I've been thinking for some time about how fandom reacts when its beloved auteurs fail. When someone like Aaron Sorkin produces something as preachy, self-satisfied, and misogynistic as The Newsroom, fandom reacts with dismay, but is that surprise justified? In Sorkin's case, all of these flaws were baked into his work going back as far as Sports Night, and they were ignored, excused, and forgiven because what he was producing was of such high quality. Is it really surprising that a writer who has been showered with unconditional praise and adulation should feel free to indulge their worst impulses, and revel in bad habits they might previously have worked to curtail? I mention this because going into The Dark Knight Rises, I was determined not to make this sort of mistake. The previous volume in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, was an excellent film--thrilling, sharply plotted, one of the best superhero films of the last decade. It also ended on a risible note, with Batman choosing to take responsibility for the crimes of crimefighter turned psychotic murderer Harvey Dent, on the belief that the people of Gotham couldn't handle the truth of Harvey's fall from grace, and that without his shining example to guide them they would fall into barbarism and criminality. It would have been easy to ignore this troubling conclusion in favor of the excellent film that preceded it. To do as fandom is too prone to doing, and say "yes, this story is problematic, but it's also such a good story!" But this would be to ignore the strain of fascist authoritarianism, of Great Man fetishism, that has run through all of Nolan's Batman films. In the trilogy's concluding volume--in which, after being relegated to observer status in The Dark Knight, Batman would once again take center stage--it seemed reasonable to assume that these problematic themes would be intensified rather than toned down.
I was prepared, in other words, for The Dark Knight Rises to be an excellent story with a contemptible message. But what Nolan, along with brother and collaborator Jonathan, has delivered is so much more disappointing. The Dark Knight Rises is a flabby, talky film, prone to pounding in its points with a hammer, then repeating them several times to catch up the slow audience members. It has a silly plot whose twists, with one notable exception, are telegraphed well ahead of time, and which hangs together only because the film as a whole is too dreary to arouse the kind of scrutiny that would lay bare its many plot holes. Most of these flaws can, indeed, be traced back to the Nolans' determination to reinforce their Randian vision of Batman as the only person who can restore Gotham to its glory. Most noticeably, the film bogs down in its final third because the Nolans whisk Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) away from the beleaguered city for months so that he can gain enlightenment and return to Gotham even more heroic than he left it--a process that is achieved by having various Magical Foreign People spew repetitive cod-philosophy at him while he has a training montage. But the Nolans also undercut this theme, in ways that, far from granting it the complexity it so desperately needs, only serve to neuter it. In the end, the Nolans seem to lack the courage of their convictions.
In the early scenes of The Dark Knight Rises, there's almost a sense that the Nolans are about to back off from the high-handedness of The Dark Knight's ending. In the eight years since that night, the sainted and hollow memory of Harvey Dent has been used to clean Gotham's streets, but only by stripping away the civil rights of those deemed criminal, and the architect of this process, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), is sick with himself over the lie that he's promulgated. What soon becomes clear, however, is that rather than feeling shame at having lied to the people of Gotham, or at having sold them the fantasy of a savior, what irks Gordon is the fact that he's sold them the wrong savior, and that Batman remains maligned and despised. As if to drive home the theme of unappreciated heroism, we learn in the film's opening scene that the mayor is planning to fire Gordon. "He's a hero," Gordon's gladhanding, politically-savvy second in command protests. "A war hero. This is peacetime," he's told. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is a shut-in, his body ruined by his crimefighting escapades, his mind still reeling from the loss of his lover Rachel. He's the subject of sneering rumor and speculation, not least from the board of his company, whose fortune he's squandered on a clean fusion project that he later shut down with no results. He did this, we soon learn, to keep the technology out of the hands of those who could turn the reactor into a bomb. This echoes the subplot in The Dark Knight in which Bruce builds a machine that can spy on anyone in Gotham, then destroys it after one use because no one should have such unlimited power, and nor is it the only instance of such thinking in The Dark Knight Rises--by the end of the film, the revelation that Bruce has bought yet another company, or concealed yet another technological development, to keep it out of the wrong hands, feels almost like a running joke. The film, of course, means it entirely in earnest, and accepts that Bruce not only has the right but the authority to decide which technologies are safe enough for the general public to use.
