After The Paracetemol

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.

Well…

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?

Not really.

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.

Hmm…

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.

So…

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…

Uh…

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 theGET 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?

Isn’t he?

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.

So…

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.

NOT RECOMMENDED.

25 responses to “After The Paracetemol

  1. 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!

    The best variation I’ve seen on this was in the Spider Robinson novel Lady Slings the Booze, in which Joe and Arethusa and some other people are discussing the plan for how they’re going to go in and take out the bad guys:

    Joe (finishing up): …so that’s the plan. Any questions?
    Arethusa: I’m glad you didn’t give me the old ‘you stay here, honey, I’d be too worried that you’d get hurt’.
    Joe: But I am. I’m worried that you’d hurt your hands beating the shit out of me for trying to keep you out of the plan.

    As for The Dark Knight Returns

    Didn’t see it.

  2. Yeah, that title. Obviously, they always WANTED to call this “The Dark Knight Returns,” right? Because “The Dark Knight Returns” is the mythic thing we’re supposed to be feeling from this movie, and I didn’t really get “rising (and advancing?)” out of it. But then someone came along and told them, “Look, we know superhero movies are pretty much never based directly on one story or the other, but if you use that title, people are going to be expecting a very specific thing!”

    (And anyway, contemporary genre movies using “Rise” in the title is a big turn-off for me. They all do it! Rise of the Planet of the Apes, GI Joe: Rise of Cobra, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Terminator: Rise of the Machines. That false sense of gravitas. It feels like “We’re taking this reboot of a decades-old franchise SERIOUSLY, you guys!” which ironically only serves to make me feel MORE self-conscious. The same goes for anything subtitled “The ________ Chronicles.”)

    Anyway, Nolan says in interviews that these movies aren’t supposed to be political, and I totally believe it. All the handwringing about “Nolan is criticizing the Occupy movement” was kind of funny, because I don’t think you can really get any agenda out of these movies that you don’t put in yourself — TDK and TDKR are political Rorschach tests, right? Which is why I do actually think “Batman’s sonar array is a metaphor for and defense of Bush’s suspension of due process to protect public safety” COULD very well be a valid reading of The Dark Knight, even if I very strongly disagree with it myself, because of course *I* would, but…

    So on some level, I think Nolan uses this stuff as pure flavor to engage an audience that might not necessarily be invested in Batman-for-Batman’s-sake (and I suspect it’s to hold his own interest as well, don’t you think?), and it obviously worked as intended. I wouldn’t accuse him of just being a bratty provocateur like Millar, though. At best, I think the ambiguity forces an audience to consider all sides of a knotty issue because the movies don’t give you a “correct” answer to the questions they pose, which I can certainly appreciate and admire.

    But I think the reason TDKR is more problematic is because its themes are more explicitly political, or at least that’s how they seem to me. TDK’s question of “Are you willing to make moral compromises for (what you perceive to be) the greater good?” has been around forever and doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to post-9/11 anxiety. But the question of class warfare is, I think, a lot harder to divorce from a current-events context; I don’t know that you WOULD have made TDKR about what it’s about if it wasn’t on the news — not that the divide between rich and poor is ever NOT an issue, of course, but people who don’t ordinarily think about these things were thinking about them at the time.

    In any event I just didn’t enjoy this movie, and I think you have a point that it sort of taints the other ones. Because even though I said I wasn’t feeling the “Rising,” I wasn’t really feeling the “Returning” either; like you said, this movie really exposes that Batman was really never all that good at what he did when he was doing it. These movies never established a status quo — even the beginning of TDK is still Building Batman, and then by the end of that movie, Batman is already over. He was like a one-season TV show where the network only ran half the episodes — TDKR feels like Wonderfalls is back on the air now, which would be super cool but kind of odd, when what you really want to be feeling from “Batman comes out of retirement” is like Seinfeld or Cheers suddenly started producing new episodes.

    Is it the worst Batman movie, do you think? Back when I was doing that Seven Films for Seven Batmen blog series, I said how I felt a contrarian desire to defend Batman & Robin from that knee-jerk “Ugh, bright colors, this doesn’t not square with my vision of Batman as the tortured avenger of the night” fan reaction, but it really IS just a bad movie even when you’re taking it on its own terms. TDKR, though, felt like a real slog, unpleasant. I guess I don’t really care to rewatch them and put them head to head.

    Schumacher’s movies at least had a pretty badass “Batman march,” I guess?

  3. For all my earlier malarkey, I really enjoyed this piece, particularly the way it highlights the comic book qualities of the first two Nolan movies. The Batman of it all is still very much built into the structure for all the surface trappings of Hollywood realism, huh? I ultimately agree with Jason that there’s no sincere/coherent politics at work in the Nolan movies, and that the gestures in that direction are all part of the same buffed, metallic sheen that’s designed to hook civilians. These reductive resonances narks me more than they seems to nark him – politics as just another pop-culture riff, as though real world dramas are of a piece with innumerable Star Wars scene and equally fit to be sampled for ever – but I can’t argue with the analysis, or with the fact that those earlier movies act as political Rorschach tests in the end.

    TDKR this works less well in this regard because Nolan seems to expect the surface to double up as the supporting structure; BB and TDK used all of the tricks at their disposal to suggest that the Bat-trappings could still mean the world, while TDKR feels like it expects you to buy into the idea that Bat-trappings can contain it.

    I toyed with the idea that this was all part of some grand Brechtian ploy, with the audience being put in the position of The Plain People of Gotham (much talked about, seldom seen) and asked – “ IS THIS REALLY GOOD ENOUGH? ARE YOU GENUINELY CONVINCED BY THE RHETORIC OF ANY OF THE ACTORS IN THIS DRAMA? LIKE, SERIOUSLY?!!” — but in the end that’s just me working too hard to justify the ticket price, like Plok said.

    And so of course you *know* that I love the digression into Seaguy! That comic’s makes such an artful play of both the limited mechanics of this fiction and its artful packaging that I wonder why so few people have written good pieces about it. I’ve certainly never managed to say anything worthwhile on the topic, and the only write-ups I can think of that are worthy of the series have come from Dave Fiore, my fellow Mindless Ones and now you!

