Savage Knight at the Opera

by Chris Randle

When the title character first appears in The Dark Knight Rises, staggering rather than triumphantly leaping, it’s as a distorted reflection. The film’s other intimations of ambiguity prove to be far less memorable. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman charms me in spite of its shambolic flaws, because the disparate elements – Anton Furst’s anachronistic production design, the parallel Prince/Elfman soundtracks, Michael Keaton’s wry resignation, Jack Nicholson’s lascivious camp – achieve a certain idiosyncrasy, flecked through operatic pulp that’s aware of how ridiculous either lineage can be. If a John Waters character gave up on scandalizing the norms and resolved to just slaughter them instead, it might sound like Nicholson’s Joker: “Now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives.” When the “homicidal artist” spares a Francis Bacon painting from his henchman, recognizing a kindred blemish, I still laugh, partly because the moment seems ever more alien from the current wave of superhero movies. Velázquez reinterpretations, gas that makes you laugh yourself to death – neither interests a director like Christopher Nolan.

This film makes it increasingly clear that Heath Ledger’s own brilliant invocation of the character was an aberration within Nolan’s Batman trilogy – within the same movie, really, given that The Dark Knight eventually reveals his climactic plan to be moral parable rather than flamboyant spectacle. Before that tedious business with the twin ships, however, he’s the man shorn from context amidst a convoluted mythos, who delights in improvising his origins. Ledger successfully wriggled out from under Nolan’s boy-intellectual compulsion to imbue every line and action with solemn significance. Grant Morrison often writes the Joker as “super-sane,” suggesting that no one adapts to the capitalist metropolis better than a mercurial sociopath. He also thrives in any screenplay where conversation otherwise involves people exchanging aphorisms and maxims. Without that autocritical incongruity, watching The Dark Knight Rises sometimes feels like being held at mounted-cannon-point by a party’s biggest bore.

As when forced through entire backstories next to the salsa, there are distractions. The plot follows the same techno-espionage mode as Batman Begins – influenced by Denny O’Neil, who co-created the integral Ra’s al Ghul character – but eschews its unbelievable contrivances and ludicrous doomsday weapon (I did hear Carl giggling at the casual “this is now a nuclear bomb” announcement). When he’s not making habitually frenzied cuts, Nolan produces a few striking images: explosions blooming across Gotham City; Batman flickering through darkness towards a mercenary; Jonathan “Scarecrow” Crane settling into his metier as the new regime’s show-trial judge, cheerfully dispensing aribitrary executions from the summit of an unhinged, paper-heaped bureaucracy. There is also, depending on one’s tastes, the rival spectacle of Anne Hathaway’s fickle, witty Catwoman and Tom Hardy’s supermassive Bane (rewriting the etymology of “tank top”), though Nolan invariably consigns the few women to chocolate bar roles (© Margaux Williamson, 2012).

(Can we talk about how fucked up it is that Catwoman, after gulling and robbing various rich men in a quasi-romantic partnership with her female accomplice/companion, suddenly gains a new reverence for property rights + desire to date Bruce Wayne upon stumbling across this photo of a nice blonde family in their ransacked home? And how I’m not sure Nolan consciously intended any of those implications, because he understands sexuality or women or general human behaviour in similar terms as that guy who asks permission to “play devil’s advocate” at every college seminar?)

Of course, the film’s grim politics hardly end there. The Dark Knight Rises is not a direct critique or allegory of Occupy Wall Street: the script was written a year before that movement erupted, and Bane’s rhetoric, a melange of economic populism and unsubtle George W. Bush quotations, is an admitted ploy. He wants to annihilate Gotham City, not collectivize it. Yet this disingenuousness only makes the resulting scenes more reactionary, a Reign of Terror that plays out like a slasher movie – just replace the gleeful schadenfreude with dour admonishment. The citizen uprising against corrupt oligarchs descends into venal, murderous rancor immediately, as if Gotham is full of would-be Berias; later, we’re invited to cheer on a long column of cops (or, given the director’s tendencies, nod gravely) while they charge towards the revolutionaries. Nolan is too cowardly to show any of those working people who used to be redistributing fur coats among them, but it still felt appallingly fascistic. The cringing deputy commissioner even rediscovers his sense of Man-Purpose by firing wildly into a mob, at last crumpling upon the snow as some Haymarket pieta.

You could always listen to the villain instead. Heath Ledger’s voice was central to his Joker, skipping along in harlequin steps (“you’re a freak…like me!”) before clenching with terrifying fury. The original Bane is a smart brute, hulking yet calculating, and Tom Hardy magnifies that one good idea by giving him tones marvelously jaunty and genteel. His threats glint inside oblique mockery. (The film’s one politically astute line comes from Hardy’s hidden mouth: told mid-attack that the Gotham Stock Exchange holds no money, he sneers, “Then why are you here?” Invisible capital!) Along with the voice, there are moments of unnerving gentleness, as when Bane strokes his erstwhile employer’s shoulder, about to brush him from existence. Would I misread to wonder if Dark Knight Rises, a film very much in the paramilitary mode of 21st-century superhero adaptations, presents this costumed tenderness as another sign of evil? Why does Nolan think that a reactivated urban-assault prototype (formerly the Batplane) hovering overhead is a more comforting sight? Standing outside the theatre afterwards, Carl groused: “I don’t go to a Batman movie to watch people dodging missiles.”

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