Archive for October, 2012

“ALL GAMES ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS”: GTA: San Andreas and Social Satire

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by drayfish

‘Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.’
– Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 1973

IMAGE: GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar)

With GTA 5 on the horizon, and details now starting to dribble out in the lead up to its release, I wanted to take a look back at what, to me, remains the crowning jewel in the – well, whatever the GTA franchise has in lieu of a shiny crown.  …A money-clip, maybe?  And so, I want to gushingly voice my affection for GTA: San Andreas, a game that I shamelessly, helplessly love.  A game that, despite its mammoth size, I must have played several times over, and that still to this day feels fresh and lively, and with something quite striking to say.*

And yes, although I admit it’s greater technical achievements, I must state that even though I quite enjoyed GTA 4, I could never quite love it or invest in it the way I did its predecessor.  Indeed, I still can’t.  While it does have that wonderful Rockstar quality of feeling like a fully realised world (it’s certainly no Red Dead Redemption, but that environment does breathe); the gunplay is a lot tighter (it’s still GTA so it’s not great, but smoother); and there is a story to tell with some larger than life characters and exciting set-pieces – once GTA 4’s narrative faded to black there really was nothing else pulling me back in.  I just didn’t feel compelled to keep existing in that environment.  To people-watch, or goof around.

To me the whole thing just felt a little too dour, and weirdly (for a game that was on a newer generation of consoles), I felt I kept running up against invisible walls that San Andreas always seemed to avoid:  Wait, I’m only going to be in this one city?  Not a whole state?  And there’s almost no buildings for me to enter just to screw around in?  …But I can make him eat until he gets obese, right?  Right?  What about flying a plane?  You took what out?!

The Ballad of Gay Tony add-on did inject a bit more of that much needed sense of frivolity and freedom; but honestly I would have appreciated such distraction more in the standard game.  Frankly, I think you almost have to play GTA 4 with the two additional DLC stories to get the full experience; it works much better as a compendium, with three intersecting narratives (GTA 4, Ballad of Gay Tony, and Lost and the Damned) than the standalone rags-to-slightly-nicer-bloodsoaked-rags  tale of Nico Bellic.

But in any case, San Andreas…

Wow.

There are few games I’ve played that have had such wonderful pacing, and such a gleefully elegant ramp up from piercing social commentary  to full-blown campy nonsense.  San Andreas really seemed like Rockstar went all out (in all the best possible ways).  It felt like they knew it was going to be the last game on that round of consoles, and so they threw everything at it to make it that generation’s videogame opus.

Want a grim portrayal of class structure and the cycles of gang violence and despair that weigh down the disenfranchised?  Well, here you go.  We’ll start you out on Grove Street, with little more than a singlet and a bicycle to get on with, and let the absorbingly gritty sense of poverty and seething alienation press in upon you…

Want a series of infantile double entendres spewing out of the radio and splayed across billboards to mirror back to you just how little difference there is between this gauche caricature and the real world’s media hysterics?  Well here’s a dozen radio stations with wacked out DJs (and some sublime tunes) to spackle fill the atmosphere of that heady ’90s slide into mass-market sludge…

Want to tear-ass around in the countryside in a clapped out pick-up truck literally hunting for yetis with a shotgun?  (This is not a mission – I just dare you to stop yourself from doing it.)  Welp, there’s a rusty old gun, a rusty old truck, and some rusty pants.  Go nuts…

Hey, that building looks base-jumpable – wanna try?  If your answer is ‘Whoo-nelly, yes’, then you’ll find a parachute awaiting you at the top of the stairs, sir.

Do you like hearing Samuel L. Jackson and James Woods yell at you?  Well switch that volume way up, ’cause they have some questions to pose to you about your life choices…

By the time that you get to Vegas, are flying around on a jet pack and planning to Ocean’s Eleven the biggest casino on the strip you feel as though you have played seventeen (number arrived at randomly) of the biggest games on the market.  Train heists; street brawls; dance parties; (very minor) stealthing; chases.  It’s a customisable racer; a shooter; a dance game; a flight, real-estate, and dating sim.  You get to dress and feed and exercise your player character – customise him (within the framework of his set identity) to your specification.  There’s even a primitive (but thoroughly absorbing) territorial gangland warfare RTS thrown in for good measure.  Perhaps it’s true to say that the game is a jack of all trades and a master of none, but who gives a damn when the whole package is this much unfiltered joy?**

Ah yes: but the physics could perhaps be a little tighter, you say.  Sorry?  What was that?  I was parachuting out of a 747 as it sank into a death spiral…

But the shooting is still a little janky, you note, and the reticule sticks like glue.  Sure, sure.  Imma let you finish, but hold on while this tin-foil hat wearing hippie gets me to flamethrower his crop of illegal substances and makes me drive him, my head swirling, away from the FBI.

