Archive for The Dark Knight Rises

Batman v Superman: Brawl of Jaundice: Some Thoughts

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2016 by drayfish

batman-v-superman-trinity

[SPOILERS, obviously, for Batman V Superman…]

As is no doubt already evident, I was not a huge fan of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.*

Beyond that, there’s probably not much else that needs to be said.  It’s been a few weeks since its release.  The initial rush of the film’s critical panning, and the reactive rush of its defenders (usually accusing reviewers of being shameless Marvel fanboys involved in some grand conspiracy  concocted by Disney and funded by the illuminati), has, for the most part, subsided.  At this point the film can be judged on its merits…

And it’s a train wreck.  People can see well enough for themselves what a stain this film has been on the DC universe.  Admittedly there is fun to be had in this flop, but it requires work.  If you can somehow divorce yourself from what a sophomoric hit job it does on three of the most iconic characters in modern history (Wonder Woman escapes this dumpster fire with the most dignity by virtue of being largely disconnected from the plot), it is actually kind of hilarious.

Not intentionally, of course.

There’s not a single successful joke or moment of levity in this whole turgid squall of unconvincing CGI. But it does take one of the (literally) stupidest plots ever conceived and treats it with such unearned gravitas and self-seriousness that it is impossible not to be amused. It’s like watching a Dumb and Dumber sequel directed by Werner Herzog.

‘This is all super deep and heaps philosophical and stuff,’ it pouts, before Lex Luthor jitters his way into frame, starts spouting gibberish, and the whole thing reveals itself to be based on an unfinished Power Rangers script.

The film even, ironically, ends up offering a better description of itself than any of its enraged film reviewers managed:

It’s an exploding jar of human pee.

If it only weren’t so interminably boring that kind of self-destructive numb-nuttery could be respected.  But the film simply is what it is: exactly all that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are capable of producing.  They threatened as much with their tone deaf, moronic Man of Steel, and they followed type here, leaning in to their own failure with an obstinate, unearned arrogance.

Countless articles have already agreed on the same handful of points.  Yes, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a twitchy Max Landis/Mark Zuckerberg caricature, insufferable to watch and unfathomably ridiculous in his motivations.  No, none of the characters had any emotional or psychological coherency.  Of course the film doesn’t follow through on any of the trite, pseudo-philosophical concepts it name-checks in its opening half.  The fights were a grey mush with cartoon physics.  The editing was disjointed.  The dialogue stale.  The pacing baffling.  Zack Snyder’s juvenile fetishistic objectivism infected every frame of film.  And yes, its best attributes, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, were sidelined to make room for two-and-a-half interminable hours of watching a pair of narcististic, asshole psychopaths beating on everyone in sight because they are both too stupid to have a conversation that would literally clear up the entire plot in a sentence.

And if you make the mistake of trying to scratch the surface of the film’s meandering tangle of inane plot logic, you simply tumble down a well of idiocy from which there is no escape.  Why did Luthor try to get Superman all riled up about Batman if he was just going to kidnap his mother anyway?  Why did Luthor create an unstoppable killing machine?  Who did he think would be able to stop it once it killed Superman?  Why did Luthor …in fact, why did Luthor do literally anything he does in this film?  Literally.  Why did Wonder Woman think she could steal back a digital picture?  Does she not realise how computers work?  Why is phantom Pa Kent stacking rocks on a mountainside?  He can’t be a memory, because he tells Clark a story that he had never told him before, so either Clark is just hallucinating some meaningless nonsense, or he’s talking to a ghost.  Does this universe have ghosts now?  And ‘Save Martha’?!  On and on and on and on and on…  Down the rabbit hole of stupid lazy narrative contrivance.

Similarly, there is no point dipping into the slew of incredibly ill-conceived ‘think piece’ articles that arose in the wake of the film’s simultaneous bad critical reception and mammoth opening weekend.  Anyone trying to argue that the ‘age of the critic is dead’ or that ‘fans don’t care about quality’ is just wilfully peddling redundant clickbait.  The reason for that momentary disparity is – and was at the time – painfully clear.  Fans have been clamouring for a Batman and Superman film for generations – there is a reason why the World’s Finest comic crossovers have always sold out.  But that doesn’t invalidate the cinema score of B, and a second week record drop off in ticket sales of 69% when it was facing no competition.  The result is clear: the film’s initial monster box office prove that the idea of this film, not the film itself, drew people in.  Sight unseen it broke box office records; once the audience got a look they rejected this mess completely.

