be honest I don’t know if I really think she would have been, given the chance. Actually I think Katie Holmes made a pretty swell thing of that role back when Batman Began, and have never quite understood the fan-hate for her…or maybe I have!…which is not to take away from Maggie Gyllenhall’s more laid-back and morose rendition of that soi-disant character, but then I’m not sure Maggie takes away from Katie either. The arc of Rachel is actually sort of interesting, and it’s even more interesting to me because no one ever seems to think of it…as somewhere between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight a change comes over Bruce Wayne, a sort of gruesome literary-ish melancholia, and the same thing comes over Rachel but no one notices. There’s a doom closing in on the Girl, and it emanates from the Boy like this whole thing was called the Titus Andronicus Trilogy…objectification, which was supposed to preserve her, is now being employed against her, but the worst thing is that it’s being employed against her without the conflict allowing her to escape the straitjacket to make even the slightest gesture of her own before she goes, and if you squint I think you can probably see her writhing underneath the white-chocolate coating of her plot-service fate. Would Katie Holmes’ Rachel have thought for an instant of marrying (marrying!) creepy lantern-jawed cheating cheater Harvey Dent?
Was that, indeed, the only way to get all this stuff done?
And the Rachel Question really just scratches the surface here, but not to wander too far from my point (if indeed I have one): the “TDKR” doomfest could have cared about its women more, couldn’t it? The Joker doesn’t win in The Dark Knight, alright, but that doesn’t mean Batman doesn’t fail…he fails immeasurably and bitterly, and he fails over and over, and he has to swallow the nastiest of all medicine which is called “a taste of one’s own”, but I think we are also meant to think he manages to take something from it all, on his way to real and final adulthood. Mistakes, fuck-ups born of overconfidence, roads never taken due to hyperdiffidence…regrets, in other words. None of us comes to the future but through thee, eh? So it’s all a bit nasty. It’s not pretty. It’s highly-conflicted, all of it. But maybe that’s the point?
Except it isn’t, because that’s a through-line we never got: as Batman doesn’t grow as a result of the events of his Dark Knight, but (inexplicably!) regresses instead. And, you know, there are other throughlines still, that we haven’t even touched on because this ine has been made so darn insistent! Still others, that we also never got! This is in the bones, too: Batman Goes To Jail.
He sort of goes to jail, doesn’t he.
But it’s an elevated symbolic sort of jail he goes to, a jail of Character rather than characters, an Inferno-type jail, and I mean something a bit more prosaic than that: “Batman Goes To Central Booking”. Where you could still have Character, and you could still have Consequences, but where there would also be characters and consequences, and you wouldn’t have to sacrifice the small c’s to play with the big ones. And can you see that it’s really the same difference between those two kinds of jail, there, as it is between meeting Catwoman as a distant and wistful heroic legend, and meeting her instead as an active but deeply troubled vigilante who’s pulling out everything in his trick bag just trying to make his actions make sense? So to my eyes there’s a certain (and rather grandiose) zero-sum aesthetic that’s crept in — more accurately, I’d say, it’s been put in! — to the way these symbolic measures have traditionally gotten weighed in the Nolan Bat-movies, and that not just fate but fatalism infects every scene in this third one is something I think we can point to and say “yeah, this is a set-up.” Or, how else to explain the mysterious change in everyone and everything, that has come over them in the eight-year vacuous jump from the end of The Dark Knight, and which is never explained? Actions provoke consequences, and consequences can’t be controlled, so sometimes in order to get the consequences you want (or at least, to try not to get the consequences you don’t want) you have to tweak the actions just so, you have to rig the game before it begins by sneakily setting loads of artificial parameters up, and Bruce Wayne is set awfully high in the Third Movie, friends; awfully high. I can’t understand why he must be set so high. After all…
He certainly doesn’t fall that far, does he?
