Sunday, 7 May 2017

On the Dark Knight trilogy

Commentary on Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy generally falls into two camps: disparaging the movies because of their dodgy politics, or attempting to argue that the movies' politics are not dodgy. Andrew Ellard twice suggests that the films "allow for both left and right readings," but that's a weak argument. If there's room for a right-wing reading as well as a left-wing one, the latter is not going to amount to much more than paying lip service to things that allow liberal movie-goers to watch it with an untroubled conscience. It's not entirely clear what Slavoj Zizek was trying to say about The Dark Knight Rises in his piece for the New Statesman, but his suggestion that "we should approach the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem" brought to mind Pauline Kael's comments in her 1969 essay Trash, Art and the Movies:

One of the excruciating comedies of our time is attending the new classes in cinema at the high schools where the students may quite shrewdly and accurately interpret the plot developments in a mediocre movie in terms of manipulation for a desired response while the teacher tries to explain everything in terms of the creative artist working out his theme—as if the conditions under which a movie is made and the market for which it is designed were irrelevant, as if the latest product from Warners or Universal should be analyzed like a lyric poem.

Kael's view is the more convincing. We cannot find a sophisticated or coherent political stance in these movies not just because blockbusters are never auteured but because a Batman movie in particular is dependent on so many brash, expensive demands in place before the director and the screenwriters are even chosen: it's got to be centered around glorification of lone vigilante violence, it's got to have awesome tank-cars, planes or bikes in it, the vigilante most also be fabulously wealthy, the city most be overrun by crime, there must be lavish action sequences. With all these stipulations in place, it's inevitable not only that the film will have a right-wing tinge, but that any more liberal sentiments the director and screenwriters bring to the mix will clash with it.

It's more sensible to acknowledge that these are three terrific movies with dodgy politics. These films are right-wing because Batman is a fundamentally right-wing character. Even before Frank Miller - who admired Ayn Rand and Mickey Spillane just as those two admired each other - reinvented him, Batman was violence personified. Transferred to screen, the visceral thrill comes from watching a single dynamic person's will being unleashed, with a plot so dramatic and tense and the actor playing the character so compelling that we come to share that will. Batman roaring "SWEAR TO ME!" at a weaselly corrupt cop,  his smashing the Joker into a mirror, their awesome "you know how I got these scars?" \ "No - but I know how you got these" exchange  and Batman finally getting to give Bane a damn good kicking while using his own "you have my permission to die" line back on him (is there any cinematic device more viscerally satisfying than using a bad guy's line against him at the climax?) are primal cinema: memorable, quotable, exciting and allowing us to feel vicariously righteous. The same thing was true of Dirty Harry: aesthetically brilliant, morally repugnant. 

Then there's the visceral nature of the trilogy's imagery: the Tumbler, the Batpod and the Bat. These are something increasingly rare in modern film and television SF: memorable designs. It's a bugbear of mine, and examples of the decline in design I've mentioned elsewhere include how much more memorable Krypton looked in 1978 than in 2013, modern Doctor Who's reliance on monsters from the 1960s and 1970s, and how much less impressive the RoboCop suit in the reboot was compared to the original. Here, however, are three fearsome creations that lodge in the visual cortex. Who wouldn't want to drive, ride or fly one? They are brilliantly cinematic precisely because of the nasty little impulses they harness in all of us. Firstly, like Batman himself they are a gorgeous depiction of the human will to fight. Secondly, they are the ultimate depiction of wealth fantasy: what better toys could our inner child imagine playing with? The casting of Morgan Freeman is ingenious here. He's essentially playing Q, who himself works because he's a composite of two powerful archetypes: the God bestowing mighty powers on the epic hero, and Father Christmas. Just as in the Q scenes in Bond films the joy comes as much from the toys on display in the background of his lab as from the presents he gives Bond, the Dark Knight trilogy fetishizes the vast filled warehouses of which Fox is the sole custodian as much as the equipment Batman uses. If Q's workshop is Santa's grotto, than Fox's storeroom is Toys R Us. There's a striking line when Fox waives Bruce's attempts to explain why he wants access to this stuff: "As far as I'm concerned, this stuff's yours anyway." It's only his by accident of birth, and Fox doesn't know he's planning to fight crime at this point. For a moment we're reminded that Batman's powers are granted by birth rather than moral necessity, and the film trades on the thrill of privilege. 

