Since the bulk of this review–okay, maybe meandering essay is more accurate than review–will be about how I arrived at my judgment, perhaps I should dispense with the formalities up front: the judgment itself. WARNING: THIS ESSAY HAS SOME PLOT SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS AS WELL AS BATMAN BEGINS AND THE DARK KNIGHT. I believe plot spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises are minimal, but proceed at your own risk.
The Dark Knight Rises is a serviceable film. Better than its predecessor but not as good at Batman Begins, it is capable of both entertaining and engaging higher philosophical musing. It could be three times worse than it is and still have some undeniable pleasures–such as Anne Hathaway (I’ve never been much of a fan before) in a cat suit.
If that’s damning the film with faint praise, it is because the bulk of my time spent since screening it has been spent pondering why its merits (strong supporting cast, a few surprises, some heady ideas) create so little hold on my feelings, and its flaws (bloated, incoherent, weak characterization) are so much harder for me to forgive or indulge than I suspect, dispassionately, they should be.
The easiest answer might be tied to my own investment in the source material. As I’ve acknowledged elsewhere, the Batman of this series of films is not the same character/hero I grew up with, and that complicates my reactions, making it harder (though, I hope, not impossible) to separate my disappointment from my judgment. That’s not all of it, though, or I should have liked Rises more than The Dark Knight, and I’m not sure I did (even if I did judge it a better film).
As I plumbed the reasons for that indifference, for the coldness the film inspired in me, I had to think some not merely of what the film was not but also of what it was in order to explain why, even though it was a better execution of what (I think) it was trying to be, the conception was less interesting and much less thrilling than would have been an attempt to represent the Batman in one of his previous incarnations.
Two words about terminology, one passing, one foundational. I’ve been using the word “incoherent” quite a bit this week in reference to both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. That word can connote to some “incomprehensible,” or “impossible to make out.” I’m using that term in a more narrow sense. The ideas that are touched at in these two films are ones that can be made out; Nolan and company are not merely speaking in gobbledygook. But the ideas, which are many, never cohere. I said to another critic after the media screening that the problem is not that Nolan has no ideas but that he has too many. It is also not the case that I find these ideas uninteresting, or even inherently less interesting than ideas prevalent in previous incarnations of the Batman. But as interesting as some of them are (and there are invocations of 9/11, the Patriot Act, well intentioned lies [the Iraq War?], post-Katrina tribalism, Occupy Wall Street as filtered through the quick descent to mob rule of the French Revolution, nature versus nurture, love versus fear, grief, friendship, ultimatums vs. service, etc. etc. etc.), Nolan is just too much of an intellectual and philosophical tease for my taste. Every time he would shine a light down some path or argument, I would settle in and my mind would race ahead, willing, nay anxious, to explore those big ideas, only to find myself brought up short by another argument, another equally big idea. Nolan, for me, became the philosophical equivalent of the tour bus driver whose job it is to make sure you don’t spend more than thirty minutes at the Sistine Chapel because there are still three more stops to make before we head back to the hotel. As such, I found myself more resentful of the superficial treatment of big ideas than I did appreciative of their existence. That’s not universal. I know one companion opined that messy, undeveloped ideas are still better for her than the vacuousness of most superhero films. I try not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, but, by the same token, if you are going to demand three hours of my attention (and the film is both lagging and grueling in spurts) then I sort of think you are claiming a certain amount of presumption and can’t turn around and complain I am the one who is asking too much.
The other term that I want to explore with the rest of my space is “postmodern.” I initially used this as a shorthand expression to distinguish the current (post-Frank Miller) incarnations of Batman with the incarnation I grew up with. It was in asking a colleague, who directed me back to Ihab Hassan’s “The Eleven ‘Definiens’ of the term Postmodern,” whether she thought this term useful and accurate that I really began to notice how many of the definitions applied to Nolan’s series and why, however much I respect the execution, that series doesn’t excite and inspire me.
“Postmodernism” is not the intellectual bogeyman for me that it is for some of my evangelical or conservative friends (in the same way the term “secular humanism” was for my generation), but there is no escaping that in its totality, whatever its intentions or glimpses at truth, it is a philosophy whose view of the world that its art represents is not one I share. As such, the portrait its art paints of the world is one that may be instructive to me, but its art is rarely going to have a sublime effect on me. I can intellectually or even morally appreciate some postmodern art, don’t get me wrong, but deep crying out to deep? Fuhgettaboutit.
