Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Troubled superheroes for troubled times

I went to see The Dark Knight Rises recently. Now, I'm far from being a movie critic, so I can't really review the movie in the way most critics would. My thoughts can be summarised as: very good movie, bit too long, better than Batman Begins but not as good as The Dark Knight (which has the Heath Ledger Joker factor). The aggregate score assigned to the movie on Metacritic is probably about right, in my view.

Batman looking as cheerful as ever, yesterday (Photo courtesy of marvelousRoland on Flickr)

I'm a massive Batman fan. I care about how the franchise is treated, and its subsequent cultural reputation. So when Joel Schumacher went to the toilet on the Caped Crusader's chest in 1997, I was furious, even though I was only 14 at the time. So hurrah for Christopher Nolan, for rehabilitating Batman, saving him from the garish campness of the original Adam West series, and taking Batman back to his dark roots.

But far from being a nostalgic harkening back to the original Bob Kane comics, these movies very much feel like they could only have been made today. Both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were released in sombre, post-credit crunch years. For instance, when Bane incites Gotham's downtrodden underclass to riot against the mega rich, there are overtones of the 2011 UK riots.

Parallels with Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities have also been drawn, not least by Nolan himself. The themes prevalent in that novel: the dangers of revolution without viable solutions, nihilistic martyrdom, letting the darkness in one's soul stopping one from living, are masterfully updated so as to be recognisably 21st century.

Photo courtesy of Craig Elliott on Flickr

Think also of the unpredictable anarchy of the Joker in The Dark Knight. For me, the defining moment comes when he talks to a disfigured, restrained Harvey Dent on a hospital bed in Gotham Central Hospital. Distinguishing himself from "schemers who try to control their little worlds", he points out to Dent how no one panics if things go according to plan, "even if the plan is horrifying". When he introduces his unpredictable brand of anarchy, though, "everyone loses their minds".

We live in very uncertain times. Today, the news came through that the UK GDP has dropped by 0.7% in the last three months. Political instability and civil war ravages many countries. We all face the future filled with dread and doubt. And this makes us uncomfortable indeed: what plans can we make? Only horrifying ones, most likely.

Not even Batman can transcend his cultural, social, political and economic surroundings. But for all the darkness in his heart, he is a flawed emblem of hope. He doesn't go round dropping cheesy one liners when he offs the bad guys (well, not very often). He has to deal with the unbearable heaviness of being a troubled hero in troubled times. In these dark days, the dark knight is the hero we need and deserve. 


  1. Bravo for a thoughtful review. I actually couldn't choose which of the trilogy I think is best, since I enjoy them all for specific reasons, but the thing I do love equally about them all is their reflection of our modern troubles. Batman is indeed a symbol of hope - someone who can do something great by taking responsibility for his own and others' suffering.

  2. Yeah, I agree. He brings about the redemption of Gotham by first overcoming his own personal demons.

    And for me, as a self-contained movie, The Dark Knight is the best. Mostly because of the Joker.

  3. Loved the Dark Knight Rises and am decidedly against the notion that one film should be compared to another being that in a trilogy, the second act is always going to be more interesting. This is where things fall apart quite literally, a chaos.

    It must be said, The Joker is a control freak in disguise - his speech on schemers is in itself a plan to tip Harvey over the edge of reason. Agree or disagree? I would say that Rises has a novel spin on the reluctant superhero motif in that his reasons for returning begin with his love interest (Cat-Woman). He could have left it to the police to track her but then, he has little faith in the police even after the apparent clean up of the force, and yeah it is his mothers pearls she nicked but still, he dons the costume not out of any notion of nobility for all but because he is focussed on Kyle/personal (re)gain.

    In retrospect, I would have preferred if Nolan pushed Bale to show a compulsion for the suit. In the graphic novel The Dark Knight Return's Alfred points out to a retired Bruce Wayne that he has started shaving again. This would have been great on-screen. What dya reckon people?

  4. Hi John,

    I see what you mean about the second act of the trilogy often being the most narratively (is that a word?) compelling, if only because it isn't hampered by the need to start or finish things off, and can bring in more elements of ambiguity and uncertainty.

    Not sure if the Joker is a 'control freak', unless you give his role in the film a deconstructive reading: i.e. in seeking to undermine something, he ends up borrowing from its central tropes. He's so dangerously unpredictable because he instigates scenarios that not even he can confidently predict the outcome of.

    Interesting take on Batman as reluctant superhero. A lot of it is indeed his personal redemption: it's repeatedly implied in the film, not least by Alfred, that he's on the road to self destruction and seems rather eager to embrace it. Maybe he's like this because he's weary of having given Gotham so much, and had so very little in return? But ultimately, what (SPOILER ALERT) enables him to escape from the cavern where he's trapped by Bane is his determination to save Gotham.

  5. I still haven't watched it, but your blog post's really well thought out and I like the way you draw on the parallels with current affairs. I really have to read a Tale of Two Cities, as it's the only Dickens novel I've never picked up...somehow seemed bleak, but given that I read a lot of YA dystopian novels now that doesn't seem like a reason not to read it any longer.

  6. Thanks Katja. What with Cloud Atlas as well, it sounds like you have a bit of reading to be getting on with!

  7. Tell me about it! I think I best take a reading break at some point so I can write :-)

  8. As regards to your take on my take of the Joker (!) - yes, he does borrow from the 'schemers' in The Dark Knight if only because he has no rules. At least, his perpetuation of his anarchic way of being serves as a counter weapon to Batman's primary propagandist tool - fear. But then we've always known this, that The Joker isn't insane at all, he just knows the power of a great mind fuck when applied with a hyper conviction.

    The parallel with Batman is obvious and this little analysis leads nicely to another point about 'Rises'...Bane is a great cinematic portrayal because of how much the gross public conciousness has no fixed expectations. The Joker was played exceptionally well by Jack Nicholson, so well that it would take a drastic re-thinking to wrap his tempter/satanic archetypal force around another actor. Enter Heath Ledger. So when Nolan chose Bane as a bad guy I was initially displeased because he isn't an old member of Batman's rogues gallery.

    How dumb am I?

    Not only was Nolan seemingly letting character follow theme, not only was he interested in challenging Batman's superhero martial arts skill set, Nolan was effectively giving Hardy leeway to create a character whereas someone like The Riddler is expected to act in a certain way. Let's face it, The Mad Hatter, The Penguin, The Riddler, all these insane warped versions of Batman - they have too much in common with The Joker's way of being. We didn't want The Dark Knight part 2, not really. Imagine the disappointment of such backward thinking if Depp/Dicaprio/whoever had been cast as The Riddler? Watch Batman Forever (if you dare) and see the pointlessness of Tommy Lee Jones' Two Face. Watch it. Look how his performance is an analogue rendition of Jack Nicholson's Joker.

    I still think (and it took me sometime to reach this decision, hence the time between comments here) that Bruce Wayne could have exhibited more compulsion to become Batman. The most unhinged we see him is when he shoots the arrow at Selina Kyle. After that he is supposedly a walking deadman until the suit goes back on. My point is that I wanted to see the transition.

    Your thoughts on all of this please ;)