Although someone does have to fall pretty far; someone has to get stuck in the plane, and it looks like that someone is us. Sorry, but needs must. There simply can’t be a movie, you see, without our sacrifice. Oh, I could complain about so many details…for one thing, I’m not totally sure it’s a very big scientific discovery that someone figured out how to turn a nuclear reactor into a nuclear bomb? Honestly, The Dark Knight may have played with its creamed corn, but this is stuff schoolchildren learned in the FIFTIES, how to turn a nuclear reactor into a nuclear bomb…for Christ’s sake, a nuclear reactor is a nuclear bomb! Except, teams of geniuses figured out how to not make it explode.
See, there the metatextual lure is again, bobbing so attractively in the magic mirror of the surface of this topsy-turvy world…
But above it is the surface of the more conventionally un-topsy-turvy world, and moviegoers are not just fish: no director, no matter how formally-playful, can ever keep us down completely in the pelagic layer of just one illusion. Up in the air, in the boat, where the plans are made, the question of what warrant the playfulness has must draw our attention, too. Yes, it may all be the drawing-out of a line along which chaos amplifies itself indefinitely until the border of frisson is crossed and one enters a sort of thematic Hell…where everything self-destructs at FTL speeds, so the core becomes the margin and everything gets inverted and nuance becomes plasma and a True Vacuum is created…
But doesn’t that sound a little…I don’t know, a little fucking arch, for a Batman movie? Myself, I just can’t bless an explanation which accounts for every problem in such a way that it appears the filmmaker possesses an absolute power of infallibility of design, IN A BATMAN MOVIE. Especially when it kind of sucks as a Batman movie? A mercilessly critical part of my brain insists that I saw this entire movie before, only the first time it was called ARMAGEDDON…and so is it possible, I find myself thinking sometimes on sleepless nights, that this was all Christopher Nolan’s satirical response to Armageddon and Deep Impact and whatever that one was about the Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, like Fantastic Voyage crossed with Alien crossed with Avatar?
Is that possible?
Never mind, never mind…these actually aren’t the droids I’m talking about, and my God I must try to focus on the essentials or this essay will never be finished. Focus on the essentials; not the details. There are so many little details that I hated in this movie, I don’t know if I could ever get to the end of them. And, thank God a genuine feminist analysis is beyond my poor powers! Or this essay would stretch from here to the surface of the Moon.
Where were we?
Oh, yes: bat-earplugs.
How I wish I’d had some during this movie. That music, for Christ’s sake! I didn’t know a movie could harbour such a wish to oppress me as a viewer. This even beats E.T., essentially a movie for blind people, the very peak of John Williams’ art in which if you close your eyes you can tell what’s going on by the introduction of the Elliot Is Getting Hungry theme, the Elliot Shits His Pants theme, the They Are Hiding Behind An Old Tree theme, the Your Current Product Placement Is Coca-Cola theme, the Wasn’t It Great When We Were Kids And Rode Our Bikes Everywhere theme…
“TDKR” beats this by a pretty wide margin, because it doesn’t want me to consume but to comply with the scripted awe I’m supposed to be feeling, and it is not above GETTING LOUD to make that happen. Sort of like…
Splicing Steven Spielberg with Leni Riefenstahl?
“Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Triumph Of The Will”?
And if that was the point, then it bloody well was too arch, right?
Ed says I haven’t given this movie enough of a chance…suggests that I should watch it again. But I CANNOT watch it again, because of the music. I couldn’t even watch it all the way to the end the first time, because of the music, and I was on a plane. Forget the details, and focus on the essentials; the number one question I think anyone ought to have asked themselves about this movie, over and above things like “why Bane” or “what’s the deal with that young cop, is he supposed to be Robin” or even “Jesus is it enough already with the shoving of this woman at Bruce Wayne”, just has to be:
Why that music?
What’s the purpose behind its insane overdominance?
