By Bob Clark
It almost seems inevitable now that Christopher Nolan’s latest and last Batman movie should find itself treading upon so many political fault lines as it finds itself released this weekend. No, not for the tragic events which occurred during midnight screenings in Colorado or the debate it’s rekindling on the subject of national registration for firearms. And no, not for the false-flag buffoonery on the part of Rush Limbaugh for insisting that liberals would try to make a connection between the name of the film’s nearly 20 year old super-villain and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s venture capital firm. Not even for the news that Nolan himself engendered when the film’s production shot on location in the New York financial district during the peak of the Occupy Wall Street movement, where the idea was nursed to put the protestors themselves onscreen as stand-ins for economic unrest in Gotham City, though that one strikes somewhat closer to home. Maybe it’s because Nolan allows his real-world vision of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s comic-book creation less and less fictional filtration in this final installment– instead of the mostly set-bound Batman Begins and the anonymous Chicago look of The Dark Knight, this last film features long action-sequences and skyline shots that prominently feature iconic Manhattan architecture, from the Empire State Building to Trinity Church. As such, it’s harder to let all the explosive histrionics slide, nor the conclusions they help facilitate once all the smoke clears, and the only conclusion I can reach is one that I saw coming back when considering the previous entries of Nolan’s films of the Dark Knight detective– this is a Batman who favors his Right Wing.
Not that it should get in the way of having a good old-fashioned fun time at the movies, of course– yeah, I generally like my big-screen special-effects filled blockbuster spectacles more from the gently left-leaning likes of Lucas & Spielberg or the positively subversive ilk of the Wachowski siblings (not that the politics of either pair really make much sense if you spend too much time thinking about it), but I don’t mind seeing a full-throated endorsement of a political ideology that doesn’t match my own, as long as the entertainment’s on solid footing. Most of the Bond flicks are tacit endorsements of Western colonialism, after all, and machine-gun 80′s classics like John Milius’ Red Dawn or Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies can ably stand as proud commercials for and occasionally sly, winking satires of the same firebrand Reaganite ideology. Hell, it’s not like political stances in escapist fare that I agree with necessarily make for stand-out entertainment– I dug Cameron’s Avatar for the most part, and more or less share the anti-commercial environmentalist sentiment he wants to express, but that doesn’t mean I don’t bristle a little at seeing him return to an almost Vietnam era of military demonizing whilst depicting his mecha-armed troops squaring off against blue-skinned peace-pipers. And when it comes to the international politics of any given anime, I frankly don’t even want to know what all the militarist baggage stands for– guys like Anno and Oshii could be endorsing a full-on Mishima style coup-d’etat if they want, as long as it means having a good, existentially loaded fun time.
And as such, The Dark Knight Rises ought well fit into that same paradigm– who really cares what the film’s trying to say when the characters can barely speak over the explosions or equally booming score? Again, part of the double-bladed nature of Nolan’s acclaimed handling of big blockbuster entertainment is the fact that such exactingly enacted realism comes at the price of far greater scrutiny, both to the on-screen elements and cinematic subtexts at work. It’s fairly easy to take the political significance of three men fighting a shark with explosives and handguns, neon-sword carrying hippie samurais fighting cloned stormtroopers and the likes of Keanu Reeves or teenagers, real or animated, fighting anybody with something of a grain of salt– everything is too knowingly surreal to get bothered by contrary views, even if you take much notice of it. But throughout his big-budget films, from the franchise re-starter Batman Begins to the acclaimed original feature Inception, Nolan takes such great pains to ground everything in the realm of the possible, especially when it encroaches upon the more impossible elements. This has usually resulted in a recontextualizing of Batman’s arsenal of vehicles and gadgetry as high-concept military applications developed by Bruce Wayne’s corporate interests, an idea occasionally toyed with on the comics page (Frank Miller’s grizzled Dark Knight Returns featuring a Batmobile turned riot-friendly tank) but only really capitalized upon by Nolan’s post-9/11 concerns. With sonar-wiretapping and the “cop-car pancaking” Tumbler and other tricks at his disposal, the Batman of these most recent films is one that makes full use of contemporary military and intelligence hardware to nab bad guys and provide big, expensive action sequences at regular intervals– the War on Terror reproduced for the Circus Maximus.
