Tag Archives: Batman

Weighing in on Wonder Woman

ww

“Don’t let them screw it up,” was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s advice to his daughter Barbara as he handed her the reins of the James Bond franchise.  The same six words tremble on the lips of every comic book fan who dreams of seeing Wonder Woman represented on a theatre screen with hundreds of millions of dollars and a booming Hans Zimmer score behind her.  While the last three decades have seen Superman and Batman go through their cinematic paces with both triumphs and nadirs, WW remains shackled in the vault, a victim of Hollywood’s utter inability to figure out how to handle her.  While her comic continues to sell, and she’s seen some action in animated form, the leap to live action feature remains daunting.  Big industry movers and shakers like David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon have tried and failed to bring her to life.  But as everyone with even a passing interest has heard, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known from the recent spate of Fast & Furious franchise offerings, has been signed to appear as Wonder Woman in the next Superman movie, alongside Henry Cavill reprising his role from Man of Steel and Ben Affleck taking over for Christian Bale as Batman.  That’s all we know at this point.

What we can offer by way of conjecture is that the role for Wonder Woman in a film already top-heavy with marquee characters and A-list names, built around a conflict between DC’s two heaviest hitters, is not fated to be of the substance her biggest fans crave.  Firstly, the movie is intended as a sequel to Man of Steel, so it’s not meant to be an ensemble piece with each character having his and her requisite beats.  Superman remains the lead part with Batman as a second lead/supporting player.  The primary character arc, the hero’s journey, will be Superman’s.  The demands of a limited running time mean Wonder Woman is unlikely to be given much of an origin story; she’s likely to merely show up at some critical point (or be disguised as Diana Prince, new reporter for the Daily Planet and Lois Lane rival, for the majority of the plot before a third-act costumed reveal).  And the character’s Greek mythological (i.e. fantasy) background is an uneasy fit in between Superman’s science fiction nature (at least, as it was depicted in MoS) and Batman’s hard-boiled detective leanings.  The Justice League animated series adopted a “just go with it” approach whereby the characters simply got on with battling whatever military/magical/alien villain happened to show up this week, without stopping to explain how all these genres could logically coexist.  But I doubt that an intended-for-mainstream-audiences movie will be satisfied with that.  Marvel’s The Avengers had the advantage of five different introductory movies to get the exposition out of the way so you could accept the idea of Thor and Iron Man together; MoS II or whatever it’s going to be called has no such luxury.  (Part of the problem is that the rollout of the DC properties has been haphazard, first with the mediocre Superman Returns, then the abysmal Green Lantern, and the incompatibility of Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy with an overarching story, and now they are struggling to play catch-up to Marvel’s much more strategic approach.)

The thought, then, is that her extended cameo in Man of Steel vs. Dark Knight, or whatever they’re calling it, may serve as a springboard for her own standalone spinoff.  That puts a heckuva lot of pressure on Gadot to deliver a performance that stands out just enough amidst the testosterone-fueled Kryptonian/Gothamite smackdown without taking so much focus off the two male leads that we lose interest in their story.  And she has to accomplish that herculean (hera-ian?) task while competing for attention with Amy Adams, no slouch she with screen presence.  While the trolls trashing the relatively unknown Gadot for not having the right look or not being American or not being insert favorite large-breasted actress you’d love to sleep with here need to open a window in that basement of theirs (seriously folks, have we learned nothing from the short-lived backlash over Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight?), legitimate questions can be asked about how the character will be written for her to play.  For one of the most difficult characters for any person to write well is an empowered woman, and especially difficult is a superpowered woman.  Going back to my mention of James Bond earlier, while he may be held up as an aspirational example of a certain kind of masculinity (he shouldn’t, in my view), hardly anyone in criticism writes of Bond as a template for Man.  But every time a woman of significance appears on screen in a role that calls for slightly more than “focus group-required love interest,” critics leap to immediately assign her a greater significance in the canon of All That Is Female.  Woman becomes Everywoman.  So too, we expect, will Wonder Woman.

