Reflections on The Dark Knight Rises

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises for many reasons, not the least of which is Hans Zimmer’s ominous and expectant musical score.  Like the preceding entries of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the film is rich with the timeless tensions we face both as individuals and as a society. And though some have denied it, it can be read as a social commentary relevant to the divisions that rend our world today. Here are some observations on my part.

Rebuking Revolution

One strand of Rises’ plot sees Gotham City, a self-contained symbol for society, undergo the trial of revolution. There is a scene clearly meant to evoke, in a twisted way, the storming of the Bastille at the onset of the French Revolution. We also witness the workings of a kangaroo court, another French legacy replicated by Marxists and other would-be world changers.

On facebook I’ve seen at least one anarchist express a sense of betrayal and disappointment with Christopher Nolan for what he saw as a manifestly reactionary tone. Yet, the varied dispositions of Gotham’s denizens, from apathetic to licentious, continually tease the viewer with the idea that Gotham might not be worth saving.  This tension, as with the previous films, is at the crux of the narrative itself. Rises certainly airs out the ugliness and excess of revolution, but it is not authoritarian agitprop.

The Thin Blue Line – Campus Observations

For any Hollywood production, it’s refreshing when the police are not the all-out bad guys.  Of course this makes for an awkward tension with cinema’s core consumer, the disaffected adolescent male. But just as Batman puts himself on the line to do what is necessary and right, so it is good that self-indulgent audiences get a dose of reality as to who and what holds civilization together.

One way I survive working on a liberal university campus is listening to podcasts. The other day I had to get new ear buds for my personal player, so I traversed the student union to reach the campus bookstore.  Signs every few feet admonished passersby to not block physical access to the unions’ various businesses.  Last winter, Occupy had done just this to force a closure of U.S. Bank’s campus branch.  Where services were once transacted, only a dim, empty room remained, pocked by outlets sprouting unused cables.  “Direct action” is good at tearing down, not building up.

The posted signs attest to our litigious society, where personal responsibility has been completely outsourced to superfluous fine print warnings. The larger civilizational failing is that the campus administration, out of fear of seeming heavy-handed, allowed a group of kids to shutter commerce and diminish the vitality of the campus.  And then there is the needless lawsuit that followed.

As if these signals of decline weren’t enough, the very headphones which I purchased were branded “Riot,” with a cartoon depicting dozens brawling in mayhem, not unlike the criminal vs. cop melee at the climax of Rises. Also included in the packaging were stickers and a spraypaint stencil with which to vandalize one’s environs and allay whatever sense of self-righteousness and alienation one’s music might produce.

Despite these dire signs, there is still hope.  On the same campus can be found a quiet, green spot where parents walk their small children.  Once, I spied a bicycle cop stopping by one mother and son.  The boy instinctively hid behind his mother’s skirt.  The policewoman produced a small candy for him, and some words were exchanged.  This kind of scene is the hallmark of civilization: parents passing healthy attitudes onto the next generation.  In case you missed it, cops are there to serve and protect us.

Who is the real hero?

As with the previous two films, Rises tracks two parallel crises: that of Bruce Wayne, and that of Gotham as a whole.  Bruce must confront his own doubts and limitations to prevail, but each of the city’s citizens must also.  At one point, when hope of outside deliverance appears lost, Jim Gordon proclaims the city must be saved from within.  Powerfully revealed in the course of the film is the idea that even small virtuous acts by ordinary citizens can have outsized consequences.  As dark, tortured, and brutal as the film is, the viewer cannot escape the boy scout ethic–a confident, selfless, and felt moral responsibility–at the drama’s core.

Much in this lavish, blockbuster epic points to the ineffable nature of morality, the “oughtness” we feel and the volitional nature of doing good.  Ultimately, nothing is determined but what we will.  It’s rare and good when we can get a hint of this in a summer action hit, as we did with The Avengers.  To be sure, we get this in spades in The Dark Knight Rises.

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Don’t Push the Green Button

Having seen Iron Man 2, and then engaged in some thought and discussion about super heroes, I have come to conclude that the current crop of comic book heroes are the wrong ones for our society.  Last time I mentioned the naivete of the Superman and Spiderman protagonists, and I will say the same rules extend to Iron Man.  In a major way, the former characters are quite different from Tony Stark.  While the three suited-up men are always humbled by the formidability of their respective foes, the unsuited Tony Stark is not as bumbling as Peter Parker or Clark Kent.  But underlying Stark’s rock star persona is an earnest search for meaning and a desire to single-handedly bring world peace.  While these are nice sentiments becoming the likes of Madonna or Bono, the hero’s god-like abilities and achievements put him in a plane that does not intersect the viewer’s reality.

The most prominent offense of most super heroes is their ability to dodge the issues we must face in real life.  Early in Iron Man 2, the viewer discovers Stark is slowly being poisoned.  Without revealing too much of an utterly gripping plot, its safe to say that through a combination of deus ex machina and good old gumption, Stark is able to invent his way out of death–apparently overnight.  You might pause and ask if it is contradictory to shoot down Stark’s grit and determination as undesirable since I have previously defended the “bootstraps” idea of success in America.  The difference is that in reality, hard work is hard.

On the silver screen and in comic book pages, mythical heroes can magically make super devices and single-handedly resolve eternal dilemmas overnight.  But satisfying narratives need profound sacrifice–whether it is blood, sweat, or forbearance.  That is why the Gospel is so naturally compelling: God as Christ submitted to reality as we experience it, facing humiliation and death to bring a ringing victory over sin.  Many exemplary stories shine because of their portrayal of sacrifice, but for most comic book heroes sacrifice is either superficial or arbitrary.

The heroes that defy this trend tend not to be so singular or over the top.  The X-Men franchise is pretty solid, but the best may be Batman.  In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne and his fellow players must come to terms with a gritty world populated by jaded citizens and fallible heroes, a world that offers only heartbreak and insurmountable moral dilemmas.  While Batman is a rich, technological whiz like Tony Stark, he is not in danger of teaching the moral that pushing a green button will magically make life better.  Neither does Batman feed the idea that there are certain exceptional individuals we should look to solve our problems.  Rather, The Dark Knight emphasizes the democratization of morality and virtue, which is clearly born out in the climactic ferry boat stand off.

We may look to comic book blockbusters as just a little vacuous, harmless entertainment, but we should not be lulled into an unconscious acceptance of their implicit worldview.  Not all comic book movies were created equal, and I am not talking in terms of computer graphics and explosions.  It matters just how one goes about saving the world.

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