Given the mixture of stories mined from the better part of at least 20 years of Bat-lore, Nolan at times does a decent job of capturing the spirit and sensations of stuff that has already been bubbling in the comics for a good long while, and not merely putting a light veneer of fresh surface politics onto the old narratives. In their premise of depicting a wintry Gotham finally brought to its knees by a band of all-powerful villains reigning high on the hog in a city cut off from help from the outside world, the director and co-writer David Goyer draw from the 1999 series ”No Man’s Land”, which featured supervillains taking over following a devestating earthquake. In many ways, the series eerily looked forward to the soon-to-come series of long-term urban disaster zones that gripped the American consciousness following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the rescue efforts at Ground Zero, as well as the environmental disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal government to marshal an appropriate response in time. It’s a theme that Nolan has returned to again and again in his own Bat-films, from the Scarecrow toxin-dosed isolation of the Narrows in Batman Begins or calling in the National Guard to ease the citywide panic in the face of the Joker’s reign of terror in The Dark Knight. In this latest film, however, the nightmare urban scenario stretches out for what seems the better part of two hours, with the heavyweight criminal mastermind Bane leading an armed coup of the city as part of a seeming anti-establishment revolution that, in truth, fits into much more apocalyptic goals.
As such, the city-under-seige plotline dominates both the running time and ideology of the film much more than in the previous entries, where they both stood as climaxes built on the foundations of more traditional superhero detective work throughout. Though it threatens to topple the movie with a lopsided structure, especially one that puts its hero off in the sidelines for severely long stretches, it helps that Nolan centers most of the material on the menace posed by the intimidating Bane, a character created by Chuck Dixon and others in 1993 for the “Knightfall” story, which saw fit to incapacitate Batman by having the villain break his back. A part of the 90′s fad of attempting to impose histrionic existential threats onto classic superheros (the modern-classic “Death of Superman” series and Spider-Man’s infamous “Clone Saga” among them), that story was one of the first mainstream looks at what would happen to Gotham without the Caped Crusader keeping vigilance, and introduced Bane as an imposing force not only on brute physical terms but as an intellectual equal to Bruce Wayne, as well. Seen by his creators as a kind of dark reimagining of the Doc Savage archetype (something Batman himself could be seen as), the Bane character hasn’t been treated entirely well by pre-existing film and television incarnations– a Lucha Libre-looking hired goon in a few Batman: The Animated Series episodes and as a steroid-injected mutant henchman from the flamboyant failure of Joel Shumacher’s Batman & Robin. In Nolan and Goyer’s hands, however, he’s taken back to the roots of his origins and transformed for the screen into a legitimate danger both to Batman himself and to the way of life he fights to protect.
It’s the latter part of that bargain that creates some of the problems inherent to the film, at least if one wants to look at it from a purely political perspective, for in Bane’s character and goals, Nolan depicts nothing less than a citywide overthrow of modern capitalism with all the same partisan bloodlust of the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, at least so far as a PG-13 rating can contain. It’s actually almost perfectly fitting to see Bane, a character born and raised in a Third World prison colony and groomed as an heir-successor by Ra’s Al-Ghul (last seen onscreen as Liam Neeson, repeating his pre-death meditation trick from Star Wars and present here as a back-from-the-dead-vision cameo that makes his guest-stint on Clone Wars look like a starring role), stand as the greatest threat that Batman has to face in order to keep Gotham from falling. And with this lesser-known figure of the hero’s rogue’s gallery, it’s easier for Nolan to fit him into his habitual habit of reliving the age of terror’s greatest hits into a recognizably realistic context– there’s no longer any acrobatic ninjas or spray-paint Clown Princes of Crime getting in the Caped Crusader’s way, but merely an uncannily plausible army of body-armor wearing mercenaries riding shotgun on camo-painted military vehicles and taking all of Wall Street hostage, holding so many slimy Patrick Bateman look-a-likes at gunpoint you almost think Christian Bale might be present as a double-role somewhere. There’s even a subversive thrill to much of the way that Nolan treats Bane’s threat to the economic climate of Gotham in the early stretches of the film, and especially in Anne Hathaway’s “rob-from-the-rich-and-I-forget-the-second-part” take on the catburgling Selina Kyle. With enemies like these, who needs heroes?
