A Dark Knight ends safely
KUALA LUMPUR, July 31 — Envy the country that has heroes, huh? I say pity the country that needs them — Denton Van Zan (Reign of Fire)
The above quote is appropriate and just a little bit funny considering that film starred Christian Bale, playing a character whose personal code of conduct (not to mention sense of survival) was under attack by a bulked-up antagonist in the form of Mathew McConaughey. That film, like “The Dark Knight Rises”, wanted its audience to consider deep stuff; only there, the existential threat was… dragons.
In Bale’s filmography, McCaughey’s Van Zan was a precursor to Bane, taunting Bale’s hero with ideological mind games and intimidating the hell out of everyone with his imposing bulk, not to mention heavy artillery. Truly Van Zan as Bane would have been just as memorable as Heath Ledger’s Joker, the former’s gung ho manifest destiny-ism a stark contrast to the latter’s anarchist spirit.
Much has been made of the provocative handling of “class issues” in “Rises” and, indeed, those of a conservative worldview, especially of the American variety, have embraced not only “Rises” but the previous instalment in the trilogy, “The Dark Knight”, as some sort of cinematic recognition of their much maligned (in pop culture) ideological perspective.
I don’t really mind a good rightwing fable since I have never been enamoured of the usual Hollywood liberalism that passes as popcorn fare; James Cameron’s “Avatar” comes to mind. But however much I wanted to like “Rises”, it failed to engage on the deep-stuff level it aspired to.
As far as superheroes go, I always considered Batman to be one of those Orwellian rough men who stand ready to do violence so the rest of us can sleep peacefully in our beds. In a pivotal scene of mythmaking in “The Dark Knight”, Batman chastises Harvey Dent for torturing by way of Russian roulette a mentally unstable prisoner who had nothing to give up. Later on in the movie he gets physical with the Joker, a nut job who had much to give up but which torture proved ineffective.
It was this kind of conundrum (regardless of one’s own personal view of the use of torture as an “information gathering tool”) that hinted that Nolan was attempting to deliver something more than just a comic book movie.
Ultimately, in TDK Nolan slips into sentimentality that limits the genre (cinematic adaptations of superhero comics) or should I say, satisfies the expectations of the genre, when in a pivotal scene, the good citizens of Gotham which includes a ship of prisoners (“Harvey Dent’s most wanted scumbag collection”), fail to detonate the explosives on their ship disregarding their instinct for survival when it means killing another, thereby vindicating Batman’s belief in the inherent goodness of the people he is protecting.
An interesting facet of the Bruce Wayne persona when it comes to the issue of crime, is that during the years before he become the Batman (as described in Batman Begins), Wayne travelled the world indulging in criminal activity (the escape route here, is that he stole his own goods) to discover the desperation that drives people to crime. So there was some solid foundation to build on that Nolan was attempting something more with the Batman than just a simplistic fascistic portrayal of a vigilante crime fighter, not to mention the beginnings of some sort of class consciousness on Wayne’s part.
Of course the reality is that the Joker is in his own words “ahead of the curve”. As the criminality that occurred in the LA riots or Watts riots or any civil unrest that occurs in major Metropolitans in the world demonstrates, “When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other”, as the Joker mockingly intoned.
No such conundrum or possible contradiction exists in “Rises”. Here Bane the would-be Robespierre, if one is inclined to think of this as sort of critique against the mythology of the French Revolution, exalts the good people of Gotham to release the prisoners of Black Gate as the first steps to freedom.
Of course nobody is around to listen to his Sermon on the Mount because he has already demolished a football stadium and is holding the city at ransom with a nuclear bomb, the trigger of which is in the hands of an anonymous Gothamite.
As an exploration of class conflict in popular culture, “Rises” is a pretty poor example no matter how much pundits try to paint it as such. Bane’s men seem to be the only ones carrying out the class war. They storm the Gotham Stock Exchange. They stop Gordon when he is prowling about looking for the bombs that are moved around Gotham. They negotiate with the army who have set up a blockade cutting off Gotham from the rest of the American world. They liberate and arm the prisoners of Black Gate. The final battle is between Gotham’s finest and Bane’s goons. The ordinary citizen, whom Bane claims to represent, is nowhere to be seen.
And the killing joke is that Bane’s real plan is ultimately to destroy the city, and the punch line is that he is merely a lovesick puppet of Talia, the daughter of “Batman Begins” heavy Ras al Ghul, who in his own delusional way perceived Gotham as a crime-infested slime hole.
And who could blame old Ras al Ghul. The protagonist is a wealthy billionaire who saves the city either by his charitable deeds or dressing up as a Bat. Intuitions are either incompetent or corrupt and need a lie (which Dent’s death provides) to give them legitimacy.
So, all this class conflict talk is pretty much devoid of any substance. Which is a shame really, because if “Rises” really was the great cinematic superhero movie that transcended its genre limitations as some claim it is, Nolan would have attempted something a little more complicated as he hinted at in “The Dark Knight”.
The response of the federal bureaucracy to Hurricane Katrina reminds us that race and class is still a major factor at play in the American context. Just as how “The Dark Knight” dealt with the American obsession with fear of an impossible to understand enemy, “Rises”, which coyly hints at a director’s impulse to say . . . something, could have been the provocative masterpiece some critics claim it is.
There’s a great superhero movie that transcends its genre out there. It just hasn’t been made yet. What it needs is a director — no matter his or her ideological persuasion — to go there, to actually stray off the reservation. “The Dark Knight Rises” is an ending to a trilogy that showed promise in the first movie, threatened to take us away from our comfort zones in the second, but gently landed us safely in the third.
* Doktor Cintapelik is the nom de plume of a local movie reviewer.