It’s a little bit “Ride Of Rohan”, I myself think, and so not after all very different from “Triumph Of The Will”. What d’you suppose it’s like to be a commoner in Rohan? Pretty nice, maybe? Well, probably not, but feudalism is a kind of bargain you make, where the payoff is all about the nobility of war. Tolkien famously got down on himself when he’d written the Ride Of Rohan bit of LOTR, and had to be jollied back into the LOTR writing life by a young friend who pointed out that its fabulous rhetorical insanity was a good in itself…
Which it is…
…But me, I wonder from time to time about just what it was that depressed Tolkien so much after having written this glorious stream of consciousness of golden war. I mean this guy was a fucking Tory for sure, am I right? And no doubt just as Alexander he was accustomed to read The Iliad in place of what we would call “watching TV”…because The Iliad is always just sort of there, right?…and his aims in storytelling were not, uh, “to promote democracy”, either, in fact his aims in storytelling were most definitely not about social worth but about the freedom of his own philological imagination…
…And yet he had been a soldier in WWI, and the Gondolin story (I think, anyway) has the fingerprints of its time on it, and so maybe the Ride Of Rohan is a bit like after reading several thousand words of a rich gateau somehow chocolate itself becomes self-parodic if you choose to array it in glittering ranks of shining armour on a hill…sort of like Taco Bell avant le lettre? And yet I do wonder about it, if maybe he didn’t think it was all just a bit much, this glory of war, after a while. This nobility. I mean, especially to a person who’s been in WWI, can you really believe in all that anymore once you enter the modern age?
I think I must have a glass of Scotch, thinking about it all now. Yes; yes, I think I’ll have a glass of Scotch. I assign possible feelings to Tolkien here that his family members might tell me were not feelings he ever had, and so it’s all a bit illegitimate, but the way The Third Movie’s nigh-propagandistic anvil-beating score offended me makes me wonder if that old maxim is true: that we hate most what we recognize in ourselves. I myself have always been a sucker for the Ride Of Rohan, and it isn’t just that I’m credulous and easily swayed by mighty language, but it’s that I want it all to be true. In comics blogland, since the days of Dave Campbell we call it the F@CK Y#AH!!, the moment of ChrisSimsian awesomeness that truly in some numinous sense Pirates our collective Ninja. Comics readers can list a few of these, and it’s to Kurt Busiek’s credit as a “reconstructive” artist that he owns so many of them…uh, I guess I really like the one where Thor defeats Sergei?…but there was a time in superhero comics when F@CK Y#AH!! didn’t need so much accentuating, I think. A time when the fantasy of nobility hadn’t been so…I won’t say “undermined”, because the Seventies Boys could not have done such a good job of interrogating the cultural privilege of superheroes if there wasn’t also an accepted background of the Nobility Of War they were playing against…
And they mixed the two artfully, just as The First Two Batman Movies did. No, you can’t be sure of your underpinnings, and you can’t be sure you’re actually righteous…
But you have to act, if you’re even at all not a normal person…
…But then after the Seventies, for some reason, it became harder to play that racquetball game. Maybe it’s because the new generation thought it’s be more interesting to play squash? Make the opposing surfaces less reflecting, make the ball drop faster and the killer hits count for less. Let a great sinkhole grow in the middle-ground between role and action. Huh, and I guess the first explicitly F@CK Y#AH!! qua F@CK Y#AH!! experience I ever had in reading comics was in an Alan Moore book? Because there was such a sense of anticlimax and futility there, that when the positive aspect of action got reintroduced it was like sudden hard rain in a desert…invisible rivers suddenly coming to life, the true terrain revealed again…
So it’s a good effect — a great effect! — but it’s based on the powering-down of the wall-panels, ultimately. It’s a Cold War aesthetic: there will be a post-apocalyptic land, and we will all live there, but we will be as the last few bright gases before ultimate randomization claims our last distinctive features for its own. It seems to say, in other words: this is a post-Imperial world, and the superheroes are Imperial characters, creatures of a previous order, and they’re vestigial and doomed, but if they try really hard they might figure out a way to make a difference to the future…
Even if the future is not guaranteed to be there, and you know it does put me in mind a bit of Grant Morrison’s Supergods fol-de-rol, where if we just believe in the superheroes they will eventually come bounding off the page and into our lives…because look, see, here in the comic they come bounding off the page and into our lives! So there’s your proof!
It can happen!
