This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.
Following the release of the Christopher Nolan Film: The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) I think most people are aware of the tragic events in Colorado in one premiere screening. What happened was hard to comprehend in a moral sense, as it reflects a very disturbing moral sentiment on the part of the perpetrator. Sensitive reviewers have acknowledged that this was a very sad event and threatens the percieved safety of what should be an enjoyable experience in civil life, namely, going to the movies.
It is also within good taste to acknowledge univocally that the Colorado shooting was morally abhorrent. Christopher Nolan commented on the shooting with absolute condemnation, as someone who considers the cinema a safe space and an important cultural venue. There is a lingering sense of discomfort about the event, however, especially because James Holmes declared himself as a Joker-style copycat.
When I saw DKR with Antisophie, she told me how her thoughts led back to The Dark Knight film of 2008, and DKR essentially improved her appreciation of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight has since become a cultural artefact of our times. Villains and Heroes are completely confused in Nolan’s world. Government departments are corrupt while a criminally violent vigilante holds the protagonist role, but by his own recognition is performing a task that has no moral legitimacy compared to say, the police or the legal system.
I wish to address a few aspects of the film, and avoid repeating good points from other reviews. Firstly I wish to address the soundtrack. Following, wish to address the theme of ‘Truth and Lies’. I shall then consider how the representation of Batman is subverted by the Nolan Brothers and forms a kind of critique about the very idea of such a character. Finally I wish to consider the social dimensions of the film as a closing reflection.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aesthetic things I enjoyed about the film was its soundtrack. In my view there hasn’t been a film soundtrack this good since Inception, and that was also a collaboration between Hans Zimmer (composer) and Christopher Nolan. If there are two things that I found especially powerful about the soundtrack it would be the use of leitmotif and the nature of the ‘Bane’ theme.
Leitmotif, as Michael is very eager to talk about, is the use of a melodic line to represent a feeling or character that is consistent in (say) an opera. Leitmotif is said by some to be pinnacle of programme music and thematic works, because of the unity that they try to stress. After watching DKR, I was inspired to watch Batman Begins and Dark Knight again, and I realised throughout Batman Begins (particularly in the origin scenes of Batman) there were melodic motifs subtly used that were referenced in DKR, the resonance of this is that there is a sense of birth and rebirth (eternal recurrence?) to Bruce Wayne’s character. In becoming Batman and training under the League of Shadows, Wayne had to face his sense of fear. When Wayne was placed in the prison pit by Bane seriously injured, he also had to face a rebirth, by embracing his fear of death. This was, I believe, the allusion that was trying to be achieved by the use of melodic phrases in DKR that borrowed from Batman Begins.
Coming on to the Bane theme. I thought that was particularly moving how the chant was used as a rhythmic frame, as opposed to using a melody line as the basis of a theme. Rhythm has a very powerful place in music, and European art music does not use it in as many interesting ways as other musical traditions compared to say, Bhangra. The use of a rhythmic cell rather than a melodic one makes for a very powerful soundtrack, and its one that will stick in my mind for a long time.
Truth and Lies
One moral dimension of the film was the moral role of truth telling. Perhaps this could be construed as a Kantian moral about the absolute good of maintaining the institution of being truthful. Throughout the film there are lies, or withheld truths kept in the 8 years between the Dark Knight and DKR in the series timeline. The climate has changed fundamentally due to two actions, one is that the behaviour of Harvey Dent murdering police officers is explained by Batman allegedly doing the deed, in order to keep the prosecution case against organised criminals (which was the slightly complicated plot of Dark Knight).
The other aspect of this is that Batman/Bruce Wayne had to accept false responsibility for this. As a result of his faith destroyed in Harvey Dent, and perhaps the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne decides to retire from being Batman. Another crucial truth is withheld. Bruce Wayne believed that if he ever were to relinquish his Batman identity he could have a relationship with Dawes. What was not revealed to him was that Dawes ultimately chose to accept Dent’s marriage proposal, just before she died. Alfred withheld this information as a way to spare him from a painful truth.
Lying has consequences, and it shows the way that morality and ethics pulls apart. For most putative conceptions, morality is about ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’, or ‘Goodness’ and ‘Bad’ in terms of perhaps decisions or effects. Ethics by contrast, may be said to pertain to character. Michael told me in an editorial email that he believed the meanings were reversed for these terms but I still hold to this distinction. For Jim Gordon, the cost of lying to Gotham about Harvey Dent destroyed his family relationship (Gordon, as you may remember, also faked his death as well). The cost of peace comes at the coin of his character and moral legitimacy.