And they won’t be able to help themselves.  Wonder Woman is essentially, a goddess; flawless beauty and figure combined with indomitable strength and abilities, an aspirational, unachievable paradigm of feminine perfection.  You’re the writer of Man of Steel 2: Batman Boogaloo or whatever.  Now quick, go pen some dialogue for this character.  Dialogue that, you know, intrigues and endears audiences but doesn’t send them bolting for the exits with a preachy collection of dumbed-down feminist stereotypes, or turns a beloved icon into a brainless git making sure to point her shapely hind end provocatively at the camera while slam-punching supervillains through buildings.  Fancy that assignment?  Particularly when we’re still operating within the restraints noted above, that she has to be memorable but not so memorable that she diminishes Batman and/or Superman, the latter of whom the movie is mainly supposed to be about?

If it sounds like I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Wonder Woman circa 2015, you’d be partially correct.  I hope she’s the most awesome version of the character we’ve ever seen, leaving folks asking Lynda who? and begging for Wonder Woman Begins.  What I’m missing is the faith that this can be executed properly by the creative team handling her live-action feature debut, or indeed by any creative team in the realistic position to handle this potential franchise.  Because too often in the past, we’ve seen them (the generic them) screw it up.  They screw it up by refusing to invest female action heroes with humanizing nuance, by writing them as archetypes instead of as people.  Broad caricatures who have to lose what makes them women in order to compete on the same playing field as men.  Or, they venture too far the other way, where femininity is cranked up to vampy extremes for the benefit of naught but teenage boys.  The Lara Croft movies presented a lead utterly without warmth or any discernible charm and consequently any audience empathy.  Catwoman put its lead in bondage gear and involved her not in a battle for the fate of the world, but in a silly plot about toxic makeup.  (And the failures of these films set back the female action genre by years, as shortsighted executives figured people weren’t going to see them because they didn’t like action movies with female heroes, not the real reason – because the movies themselves just sucked.)

What I’d like to see, and what I expect folks who are far greater fans of Wonder Woman than I am would want to see as well, is a character who despite her superpowered trappings still possesses emotions that we can understand and encounters situations we can recognize.  (You know, like walking to work one day and running into a massive, marauding interstellar beast.)  A character with some real weight and depth.  A goddess who is still human where it counts most, in her heart and in her head.  That’s what will make us love her and want to see more of her.

Over to you, Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Gal Gadot.  Show us the Wonder.

Exorcising the Haunted Past

Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.
Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us” – Magnolia (a movie I detested, proving again that flowers sometimes grow from a pile of manure)

I saw a tweet flit through this morning about how someone was wishing that just once, a character wasn’t haunted by his or her past.  At first it’s a sentiment one might rush to agree with, given the seeming flood in popular culture of privileged yet angst-ridden characters wailing to the cold, unfeeling world that no one can possibly understand the soul-scraping depth of their pain.  The impetus to scream “get over it!” in those instances can be difficult to resist.  But it’s probably overly simplistic to blame the trope of the “haunted past,” given that the reason it still functions is that everyone you meet has a past, and in quite a few of those cases, it wasn’t all smiles und sunshine.  We are creatures of linear time; our past informs the decisions we make in the present as we plan for the future.  The concept of learning is based on the notion that we must garner wisdom by making mistakes, reflecting on those mistakes and correcting them to be able to go forward.  The propagation of the human race depends on this.  How many of us are married to the first person we ever dated?  Do we not apply the lessons from the fumbling moments of that first awkward relationship to our subsequent dalliances in the hopes of establishing a permanent connection with the right person?  Yet admittedly, as company, we become tiresome if we dwell forever on things we once did wrong – if we live in that past instead of simply letting ourselves be guided by it.

