Thursday, 9 August 2012

How Far Has He Risen III: Think Of The Children

Last post on Dark Knight Rises, and then I promise I'll shut up.  This, as mentioned in the previous post, is my attempt at an analysis of the film's subtext which is both more plausible than my earlier offer, but also harder to justify.  In other words, this is either a sloppily assembled film with a reasonable message, or a precisely constructed film with a deeply offensive one.

Again, spoilers below the fold, but in brief (and thanks to runalongwomble and geekplanetmatt on Twitter for some useful comments): this is a film simultaneously about the dangers of avoiding confrontation, entering into confrontation, and focusing on confrontation.  It's the five Ws of punching, in other words.

We can't go anywhere with this, though, until we define what we mean by "confrontation" in this context.  Indeed, one of the most major points the movie seems to want to make it that Bruce Wayne's problem is that his definition of confrontation is ridiculously narrow. Both Alfred and Lucius try to point out that he's too focused on the next war to either enjoy peacetime, or work to improve peacetime.  Refusing to give nuclear fusion to the world just in case some terrorist tries to weaponise it is the clearest example of that.  Wayne is refusing to gift the world the most important development since electricity because he's scared it will be badly used.  The risk of lives lost in a new war trump the certainty of lives saved in a world with effectively limitless energy.

My point is that hunger and poverty need to be confronted too, and Wayne doesn't see that.  He's achieved his goal of bringing peace to Gotham, and maintaining that peace is the only thing that really interests him.  If it can't be hit with a batamarang, Wayne isn't interested.

That, of course, is how the orphanage he was funding ran out of cash: he had no interest in checking up on his (admittedly voluntary) peacetime obligations.  If he isn't punching someone, he's thinking about the next time he's going to punch someone.  Remember that, because we'll come back to it later.

At the other end of the scale we have Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley, a man so desperately invested in peacetime he'll go to considerable lengths to deceive himself about how precarious Gotham's situation has become.  The film helpfully flags up every occasion in which he's stuck in a corner of his own head, quivering in fear, because the word "hothead" comes out of his mouth.  Once the reality of the situation truly hits home, and by "reality" I mean "terrorist army", he hides out in his house and sends his wife to answer the door.

Commissioner Gordon is fairly disgusted by Foley's behaviour, but of course good ol' Jim is hardly free from blame on the conflict aversion front.  In his case, it's his failure to fight against the deification (a process which always morphs into political manipulation) of Harvey Dent, which has led to ultra-harsh sentencing laws.

All of which is just fine, except in all three cases the film sticks the landing. Bruce's fear about nuclear fusion being used as a weapon immediately becomes true.  When Foley is shamed into leading the GPD into battle with Bane's minions (nothing like running screaming towards dudes with automatic weapons; good job that if the terrorists had been offered shit, none of them could shoot for it), he's gunned down almost immediately.  That guy had a wife and kids!  What's the message here, exactly?  It's important to step up and do your part, even if that just means being killed for no appreciable gain, and leaving your family distraught?

And what are we supposed to be taking away from Gordon's actions?  That the Dent Bill wasn't worth the cost of denying prisoners' rights? Why didn't that second part get mentioned until halfway through the film?  Why does Blake seem to be implying that locking people up and throwing away the key would be just fine and dandy if it was being done in the name of a dead guy who was a shining beacon of virtue for his whole life, rather than his whole life minus a day or two?

This is one reason why I find the film so confused; it doesn't like the idea of either withdrawing from, ignoring, or rigging a fight, but the characters who are persuaded not to do any of those things (with the exception of Catwoman) either screw it up, get nothing out of it, or lead to scenes which are just plain confusing.

Leaving Foley and Gordon aside, though, we can salvage this with respect to Batman at least.  Of all people, it's the orphaned kids who reveal what's really going on here.  All they want is for Batman to come back and kick Bane in the face.  Indeed, at that point of the film, it's pretty much all we want as well (some may also have some interest in seeing Anne Hathaway stretch out across that ludicrous motorbike again).  But though their lives are saved when Batman arrives to do just that, it's not until they get a whizzo new orphanage to play in that their lives really improve.  Gotham needs a Batman for when the bullets start flying, and a Bruce Wayne for when the smoke clears.  The question the film poses, and doesn't entirely manage to answer, is how we fight the battles where there is nothing to punch.

This is where Bane's revolution fits in.  Like Batman, Bane is incapable of imagining a problem which he can't solve by snapping someone's neck.  Indeed, having spoken last time about how easily this film can be considered Republican-friendly, one can also read Bane as a stinging critique of the American right, in that he represents the default Republican response to a crisis - trying to work out who to shoot, or threaten to shoot, or cast out of the country - applied to a problem the Republicans have put no effort into solving precisely because their standard tactics can't be employed. [1]

That's the message here.  People like to have an enemy they can attack, or have their friends attack, but the really tough battles are the ones where violence is never going to be of use.  And neither Bane nor Batman get that at the start of the film (I said we'd come back to this).  Wayne's arc through the film is to learn that he has enemies to fight in-between attacks from twisted villains - though the fact that the film spends so much time on him fending off attacks from twisted villains rather buries the message. 