Is the Nolan trilogy a postmodern Batman? Consider how many of Hassan’s descriptors* are illustrated by The Dark Knight trilogy:
I’m not talking here about Batman’s willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for Gotham either by taking on the sins of Harvey Dent or “giving everything.” Postmodernist works tend to regard the traditional humanist notion that a person has a stable, unified identity as a “fiction.” Postmodernist works tend either to erase identity or to multiply it. Characters tend to be either flat/hollow; or plural/contradictory.
In The Dark Knight, I think this manifests itself as Batman’s role as a cipher…his willingness to be whatever the city needs. Just as, to parrot The Incredibles, if everyone is “special,” nobody is, so too (to echo, again, The Talented Mr. Ripley), if one is everything, one is nothing. This irritates me on a mundane level, because I’m drawn to rich, vivid, complex, or round characters, and postmodern literature is weak in that area. Batman here is an avatar of ideas, a role usually given to characters in allegories. Batman’s versatility, his slipperiness (that I talked a lot about in my review of The Dark Knight), ultimately runs the risk of making him hollow.
To the extent that he is “plural” and/or “contradictory” I would say that many of his ideals seem at odds with himself and when the film calls on him to reveal the core of his identity–in a scene where he has to come to grips with why he is failing at a particular task–his response (he is afraid of failing while Gotham burns) is a strictly negative, goal-oriented one. It is about what he wants (or doesn’t want) to happen, not about who he is. It’s like his role and identity as a Gothamite is more important or central than his identity as an individual. (As an aside, I also asked my companion where this strong association with Gotham came from, why he cares about it, when he started caring, and how that dedication to [I can’t even bring myself to type the words “love of”] place is fed and fueled.)
Nor is the postmodern sense of self-less-ness limited to men with masks who want to make themselves symbols. A major subplot of the film regards a possibly mythical, possibly real device called “Clean Slate” that allows one with the click of a button to totally erase any record of one’s existence, allowing a person to remake himself or herself from scratch. Unlike in say, The Net, this erasure of self is not viewed as a horror to be avoided but as a brass ring to be prized.
Bruce Wayne’s identity can be co-opted with a thumb print and a computer program causing a fundamental change in his status because, in an electric age, once identity becomes nothing more than a coat (or cape) that one puts on and takes off, it becomes something that anyone can assume. See also how in Batman Begins the identity of Ras a Ghul shifts from Ken Watanabe’s character to Liam Neeson’s. The head of the league of assassins is not a person, it’s a role. In the comic books, it is a role that Ras wants Batman to assume, but he argues that to do so would be a violation of his core self. In Rises, a police officer with a back history similar to Bruce’s has a speech about different kinds of masks. Almost all identities in Gotham are assumed and performed rather than being permanent and intractable.
Ambiguity means something can be understood or interpreted in more than one way, but there is still a finite (albeit plural) range of possibilities. Indeterminacy resists certainly. It tends to see no question as ever settled, no meaning as ever certain.
I’ve already talked about how the Joker is very postmodern in his open mockery of the belief in traditional notions of certainty and rules. Note that the Joker doesn’t assault or deny the particular rules but the notion of rules themselves. He doesn’t say that Batman has picked the wrong principles or rules and that other rules or principles would save him, he claims that the very notion of rules/concepts/or principles is suspect.
This questioning of all terms and definitions continues on into Rises. When Batman opines to one character that the people of Gotham City are “innocent” the response is neither an affirmation or a denial, it is “Innocence is a strong word to throw around Gotham…” I don’t mean to parrot some of my more conservative colleagues’ critiques of postmodernism (though I suspect this part will make some of them very happy) but the film (rightly I must acknowledge) demonstrates that when indeterminacy is the rule, all that really remains is rhetoric, and Bane’s character shows how easily rhetoric can be coopted, used, abused.
In another instance, a character accuses Batman of “murder.” There is no way to answer that charge unless murder has a determinate meaning that includes some instances of taking a human life and excludes others.
This doesn’t mean episodic so much as attempting to incorporate multiple ideas or perspectives without synthesizing them together. To be an intellectual salad bowl rather than melting pot if you will.