    Seaguy never mistakes sparkle for depth, even when it affects to confuse them; the big, Brechtian questions are prompted by the text, which – if anything – seems keen to make you question the money you’ve paid for it. It’s a masterful work, but at the end you still find yourself like Seaguy after his triumph in the bulldressing ring, asking “Is that all there is?”

    TDKR leaves you asking similar questions, but Nolan and co seem too tuned in to their own wild ride to notice or care…

  4. Damn, the Seaguy stuff…must finish that up!

    Slight delay, fellows — I cut open my tongue, so I’m sort of dealing with that…

    Replies tomorrow!

    And Seaguy too!

  5. A random thought or two, though, before bed…

    Yes, the buffed metallic sheen, politics as just another kind of allusion to stuff you’ve seen or heard before…I do wonder if Nolan isn’t maybe one of those people whose head politics just flies right over? Political autism, as I sometimes (hopefully not insultingly) think of it…it’s out there, I’m sure.

    And it’s exactly what pisses me off about the French Revolution stuff, because if you’re actually doing The Scarlet Pimpernel that’s one thing, but if you are cloaking yourself in this “look at me, I’m so serious” stuff then you can’t really do The Scarlet Pimpernel at all. Because it isn’t that simple, and it does matter. So where the Batmannishness of it all is adequately baked-in, it’s kind of fine — references to Julius Caesar didn’t sidetrack my expectations of TDK at all — but this is the same as saying “those earlier movies’ themes weren’t explicitly political”, I think. If it’s Batman, you can only do so much to make it topical, because you have to concentrate on the Batman elements. I found in TDK the suggestion that even America could become a failed state, but it wasn’t just lying there — I had to dig for it. It did enliven the movie for me, even if it was only me who brought it to the table, and the only digging I did was, gosh Dorothy, right in my own back yard. In the same way, Nolan didn’t start, neither did he continue, nor did he conclude, a discussion about warrantless wiretapping (how quaintly harmless that looks, now! sigh), but it WAS IN THE NEWS and Batman basically did it, so it’s certainly not illegitimate for us to see that the thing in the Batman movie is the same as the thing in the New York Times…and what Nolan did there isn’t rendered more accidental and more unintended, more politically-neutral, just because it happened to be something that was happening in real life! Topicality isn’t a shield; you can’t just shrug and say “you’re reading too much into it, it was all just stuff I found in the morning papers”. Sure, fine, but we’re not talking about some cut-up process either, are we?. Somewhere behind him throwing it in there lies a choice to throw it in there, and the choice must be attended by some kind of understanding of the dramatic import of the choice, and I daresay even Christopher Nolan has heard of Watergate, you know? Plus, what are really the odds that he had never ever heard of warrantless wiretapping and the Patriot Act before throwing in his bit of harmless gadget-fun, to TDK? To say there’s no political dimension to that is really just to say there is, but he didn’t want anyone to ask him what he meant by it…and of course Republicans are going to think it’s awesome, because they love anything that sidesteps that pesky Bill Of Rights, and of course everybody else is going to see the bat-sonar as an moment of ethical crisis for Batman and furthermore you have to know that at least Nolan saw it this way too, even if later on he didn’t feel like talking about it. So the only thing that can possibly make that all non-political is the status of TDK as a movie primarily about Batman

    But just because Batman’s in a movie, doesn’t mean the movie’s going to be primarily about him. It’s not a blank cheque, this “presence of Batman” stuff! If you overcommit to the politics, you’re going to lose the Batman stuff! And “class warfare” really isn’t a very vague or abstract thing. Never mind that Occupy Wall Street only happened after the Third Movie had already been filmed…well, who cares if it had? What difference does that make? It’s not like Occupy just sort of “happened”…it wasn’t a flashmob, where a bunch of people show up in a mall and do the Twist or something because they’re looking for fun! That defence struck me as an attempt to undermine Occupy as much as anything…unconscious, maybe, possibly even innocuous, but still a setting-at-nothing of something that actually mattered quite a lot, just to say “oh, these things couldn’t possibly be connected, look they happened months apart!” Oh, well then never mind, then. And the French Revolution happened so much earlier still that I guess it isn’t even a natural riff, eh? But rather an innovative mashing-up, hey look you guys I tied class warfare into the Frech Revolution, bet no one’s ever thought of that before…!

    But, you know…it’s all only a problem if “TDKR” is exactly as apolitical as Nolan claims it is. If it isn’t all lily-white like that, then it’s all no problem in terms of being something to take offence at in the way I just have: it just means he done fucked up, instead. He threw too much politics at a Batman movie. In TDK, he got the mix just right, and it was successful, and stimulating! But in “TDKR” he just pushes the envelope too far. The cops have unconstitutional powers. The Third World strikes back. Batman barely picks a side, but to the degree he does you can EASILY argue it’s the wrong one. Well, even X-Men 3 featured Magneto being actually fucking RIGHT, right? Except mutants aren’t real. That’s what saved it.

    But that doesn’t work here!

    Yeah, I think it’s the worst one — it’s the longest bad one, and that music is inexcusable, and if it’s incoherent the one thing you can’t do is call the incoherence “camp”. I love the point about how Batman is over by the end of TDK, barely having made it there finally as Full Batman at all…that’s the new costume, when he shows up in the Joker’s interrogation room, that’s the arrival of Batman in (to abuse Flaubert) “full armour”, I think. And that’s a long way into that movie. One crazy dude with a gun later, and Batman is finished, at least so the Third Movie rather unambiguously confirms.