In the creation of enduring characters, this is a tricky tightrope to walk.  Expecting an audience to sympathize with a perfect person who has made no mistakes and regrets nothing is a tall order, and few writers (at least those that are not perpetual amateurs) would dare try.  The problem is that most force the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.  Allegorically (though somewhat to the point of cliché) the past can indeed be considered a heavy load borne on the character’s back.  However, that burden should be in an appropriate weight class – if a perfectly healthy adult is going to moan about dragging a five-pound barbell around then they’re going to lose our interest and attention pretty darn fast.  More appealing are those who carry their pasts privately instead of on their sleeves.  They have a history but they don’t dwell on it; they don’t broadcast it to any and all within range and grab at every precious fragment of pity.  If one is to look for a singular example of this, eyes should wander no further than Batman.  Bruce Wayne is changed profoundly by the death of his parents and his inability to exact vengeance for their murder.  It’s what drives him to don the cape and cowl and roam the night skies beating the crap out of criminals for the rest of his days, on an ultimately futile quest to make the pain go away.  Note that what’s important about this is that he does something.  He doesn’t let his grief cripple him into inaction, into endless sessions of whining to Alfred about how the world is so hard and he just can’t catch a break.  Instead, he becomes the goddamn Batman.  Would Batman be believable, or even interesting, if he was just some silver-spoon-fed playboy billionaire with loving, very much alive parents, who decided to fight crime for something to do on Tuesday evenings?  Hardly.  The haunted past is an integral part of his character.  What it is not, though, is the entirety of his existence going forward.  This, I think, is where some may err, both in creating characters and living their actual lives.

I’ve argued before that characters haunted by a past that is never explained are the most compelling of all.  William Goldman makes this point in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? and points to a famous exchange from Casablanca whereby you learn the entirety of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)’s backstory, or at least all you’re going to get out of him:

CAPTAIN RENAULT

What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

RICK

My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.

CAPTAIN RENAULT

The waters?  What waters?  We’re in the desert.

RICK

I was misinformed.

This works so much better than had Rick launched into a meandering history lesson about his impoverished childhood working in a Brooklyn sweatshop making mattress springs for a nickel a day, followed by his hard-luck teenage years picking fights over candy bars, the tragic loss of his first love in an unfortunate streetcar accident and his subsequent quest to find himself at the bottom of whisky bottles in speakeasies across Chicago.  Dear gods, I’m bored just writing this imagined synopsis of his life; how tedious a man would Rick Blaine be, and how swiftly forgotten by movie audiences, if he decided to spill something similar to Captain Renault?  By being evasive about his past, Rick keeps us interested.  His inscrutability makes his choices that much more difficult to guess, that much more compelling to watch.  Until the very end we don’t know that he isn’t going to take the letters of transit for himself and Ilsa and leave Victor Laslo behind as a prize for the Nazis.  It hasn’t been telegraphed for us by dwelling to the point of exhaustion on What Makes Rick Miserable.

The lesson for today, then, is to keep a lid on the angst.  The haunted past should not be a cement block in which the character is forever anchored, flailing his or her arms to get people to pay attention (and perhaps bring a sledge hammer to shatter it).  It should inform their choices but not overwhelm them in a cesspool of woe-is-me.  As Goldman says, play it as it lays.  It’s noteworthy that in almost all good time travel fiction, the character who has a chance to change an old mistake comes to realize that mistake is a crucial part of their life and that things are ultimately better the way they always were.  Indeed, we are never truly through with the past, it’s who we are.  However, we, and the characters we write, can choose how we wear it.  We can wallow, and keep pointing out our scars to passersby in the vain hope the lines will somehow fade away, but they won’t.  Instead, as we go forward, those scars can be our roadmap.  And with a good map at our side there’s no reason to keep it in first gear.

Skyfall Countdown Day 9: A View to a Kill

“Hmm… he looks like James Bond, but…”

Alas, in our grand journey across the history of the cinematic James Bond we have come to what for many, including myself, is its lowest ebb.  Beating up on A View to a Kill is rather like kicking a puppy, and plenty of bandwidth has been devoted already to tearing apart its myriad flaws.  It’s clear, based on the general plot, that the filmmakers were trying to remake Goldfinger with another megalomaniacal, commodity-obsessed villain – in this case, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) and, with a nod to the burgeoning era of personal computing, microchips.  For 1985, a computer-wielding bad guy would have been groundbreaking – think of all the many thrillers that have been released in the last twenty years involving hackers wiping out the hero’s identity, credit rating or what have you.  But apart from one brief scene where Zorin uses a digital camera to deduce Bond’s true identity, A View to a Kill keeps computers very much in the background.  In a way, the movie’s major mistake is that it is trying to dangle a toe two minutes into the future while keeping its other foot anchored firmly in 1964, failing to recognize that audiences, and James Bond, have grown up.  They want more than outlandish gags and double entendres, but unfortunately, that’s all A View to a Kill is serving.

