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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)


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The funny thing is, item #6 on that list is actually a legitimate complaint.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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tl;dr: the Nolan movies seemed to be heading in a direction that would have not just complicated Batman's heroism, but undercut the very concept.

I can see how someone watching THE DARK KNIGHT might think Nolan was moving toward a WATCHMEN-esque takedown of the vigilante-superhero, but I've never considered that as a possibility. Nolan was very, very clear in interviews that he believed in the essential goodness of Batman's crusade, and I always took him at his word, and so I always anticipated a third film that would restore/validate Batman, not outright condemn him.

Which, again--as I said in the second part of that comment--is fine. I have no problem with that. I'm just not sure that the restoration/validation we're offered really does anything except push the question back a step. Of course, it would be perfectly possible to reaffirm Batman's heroism by having him cease to be the Batman; that is, he recognizes the errors he's committed and the problems those mistakes create and chooses to obliterate the Symbol rather than allow it to become one with the pantheon of criminals. But that would require more than Bruce Wayne giving up the cowl; the entire figure would have to be eliminated, not elevated at last to the "legend" that he dreamed of creating in the first movie.

BTW, I think this post at Crooked Timber gets to some of these issues better than I can:

The problem is, of course, that this model is anti-democratic. The “people” only appear in it, as Mueller argues, as the patsies of the few powerful figures who have real agency. The problem of democratic politics becomes one, in David Brooks’ less-than-euphonious phrase, of followership; of ensuring that the masses follow the right leader rather than the wrong one. The one moment in the movies where people arguably do make their own choice is the boats-with-detonators prisoner’s dilemma scene in The Dark Knight – however, it is retroactively explained as the result of Harvey Dent’s inspiring example (or at least, impossible to repeat if the truth about Harvey Dent were known).

Replace "leader" with "Office" and I think the quote is even more correct.

Similarly, Aaron Bady argues (in somewhat spoilerific terms):

On the one hand, this [i.e. "ruling the city by fiat," which is what Ross Douthat claims would happen if the movie were "really" fascist] is actually not that far from the sort of ambition that the Bat man has at various points. For one thing, the movie concludes with a Batman statue going up in City Hall and a succession system in place to keep creating new Batmans. Bruce Wayne might leave the city, but Batman will haunt it forever; the implication of the Batman Laws are that the culture built around the lies of Harvey Dent has been replaced by something more substantial, even permanent. This, it would seem to me, is very much like what Douthat said a “genuinely fascistic Batman movie” would conclude with, no?

This isn't a renouncement or a redemption for Batman; this is just him doing the same thing he did in The Dark Knight. So all the complexities raised by that film seem now to be...less complex. I'm still not totally sold on the idea that the movie's all-out fascist, btw; but it's certainly a problematic undercurrent that doesn't seem to be resolved effectively. As Bady observes, the movie seems to revolve around "an effort to evade the consequences of its own parable."

Edited by NBooth
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So is #9.

Yeah, I would have liked some mention of the Joker, but Nolan felt strongly about not touching that character at all after Ledger's death. So it is what it is, I guess.

Of course, it would be perfectly possible to reaffirm Batman's heroism by having him cease to be the Batman; that is, he recognizes the errors he's committed and the problems those mistakes create and chooses to obliterate the Symbol rather than allow it to become one with the pantheon of criminals.

That reaffirms the heroism of Bruce Wayne, but not the validity of his crusade, or the validity of the Batman persona. If Nolan believes in the essential goodness of the idea of Batman, then he can't deny Batman that way without destroying it altogether.

the implication of the Batman Laws are that the culture built around the lies of Harvey Dent has been replaced by something more substantial, even permanent.

The "Batman Laws"? Are these something mentioned in the film, because I missed this both times, if so.

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Looks like I might be seeing this movie tonight. I hadn't planned to, but there you go.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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the implication of the Batman Laws are that the culture built around the lies of Harvey Dent has been replaced by something more substantial, even permanent.

The "Batman Laws"? Are these something mentioned in the film, because I missed this both times, if so.

FWIW, the words are Bady's, not mine, and I can't vouch for the "Batman Laws", though I think the rest of the paragraph is on-key.

On the other hand, ThinkProgress just posted a guest post defending Rises against charges of being anti-democratic:

While the fact that Dent’s legacy is a seemingly authoritarian crime act founded on a lie might undermine Dent as democratic symbol — though it interestingly suggests Bane might be blowback for the Dent Act — one of The Dark Knight Rises’ key sequences ends up supporting the prior film’s embrace of democratic values. Bane takes over the city not in block-by-block battles or inside city hall; he does it at a football game, one of the great gatherings in contemporary American public life and in the one time we see an en-masse congregation of Gotham’s citizens. He terrifies Gothamites (and, indeed, they’re clearly shown to be terrified) not only by threatening nuclear apocalypse, but by blowing up the Mayor — the elected official the Joker missed. That this takes place right after the last words of the National Anthem helps to drive the point home: Bane’s hostile takeover is not an attempt to liberate the people but rather to destroy Gotham’s democracy and the public sphere that works to sustain it.