    Also, yeah…ugh, that “Rise” thing. In the FF movie it really didn’t make any sense, did it? But it may have made more sense there anyway, than it did here. So often “Rise” is used for “Begins” anyway, and then there’s that business of the poster where he is not rising, but toppling, and also NIGHTS DON’T RISE, and I don’t care if Nolan has claimed somewhere that he didn’t intend it to be a pun and I’m reading too much into it, because frankly that’s no excuse. And that’s all just the tip of the iceberg, with this damn title, anyway…I’m not even going to get into the mangled approach to Tale Of Two Cities

    Jesus, I really need my tongue to heal minimally before I can take it to bed…

  6. On Seaguy, then…

    It actually isn’t that complicated, but it’s wonderful…as someone said once (I forget who!), Seaguy lives in a post-utopian world, where scarcity has certainly disappeared but it hasn’t left any positive residue. Seaguy wants to be a “hero”, just like a million other heroic protagonists, and he wants to win the Girl’s affections too, but he’s stuck in a milieu that’s like what Brave New World would be like if it had a lobotomy — it’s the world After After Our Ford, and there’s not even any work to do. One of the things that still arrests me about it is Cameron Stewart’s drawing of the paver-stone streets in the little mindless seaside town — not cobbles and not asphalt, is there anything that suggests a large corporate arcology so much as that ubiquitous meaningless pattern of those pleasant plaza promenades? How many dozens of these places have I been in, all with street names invented by the developer over Scotches with his architect? Such a grand design, that has such stupid pastiches of names in it…

    So in Seaguy — that is, inside the fictional reality of the Seaguy comic, which is the only place you will ever see such a person as Seaguy, just as you will never see Superman or Batman outside of a fictional milieu either — we actually have a representation of the world after fictionality has been transcended by the Cosmic Sacrifices of superheroes, which AGAIN is a state of affairs that can ONLY be represented in fucking fiction!!!!

    I really can’t stress enough, that this is where the genius lies…

    So what if it all did go 100% fully transcendent, in the genuine “never faced a threat like this before” Crisis-to-end-all-Crises confrontation with none other than Anti-Dad Himself? Afterwards, a name like “Teknostrich” wouldn’t even sound funny…zebra steaks would be a bit ho-hum to have every day…colour-blindness would be like not being able to tell the difference between BLACK and WHITE…

    And the soul would go out of everything, and you couldn’t even blame Anti-Dad for it, because after all he was defeated.

    So then you have Seaguy, the slightly-bemused reader with all his comforting fantasy accoutrements…right down to a Girl He Loves and a Best Friend and a superficially-insouciant manner. Challenging Death to a game of chess! But none of it means what it seems to; challenging Death isn’t even much of a challenge in a post-utopian world, even if Death has managed to retain some of his ancient privileges, under certain circumstances as detailed in Appendix C of the contract with reality. Everything’s been dealt for and negotiated, here, and it’s all done now; the post-utopian world smiled to your face as it shook your hand, back when you were nominally equals, but now it can do whatever the contract empowers it to do and it isn’t personal. As readers, we have some expectations that align with Seaguy’s own: we expect an heroic adventure. And we do get it, but it’s a rather horrifying and shockingly bloody series of reversals and upendings, and there is much stupidity. This is the same thing, really, as when Steve Gerber used to satirize TV game shows (remember those days?) as outer-space death-festivals — it’s all just a really obvious target, and the satire isn’t particularly refined or subtle — “Mickey Eye” is brilliant, but not exactly what you’d call a mystery — but none of that matters because the encounter is with the blackness of absurdity in a world gone mad, and that isn’t something which really calls for subtlety. Is the zebra-steak really very subtle? It kind of SCREAMS otherwise, right? Like a great big sign reading “SUBTLE!”, with an arrow pointing to itself. It looks just like what it is, but invites you to consider it as something else…and none too convincingly, but maybe that’s why it works?

    You want your metatextual detonation — here it is, and it is what it is, and that’s all that it is…and this is really how to do it, I think.

    Whoops, it’s coffee time! Hopefully that was all reasonably coherent…

    Uh…

    WHOOPS.

  7. Actually, TDK really DID bug me the first time I saw it, for that reason. I left the theatre kind of agitated, thinking, “God, can’t I even go see a Batman movie without having ‘WE ARE LIVING IN A POST-9/11 AMERICA’ crammed down my throat?” But it grew on me the more I thought about it, and I guess Plok, you sort of clarified my thought on it there: TDK is compelling simply at the level of a cool Batman movie — in fact, I’d argue it is PRIMARILY concerned with being a “Batman vs. the Joker” movie, and all the political/ethical/philosophical themes flow as subsidiaries from it, and because it doesn’t have an agenda, you can get as much as or as little out of it as you want to put in.

    But TDKR, I don’t know. All the actual Batmanning seemed tacked on to the larger plot of the movie — a big elevator-pitch blockbuster about an American city getting cut off from the rest of the country and engaging in class warfare…but also Batman is there and dealing with his own shit too? I think you could have made a movie with the same basic throughline as TDKR but with no Batman or Bane, but I don’t think you can really remove Batman and the Joker from TDK and still have something that makes any sense at all. So as a result TDKR doesn’t work from EITHER angle.

    (Actually, this was one of the many things I didn’t like about Man of Steel as well (yes, I sawr it) — I thought it was kind of a dumb sci-fi badass alien invasion movie, but one in which the protagonist just happened to be Superman.)

    Really, I wonder what kids made out of TDK and TDKR. Because TDK is a movie you could watch and think it was rad, and then maybe it would make you think about New Things, which is something I think is good for genre fiction to do. But TDKR was such a chore to get through in the first place; I think I would have been totally unengaged at age 12. (Nine more years until I can test this theory with my son, I guess. Hopefully, I’ll have moved on by then.)

  8. Also, TDKR is pretty cowardly in its way, as far as trying to examine a social issue. TDK (I’m getting tired of the acronyms, too) can be read as an examination of idealism vs. pragmatism, and all of the actors in the movie thoroughly believe in what they’re doing. But TDKR has a massive cheat in it: Bane doesn’t actually believe in the revolution he’s selling, he’s just doing it to…well, I can’t seem to clearly recall WHY he’s doing it, but it’s just some sort of manipulation tactic. So where the conflict in TDK is artificial in the real world but genuine in the world of the film, it’s artificial in both worlds in TDKR.