With suspicions aroused that industrial magnate Zorin is leaking secrets of electromagnetic pulse-resistant microchip technology to the Soviet Union, Bond is put on the case, traveling to a horse auction at Zorin’s French estate where he bandies wits with the bad guy and his henchwoman May Day (Grace Jones) and finds that Zorin is using his microchips to cheat at horse racing.  After narrowly escaping a drowning in a Rolls Royce, Bond journeys to San Francisco, where with the assistance of geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), who harbors a grudge against Zorin for having destroyed her father’s oil business, he discovers that Zorin is planning to manipulate California’s fault system to create a double earthquake that will flood and destroy Silicon Valley, leaving him as the sole purveyor of all microchips on the planet.  As with most basic Bond plots, when they are outlined briefly like this they seem like a solid basis for a thriller.  However, given Roger Moore’s advancing age (he was 57 at the time of filming) and his inability to perform action scenes without excessive use of stunt doubles, the decision was made to treat said scenes as comedy and play everything tongue-in-cheek – a tragic misjudgement that mars the entire experience.  Gone is any sense of danger, of suspense, of doubt that Bond will survive the day.  In its place are broad double-takes, wild, emphatic gestures and hammy acting by bit performers; in essence, the worst of 1920’s-era silent movie slapstick.  Director John Glen cheekily describes it as “James Bond meets the Keystone Kops,” but the problem is, the Keystone Kops aren’t and never were funny.  Humour has its place in Bond but should be kept dry, like his martini.  A View to a Kill is 007 as a broad parody of himself, the classic hero of yore reduced to stumbling buffoon.  Indeed, given the tone, one could simply swap out Moore for Leslie Nielsen.  (Moore’s own comments in hindsight suggest that he might have preferred that option.)

What is doubly frustrating is that many of these scenes (like the extended sequence with the San Francisco police cars falling off the lift bridge) could be lifted neatly out of the movie without making a dent in the integrity of the narrative.  I’m throwing down the gauntlet here to an ambitious Bond fan with ready access to editing software to do a “Phantom Edit” of A View to a Kill that rids it of some of the less inspired choices on display, like the screaming and gesticulating French cab driver running after Bond, or the applauding drunken homeless man watching Bond carry Stacey down a ladder from the burning San Francisco city hall, images I only wish I could expunge from my memory as easily.

For his part, Moore is not helped by the other actors, none of whom seems to understand what to do with the weak script.  Walken, while delivering his lines with the same peculiar cadence that has generated fodder for impressionists the world over, is subdued and lacking in his usual charisma; it’s almost as if he is worried about coming off as camp so he dials it back, regrettably to a less interesting level.  Despite an extensive history revealed as the film goes on (Zorin turns out to be the result of a Nazi doctor’s experimentation with steroids on pregnant women) we never get a sense of who he is or what drives him, beyond the simple motivation of greed.  (Ian Fleming’s villains always received detailed personal histories as he attempted to examine the nature of evil.)  Tanya Roberts’ dressed-down part as Stacey, bikinis exchanged for long, demure dresses, consists largely of shrieking “James!” as she lands in one peril after another.  And Grace Jones as May Day seems to be on another planet entirely.  Bond himself is uncharacteristically neutered in this movie – he wears dowdy brown suits, flirts like a creepy old uncle and, in one of the most stereotypically emasculating moments of all time, bakes a quiche.  It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to both acknowledge and ignore the age of their leading man, probing way too far into his tender side and keeping him from coming off like a lecherous senior citizen without completely abandoning the ruthless ladykiller of the past.  But it’s a shaken and stirred concoction that simply does not gel.  He who tries too hard to please everybody will end up pleasing no one.

Is there anything worthwhile to be found?  Well, Duran Duran’s theme song, which remains the only Bond song to hit #1 on the Billboard charts, is terrific.  The story goes that guitarist John Taylor, somewhat in his cups, approached Albert R. Broccoli at a party and asked when Broccoli was going to hire someone decent to do the title track.  The sound is Duran Duran at their peak, yet it’s indisputably Bond, and it remains the movie’s most enduring feature, still achieving regular radio airplay almost 30 years later.

