In the world of fictional action, heroes are empowered to do whatever they can to hunt terrorists. The higher power in the world of fictional action is not our safety as citizens, because we aren’t a part of that world. The higher power is the Story, moving from beginning to middle to end with, hopefully, a series of exciting encounters punctuating the journey.
So we don’t care how Batman tracks down the Joker, because they’re both made up and because the people Joker is threatening aren’t real.
That’s a theory, anyway. Heath Ledger was so classic as Joker in “The Dark Knight” that even someone like me, who finds George W. Bush symbolism in everything I watch (except “Bowling for Columbine”), could dismiss how neoconservative Batman turned at the end of that flick, bugging everyone in the city of Gotham so he could track down a single terrorist.
After watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” though, I have to wonder a bit more about Batman’s politics. One of the greatest weapons a movie can have is ambiguity, and so I found it somewhat thrilling to watch the villain Bane violently take over Gotham City’s stock exchange. We see a douchey banker in a pink-tinged suit getting his shoes shined and automatically think, “That guy’s a dick.” Turns out, though, that he’s the victim here, being tossed around violently by a muscle-bound populist. The guy shining the banker’s shoes is the actual monster.
In our real world there has been much clamoring from the political left for some of the top-level bankers in this country, whose fraudulent financial packaging cratered the economy, to be prosecuted. “The Dark Knight Rises” finds lower-class city folk actually enacting brute revenge on these banker types, and it’s sobering and scary to watch.
That was my take, anyway. But check out what Matt Taibbi had to say about “Rises.” Taibbi has been covering financial and political corruption for years in Rolling Stone, and he is my single favorite reporter.
“The film doesn’t disappoint,” he wrote in the new RS, “despite its ‘message,’ which one could almost describe as a Hitlerian whack-off fantasy about an unfairly maligned billionaire who sneaks out at night in bondage masks and Kevlar underpants and uses secret military technology to beat the living shit out of the Occupy movement. Most of the ‘messaging’ in this direction is so idiotic that it goes way over the edge into unintentional comedy – like when Bruce Wayne loses his money and discovers the true meaning of poverty (he answers his own doorbell), or when ‘Batman Begins’ villain Cillian Murphy appears in a cameo to run the neo-Soviet show trials that naturally begin as soon as our billionaire protector is expelled from Gotham.”
Batman is not a lovable everyman, in Taibbi’s view, like Spider-Man or Superman, fighting to protect us against an evil few.
“The new Batman is just the opposite. He’s a brooding, self-serious douche who lives in a mansion, drives a Lamborghini and acts like he can’t even imagine wanting to get laid, unless it somehow helps him fulfill his mission of protecting Gotham from its lurking proletarian criminality. … What depresses Batman is us: our decadence, our disobedience, our refusal to appreciate and treasure the gifts of civilization given to us by noblesse oblige types like his father.”
Think about it: Wayne is years into a self-imposed exile at the beginning of “Rises,” even though his secret identity remains a secret. We’re supposed to believe it’s all because a girl he liked got killed? No way. He can’t come out of his mansion, as Taibbi puts it, because “we suck so much.”
Let’s first acknowledge what the movie’s awesome director Christopher Nolan told the same magazine previously: “We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that’s simply a backdrop for the story. What we’re really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things. It’s just telling a story.”
And now circle back to the beginning of this post. Who cares about the politics if the action’s good, right?
The action isn’t good, though. It’s kinda awful.
Batman getting totally creamed by Bane was one of the best scenes in the movie. Batman coming back at the end, able to overwhelm Bane in a straight-up fist fight, felt like criminal laziness to me. Bane’s army is warring against the cops all around them when hero and villain come together for their final battle. “What the hell is gonna happen here?” I wondered, excited.
What happened was Batman beat Bane up, punching his mask over and over again until the hulking super-ninja couldn’t keep his dukes up any more. Forget that it’s already been established, conclusively, that Batman can’t beat Bane in a fight. Grrrr.
Is that nitpicking? What about Talia Al-Ghul’s plan to spend years becoming an environmental philanthropist so she could one day seduce Bruce Wayne into giving her his entire company so she could use his fusion reactor as a nuclear bomb? That works for you? What about the time clock on a bomb that supposedly is primed to explode because the materials inside are slowly degrading? What about Batman fixing his protruding vertebrae by hanging from a rope in his cell, so that within a couple months he can rattle off hundreds of pushups and not only climb out from prison on an unclimbable wall but also, miraculously, beat up the giant ninja who easily kicked his ass and broke his back in the first place? He’s supposed to be a normal man, but in “Rises” Bruce Wayne has Wolverine’s super-powered healing abilities.
There should be some limit to the number of lame, nitpicky oddities a movie, even a “Batman” movie, is allowed to feed us. “The Dark Knight Rises” has way too many, and it doesn’t have anything like Ledger’s performance in “Dark Knight” to counterbalance all the dumb suspensions of belief we’re required.
The football field collapsing was a scene that made no sense, but still managed to be the good sort of stupid we can expect and accept from Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy. Even this, though, contained a glaring and infuriating impossibility: There is simply no way Hines Ward could ever return a kickoff for a touchdown.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is a well-made, well-acted, terrible movie. Creepy political messaging is one thing. Terrible plot devices are another. Combine them, and you’ve got something special, and especially weird.