Sifting Through the Guano: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises

By Michael Sicinski

1. Every film does at least two things: it enters a broader social context, and it generates its own context. This seems obvious to the point of dullardry, but even by the usual standards of Hollywood blockbusters, the new Batman film (and allegedly final franchise entry—more on that below) emerged, like its hero often does, from a miasma of contradictions. On the one hand, there were the usual spoiler warnings and press embargoes, which make a certain amount of sense. Everyone—fans, critics, salivating hypernerds—ought to at least have the opportunity to enter the theatre with a mostly clean slate, if they so choose. (Since I’m predominantly a formalist, I tend to prefer knowing most of the narrative details ahead of time, so I can focus my attention on other elements, like editing and performance. Yes, this makes me different from “most viewers,” and I am completely fine with that.) However, in the case of The Dark Knight Rises, very few of us went in without a very different set of spoilers. As early reviews started coming in (none of which I read—I almost never read other reviews before writing my own), online comment boxes began filling up with such vitriol (much of it characteristically anonymous) that I and every other critic knew he or she was setting themselves up to be pilloried, insulted, even “threatened” (after a fashion—I mean, like the Legion of Combox Doom actually knows how to find Marshall Fine, much less throw a punch). From a critics’ standpoint, most of us were walking into TDKR with the movie, and our potential reactions to it, already “spoiled.” Now Entering Fanboy Territory. Egghead Faggots Beware.

2. These sorts of dustups happen a lot, of course. (The last such instance involved Buzz Lightyear, if I recall correctly. We do hate to see our beloved heroes face off against the written word.) Sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which thrive on unique hits and whose sole function is to turn film discourse into a thin gruel of up-or-down, number-crunched voxpop, may publicly decry the fatwas on heretical critics who dare ding the precious “100% fresh” rating on fanboy-driven properties, but the traffic clearly serves the bottom line. But this recent instance is unique for a few reasons. Most of the angry netizens involved had not yet seen TDKR. However, their “rise,” if you will, is rather neatly mirrored within the film itself. Dumb luck? A signal that the Nolans—Christopher and brother/co-screenwriter Jonathan—have tapped into the global Zeitgeist with shocking accuracy? Or just another Matrix-style reflection of the elasticity of allegory, along with the rather easy bet that mobocracy never goes out of style?

3. After a self-imposed eight-year exile, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is forced out of retirement due to the emergence—the literal emergence, from the sewers of Gotham—of a super-villain called Bane (Tom Hardy). This synopsis elides several aspects of Batman’s initial struggle—his public face is still tarnished since he and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) let The Batman take the blame for Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) crimes; Wayne is still in mourning over his great love Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal); his beloved butler/father-surrogate Alfred (Michael Caine, the film’s towering moral authority) does not want Bruce to become Batman again. TDKR, much like one of those mid-series Harry Potter films, is overstuffed with plot strands and doesn’t braid them with particular grace. But the main point here is that Bane arrives to destroy Gotham City in the guise of a populist demagogue, speechifying to the crowds through his morphine-dispensing vocoder about taking down the elites, returning the city to the people, enacting necessary violence and destruction in the name of revolution. It’s worth noting here that Bane has been quietly assembling a ragtag army of devoted followers down in the bowels of the city, comprised of orphaned teenagers who have “aged out” of the foster care system. Needless to say, they’re all boys.

4. TDKR is, like the Batman films that have preceded it, an ideological muddle, but none has been so completely devoid of intellectual clarity. The Dark Knight (2010) wasn’t as deep as its champions professed, but in Heath Ledger’s timeless Joker it did offer an agent of Nietzschean chaos, someone who, as Alfred memorably noted, “just want[s] to watch the world burn.” Inasmuch as TDKR has a discernible point of view, it’s highly conservative. The rabble rises up against the rich, who may not be their “betters” exactly, but at least have the nominal trappings of civilization on their side. Nolan essentially (re)casts the Occupy Movement as the French Revolution. They follow Bane’s Robespierre out of fear, awe, and the hope of getting some of the 1%’s spoils once the heads start rolling. (The prophecy that the reign of the super-wealthy must end, it should be noted, is first articulated by Anne Hathaway’s Selina “Catwoman” Kyle, a morally ambidextrous jewel thief who, upon seeing her “revolution” in action, casts her lot with the Millionaire in the Mask.) Nolan, in his only indication of a sense of humour, goes so far as to offer scenes of once-fabulous Gothamites hauled before a kangaroo court, presided over by Judge Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), proof positive that “the people” are not only corrupt but psychotic.