But despite all this, I did want to share some of the thought that occurred to me as I watched this thing unfold.  Not because I think they are particularly insightful or original, but because this film led me through a rollercoaster of realisations, some hopeful; at least one truly horrifying. So what follows is a kind of reverse director’s commentary (because it is the director I am frequently commenting upon)…

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IMAGE: ‘Yeah, hi.  We get the messiah imagery, Mr Superman.  Thanks.  Can you please just save us from drowning now?’

About ten minutes in – once the flashback within the fantasy within the dream sequence had already strangled the script into incoherency – I became aware of something that actually helped me let go of a lot of my anxieties.  I realised, all at once, that neither Batman nor Superman actually appear in this movie.  And I mean that literally.  There are characters labelled ‘Superman’ and ‘The Bat’ that show up, characters that wear vaguely similar (if gothed-down) costumes, but even if there were a way to bring this up on a charge of copyright infringement, the case could ever be proved.  Because nothing else of the history of the Batman and Superman characters remain.  Every defining characteristic has been jettisoned so as to refashion them into the most derivative ultra-hardcore-awesome version of them possible.

Here, Superman mopes and abandons the world because he doesn’t like it when humanity asks him to please stop crushing them like bugs.  Here Batman kills and uses guns.  Here the death of his parents didn’t inspire him to try and prevent others from ever having to feel that same pain; it instead taught him to become a sociopath:

‘I bet your parents taught you that you mean something; that you’re here for a reason.  My parents taught me a different lesson.  Dying in the gutter for no reason at all.  They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.’

This narrative is, I realised, just an Elseworlds edition, written by an angsty eleven year old.  What, it asks, would it be like if Batman was a murderous, mutilating lunatic, hypocritically exploiting the death of his parents as an excuse to indulge his every urge for wanton mayhem because awesome?  What if Superman was an aloof ubermensch, bored with the world and training himself to ignore its pain, who just wanted everyone to leave him alone for like five minutes, dad?!  Geez!

In a move that serves as more of a commentary on his own psyche than anything that these icons have ever represented, Snyder – either profoundly misunderstanding the characters, or just not giving a damn because it looked superficially ‘cool’ – has hollowed out both figures into the narcissistic power fantasies of an entitled, self-righteous douchebag.  You can almost hear the echo of teenage Snyder’s inner monologue moaning about how hard it is to be rich and powerful when everyone expects you to succeed.

At this point, around a third of the way through the film, after Metropolis and Gotham had been geographically established to be one city, I was becoming more and more surprised at exactly how much latitude DC and Warner Bros. had given a hack storyteller like Zack Snyder to cripple the world-building of their cinematic franchise.

To use just a couple of the several examples that present themselves during the film: Snyder decided that it would be hilarious to take the character of Jimmy Olsen – in the history of the Superman story, traditionally Superman’s loyal ‘pal’; overeager, if accident prone cub photographer – and immediately put a bullet in his head:

“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

He thought it would be fun.  You know – like a psychopath.

And it struck me how absurd, and obtuse this decision was.**  Because to non-fans watching the film Olsen appears as just some random CIA operative, killed as a display of hostility.  The only people for whom this ‘joke’ lands, therefore, are those who are fans of these characters and their histories.  To a fan – and only to a fan – the ‘joke’ is that a pivotal component of the mythos they love has been unceremoniously slaughtered for no reason.  His death is not shown to have any unique impact upon any of the characters in the movie.  It’s not done to make a point about sacrifice, or heroism.  He’s just killed because, ha ha, you liked him and probably expected more.  (Also, if you like Mercy Graves, Luthor’s assistant, don’t get too attached either.)