What about the sneaking, you say; surely I’d agree that the sneaking is pretty rough?  Okay: I am currently boarding an army airline carrier to steal an F14 fighter jet (that I’m going to shamelessly exploit for the remainder of the game), and fly away partially fuelled by the giddy rush of glee pumping through my veins. …I’ll reply when my smile wears off.

But why does every Rockstar protagonist have to do so many ‘favours’ for random people, you ask?  Yeah… I’d love to respond to that, but I’m a little busy driving this crop harvester off the ‘Vinewood’ hilltop*** in a pimp suit whistling Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’…

I rest my case, your honour.

It’s a wondrous grab-bag of comedy, genuine emotional depth, and generous lashings of gameplay; it leaps effortlessly (and somehow organically) from pseudo-realist**** poignant drama to broad satire, from playful heist caper to overwrought action blockbuster; and all without ever forgetting that the player is meant to be invested in the events, and having fun along the way.

It is this sense of dizzying, goofy play that Saints Row 3 seems to have embraced (and blown out whole-heartedly to its most free-associative extreme), and that, unfortunately the GTA 4 base game chose to largely abandon in an effort to root the narrative in a more grounded solemnity.

In contrast, just like in GTA: Vice City, in San Andreas we are left to explore a hyperbolic, but familiar presentation of a recognisable world, one seen through a loving, but satirically distorted lens.  Here (in a frankly more revealing manner than GTA 4) we see the glittering modern detritus of faded celebrity, grasping commercialisation, political fear-mongering, skewed class systems, and fantastical conspiracy.  As social satire goes, we might be less in Animal Farm territory and more up the Dr. Strangelove end of the pool – but that does not make the statements any less pointed, or the ride any less thrilling.

We take an illuminating journey with CJ up the social strata of a world that has splintered into a chaotic miasma – and if the upcoming GTA 5 can return even a fraction of that heady, anarchic sprawl, I suspect I will be swept away with irony and joy all over again.

IMAGE: GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar)

* Indeed, I even very recently repurchased it for PC, but I cannot get my head around the mouse controls…  People: that is not how a //GTA// is to be experienced!)

** There is a section with David Cross (Tobias from //Arrested Development//) that may go down as one of the most infuriating missions of anything I have ever played, but that moment of nonsense aside, the game is, to my eyes, sublime.

*** Read: ‘Hollywood’ hilltop.

**** And yes, that is an intentional oxymoron – the game is filled with such impossible collisions that evoke a playful nonsense without ever sacrificing the investment at its core.

Jump, Jump, Left, Right, Express-Fundamental-Truths-Of-Human-Experience, Down, Up

Posted in art, criticism, literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Red Cow & First Chinese Horse (N. Aujoulat, 2003)

Although videogames have been around for some time now (long enough in a rapidly expanding, adaptive culture to have mutated beyond anything that people could conceive in the days of Pong and Frogger – indeed long enough that museum retrospectives like the Game Masters exhibition recently held at the ACMI in Melbourne, Australia are starting to emerge)* – timeline-wise, we in the gaming sphere are still in what, comparatively, was the black-and-white days of film. Games are still just taking their first thrilling steps into exploring the boundaries of their communicative potential, testing how far they can push in any one direction and still be considered a game:

‘Hey, that looks like one enormous, tedious cut-scene.’

‘Nope, it’s Heavy Rain.’

‘Hey, that looks like a gigantic fully-realised Lego play box alive with limitless potentialities.’

‘Nah. Minecraft.’

‘Hey, that makes my heart sing. I feel that I am being bathed in the raw unfiltered majesty of creative potential. I weep uncontrollably, but my soul is emblazoned with newfound life, ascending to a state of purity beyond space and time. ‘

‘Yes. It’s Petz Pony Beauty Pageant for the DS.’

‘…Hold me.’