  9. To be fair, you couldn’t see that old movie “Siege”, with Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis and Annette Bening, without having post-911-ness crammed down your throat too…and it isn’t just Siege, because the Threat To America has always been the same, and people have made movies about it for a really long time. Siege just doesn’t waste any time getting down to the “does torture work?” part of it, and the baddies also happen to be Afghan jihadists.

    The details vary. But always, always, always, it’s about whether the Constitution can ever be legitimately suspended or gotten around. Always, always, always, the answer is “don’t think you can do it without having to absorb damage“, and yet though the answer is all around there’s always some dumb cluck who thinks no one’s ever really asked the question.

    So, TDK only belongs to a family of movies that brings up this kind of problem, and the problem’s really always topical if you live in America (in America especially!)…but on the other hand it’d sure be a helluva accident if Nolan just decided he felt like making a Batman movie with this kind of subtext rather than that other kind, at a time when America is in the middle of what it’s in the middle of. Right? I mean it’s sort of been all over the news, this post-911 thing. You’d think he might’ve heard about it. Jonathan Nolan must be similarly surprised at the whole “relevance” aspect that involves itself in his Person Of Interest…hey, all he was saying was what if after 911 the government started surveilling the shit out of American citizens, right?

    Hey, he was just making it up, for heaven’s sake!

    Yeah.

    Be that as it may, though, I think you’re right: whatever the subtext that makes it really cool (so I thought, anyway), the coolness doesn’t lie in the subtext but in the way the subtext gets, in fact, under the TEXT…and the text is about Batman and the Joker. No Batman, no coolness…no amazing Joker, no justification for sitting through a three-hour movie, and no patience for the topical gee-whizzery in a movie about a dude who owns “batarangs”. Really it is so much about Heath Ledger’s Joker, obviously! A modernized Joker, a Joker reboot, that’s what we all went to see, and it might have been anything, but it just so happened Gotham City made a good analogic arena for current geopolitics…which probably would’ve also been true in 1990, or 1980, or 1970, but it just so happens that the current state of “current geopolitics” is all fucked up because all the classic fears have come to life. Can’t blame Nolan for that! Although I dunno if it’s really necessary, either, to say he lives in some weird apolitical bubble that the nightly news can’t penetrate. It’s a false choice, really: “did he mean it, didn’t he mean it”, well obviously he knew damn well what he was doing, but it wasn’t the only thing he was doing, and as you say he took the opportunity to answer no questions and resolve no issues, in the actions of Batman vs. the Joker, so…it’s just a movie?

    Sure, it’s just a movie. A reasonably serious Batman movie. But did Tom Hanks show up, or anything? No.

    And this kind of thing could be seen as a total cheat, so easily. Right? “Oh these goddamn superhero movies with their constant melodramatic gesturing at issues that can’t possibly be comprehended by some plot involving fucking Kryptonite”, if we had one of these “relevant” supermovies a year I’d go on the roof and scream whenever one came out. The Fantastic Four take on racism! Green Lantern battles charter schools! It gets a bit Frank Miller even to have that Superman Returns movie promising some kind of take on Jesus and deadbeat dads. Not that it can’t be done, but it has to be done well, it isn’t actually a formula — so that Nolan answers no questions in TDK is probably part of the point, and the movie works best when he doesn’t even really bother saying what the questions are. Really, for me, the Joker part that rings most hollow is in that interrogation room where he explains…something, you know, about who Batman is and who he is, but for myself I thought that exposition was just filler, because we already get this, don’t we? We don’t need him to tell us about it.

    Back (oddly enough) to X-Men 3. At one point, Magneto rolls up his sleeve and shows his tattoo from the camps…and that’s as close as we get to a real confrontation with a real issue, but in the context of a superhero movie it’s pushing the envelope even to get that: it’s a bit daring, it’s a bit dangerous. What if no one buys it? After all, it isn’t a very good movie anyway! Magneto’s actions don’t really make sense, anymore than the X-Men’s do, and nothing really ties together…but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because Ian McKellan sells the moment with the tattoo. Nothing else of consequence is really going to happen, but we’ve gotten our one moment without the fucking X-codenames and the X-plane and the dumbass X-plot, and miracle of miracles it hasn’t made the whole thing look any sillier than it already does.

    That’s why you have Ian McKellan in these movies, obviously! You need someone who can carry across the gravitas…should there be any that needs carrying.

    But “TDKR” doesn’t have an awful lot to work with, in this respect. Just as we all went to TDK (yeah, no kidding, this acronym shit is getting really annoying) to see the Joker, this one’s draw was primarily Catwoman, secondarily (for those in the know) Bane. But Catwoman, as slick as Anne Hathaway always is, is just not given a fuck of a lot to do…and Bane isn’t either, though it may sound strange to say it. There are a lot of angles you could have on Bane, here, but the character is hardly reinvigorated. I do know quite a few people in their twenties and early thirties for whom Bane totally worked as a badass, and they do seem to have extracted some sort of interest from the political…one hardly knows what to call it, “paratext” I guess…but what that interest is I’m not really sure. We seem to always be talking about two different movies: the one I saw was a brutal slog, featuring no characters I cared about in the slightest and no story that managed to add up to anything; the one they saw was, apparently,”rad”.

    Maybe it was only — and precisely! — “rad”, though. Maybe that’s what I’m missing. Maybe for them that was enough, and anything more would’ve been too much.

    I guess it’s possible.

    So there’s no Tom Hanks to cover the whole of TDK in layers and layers of Significance, and give you the answer so you understand what you must make of it as white folks in the South around about midcentury (or whatever), but that’s what saves it, maybe, from provoking something like a “fuck off already with the 9/11 shit, SUPERHERO MOVIE” response more easily than it did. Basically the Joker is into beating Batman, and that part’s really hard to miss. He’s even got a good reason for doing it!

