On Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

Continuing from Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight, is Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, the final part of Chistopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. The film features Burn Gorman (Torchwood Series 1 and 2, Bleak House), and Morgan Freeman (Deep Impact). Notably, the film was accused of being political as the Salon article, “Batman hates the 99 Percent” indicates:

Much of my recent book “Back to Our Future” is focused on how 1980s popular culture created many of the perverse stories we still tell ourselves today. Through movies, video games, toys and television shows of that decade, children were specifically taught whom to love and whom to hate. We were inculcated to fear government scientists (“E.T.”), EPA officials (“Ghostbusters”) and municipal governments (the various police officials that cop heroes had to “go rogue” against). We were also taught to love the military (“Top Gun”) and the super-rich (“Silver Spoons,” “The Toy,” “The Secret to My Success”).

That decade, of course, initiated a modern era that now sees multimedia pop culture products serve as a full-on shadow education system — one that still aims to tell young adults how to divide the world between good and evil. That’s why two of this year’s most anticipated pop culture products are so important — they may signal a larger effort to go beyond even the most audacious anti-populism of the 1980s and somehow turn the mass public itself into Public Enemy No. 1

Reporting on the upcoming new edition of the game “Call of Duty” and the imminent release of the film “The Dark Knight Rises,” Gameranx.com reports:

The game’s main villain is Raul Menendez, described as the “idolized Messiah of the 99%” — a Julian Assange-like character who’s old, experienced, and hell bent on starting a global insurrection against the status quo…

The character, as with the rest of the story, is the creation of David S. Goyer. Goyer is the co-writer of “The Dark Knight Rises,” which also shares a similar story featuring Bane as Batman’s primary antagonist, who starts a class war aimed against the rich and privileged of Gotham City with the backing of the common man.

In 1988, a Konami executive said pop culture industries were looking to “take anything remotely in the news and make it a game.” Obviously, this move to put the headline-grabbing “99 percent” concept into video games and movies shows what that enduring strategy looks like in practice — and it doesn’t look very good. In fact, it looks like the 1980s on steroids. Whereas that decade saw an anti-populism telling kids that do-gooders like government scientists, EPA officials and police chiefs were society’s enemies, we are now seeing an even more audacious anti-populism — one suggesting to kids that our heroic military and superheroes must defeat leaders of “the common man” in order to protect the common man.

There’s a cyclical quality to this, of course. Just as so many 1980s pop culture products reflected the spirit of the Reagan Revolution’s conservative backlash, we are now seeing two blockbuster, genre-shaping products not-so-subtly reflect the Tea Party’s rhetoricalbacklash to the powerful Occupy Wall Street zeitgeist. In the same way Republican leaders have caricatured the “99 percent” idea as a menacing “attack upon freedom” or a “mob,” “Call of Duty” is essentially equating the “99 percent” idea with terrorism, chaos and violence.

Likewise, in “Dark Knight Rises,” though there has been some effort to use the villain’s name to portray him as a stand-in for Mitt Romney, the Los Angeles Times is right to flag the true “Occupy Wall Street vibe” of the bad guys. And though it’s possible that the film will ultimately provide a more nuanced portrayal of such populist outrage than “Call of Duty” seems intent on presenting, the problem remains the same: when villainous motives and psychopathy is televisually ascribed to mass popular outrage against the economic status quo, it suggests to the audience that only crazy people would sympathize with such outrage.

Knowing the teenage audience is right now forming the next generation’s vision of good and bad, it’s a message that the 1 percent must love.

Additionally, according to Variety‘s article, “Blockbusters can’t escape politics“:

Sometimes a movie is just a movie — except when it’s a blockbuster in an election year.

This past week saw Rush Limbaugh declare Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest and most anticipated sequel in the Batman franchise, as being anti-Mitt Romney, his sole evidence seeming to be that the villain in the pic is named Bane.

Get it? Bane = Bain, as in Bain Capital, the company that Romney led for so many years, which has become a source of so many attacks from President Obama’s reelection team.

“The movie has been in the works for a long time, the release dates been known, summer 2012 for a long time,” Limbaugh said on his show. “Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?”

Other than being “silly” — which is what Chuck Dixon, a self-described “lifelong” conservative who co-created the Bane character in 1993, told Comicbook.com — Limbaugh’s rant also speaks to what happens in a time of hyper-partisanship. Entertainment doesn’t just get digested as entertainment, but is parsed for alternative meanings and ulterior motives, even if it sometimes defies common sense.

One day after the 2004 presidential election, I went to a screening of “The Incredibles” at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Given the locale, it’s safe to say the crowd was predominantly anti-George W. Bush, and therefore dejected by his narrow reelection victory. When Brad Bird, the movie’s director, took the stage for a Q&A afterward, he had to defend the movie as just a movie and not, as some in the audience saw it, veiled support for the administration, its anti-terrorism policies or even the war in Iraq. The film was conceived, he noted, even before Bush took office.