To be fair to Nolan and his co-writers, Bruce Wayne's wealth is both a long-established aspect of the character (though I would love to see an interpretation of Batman without it) and a necessity because all those cool turbine planes and Batpods won't pay for themselves, but Batman Begins goes further and enforces a sense of status quo by portraying Bruce's parents as characters like the mythical "Kind Rich Man" that Orwell wrote of in his essay on Dickens. We're even told that one of Bruce's ancestors used to rescue slaves through the underground rail road. "The legacy of the Waynes is more than bricks and mortar, sir" says Alfred after the Manor has been burnt down. As China Mieville has argued, Bruce's deliberate destruction of his father's train in Batman Begins at a moment when the inhabitants of the Narrows are "lost" thanks to the Scarecrow's gas and and moments after they were savagely attacking him feels like a call for an end to charity and benevolent gestures across the class chasm. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of the film is that immediately afterwards Bruce vows to spend money rebuilding Wayne Manor - where only he and Alfred live - brick by brick, yet no-one mentions rebuilding the train - which was intended to help Gotham's poor - for the rest of the trilogy. Was that really the best use of his time and money? At least the Manor is put to decent use as a children's home at the end of the trilogy, but for eight years it's put to no use at all, except as a symbol of Bruce's status and the Wayne family's legacy of having a big house. Yes, it's definitely time for a Marxist Batman, who burns down Wayne Manor as a matter of honour. Sadly, it'll be a long wait.

One of the most sinister things about the trilogy is that in Batman Begins, we're twice told Batman isn't a vigilante. Why not exactly? What makes him more than a vigilante, other than the fact that he himself knows he's good at this? This conveys the vague sense of Batman as a godlike figure, entitled to be the arbiter of justice. "What gives you the right - what makes you any different to me?" asks one of the wannabe Batmen in The Dark Knight, and the trilogy never really answers his question (the answer Batman gives - "I'm not wearing hockey pads" - brings it back to him having more money). The films also see dedicating oneself to actions regardless of condemnation as a kind of martyrdom. "Endure, Master Wayne. Take it .... They'll hate you for it. But that's the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice. You can be the outcast," says Alfred in The Dark Knight when Bruce wants to quit because his actions have caused deaths. The words are echoed at the end of the film, with Batman choosing to take the blame for Dent's murders because he is able to cope with the condemnation and elude anyone who tries to bring him to justice. "He can take it," says Gordon. The more criticised you are, the more heroic that makes you. This removes morality, as well as democracy, from the equation, and it's not surprising that right-wingers responded well to this aspect of the movie, with Andrew Klavan speaking for many right-wing commentators when he wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war." One can imagine Tony Blair would appreciate The Dark Knight's message as well, and identify with Batman: it doesn't matter how many people condemn me, I will keep doing what I feel I must and nothing will persuade me otherwise; I will accept condemnation as my holy burden.

As a concept Batman also relies on seeing the people he protects as having little agency. If you've ever indulged in a superhero fantasy as a child, you've probably only imagined other people as awe-struck onlookers to your heroics. The superhero myth has little room for democracy. This remains true in Nolan's trilogy. In The Dark Knight, after people begin making their own costumes and attempting vigilante action themselves, Bruce remarks that "when I said I wanted to inspire people, this wasn't what I had in mind", but this raises the question, what did he have in mind? He said in Batman Begins that people needed examples to shake them out of lethargy, but how exactly did he expect people to follow his example, when all he's done is fight crime, but by fighting crime themselves? The films conflate fighting crime with political and economic revolution, evoking the latter two while shirking from considering the questions they raise. In The Dark Knight Rises Selina talks of people like Bruce enjoying great wealth while the rest of Gotham's citizens have so little, but Bruce shows no interest in the matter. Was it not worth spending the past eight years - in which fighting the mob has been unnecessary due to the Dent Act - doing something to rectify this situation? Aren't there villains other than those that use guns, even those that can wreck lives while staying inside the law? These are the questions the films avoid.