    Bane wants to beat Batman too, of course, but — why would someone threaten to shoot someone before throwing them out of a plane? — Batman is already defeated, so why doesn’t he just go to his house and kick him in the knee? Mind you the League of Shadows was acting pretty irrationally in Batman Begins, too — you tried to destroy Gotham but you failed, because Thomas Wayne beat you (though let’s not get too deep into the I-got-your-back goodness of rich people), then Wayne got killed but his son got on the case…so how many times are you going to take a run at Gotham before you admit that by your own criteria your argument for trying to sink it doesn’t make any sense? So maybe in that way it makes sense to say “right, he’s totally broken and defeated…here’s what we do, we lure him back, and then we defeat him and we BREAK him…!!”

    But we’ve been here before, anyway, so what does it matter? I dunno, maybe all those people who liked it are just being influenced by Steven Spielberg’s Hook, the pomo thing…maybe it’s all the fault of Alias for convincing people that this One Year Later thing is some kind of bold storytelling move. Maybe it’s both. I will say, though, that when I saw that “Eight Years Later” thing my first instinct was to yell at the screen “no, not eight years later, now! NOW!!” Eight years on from TDK is still 2016 for heaven’s sake, it is the FUTURE…

    Why does it have to be the FUTURE?

    Now I’m just griping. Obviously it’s the future because this movies tries to sail up as close to DKR as it can without actually making Batman OLD…which is kinda crazy because without Batman being old there is no DKR. See, I really do think they tried to do DKR just as much as they could, while still having basically the same Catwoman that was in Batman Returns and still having Knightfall all at the same time, all three things for completely different tacked-on reasons, some good and some bad, and it just goes quite a bit Spider-Man 3 after a while, to the point where talking about why it’s a bad movie almost seems beside the point. Why, after all, was Spider-Man 3 a bad movie? Well, ’cause it took a crap all over itself, basically. There are lots of horrible and stupid little details to it — my non-comics friend hollered out “GIVE ME A BREAK!” when the meteor crashed and the symbiote poured out, and wasn’t Spider-Man 3 also three-and-a-half hours long? Wasn’t it? God, it sure felt like it was…

    But those are details. The essentials are: it was a crap movie because no one bothered to make it otherwise. It was like they just stopped caring. So no wonder it was no good!

    How could it have been?

    Ooog, is that the time. Rant rant ranty-rant rant rant.

    • Any minute now, someone is going to do an Internet drive-by and say something like “um…actually, dude, meh, it’s just comics, why don’t you go fight global warming or something?”

      Well, maybe I will!

  10. Hah! Mr. Volume has picked out the relevant riposte, from the relevant fencing match! From today’s post over at Mindless Ones, this excerpt from a message-board man:

    “I wish you luck in your crusade against bad guys in comics being depicted as what you assume are of middle-eastern descent. Martians are depicted pretty poorly in the same issue. No one’s whining about that, because…oh yeah, they’re aren’t real. They are cartoons.”

    But this fucked-up point of view shouldn’t be DESTROYED, Orion; it should be CHANGED!! So gimme that thing, because there’s nothing wrong with it that I can’t fix with my bare hands…

    So here is the distinction, the very distinction, between the politics of X-Men 3 and the politics of “TDKR”: mutants are like Martians, and people who live in a world where “mutant” isn’t a political category aren’t like Martians. Magneto is like a human-Martian hybrid, for about one second? Maybe two? But mostly it’s pretty hard to care about someone appropriating mutant culture, misrepresenting mutant views or motivations, exercising their non-mutant privilege by shutting down the voices of real mutants when they’re trying to speak about their own lived experience…and one rarely finds a kid coming home from school during Mutant History Month telling his parents he learned today that Mutant Africa was basically only the seat of warring tribal cultures for about half a million years, only (and gratefully!) to be informed by them that actually there were advanced Mutant Civilizations in Mutant Africa in mutant antiquity, and they have some mutant books on them at home, and he can mutant read them later. This, I humbly submit, is an uncommon occurrance.

    (And I personally think it should never happen, you know? Because why are we talking about mutants as though it was all quite settled and decided that they’re not really “mutants” at all, but homo superior? instead?)

    (Oh, comics, how you typically shit the bed when you try to do allegory using Human Condom Man and Dr. Agony Aunt…)

    So “TDKR” being a bit cowardly and not playing fair, as well as on it trying to sort of not have its cake and not eat it too…to have a political content that doesn’t really relate to Batman, an elevator pitch to which Batman is simply tacked-on, yet we are to believe no, it’s seriously all about Batman, Batman is integral to this!, and also for there to be a situation in which Bane’s fake-out really denatures whatever kind of political or philosophical or symbolic opposition has been set up, thus for the WHOLE THING you can’t really point to anything like you can in TDK and say “yeah, well, they’re kind of talking about this“…because they’re not, right?…

    Well, maybe it’s a bit like if everyone who went to the X-Men movies had said “fuck off with your attempt to appropriate the Holocaust for your shabby little men-with-funny-helmets purposes and your moments of fist-pumping ass-kickery”, in fact kind of fuck off with your whole “oh, he’s a mass murderer because he’s a Jew with POWER, well that explains EVERYTHING” shit altogether, right? Which they might easily have done, except the reference to Magneto’s past contrives to lend the mutant thing some weight after all, where otherwise it wouldn’t have been exactly a “relevant” type of thing. In TDK, the relevance is just that everything’s going to hell on a high-speed train, and it makes the Joker’s position comprehensible as opportunism as it makes Batman’s frustration a bit poignant. And this would’ve worked just as well without the backdrop of Modern America, but let’s face it there was an extra little bit of sizzle in there because of that backdrop. The background textures/implications of the superhero conflicts were all about human issues, but then since they were worked out by Martians you didn’t really have to worry if the working-out was 100% satisfactory in human terms. And this was the mechanism of it.