With more than a few studies concluding that political affinities of consumers help define what they watch, it stands to reason that figures in the media would be on high alert when a genuine pop culture event like the latest movie in the Batman franchise takes over the headlines.

Limbaugh and other conservatives don’t need to look far for reasons to be suspicious. Hollywood certainly leans left. The chairman of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Barry Meyer, was recently at an Obama fundraiser. One of the Senate’s top Democrats, Patrick Leahy, once again has a cameo in the latest Batman film. Morgan Freeman, who again appears in the Christopher Nolan batpic, last month gave $1 million to a pro-Obama SuperPAC.

Add it all up and what do you have? Well, maybe a pro-Bush franchise. At least that is what some conservatives saw in the last edition of the Batman films, which was released at the height of the presidential campaign in 2008.

“There seems to me no question that the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight,’ currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war,” wrote Andrew Klavan in the Wall Street Journal that year. “Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.”

In fact, where Limbaugh saw left-wing shenanigans at work in the making of “Dark Knight Rises,” others saw right-ward scorn. David Sirota, whose book “Back to Our Future” lays out a compelling argument that 1980s pop culture actually influenced an era of anti-populism, pointed to “The Dark Night Rises” and the latest “Call of Duty” game as continuing that tradition, casting the Occupy movement as somehow villainous. “Just as so many 1980s pop-culture products reflected the spirit of the Reagan Revolution’s conservative backlash, we are now seeing two blockbuster, genre-shaping products not-so-subtly reflect the Tea Party’s rhetorical backlash to the powerful Occupy Wall Street zeitgeist,” he wrote at Salon. Dixon, for one, seemed to confirm that by telling the Comicbook.com blog that Bane is “far more akin to an Occupy Wall Street type if you’re looking to cast him politically.”

So if the latest Batman films present contradictory evidence of partisan messaging at the multiplex, maybe it is time to parse past summer hits for retroactive political intent. This past week, ABC News did a story on the political affinities of Mark Hamill, James Earl Jones, George Lucas and others involved in the biggest summer blockbuster of them all, “Star Wars.” It can’t be much of a surprise that in a movie in which those fighting for the Empire were the bad guys, they’re not rushing to support Romney.

Christopher Nolan has indicated that the film isn’t political, as according to the IndieWire article, “Christopher Nolan Talks The Politics & Influences Of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ & More From the Film’s Press Tour“:

After the examination of privacy and its links to George W. Bush’s war on terror in “The Dark Knight,” the new film sees Batman dip his toe into political waters again, already receiving attacks from both sides of the aisle. Nolan likes that it inspires debate, but claims the film itself has no particular viewpoint, telling Rolling Stone:

“I’ve had as many conversations with people who have seen the film the other way round. We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that’s simply a backdrop for the story. What we’re really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things. It’s just telling a story. If you’re saying, ‘Have you made a film that’s supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?’ – well, obviously, that’s not true… If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed… I’ve got all sorts of opinions, but this isn’t what we’re doing here,” he explained. “I love when people get interested in the politics of it, when they see something in it that moves them in some way. But I’m not being disingenuous when I say that we write from a place of ‘What’s the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?’ He’s going to come in and turn our world upside down. That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham? We want something that moves people and gets under the skin.”

Finally, according to ScreenRant on the ending, “Christian Bale Explains ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Ending“:

Viewers familiar with the works of Christopher Nolan know that he has a tendency to be rather ambiguous with the conclusions for his films. Take one look at the comments for our Inception ending and Interstellar ending explanation posts for proof that moviegoers enjoy discussing the finales of Nolan movies months, or even years, after its original theatrical premiere.

One instance where that open-endedness hasn’t been used to full effect is Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, where he and Christian Bale teamed up to revitalize the Batman film property by earning critical praise and billions of box office dollars. The first two films in the series – Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – are relatively straightforward superhero tales, with a clear beginning, middle and end that leave little up for debate. However, the ending for The Dark Knight Rises was the subject of many theories, with some believing Bruce Wayne’s ultimate fate was still in question.

Early on in the trilogy-capper, Alfred (Michael Caine) tells Bruce his one true wish for his surrogate son. Instead of coming back to Gotham and reliving the pain and grief from his parents’ deaths, the butler wanted Wayne to never come back and instead move far away and perhaps start a family somewhere. This bit of dialogue plays over a scene where Alfred, on vacation visiting a cafe in Florence, sees someone he thinks is Bruce before realizing it’s someone else.

Fast-forward to one of the last scenes in the movie, and the setup is identical to that previous Florence sequence, only this time the man Alfred sees actually is Bruce, who has settled down into a nice peaceful life with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), far away from the memories of Gotham City. Because everything seemed a little too perfect (and since Batman was seemingly caught in a nuclear explosion), some speculated that the ending was a dream of Alfred’s and not something that really happened.