Snyder’s ‘gags’ consist of weaponising the history of Superman against the people who love it the most.  What the viewer loves and recognises is used to hurt them.  On a textual level it is analogous to the way Luther is later shown baiting Batman with the death of his parents, or ghoulishly blackmailing Superman by kidnapping his mother.  Snyder aspires, apparently, to be like the unhinged jag-off he places as the antagonist of his hysterically buffoonish plot.  And to his absolutely-no-credit, he succeeds.

His botched characterisation of Batman too shows a similar contempt for the future of the franchise.  Because although having Batman indiscriminately use guns and murder criminals might be cool in the short term (‘Wow, he set that guy on fire!’ ‘Whee, he crushed that guy’s face with his car!”), it immediately undermines any future appearance of the character.  Not only does it make him boring – any moron can grab a gun and run into the street to kill someone; what makes Batman extraordinary is that doesn’t resort to his enemy’s cowardice – it also means that in future there is no reason not to kill Joker or Two Face.  Given that he has now proved himself willing to kill innumerable common street thugs (and knowingly brand them so that they can be killed by other people later) he cannot suddenly become precious about murdering his rogues gallery.  The next time the Joker turns up in a film and Batman doesn’t immediately kill him, he will look like a hypocritical fool.  And I don’t say that happily – I never want Batman to be judge, jury and executioner – I am merely pointing out that by this idiotic film’s own logic, his character has tipped over into a realm of murderous vigilantism from which he cannot return.  They’ve either made him a boring killer, or a hypocrite.  Either way, he is to become the mass-murdering, gun-toting, fascist head of this universe’s now thoroughly compromised ‘Justice League’.  And that’s not the origin story of a team of ‘heroes’, it’s Dick Cheney’s dream journal.

Batman v superman MARTHA

IMAGE: ‘Well my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan, SO YOU DIE NOW!’

Later, I would be even more shocked to recognise the wealth of source material that DC had allowed Snyder to burn off.  Not only does he waste The Dark Knight Rises’ battle between Superman and Batman, but the Death of Superman story also gets worked over in a ‘surprise’ third act ‘twist’ (honestly, calling this a ‘twist’ is such a ludicrous capitulation to this story’s gormlessness that it beggars belief, but whatever).  Rather than allowing Snyder to take a swing at one adaptation of an iconic story as he sought to set up their future franchises, for some reason they let him strangle two at once.

The Death of Superman, in particular, is a controversial storyline.  It’s not that beloved, but it is famous.  It’s iconic.  More importantly, it’s a storyline that could have been used to great effect in a larger arc of movies, something built to over multiple films that would have been enormously impactful and bold.  Instead, it was turned into a weird narrative Hail Mary at the end of an already overstuffed film, robbed of all of its gravitas.  It simultaneously removes all stakes from both Superman’s death (instead of the world losing a Superman that they admire, everyone is just freed the headache of having this super-powered alien stomping around their major cities) and his inevitable return (once it becomes clear that he can just die and come back from the dead arbitrarily, what future stories can threaten him?)

And it probably goes without saying that the clumsy setup for the larger DC universe was underwhelming.  Crammed into the lead up to the title fight by way of an unnecessary cameo by Wonder Woman (don’t get me wrong, I liked Gadot’s take on Diana Prince, but she had no reason to be in this plot), the best the film could concoct was a USB filled with trailers for Warner Bros.’ upcoming cinema releases?  Suddenly Lex Luthor, the inept bad guy whose greatest success was sneaking a jar of piss into a government building, has proved himself so bad at his job that he actually gathered together and named the members of the Justice League, just cause?  He even gives them logos!  Just like shoving Gotham and Metropolis across the bay from one another; just like making Batman a murderer because it’s cool; it’s narratively expedient (read: lazy), but shrinks this universe into a series of hackneyed conveniences.

Bafflingly, Warner Bros. and DC allowed a film to be made that leaves almost no wiggle room to build a future universe.   While Marvel’s long-term storytelling gradually thread individual stories into an expanding whole until The Avengers burst through the screen, Batman v Superman tries to immediately barf a universe into existence at once, and fumbles it on every level.  Narratively.  Thematically.  It paints future directors and artists into corners from which they cannot escape.  In their kneejerk response to the catch up to the Marvel franchise, DC seems to have allowed Snyder free reign to burn down their enterprise before it is even gets started.