In short, the film wants us to know that no-one should ever be on the sidelines, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as a crappy game plan, and that the worst thing you can do is get so fixated on making sure nothing can go wrong that you ignore the possibility of being able to make things better.  Which, when you think about it, is the very root of where conservatism goes wrong. Which idiot was trying to claim this was right-wing propaganda, anyway?

[1] Well, that and being far too cosy to Wall Street, and having no interest in tackling any problem which the President might get credit for helping fix.


DeannaT said...

I got a bit lost in your conclusions. But my take was that it was about having to make decisions and that it might not always work out; they might be wrong or flawed, or end badly, but they need to be made. And also the less confusing points about not be so afraid of getting things wrong that you don't try/live

SpaceSquid said...

I agree that that was what the film thought it was saying, but it ended up something of a muddle. As I say with regard to Foley, for instance, it's hard to view his joining the attack as being about how he needed to make that decision, given he acheived absolutely nothing other than bereaving his family.

Chris said...

You should watch the Baader-Meinhof Complex, if you haven't already. It's the Dark Knight rises done properly, but from the point of view of Bane's gang and Batman both understands his responsibilities as Bruce Wayne and is played by Hitler from Downfall (Who I think might be German Patrick Stewart).

Llama God said...

Given that I de-railed Facebook to talk about the soundtrack I thought I'd say something relevant here...

So yes, the film is slightly confusing, but only if you attempt to derive a single, coherent meaning to it. And should you? (And no, I'm not just saying we should blindly forgive lazy storytelling here. Bear with me.)

The actual setup of Batman is problematic, and possibly something of an anachronism now. As you point out, he's a rich kid with lots of money, and although he's *supposed* to be the good guy, he does dick around with his money a lot. But that's always been the setup of Batman - that's in his character. So already the film-makers were kinda tied - you can't make a scathing comment on modern society and the rich when one of your main characters is - and *has* to be - one of those self-same rich.

Instead what I think the film does is present these scenarios, and then questions them (as Alfred does to Bruce), and then leaves the viewer to make up their own mind. Sure, the story ends up in a certain place, but it kind of has to do that. But that doesn't mean it gets there in the right way, and it doesn't necessarily have to get to the right place either. With the decisions of each of the main (anachronistic) characters being questioned throughout the film, the viewer is encouraged to think about it themselves.

After all, isn't that part of the point of art, being made to think? If the film presented the answers as being canonical "right" and "wrong" then it'd just be preaching religion...

Llama God said...

Hmm. I've just realised that my above comment makes this whole discussion somewhat circular, and is therefore utterly pointless. I guess this is what happens when I spend all day looking at meta-models...

SpaceSquid said...

In general, I agree with you, Llama. But there's a difference between a film that raises questions that it doesn't answer (which is fine) and film that raises questions and then seems to answer them at random.

Even that can work. The Mist, for example, basically offers a whole host of ways for one to deal with the apocalypse, and then just seems to randomly decide which people survive or don't.

I think, in the end, that it's just that the film feels like it's trying to say something, but keeps tripping over itself. I realise that that's a pretty hand-wavey statement, but we know Nolan is capable of some fairly heavy-handed use of undercurrents (as in Insomnia, for instance), which makes me prone to think something is genuinely trying to be said here.

Of course, all that might be wrong. It's still fun to try and figure it out.

I'm not sure I'd phrase a film with a coherent subtext as presenting something as canonically "right", but I take the point that at least politically speaking, it's difficult to not see it that way. Even so, there's nothing to stop a film maker providing varying viewpoints over several films, and I'm pretty sure some have done just that.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I don't know how long it takes to make a film, so I don't know how likely more recent events are to influencing this one.. but, is Bane's revolution a condemnation of the Occupy movement as being criminally motivated (even though there may be elements of truth to their conspiracy theories)?

SpaceSquid said...

That's an interesting theory, but shooting for the film wrapped only two months after Occupy Wall Street came into existence, so I don't think it can work.

Jamie said...

I see what you're saying Llama, but I'd disagree that you can't make a scathing comment about the rich if your protagonist is one of their ilk. He can be considered an outlier to the general trend, so there's no reason to suggest that the film cannot indict the wealthy upper-classes whilst at the same time holding Wayne up as a hero.

I would also agree that your comment is a little circular :) Art is there to be considered critically, but any critic who suggests their interpretation of the text is canonical and allows for no alternatives is probably somewhat self-deluded.

Chemie said...

Have you tried reading the 'Source Material'? The writers based huge chunks on the film on Broken Bat, Contagion and Legacy. Contagion inparticular is basically 'Gotham goes feudal-war-lord/ Mad Max'. The point of that arcs however wasn't a right wing agenda. It was 'When it all goes bad, weak people turn to strong/mad leaders'.

SpaceSquid said...

Batman is actually my favourite DC character, and I have read no fewer than twenty-two comics about him.

So, no, not really. Certainly none of the three you mention. Interesting point about Contagion, though. There's certainly more than a whiff of "people pointing at others to solve everything" about the film, though, which one could fit into my framing about peacetime actions and wartime actions. If Batman faked his own death to stop people relying on him, that would make some sense in that context, though it's not at all clear from what we saw that such was the case.