Alfred’s withholding of the truth has also had an effect on his character. By withholding the truth about Dawes, Alfred thought that he would spare Wayne from unnecessary pain by letting him believe that he could have made a relationship with Dawes, but he realises that the consequences of not telling his employer is that it made a hermit out of him, who believed that there was ‘nothing out there anymore’ in the world, causing an inward retreat. There is something distinctly philosophical about this theme of the film, moral/ethical decisions can have an impact on the character of a person, some decisions which may cause less harm may be destructive on one’s character. Posed in this way, DKR may sound more like an elongated moral parable by Plato’s Socrates on a discourse on truth-telling.
Batman turned on its head
I think that DKR represents a critique of previous Batman representations, and the idea of Bruce Wayne/Batman in general. It has been commented how Bruce Wayne lives in extreme wealth in lieu of a gamut of social woes while he dedicates himself to what may be seen as street level crime. Wayne retreats in his economic luxury while the ills of the world do not lay in organised crime, but unemployment and those other things that the real world contains. Batman Begins acknowledges a period of ‘depression’ which created mass unemployment and suggestibly fertilised a period of corruption and organised crime. One thing that brought Wayne out of retirement is that he chose to ignore the social problems of the world, represented by John Blake pointing out that Wayne’s charitable funds have been allocated away from an orphanage which he used to support.
Batman recognises the limitations of what a vigilante can do throughout the series of films. There are other shortcomings which are acknowledged about the Batman character, one notable thing is that Bruce Wayne tends to have a soft spot for women, at the expense of keeping his secret identity! This is the case certainly for many of the other Batman films where Wayne has a romantic interest. In short, he just can’t help telling the woman he likes that he’s a superhero! I think one flaw of the character is that he’s too trusting of ‘nurturing’ female types. I thought it was absurd how Wayne gave all of his assets to Miranda Tate, a woman that he met only a few times before essentially giving her ultimate control of Wayne Enterprises. This of course was his folly, as Tate ended up being the main villain of the film! Batman is definitely a flawed character, both in terms of what he represents and how futile his ventures are to real social problems, and in terms of how the character is often represented in films. Kevn Conroy’s animated Batman by contrast hardly has such a weakness for women or rather, not so easily he reveals his real identity!
I have remarked that poverty was one aspect of the Nolan world in the Batman films. Other socially poignant issues are also alluded to but not well developed throughout the films. A brief suggestion towards the importance of renewable energy mainly is a foil for a plot device, which is almost so brief it makes me think it is a unnecessary aspect of the film with so much else going on. There is a general sense of malaise created by the dark camera filters and the way that a sense of paranoia or moral panic is created in the films, from Batman as a vigilante, to the way in which copycat Bat-men appear as a form of dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Selina Kyle’s character points to the injustice of mass wealth distribution with the very poor said to be working in the sewers (as it turns out to be for Bane), and that this inequality cannot last forever without a violent form of revolution. There is an ambiguity to the film in that the issues addressed do not go one way or another to these perennial thoughts. I think every society has had an issue with wealth inequalities or the scarcity gap between what we need and what we have (and subsequently, what we need but cannot have).
I would like to reference a contrasting example of the superhero narrative in relation to social themes. At the moment, Marvel Comics have an ‘Avengers Vs. X Men’ serial, which involves 5 of the X-Men receiving a powerful cosmic power called the Phoenix, which gives them near absolute power. The fear of the Avengers is that this power will be corrupting and destructive. The X-Men who received this power have decided to try and solve world problems by sealing the San Andreas Fault, attempting to create a good harvest yield around the world to sustain a growing population Cyclops, Namor, Colossus, Emma Frost and Magik attempt to ‘save’ the world through dealing with fundamental human problems of survival and attempt to create a form of Pax Romana, or as they call it Pax Utopia. I think something like the X-Men represent a useful commentary on the utility of superheroes against the issues that form the backdrop of their world. Exactly what is the Batman character changing, or what exactly can one individual do to make a difference? The conclusion of DKR involves a play between not just Batman, but collaborators such as the Police, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox all having a small part to save the city. Although Batman ultimately saves the day through a single action, Nolan shows that a single actor cannot do all the change, but it comes from collaboration. Perhaps this is a salient moral to add to the superhero mythos.