Apologies for the lack of meatier content this week. I’ve had four different longer projects in the work plus Joie and I are moving the end of the week. Things will pick up here soon, I hope. Anyway, I saw Dark Knight Rises the other night and will be writing more soon, as well as hopefully participating in a group discussion on it over at Mere Orthodoxy. For now, though, a collection of reviews worth reading:
Douthat discusses the film’s politics:
Actually, the Batman movies pretty consistently portray Gotham as corrupt, chaotic, unequal and unjust, not “generous, welcoming, and content.” In “The Dark Knight Rises,” while the corruption and chaos have been reduced through the mass incarceration of gangland figures, the city’s basic inequities seem to have increased, and the movie gives every appearance of endorsing all of the nasty digs that Ann Hathaway’s Catwoman character takes at the Gotham elite. What’s more, the only time that we learn why a specific Gothamite has joined Bane’s underground army, the volunteer is a teenager who’s graduated out of an orphanage that lacks the resources to care for kids past the age of 16, and we’re specifically told that young men like him are going down into the sewers because there’s no work to be found up above — which suggests that something other than “laziness” is creating would-be revolutionaries. (Bane himself has been even more ill-used by the world, if not by Gotham itself.)
All of which is to say that Nolan isn’t trying to push a crude, Ayn Rand-esque parable about heroic Gotham capitalists threatened by resentful, parasitic looters. His model, as the movie’s literary references make clear, is “A Tale of Two Cities” rather than “Atlas Shrugged,” which means that he’s trying to simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse. Across the entire trilogy, what separates Bruce Wayne from his mentors in the League of Shadows isn’t a belief in Gotham’s goodness; it’s a belief that a compromised order can still be worth defending, and that darker things than corruption and inequality will follow from putting that order to the torch. This is a conservative message, but not a triumphalist, chest-thumping, rah-rah-capitalism one: It reflects a “quiet toryism” (to borrow from John Podhoretz’s review) rather than a noisy Americanism, and it owes much more to Edmund Burke than to Sean Hannity.
Matt Yglesias highlights the mainstreaming of concerns with inequality that can be seen in the film.
Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is genuinely a good guy. He’s rich, but his eyes are open to valid critique of other rich people. He blames them for throwing charity balls at which too little of the money goes to actual charitable purposes. He’s concerned about unscrupulous business practices of others. But he certainly doesn’t think that inequality per se is morally problematic, and the charitable work we see him directly involved with is the classic noblesse oblige cause of orphans. Crucially there’s not even a question of whether Wayne deserves to be rich because he’s a “job creator” or because he “built that”—everybody knows he hasn’t done anything to get rich, but the appropriate response is to be a responsible steward of his riches and his family’s legacy rather than to level the playing field.
The point here is less to criticism radicalism (about which people have their opinions, come what may) as it is to criticize the new moderate egalitarianism by suggesting that it’s more radical than it seems. The question is do you want to overturn the existing social order or do you want to defend it against the forces of chaos? If it’s “unfair” that the people in the top position have so much, then it seems like you do want to overturn it. But that’s radical. If it turns out you’re really just sad that orphans are going hungry, then that’s consistent with the status quo. But the solution is basically to persuade wise stewards of the status quo that it’s in their interest to feed orphans rather than have needy teens ending up in the sewers recruited by Bane.
Chait focuses on the New York-centric nature of the series.
There is, however, one strain of thought that runs consistently through not only TDKR but the entire trilogy: an almost pathological New York–centrism. All three movies are about powerful criminal gangs that are fanatically devoted the reducing the quality of life in one particular municipality, Gotham, which is obviously New York City.
Two unstated assumptions are at work here: First, there is no point in unleashing this sort of hell on any other city, despite their being softer targets lacking superhero protection. And second, at no point can things get bad enough that the people of this city will actually, you know, leave. They can endure blackouts, nerve gas attacks, sadistic attempts to make them kill each other, and evil clown rampages, and they will simply think to themselves, “This is pretty bad, but what am I going to do, move to Jersey?” In this way, the Dark Knight trilogy is merely the flip side of a Nora Ephron movie.
Podhoretz talks about the “quiet Toryism” of director Christopher Nolan:
This Manichean worldview goes very well with what one might call the quiet Tory perspective of Christopher Nolan. The theme running through the three Batman movies (the first, Batman Begins, was not very good, although Nolan and his co-screenwriter, brother Jonathan, mine it effectively for plot points in the new one) is the battle between order and chaos, with Nolan standing unambiguously on the side of order.
Nolan knows exactly what he’s doing when he puts the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the mouth of his villain. The Dark Knight Rises is a Classic Comics version of Edmund Burke. Which makes its incidental role in the latest monstrous spasm of nihilistic violence, as the movie that was playing during James Holmes’s evil massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, all the more haunting.
Christopher Orr bemoans the failure of the second half to deliver on the promise of the film’s 75 minutes.
The first half of Nolan’s film is bold, innovative, and darkly thrilling. The opening sequence, in particular, is a tour de force, an aerial extraction that puts The Dark Knight‘s shanghaiing in Hong Kong to shame. And while the movie’s other big set pieces don’t rise to the level of its predecessor, its fight sequences are a considerable upgrade—vivid, visceral, and raw.
