GANGS OF GOTHAM
The Dark Knight Raises (Questions it Can’t Answer)
Article by Steven Lewis
Coming over a month after its release, this piece should in no way be thought of as a “review” of “The Dark Knight Rises”. Everyone who’s gonna see that movie has already seen it (maybe not twice or three times yet, but seen it) and judgements have already been made. Overall, I think it would be fair to say that the popular response to this one has been a good deal more muted and less ecstatic than for “The Dark Knight” (or even for “The Avengers” earlier this summer). I’m reminded here, in fact, that seven years ago the popular response to “Batman Begins” was appreciative (and certainly profitable) but not overwhelming. Perhaps in years to come, once we’ve gotten a little more distance on it, the entire Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy will be thought of in the public mind less as an entire piece, and more along the lines of “The one with Heath Ledger in it as Joker, and the other two.”
Mr. Ledger’s presence certainly hangs over this series in a way that is more potent and powerful than any other one-off character I can think of in any other multi-part saga. Expectations were raised so high for this movie largely on the audience’s supposition that “Well, hell – if that’s the villain they came up with for the middle story of this series, think how epic the final, bring-down-the-curtains bad guy is going to be!”
Didn’t happen. I don’t think there can be any debate about that. No matter what your feelings about the latest movie are, the idea that Bane (or Ra’s al-Ghoul’s daughter for that matter) is in any way as sinister or as memorable as The Joker is just not a claim I see being made by anyone.
Personally, I enjoyed the latest movie more than I enjoyed “The Dark Knight” – but then, I was never one of TDK’s biggest supporters anyway. I found it overwrought and self-important – a movie seemingly embarrassed to be about a superhero, and so it aimed to be a re-make of “Heat” instead (during the first part), and then finally a Statement On The Human Condition. Hmmm. . . pretentious, much? Also, Mr. Ledger’s brilliantly creepy performance notwithstanding, I didn’t find The Joker to be that well-conceived a character: a bad guy who was simply bad for bad’s sake, but who the filmmakers sought to imbue with greater importance and profundity by using his random acts of badness to make some larger point about. . . I don’t know, the very notion of randomness, I guess. Something like that, anyway.
I knew, of course, that with the runaway success of that movie, Christopher Nolan was going to feel emboldened to up his game. And so indeed he has. Whereas “The Dark Knight” wanted to re-do “Heat”, “The Dark Knight Rises” attempts, finally, to be “Gangs of New York” in superhero garb. I mean really! An urban revolution plopped dead center in the middle of a caped crusader film? If it was anyone else but Nolan I wouldn’t have believed it.
But at least I was ready for it. Over the course of three movies, this particular writer-director has instructed me in his visual and thematic terrain, and I know now that a certain level of Armageddon is just how the guy rolls. Within that structure, I found the action to be much more involving and well-choreographed than the other films, with a strong and sympathetic cast of lead characters. In fact, somewhat amazingly, though the Dark Knight is the title character, the movie is truly an ensemble piece, and it’s just as much about Commisioner Gordon, and Selina Kyle (a very fun performance from Anne Hathaway), and that new character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who was awesome, by the way – when he was introduced at the beginning I wasn’t expecting to like him or welcome his presence, but I totally did) – their struggles and catharses, just as much as it is about our boy Bruce Wayne. I thought that was a very brave conception, and very adroitly handled.
[Oh and, almost incidentally, I think the movie definitely represents the best use of the “Our hero’s missing, where has he gone to?” trope. Yes, Batman seemingly abandons Gotham in its hour of greatest need. But why? Is he canoodling with Lois Lane in the Fortress of Solitude? Does he give up his powers so that he can be with Mary Jane? No. HE’S STUCK IN A FUCKING HELLHOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT WITH HIS GODDAMNED BACK BROKEN!! So take a chill, citizenry – he’s making his way back to you just as quickly as he can. And of course those sequences of Bruce struggling to “rise” out of his place of captivity are among the most stirring in the film. Exceptionally well done.]
What isn’t so well done – and which frankly threatens to sink this film into insignificance once the initial appreciation of its technical virtues wears off – are the revelations housed in the final act. I’m thinking of two major things here, and they both strike me as being deeply discordant:
1) The film really muffles its villain(s)’s Master Plan – and to the point of clouding and watering down whatever dramatic resonance it has. Think about it: if the intention from the beginning is simply to blow up Gotham – then why the hell don’t they just BLOW UP GOTHAM?! Why stage this bogus “uprising” of the criminals and the lower classes in order to do it? (I mean really, decimating a football stadium where a whole bunch of Gotham’s inhabitants are, only to tell them “Hey, we’re giving the city back to YOU!” – that’s not exactly the most hospitable way of getting their attention, is it?)