[snip]

To entrust Gotham to heroes “with a face,” as he says in The Dark Knight, and to democratize Batman as a symbol that can be embodied by anyone. It’s not that Christopher Nolan is taking a side in our political debates. He’s simply defending a particular system through which we address them.

--which is a fair point? Perhaps? But the fact that the People don't really exist except to be terrorized/duped by Bane or to serve as cannon fodder for the Agents of Law and Order does complicate things a bit.

Edited by NBooth
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It doesn't look like anyone here yet has mentioned Ross Douthat's comments on the film:

... For instance, here’s Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, whose title calls the Batman movie “an evil masterpiece,” and who writes:

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.

Without digging too deep into why O’Hehir’s characterization of fascism’s supposed “purest form” manages to distill away just about every defining aspect of fascism as it actually existed, let me just submit that a genuinely “fascistic” Batman movie would have concluded with the Caped Crusader using the chaos wreaked by terrorists and revolutionaries as a justification for setting aside Gotham’s existing political institutions and ruling the city by fiat, with Wayne Enterprises merged with City Hall, the bat signal emblazoned on every public building, and the collective will of the public channeled through the superior individual will of Il Batman (and his successor, Der Robin, presumably). And the fact that Batman does not seek such power — that he serves anonymously, vanishes in times of peace, and generally has more in common with a batsuited Cincinnatus than with a would-be Caesar — illustrates one of the crucial differences between a fascist understanding of a Great Man’s role in history and a more conservative understanding of the same.

For an equally preposterous reading of the movie from the right, meanwhile, I give you Breitbart.com John Nolte, waxing enthusiastic about Nolan’s political themes:

[in "The Dark Knight Rises"], Gotham is going about the business of letting down its guard — a weakness that always invites aggression.

Aggression has already arrived in the form of Bane (Thomas Hardy), a hulk of a man burning with resentment against a society whose only provocation is being prosperous, generous, welcoming, and content — instead of miserable like him. In Gotham’s sewers, Bane recruits those like himself — the insecure thumbsuckers raging with a sense of entitlement, desperate to justify their own laziness and failure and to flaunt a false sense of superiority through oppression, violence, terror, and ultimately, total and complete destruction.

No one in Gotham even suspects the cancer of dangerous childish resentment growing beneath their feet …

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 ...

Edited by Persiflage
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Looks like I might be seeing this movie tonight. I hadn't planned to, but there you go.

Scratch that. Going to see Magic Mike instead.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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FWIW, Nolte has already responded to Douthat here.

SDG wrote:

: So is #9.

I'm inclined to give the filmmakers a pass on that one; they felt the best way to honour Heath Ledger was to not even mention his character, and while that might be a bit extreme, I can at least understand it.

FWIW, the novelization apparently includes a brief reference to the Joker, indicating that he might be the only inmate still locked inside Arkham Asylum after all the other inmates were transferred to the prison that Bane liberates in this movie.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I don't see much point in spoiler warnings at this point, but SPOILERS FOLLOW.

FWIW, the words are Bady's, not mine, and I can't vouch for the "Batman Laws", though I think the rest of the paragraph is on-key.

There isn't much to the paragraph, though, without the "Batman Laws" bit. It's that line that connects the culture built around Batman with the "culture built around Harvey Dent," which was highly legislative in nature. We don't see a Batman-based legislative legacy in the same way. Indeed, the succession the finale gives us is very sketchy indeed. What will become of Batman in this new era, while Gotham is rising from catastrophe? Who knows, but Wayne has entrusted the symbol of Batman to someone else, leaving it up to their judgment. Blake may become a new Batman, or he might not, but Wayne has given over his greatest possession as a sign of his complete release. Even Batman, now, no longer solely belongs to him. (The notion of Wayne coming to release the things he has so tightly grasped, coming to trust others and the world at large, is a critical part of the film; as one character chastises him, he cannot expect to save the world if he cannot trust it. Also note how Wayne hiding the energy source out of wild paranoia actually leads directly to it becoming weaponized and falling into the wrong hands.)