The actual citizens Batman protects have surprisingly little presence throughout the trilogy. All the significant characters are either part of Gotham's rich class, the criminal world or the law enforcement world. Otherwise, we get only brief appearances of frightened or grateful citizens, usually without names: the tramp Batman congratulates on his coat, the child Batman throws the telescope to, the two wannabe Batmen, the people on the two boats, the child Blake befriends. "You don't owe these people any more. You've given them everything," Selina tells Bruce, but we're never shown this, or told it from their point of view.

As Slavoj Zizek observed in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, what's most disturbing about The Dark Knight is the emphasis it places on the need to deceive Gotham's citizens about Harvey's crimes, because they cannot be trusted to know the truth, and the lie that a great man has died will have the same effect as the death of Bruce's parents, which according to Ras Al Ghul in Batman Begins 'galvanised the city into saving itself" (given the amount of murder and deprivation Gotham's poor have suffered, the idea that they pulled themselves together because of the death of one disgustingly rich couple who live in a disgustingly big house is particularly insulting). This continues in The Dark Knight Rises, in which Dent's death has hilariously led to eight years of practically no crime (even the Adam West series wasn't that simplistic), by providing the incentive for the Harvey Dent Act which locks up mobsters without trial (the only objection the films raise to this is that it was done upon the basis of a lie). At the end of the trilogy, a new lie and a new fake martyr is put in place: the people of Gotham are told Batman sacrificed himself when towing the bomb away, when in fact he was able to survive due to an autopilot system. The people cannot be trusted to know the truth. This is no way to build a healthy society: it's a view of human beings, as China Mieville observed of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, as "sheep, who need strong shepherds."

 Indeed, real life frequently demonstrates that tragic deaths do not help to move society out of its slump. The most poisonous thing about Brexit was that it was unmuted by the violent murder of a female MP: right-wing journalists spent their time on Twitter recommending each other's pieces about why no-one should allow this death to interfere with their advocacy of Brexit, Farage openly complained that no-one would have made any fuss about his poster if it hadn't been for the murder and even made a pointed reference when he boasted that Brexit had been achieved "without a shot fired", and the mood among the right-wing on the day of victory was one of jubilation, with frightening levels of racist attacks and abuse.  Similarly, I remember being naive enough to hope that after the image of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi was published, attitudes towards refugees would change, but again Farage brazenly complained about how the picture had obstructed the issue, clickbait columnists in the business of referring to refugees as "cockroaches" to be mown down by gunboats simply moved on to claiming the photo was staged without losing their columns or their Twitter accounts and it took David Cameron just four months to go from claiming to be deeply moved by the photograph to sneering at the leader of the opposition for spending time in Calais with what he called "a bunch of migrants." In America, toddlers can be shot dead and the Gun Lobby doesn't flinch.

