Can The Dark Knight Rises Deliver?
With 2005’s Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan not only relaunched a franchise still reeling from the fantastic failure that was the ill-conceived Batman: Forever, he breathed new life into the comic movie genre. With 2008’s The Dark Knight, he oversaw Heath Ledger’s anguished, legendary portrayal of the iconic villain of the Batman universe, the Joker. The expectations set by Mr. Nolan’s prior success seem impossible to meet. Third acts are notoriously difficult to deliver and cinema history is littered with flops and failures. History aside, The Dignified Devil is optimistic.
As well-established throughout the various incarnations of the Batman franchise, Bruce Wayne/Batman is something more of a vigilante than hero. He is consumed by the inequities of his world, vindictive and brutal. Even in the cartoonish Adam West television series, Batman is an expression of physical might against various forms of social usurpers. He is no champion of ideals or protector of a coherent political philosophy. Batman’s primary interest is justice as defined by retribution.
The brilliance of Batman Begins is how artfully the creation of the anti-hero is dramatized. Bruce Wayne’s transformation is painful and psychotic but hauntingly endearing. His inability to make sense of the world he wakes up to, a world where his civic-minded father can be mercilessly gunned down for whatever objects of value he just happens to carry, mirrored our own post-9/11 conflicts with a coherent American ideology. Violence as the expression of his grief works marvelously well for the tortured heir, however, echoing our own mixed results with the shock-and-awe therapy treatments, it cannot sustain him.
Juxtaposed with the sheer madness of Ledger’s terrifying Joker, Batman’s philosophical vacuity is made stunningly apparent. His symbol represents a violent response to whatever ails you, a fact he knows all too well as he nominates Harvey Dent to be what he so clearly is not. Harvey’s failure seals Batman’s fate and delivers on Dent’s oft-quoted prophesy; Batman’s survival reduces him to a villain. While The Dark Knight is not without its flaws, the dramatic rise of the villain makes for compelling cinema and a fitting second act. What then do we anticipate in the finale?
Nolan’s preoccupation with the destruction of society haunts nearly everything he has set to film in his career. Buildings are in a perpetual state of demolition, raining down upon the helpless hordes they once housed and protected. His characters are desperate to maintain the structures they have depended on, but rarely do so with any discernible success. Since the release of The Dark Knight the world has suffered financial calamities of varying degree and often tied to the immoral, criminal conceit of a few greedy villains. Societies are fractured by economic disparity and conflicting conceptions of what positive government is built on. Where a Superman film would cast bad guys in clear and simple terms, oppressive but unable to prevail against the supernatural powers of a traditional hero, we expect a more nuanced, complex response from Nolan and Batman.
Beyond the prerequisite collection of destruction action sequences and intensely violent clashes, The Dark Knight Rises must address the fractured spirit of a divided America. We will undoubtedly cheer Batman out of loyalty to his commitment to us (no matter how convoluted) but we will not find redemption in his victories. He is no hero, and we are not so naïve as to expect him to be. We expect Batman to be a grand expression of violence for all its intended good and predictable ill. We expect mindless destruction answered with mindful destruction, blended in characters whose motives are incomprehensible, but fascinating nonetheless. We expect to despair at the overwhelming gloom of the mounting carnage, but to find redemption in our ability to persist against hopelessness. This, in the end, is what Batman teaches us, to fight for what we have, no matter how flawed it may be.