At least that’s how it plays out until Bane repeats his “break the Bat” antics from the “Knightfall” arc and holds the entire city itself hostage with a nuclear bomb, and begins torturing the populace by kicking the rich elite out of their penthouse suites to face a kangaroo court that tosses out death sentences as casually as speeding tickets. What might begin as under-the-radar fun, watching Bane meet out justice no real person would ever get away with to lawless CIA interrogators and heartless yuppie scum turns into something ugly and serious when he begins widening the scope of his targets and starts turning Gotham into something resembling the nightmares Neo-Cons might have if the Soviets ever took Manhattan. That it’s all something of a long-con itself engineered by the remains of the League of Shadows as testament to the legacy (and family) of Ra’s Al-Ghul from Batman Begins into something more along the lines of an apocalyptic anarchy rather than anything actually resembling legitimate left-wing politics is somewhat beside the point the longer Nolan keeps up with his villains zealously speechifying about Gotham as a “People’s City”. It becomes even more troubling as the director uses his agit-prop villain as a mouthpiece to deliver and therefore subtly defuse most of the political accusations against much of what Batman has accomplished and stands for– much is made in the film of the lie that Commissioner Gordon perpetuates of Harvey “Two Face” Dent’s death and the massive legal streamlining voted in on his honor, seemingly suspending all manner of jurisprudence in order to keep criminals off the streets permanently, at any cost. Thanks to Batman, Gotham has genuinely become something of a police state, and by putting the bulk of the criticism of that injustice in the mouth of a murderous mastermind, Nolan effectively neuters much of its validity.
As such, we see Batman turned into something of a Neo-Con action figure in a way that he never was before on film– even in the “let’s spy on Gotham to catch the Joker” third-act of The Dark Knight, there was an air of admission that the means, however justified by the ends, were still pretty darn bad. It’s unfortunate, because for just as many stretches as he’s absent from the film, the Batman presented here is actually the closest to the melodramatic adventurer found in the pages of some of his best comics, swinging from great extremes of high-life playboy to underworld vigilante in ways that capture the danger and fun of being a masked crime-fighter on a level with the best Zorro pictures. Unexpectedly, much of the energy comes from Nolan cribbing from the usually grim Miller in showing the Dark Knight come out of retirement after nearly a decade, finding the propulsive momentum of a forty-something bachelor set sail on a second wind. It allows Bale and his co-stars to approach the movie with the knowing fun that defuses the franchise-mentality of it all– everybody knows it’s sooner or later ’till he puts the cape and cowl back on, and that’s part of the fun. It also at times seemingly lets Nolan’s imagination off the hook of strict realism throughout so he can imagine high-concept action sequences and set-pieces that are far more James Bond and Star Wars than they are the second-hand Michael Mann affairs of the last movie. Even his coverage and staging of action is remarkably clear this time around, with full IMAX frames for seemingly half the movie allowing his camera to take in more and more of the fights, chases and shootouts without the constraints of composing for his usual 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The choreography of the various sequences still isn’t all that impressive, but at least this time the image is level and editing coherent even in scenes that don’t focus on Bruce Wayne and his wonderful, high-flying toys, though there’s certainly plenty of those.
After the runaway successes of The Dark Knight and Inception it’s definitely clear that his has been untethered of seemingly all financial restrictions, at least as long as he continues playing in the backyard of the Warner Bros. franchise lot. Nolan still doesn’t have quite the same spark of visionary originality that his influences have, but at least he’s able to articulate his vision to the furthest possible extreme. Perhaps that’s why here we’re finally seeing a politically minded superhero movie that doesn’t pussyfoot about the actual politics of it all– from the explosive threat that Bane poses to capitalism to the “redemptive” arc that Catwoman enjoys from 99-per-center thief to one of the Dark Knight’s deputies, it’s hard to see this movie as anything other than a representation of Batman as a champion of the status quo perhaps even more brazen than Frank Miller’s clueless online rants against the Occupy Wall Street movement. Perhaps the saving grace is how, like the best of the Neo-Con entertainment from the 1980′s, everything’s taken to such an absurd degree, at times almost joyously so. Even during the darker sections of the film when Wayne finds himself broken and imprisoned halfway around the world in the same prison hell-hole that Bane rose up from, there’s an epic register to the imagery and struggle that makes up for the sometimes thin, overly expository storytelling. It gives the movie a flavor that’s more of a traditional two-fisted adventure serial of the same ilk that inspired Indiana Jones, with each reel feeling like an almost complete story unto its own, ending with a cliffhanger leading to the next. There may be an episodic feel to the overall work, but at least it takes us everywhere from high-flying, hard-hitting derring do to some sly romancing from the leading ladies in the Caped Crusader’s career. By far, it’s the least joyless of all Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, and perhaps it’s best that it end this way. After all, as Mel Brooks said, and the same’s probably true of lesser-stationed titles of the one per cent– “It’s good to be the king”.