By the time Superman helped armed terrorists get away by smashing up Batman’s car and the two ‘heroes’ were shoving each other through buildings, it became clear to me how utterly Snyder had even missed the point of each of the graphic novels he was ‘adapting’.  Snyder, in countless interviews, has bleated on and on about what a fan of comic books he is.  They are his source material, he claims.  His bible.  He has actors read them on set to help achieve the vision of the original work.  But it became clear that had he actually bothered to read any of the material from which he was stealing his aesthetics, he would have noticed the innumerable, direct contradictions in his plot points that bastardise the spirit of the original texts.

Snyder has repeatedly justified his presentation of the Batman character by citing Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story he said shows Batman drinking and killing and using guns.  But even a cursory glance at the source material reveals every part of this statement to be factually wrong.  The retired Bruce Wayne stops drinking when he becomes Batman again.  His no killing rule doesn’t waver – he cannot even bring himself to kill the Joker.  That becomes the whole point of their final conflict, Joker kills himself just to ‘win’.  Batman uses rubber suppression bullets in is Batmobile (honest).  He even makes the opposite argument about using guns himself.  In a pivotal moment of the story Batman holds up a firearm and states unequivocally to his forces: This is the weapon of the enemy.  Of cowards.  We don’t use these.  That’s right: even the gristled old fascist, secessionist nutbag Batman of Frank Miller wont resort to the weapon that slaughtered his parents.

dark knight rises guns

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises by Frank Miller, which Zack Snyder totally read.

Similarly in the Death of Superman – a pretty dumb story, frankly, but one that is illustrative of what makes the character of Superman great – the point was not that Superman is so stupid he blindly runs in and gets himself killed by a storming rock monster.  It’s that he is willing to literally be the last one fighting.  The fact that in Snyder’s contrived ending Superman ignores Wonder Woman’s help – she who could have gone in and stabbed Doomsday with the kryptonite spear without dying immediately – is just another sign of how woefully myopic Clark is in this version.

It has always been obvious that Snyder is not the ‘visionary’ his advertising material declares him to be, but rather a mimic.  For years he has been humoured for taking comic book panels and slavishly recreating them on film.  His 300 and Watchmen films were in good part just live action restagings of the original books’ imagery (smothered with grain and sepia filters).  But that’s not adaptation.  At the very best it is translation.  In another context it would be plagiarism.  It’s certainly not evidence of someone with a vision, but rather a person who has to ape the work of others to make up for their own shortfall in creativity.  What is surprising, though, is that the decisions he makes in Batman v Superman show that despite his apparent adoration of all the pretty pictures, Snyder clearly never bothers to read the words coming out of the character’s mouths.  He takes a comic book medium too often unjustly accused of superficiality and, by transporting them to the screen actually does just turn them into empty pictures.

And all this made me realise, as I watched the myriad ways that the DC universe was collapsing in on itself, that Batman v Superman might very well be the most cynical, spiteful film ever made.  It hates its characters.  It hates its own world, and goes out of its way to undermine any subsequent worlds that might be built upon its ashes.

Most of all it hates you.  The audience.  The viewer.  Anyone foolish enough to want to go on its gaudy, wilfully asinine journey.  It clearly thinks that you – that I, that all of us – are stupid.  It does patronising things like telling us – multiple times – that there are no civilian casualties in the smouldering wreckages of Metropolis and Gotham, and it actually believes its audience is obtuse enough not to question that logic***.  It runs trailers for the perpetual forced franchise it wants you to invest in amidst a single film that has already descended into unintelligible drivel.  It alters the characterisations of its heroes to make them actively moronic and thuggish.  Thomas Wayne takes a swing at his mugger, endangering his wife and child with his pigheaded heroics.  Batman is tricked by Lex Luthor into behaving like a narrow-minded goon.  Superman is a self-loathing blank slate.  Mythic, complex characters are stripped of all their poetry and grace as Snyder’s inane, nihilistic, masturbatory slurry takes everything good, or original, or unique about these characters, and turns it into the same shallow, washed-out slow motion show reel he has been making for the past dozen years.