Selina, appealingly, embodies an Occupy Wall Street spirit (and Anne Hathaway is fabulous in the role: formidable, streetwise, sexy, vulnerable and funny), and the film never suggests her approach isn't preferable, but the revelation that Bane is merely exploiting desire for revolution and is actually planning to destroy the city still allows the film to "tame" her. The "clean slate" Bruce gives her implies that she will now keep to the straight and narrow, and that in turn suggests she won't threaten the status quo again. (This takes on a queasily homophobic dimension when we consider that Juno Temple as Selina's possible lover is forgotten about when Selina and Bruce elope: like Pussy Galore in Fleming's Goldfinger, Selina is kept on the straight and narrow in more ways than one.) The disappointment of The Dark Knight Rises is that even though it appropriates the imagery and feeling behind Occupy Wall Street, no real revolution takes place: it is sidestepped in favour of a nuclear bomb plot. Not only is Occupy Gotham given to the bad guys (which delighted Andrew Klavan), but they turn out not to be real revolutionaries after all but an opportunistic death cult, and the only hope at the end comes from Joseph Gordon-Levitt's John Blake as the next Batman. Once again it all comes down to one unelected man using violence and anonymity, attacking crime rather the causes, presumably continuing not to attack the various ways the rich in Gotham keep others poor which are not actually illegal and again not working to empower the citizens themselves.

Harvey Dent, despite being described as Gotham's "White Knight" as opposed to Batman's Dark one, and being seen by some commentators as representing Barack Obama to Batman's George W Bush and the Joker's Osama Bin Laden, is as dubious and problematically presented as Batman. The Dark Knight presents Dent, the District Attorney, as a politician, yet he still sees saving Gotham as coming down to one unelected heroic tough guy being allowed to use violence. He points out that "when their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn't considered an honor, it was considered a public service." In reply, he's warned that "the last man that they appointed to protect the Republic was named Caesar, and he never gave up his power." Harvey replies with the creaky signpost of a line "OK, fine. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Not long afterwards, he's prepared to murder someone in cold blood (again, Batman's response is simply that the people can not be allowed to find out about this). The entire hopes of Gotham are waged upon the standard action movie gamble: whether one tough guy can put his ego to good use. The other problem with this is that there is so little detail about how Harvey is cleaning things up to counter the dubious politics of someone in favour of suspending democracy. Bruce assures us that Harvey has made it possible to retire the Batman, and the campaign slogan "I believe in Harvey Dent" runs throughout the film, but what does it really mean? It encourages us to think about personalities (not that Harvey really has one), but not about actions or policies, nor about how a dystopia might become a utopia, or how corruption might actually be fought. Like the lives of Gotham's citizens, this is kept absent from the films so that we can focus on the heroic ego, which is an invention of pulp fiction.

Dent also admits that he will take over this mantle of protector of the Republic from Batman "if I'm up to it", defending Batman by pointing out that he doesn't intend to do this permanently and later on insisting that Batman will ultimately answer for his crimes. This is one of the trilogy's main elisions in the moral questions raised by Batman's actions. For one thing, Batman never does answer for his crimes. For another, Batman passing the baton on to another does not dissolve his culpability, and however many Batmen there are, their actions remain as dubious as if they were performed by one person. Passing on the mantle is part of the same pretence that Batman is something other than a vigilante: denying human agency in order to try and pass his actions off as something greater and beyond reproach. 

But did these films need Dent anyway? Katie Holmes is excellent in Batman Begins, yet her performance met with a great deal of condescension, which seems to be based on the fact that she was in Dawson's Creek and that she was at the time married to Tom Cruise. The second film suffers from her absence: the normally reliable Maggie Gyllenhaal is given too little to do, stuck with the unenviable task of playing a role written as a continuation rather than a different version. Dramatic as her death is, it would have been even more powerful had it featured the same actress we had got to know from the previous film, and its effect on Bruce would have packed more emotional punch. As well as  the loss of Holmes, the film suffers from the insistence on bringing in Harvey Dent, even though Rachel was a strong enough character to have fulfilled his role. There's a touch of sexism in the way that once Harvey appears on the scene, Gotham's gangsters are running scared of him, Batman declares himself obsolete and the Joker (who thinks of Rachel only as Harvey's girlfriend) targets Harvey because, as Batman puts it, he is "the best of us", even though in the previous film Rachel already had criminals running scared seven years before Harvey arrived on the scene (and when Bruce was clueless). Why doesn't she get any of the credit? Surely she's the best of them? It's not dissimilar from the one niggle raised by the excellent Mad Max: Fury Road - why couldn't Charlie Theron have been the lead? - and it's part of the same reason why it was heartening to see an all-female remake of Ghostbusters: mainstream action cinema demonstrates a timidity about handing over key roles to women. While our investment in Rachel from Batman Begins would have helped to sell the idea that she could save Gotham in the second film, and made her transformation into Two-Face more affecting, Aaron Eckhart as Dent has the thankless task of being introduced, set up as Gotham's "White Knight", and then converted to Two-Face within a single film. Eckhart is the only actor in the trilogy  who isn't cast slightly against type, and while his performance is inoffensive, it's a role that required more memorable casting in order to make the character more than blandly heroic. 