The fundamental error common to the worst Bond movies is the failure to develop the character of James Bond – failure to give him an arc to follow or a journey of personal evolution to undertake.  Failure to give the actor something to sink his teeth into.  Throughout his lengthy but controversial tenure, Roger Moore was rarely given any substantial material to play, which is a shame, because when he was, he proved he was up for it (see:  The Spy Who Loved Me.)  Bond instead became merely a vehicle for propelling the plot, a cog in the grand wheel of an elaborately choreographed action sequence, and the filmmakers abandoned the qualities that make him unique.  (Until Christopher Nolan took over, the Batman movies suffered the same problem.)  The reason James Bond is popular is not because audiences bust a gut watching him drive half a car across Paris or dangle from a loose fire engine ladder as he careens through the San Francisco streets.  He is not popular because he can snowboard away from hapless Soviet soldiers while a bad cover of “California Girls” plays in the background.  He is not popular because of the women he tangles with or the villains whose schemes he foils.  Set all the elaborate accoutrements aside; he remains popular because he is James Bond.  And any filmmaker approaching a new 007 adventure who forgets that, as happened here, does so at his peril.

Tomorrow:  A new Bond, an old attitude.

Occupy Gotham City?

Bane strikes at the heart of the one percent.

The undisputed kings of the 2012 summer box office have both been comic book movies:  The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.  While The Avengers is essentially a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package that you either dig or don’t (I dig, for the record), the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a more complex tale probing the human condition behind the capes and cowls of its characters, and as such, opens itself to a wider degree of interpretation.  One of the most interesting of the responses to the film is in how certain critics have seen it as condemning the Occupy Wall Street movement and praising the nobility of the 1%.  For his part, Nolan has denied that the film has a political slant.  I’ve seen the movie twice now, and while the tropes associated with Occupy are certainly present, I can’t get behind the notion that the movie is Ayn Rand redux.  Great art reflects our times, and it’s natural for current history to bleed through the edges of the screen.  But reducing the themes of The Dark Knight Rises to a simple political didactic for easy cable news consumption is to perform a disservice to the deeper moral questions at play here.  Nolan’s Batman movies have always operated on a more primal level, exploring the nature of fear, chaos, and the case of the final chapter, consequences, and our ability – or our duty – to accept our responsibility for them, regardless of our means.

(Author’s note:  MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.  Please don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie; I’ll hold nothing back.)

Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of anarchy led to the death of Harvey Dent, Batman taking the fall for Dent’s crimes and the caped crusader’s disappearance from Gotham City.  In the aftermath, a draconian “Dent Act” has allowed police to rid the streets of organized crime once and for all.  But the illusion of peace is built on a lie, and the two heroes who have allowed it to fester are being torn apart by their demons.  One, Commissioner Jim Gordon, hides in plain sight, while the other, Bruce Wayne, has become a crippled recluse.  Both know, instinctively, that the center cannot hold; Gordon prepares to read a speech denouncing Dent and admitting his role in the cover-up but chooses at the last second to hold back, while Wayne is restless in his isolation, like Sherlock Holmes without purpose in the absence of a case.  And then, from beneath the veneer of deception and fabricated security, and literally beneath the earth, evil begins to rise, as unstoppable mercenary Bane sets his dark plan for Gotham City into motion.  Gordon is wounded and Bruce Wayne is compelled to suit up.  But they’ve waited too long, allowed their deception to endure long past its limit.  They have forgotten that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  Bane uses the time to outmanoeuvre the two, seizing control of Wayne’s secret armory, trapping Gotham’s entire police force underground and finally, breaking the ill-prepared and overconfident Batman.

