Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

I don't think this is going to be a 2,000 word review. I mean, it's fairly obvious that I fucking loved the movie, right? Plus, the Internet is going to be on fire with Batman reviews for the next week, and essays defending or denouncing the political subtext of the film, and then a slew of essays examining the entire trilogy, weighing the efforts, and then another slew of essays interrogating the shifting political subtext of the entire trilogy. All of this talk talk talk that adds up to a gigantic market of Nolan-Batman discourse. On top of all of this, we have the tragedy in Colorado which I am fucking furious about, and I refuse to talk about the alleged gunman because to talk about him gives him what he wants. He should have his fucking name taken away from him and then be thrown in the safest most solitary prison ever constructed. I have little to add to the deafening chorus currently.

So instead of a review, I'm going to contextualize the film with personal details. Why do this? Well, I could write thousands of words teasing out meaning from subtext and making connections to theorists or greater political events in the cultural discourse. I could write hundreds of words nitpicking the gaps in logic, or the fact that Nolan doesn't quite earn the emotional payoff regarding Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne. But these are all just surface stuff and many other people are discussing this furiously in threads around the Internet.

Putting this into my life accomplishes a few things. Firstly, it immortalizes it on the Internet, mostly for my benefit and amusement, like when I read my clumsy review of The Dark Knight in 2008. It makes me laugh, but at least I attempted a stab at critical analysis. Secondly, Batman is a fairly large part of my life. I share nothing with Bruce Wayne, personality or background, but Batman holds such a grip on my imagination because he is a symbol of aspiration. Anybody can be Batman (a primary theme of the climactic film in the Dark Knight trilogy) including somebody without superpowers or doomed planets.

Because each film has been so spaced out, with the first in 2005, the second in 2008 and the last one in 2012, each film seems to stand in a specific era of my life. Batman Begins, the earliest, comes at a time when I was still in university, young and impressionable and so obviously in love with film. In 2005, I was seeing movies all the fucking time, but I was never engaging with the films. Instead, I was in a drunken stupor as comic book movie after comic book movie stumbled into cinemas. Although, even if I never engaged with the films with any skill, I could still recognize that Batman Begins was too "on the nose" with its dialogue and theme of fear. But as an atavistic experience, Batman Begins perfectly sharpened my desire for good comic book movies. The film is visceral and pummeling, the perfect thing to shake up my critical faculties.

In 2008, I was in a happy relationship, working a job I enjoyed, and returning from California. The Dark Knight (which I consider the finest of the trilogy, and remains the best superhero film ever made) perfectly captures a lot of the anxiety that the world was experiencing post-9/11 but none of this stuff touched me. I wasn't anxious or fearful; I was blissful. One might think it hard to separate the film from my experience of the film, but rest assured I have re-watched it (multiple times) and it holds up well.

Four years later, and my life is drastically different. I'm back at home, I'm single, I'm back in university, and superficially speaking, my life seems rather empty and shitty. But it's things like Batman that get me through the rough times and the good times.

A year ago, before footage was being released, before pictures and posters and whatnot, I saw the third Transformers film in the theater. I was slightly deflated by familiarity with scenes that had been in the trailer. The biggest setpieces had been spoiled for me. So I made a decision then and there. When The Dark Knight Rises begins its inexorably enormous marketing campaign, I wasn't going to watch a single frame of footage. I wasn't going to read anything about the film. I wasn't going to look at pictures. Instead, I was only going to go with the posters.

This was particularly difficult. When I saw the final Harry Potter film in the theater, I had to close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears and hum in order to avoid seeing anything. When I was in a music store last week, the trailer played on the TVs and I had to run out of the store. When the first full trailer appeared, every friend I know was discussing it. I had to keep repeating over and over that I wanted to know nothing. It would make the film feel fresh and surprising.

Did it work?

Well, I didn't need trailers or footage to amp up my excitement. For months, I keep repeating to anybody that asked if I was pumped (many people know of my fondness for Batman and Nolan's previous two Bat-films) that my expectations were measured. I said that I'm sure it will be good, but not as good as The Dark Knight. I tried to temper my expectations with rational thinking, so that I wouldn't be crushed when the final credits rolled.

Twenty years ago, my parents told me that we were going to see Batman Returns, starring Michael Keaton and Danny Devito. Since I was young, they demanded I take a nap so I would make it through the film and not be grumpy. Of course, this was practically impossible. I was far too excited to nap.

In 2012, I bought tickets for the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, and since I'm not 18 anymore (I fall asleep in movies cause I'm fucking old), I tried to take a nap. But I was far too excited to nap.