Shortly after The Dark Knight Rises first came out two years ago, Caine himself explained that what we saw “was no imagination” and Bruce was there, in the flesh. While promoting Exodus: Gods and Kings on Sirius XM Town Hall (hat tip EW), Bale chimed in, essentially echoing what Caine said previously in a response to a fan question:

“I find it very interesting and with most films, I tend to say, ‘It’s what the audience thinks it is.’ My personal opinion? No, it was not a dream. That was for real and he was just delighted that finally he had freed himself from the privilege, but ultimately the burden, of being Bruce Wayne.”

In the pre-release phase for The Dark Knight Rises, many speculated that Bruce’s death could happen, which is something that probably fueled the conspiracy theories about Batman’s demise. However, it appears all that hypothesizing was for naught, as multiple key figures in the film have said that the sequence is decidedly not a dream, but rather a happy ending for the trilogy’s protagonist. That should be enough to convince even the most stout dream believers.

Given that Nolan’s series helped usher in an age of dark, gritty Hollywood pictures, it’s easy to see why the tone of such an upbeat, emotional conclusion would seem out of place in the overall series, but that’s what made it so satisfying when it happened. We had seen Bruce endure so much over the course of the three films that it was a nice relief to know that he was ready to move on with his life and have something resembling a normal existence.

Admittedly, seeing Bruce at the same exact cafe that Alfred frequents does make it all seem a tad coincidental, but that’s Hollywood sometimes. That said, it doesn’t really matter how he got to Florence and knew his old friend would be there. The point of that scene was that Bruce had made peace with everyone and everything around him; he had inspired the people of Gotham to stand up for justice and accomplished what he set out to do. From that perspective, the end sequence is touching and poignant – and a perfect way to end his story.

According to Roger Ebert:

“The Dark Knight Rises” leaves the fanciful early days of the superhero genre far behind, and moves into a doom-shrouded, apocalyptic future that seems uncomfortably close to today’s headlines. As urban terrorism and class warfare envelop Gotham and its infrastructure is ripped apart, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) emerges reluctantly from years of seclusion in Wayne Manor and faces a soulless villain as powerful as he is. The film begins slowly with a murky plot and too many new characters, but builds to a sensational climax.

The result, in Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy, is an ambitious superhero movie with two surprises: It isn’t very much fun, and it doesn’t have very much Batman. I’m thinking of the over-the-top action sequences of the earlier films that had a subcurrent of humor, and the exhilarating performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. This movie is all serious drama, with a villain named Bane whose Hannibal Lecterish face-muzzle robs him of personality. And although we see a good deal of Bruce Wayne, his alter-ego Batman makes only a few brief appearances before the all-out climax.

Bane, played by Tom Hardy in a performance evoking a homicidal pro wrestler, is a mystery because it’s hard to say what motivates him. He releases thousands of Gotham’s criminals in a scenario resembling the storming of the Bastille. As they face off against most of the city police force in street warfare, Bane’s goal seems to be the overthrow of the ruling classes. But this would prove little if his other plan (the nuclear annihilation of the city) succeeds.

Bane stages two other sensational set pieces, involving destroying the Stock Exchange and blowing up a football stadium, that seemed aimed at our society’s twin gods of money and pro sports. No attempt is made to account for Bane’s funding and resources, and when it finally comes down to Bane and Batman going mano-a-mano during a street fight, it involves an anticlimactic fist-fight. He blows up the city’s bridges and to top that lands a right hook on Batman’s jaw?

Bane is the least charismatic of the Batman villains, but comes close to matching Bruce Wayne and Batman in screen time. The film also supplies a heroic young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), two potential romantic partners for Wayne, and lots of screen time for series regulars Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine, remarkably effective in several trenchant scenes), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the genius inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).

One of the women is the always enigmatic Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), and the other is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a millionaire who may be able to rescue Wayne Enterprises after Bane’s stock market mischief wipes out Wayne financially. Catwoman is a freelance burglar who’s always looking out for number one, and Miranda is a do-gooder environmentalist; both are drawn irresistibly to Bruce, who is not only still a bachelor but has spent the last eight years as a hermit, walled up in Wayne Manor with the loyal Alfred.

All of these characters and their activities produce stretches in the first half of the film during which, frankly, I was not entirely sure who was doing what and with which and to whom. The movie settles in for its sensational second half, however, although not everybody will be able to precisely explain the deep stone well where Bane imprisons Bruce Wayne. The circular walls of this well represent a deadly climbing wall by which anyone can try to reach freedom, but few succeed. The actual location is in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, and we get a glimpse of some zigzagging stairs that are unforgettably shown in “Baraka.” Turns out Bane was held there as a child.

This is a dark and heavy film; it tests the weight a superhero movie can bear. That Nolan is able to combine civil anarchy, mass destruction and a Batcycle with exercise-ball tires is remarkable. That he does it without using 3D is admirable. That much of it was shot in the 70mm IMAX format allows it to make that giant screen its own. That it concludes the trilogy is inevitable; how much deeper can Nolan dig? It lacks the near-perfection of “The Dark Knight” (2008), it needs more clarity and a better villain, but it’s an honorable finale.

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3 thoughts on “On Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

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