Sure, at the moment (and perhaps for some time onward) games are still hampered by processing limitations that can stifle creative decisions in a manner not quite as evident in film; but just as in the early days of cinema (look at Metropolis, or The Maltese Falcon, or Charlie Chaplin’s work), in these burgeoning years of this new medium we are seeing some exceptional examples of creators working within the limitations of their technological canvas to communicate extraordinary works of Art.

I think in many ways there is value in thinking of the current state of gaming as analogous to the paintings in the Lascaux Caves in France.

If you’ve not seen them before, they are considered to be the earliest surviving recorded images made by human beings. They are tucked away in caves so dark that they required their artists to bring firelight with them in order to even see what they were painting – and they still remain utterly, stunningly splendid.

Sure, in theory, before you look upon them, it’s easy to dismiss these Palaeolithic images as mere scrawl on a wall, but if you actually let one of those visuals wash over you, the effect is truly sublime. You realise that on every possible level, these paintings are aesthetically and communicatively exquisite. You look at the coiled calligraphy of those horses hooves, their rotund proud haunches, that soft delicacy of their manes peppering the length of their neck. There is a solemn gracefulness to the bulls; while the unflinching menace of their horns, like unsheathed sabres, remain ominously erect. The trammel of thunderous footfalls seems to resound from out of a stampede.

In every image the grace, the artistry, the respect for subject matter with which these images were brought into being, swells them over with meaning. Indeed, it’s why Picasso drew from these very cave paintings, inspired by them to try and fuse primitive expression with modern technique in paintings like Guernica (1937), and his many (perhaps rather too many) images of bulls. …Really, what was it about him and the bulls?

I would – without the slightest hesitation – call these images on the walls of the Lascaux caves ‘Art’. Indeed, in many ways they are the purest Art ever conceived. They are a vision of the world produced and communicated by an artist who understood his/her subject matter, and who was able to deftly render an experience to the viewer (whoever that might eventually turn out to be) – fashioning it in the most compelling manner he/she could with the tools he/she was able to utilise.

Some (no doubt videogame nay-sayers like Roger Ebert), might revolt at me likening the burgeoning brushstrokes of humankind’s attempts to render life with the advent of the double-jump, but really, I see striking similarities. Human beings express themselves in any number of adaptive ways, and just because videogames may at first appear superficially crude (particularly in these early years when we see developers taking their first experimental steps, stretching the limits of what this medium can convey) this does not discount them from consideration. I have laughed and wept at a videogame (in a totally manly way); I have felt pride and achievement at a videogame (look it was a very emotional game); I have been swayed by the elegance of a game’s mechanics (hey, you would have cried too if you’d played that game); and lost myself in its alluring design (and I had something in my eye… okay, I don’t need to be judged by you right now).

Videogames may struggle with depicting sex-scenes that aren’t laughable, realistic eye movements, or the incalculabilities of character interaction, but when they are at their best they capture pure human expression, inviting their audience to invest wholly in an experience. And that is the very foundation of all that is Art.

And I firmly believe that video games are capable of communicating such human experiences in ways that no other medium can. Indeed, with videogames, like no other Art form, we actually get to exist within the text, to react to it, to engage with it. It invites us to participate in the way in which the text itself makes its meaning; we can help charge it with purpose if we decide to buy into what it is attempting to express.

Often videogames therefore attempt to convey triumph or success: they show characters overcoming obstacles; they invite us to use lateral thinking to expand our comprehension; to fight tenaciously; to become lost in a vast, dangerous worlds of creeping horrors; or to dress like a plumber in a racoon suit and save a princess from a mutant dinosaur who heavilly invested in castle real estate. …Yeah. Okay, some are more abstract. Like Dada.

But in every case, if the game has performed its intended purpose, it has transported us into an experience. Although the definition of what can be Art is sometimes dauntingly vast, it is almost always communicating a human truth, in many cases, one that could not be said in any other way; and games most certainly do what no other medium can with such visceral immediacy.

Whether something is good or bad Art, however, is an entirely different question…

* http://www.acmi.net.au/game-masters.aspx

The Goose with the Golden Grammar

Posted in literature with tags , , , on October 12, 2012 by drayfish

It’s easy to see why the fables attributed to ‘Aesop’ have endured for centuries: the elegance of their metaphors, their tidy, punchy narratives, their peculiar fixation upon a world of animals and inanimate objects that won’t stop mouthing off when they spy a moment of dramatic irony or moral transgression.  (…Aesop’s world is indeed a sanctimonious one: it seems you can’t walk down the street without a lamppost or ladybeetle giving you a piece of their mind.)