Despite these flaws, the trilogy works because the three scripts are consistently good at conjuring up dramatic scenarios. The "two boats, two detonaters" idea works because it builds to a simple but affecting moral: maybe we aren't all wicked deep down, and maybe wickedness is a choice. It's similar to the moral of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, but works just as well here, especially as this version doesn't use a gratuitous sexual assault to make its point. A particular favourite setpiece of mine is Bruce escaping from the prison in the third film. I find it very moving, I think because it works on such a primal level of storytelling. The idea that only the fear of death can keep us fighting, that only by accepting death can we conquer it, and that only by facing up to absolute despair can we find hope is so neatly expressed by the rope story that it works as an Aesop-style fable, and there's a real thrill in finding ways of bringing out the heroism in the protagonist other than the action sequence (although even this has a right-wing implication, as is argued here). This is the kick that the less reputable kind of genre fiction - action, superhero fantasy - provides that other fiction doesn't: it puts us in touch with pure narrative. As James Ellroy said of the climax to the film adaptation of his novel La Confidential, It may be bullshit but it's inspired bullshit.

It's because none of these scenarios (the death of Bruce's parents and Falcone's role in it, Bruce's training, Batman helping the cops and Rachel gain leverage over Falcone, Crane's toxin and the antidote, Ras Al Ghul's plan, the Joker's demands that Batman take off his mask, Dent taking Batman's place, the Rachel\Harvey bombs, the Joker's hospital ultimatum, the two boats scenario, the abduction of Dr Pavel, Selina's use of the senator as an escape plan, Bane's robbery, Batman's return, his fight with Bane, Bane's revelation of the Dent deception, Bruce's escape from the prison, Bane's scheme with the bomb, the finale) are dull or overlong, and because they are frequently surprising, always inventive, always end memorably and are all skillfuly connected that we can accept the trilogy's use of comic-book logic. For example, in Batman Begins, the League of Shadows trains Bruce without once asking him if he is okay with their policy of capital punishment and their plot to destroy Gotham, and Bruce trains under them without once asking them what their actual plans are or whether they actually kill the criminals they fight (and they drop a pretty ominous hint about the latter at one point). It's not until the training is completed that Bruce realises he's been trained by a terrorist organisation, and they realise he doesn't share their terrorist beliefs. It was nearly ten years before the absurdity of this hit me: all that time together and no-one discussed politics? Crucially, it doesn't hit you while you're watching the movie. The story has been so engrossingly constructed (the intrigue of where Bruce is now, the surprising entrance of Ducard, the intrigue of the League of Shadows and how they know about Bruce, the strong screen presence of Christian Bale and Liam Neeson, the flashback rich in character detail and motivation, the increasing excitement of the training, the surprise when the League show their true colours, the excitement of Bruce asserting his moral values, the thrill of the resultant fight and escape) and fast-paced that its entertainment value holds the credibility in check. 