In twenty fucking years, I haven't changed. I still love Batman.

During The Dark Knight Rises, I was never bored or numbed with familiarity from previously seen footage. I was totally pumped because it was a) Batman and b) I knew nothing of the film beyond the fact that Bane and Catwoman were part of it.

I didn't know about the epic setpiece involving the football field that plays a part in all the trailers. I didn't know about Marion Cotillard's participation in the film so the revelation about her character was truly shocking (partly due to misdirection on Nolan's part).

I hadn't known about the tragedy yet. But there was no possibility of that because I was in the theater at the same time as the victims.

But because my childlike fascination with Batman and my stubborn experiment to see a blockbuster without knowing anything, I was entertained. The Dark Knight Rises, even with some major flaws, managed to meet and in some ways exceed my expectations. It's a clever synthesis of the two primary themes of the previous two films, making it truly the climax of a larger story, the story of a city and the individual brave enough to protect it: from terrorism, from decay and stagnation, from terrorism in the form of Ra's Al Ghul, The Joker and Bane.

Is Tom Hardy's Bane as good as the other villains? Many people will say no, that Heath Ledger's Joker is still the best. But Bane is good in a different way. Every time he was on screen, I was hypnotized. His portrayal of Bane, in both physical terms and in his voice, are utterly mesmerizing and magnetic. He absolutely rules the screen when in the frame. Plus, this particular Bane is cunning, scarily so. Instead of being a force of chaos (as with the Joker), in this film, he represents a contrasting power to Batman's representation of order.

What happens when one status quo is upended by a new status quo, one also made of rigid order and structure? The film tells us that sometimes structures can be shackles (another instance of the films being sometimes too on the nose). This systemic fallibility speaks to my particular interests academically speaking. Yet again, Nolan's Batman films speak to me as they've been released. The entire trilogy tells of economic hardship and class warfare across decades, mirroring my own mobilization across class strata. On top of that, the subtext of each film draws on specific interests (economic disparity, post-9/11 anxiety, terrorism, justice) that inform my academic pursuits.

It's absolutely fascinating to me that Nolan's trilogy takes regular comic book villains and turns them into avatars of terrorism. The idea of terrorism, while not new, has come to dominate the military discourse and the cultural zeitgeist. The reaction to this is a re-entrenchment of escapist literature. Nolan's reaction to this resurgence of escapism is to assault our fears of terrorism with terrorism. And how he accomplish this? With a film about facing our fears. It's built into the very themes of the entire trilogy.

The Dark Knight Trilogy (if so called that) are one of cinema's greatest achievements. All three films, while flawed, stand as one of the best three act stories ever committed to the screen. A lot of people consider The Lord of the Rings to be the greatest trilogy, and it's certainly a monumental technical achievement. But it hardly says something about our current era. Nolan took one of the 20th century's most exposed characters and turned him into a symbol of our known experience (my own experience) and of our current era.

Not only is it thrilling cinema, but it manages to say something fundamentally fascinating and intelligent about the anxiety of the modern world. This is something that other trilogies have yet to accomplish with the same level of quality and craft.

Let me conclude by reiterating that I don't think The Dark Knight Rises is perfect by any means, but I did love it. The score is booming, the acting is great, the direction thrilling, the screenplay engaging and the ending satisfying enough. I'll no doubt do a huge marathon one day, watching all three, but I will revisit The Dark Knight Rises multiple times (including tomorrow when I go see it in IMAX).

You can no doubt guess that an academic work by me on Nolan's trilogy is in the works. I will probably end up doing my PhD on terrorism, 9/11, postmodernism and Batman.

My Twitter followers probably hate me. I've been non-stop tweeting about the movie since... well... a long time. Here are a bunch of tweets from the past week or two.

This one comes from the drive home after seeing it.

This is right before the film is about to start.

The next day.

Oh boy.

There are more Batman tweets from me. Like this one:

I had just written 2,700 words on The Dark Knight and capitalism. Ah, me.

I suppose we should keep in mind that Batman is a fictional character, but his very existence as a character inspires me and other people to maybe not be better people, but to think about the world in a different way. Batman is an aspirational figure, a symbol of the fantasy of escaping the postmodern condition. Because of this fantasy, he is inspirational. He inspires me to write, to think, to imagine another world, one without guns and without killing and without escalation and without injustice. Batman is my favourite superhero, with or without Christopher Nolan, but I thank him for the trilogy nonetheless.

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