Christopher Nolan's “Dark Knight” trilogy is a global phenomenon, of course. But a notable side effect of the movies' success is that renowned critics have praised them as great films with deeper meanings than those of a standard comic-book flick.
Roger Ebert, for one, claimed that 2008's The Dark Knight “leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy” and “redefine(s) the possibilities of the 'comic-book movie'”. A poll by Empire magazine named it the 15th greatest movie of all time (just above 2001: A Space Odyssey and Taxi Driver). Rolling Stone's Peter Travers compared Christian Bale's performance to Al Pacino's in The Godfather Part II. And now, despite some negative and mixed reviews, The Dark Knight Rises is getting similar praise and analysis from a few writers: Salon's Andrew O'Hehir deems it a masterpiece; Richard Roeper finds thematic parallels to 9/11 and the economic meltdown while calling it “a worthy conclusion to one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time”; and the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan hails it as “more than an exceptional superhero movie – it is masterful filmmaking by any standard”. Other commentators (e.g., The Guardian) are calling it a thinly disguised critique of the “Occupy” movement.
Justified? Or are they trying to find Picasso in a Norman Rockwell painting? Does “the Batman” triumph as cinematic art?
I approach this question as a film lover who grew up on the classics of Hitchcock, Capra and Wilder, and whose mind was blown apart when he discovered Welles, Polanski, Truffaut and De Sica – but who also appreciates fun popcorn entertainment when it's done well. I'm a firm believer that deep art and popular entertainment don't have to be mutually exclusive, and I've often staunchly defended the (better) work of Steven Spielberg, Chuck Jones, The Beatles, Charles Dickens and other great entertainers as functioning on multiple levels.
But – as much as I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises – I'm wondering if the “serious” aspirations of Nolan's trilogy are just what many of us want to believe.
Hollywood is now so bloated with in-your-face blockbuster spectacle, especially in the summer, that the concept of personal film art sometimes seems to have gone the way of the eight-track. Many film critics and writers have lamented the infantilization of our movie culture over the last thirty years, but the level of pre-sold blockbusters this year is astonishing: three high-profile superhero sagas (plus a rebooted Superman coming next year), an unnecessary remake of Total Recall, a new James Bond adventure, another Ice Age, another Expendables, and so on. Could it be that some cineastes are so desperate to find something remotely resembling depth, high craft and challenging themes out of the Hollywood hit factory, that they've lowered their standards to let Nolan's trilogy into the canon?
As former Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote about Inception: “If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing.”
The Dark Knight Rises is “awesome”, for sure. It's got kick-ass action set pieces, rife with explosions, suspense, planes and trucks and motorbikes and kewl gadgets and everything else that the adolescent geek boy inside of us loves. It's full of breathtaking visual moments, like the Batwing's flights, the destruction of a football field, and Anne Hathaway's slender bod. It also has the hero overcoming unlikely odds to triumph over obstacles, not once but at several key moments, which we always root for.
And you're welcome to read deeper themes, meanings and levels into it all, if that's what you see. Call it a conservative commentary on “Occupy Wall Street” if you want, although Nolan insists to Rolling Stone that his films aren't meant to be political. You can see it as a compelling character study, following Bruce Wayne's journey from recluse to hero again, or you can see it as a statement on terrorism or urban crime or the economic climate or whatever revs up your Batcycle. But really – is that what most people are getting out of the film?
After all, when you reduce all interpretation variables, it's still a movie about a dude in a weird costume fighting another dude in a weird costume. Most people don't go to The Dark Knight Rises to get a new perspective on the complex world around them – they go to escape the real world. They want to see Batman punch out bad guys and stuff get all blowed up. And there's nothing wrong with that. Good versus evil is a universal and timeless theme, even if movies usually depict it too simplistically to qualify as what we think of as “art”.
Hitchcock always said, “The better the villain, the better the picture.” And that summarizes what limits the artistic scope of The Dark Knight Rises so much for me: the main villain, Bane, is just too dull and one-note to be as fascinating as Heath Ledger's Joker. There's nothing human or lifelike about him – you can't even see most of Tom Hardy's face behind that Hannibal Lecter-ish muzzle, and his garbled voice is so theatrical and phony, he often comes off as a WWE wrestler doing a bad Darth Vader impression. His motivations for wanting to corrupt (and then destroy) Gotham are unclear; he's really there only to be evil, to make evil plans and do evil things, which is hardly the basis for great dramatic conflict.
Chicago film critic Jim Emerson has written several enlightening essays for his blog, Scanners, analyzing what he perceives as the flaws in Nolan's Batman films, such as the unimaginative compositions, the incoherent editing and the expository, dialogue-heavy approach to their themes. In the recent entry “Superheroes: Good vs. Evil isn't really much of a theme”, he writes: “Good and evil exist only in the human heart and mind and cannot be artificially separated. One always contains the seeds of the other. In fact, I'd argue that the idea that the world can be broken into such categories is, perhaps, integral to the very definition of evil itself – a notion, I think, that's at least more provocative and intriguing than pretending that it's so easy to tell one from the other.” He also points out that the Nazi horrors couldn't have happened without the manipulated assistance of ordinary Germans who honestly thought they were helping a good cause. “That's the stuff of history, and that's the stuff of drama.”
So no matter how bleak, gritty and realistic-looking Nolan makes his Batman films, it's not like he's breaking any new ground by just pitting clear-cut good guys against bad guys. Just once, wouldn't you love to see a Batman film – or any typical Hollywood action blockbuster – with the kind of realistic moral ambiguity and contradictions that Emerson's talking about? (Ironically, Emerson has also called Bane “the perfect villain for this film”.)
Also ironic is that Nolan handled moral complexity very well in his early psychological thrillers, Memento and the U.S. remake of Insomnia. These movies worked because the protagonists were hardly exempt from unsavoury deeds and self-delusion, while the villains were not entirely one-dimensional evil people. That approach may not sell as many movie tickets, but it gives you a lot more to think about when you leave the theatre.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm just out to trash The Dark Knight Rises. I liked the movie, although I'm not sure why anybody would want to see it multiple times. There's a level of emptiness in the film that makes me wish that more of its fans would expand their horizons beyond the make-believe world of superheroes and monsters. The recent Iranian film A Separation is a small drama that's as gripping and suspenseful as any superhero movie, in its own way, but with a strong human element, a fascinating cultural context and no clear heroes or villains. And if Pixar's animated films can succeed at creating fast-paced adventures with surprisingly mature themes and fully-realized characters, why can't more moviegoers seek out the same qualities in live-action movies?
The only surefire way to test whether a movie is “great” or a “classic” is time. If people are still referring to the Dark Knight trilogy as masterpieces thirty years from now, I'll be sure to order a dipping sauce when I feast on that crow. But my hope is that someday, the Hollywood hype system will burn itself out, audiences will get tired of seeing the same formulaic adventures over and over, and we'll have a glorious rehash of what happened in the late 1960s and '70s – when independent-minded talents like Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick, Polanski and Rafelson took over and redefined what mainstream cinema could be as an art form.
I don't mind a blockbuster movie. Is it too much to ask for one that's geared to grownups?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com