25 July 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012, US) - Death by Exile [Spoilers Ahead]

Bane vs Batman
Nolan is no visionary and the final instalment in his Batman trilogy confirms what many already knew - that Nolan is an intelligent and accomplished storyteller. With his three Batman films, Nolan has learnt to master the essential art of ‘raising the stakes’ - a classical narrative feature that characterises many of the best mainstream blockbusters. The Dark Knight Rises is a zeitgeist film, a trend proven by the first two films, and although the affects of 9-11 have disappeared from much of American cinema, the comic book film genre has continued to use the 9-11 hangover and the threat of terrorism as a suitable social and political context. The Dark Knight Rises references a plethora of recent political events such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring, the greed of banks and the financial crisis as window dressing for a fantastical comic book struggle. If Batman Begins was an intimate blockbuster and The Dark Knight a treatise on the hero myth then The Dark Knight Rises is an epic. An ambitious film like Inception certainly proved Nolan’s desire to elevate storytelling to an epic and global scale. The Dark Knight Rises emulates such epic ambitions by constructing a decadent comic book universe in which cataclysmic events are juxtaposed to one another with a conviction unheard of in a seemingly juvenile genre. This final film makes a dramatic leap of eight years, locating the action in a peacetime Gotham. A virtual recluse Bruce Wayne lives alone in his mansion, wallowing in self pity and still coming to terms with the loss of Rachel. Bruce Wayne appears now as a Kane like figure and his deteriorating physical condition makes him a vulnerable and flawed anti-hero. In many ways, this damaged Bruce Wayne is the one we were expecting since it is such vulnerability that transforms him into such a tragic figure. The first half of the film is very much about the mythology of Batman and what his presence means to the people of Gotham. This is continually reiterated by Alfred and Bruce Wayne’s conversations, debating the value of myth and attempting to renegotiate new parameters for heroism in an age of austerity. Inevitably, Bruce Wayne’s mortality is another point of interest that films explores which is intertwined with yet more conventional tragic qualities such as sacrifice, redemption and most importantly the fear of failing. As an alter ego Batman is a glorified vigilante; an angry young man who just happens to be a ridiculously wealthy millionaire. Yet such a contradiction is fought out in the way he uses his wealth to combat social inequalities and ultimately eradicate crime from Gotham. 

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has become a shadow of loneliness and his last connection to reality is Alfred, his faithful butler. Interestingly, the new Gotham in which crime has been eradicated as a result of Commissioner Gordon’s terminal lie reflects a new era as symbolised in the real life election of President Obama. It is a Gotham of relative stability yet beneath the austere surface is a corrupt and familiarly unequal society controlled by a wealthy elite - in other words, nothing has changed in terms of power and class since Obama came to office. Nolan has surprisingly downplayed the different social and political references made by the trilogy and this latest film continues such a preoccupation. If this new film takes place against Obama’s term in office then the it is not unexpected to find Bane’s first targeted attack against the stock exchange, a widespread symbol of social discontent and a site of economic corruption. Such an attack against the very financial structures that have created a seemingly perpetual age of austerity and global recession may in fact be justified given the way bankers have betrayed the trust of the people. Such prescient moments underline the film’s zeitgeist aspirations, framing the revolutionary actions of Bane and his army as both sincere and realistic. However, Bane’s revolutionary stance is rubbished by the presence of Selina Kyle who by teaming up with Batman bridges a necessary social and economic divide that separates Bruce Wayne from Gotham’s dispossessed. By holding Gotham to ransom with a nuclear bomb, Bane’s status of an ex communicated mercenary and former member of the League of Shadows changes to that of a terrorist. It is this threat posed by terrorism that ultimately unites the rich and poor of Gotham, acting as a social leveller and finally demanding that Selina Kyle surrender her ideological baggage for the greater good of the city. Perhaps then both Batman and his associates are in fact conservative agents of closure, restoring order by facing up to Bane’s terror and dismissing the more rational ideological musings of Bane as ancient demagoguery. Whereas the Joker in The Dark Knight was interpreted by some critics as a pale reflection of Osama Bin Laden and with Batman standing in for George Bush, The Dark Knight Rises locates the power struggle to the potent iconographic setting of New York, thus making clear parallels with 9-11 and exploiting audience memories of past events. Of course, films which subscribe to the dominant point of view, which encompasses the majority of Hollywood films, are not to be discussed in such political terms because they are in fact entertainment for the masses. As Nolan has said, he only sets out to tell a good story not offer any kind of social or political commentary. Fair enough but such a feeble position sounds a little cowardly given the way the film taps into current anxieties. 

The refusal to negotiate with terrorists is an echo from the Bush doctrine and yet by placing such rhetoric within the context of the new administration suggests a natural continuation of attitudes to the Arab as the demonic Other. Given that Bruce Wayne was trained by the League of Shadows, his battle with Bane is in fact a battle with himself. Nevertheless, by locating the myth of Talia al Ghul in an unnamed country, most likely India, and with the comic book telling us she and her father are of Arabian descent, makes the threat posed by the Other an altogether conventional, if not xenophobic, one. However, the trilogy seem to downplay the Arabian lineage in fear of yet again labelling the Middle East as fanatics who dream of bringing about the end of western civilisation. Of course, the great conundrum in all of this is that The League of Shadows led by Ra’s al-Ghul trains Bruce Wayne to become a formidable warrior. The Dark Knight Rises really comes alive in the third act, something which many recent blockbusters have failed to get right, and weaves together numerous narrative situations to create an ambitious conclusion to a hero’s quest started in Batman Begins. What makes Nolan’s conclusion audacious is the way he leaves the final moments open to interpretation. He does so by drawing on the ending of his most recent film Inception and by throwing in the wish fulfilment of Alfred, closure becomes a complicated affair. It is a film richer in terms of social/political subtext and scope, and equals the emotional resonance generated by the first two films. However, the score by Hans Zimmer is not as good as the first two films and the absence of collaborator James Newton Howard is telling in many respects. The two greatest assets of the film are Bale’s understated performance as Wayne/Batman (by far his best of the three films) and the magnificently noirish cinematography of Wally Pfister. Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it a visionary work? No. Is it a great mainstream blockbuster? Yes. And for that alone Nolan should be praised.     


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