The credit is owed primarily to Hardy’s Bane, who, while not quite so indelible a villain as Heath Ledger’s Joker (how could he be?), is one several times the size. Hardy has been big in past roles—he gained more than 40 pounds of muscle for his breakthrough role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson—but here he is almost implausibly immense, a mountain of flesh with a neck as thick as a normal person’s waist. With his volcanic physique and a voice that booms metallically from behind a tube-crossed facemask, Hardy commands nearly every scene he is in. …
There was an opportunity here for Nolan to show us that other way, to (again) stretch the boundaries of what is possible in a superhero film. Instead, alas, the latter half of The Dark Knight Rises retreats toward conventionality and, while perfectly fine on its own merits, can’t help but disappoint. As was the case with the previous two movies, Nolan bites off a great deal but proceeds to chew somewhat less.
It’s a common trap for sequels to be handcuffed by nostalgia and the desire to tie up loose ends. One of the strengths of the previous film, The Dark Knight, was that it broke free, abandoning the airy mysticism of Batman Begins for something bleaker and grittier, positioning itself as a kind of gangland neo-noir. But The Dark Knight Rises instead harkens back to the first film, to Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows, to slender, overwrought meditations on the nature of fear and the soul. And while some of the backward references—to Martha Wayne’s pearls, for instance—are touching, they ultimately become wearisome. Three flashbacks toBatman Begins are at least one too many.
There are more particular missteps as well. An oddly off-key, Occupy-Wall-Street-inspired political undercurrent suggests that a substantial population of ordinary Gothamites would be so dissatisfied with their civic institutions that they would join Bane—who has by this time done some decidedly terrible things—in a violent insurrection against the city’s wealthy elites. (Yes, this is an anti-Bain Bane.) And one character’s recovery from a rather crucial impairment defies pretty much everything that I believe is known of human physiology.
Andrew O’Hehir had the most perplexing review of the lot, criticizing the film’s politics (which he analyzes in a really simplistic, superficial way) while praising its quality:
Let’s back up for a minute and observe that all this stuff — the French Revolution and the Middle Eastern pit-prison and the vision of America’s greatest city capitulating to the ugliest kind of anarchy and terror — happens in a Batman movie. There are all kinds of valid reasons not to like “The Dark Knight Rises,” which absolutely does not offer the summery, pure-popcorn pleasure of something like Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers.” It’s loud and bombastic and exceptionally long — 164 minutes from opening to closing credits — and brutal in several senses of the word, taking sadistic pleasure in both its scenes of violence and its Camus-meets-Nietzsche existential nihilism. It has no villain with even half the charisma of Heath Ledger’s now-legendary Joker, since Tom Hardy’s monstrous, ‘roided-out Bane remains figuratively and literally a masked figure, behind his Hannibal Lecter-as-Darth Vader faceplate.
As I’ve suggested, I think it’s a trap to read too much into this movie by way of political commentary, but whatever you come away with, it won’t be uplifting. The Gotham status quo is a cynical regime based on “useful lies,” false heroes and systemic inequality — straight out of the playbook of neocon founding father Leo Strauss — that corrupts even decent men like Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon. But the so-called revolution that overthrows it, overseen by the forbidding mercenary Bane (who is himself just the mouthpiece for a sinister hidden agenda, or several at once), is an Orwellian nightmare of atavism, unreason and anarchy.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the “Dark Knight” universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It’s simply a fact. Nolan’s screenplay (co-written with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and based on a story developed with David S. Goyer) simply pushes the Batman legend to its logical extreme, as a vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society. Maybe it’s an oversimplification to say that that’s the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much. Whether you think Nolan is endorsing or condemning that idea, or straddling the fence with a smirk on his face, is very much up to you. …
Nolan carefully hits all the beats of the superhero action flick in the right order: Batman returns from exile, has an initial victory followed by a crushing defeat and the loss of his powers, and then must rebuild himself and make unexpected alliances in order to save the day. But the whole thing is cranked to 11, or maybe 13, the whole time, so it becomes barely recognizable. I guess this counts as a minor spoiler, but Batman receives a startling beatdown in this movie, one that belongs more to the universe of crime films than superhero fantasy. Bane leaves him alive only because he wants to make Bruce watch Gotham suffer, and needless to say that sadism will prove hubristic. (Even so, Bane is ultimately revealed as a tragic-romantic figure, pursuing mayhem and murder only out of love.) A fair piece of the story proceeds with Batman offstage, and Bruce Wayne literally crippled and helpless.
Arguably the Nolan-Goyer plot is unnecessarily complicated and loaded with MacGuffins, starting with a dynamite hijacking sequence that opens the film and continuing through an exciting stock-exchange hostage-taking sequence and Selina’s irrelevant quest for a nugget of software that will erase her identity and allow her to start afresh. After a terrific late plot twist and a bravura, literally explosive conclusion that leaves Gotham — and the mythical version of America it inhabits — permanently scarred in a way Osama bin Laden could only dream about, Nolan dutifully drops us off at the gateway to another sequel, one he has said he won’t direct. But he leaves future Batman filmmakers in an impossible position. They’ll simply have to try something different, because for grandeur and pretension and evil genius and pure thrills — for delivering exactly what the multiplex audience wants, in tremendous style, and undercutting it at the same time — there’s no way to top “The Dark Knight Rises.”