Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why the Dark Knight Rises

This post contains many extreme spoilers for the movie Dark Knight Rises, and should only be read by those who have seen the film.  And everbody should see this film.

The critical consensus of Dark Knight Rises seems to be "Really good movie...but not as good as the last one."  The consensus on the villain Bane seems to be "Really scary dude...but not as compelling as Heath Ledger's Joker."  I'm on record as disliking the resolution of the previous movie, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I disagree with the critical consensus.  More than one review I read expressed disappointment in the lack of complexity to Bane's character, particularly his supposedly underdeveloped motivation for wreaking havoc.  Interestingly, this was also a charge that critics levelled at the Avengers' antagonist, Loki.  In both cases, I disagree.  I've previously established why I think Loki was effectively portrayed.  As for Bane--I actually think his motivations are more interesting to contemplate than the Joker's.

The Joker was simply a nihilist, one who was personally offended that anyone would invest in trying to build or maintain order in society.  Should anyone succeed in bringing order to society, that would mean either one of two things--the builder was engaging in a game of deception, or there really is meaning to existence.  If the former, the builder deserves punishment.  If the latter, the foundational philosophy of the nihilist is upset, his very identity is pulverized, and he must lash out in self-defence.  So there is a kind of cold logic that drives the Joker.  But because he claims to be an agent of disorder, he deconstructs himself.  In his hospital bedside speech to Harvey Dent, he railed against "schemers"...even though the movie begins with a portrayal of the Joker's elaborate bank heist scheme.  Really, the only thing that makes the Joker interesting at all is his theatrics.  There is nothing worth caring about in his speech.  By the end of the movie, one doesn't even care how he got his scars.

All of the other characters--heroes, villains, and supporting characters-- in Christopher Nolan's mythos are much more interesting because they are not nihilists.  And many of them are interesting because they are all driven by some kind of loyalty.  I would venture to say that this is not the case in most narratives.  It's easy to tell stories about people who are motivated by self-interest.  So most storytellers will concoct scenarios which will require people to make decisions in the name of self-interest, and then deal with consequences when their interests are at odds with someone else's.

In the Batman stories, though, few of the characters have any kind of self-interest.  Self-denial is such a staple of the trilogy that it begins with Bruce Wayne making a pilgrimage to Bhutan to train in what is essentially an ashram.  We are talking about a main protagonist who is a billionaire that doesn't care about wealth.  His entire identity is subsumed by his loyalty to his parents, to ensuring that their vision for Gotham City is realized.

And this is why the emergence of Talia al-Ghul as the ultimate villain of the trilogy is so masterful.  She is motivated by the exact same thing.  Like Batman, she takes on a false identity so that she can more faithfully execute her design--to ensure that her father's vision for Gotham City is realized.

The other supporting characters fall in line behind the wills of these two prime movers.  The supporting heroes--"Robin" and Gordon especially, are loyal to Batman's vision for Gotham.  Bane is loyal to Talia. Catwoman becomes a hero when she finally learns the art of self-denial and surrenders herself to a greater cause (a storyline that also plays out in the narrative arc of deputy commissioner Foley).

So in the end, the good guys and the bad guys are driven by the same character trait.  The only thing that separates them is what (or who) they are loyal to.  Batman had to learn some hard lessons along the way--his Machiavellian scheme at the end of Dark Knight rightfully blew up in his face.  Once you start sacrificing "truth" in order to promote "justice," you end up with neither "truth" or "justice," but with the faux peace that eventually leads to terrorist states like Bane's.  But like Bruce learned so many times in his life--we fall so that we might learn to better pick ourselves up.

And the final lesson of Dark Knight Rises is that once loyalties are properly assigned and a process of self-denial has been completed, there is space for self-affirmation.  The trilogy ends with Bruce Wayne not in an ashram, but at an outdoor cafe in Paris.  The Batman lives on, but so does Bruce.  The best of both worlds--a tantalizing promise which The Dark Knight Rises masterfully presents.


Blogger Michael Lutzke said...

I've gone to see the movie and i completely agree with you. The movie is perfect to even how the comic books described bane.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Michael Lutzke said...

Im surprised you didn't quote batman begins line .. "we fall down so we can learn to pick ourselves up again."

4:52 PM  
Blogger Mr. Twister said...

Wouldn't you say that at least the last two Batman movies are about the inherent goodness in man? To direct a movie in which a boat load of convicts summons their inner goodness to the point where the biggest and scariest one throws the explosive trigger off the boat is more than a cliched Hollywood moment- it's a fantasy that no Lutheran could believe.

11:57 PM  

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