Batman-v-Superman-filming-Superman-rescues-Lois-Lane

IMAGE: Why does no one appreciate my super city-destroying powers?

And it was around here, in this cascade of bad will, that I had the darkest, most horrific realisation that has ever flittered through my mind.  Truly, I am about to utter words that have rocked me to my core.  Watching Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, I thought to myself:

I wish this had been directed by Michael Bay.

That’s right.  Michael goddamn Bay.

You have no idea the amount of loathing I had for myself at that moment – but it was true.  Watching the man who had shown such contempt for Superman in Man of Steel get his hands on Batman too – seeing Snyder turn another character defined by their compassion and moral fortitude into facile grimdark slurry – it broke me.  As did knowing that he was about to get his fingerprints on Wonder Woman too.  Having the ‘motivational’ speech of the film, Pa Kent’s ghost/dream/whatever speech to Clark on the top of a mountain for no reason, be yet another reminder that trying to be good, and trying to help others only ever ends in disaster – I just snapped.

I thought to myself, has there ever been a more asinine and adolescent vision of heroism in the history of film?  In the history of narrative?  Why, I wondered, is Zack Snyder telling these stories if heroism for him is just a gigantic pain, where the hero hates himself, the people hate him, and nothing is motivational or aspirational; it’s all just a ridiculous power-fantasy where the guy in the cape just spends his time moping because everyone doesn’t love him unconditionally enough?  I was watching my favourite characters, and the whole DC universe around them, mutate before my eyes into a dreary, cynical mess in which heroism is not just actively discouraged, it must be constantly reiterated as futile; an enactment of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in colourful spandex, superficial and selfish and vile.

It was a bleak world view so puerile and oppressive that I started to realise: literally the only thing this film has going for it is spectacle.  I realised that Warner Bros. have allowed Snyder to sacrifice the heart of their franchise for empty pyrotechnics.  They wanted to do Transformers business: ragingly success films largely devoid of character and plot, that function purely to move from one expensive spectacle to the next.

And if that is what they want, I realised, they should just get Michael Bay.  I realised – feeling a swell of revulsion as I said it – that I would easily rather have Bay direct a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman film than Zack Snyder.  I would actually prefer his signature cheesy, brutal, obtuse filmmaking style over all this unearned nihilistic posturing.

Because then, at least, you get your spectacle.  Whatever else you might think of Bay – and I don’t think much – the man can film explosions.  But more than that, his weird fetishism for Americana – his obsession with soldiers portrayed as gods on earth, with hot apple pies and American flags waving – would, albeit clumsily, actually speak to some of the themes of these characters.

Bay, in spite of himself perhaps, would present a Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman that were symbols of hope.  It might be a very childish vision of hope – and of truth and justice – but you would certainly get your ‘American way’.  It might look, in cinematic terms, like a child’s crayon drawing, but it would at least capture the thumbnail sketch of these heroes with some neat looking flames thrown in for good measure.  (On second thoughts, you might want to get someone other than Bay to direct Wonder Woman or things could get disturbingly pervy. )

Snyder, despite being equally juvenile in his output, is the complete opposite of Bay’s spirit.  In his efforts to set up a ‘cool’ alternate universe, in which truth and hope are ignored, while never actually deconstructing or examining those ideas, what he actually reveals is that he and his universe are devoid of vision.  You cannot even enjoy the pretty pictures then, because they become representative of nothing.

So thanks for that Warner Bros.  You made a film so bad that I would actually welcome Michael Bay getting his grubby, baby-oil slathered fingers on my favourite iconic characters.

I need a shower.

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IMAGE: The best thing in the movie; barely in the movie

But this brought me to my final realisation.  It’s now the end of the film; the characters have waved at a CGI monster on a green screen for twenty minutes, and I have watched Superman arbitrarily die  …and  felt nothing.  I, who at twelve years old fanatically bought every comic leading up to the death of Superman.  I, who stood in place (it only felt right to stand as I read that issue), stunned as I opened that final fold-out page and saw him slump back dead into the dirt.  I, who ridiculously bought into the hype that he really was gone, and felt genuinely haunted by what I had just read.  I watched that story enacted on the cinema screen, and felt nothing at all.