But the bigger question is this: at what point in their story conception did the filmmakers cop out and make the class warfare uprising NOT what the whole plan was about? What a different movie it would be (would it not?) if Bane really was a social revolutionary, and wanted the 99%-ers of Gotham to rise up against their overlords? What a fascinating rock and a hard place to put Batman between – and not just Batman, but all the “good guys” of our tale (Gordon, Lucius Fox, the Joseph Gordon-Levitt character, etc.). To be on the side of “law and order” they’d have to come to the rescue of the greedy fat cats, and work to quash the people’s uprising. Maybe in such a scenario, one of the “good” guys would even wind up defecting to the other side (maybe the Gordon-Levitt character – hell, maybe Commissioner Gordon himself, who has reached critical mass in his disgust at the hypocrisy of holding up Harvey Dent as a model of law and order). Moral gray areas would abound all over the place! Which is supposedly what Christopher Nolan wants for this entire series. It’s how he’s staking his claim to be different from all those other simplistic, one-dimensional superhero tales out there. Guess not, huh?
I mean, I have no idea how you’d satisfactorily resolve such a dilemma for our friendly neighborhood Dark Knight, but by raising the spectre of justified urban rebellion, then backing off into a pose of “no, the villains are really pure bad guys who are only using the rhetoric of class warfare to further their aims” – well, you’ve pretty much pegged yourself as someone who likes to play with big themes, but who actually has no true thoughts on the matter.
2) The “death” of Batman is handled very poorly. A considerable degree of frisson coming into this movie was generated by the knowledge that this was indeed “it” – the final installment. No new chapters in this particular saga would follow. This left room for the contemplation that truly ultimate and terminal things could happen – to anyone! . . . Yes, even our hero.
Well, they sure muffed that one.
Oh sure, we got to see that oh so poignant final shot of Michael Caine espying Bruce Wayne from afar across the open-air cafe in Italy and say to ourselves “Hey – look, it’s like that image they showed us at the beginning of the movie. You know, when they were detailing Alfred’s dream of ultimate happiness for his beloved Master Bruce? Well it came true! And we’ve got the matching shot to prove it. I’ll be damned! Those genius filmmakers and their impressive use of visual foreshadowing – what ever will they think up next?!”
Unfortunately, that “beautiful” shot totally cuts the balls off of Bruce Wayne as a character – and makes us retroactively not care about his entire story.
I mean, if Bruce has always been about fixing up Gotham and being there for his city, why would he fake his death so that he can run away with Selina to cavort in the Mediterranean in perpetuity? By so doing, he becomes precisely the type of idle rich (that we were always on his side because) he resolutely wasn’t (and the type, incidentally, who Bane would have had it in for – that is, if his character had actually had any credibility!) And how exactly is Bruce Wayne living now – what’s he living on? It was established earlier in the movie that his life savings were totally wiped out in the Bane-influenced crash of Wall Street. Are he and Selina simply robbing and fencing their way through Europe? (An interesting idea for a separate movie, of course – but not one about Bruce FUCKING Wayne!)
Wouldn’t the obvious thing to have done be to either: A) Have Bruce/Batman really and truly die transporting that nuke over Gotham River [and then maybe have the Alfred scene still be there, but make it clear that he only has a hallucination or dream vision of seeing Bruce — he rubs his eyes, looks again, and realizes it is a completely different person] . . . or else B) Have it so that Bruce successfully ejected himself from the plane, but keep that a secret and maintain the illusion that “Batman” died in saving the city. So then it’s no more Batman, that identity gets permanently retired – but Bruce Wayne himself is still alive and kicking (further throwing anyone off the scent that he was ever Batman in the first place) and is now set to do all he can AS HIMSELF to help Gotham in its rebuilding.
Either option would have been a better way to resolve it than they did. Instead they opted for the “having their cake and eating it too” approach of making the audience experience and expect tragedy, only to reveal triumph in the end – and a promise too (through the final shot of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt character) of the continuation of the Batman and his mythology. I thought your superhero trilogy was supposed to be above that kind of cliche crap, Christopher. Guess not, huh?
But hey – that Heath Ledger was really something as The Joker! Right?