Shades of Occupy first percolate through the narrative as Bane lays siege to Gotham, speechifying about punishing the corrupt and sending his minions to drag the wealthy and powerful from their mansions and haul them in front of a kangaroo court, in the name of “the people” of Gotham.  But despite the illusion of his rhetoric he is hardly a populist hero or a masked MLK.  Indeed, a man with a noble message doesn’t need the threat of nuclear annihilation to ensure that it’s heard – Bane’s goal is the total destruction of Gotham City, first envisioned by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins.  After confining Wayne to the same prison to which he was condemned as a younger man, Bane admits that the greatest despair requires hope, and like the most accomplished sadists, he will provide the people with Gotham with hope so that they suffer more.  He wants them all to hurt.  He intends, like the American army marching into Baghdad, to present himself as a liberator, in fact using that exact word, while espousing himself as a sort of “Occupier,” because he knows this is a sensitive button that can be pushed.  Clearly Gotham is a place of great inequality, despite the false security brought on by the Dent Act, as noted when Selina Kyle tells Bruce earlier in the film over shots of the wealthy eating lobster and drinking champagne that “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”  But Bane has no allegiance to the Occupy philosophy and is most certainly not fighting for the people, he’s using them – as cynically as the billionaires, politicians and professional lobbyists who seized control of the Tea Party and convinced common people to protest and vote against their own best interest.  The theatricality and deception of a “people’s revolution” in Gotham is a mere smokescreen, as Selina comes to understand when the storm she predicted destroys everything it touches – not just the rich.  For its part, the Occupy movement has never claimed to want to tear the wealthy down, nor does it begrudge the acquisition of wealth; it simply believes in fairness, the enforcement of the law, and not rigging the game toward the singular interest of the haves.  Give everyone an equal chance to achieve a decent life, Occupy says, don’t purposely screw over those of us who’ve had a few bumps along the way to make it easier for the ones who already have it pretty good.  Bane’s attitude of killing them all and pillaging their treasures would hardly be welcome in the true Occupy movement – regardless of what the doofuses on Fox and Friends tell you.

To the second point raised by the critics, this movie purported to glorify the rich and the status quo of capitalism presents the rich largely as remorseless manipulators.  Bane is funded by billionaire construction entrepreneur John Daggett, who lets a terrorist wreak a trail of murder through Gotham City so he can seize control of the struggling Wayne Enterprises.  Daggett is not satisfied with his considerable wealth – like the Koch Brothers, he merely uses it to acquire more.  He cannot see his own complicity in what is to come, even at the very end, accusing Bane of being “pure evil” just before he has his neck snapped, when it was he who chose to release the genie from the bottle.  And the most accomplished and cruellest manipulator in the film turns out to be billionaire Miranda Tate, who wears the veil of a philanthropist trying to save the world, but is in fact Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s, as committed to destroying Gotham as her late father.  She convinces Bruce to install her as chair of Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors and give her access to his dormant clean energy project, with the intent of using her other pawn – Bane, himself motivated by the easiest manipulation of all, his love for her – to bring her father’s wishes to fruition.  She does not care that there are innocent people in Gotham City; she scoffs at the mere mention of the word.  Her desire for retribution trumps everything – ideology, loyalty, even her own life.  Money for her is but a means to a horrible end.

Bruce Wayne, however, has never been one to let himself be defined by his wealth; it gives him no pleasure.  His flaunting of it in previous films has been a form of misdirection, convincing people that he is the worst of the stereotypes of careless moneybags; the last person who would ever want to become Batman.  However, when his wealth is taken away from him through a fraudulent stock transaction, he seems totally unconcerned about being broke.  He does not miss it, and does not care about regaining it.  He has long ago realized what Daggett never did – that more zeroes on the balance sheet don’t take the pain away.  That pain is a point of bonding between himself and the young cop John Blake, a man who has grown up poor and in and out of foster care, but has, like Bruce, channelled his anger into a sense of justice (and unlike Bane, who grew up in the worst cesspool on earth and consequently turned against humanity).  The film suggests that nobility, then, has nothing to do with wealth, and even the smallest acts of good are worth more, to invoke a cliché, than their weight in gold.  Indeed, when Bruce is reduced to his lowest, broken and lying immobile at the bottom of a prison halfway across the world, he finds the strength to rebuild himself from nothing, to escape and return to fight for his city.  These are qualities that cannot be bestowed; those who never confront desperation, loneliness and fear can never rise above them.  Those who are insulated by fortune never achieve their greatest potential.  Throughout the series, the moments that have shaped Bruce Wayne’s character for the better have come when he is separated from the life of luxury that is his birthright.  As Carmine Falcone tells him in Batman Begins, “You’ve never tasted desperate.”  Bruce Wayne may be a one-percenter, but he understands what it is like to have nothing – his empathy for the weak and powerless is part of what drives him to right Gotham City’s wrongs.  I would find it very difficult to believe that David and Charles Koch have ever had to choose between rent and food, that they have ever sat up nights wondering how they’re going to pay their heating bill, that they would deign to come within one hundred feet of a homeless man – which is why they are relentless in their funding of politicians who share their disdain for social equality and the common good.  They do not believe there are any wrongs out there, and if there are, it’s always somebody else’s fault for not trying hard enough.