The Dark Knight Rises has some similarly unintentionally amusing concepts: the idea you can utterly cure a broken vertebrae by snapping it back in and leaving the patient to hang by a rope for a while, Bane managing to have a man with a broken back transported to a foreign land without killing or paralysing him and my personal favourite: the whole of Gotham's police force entering the tunnels together so that Bane can render the city police-free with one explosion. One has to approach this in the right spirit. We accept when watching musicals that people will sing even though they wouldn't in real life, and we should similarly accept that we are in a world where capes can instantly become gliders, snapped vertebrae heal better than you'd think and a city sends its entire police force into one tunnel at once. Yes, that turbine-plane thing wouldn't fly, but doesn't it look magnificent? Doesn't it just breathe cinema, just as the Batpod looks truly like the bike the Devil would ride, the ride every bike dreams of being- all the more because, as with the Tumbler and the Batpod, Nolan eschews CGI and uses full-scale models for that satisfyingly thick, blocky, tactile look. We know that someone taking a safety rope off would probably fall to their deaths, but what we lose in realism we gain in higher excitement: we are in the realms of our imagination and primal desires, and there is something liberating in throwing off real life to pay attention to what we find stirringly heroic on an instinctual level.

The trilogy is also well structured. The flanking volumes are epics, which explore Bruce's growth from child to superhero, and how the worldly and centuries-old League of Shadows come to target Gotham. The middle volume creates a different rhythm, tone and aesthetic. There's no mention of the League of Shadows or of Bruce's childhood. The focus is entirely on the escalating tension within Gotham, and Hans Zimmer's music plays a crucial role. His Joker theme is notably different from the more classical sweep of the themes throughout the trilogy, conveying the sense of wires about to snap, and creating a much more intimate sense of tension. A recurring motif throughout is the sudden jolt: the body of the wannabe Batman on a noose hitting the window (which makes me jump every time I see the film), the Joker leaning across the lorry driver to shoot at the cops, his appearing without makeup and shooting at Gordon, Batman appearing behind the Joker in the interrogation room, the nurse turning out to be the Joker. The Dent deception works because it comes right after the film's optimistic swell as the boat hostages don't kill each other. This is why The Dark Knight has an odd way of swatting aside objections despite the dodgy politics, a few flat action sequences (the Hong Kong sequence is odd, and both the opening fight and the one in Bruce's Penthouse could have been longer) and occasionally confusing points (what was that about "five people dead, three of them cops" at the end?). It creates a rhythm all of its own, which is extremely hard for sequels to do, and places it in the company of such achievements as Terminator 2, Godfather Part 2, The Road Warrior, Aliens and The Bourne Supremacy (although it's equal to none of them). 

John Blake's story is as satisfying emotively as it is disappointing politically. Nolan is particularly effective at boiling characters from the Batman comics down to their essential memorable, mythic elements, and here he reduces Robin to the name of Batman's heir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the screen presence to really sell this: compare it with the awkward moment in the last Indiana Jones movie where Shia Leboeuf tries on Indy's hat. It was clear the filmmakers had no intention of doing a Indy Jr movie just as here there's no question of a Blake-Batman movie, but the idea of Blake becoming Batman within the story-world is evocative, while the idea of Shia cracking a whip and running from boulders frankly isn't. The scene between Bruce and Blake sets up the orphan parallel nicely, and the scene where Blake roars at the police officer for putting his orders above saving the lives of children gets us rooting for Blake to take on Batman's mantle.

Christian Bale and Michael Caine are essential to the trilogy's success. Something Bale sells particularly well is the way that the warmth and humour of that relationship puts him back in touch with his humanity, preventing him from sinking into pontification and heroic self-importance. Michael Caine brings the requisite dry humour to the role, but also wears his heart on his sleeve, playing Alfred as someone who has invested so heavily in Bruce and the crumbling legacy of Thomas Wayne that he is on the verge of having nothing to live for. The scene in the third film where Alfred reveals he would often visit a cafe during Bruce's sojourn outside Gotham and daydream that he would see Bruce with a family and know he was no longer needed is genuinely touching, setting up Bruce's subsequent survival as something with real emotional kick rather than a cop-out, and the scene where Alfred tells Bruce about Rachel's letter is beautifully played by both actors.

So that's why I love these films. And that's why I don't trust anyone who doesn't dislike their politics

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