Now, as to the politics of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (and Nolan's Bat-trilogy in general), I've got some stuff to add. The Crooked Timber post linked above says this: "The problem of democratic politics becomes one, in David Brooks’ less-than-euphonious phrase, of followership; of ensuring that the masses follow the right leader rather than the wrong one." Bady says something similar: "...the whole point of the Bat man in the Nolan movies is to mold the collective will of Gotham residents, exactly through the kind of mass spectacle that Douthat attributes to real fascism." This seems to me to be quite a wrong reading of what's going in here. Batman is not manipulating or cajoling the public, he is simply calling to it and hoping somebody listens. People are left free to dislike Batman. The statue at the end of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES simply signifies the people recognizing him as a rightful hero, not that Batman has worn them down through a particularly adept propaganda campaign.

I think it's also easy to overstate how THE DARK KNIGHT pushes the "hero becomes a villain to fight the villain" notion. Batman is inherently an ends-justify-the-means sort of compromise, founded on the notion that democratic society has broken down completely. As such, one man is going to break the rules to try to get the system working again (this sense of restoring the system somewhat explains Nolan's focus in these stories on government institutions, right up to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES' use of the police force). In celebrating Batman's existence as a good, the Nolan films embrace some fundamental level of the compromise inherent to the existence of Batman as necessary. THE DARK KNIGHT rises pushes those compromises further, and so yes, we get Batman building a surveillance system and then, finally, concocting an epic lie to feed to the people a false idol. But the surveillance system's weight in that film can be well overstated; in the film it plays as though Batman's destruction of it vindicates Batman's use of it, as though building such a device for the right reasons makes it okay. Nolan's trilogy regards motive as being very important (though not definitive, as RISES' rejection of the Dent cover-up indicates).

Edited by Ryan H.
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FWIW, Nolte has already responded to Douthat here.

Douthat's article deserves some pushback, but Nolte's original review is also pretty misguided, and he's very wrong in this part of his response:

"First off, why does the orphanage lack resources? Not because of inequality or elite selfishness. In one of the film's most delicious pieces of irony, it's because Wayne Enterprises went all in on a Solyndra-type investment in green energy and lost its ass. 'Twas a billionaire falling for the left's utopian vision of clean energy that slayed the orphanage, not "the city's basic inequities."

Nolte misses the point; the point is not that the orphanage has failed because of the billionaire falling for the leftist utopia, but because said billionaire was so paranoid about keeping weapons out of the hands of villains that he undermined his desire to make a better world. Bruce cannot let go of Batman--the wartime persona--and give himself over to peacetime and hope. He is too paranoid, too eager to continue fighting the war. Selina Kyle also becomes something of an echo of Gotham: the city/girl with the seedy past seeking a new future. Wayne ultimately chooses to give both of them a chance at that future. Honestly, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is more about Bruce Wayne and his psychology than it is about politics and economics, despite what the hyper-political commentators may want to believe.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Minority report: I think Bane is a misdirection in this film. Which is fine, as the essence of the Joker is misdirection, and he simply continues that trajectory. So the Joker is largely accepted as a nihilist, fairly analogous to the dark spirit behind the killing of an arab in Camus' Stranger.

I don't think that is true. I think in Nolan's films, Batman does not represent a conflict between good and evil, but a conflict between social systems that we perceive as successful, and the injustices that actually make these systems operational. The problem is, Batman does not have an answer to this inevitable system of grievances that are endemic to capitalist-based social programs. (The relative absence of the Batman in this last film corresponds to that nagging question which is immensely relevant to the current presidential race.) True to form, as pointed out about the related comics earlier in this thread... Batman has always been a apophatic character. As if to say: Let me remove the elements that contribute to crime, injustice, etc... See if you can do something just with what is left.

Honestly, I think this makes Catwoman the bright element in the entire series in that she becomes a moral center for the Batman project. When you read Nietzsche or Kierkegaard, you find fictional characters against which sets of moral and political claims are tested. Catwoman is that sort of figure. Which I think is brilliant, whether intentional or not.

There is my limb.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

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I think it is close to SDG. Looking forward to the pushback. I am hesitant to drag the lumbering beast of "capitalism" into the above... but this was always an important element element of the Wayne story that I think creeps into the films regardless.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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On a separate note, regarding the Dent mythologozing and noble lie stuff, I don't know anything about Christopher Nolan to do other than just throw this out there, but has anyone considered the possibility that this strain is just a straight up atheist put down of religion?

Speaking of limbs, this continues to be mine, and the more I think on it, the more plausible I find it (which doesn't mean I'm all in yet).