The counter-argument goes, “see, Bruce Wayne pulls himself up by his bootstraps and works hard to defeat the bad guys – how is that not the attitude of the one percent?”  True, Bruce does have to rebuild himself from nothing, but what’s most important about his recovery is that he does not do it alone.  He has significant assistance along the way, from two of his fellow inmates in the prison, to Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Selina Kyle, Lucius Fox and the entire Gotham City police force.  The final act of The Dark Knight Rises is not so much the rise of a single man but of an entire city fighting for its liberation – in a sense, they are all Batman.  Perhaps the final act of heroism does belong solely to the caped crusader, but he does not get to that point without the help of his allies.  It is something of a paean to the nature of heroism when Bruce explains that Batman can be anyone – that we do not have to look to a single person to find the courage within ourselves as a society to make the kind of world we want.  The monument of Batman that is unveiled at the film’s finale is less a tribute to an individual than it is to a spirit, reflecting a time when the people rose up to take back their city from the thugs attempting to destroy it.  It is not a resumption of the status quo – it is an evolution.

Ultimately, the chief reason why The Dark Knight Rises can’t be pegged as allying itself to either the Occupy movement or the one percent is because that is too easy a question to answer – it’s easy to say that the rich are all evil and that there would be a tremendous satisfaction in watching every single one of them thrown out into street.  Our world is not that simple, nor is the moral universe of the Nolan Batman trilogy.  Nolan’s aim after the cartoonish wreck of the previous four Batman movies was to treat the character with a realistic approach, one that recognized the frequent real-world ambiguity of the nature of good and evil.  There are villains, but they are not simply forces to be destroyed – they upset the moral platform of both the heroes and the audience, and challenge us to re-examine what we think about the state of our world.  The message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that we should not put off these questions, that we cannot sleepwalk through our lives and expect that what we sweep beneath the carpet in the interest of expediency, or a temporary peace, will not someday come back to wreak havoc upon us.  But it also assures us that no matter how deep we sink, we can come back.  We have it within us.  We can rise.

Rise of The Dark Knight

The Christopher Nolan Batman trifecta.

After groaning through a prehistoric glacier’s worth of ice puns in 1997’s Batman & Robin, I was done with the Caped Crusader.  This was back in an era when I could usually find something positive to say about any movie I went to see, and my comment upon completing a slow funereal march out of the theater along with dozens of other disappointed audience members was, “That was $100 million that could have gone to feed starving children.”  Batman & Robin was a two-hour sensory middle finger, stitched together to become less than the sum of its parts like some ungodly Frankenstein’s monster by accountants and focus groups.  The old Adam West-Burt Ward TV show had been an after school ritual for me for many years, but the kitsch that worked so well in 22-minute installments in the late 60’s was excruciating when blown up for the multiplexes.  What was fun and oddly sincere in one medium became insulting in another.

Since ’97, the theaters had been flooded with one superhero movie after another, some decent but most not, as studios plumbed their back catalogue to find some obscure character in a mask whom they could dress a star as and plug into basically the same script with a hip-hop soundtrack and thus secure a pre-sold blockbuster.  Drubbed to death just as thoroughly around the same time was the concept of the prequel.  “We’re going back to show you how it all happened.”  It wasn’t enough to let a character exist with some mystery about their backstory; now it all had to be spelled out with each personality quirk given a deep, long-simmering Freudian rationale.  (We can all admit that we thought Darth Vader was much cooler before we heard his boyhood self squeal “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace.)  So when I heard there was a new Batman movie coming out and that it was a prequel, my excitement level was roughly akin to what it would be if someone told me today’s special in our work cafeteria was a bowl of hot concrete.