Postmodernism is critical of the traditional logical “dialectic” that moves from thesis to antithesis to synthesis: an idea is formulated (thesis); it is contradicted or opposed (antithesis); a new idea is formulated (synthesis), one that takes parts of the thesis and the antithesis and forms them into an integrated whole that supposedly represents “a higher state of truth.” Postmodernism is suspicious of synthesis, at times even regards synthesis as distorted or even fascist.From a political perspective I am sympathetic to postmodernism’s suspicion of dialectical thinking because I concur that historically, claims of higher planes of moral or political truth have been used in self-serving manners to justify the status quo and excuse oppression. (Again, see Bane’s usurping of the rhetoric of class hatred to justify his own totalitarianism.) Really, though, just see my comments about incoherence, above. If nobody is wrong, nobody is right. If thesis/antithesis/synthesis doesn’t always lead to (moral) progress, it at least allows for movement/change, in a way that fragmentation may not.
In fact, a scrupulous, legalistic, enforced pluralism may create a kind of stagnation that is very, very hard to break.
Batman “saves” Gotham, but–and I hate to keep hammering this question– saves it from what? And, more importantly, saves it for what? So that all ideas and all rhetoric can continue to enjoy equal freedom?
In the Biblical sense of the word, “canon” means texts that are authentic and authoratative. To say that postmodernism is characterized by decanonisation is to say that it is distrustful of authority of all kinds, as well as of the rules, codes, and conventions sanctioned by authority.
Certainly, it should be evident without much argument that the Batman movies, like the Miller graphic novels (or the recent Spider-man reboot) does not treat the tradition of mythology created by the preceding documents as being anything they are bound by.
Here again, I am not unsympathetic to the motivations of postmodernism. As someone who was an undergraduate and graduate student during a time where feminist and African-American scholars rightly (in my view) argued for opening up or expanding the literary canon and thinks we are the better for it (my life would be poorer if I’d never read “The White Heron” or “Sonny’s Blues”), I can admit that (outside of religious considerations) a diverse, varied, and ever-evolving canon is more helpful than a rigidly unchanging one.
That’s different, though, than no canon at all. There is a difference between tweaking the mythology and fundamentally rewriting it. After three movies, let me make that distinction this way: based on Nolan’s movies what is indispensable to the Batman mythology? What makes Batman recognizable as Batman and not simply an entirely new character? What can’t be touched or changed or messed with? What is not okay to tweak because doing so moves him outside the realm of being Batman and makes him into something or someone totally new, sharing just a name with a previous character? I’m reminded here of the fact that Richard Wright was once offered a hefty sum for the movie rights to Native Son providing he would agree to the change of making Bigger Thomas white rather than black. He of course turned it down recognizing that some elements of a story–in this case his race–are so essential to the meaning of the narrative that they cannot be changed. What are those elements in Nolan’s Batman?
He must be rich, I guess (though one senses that is more of a convenience to explain his arsenal than a narrative requirement, especially when one considers how the film is set up for sequels). His parents must have been murdered. (Though, as I wrote in the previous review, what meaning he attaches to their murder and how he responds to it is apparently not inviolate.) In an age of decanonisation, the Batman character has no core, he is a chameleon (see comments about “self-less-ness”). And absent him having a core, one cannot respond mythopoeically to the character, only temporally. If it is possible to have a hero be timeless in a postmodern age, I don’t see how.
Postmodernist works love to mix and mess with genres, subgenres, and conventions. Maus can tell a holocaust narrative in cartoon form, Team America can show puppets having kinky sex, Les Miserables can merge musical with epic rather than insisting the genre be focuses on light comedy and love relations.
I had a friend who drove a long way with me to see the critics’ screening. I was surprised. I didn’t think it as the kind of movie she liked. “I really don’t care for Superhero movies,” she admitted, “but of all of them, the Batman ones are least like a Superhero movie…” I’ve already seen other reviews that suggest Nolan’s work is a meshing of comic book and police/crime fiction, taking the forms of the summer action movie and linking them with the sorts of social and political discourse one expects from essays, novels (note the film’s debt to A Tale of Two Cities), or serial television (the last work that tried this hard to address questions of whether urban decay could be reversed was The Wire).
Unlike some of the other descriptors of postmodernism, I’m not sure I think hybridisastion an inherently bad or inferior thing. Here, I’ll only plead that: a) I’m invested in one of the genre’s telling of this narrative and so tend to view the hybridisation not as enriching but diluting its pleasures; and b) there’s still the matter of execution–a hybrid has to be a good hybrid, has to be able to combine things in an interesting or illuminating way. If one is making hybrids just for the sake of making hybrids then that’s bad…it’s a belief that the value derives exclusively from the form and not at all from the content.
The best hybrids are ones which begin with an artistic vision and find a form to suit it. If Nolan has something to say that requires invoking A Tale of Two Cities then I have no problem with that. If, however, that’s just itself a tired formula (like animated movies post-Aladdin making reference to adult content as a sort of in-joke) done for its own sake, then it doesn’t really enrich the work of art, it merely bloats it.