Specifically I was thinking today about the whole

5 second time bomb thing and how sloppy a mistake that was. Then I got to thinking, "what if it's not a mistake?" That is, what changes in interpretation when you postulate that something dismissed as a continuity error or problem is made intentional. Read within the framework of a metafictive critique about mythmaking, the 5 second thing could be interpreted as the auteur saying, "You know, accepting [the Christian myth/all myths] requires you to suspend not just disbelief but reason...you must accept that which is irrational or impossible." Then I thought, too, on the fact that there is a count down on the bomb at all, which is such a silly movie device...would atom bombs really have digital timers? And then I asked, well, what would be different if that scene was not in the film? (It seems particularly odd to have the glimpse of the counter in without doing the math themselves.) For one, we the audience would then be in the same position as the people of Gotham...in possession of a suggestive but not determinate set of facts, but, instead we get a glimpse which has no weight on the plausibility of events for anyone in the movie (except, possibly, Bruce) since nobody in the movie would be privy to it. One possible interpretation/message then might be, "Hey, the Gothamites, as the receivers of myth, might be true believers, but they have been given a lie, you, the audience, know better....you know empirically that the sequence of events you have been told the myth you have just received is not possible. Yet, when confronted with a myth you know to be false, you accept it anyway, because it is less painful than contemplating the deeper truth that all myths are lies (or exaggerations built on partial knowledge of the situation).

Then again, I suppose that another possibility might be that built into the myth is the supernatural. The only way that Bruce can still be alive is a suspension of the laws of physics or some supernatural intervention--a miracle.

But in a more general sense, what I am postulating is that if the film is read metafictively, the commentary on myth could just be, "Hey, all myths present us with mutually contradictory elements that we resolve by faith (I believe it's true even though I know it can't be exactly true as stated)."

Postscript--I am speaking hypothetically as some atheists or critics of the Christian religion speak. I am not arguing that the Christian revelation does have incompatible facts or is self-contradictory, but anyone who has spent any time talking to atheists has surely heard this mindset before. And were an a non-Christian to set out to make an allegory of how (and why) religions get formed I would think that it would look a lot like the last 10 minutes of TDKR.

Postscript II--Like many deconstructions or alternate or contrarian readings, the thing that appeals to me in this one is that it explains what is an unresolved (interpretive) problem in more conventional readings. That doesn't make it definitive (b/c the text isn't closed and there is still the possibility of other readings that resolve the difficulty in question while better integrating other plot elements.

Edited by kenmorefield
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Specifically I was thinking today about the whole

5 second time bomb thing and how sloppy a mistake that was.

When I watched the film a second time, I played close attention to that bit. I remembered it being a big problem after the first viewing, but the second viewing showed that I'd actually mixed up the order of shots in the sequence and there wasn't actually an outright mistake there, just a bit of sleight-of-hand (though there is still nevertheless a hefty suspension of disbelief required whichever way you slice it, so it doesn't undermine what you go on to say).

Edited by Ryan H.
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Honestly, I think this makes Catwoman the bright element in the entire series in that she becomes a moral center for the Batman project. When you read Nietzsche or Kierkegaard, you find fictional characters against which sets of moral and political claims are tested. Catwoman is that sort of figure. Which I think is brilliant, whether intentional or not.

I like this, Michael. I didn't come at it exactly this way--and I'm more inclined (perhaps wrongly) to give more heft to the good/evil elements in the trilogy--but you get at in a pointed way why Catwoman was my favorite part of this film (followed closely by Blake).

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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This thread was already pretty nifty, but boy, it just became jaw-droppingly awesome in the past few minutes.

Minority report: I think Bane is a misdirection in this film. Which is fine, as the essence of the Joker is misdirection, and he simply continues that trajectory. So the Joker is largely accepted as a nihilist, fairly analogous to the dark spirit behind the killing of an arab in Camus' Stranger.

I don't think that is true.

Question: does the "that" in the "I don't think that is true" refer to the previous statement? Forgive me if I'm being dense, but I'm just trying to unpack things here.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Sorry, Ryan. That was unclear. I think accepting the Joker as a rote nihilist is impoverished. The Joker is more of a Benjamin figure, in that like Guernica, he serves to rub our face in reality and the Batman is little more than a washcloth. More Crime and Punishment than Rabbit, Run. Darren... is there not some of your dissertation here?

(perhaps wrongly)

Don't say that! Stake your claim. A&F is a weasel-free zone.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Don't say that! Stake your claim. A&F is a weasel-free zone.

I only meant it as a concession that, at the moment, I find your argument persuasive. I recognize that Batman is about dealing with corrupt social structures, but I hadn't really thought to this point that Joker and Bane were ultimately mere misdirection.

So, anyway, I'm chewing on it.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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I went opening night and the theatre wasn't even half full.

At my local multiplex, they kicked off with eleven auditoriums...and sold completely out.

"You know...not EVERY story has to be interesting." -Gibby

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Spoilers for other Christopher Nolan films:

it occurs to me when thinking along the whole myth making lines that Inception, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Memento are each more or less about the creation of (knowingly) false myths/narratives by characters for their own ends. So reading the end of TDKR as a commentary on the suspicious nature of all myths doesn't feel as out there as it initially did when I first considered it.

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