The trailers for Batman Begins didn’t spur much enthusiasm either.  Liam Neeson doing his Jedi mentor routine again.  Bruce Wayne angst-ridden about his parents, even though we’d seen him coping with that in movies one through four.  The only thing that seemed promising was the casting – heavyweights like Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, each of whom has the freedom to pick and choose and certainly wasn’t going to sign on for the same old same old.  After Jack Nicholson stole the first Batman, successive films had tried to compete by doubling the number villains and cramming whatever A-lister was available into the roles, regardless of whether or not the story was served by it.  Screenwriter William Goldman, when discussing working with Batman Forever‘s cowl-wearer Val Kilmer, commented on this pattern by observing that “Batman is and always has been a horrible part,” and that it existed solely for the more over-the-top villain roles to play off.  The casting of Christian Bale in the lead this time, not an unknown but not exactly a seat-packing screen presence either, seemed to suggest that there were slim pickings in the ranks of volunteers to succeed Kilmer, George Clooney and Michael Keaton.  The trailer scenes showed a very low-key approach to the storytelling as well, almost pleading “um, excuse me, if you don’t mind, that is, if you’re not busy, we kind of have a sort of new Batman movie for you.”  The director, Christopher Nolan, had made the fascinating low-budget Memento, and the plodding higher-budget Insomnia.  Truthfully, it all added up to a spectacular non-event.

Imagine one’s surprise when Batman Begins turned out to be merely spectacular.

The reasons why?  Well, Christopher Nolan made one crucial decision in crafting his film.  Aside from the usual reasons offered – treating the material seriously, dialing down the camp – he defied both expectation and tradition and deliberately made Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting character in the movie.  Admittedly borrowing a lesson from the casting of the first Superman, where Oscar-winners and other screen legends surrounded the unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, Nolan uses his stars to reflect their light onto the lead.  The movie remains Batman’s story through and through; while there are villains, they are not given equal billing, nor is any significant screen time wasted on the complexity of their origins (the burden of all the Spider-Man movies).  Like the best villains, they exist mainly as challenges for the hero to overcome – impediments to his growth as a human being.  Even in The Dark Knight, the Joker comes out of nowhere and simply is, like a force of nature – he lies repeatedly about how he got his signature scars, in effect taking the piss out of the tired “villain’s motivation” trope.  And there is a mystery to be solved; an actual plot to unravel piece by piece, instead of the bad guys running around trying to kill Batman for two hours.  It keeps moving forward in so compelling a fashion that you forget you’re actually watching a character study, that happens to have some cool fight scenes in it.

In addition, Nolan created a complexity to Bruce Wayne heretofore unexplored on screen.  He has three personas:  Batman; the private, troubled Bruce Wayne; and the flamboyant, spoiled rich 1%-er Bruce Wayne – a new dimension to the man, unseen in his Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney iterations, where Wayne seemed to be just a decent guy who happened to be extraordinarily rich.  Bale’s public Bruce is a trust fund brat, careless with his millions, the last guy you would ever expect to want to be Batman, let alone actually do it – which makes it even more logical that he would choose to act this way.  Bale’s work is so good in the part that he’s actually more interesting as Wayne than he is in the Batsuit – which is just as well, because it’s over an hour into the movie before he finally puts it on.  The Dark Knight continues this dichotomy:  Bruce Wayne continues to act like a colossal entitled douchebag, deflecting all suspicion that he could possibly be the noble, driven soul determined to save Gotham City from itself.  In Nolan’s Batman films, the true battles are not “Biff!”  “Zap!”  “KaPow!” but the ones going on inside these incredibly damaged people who are essentially representatives of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in all human beings.  Batman isn’t just a token good guy – he’s us.  He’s what we like to think we’d do, given the means, but more importantly, the will.  And like us, he is a man who must overcome significant flaws and weaknesses to push himself beyond that limit.

The forthcoming conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, takes place nine years after Batman went on the lam, blamed for the murders of Harvey Dent and several police officers.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to suggest that Bruce Wayne’s challenge in this movie may be to question whether he can truly leave the mantle of Batman behind, if the path of a hero is ultimately futile in that it has no end, no final triumph, way to know for certain whether the entire journey has been worth it.  With apologies to William Goldman, Batman is no longer a horrible part.  Truthfully, it never was – he just happened to end up in some horrible movies.  Handled properly, he is an ideal vehicle for an exploration into the concepts of heroism, sacrifice and morality – the stuff of what the best stories are made.  So go on and rise, Batman – we’re going to miss you when the last of the credits roll.