Why do I like Nolan’s Batman movies? Why have I anticipated each one so much, taking part in their taxing spectacle with the unflinching glee of a 5 year old? Why do I lose myself in them, only to be found again, truer but sadder, inspired but overwhelmed, like waking from the dream to a hopeful but incomplete imitation? The series is, after all, predicated on a number of ridiculous things that no one would seriously discuss among serious people. And there are so many things to be serious about these days. How can I tell myself with a straight face that The Dark Knight Rises should be one of them?
The three Batman films have gripped me in deeply personal and sincere ways. I saw the first in the early summer going into my senior year in high school. I saw the second after finishing up my sophomore year of college (at the University of Pittsburgh coincidently enough). This time I’ve been out in the real world for just over two years now. Batman Begins showed me that cinema spectacle unadulterated by Hollywood consensus was still possible. The Dark Knight showed me that I could still be as entranced by fantastical story telling as I was in my early teens and before. And The Dark Knight Rises has forced upon me a reality I would rather not acknowledge: the Nolan Batman films are over, the stakes in the real world for maintaining order or devolving into chaos are higher than when this journey began, and my façade of dream fueled escapism becomes harder to muster, to give myself over to, with each passing year.
As a film, The Dark Knight Rises succeeds more then it fails, which is a hedged way of saying it was awesome, but not immune to criticism (including some very trenchant ones). It has a lot of responsibilities. It is a summer blockbuster, a comic book movie, and the conclusion of a trilogy several years in the making.
In many ways it takes what is best about The Dark Knight (with the exception of the unrepeatable performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker) and applies it with skill informed by experience.
I have (at the time I am first writing this) just seen the Dark Knight Rises. I was, and am, if you couldn’t already surmise, completely blown away by the movie. There is clunky dialogue, uneconomical plot development, and themes that often feel scatterbrained. But the movie is never clumsy. And when the main protagonist is a man running, driving, and flying around in technologically roided out bat costume, that is no small thing.
Politically, many are reading the movie as a passively conservative (or according to some: fascist) manifesto against class warfare or anarchistic populism that would seek to upset the status quo. But while there certainly are those sentiments, there are many others as well, expressed by different characters, at different times, in such a way that no clear political manifesto could ever be distilled from its many conflicting conceits.
There is a sustainable clean energy device that could power a city with little apparent (at least in the meantime) downside. It was developed by a corporation, but, I think we can assume, with help from other investors, including the government. But the project never sees the light of day because the threat of its weaponization is too much for its chief visionary to contemplate.
Rich people throw charity balls that are extravagant and tragically ironic. But such, one character argues, is a necessary component of opening up the hearts of otherwise narrowly self-centered oligarchs. It is through events like this that, to take one prominently displayed example, an orphanage for disadvantaged boys receives enough funding to give its kids certain basic luxuries (like a couple hours of television each day).
However, the bankers and traders and trust fund socialites are far from sympathetic, and the movie seems to make a point of tolerating their largess with a pinched nose and repulsed grimace for the slight benefits it results in; an inadequate solution that is at least, for the time being, apparently better than nothing. And even the rich, heroic, and technologically gifted cannot save everyone, even most of the time. The movie suggests more than once that Batman and Bruce Wayne remain only a part of the larger social strategy that is necessary to help society flourish rather than decay, and perhaps a temporary one at that.
As far as comic books go, The Dark Knight Rises almost seamlessly sutures the ridiculous, serialized, over the top antics of the genre into an otherwise completely familiar world, one that looks and feels like home as much for its cosmic indifference as its human structures and 21st century artifacts.
Borrowing from source material that is over 70 years old, The Dark Knight Rises must walk several fine lines. It does not always do so gracefully. It does so without stumbling or falling though. As a fan of comic books, but also specifically of Batman (I have bought and still buy the comics, have played and still play the video games, have watched and will continue to watch the animated series) there are many recognizable allusions to more than one iteration of the character (including the Mad Men era version of Catwoman, nodds to No Man’s Land, and of course, Knightfall).
Nolan adds his own to the mythos by imbuing the character of Batman with certain possibilities that hitherto had not been as thoroughly or believably explored in the rest of the literature. Purists might be put off by some of Nolan’s creative decisions, but much like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman have each done in the past, Nolan (with his brother and Goyer) has initiated a chain of new potentialities that would have been as much of a narrative landmark for the series had it been rendered in a graphic novel, as it has in being a cinematic trilogy.
Above anything else I wanted to love The Dark Knight Rises. Good or bad, nearly every fiber of my spirit was bent on enjoying the movie, and not just being entertained, but dizzied and awestruck as well. Why this is the case puzzles me though. It is so unlike me in other media contexts. There are few TV shows I truly admire, most movies are, in my humble opinion, either crap, or extremely overrated. The same goes for video games: I love to hate on them, most of all because it’s so easy and so few others who care about them like I do, seem willing to.
So why the unrelenting “fanboy” reverence for these films? I think this is in part because of how incredulously they mix existentially fated heroics challenged by arational nihilism with an unabashed celebration of humanity and compassion. They make me feel awful about the world, but then optimistic about its redemption, or at least the redemption of those who would be brave among us.
It is grounded in a way that The Avengers is not (and does not try to be). In this manner it inspires by diverting us away from the everyday to one of its exaggerated counterparts, recoded in a new language for us to learn and then decipher with a mix of terror and playfulness. There’s Batman and his technology, Batman and his code of ethics, Batman and his psychological baggage, Batman the merciless, Batman the scrupulous, Batman born of privilege, Batman founded on tragedy, and on, and on, and on.
Which is to say that Batman wears many different masks, like we all do, resisting simple definition and social confinement to any one, or two, or even three of those categories. Rich people aren’t just rich people. Bad people aren’t just bad people. Everyone remains a transient in their own life, a spectrum of potential flourishing, and of evil-doing, and of cowardice.
Which leaves this very sad note which has tempered the thrill of last night and this morning’s sleep-deprived high. I don’t usually feel comfortable getting worked up over tragedies like these. They make me think first of the people who die on a regular basis that do not elicit even a tenth of this kind of attention or grief. And anger and frustration than boils over and curdles what would be a more appropriate mixture of human sentiments. It is an ugly thing, and I am not much good at resisting it.
Today that is not the case though. Something about this morning, still dreamy eyed over being in a theater with hundreds of people, alongside other theaters with hundreds more people, with people from other places and other backgrounds, filled with boundless other complexities and human foibles, filled with equal excitement, shared and in unison, all oriented around someone in a cape, confronts me as breath-takingly striking. It makes me feel more connected to those around me, to those not around me, to those like me breathing in the world, and exhaling themselves into it, and to those who can no longer do these things.
There’s still so much bumping around up in my head that I need more time to process (i.e. I’ll have a more thorough analysis at some point). Both the movie (I’ll be seeing it again) but also the strangeness and sorrow of what happened in Aurora. To see fandom, one of purer forms of secular ritual and communal payer, be perverted in this way is in some ways personally devastating; a challenge to the childish things I esteem, what they mean, and how death makes their inflated value feel shameful.