These stories have penetrated every avenue of our modern culture and lexicon.  To be a wolf in sheep’s clothing; to be a pot calling a kettle black; to cry wolf; to watch the tortoise and the hair in their perpetual conflict; these images and the principles that they espouse are inextricably embedded in the human psyche.  Children absorb such parables with glee, political leaders nod gravely and wrangle them into clumsy sound bites, and the entire Disney oeuvre can be argued to rest upon Aesop’s fanatical anthropomorphism.

Despite their recognition, however, it is curious to note the multiplicity of readings that can still be drawn from these fables.  I have two copies of Aesop’s tales, both Selected Editions, and where their translations intersect there are often notable divergences in their account of the morals that one should draw from the preceding tales.

One such fable (titled ‘The Dog Invited to Supper’ in one edition and ‘Reckoning Without His Host’ in another), concerns a hungry dog who is invited to dinner by his friend, another dog, whose rich gentleman owner is going to be putting on a feast.  The hungry dog arrives early, excited to see all the food being prepared for a meal that he believes himself welcome to, but when the gentleman owner sees an unfamiliar animal in his kitchen, he seizes him violently and flings him from the house.  (From here the story gets a little strange: the dog, when questioned by passers-by as to how the meal was, claims he drank too much and can’t even remember leaving…)

In one edition of this tale, the moral reads: ‘It is bad policy to trust those who offer to do one a good turn at someone else’s expense’, a succinct warning to be wary of accepting a second-hand kindness.  The second edition suggests: ‘Those who enter through the back door can expect to be shown out through the window’, a Chuck Norris-inspired sentiment that firmly places the blame not upon the gentleman owner’s dog, who extended an offer that was not his to make, but upon the hungry dog, who is depicted as sly, invading the house without justification.  The same story, the same sequence of events, and yet the weight of responsibility and the lesson to be drawn from it do not align.

We tend to assume that these stories, ancient as they are, are static, their meanings fixed in place through generations of recitation, but like all linguistic artefacts they mutate and change – dependent upon their translation, of course, but mostly upon the momentary circumstance of their use.  (In this sense, they are much like their ‘author’ himself, who may or may not have been a slave, may or may not have been flung from a cliff to his death by a horde of angry Delphians, who perhaps never existed, and certainly didn’t write all of the fables attributed to him.)  These are breathing, amorphous narratives that gain new meaning from each application, and it is for this reason that they still seem as fresh today as they did over a millennia ago.

…There is one story, however, that I have yet to see satisfactorily explained, and which I believe defies all rational thought.  It is called ‘The Peach, the Apple, and the Blackberry’, and I include it in its entirety:

The peach and the apple decided to have a context to determine which one was the more beautiful than the other.  However, when tempers flared and the competition appeared to be getting out of hand, a blackberry thrust its head from a nearby bush and cried out, ‘This dispute has gone on long enough.  Let’s all be friends and stop this nonsense!’

This story haunts my dreams.

The Dark Knight Rises: Postmodern Prometheus

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2012 by drayfish

[Enormous SPOILERS for The Dark Knight Rises throughout…]

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros.)

Previously I have written about the way in which modern superhero narratives speak to, reinterpret and re-contextualise ancient mythologies.*  I spoke of how Flash embodies the powers and design of the ancient messenger Mercury; how Wonder Woman was literally sculpted and brought to life by the Gods on the Amazonian Island; and likened Superman to an Olympian Immortal.  In every case, these enduring superhero characters operate in much the same way that legendary figures did in the earliest oral histories, offering adaptive, collaborative narrative spaces in which to use mythology to reflect deep human concerns, making manifest the fears and aspirations of our communal psyche.  They function as multifaceted ciphers into which we as a culture can pour our expressions and explorations of our communal identity.  In such a context the Hulk was not merely a big smash-monster (although that part is certainly fun); he traces his lineage back through modern tales of scientific hubris exposing the beast within (Jekyll and Hyde; Frankenstein), all the way back to epic sagas of how unchecked rage let lose can ravage the world pitilessly, dehumanising even the greatest figures into little more than ghouls (see Achilles in The Iliad).