    But in “TDKR” it’s only the excuse, not the mechanism. “What are you talking about, these aren’t real Jews, they’re just CARTOONS OF JEWS!” is a defence the makers of the X-Men movies might have been forced to resort to if they hadn’t pitched the thing just so, and employed the mechanism delicately…oh, well that’s all right then if they’re just racist caricatures of Jews, I don’t see how I can really get mad at you about that…” But as someone recently remarked (but who was it?) “Nolan seems to expect the surface to double up as the supporting structure”, and so you get Martian issues trying to justify supposedly-human workings-out of them, and it all falls apart. Bane just doesn’t credibly represent any kind of real-world point of view, he’s more like a Harkonnen in David Lynch’s Dune — HMM! — than he is like any actual real person who might fulminate against the West, or the rich, or hell even Batman. Defending this by (essentially) saying “it’s just a cartoon”, well…that’s the problem with it, isn’t it? Real-world issues are misrepresented. There is a problem with the comfortable West, and there is a problem with the gap between rich and poor, the power vested in corrupt institutions, all of that…but Bane moves swiftly to caricaturizing these issues, almost mocking them really, where he <could have represented them, even as a supervillain who makes speeches, more authentically. In Grant Morrison’s X-Men, Cassandra Nova comes along and grabs some mutated Sentinel technology — leaner, more adaptive, more decentralized — and shows that it’s every bit as deadly as the old monolithic contrptions and maybe even more so. She takes absolutely no prisoners and maintains an absolute fixity of dreadful purpose…doesn’t fit with your “typical” supervillain at all, because she’s much more Other than (say) Magneto: who for all his menace is still part of the club, where she isn’t. And for a while I thought Bane might be a bit like that — “they thought the Joker was bad; wait’ll they get a load of me!” Whatever the Joker was, he wasn’t a ruthless conqueror, wasn’t a Genghis Khan…and saying that, I hate how it just throws up how Bane might’ve been another amplification of that most fashionable enemy The Terrorist, only this time he’d be the one out of all those sordid little Republican bodice-rippers about the re-establishment of the Caliphate? Contrasted with the cool, sleek Durkheimian Innovation of Catwoman, that only wants nice cars and private jets, so at least that would’ve been something even if if wouldn’t have been a very nice something…

    But, fuck it: Bane wasn’t that at all. 1789 is caricatured here, too, with the Robespierre riff: it really is just all to get Batman’s goat. These are Martian issues, thrust onto human actors: this movie doesn’t even so much as say there’s anything wrong with Batman, that he needs such monumental fucking-with, that all this FAKE STUFF is justified so long as gets the Batman problem dealt with. If you think about it, if you think back, Batman didn’t even kill anyone, right…?

    Where was I. It’s all just turning into more griping, I’m afraid…but OH YEAH: the mechanism.

    It’s like he took a nailgun and used it to BASH IN NAILS like it was a hammer…then points to it and says “nailgun”.

    Well, I guess you’re using that the right way after all, then.

    Damn, no wait, I screwed that up…

    It’s like he takes a GUN to a bunch of nails, and then points to it and says…?

    ANYWAY IT DOESN’T WORK, but the main problem with it is that as a person who has a certain kind of general political and historical and social awareness, I had an expectation that “TDKR” would, you know, be somewhat consonant with that worldview. I mean, you are given what looks to be a set-up with a lot of humans in it. Then it sucks, but then you’re told “oh, no, these were just Martians in blackface so it’s totally fine, and actually didn’t suck at all!” Well, I stand fucking corrected, don’t I?

    Oboy, this went off the rails.

  11. Hey, that is quite a nice summary of The Deal With This Movie, really.

    The X-Men are a good point of comparison. I remember a Peter David X-Factor with Strong Guy being all, “Remember when African-Americans were called ‘negroes’ and handicapped people were called ‘cripples’? ‘Mutant’ is a racial slur!” and of course Claremont’s Kitty being all, “How would you like it if I called you THIS, Black Person?” And it’s such a dumb thing to do! Metaphors are so delicate, but c’mon guys, Star Trek had this down: your metaphor STANDS IN for your real-world issue, but only if you don’t put it RIGHT NEXT TO the actual real-world issue, because it makes me think that, when you put it THAT way, when you come right out and say it, being Jewish or gay or an alienated teenager or anything else is probably not like being able to shoot concussive force blasts from your eyes AT ALL.

    What if the Captain America/Secret Empire story ended with Cap going, “Boy, first Nixon resigns, now this!”

    I do think the movies were pretty tasteful about it. The metaphors were super obvious in the Star Trek style (“Have you tried NOT being a mutant?” “I have here a list of known mutants living in the United States”), but they spread them around so it’s not a one-to-one thing. Really, the only thing they do come right out with is the Holocaust, but you know what? I don’t think Ian McKellan gets enough credit for making that work, and what I think is great is that he lets Magneto be a villain. Right? You could have played Magneto very po-faced (this is a word I wish we used in the US, because we don’t have a term that’s QUITE equivalent) and it would have been a disaster trying to earnestly mash up the traumatized Holocaust survivor with, like, some guy with a prehensile tongue who shoots slime at you. But McKellan lets him be arrogant and hypocritical and manipulative and charismatically sinister. So, like, that Nazi Germany opening is always under the surface, but the surface is still I AM THE BAD GUY, AND I WILL DESTROY THE X-MEN so we can have a good time about it.

    Slightly off-topic, but does it ever wig you out that there are probably a decent chunk of comics readers whose entire knowledge of Malcolm X can be summed up as, “I heard he was kind of like Magneto”?

    And back to The Dark Knight Rises, another thing that I think detracts from its surface Batmannishness is the portrayal of Bane. I mean, I don’t want to be whiny John Byrne here all writing off a movie because the costume is off or somebody has the wrong color hair, but, you know…the Scarecrow looks like a Batman villain even as just a suit and a mask (I actually really like the idea of The First Supervillain being just sort of thrown together), and despite the reimagining of the design, you’d still be able to tell Heath Ledger is supposed to be the Joker if you saw a picture of him out of context. And in any other movie, you would laugh those guys right out of the picture; someone would just have shot the Joker twenty minutes into the movie and we’d be done with it. But the Bane of this movie: he’s maybe on the more flamboyant end of the Bond villainy spectrum, but you look at a picture of him not knowing it’s a Batman movie and you might guess it’s a…Dolph Lundgren movie? I really felt that this Bane was a non-entity, and there’s nothing in the design, motivation, or MO to even get me thinking, “At least it’s sort of neat to see a movie version of Bane, I guess.” So he’s another point toward me feeling like this is some other movie with Batman shoehorned in: again, the mask is kind of weird, but he’s really just “outlandish foreign terrorist with an air of sophistication” you could find in any number of movies.