And if that moment had so little effect on me, I can only imagine how miniscule the impact must have been for average viewers who had no such adoration for the character.  It got me thinking.  About the second week skydive in ticket sales for this film (which puts it in the category of Green Lantern and Wolverine: Origins)****, about the critical backlash (it remains pinned at 28% on Rotten Tomatoes), about the horrid word of mouth.  I wondered if it was this emptiness of spirit, symbolised by this hollow ending, that audiences have been rejecting?  The lack of genuine ideological conflict in the clash between these two characters – so contrived that it can be resolved by a piece of comic book trivia?  Martha indeed.  Because once you’ve seen the only thing that Snyder can offer – the spectacle – there is nothing to return to.  No aspiration.  No joy.  No subtext.

Snyder has traded on eighty years of good will and audience investment in these characters.  He has taken figures that have built mythologies and made them unrecognisable, emptying their narratives of meaning.  And now that  Warner Bros. and DC have tried to build a world upon a foundation of nihilism and cynicism, without replacing the elements of  that universe that they let be desecrated, all that is left is a universe devoid of substance.  Nothing for an audience to return to, to mull over or take inspiration from.  And if heroes don’t have morals, or ideals, or identifiable struggles, if they are all just CGI splash and grating sonics, they fade instantly.  Their films die near immediately at the box office.  They themselves dissolve near immediately in the mind.  Once the spectacle is consumed, it instantaneously fades.

And that made me, amidst all of this despair and mess, cautiously hopeful.  Because this film’s relative failure – initially buoyed by the hopes of an audience that were dashed upon seeing the final product – is a harbinger of the failure that awaits the DC cinematic universe if they follow the patented Snyder brand of dreary, superficial mediocrity.  And since Warner Bros. cannot afford to risk a repeat of this scenario – audiences are less likely to fall for this trick again – that doesn’t look so likely as it had before.

To end on a happier note: it’s for this exact reason that so many viewers have become fixated on Gal Gadot’s smile.  Wonder Woman’s flash of excitement is the one thing that shines bright amidst this turgid, dreary mess of a film.  Because that smile implies joy.  It implies hope.  Amidst all this droning CGI carnage, that one movement the lips implies a depth of character – or at least just another layer to a character – that is lacking everywhere else on the screen.

And what that suggests to me is that Warner Bros., if they have the clarity to see the audience reaction for what it is – unbridled excitement for the film, and complete disinterest in what Snyder and Goyer presented – it could signal a fundamental redirection for this universe.

And the signals are there that this could already be happening.  The upcoming Suicide Squad has now gone back for reshoots to bump up its character interaction, something sorely missing from Snyder’s film in which Superman and Wonder Woman do not even speak; the director of Aquaman, James Wan, has already distanced himself from Snyder’s oppressive, joyless tone.

But as the film finally sputtered to an end after several tedious fake-outs, I realised that even if none of these dreams come to fruition, even if in two years Zack Snyder is still turning Justice League into a seven hour joyless, glowering dirge, at least I still have The Flash and Supergirl to watch – shows that aren’t embarrassed by joy and inspiration.  Shows that actually like their own characters, and respect their audience, and that are comfortable enough in their skin not to need to pose and posture and misquote philosophies they don’t understand just to sound cool.

And with that I fired up the Supergirl/Flash crossover episode again, and happily lost myself in a world where superheroes still have something worthwhile to say about life.

flash and supergirl

IMAGE:  So much better than anything in this film it’s embarrassing

* If you want to hear my opinion of the glowering, dour sociopath that was Snyder’s Man of Steel, read here.

** To be clear, it was only after reading the credits that I realised murdered photographer was Olsen, but the meaninglessness and callousness of that death, so early in the picture, had been weighing on me the whole time, proof that Snyder had happily refused to learn anything about the criticism Man of Steel had received for its cavalier brutality.

*** Presumably Snyder’s feelings were hurt when people criticised the gleeful collateral damage of Man of Steel, but he could only be bothered paying the most glib lip service to that complaint.

**** As I type this during its third weekend after release, the film was beaten outright by critically panned Melissa McCarthy comedy The Boss.

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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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