When I spoke then – wildly citing the allusions that can be made to classic myth – the best analogy that I could offer for Batman was Hamlet.  In order to capture my favourite superhero I was compelled to shift from the godly sphere to the quintessentially mortal, referencing perhaps the most human of all men, a character so obsessed with death and morality that faced with the burden of revenging his murdered father he chews himself up in self-loathing, tortured by the thought of becoming the very thing he despises.  Both characters, I noted, lose their parents to crime (Hamlet’s mother still lives, but has debased herself by remarrying her husband’s killer); both are wealthy young men who must put on an act in front of their friends and family to mask their true purpose; both lurk in the shadows of a corrupted society that was once the pride of their family; and both are wholly adverse to killing (although Hamlet eventually decides to give it a go).*

Having now soaked in the concluding film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, I submit that the simile still works (although Hamlet never had to weather the true suffering of trying to parallel-park a Batmobile), but I have been struck by another, arguably more revealing analogy.  Because there is indeed another character from ancient myth that is entirely fitting for Gotham’s protector: he is Prometheus.  Batman, the ironically titled ‘Dark Knight’, is in actuality humanity’s ultimate deliverer of light.

Please, allow me to tediously pontificate –

I mean, explain…  Allow me to explain…

The story of Prometheus is one of the foremost creation myths of humankind.  Prometheus was a Titan – one of the immortal, earlier gods that would go on to be overthrown by the younger Olympians and their charismatic (if sex-crazed) leader Zeus.  He is generally regarded as the god who created human beings (fashioning them from clay and giving them life), but is more famously celebrated for his later, rebellious act of delivering mortals from darkness: stealing light back from the gods (after Zeus had thrown one of his signature tantrums and hidden it away) and returning it to humankind.  For his crime, Prometheus was chained to a rock where he daily has his liver eaten out by an eagle only to have it grow back again – a physical and psychological torture from which he can find no respite.

It can be argued that Prometheus is humanity’s foremost supporter, and the ancient god most sympathetic to our plight (indeed, his punishment can be said to only further this empathy: he, like each of us, is trapped on a rock subjected to ceaseless mortal pain).  Having gifted us with light and intelligence – both literal and metaphorical illumination – he banished ignorance, allowing humanity to grow beyond the constraints imposed upon them by a cruel universe filled with dispassionate gods.  People need not fear anymore, and could potentially become the masters of their own fate.**

Since the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I have read a surprising amount of criticism that claims the film does not have a thematic through line, or that labels the narrative as cluttered, sprawling and discordant.***  Some have even unjustly compared the film to The Dark Knight – a spectacular sociological debate between order and chaos that spills out into the streets of Gotham with a cacophony of carnage and explosions – and found it lacking.  In truth, however, the two films cannot be so artlessly compared; and to accuse The Dark Knight Rises of failing to replicate its predecessor’s message is to utterly miss the point of the film, and the role it plays in the larger architecture of the trilogy.

Fundamentally, it must be noted that despite appearing to be a story about a rich kid called Bruce Wayne who one day had a very bad night at the opera, Nolan’s Batman films have always, at their heart, been focussed upon society, and the way that people respond to fear.  All three films are in fact part of a larger dissertation on civilisation’s response to terror and terrorism – indeed it is no accident that the only villain that recurs in all three movies is Scarecrow, whose primary weapon is dread.  Each movie therefore speaks to different moments in the human response to fear, and each develops its themes on a unique scale, and to very different ends.  Pairing one against another to posit which was ‘better’ at making its point implies a stagnation of argument to which, happily, the films never surrender.

To be clear: I would never try to argue that on its own merits Rises is as structurally sound, or elegantly crafted as The Dark Knight – I’m not sure anyone would.  But Dark Knight was a question.  It laid out a premise, asking whether compromise and deception can ever be a valid (or even short-term satisfying) response to fear.  It ended on a mildly hopeful note, but the darkness was clearly closing in; Rises, in contrast, is finally the answer to that original query.  The one necessarily compliments and responds to the other; and although it is perhaps not fair that the later film must rely on what preceded it to fully articulate its meaning, this is not a failing of its structure, rather evidence that Nolan had something more expansive and multidimensional in mind.