5. Suffice to say, Bane’s army, like the combox warriors, has a misplaced notion of what it means to take down the ruling class. It would be all too easy to scold the Internet Kids for defending behemoths Rotten Tomatoes and Warner Brothers when they force so-called “elites” like Christie Lemire and Eric Snider to walk the thin ice of exile. But this would be to assume that Nolan and TDKR cared enough to maintain a coherent vision throughout. Bane’s power-to-the-people rhetoric is, of course, a ruse. (He and an accomplice are actually destroying Gotham to fulfill some mystical-shit injunction left over from Batman Begins [2005]. It hardly matters, trust me.) And sure, supervillains, if they actually existed, would probably lie to get minions to do their bidding. (Only Gru from Despicable Me [2010] seems to exhibit honour in this regard.) But in terms of the form and construction of Nolan’s film, the abandonment of this premise, one upon which the film lavishes a significant amount of historical and ideological resonance—that millionaire Bruce Wayne and the city fathers are more trustworthy than the great unwashed—is a humongous shrug even Atlas would abjure. TDKR is, to put it bluntly, a flip-flopper. And truly, this is the only possible way any sentient being could watch the third installment of Batman and think even once of Mitt Romney. But, alas, we have Rush Limbaugh braying in the wind that Bane is somehow meant to represent Bain Capital, Romney’s assets-liquidation firm. Here we have yet another fascinating homology, between the slippery, signification-free “politics” of TDKR (just whatever works, whenever you need it) and actual political discourse. Limbaugh’s broadside against “liberal Hollywood” and its secret messages has absolutely no concrete connection to the letter of the text in TDKR. (There’s one scene where Bane and his thugs raid the Gotham Stock Exchange, but only in order to destroy Wayne Enterprises, i.e., to topple the “elitist” Batman. In this magpie of a film, it’s basically a riff on the final scene of Fight Club [1999].) But as with so much else Limbaugh and his ilk have to say, it doesn’t need to have any real-world (or even film-world) referent. Just say it’s the thing you need it to be, at the point in the narrative you find yourself in. And indeed, US Republicans have written themselves into quite a corner.

6. I’ve been thinking a lot about “radical interpretations of the text” since seeing Rodney Ascher’s excellent documentary Room 237 a few weeks back. (See Quintín’s typically insightful review in Cinema Scope 51.) In it, five deep-level analyses of The Shining (1980) are explored, almost to the point of absurdity. Of course, “absurdity” is in the eye of the beholder. Some of the readings (“allegory for the reckoning with the atrocities perpetrated against First Peoples”) are more convincing that others (“Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 moon-shot and this is his veiled confession”). As a semi-academic, trained in the Foucault/Derrida/Barthes manner of doing things, I found myself uniquely intrigued by Ascher’s project, since it masterfully engages a question every intellectual of any stripe has to face: Where do you set the boundaries of “legitimate” interpretation? How far, for your own values, ethics, and sense of rigour, is too far, and can you articulate why? For many, Freud represents a shot far off the fairway. For David Bordwell, it seems, interpretations that cannot be supported by historical and on-screen fact veer into vague speculation.

7. One of the things that makes Stanley Kubrick such a fertile test-case for a project like this is that, like Nolan, he is a director who is revered by a certain fanboy cult. Paul Thomas Anderson gets this; David Fincher is another one. It’s not surprising, really, since these directors, like Hitchcock before them, differ from, say, a Renoirian strain of moviemaking. These guys were/are techies, they are known for having exacted almost fanatical control over every aspect of every frame (or pixel) of each and every film, and they produce films that make even chance elements appear preordained. At the risk of engaging in dime-store psychology, I think this kind of control-freak aesthetic holds a certain appeal for young men at a certain stage in their lives, when so much can feel uncertain and urge-driven. What’s more, a western capitalist mentality that inculcates means-end thinking and results-driven attitudes, as well as masculinity as the power to control “things,” can seep into artistic preference. Nevertheless, what will this segment of the Kubrick fanbase make of Room 237? Will it seem like pure comedy, a bunch of loser “faggy” academics jerking off? As evidenced by the recent kerfuffles over differing opinions over TDKR, lots of angry individuals think that certain movies, and even certain directors, are not for critics. (Now this viewpoint even has a high-profile spokesman in director Kevin Smith. Congratulations…?) It’s no longer a matter of how to interpret, or what “interpretation” means, e.g., stylistics vs. New Historicism vs. queer theory vs. auteurism, etc. It’s whether interpretation is even allowed, or if it’s seen as some kind of cabalistic conspiracy to get between “the people” and their corporate love objects. The irony, of course, is that critics got involved in the first place in order to take pop culture seriously. But the message, increasingly, is to stay away, which would in fact be the elitist thing to do. (Studios certainly wouldn’t mind.)

8. And all this over Christopher Nolan! One thing that comes across when you really look at The Shining or any Kubrick film is that, micro-manager or not, the guy was weird. Part of the reason one can groove on both his technique and his minutiae is that there are off-kilter line readings, unmotivated zooms, singular, indelible images throughout his oeuvre. (Needless to say, the same is true of Hitchcock.) PTA and Fincher vary from film to film, of course, but what I’m talking about here, if you’ll forgive me for being reductive, is poetry. It is certainly possible to see these directors as fetish-filmmakers, and to make fetishes out of them in kind. But one’s appreciation will almost inevitably open along those fault lines, those textual hiccups where sounds and images make a different form of sense, one irreducible to lockstep narrative logic. Is this something anyone can say about Nolan, as a general rule?