Far from toning down The Dark Knight's message, then, The Dark Knight Rises takes it to even further extremes. This isn't simply Batman having the moral authority to act as judge and jury on Gotham's criminals. This is Batman--and Bruce Wayne--as John Galt, the mysterious, reclusive, omni-competent, super-rich industrialist who is the only hope for the future. The Dark Knight Rises extends Batman's authority past crime, into technological progress, and even into social welfare--when Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Officer Blake, a Batman believer who is one of the first to uncover signs of the film's villain, starts his investigation by following up the murder of a homeless teen, he learns that the boy was kicked out of his group home because the cash-strapped Wayne Foundation has stopped funding it. In other words, it's not just the police that needs to be augmented by a caped crusader, but every level of government that must be replaced by private enterprise and private philanthropy. And when that private benefactor is mocked, derided, hobbled in his efforts to keep his community safe and even hunted down for those efforts--why, then he will retreat from his obligations, and the result will be disaster.
That disaster comes, fittingly enough, in the form of a people's revolution--or rather, this being that sort of movie, in the form of a revolution that claims to be on the people's behalf but is really a force of evil. Bane (Tom Hardy, wasted under a mask that conceals most of his face and in a role that demands little of him but an imposing physique), the last surviving member of the League of Shadows, the villains of Batman Begins, arrives in Gotham seeking revenge. He steals Bruce Wayne's fortune, defeats and disables Batman, and converts that dangerous fusion reactor from a few paragraphs ago into a nuclear bomb. This he uses to hold the entire city hostage, an act that he describes as the liberation of Gotham's citizens--from a corrupt government, from Commissioner Gordon's lies about Harvey Dent, and from the oppression of the moneyed classes--but which is really a preamble to the bomb's inevitable explosion. What follows is equal parts Communist and French revolutions, with Gotham's rich and powerful rousted from their homes and marched into show trials as enemies of the people--in a court which is presided over by Batman Begins's deranged (and, when last seen, committed) villain, Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who looms over the accused from atop a pile of desks.
Now might be a good time to stop and boggle at the fact that the Nolans' Batman films are renowned for their realism. The image of Crane perched on those desks is a reassuringly Alice in Wonderland-ish touch, a hint that we're meant to take the city's sudden descent into Jacobinism with a grain of salt. Alas, it's but a brief reprieve from the po-faced seriousness with which The Dark Knight Rises otherwise serves up this plot. The Dark Knight managed to make comic book characters and plots seem organic to the real world because it injected a single irrational player--the Joker--into a system whose other participants, cops and criminals alike, were rational, and therefore had no idea how to approach a force whose choices and motivations they couldn't fathom. The Dark Knight Rises fills Gotham with these irrational players--not just Bane but an army of henchmen who seem to have no recognizably human reactions or emotions, and will gladly die at Bane's command--and has them do ridiculous, cartoonish things--Bane traps Gotham's entire police force in the city's sewers, and then instead of killing them he keeps them prisoner for months, at the end of which they march out, uniforms barely mussed, ready to fight Bane's forces--all while pretending that this is a meaningful political statement.
A silly premise might have been forgivable if the film had developed its implications in interesting ways, but, much like The Legend of Korra last month, The Dark Knight Rises uses its villain as a means of avoiding those implications. Both stories are ostensibly about the cities they are set in and the battle for their soul, and yet those cities--their culture, their norms, and most of all their people--are curiously absent. Like Korra's Amon, Bane claims to be acting on behalf of the city's underclass, and establishes a policy of violent persecution against the upper classes. And as we were in Korra, we are kept entirely in the dark on the question of how the people of Gotham feel about this. Do they support Bane? Do they oppose him? Do they think he has the right idea but the wrong methods? Are they, as seems most likely, divided between these options according to their social status in the pre-occupation world? The Dark Knight Rises ignores all these questions. The people responsible for Gotham's suffering are only Bane and his followers (whose ranks are not, as far as we can tell, swelled by Gotham's have-nots), and the people responsible for stopping him are only the few policemen who managed to evade Bane's trap, the authority figures whom he has deposed--no civilians join the resistance. Anyone who does not fall into either of these groups is completely ignored.