    Catwoman too, with that “She’s not dressed as a cat, her goggles kind of look like ears, do you get it?” Did they ever even call her Catwoman in the movie? If you’re making a Batman movie, don’t you sort of have to make your peace with God and admit this is the kind of movie where people are named things like “Catwoman”?

    “Ahoy, Catwoman!”
    “Imbicile! How many times have I told you never to use my real name in public!”

    • I’m totally gonna use that Nixon line, OH MY GOD!!

      Of course in my opinion the very worst thing ever done along these lines was Paul Jenkins having Peter Parker thoughtfully compare his Civil War problem to the Japanese Internment, which is something I never tire of bringing up because IT IS A BAD THING. “What’s up, Peter, you look kinda blue!”

      “Oh, I was just sitting here thinking about how horribly conflicted I am over What We Would Do With Superheroes In The Real World…you know what it reminds me of? Remember how in the 40s we locked up all the Japanese-Americans? THAT reminds me of THIS…hey, where are you going?”

      “To stop buying comics.”

      Reading a little Film Crit Hulk on Star Trek: Into Darkness tonight…because I just saw that movie and am gonna review it…and Hulk covers all the bases in an interesting way: the programmatic spectacle, the plot-for-plot’s-sake abandonment of characters’ abilities to make choices, and how people really like J.J. Abrams movies but not enough to ever revisit them, and it also reminded me of Agents Of SHIELD, because I saw that on TV and it had some problems similar to those of “The Dark Knight Rises”, and so what about that cheap fodderizing of genuine real human issues? My God, Mark Millar even comes out and says he would totally lock up all the superheroes, because they’re dangerous, and…jeesh, maybe he should not be saying that?

      Is what I thought at the time…

      So anyway, Hulk argues that since people are just consuming movies passively then to them the emulation of the thing is close enough to being the thing that they don’t have to care about the distinction…and comics fans, as we well know, can be like this too. I actually forgive Claremont’s Kitty-Stevie moment of WKRP-style “relevance”, because…well, it’s relevant if the black experience is the important thing, there: the thing really being talked about. Which I think it is, because I don’t think of Claremont as the guy being made fun of at Stuff Geeks Love. I do think that Peter David is that guy, though! “Yeah, negroes and cripples and it’s all the same thing anyway so why would you be such a racist to mutants?” So what’s he really saying, there? Claremont is saying “racism is bad” and Peter David is saying racism <against mutants is bad, and those really aren’t equivalent points of view. I have that comic, and it’s pretty damn desultory what he does there…meanwhile Claremont didn’t have to have Kitty say that, she could’ve said something like “fine then, I’ll go back and tell him I’m Jewish, and then when he calls me a kike maybe you’ll let me be mad about that!“, but she didn’t and I kind of accept that she didn’t…even if I would’ve written it differently, it still isn’t hard for me to see Claremont wanting to be Norman Lear there. Maybe he doesn’t succeed, I don’t know…

      But Paul Jenkins is just trying to make the conceit of Civil War more credible by comparing it to the Internment, which is a whole lot of wrong in a whole lot of ways, and maybe not a million miles away from our discussion here…”what’s that, you think Civil War is stupid, well if you think that then I guess you also think the Japanese Internment wasn’t a big deal, there now don’t you feel guilty for being such a racist, now you can make it up to me by caring about Spider-Man, there see you’re magically a good person again.” Dan Pussey couldn’t have put it better! Likewise I strongly suspect Peter David was going somewhere like “the deal with X-Men comics is that the metaphor is oppressed groups, I can make that metaphor better by having people mention it a few times”, but of course this just makes it work less well, because it doesn’t really matter if I hate the filthy muties, does it? What’s the worst that can be said about me then, just that I’m not a very good reader and missed the point. And I’m not going to be lectured-to about it by Strong Guy, right? Fictional characters don’t get to call me a racist. To Claremont’s credit, he is not trying to do any of those things, he may be a bit ham-handed about his point but at least he’s got one…a real one.

      Oh yeah, and the Malcolm X thing! David Brothers has written a few nice little disembowellings of that, and I guess it’s a bit similar too…last I checked, Malcolm X wasn’t a mass murderer?

      COMICS.

      This whole thing where the X-Men is “all about” minority oppression, too, the metaphor is certainly there but it’s mostly there because it’s inherited from SF stories Kirby read…and the concentration of it is, much like the FF being “first and foremost a family”, a recent invention that had the deliberate aim of making people realize comics Weren’t Just For Kids Anymore. I mean, as a line people repeat like it really really meant something…what the line says is true enough, but it isn’t the whole story, and it being a line is a new thing that has some dodgy motives behind it. In the real world, obviously, being an ethnic minority and being a gay teen are things that aren’t just super-simplistically “The Same”, and X-Men comics don’t make them the same just by standing around in the Danger Room…kind of insulting, really. Suddenly it’d just like I am the descendent of slaves, and your Dad survived Auschwitz, and somebody else was beaten mercilessly in a park late at night? So I guess now we know that all our problems are solved, or something?

      Ugh. Sorry, late at night and I’ve got an upset stomach, but…yeah, ugh.

      • Fair point about metaphors often not sitting comfortably alongside the thing they stand for, but I wouldn’t want to rule it out, since that’ll also be a bigot’s justification for why there shouldn’t be any gay or black X-Men.

        I’ve not read a hell of a lot of either, but Peter David does strike me as dodgy Claremont; good call.