I have things I could say about “Carnivalisation” and “Immanence” (heck, maybe I will if anyone cares enough to prompt me to say even more), but for now let me conclude with:
Postmodernist works regard truth and reality as constructed or manufactured by societies and groups rather than “discovered” or “encountered.” Some of what I could say about this would simply be repeating stuff above about the need for transcendent eternal anchors to keep the constant state of flux distinguishable from chaos or nihilism.
What I really want to address under this heading, though, is more subtle (okay, perhaps more of a reach)…that attitude tends to create a working environment where it is okay to present works (particularly franchise works) that are either in draft form or under construction. I’m okay with trilogies (or more) but I tend to want them to be unified in the sense that they leave me believing the author knows where he or she is going from the get go rather than is making it up as he/she goes along.
The worst offender in this regard is, of course, George Lucas, who has never been able to convince me that he knew Luke and Leia were brother and sister when they kissed in The Empire Strikes Back, that “what I said was true from a certain point of view” is anything other than a narrative patch to fix a too-late recognized continuity error, and that various descriptions of what “the force” is (energy field/midichlorians) are somehow compatible when they are not.
The Dark Knight Rises does address some of my concerns about The Dark Knight‘s conclusion. In fact, it rightly pegs some of the problems with the well intentioned lie that is embraced at the end of that film. As usual, my favorite line goes to Alfred who says, “Maybe the truth needs to have its day.”
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Rises‘ refutation of the Dent mythologizing was at best a backpedal (at worst, a reversal), not a planned-from-the-start development. Everyone seems to have to disavow their participation in the lie, there is none righteous, no, not one, but nobody seems to actually do so reflexively or analytically. They may acknowledge that things turned out wrong and that they bear the responsibility for the decisions that led to the current, unpalatable situation, but that there is is precious little lesson learning to affect future behavior is evidenced by a strange exchange between Gordon and Batman towards the end of the film. Even here, truth, and knowledge of it, is not thought of as a universal good but rather a gift/burden entrusted to an elite few who must decide what story to construct for the masses or, at least. how much of the story the masses need be privy to.
I hope my Christian friends will know what I mean when I say that thematically, in that orientation, the film does not have a very “evangelical” attitude towards Truth with a capital “T” and that the implications of that attitude, while not overtly filtered through religious language or considerations in the film itself, ought to be particularly disturbing to Christians who believe in evangelism as a noun even if they don’t associate with the political label created by the adjective form of that word.
What is the purpose of all this discussion of postmodernism? Does it have any implications other than fleshing out my claim that postmodern literature doesn’t have a primary seat in my tastes (even if I enjoy it more than some of my friends and colleagues) and explaining, perhaps, why my emotional response to The Dark Knight Rises is so far removed from my critical judgment of it?
Maybe one purpose is to continue to hammer home the distinction between taste and judgment in general, one which I think is largely lost in our review culture to the impoverishment of our critical dialogue about art.
Another is to attempt cultural criticism; this film is wildly popular and being met with near rabid anticipation. A cultural critic may analyse as well as critique/judge, and this artifact is significant enough to raise questions about what its primacy says about the culture that created it and/or crowns it. To the extent the latter is the case, I’m not particularly alarmist…this isn’t one of those cases where something’s popularity is so at odds with my judgment of its worth (see, for example, Twilight, Courageous, or just about any of the modern “horror porn” genre) so as to make me worried at the potential desensitizing or demoralizing effects of consuming it in anything other than small doses. I’m okay with Nolan’s Batman as a summer action piece, to be enjoyed as a flawed but serviceable summer diversion. If and when others want to elevate it to the level of important (and, hence, influential), meaningful, or “great” art, that will be worrisome…and in a landscape where greatness is measured less by artistic achievement than box-office muscle, that seems likely to happen, which, in turn, means we are likely to get more of the same with even poorer (less skillful) execution and (I know for some this hardly seems possible) even less understanding of the ideas it invokes as a means of trying to distinguish itself from every other film strives first to be an “event” and only second a work of art actually coherent enough to reward the kind of close scrutiny that true masterworks invite.
*Full disclosure, some of the summary language of the traits is taken from academic handouts of a colleague. Since these are not published writings, I can’t cite them, but I mention that some of the language is borrowed for brevity and clarity and acknowledge my debt to her to as to not be accused of or actually be a plagiarist.