Gotham spends months under Bane's rule--months that you'd expect to have a profound impact on the social, psychological, and cultural life of the city--but upon his defeat all we see are its citizens stepping out of their homes (as if they'd spent all that time indoors), ready to resume their lives as if the very fabric of their society hadn't been ripped to shreds. What's interesting is that the Nolans had an opportunity here to reinforce their authoritarian message and show why Batman is necessary--because when stripped of both their white knight, the lie of Harvey Dent, and their dark knight, the citizens of Gotham turn to Bane, a false savior. The film could have shown us Gothamites turning on one another, informing on their neighbors and signing up to do Bane's bidding--the nightmare scenario that justified Batman's choice to take responsibility for Harvey Dent's crimes. Instead, the Nolans prefer to serve up a fantasy of docile, patient goodness, of a populace content to wait for Batman to save it without doing anything--good or evil--on its own behalf.
Since Bane is planning to blow up Gotham, his claims of populism are easily dismissed--can be taken, in fact, as an attack against the very notion of popular, anti-capitalist protest. Even more disappointing, however, is the fact that The Dark Knight Rises squanders the opportunity to address the class struggle in a more nuanced way, through the character of Catwoman. For a lot of Batman fans, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight had to clear an impossible hurdle in the form of Jack Nicholson's turn as the character in Tim Burton's Batman. For me, the iconic Batman villain performance is Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, and I was very nervous to see what the Nolans and Anne Hathaway would make of the character--not least because, let's face it, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have a woman problem. It's not as pronounced as Aaron Sorkin's or Steven Moffat's--the Nolans' women are generally competent, rarely hysterical or weepy, and have interests other than landing a husband--but it has nevertheless marred most of their films, in which women are either love interests (often dead ones), or minor plot tokens with little in the way of personality or motivations. So it was something of a surprise to discover that Hathaway's Selina Kyle, though she doesn't hold a candle to the scary intensity of Pfeiffer's performance, is one of the Nolans' best female characters (and my favorite part of the film), followed close behind by Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate, the visionary who contracts with Bruce to build the fusion reactor. Both women have their own agenda and aspirations which are given their own space in the narrative, not just as they reflect on the hero's journey or his feelings--the first time this has been true of a woman in a Nolan film since Carrie-Ann Moss's character in Memento. Hathaway's Selina, in particular, has her own arc of growth over the course of the film, and she is also the one who gets to defeat Bane (though only after it's revealed that he is actually the film's secondary villain). At the film's end, she is the only character in the cast whose further adventures I'd like to learn about.
All that said, the cost of this compelling character arc is that Catwoman's rough edges are filed off, and with them her politics. Perhaps wisely given their track record with female characters, the Nolans choose to veer away from the angry feminist slant that Burton gave Catwoman, and instead make her a class warrior. A jewel thief, she justifies her crimes simply by the fact that she steals from those who have so much, and tells Bruce Wayne that "you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Unlike Bane, Selina says things like this in earnest, and also unlike him, she is for the most part a sympathetic character, whose moments of villainy are usually the result of straitened circumstances rather than malice, and whose bitterness over having been dealt a bad hand that has forced her to make increasingly bad choices shines through her disaffected mask and lends moral authority to her views. Through her, then, the film could have given us another perspective on the class struggle that Bane sparks, one that could have suggested that he is playing on a legitimate grievance. Instead, the film uses the earnestness of Selina's convictions to dismantle them. When she sees the violence that has accompanied Bane's revolution, the suffering of the rich whom she had previously reviled, Selina repents of her desire for revolution, and by the end of the film she is fighting by Batman's side to defeat Bane. The message here is clear--capitalism, however predatory, is still better than the alternative--and it's Selina's own believability as an enemy of capitalism that helps to sell it. What's more, the fact that she's positioned as a love interest for Bruce Wayne--the very representative of everything she despises--helps to undercut Selina's convictions, which are overpowered by her affections for Bruce. One can't help but compare this turnaround to Pfeiffer's last scene in Batman Returns, in which she tells Batman "I would love to live with you in your castle ... I just couldn't live with myself." That Catwoman had the strength to give up what she wanted for the sake of her beliefs; the Nolans' Catwoman doesn't.