Once again, while the series may at first appear to be about a rich boy, in pain, in a cape, in actuality the series has always been about Gotham, with the city itself as the expression of a human soul in conflict.  Nolan taps into a whole history of Greek and Shakespearean drama, where society is a manifestation of the individual (where something is rotten in Denmark; or Scotland plunges into unholy eternal night), and puts the Batman right where he belongs: centre stage.  As such, he is here much more of a communal construct, a collaboration, than he appears in other versions of the Batman mythology.  Nolan’s universe makes it abundantly clear that although Bruce wears the mask, there would be no Batman without Alfred to stitch his wounds, without Lucius Fox to make his gadgets, Commissioner Gordon with whom to collaborate, the Mayor to turn a blind eye, Harvey Dent to advocate, the history and training of the League of Shadows – and in this latest film: without Catwoman and a certain new young detective to rely upon.  Nolan’s vision is about the construction of a symbol, the kind of emblem in which a mass of people need to invest themselves to fight oppression and inspire change.

The whole trilogy is about fear – how we as a peoples respond to cultures of fear, how we can strive to confront and not be governed by the faceless terrors that numb our souls to apathy.  In many ways a superhero film has been the best (perhaps only) means through which to best explore in fiction our social crisis in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’, providing an often uncompromising space in which to play out our negotiation of idealism and concessions of freedom for security.

In Batman Begins Gotham is on the verge of tearing itself apart through a slow surrender to dread.  While condemning the city to be purged with fire, Ra’s al Ghul declares it a society that has degenerated into crime and inequity because it allowed itself to be terrorised by the will of the unjust.  Good people have failed to stand up for what they believe, and fear has corrupted the very soul of the state – a decay that is exacerbated and literalised at the end of the narrative when a nerve gas leads everyone to descend into paranoia and violence.  Bruce Wayne, his own parents victims, therefore creates Batman as the answer to this demoralising fugue state, believing (while striving to maintain a moral code), that he can bring fear to those who would prey upon the fears of others.  In his vigilante crusade he strives to show that criminals have reason to be scared when people refuse to be cowed.

The second film however is a mediation upon the compromises that are made in the face of fear: those lines that we are willing to cross in pursuit of safety and order.  The Joker, a creature of anarchic devastation tears through the city, seemingly unmotivated.  He is terrorism personified: beyond reason and seeking to tear down civility by any means necessary.  By the end of the film, in response to this chaos, there is no one who has not compromised themselves and their ethics: Gordon is willing to perpetuate a terrible lie for a greater good; Lucius agrees to see his technology turned into a violation of basic freedoms; Alfred burns the letter from Rachael, concealing a truth that he feels would be too painful for Bruce to know; and Harvey Dent (the bipolar face at the heart of the narrative) has his own very bad day…  No one gets through that film both alive and unscarred by the events that they have survived.  The Joker measures the human spirit with pressure, and – although ultimately, it does not break – it is damaged, perhaps irreparably by the experience.

More than any other character, Batman, over the course of The Dark Knight,uses several morally and legally objectionable techniques to combat crime and terrorism – he performs an act of extraordinary rendition; he savagely interrogates a prisoner; he constructs an elaborate bat sonar that invades to privacy of every citizen in a free state.  He takes extreme measures, using tools of deceit that violate basic freedoms in order to protect the lives of his fellow citizens, but in the end it is not his amoral allowances that save Gotham, it is Gotham’s spirit itself.  When the Joker devises a moral power play in which two boats are tasked with killing others before killing themselves, neither side proves capable of making that final selfish choice to take another’s life before their own.  The Joker, despite being an astute observer of human behaviour, had misjudged the very fundamental good at the heart of humanity.  We value the life of others, and in doing so validate the worth of our own.

At the end of The Dark Knight Batman has not yet learned the lesson of his trilogy yet, and so takes upon himself a new lie, deciding to accept the blame for the death of Harvey Dent.  In order to give the world a white knight to idolise and emulate, he provides an appealing lie around which Gotham could build a corrosive fiction: Batman is a villain; Harvey Dent was an uncorrupted victim and champion for good.  In an effort to protect and inspire the good in others, Batman had compromised himself and sacrificed the very freedoms he would seek to cherish – and at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises we see where this deceit has led the city, and Bruce Wayne himself…

Hence why Batman now has a limp.