      • You mean, “harrumph, harrumph, all these gay and black X-Men, they completely clutter the metaphorical issue of prejudice against a certain group”? Oh yeah, they’d definitely use that, I think…bobbing and weaving and playing for time…

        Fortunately, the “mutant” thing is flexible, as Justin point out with his “I have here a list of known mutants” alongside “have you tried not being a mutant”…no point arguing with people who are capable of reading “oppressed” as “white only”, that’s not what I mean to suggest there, but rather you can have X-Men with multiple details about their lives easily enough, with shifting ground between the “mutant” thing and everything else. There’s no actual need to pick a primary association and say “this stands for this” and then treat the mutant thing as though it were just that thing…

        Though, you know, it does put me in mind of a thought I had once about “Twelve Angry Men”, which is that if you do mount it as “Men” then you get a microcosmic tilt between the power structures of the patriarchy, and how their representatives’ privilege/legitimacy still doesn’t mean it ain’t all effed up even to themselves…which I think is a perfectly valid reason to want to mount it as “Men”. if someone wanted to specifically explore that. “Twelve Angry Jurors” explores something a tiny bit different in inflection…though of course it’s hardly the main point of the play, so I wouldn’t do anything as crazy as OBJECT to “Twelve Angry Jurors”…

        Though unfortunately some people would, I’m sure, and basically on those same grounds…

        And…

        Wow, this threatens to become a massive disjointed ramble that makes me look bad because I phrased something really poorly…I’m clearly sleepy, so will return with the morning coffee!

  12. I eventually worked out the point of TDKR by falling back on (I’ll admit it’s a bit outdated) Marxist dialectic. The film is a piece of capitalist agitprop aimed at discrediting any sort of proletarian movement. The revolutionaries in the film are stupid, coarse, violent, treacherous and misled, have no coherent philosophy or plan whatsoever. They take over Gotham just to dismember it. Hell, the crowd even cheers when its own sports team gets destroyed. That’s how stupid these poor people are. Thank goodness we’ve got rich corporations to put everything right in the end.

  13. You give it a lot of credit for thinking things through, Clone! Or even feeling them through. I think there are a couple different analyses that could be laid on this movie, if one assumes anyone knew what they were doing and doesn’t pretend to a lot of secret knowledge about Nolan’s motivations. In the straight-up neocon approach, Batman plays capitalist boddhisatva to Gotham, bringing back the heavy ordnance and the can-do spirit — the saint of copland! Public order now interestingly conflated with oligopolies, as though, well sure, isn’t oligopoly the most enlightened form of government? Best for everybody, what what. Best for you on the bottom; best for me at the top. Pure utilitarianism…

    And then he “goes Galt”.

    But you could parse it another way too, if it was all intended and all made to make sense: the common people always in danger of being duped by the “rent-a-crowd” gang of usual hippie suspects, is the typical loony right-wing excuse for there ever being any civil unrest — though Canadian news reporting on the UK riots made an interesting meal out of the whole “they’re animals…just animals” perspective on the poor. CTV in particular just ran with that idea, in a truly shocking lapse of journalistic integrity. I mean I don’t think much of the current state of journalistic integrity anyhow, but CTV offered us a man on the scene who carefully explained that there were NO larger socioeconomic or political issues in play, don’t bother looking for ‘em, this is just what happens when you let Aldo run the show instead of Caesar. Hmm, gorilla-snout prostheses and Bane’s mask? I know there is an OBVIOUS visual reference to Bane’s mask that for some reason I just keep blanking on, sure wish I could get my memory to work on that one as I can imagine the me from Universe B reading this and thinking “what a damn fool, he’s completely missing the point…”

    Anyway as pure capitalist agitprop I think the most damning thing about it would be its assertion that there is no movement, that’s it’s all a show to mask the usual hippie subjects of ulterior motives…raw power-seeking and the urge to vandalize, under the cloak of direct democracy. But this would be BAD, of course, if this were the movie’s real message…also the League of Shadows could as easily have sat back and waited for Gotham to implode after all its democracy had been eroded by its laws, and the Powerful had receded into their hippie-dippie fantasies about “changing the world”, rendered neuter after having ruined everything by trying to make a difference in the first place…in fact it is counterproductive to the Sack of Gotham project to organize any sort of mass uprising, unless perhaps it’s there to pre-empt any actual uprising?

    But if the message were simply “oh, those so-called protestors, nothing but a rent-a-crowd”, then anything like a comprehensible Plan that expains it all would be an interpretation working against the theme, ultimately a futile conceptual exercise, a thought-experiment…because really if that were the message then “TDKR” would already be a massively degraded artistic statement, the equivalent of a three-hour-plus sloganeering session…Batman for the Tea Party, funded by the Koch brothers, more laughable than any 300 or indeed Atlas Shrugged…

    And, it would mean Christopher Nolan was a bit of a scumbag

  14. Bane’s mask was kind of like a sideways version of goatse, but it also somehow put me in mind of the helmet Leia was wearing when she disguised herself as a bounty hunter and brought Chewbacca to Jabba’s palace in RotJ.

  15. Obviously Nolan’s motivation can’t be proven in any way, but I do believe in more ideologically-conflicted times (say, the early 1980s) the movie would have been considered reactionary, and the only reason not to think of it as a deliberate piece of propaganda is that it’s hardly believable that anyone would bother using a Batman movie to discredit revolutionary movements, especially in such a hamfisted manner.

    But of course Batman itself is always quite close to this particular line: the millionaire with a grudge who spends his evenings beating the crap out of poor people.Obviously, they have to be criminals,but nonetheless it’s the poor on the receiving end of the Batfists in an awful lot of Batman. The poor being the people that the rich are most scared of: the origin story is a classic example. Rich couple go to the theatre and get murdered by scummy oik off the streets.

    A careful writer skirts the problem by juxtaposing the deserving and undeserving poor (without asking the obvious questions about why there is so much poverty and wealth simultaneously), and Stan Lee – a politically astute writer – made damn sure that DD and Spider-Man, who do much the same job as Batman, were beating up members of their own class. Even if Peter’s a genius and Matt’s a lawyer. But when there’s a millionaire hero the writer has to watch how things get portrayed, and given the numbers who have tackled Batman over the years it’s not a surprised some have messed it up so badly, whether intentionally or not.

  16. Pingback: Flashback! To “Star Trek: Into Darkness…!” | A Trout In The Milk·

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