Except, of course: it can’t. And no one has demonstrated the problem of this inability of superheroes to transcend their fictionality more ably than (weirdly enough!) Grant Morrison, who in the pages of his Seaguy draws that same argument he’s been making his whole career out into a slightly more complicated space. Before Seaguy, and after it as well, the argument proceeds much as the argument Li’l Abner might make about his marriage to Daisy Mae…but in Seaguy the heroic confrontation is with the very absurdity of that transcendence itself, which previously has been assumed to be just another magical detail that promotes its coming-to-be. And naturally this bit’s rather clever: as comic-book superheroes have made such a grand and gruesome thing of Crises over the years, and the stakes keep getting raised higher and higher as every new instantiation of Crisis proclaims “the heroes have never faced a threat like THIS before…!” But of course that’s both true, and not-true. Every time they face it, it’s exactly like the last time they faced it, isn’t it? WORLDS WILL DIE, AND TRADEMARKS TOO! Though of course only temporarily…so it’s become a rather tedious round of imminent universe-destruction, that never does anything but restart itself…
However. If we ask why it is that we keep returning to Tedious Universe Destruction fantasies, if we went all Grant Morrison on it we might get an interesting answer: that with every new iteration of the fantasy we get a little bit closer to talking about the Ultimate Crisis, the really and truly Ultimate Anti-Dad whose threat genuinely is unlike anything the heroes have faced before. Consider how familiar in character the final confrontation of superheroes trying to bust out into the real world would be…as our pal Illogical Volume so trenchantly pointed out, that last villain would be the difference between fiction and reality itself, and though the superheroes always win out over this in the fictional world, though the accumulated precedent of their triumph in this respect is impressive indeed, we’d look just a bit foolish, wouldn’t we, if we said:
“Well of COURSE Superman is going to be able to find a way to free the DC copyrights! It only looks impossible because the writer’s building tension!”
Because to say that, obviously, would be to take the idea of precedent — the idea of what precedent is — just a little too far. Yes, in one sense it’s just a bigger, meaner, more threatening version of any comicbook Cosmic Evil you’d care to name, that Superman’s already beaten…and yes, there is a pattern we’ve grown accustomed to recognizing, here, which this all certainly fits…and perhaps it’s all just a big magic sigil, and perhaps all Superman must really do is rouse himself from his seductive and mesmerizing dream just one final time…but then again, to look at it another way, maybe that we think he can do so is our mesmerizing dream, that we need to awaken from? Somewhere Grant may be clapping his hands with delight — yes, to awaken the Superman Within! — now that’s what the magic’s for! — but he doesn’t really mean it; his own work, from Animal Man to Flex Mentallo to Seaguy, shows it’s all a bit more interesting than that. Reality is never scripted, and fiction always is: Superman himself is the dream, and all his triumphs and tragedies too — the pattern is entirely artificial, a product of authorial parameters. A set-up?
The genius of Seaguy is that it’s there we get to see what happens after all this nonsense…after Final Crisis, and the Planck dance of Miniman and Minimiss, and the expansion of Danny The Street and all the rest of it…After The Paracetemol, as it were. After Jor-El’s son Barack Obama meets his own public image in final battle! And, wow, here’s another accolade for Morrison, actually…because does his image of Super-President not grow more and more troubled and uncomfortable with ever passing day? If Morrison were a truly political writer, he would have accomplished something something very near chilling, here…an actual critique of the character of Barack Obama the Person, by way of a nettlesome inquiry into the state of Obama’s own imagination…
…But of course Morrison is not a truly political writer, so in all probablity this nettlesomeness is just something he stumbled into.
But, weren’t we talking about Christopher Nolan?
Should I finish up the Seaguy thing now, or come back to it later?
I’ll come back to it later. For now, it’s back to the Third Batman Movie…
…And how, to be frank, it shits the bed. It might also have just as easily continued the rumination on children that the first two movies established, as introduced a thought or two for women…again, the bones are most definitely there, so forget talking about Rachel, for couldn’t Barbara Gordon have been Catwoman, instead of boring old Selina Kyle? Hey, you guys do remember Barbara, right? You know, she’s the child that Gary Oldman didn’t give a fuck about in The Dark Knight? Comics readers everywhere, I think, were confused by the concentration on JACK Gordon…“my son, my son!”…were confused, too, by the manner of Harvey Dent’s death. Sequels that aren’t really sequels. Characters without character. So why does Catwoman upset Bruce Wayne so…and how does she disturb the sepulchral perfection of stately Wayne Manor? Rachel Dawes was the Daughter of Gotham, Batman’s Sister; Talia Al-Ghul was the Daughter of the League of Shadows, Batman’s Cousin…
Meanwhile Catwoman was played by Anne Hathaway, who was in Les Miserables. But she could’ve been…
…The Daughter of the Joker, and therefore Batman’s Victim.
