Tag Archives: caped crusader

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.