Indeed, everyone starts the concluding chapter still nursing the metaphorical and literal wounds of the previous film: Jim Gordon is a weathered shell of a man, weighed down by the enormity of the lie he has perpetuated in the city’s idolatry of Harvey Dent; Alfred lives with the sorrow of seeing the child left in his care now a sallow hermit wallowing in grief and self-loathing; even Lucius Fox sits chafing in a boardroom, stunted from growing the company he stewards and itching to unleash a batch of new toys with comical ‘Bat’ prefixes.  And Bruce Wayne, physically worn down and spiritual sapped, a Spruce Goose blueprint away from total breakdown, awaits the excuse to suit up again and end his suffering via street-punk assisted suicide.  Fear has pressed in on each of these people; it has led them to compromise themselves; led them to fabricate lies; to hide beneath falsehoods in the service of a ‘greater good’.

And so, in contrast, this final act in the trilogy is about finding a way, at last, to genuinely ascend beyond the governance and definition of fear.  Indeed, this theme of ascension is built into every aspect of the text: in Bruce Wayne’s climb from prison; in Batman’s rise from being broken and left for dead; from the rise of the citizenry (both in the wake of Bane’s fabricated social inequity, to their subsequent genuine pursuit for justice); to the restoration of the police officers who crawl back into the light to restore order; from Selina Kyle striving to escape the limitations of her identity, finally inspired to stand for something more than herself; to John Blake stepping onto a platform that lifts him toward a whole new path in life…

The film therefore concerns itself with exploring the way in which society can transcend intractable cycles of behaviour, how it can confront truth and ascend beyond the stifling limitations of moral concession.  The opening shot of the film is a Batman symbol being formed in cracking ice, and it’s the perfect metaphor for this narrative: the glacial stress of all this injustice in the name of order, all this compromise to terror in the name of peace, has been building for some time, and the events of this movie are its final cathartic eruption.  Society will be changed, people die, but they will die knowing that they fought for what was right, not bowed down or compromised, finally not permitting themselves to be dictated to by fear.

Foremost, as the narrative reveals, division and demonization does not offer an answer to the threat of injustice.  Some have argued that the ‘uprising’ depicted in the film concerns class injustice (a number of reviewers have accused Nolan of making some definitive statement on the Occupy Wall Street movement), but it should be remembered that the instigator, Bane, is not at all concerned with the issues of the ‘rich’ versus ‘poor’.  Indeed, he’d be fine if the conflict tearing at Gotham’s citizens was My Little Ponies versus Transformers.  All Bane seeks to do is sew social division through the demonization of the other, whatever that other may be.  It is a tactic of partition in which terror and suspicion allow morality to be negated in yet another toxically flawed pursuit of ‘justice’ – another cycle of fear-mongering that leads to only more recrimination and amorality.  It is only by wholly dissolving such falsehoods, the narrative reveals, that there can be any hope for healing a fractured society.  As Alfred states at a pivotal moment in Bruce’s journey: it is now time for the truth to have its day, to trust that as a society we are all adult enough to deal with it.****

And that’s why in this film we no longer only see Batman in the shadows.  By the end he’s standing in broad daylight, no longer just a redirected piece of the dark – a product of fear used to terrify the fearsome – he is now a symbol of so much more.  He is resilience; sacrifice; a belief in a cause greater than oneself that can only be achieved by remaining just, and not weaponising deceit for the ‘greater good’.  In this context it is clear that everything spoken of as ‘supporting’ rendition, covert spying, and media control in The Dark Knight was merely setting the stage for this, the actual message of these films.  Batman, manifestation of our culture’s soul, was driven to his breaking point – was almost broken – but in clawing his way back from it, by not tipping over into absolute compromise, he is able to reassert himself, to stand for something more.

Nolan therefore finds a way to end the Batman mythos, while keeping its spirit alive.  The Bruce Wayne Batman ‘dies’ – sacrificing himself for the city, taking upon himself the devastation that such recrimination and division has wrought – but in that act of sacrifice he inspires others.  Thus Batman the myth does not die, instead he erupts in a messianic dispersal.  More than just a man in a suit, he reveals himself to be an idea, a symbol, one that in its cultural diffusion has more power, more influence, than a single man with a grapple gun and pointy ears ever could.  The symbolism of light throughout the work, climbing out of darkness, longingly yearning to ascend, both culturally and personally, from a state of mire and oppression to an illuminated burst of freedom, is one potently literalised with a ball of white igniting the horizon.  Batman reveals himself to be Prometheus: he snatches the light from the seemingly all-powerful and distributes it to the frightened masses cowering in fear.

