An Occupied Gotham (GF on the Dark Knight Rises)
The Dark Knight Rises is not quite the kinetic wrap up I would have liked but it’s also not at all a total debacle. My central problems with this film are really the problems I’ve had with the Batman universe as Nolan has envisioned it almost from his first film out. DC’s caped crusader is unique among the foundational superheroes because, among other attributes, he is a true vigilante defined by his NOT being aligned with the broken and corrupt bureaucracy of the state barring a cordial relationship with the avuncular Commissioner James Gordon. The problem with Nolan’s films (particularly with the second and now, most egregiously, the third installment) is that Batman essentially becomes a cop with neat toys. An agent of the state who really doesn’t so much function outside the flawed structure of the law as he does abridge and override its corrupted avenues, much of the time with help from law enforcement itself.
This wouldn’t be very problematic were the Nolan films also not coded with very timely and often overt political references. The second film saw Batman battling the Joker–who here is more or less a madman-terrorist, all while angling towards retirement and eager to hand over the reins of justice to a politician running for office (the film was also released–just like this latest in the series–during a crucial national election in the U.S.) who seems a candidate for sainthood until he becomes an unhinged psychopath. To protect this and other sordid, problematic truths, several lies were told at the end of the film by the state, and Batman, in what Nolan sold as a heroic act, created and complied with these deceptions. The third film is really a prolonged comeuppance for these very same lies. But the messages communicated through some of the imagery, particularly towards the end of the film, is more than a little unsettling. The roots for the antagonist of this final film are found in Batman Begins, which saw a covert organization attempting to bring down a Gotham City they saw as too wealthy, too excessive and too corrupt for its own good– reflecting the general critique of the American empire as it exists today.
The remnants of this organization re-emerge in The Dark Knight Rises which culminates in a scene where violent criminals appearing in the garb and symbolic place of Occupy Wall Street types unleash hell on Gotham (which, importantly, is a visual amalgamation of several American cities among which I noticed New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and even Los Angeles) while facing off against an army of policemen led by Batman. And importantly, this war occurs on Wall Street, right outside the Stock Exchange! The use of the Occupy movement, (with its roots in economic and political upheaval, its symbol as an attempt at revolution) as a visual template for an evil that must be crushed by the state’s power structure–particularly as this structure is led by The Dark Knight himself–furthers the project of assimilating Batman into a system he was meant to operate outside of–and sometimes even against! Couched as all this is in Nolan’s typical, grave tones, it’s all rather depressing if you get to thinking about it.
The first film didn’t have to carry the burden of the zeitgeist and concentrated more on creating a lovely, thoughtful new vision for a stained series. The second film, despite the problems I’ve already discussed, had the late Heath Ledger’s astonishing performance that served the dual purpose of counteracting the sagging gravity of Nolan’s universe, while bringing Batman back to his comic book roots. The third film, robbed of both of these qualities, must sustain itself on the jaw-dropping accomplishment of Nolan’s craft–defined by marvelous IMAX-filmed set pieces and a sense of scale that only the movies can offer. In an age where cinema-going is under the assault of all kinds of media delivery devices, this is reason enough to fall for this film even if all the screen space and spectacle in the world can’t save a film whose messages nag at the conscience.