Of course, by the time this turnaround happens, Batman himself has backed away from the authoritarianism, the Randian dogma, that permeated the first half of the film. The crux of Bruce's long sojourn away from the city (which is the reason that Bane's occupation of Gotham lasts so long despite the fact that the film can't convincingly portray the effects of such an ordeal, and indeed glosses over most of that period as far as Gotham is concerned) is that he is courting death. This echoes Albert's repeated admonitions in the film's first half, and indeed the tone of the entire film is slanted to both warn us and lead us to expect Batman's death. In case we weren't clear on just what kind of death he's heading towards, the film has Selina offer to leave Gotham with Bruce, because "you don't owe these people any more. You've given them everything." "Not everything. Not yet," is his reply. And if that were not enough, the film's surprise villain stabs Batman in the side. That's right. After three films, including one of most critically lauded superhero film in years, and a mass of critical and fannish buzz building up to a consensus on the uniqueness and depth of the Nolans' vision for Batman, their final statement on the character is: Batman as Jesus. The same tired, unoriginal, hokey theme that has shown up in just about every superhero film in the last decade. (Adding insult to injury is the fact that Batman's self-sacrifice is nothing of the sort; though he tells the other characters that he is embarking on a suicide mission, he knows that he has a chance of survival and has merely chosen to fake his death. The film, in its fetishizing of this "death," completely ignores this inconvenient wrinkle.)
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Blake, who has spent the film as Batman's de facto apprentice, laments to Gordon that no one will know who truly saved Gotham. This is such a whiny thing to say that it's unbelievable--who cares who saved the city or whether they're acknowledged? Surely what's important is that the city was saved, and surely that's all a true hero would care about? But Gordon himself seems to be of Blake's mind--the last thing he says to Batman before sending him off to what he thinks is his death is that Gotham deserves to know who saved it. The conclusion that both Gordon and Blake reach is that Gotham knows who its hero is--it's Batman, whether or not the city knows that Bruce Wayne was the man behind the mask. And indeed, Gotham unveils a statue of Batman in one of the film's final scenes, even as Blake, who has resigned from the police force (because, he says, he now feels that the system is preventing him from doing good), discovers the Batcave and becomes the new Batman. But this is only to reinforce the mealy-mouthed conclusion to which the Nolans' have brought their vision of Batman the Great Man. The truly authoritarian, Frank Miller-style Batman doesn't care about the public's accolades--nor, indeed, their condemnation. He acts because he believes his strength and competence give him the authority to act and the ability to know which act is right, regardless of what the public or government think of him or try to do to him. A work like Miller's The Dark Knight Returns forces its readers to face up to the inherent fascism of such a worldview, and challenges them to either fall in line or get out of the way. The Nolans, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it too. Their Batman, Blake's Batman, and even Bruce Wayne's Batman are all Batmen in desperate need of approval. They want a moral authority that transcends government and the will of the people, but they also want the government and the people to like and appreciate them.
As objectionable as I find the Great Man fetishism of the Nolans' Batman films, I might have still respected it had they, like Miller, taken it to its logical conclusion, but instead the Nolans' Batman trilogy concludes not with an examination of Batman's right to act, but with a reinforcement of the notion that it is tragic that his actions are not properly appreciated. In this scheme, the persecution that Batman suffers isn't just the cost of doing business, but a necessary component of his apotheosis. Like Jesus on the cross, he has to be mocked and tormented by a small-minded mob before he turns around and magnanimously saves them all. What The Dark Knight Rises amounts to is a great, self-pitying cry of You'll see, one day I'll be dead and then you'll be sorry. I'm mainly sorry that I didn't stop with the previous film.