9. TDKR is not Nolan’s worst film; indeed it hardly makes sense to talk about Nolan’s “worst film” as such, since most of them exhibit varying degrees of facility with their few chosen elements. For all its clutter and relative emptyheadedness, TDKR is well-paced and a fine way to pass some time, and when Wally Pfister is given a little space to turn the IMAX camera onto the broad composite cityscapes of Gotham (a little Manhattan here, a little L.A. there), there are definite material pleasures. And, in a film that gives lip service to so many things it barely cares about, Caine’s gravitas and Hathaway’s hip insouciance do offer a lovely cosmic balance in a universe of bland, turgid archetypes. This kind of popcorn fluff is preferable to the far more “accomplished” but icy, tedious Inception (2010), a film so corporate-mechanistic it hardly requires a viewership. If Nolan’s earliest efforts, Following (1998) and Memento (2000), are perfectly constructed idea-pieces that exist more as illustrated short stories than films—that don’t take cinema itself very seriously as a problem to reckon with—then in different ways, Batman Begins, Inception, and TDKR exemplify chilly, efficient product that never does anything but evince mastery without personality. The Dark Knight, buoyed by Ledger, at times came close to subsuming its dour self-importance. By contrast, Nolan’s two best films, The Prestige (2006) and his Insomnia remake (2002), are about the breakdown of systems of knowledge—science in the former, law enforcement in the latter—which puts them much closer to Fincher’s work while retaining Nolan’s own love of metals and vapours.

10. All this by way of saying, it strikes me as bizarre that Christopher Nolan would be a filmmaker whose bombastic shows of raw expenditure would inspire such devotion, with the online hordes of Arkham Asylum professing a willingness to strike naysayers down where they live and lunch. Of course, I don’t live in an auteur-driven bubble. I know most of it’s about the Batman property, as reviews of other comic-book movies have been known to send the smell of blood out into the water. But Chris Nolan does have a posse, and it strikes me that perhaps it does have to do with that sheen of cold, anonymous perfection his nerd favourites—the Batmans, Memento, Inception—tend to evince. If I might be so gauche as to state the obvious, we are well past the era when the default notion of “art” can be expected to be culturally oppositional. As there seems to be not only less and less of an outside to neoliberal capital, but less and less of a space for imagination of an outside, many of us can conceive of cinema only as the Will to Power. That is, we find ourselves looking for signs of big money, friction-free, exacting masculinized, motorized one-size-fits-all allegorical hollow-tip mega-narrative at the undifferentiated mass, without the unalloyed expenditure of poetry. If we all get behind this, if we keep this Bat-Signal 100% Fresh and punish anyone who introduces the “noise” of a contrary expectation, we could treat every day in our democracy like it’s Halloween.

ADDENDUM: There are really so few words to say, and yet of course I feel obliged to say a few, if only out of basic human decency. As I was writing this piece, a disturbed 24-year-old man (he has been identified, but I won’t repeat his name here, in a small gesture of depriving a mass murderer the notoriety he most likely craves) broke into a multiplex in Aurora, Colorado with automatic weapons and tear gas and opened fire on a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and wounding 38 others, including a three-month-old girl. Like everyone else learning about this heinous, senseless crime, I’m shocked, and angry (not that that helps anyone one iota, or adds productively to the “national conversation”), but I do indeed offer my condolences to the victims and their families, and wish all those harmed a speedy and full recovery.

I have certain fears about whether my essay is appropriate in light of this very real tragedy. As we know, the comment-leavers are a separate ilk, who fight on the “battlefield” of words alone. Thank God. There is no real connection; no one can be certain why this maniac shot up a Batman movie, but most likely it was because he knew there would be lots of people there in one place, in the dark, with tiny, congested escape routes. I’ve looked over my essay and, in retrospect, wish I had not referred to Nolan’s cinema as “hollow-tip.” I do believe that there is a certain violence in the steely, impenetrable images with which these films ply us. And, there are philosophical ways to make the leap between our minds’ processing of those images and our readiness for material violence, on the giving and the receiving end.

However, that is an argument only for peacetime. Now it is tasteless, and the argument itself does emotional violence to those who have suffered. It would be easy enough, thanks to the internet, to remove the words “hollow-tip,” but I feel it’s better to leave it there, and take responsibility for my rhetoric, and acknowledge that life and history and horror shifts around our words in unforeseen ways, and deeply apologize, than to simply expunge my inadvertent callousness. We’re all still figuring this out. We will soon be told, by the usual sources, what this “means,” but we don’t know, and we mainly need to listen to the people of Aurora and help them with whatever they need, however we can. Sicinski Michael