But again, and obviously: it didn’t happen. So what can we do but begin again, once again, yet again, with Bruce Wayne and Teeteriness. Here’s a man who has unsettled the world, and then unsettled himself: every time he desires something, the world shakes itself apart uncontrollably; every time he gives up desire for purpose, someone lives who might have died. So he should know better by now, but as it happens somehow he only seems to know worse. He is not really very good at being Batman, it seems! Still just Beginning, after all these years…and now his beginning about to be encapsulated and unmade by his end, unbecome and sucked away out of causality, swallowed by the black hole. Jesus, what was the point of this? So two gangs clash in the street, both operating outside the law and therefore with massive powers…and one of them just happens to be in blue. I had some sympathy for the Batman-wannabes from The Dark Knight in their hockey pads, but that was before they were reconstructed as SWAT guys in Kevlar, and I guess the more fool me for not seeing that particular trick coming, but my God, when were the police really ever at odds with Batman, in all these movies? Where was even the pledge, here, let alone the turn? I have to say, the prestige seems rather unworthy of its name, without them. The Biggest Gang In Town, in every town, comes away from this story waving such an amazing Golden Ticket of a free pass, that it makes you wonder how retroactively-corrupting “TDKR” really means to be…Geoff Klock notes, in his excellent “How To Read Superhero Comics And Why”, that the truly audacious thing about Ellis and Hitch’s Authority was how unrecoverable its origin was made to be…a drag-out-the-dead Crisis in a strictly temporary corporate crossover whiffing slightly of the transgressive, a disaster movie unreissuable for legal reasons, that took a meat ax to previous versions of all the scripts in a place where cameras wouldn’t be watching so the real and whole truth could never be told: a black hole at the very beginning. If it were anybody but our formalist friend Christopher Nolan, we would have to think the vacuous jump of “Eight Years Later”, wherein the thematic microsurgeries are all secreted away from our prying supervision, was just a plain mistake, a failure to apprehend the symbolism that naturally attends on a funeral…or a soap-opera coma…either that, or we’d have to think it a desperate Hail Mary such as the one that made me laugh with rage while watching that Alias show of J.J. Abrams’ so many moons ago, you know the one where the audience is supposed to get amnesia along with the protagonist? “One Year Later”?
Because they’d painted themselves into a corner, you see.
So they hung a lantern on the corner…!
But because it’s Christopher Nolan, we can’t assume all that, we can’t assume any of that. It may have been a plain mistake, or it may have been a reaction to never having planned to do a third movie — except one day a dumptruck full of cash backs into your driveway, and look I know Mozart was a once-in-a-lifetime genius but what would you have done? — but finally it may also have been a deliberate tearing-apart and troubling of what had successfully gone before, rather in the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, and short of putting Nolan under hynopsis during an interview we can’t really be sure which one it is. Which, if that’s the point, is maybe a fair enough point…to run the troubling of narrative conventions finally over their own ripples and trouble the earlier troublings too…?
Except, again: pretty fucking arch for a Batman movie, I think.
And, really, quite disturbingly close to the soi-disant moral on the last page of Mark Millar’s Wanted.