Batman, throughout the three films – but most particularly in this final statement of purpose – is a construct, the collaboration of a community (from the physical man in Bruce; to the funds from his family; to the partnership with the police force in Gordon; the collaboration with the DA in Dent; the gadgets from Lucius Fox; the medical treatment from Alfred; the mask identity perpetuated by Alfred; the strategising of purchases from Alfred; the sandwiches Alfred makes; Alfred’s building a freaking Batcave …um, Alfred is kind of important).  Anyhoo: Batman here is a pastiche figure, one that, although tethered to the body of one man, could not operate without the support structure of many.

So blowing him up – annihilating the individual to bring salvation to the many – literally disperses him back amongst the populace that brought him into being.  Batman, in an act of destruction, is ironically only then truly created: now no longer localised around one perishable man and a bunker of gadgets, but ascending to the role of a guiding aspiration.  Postmodern Prometheus, with that final illuminatory burst he transcends the status of urban legend and becomes an ideological compass, now so engrained in the minds of the people, so central to their faith in themselves, that he comes to be immortalised in statue form.  He stands at the heart of their city, representative of a newly restored longing to fight oppression, to remind the populace they no longer need be bowed by fear; that in their unity, and their belief in justice, such measures need never be necessary again.

It may, of course, seem peculiar that at the end Gotham has been left almost a wasteland – an entire devastated infrastructure, criminals wandering the street, while erstwhile protector Bruce Wayne appears to be laughing it up, sipping espressos in the European sun with a pretty lady.  But rather than abandoning his post, he knows finally that he has given everything that he can to that role.  The Batman has ascended beyond him, and the best thing that he can do, finally, is to embrace that newfound life that Selina, and Alfred’s long-held wish for peace, now offer him.

Wayne originally became Batman, he tells Blake, because he wanted to be a symbol, a symbol to frighten those who would bring fear to others.  Criminals would not know who or where he was:

Batman would be real: he would be out there; and he could be anyone.

But the series reveals that this kind of vigilantism is short term.  Fear fighting fear; terror begetting only more (if displaced) terror: it is in such a landscape that creatures like the Joker prosper, an entity vomited up from the darkest recesses of the human psyche, to shake the cages of the rational world and expose the noxious raging id beneath the demure surface of the superego.   Ultimately, order cannot not be imposed upon chaos through deception, by using the tools of terror to combat terrorism.

Batman may have begun as a tool to redirect horror, but the concluding film shows that Batman’s ultimate purpose was to reveal to us how to dissolve fear itself.  The only way in which to combat terror, to overcome dread, is to bring it into the light.  As Alfred says, pleading for Wayne not to waste himself in an act of meaningless self-immolation: ‘I am using the truth, Master Wayne. Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.’

And in coming into the light, stepping out of the shadows in order to sacrifice himself to something greater, Batman does indeed become a true symbol:

Batman is real: he is in here; and he is everyone.

No longer would people live under the yoke of lies to numb themselves from responsibility.  Batman is in all of us, an ideal, a truth to be cherished, and a heroism we all can all aspire to uphold.  Batman, Postmodern Prometheus, sinks himself into shadow in order to ultimately deliver us light.

And that is why Bruce Wayne could not die.  Death would be too easy; death would be yet another slide into an easy fix; a surrender to the nihilistic self-destructive impulse that his grief had driven him toward.  The harder thing, he comes to see, is living: fighting each day to stand for something, to prosper and do good.  By finally embracing his place alongside his fellow humanity, Bruce finds the strength to do the most remarkable thing of all: to believe in life itself.

And besides, in some versions of the ancient myth, even Prometheus gets untied from the rock.

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros.)

* https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/lord-what-fools-these-mortals-be-batman-and-the-new-gods-of-the-super-heroic/

** In Greek Prometheus’ name translates as ‘fore thinker’; he is a character who uses his brains to plan out his actions.  Batman is known for his physical resilience and strength, sure, but he is foremost  the Greatest Detective.  It is his mind that sets him apart from the other heroes, and his subversive cunning that proves his most valuable tool.

*** One analysis in particular by Film Crit Hulk (who writes under the gimmick of typing in all caps), offers a rather mystifying reading of the narrative in which he dismisses the film as ‘cynical’, accusing it of having no narrative cohesion whatsoever.  He does, however, base much of this upon his utterly subjective speculation about what he thinks Nolan might have done with the story had Heath Ledger lived.

**** A moment in which Michael Caine is acting his heart out.  I salute you, sir.

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