So either it’s arch or it’s puerile, I guess (!), but we can’t be sure of that either, because it is Christopher Nolan, and maybe that’s the whole point of what I’m saying: that you have to give a person a reason to make metatextual excuses for you, but then sometimes perhaps the kind of metatextual excuses that will be necessary there, are going to say more about the excuser than they will about the excused — “no, he’s collapsing together the puerile with the pretentious ’til they both die, dont you get it?!” — says a certain version of me that I don’t like –and then maybe the metatextual excuses made by the audience-members become the whole point of the filmmaker’s exercise, but now pardon me as I draw aside the curtain and show you precisely what I think is wrong with that sort of meta-meta-excuse:
Because when I was young and callow, I imagined a piece of “experimental theatre” that presented…oh, I don’t know, “The Importance Of Being Earnest” or something?…only with each word in the script changed to the word “door”, so all the dialogue would be like “Door door door, door door?” “Door, door door door door!”, and then the audience would walk away going “what a stupid fucking play that was, I can’t believe we paid money for that”, but then when they got to their cars they’d say something like “honey, would you get the…get the…GET THE…!“
And then they’d smash up their cars with their umbrellas in a pure burst of rage…
…And THEN — only then! — they’d realize what a fucking genius I am.
But this is not art, I hasten to point out; this is merely a lot of stoned talk late at night from a seventeen year-old who imagines “being a smart-aleck asshole” is what the world wants to see on a resume. And it’s also a good reason — in my estimation! — why meta-meta-excuses for The Third Movie shouldn’t be countenanced by people who’ve paid twelve bucks to see it. Because, Jesus, if you can ever say to someone something like “look, you just didn’t really get the BATMAN MOVIE…!”
Then where are you really. So maybe the question “can destruction be a kind of art too” is a question whose asking ought only to be forgiven if it’s asked by stoned seventeen year-olds…and maybe if Chistopher Nolan meant to try his best to go back in time and poison his earlier Bat-efforts by their later Bat-contextualization, we should say “that’s fine, but you’ve got a lot of fucking nerve charging me twelve bucks for it, asshole“, but of course that reaction must hinge on the matter of if he meant it, and of course we really can’t know if that’s what he meant, but if it weren’t Nolan then we’d probably be pretty sure he didn’t mean that, and so it’s still a question if we still respect him for his formalist skills, and oh where in the world will all this instability end, if it’s running so out of control as this, interfering with itself so promiscuously as this, under the black light of uncertainty as much as this? Personally I think you all should ask for your money back from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight too, you know? A cool thirty-six bucks, which would be enough to buy you a fancy appetizer made of some kind of ungulate’s brain at a restaurant in Cannes where the rich eat only on their chef’s day off, and that only because they’re too dissipated to walk another block to the market…
Which is another thing, and it’s a grating thing, and it’s politics, and I wanted to think Nolan would be clever enough to cleverize it, but perhaps he just doesn’t understand politics enough to know how to do that…because, really, how much of a bourgeois puss is Alfred? Listen to Michael Caine’s voice; that’s no voice of the dude who had a batman in Indochina, that’s the voice of the dude who was a batman in Indochina! And such an old granny mother hen, now, that he likes to take his vacation on the staffer’s Black Hole American Express Card precisely to that little place that the truly aristocratic wouldn’t eat at if you paid them, except if they were Americans of, to be kind, the wrong sort. Yes, quite the bourgeois little honeybunny, is old Alfred! Yet, is he not good? Despite all that?
So at first I thought maybe it all really was going to be a bit more exacting a debate about how the Third World must feel about the First, because it all seemed to align so nicely: “Bane”, the walking mockery of Batman, and his implicit values. How easy it was for Bruce Wayne to confront Ducard in a battle of the Individual vs. the Corporate, over the question of the limits of Order, at some very high cash level shared by both of them! How easy, too, for Batman as the Individual to confront the dark side of Chaos that was represented by the Joker! How appallingly easy; so maybe we needed Bane.
But, did we get him?
It’s dicey as hell to play with that French Revolution stuff, too, let me tell you. In a thousand years this will still not be “just” symbolism, there will still not be simplistic Goodies and Baddies where the French Revolution is concerned…and you might say that with every century that passes, the stuff actually gets more vexed and less distant! Symbolism, naturally, must connect to feeling if it’s to be symbolism at all…and there are more feelings about the French Revolution, still, even than there are about unfollowings on Twitter. This isn’t “romantic but wrong; repulsive but right”! Our formalist friend Christopher Nolan, I humbly submit, may be good at many things but he’s out of his depth here. Is it really all this fraught, and this complex?
Isn’t it just that Bane wants to kill Batman?
There is nothing much else to do with Batman, see. Batman’s just some guy who retired with a bum leg and a weak will eight years ago, after the cops became so powerful that they rivalled in legal authority what Batman could bring to bear in experimental ordnance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt even tells us in so many words that Batman doesn’t matter anymore, except to a rare few.
So…what’s the point?
What would Bane have done, if Batman just sort of…stayed retired?
When he’s the entire cause of the thing, the entire purpose of the French Revolution even happening, and this is where all that Fisher King shit starts to look not just tacked-on, but insultingly tacked-on, to yer basic 1789 shout-out. Hey, and who wants to talk about how WWII is explained perfectly by the Hero’s Journey? Because it totally is, you guys…
So, to summarize: bah. In the Batman Trilogy where this movie’s basic sentence isn’t all fucked up, this is the first movie, this is “Batman Returns”. And the matter of retirement is at issue, and the movie doesn’t end with Batman dying even if Bruce Wayne does. This isn’t DKR, right? It’s Batman Beyond. Bad sentences, bad sentences…any editor knows that the real damage done by bad sentences is that they expose the basic inadequancy of the whole essay they’re embedded in; because any editor knows that a bad sentence is often just the real piece trying to poke its head up above the waves of the writer’s stormy psychological insecurity. Stormy insecurity has a marvellous power — it can write many thousands of words of wrong, it would write many many volumes of wrong to avoid the danger of saying what it really thinks and being what it really is, in one-tenth the size. The bad-idea sentence sometimes just shows that the whole piece has no reason for being written except to show that adjectives are people too…
But sometimes it shows that there really is a thought there, that wants to be expressed, and that’s being blocked.
So this movie is all about collapse, but maybe it’s the sort of collapse that ought to have been resigned to an unreprintable origin: “Batman Beyond Begins #0″? And in the next movie, “Batman Beyond Begins #1″, Joseph Gordon-Levitt walks into an empty Batcave: a Batcave split off from its narrative causality, no longer any “Master Bruce, this cave was used as part of the Underground Railway by your noble ancestor” business because the new Batman is not a Wayne, isn’t connected with the League of Shadows, doesn’t have anything to do with the Sack of Rome…
…And isn’t the Spirit of Gotham.
And therefore he’d be a Batman that Bane could never be an opposite to.
Forgive me, I seem to go on and on about Batman movies that this one wasn’t! And now I’m even doing one that inexpertly mimics Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But my point stands, which is: to fuck around with that French Revolution business, you have to know what you’re doing. And!
Perhaps every trilogy needs a tragedy, but must every revival include a revanchement? You know I take it all back, it is like that season-opener of Alias, so many moons ago! Maybe he didn’t want to do it. Maybe he was riffing on how he didn’t want to do it. But anyway let’s finally put the blame where it belongs: on him, for whatever reason. And not on the audience. Maybe he read DKR and loved it so much that this was his “Ape Lincoln” moment; maybe it’s as simple as that. Maybe Bane is just the King Of The Mutants?
Well, doesn’t he sort of seem like that?
But as a movie, this one’s sort of a bit of a piece of shit, isn’t it? Planet Of The Apes and Batman Beyond and Iron Man and Spider-Man 3 and DKR and Wildcats Vs. Aliens (whooar!) and Les Miserables with all the bells and whistles, and on the Bowie theme I’ll throw in a little David Essex Stardust or maybe even Whatever Happened To Rosemary’s Baby?, and to be perfectly honest it’s a farrago, hell it’s an archipelago, and it doesn’t hang together, and I’m not even sure it should hang separately because I kind of HATED IT THAT MUCH…!!
Jesus, I hated it!
If only this post could be long enough to say how much I think was wrong with it!
But mostly it was the fucking music, and I dare anyone to come up with a meta-excuse for that.
The worst sentence of all was the music.
Because if you took away the music, would anyone have bought this movie’s bullshit at all?
“The Dark Knight Rises”.
Does he, in fact, rise?
Well anyway a fall like that isn’t enough to kill anybody.