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Barbenheimer: 'The Dark Knight Rises'
July 21 will see the simultaneous release of writer/director Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. In anticipation of this momentous event, I am become BARBENHEIMER, the retrospective of worlds. We begin today with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's 2012 conclusion to his trilogy of Bat-movies.
(Quick aside: My idea with this series was to try and track the outputs of Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig as their careers criss-crossed. But Gerwig is thirteen years younger than Nolan, and he was a decade into his filmography already by the time Gerwig was just starting out. Her output as a director has also, to date, been far less than Nolan's. So I'm cheating here and starting with The Dark Knight Rises, which came out the same year as Frances Ha, Gerwig's first writing collaboration with Noah Baumbach. Just in case you're wondering why I'm not beginning with Following or even one of the other Batman movies. With that out of the way...)
One thing which really surprises me about Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is that, eleven years after its release, so few people - including hardcore Bat-fans! - seem to have missed how much it draws from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. No, it's not a 1:1 adaptation, the same way Batman Begins wasn't a precise translation of Miller's Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight didn't maintain complete fidelity to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke or Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's The Long Halloween. But Nolan clearly took a lot of concepts, and even some of his basic story structure, from Miller's masterpiece (the screenplay was co-written by Jonathan Nolan, while David S. Goyer shares a 'story by' credit with the director).
In The Dark Knight Rises, as in The Dark Knight Returns...
Bruce Wayne has been retired from being Batman for roughly a decade as the result of losing a close ally to the Joker (Rachel/Jason Todd) and finally being outlawed by a legitimate governmental decree.
Failure to save Harvey Dent, a.k.a. 'Two-Face,' looms over the proceedings.
The thing that draws Bruce out of retirement is a new cult-like presence in Gotham, which is lead by a giant, bald muscular dude who wears a weird looking mask (and Bane, as portrayed by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, really does look almost as much like the Mutant Leader as he does the Bane from the comics). Many members of this criminal enterprise are disenfranchised youths.
Said giant, bald muscular dude beats the living shit out Batman while his followers spectate.
Batman is ultimately victorious at least in part due to the help of a Robin who is extremely eager to assist the Caped Crusader in any manner they can.
Batman fakes his own death following the climactic battle and devotes his remaining resources to helping other Gotham City orphans.
Like I said, it's a loose adaptation that also draws on other sources of Batman lore (mostly obviously, the Knightfall and Cataclysm, but also A Lonely Place of Living and The Cult and Legacy). But it's there.
And yet, almost a year to the day after The Dark Knight Rises was released, director Zack Snyder announced that he'd be pulling from The Dark Knight Returns for his new movie, which was released in 2016 with the god-awful title Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As is Snyder's M.O., he faithfully recreated some of Miller's most famous visual iconography: An armored Batman fighting Superman, Batman's silhouette lit by a lightening bolt, the general design of the Batsuit, casting Ben Affleck as a burlier-looking Batman, quick lines of dialogue and/or pieces of scenes (e.g., "I believe you,"), etc.
But The Dark Knight Rises took more from Miller's story (I get that Zack Snyder likes comic book art, but I've never been fully convinced he has actually taken the time to comprehend their narratives). And while I don't think either one nailed Miller's frequently-satirical tone, which is much more akin to the following year's Robocop than either of these movies¹, I would argue that Nolan did a more Miller-esque job of tapping into the political zeitgeist.
Nolan did this via unexpected means: Economics.
The idea that poverty and class imbalance are the true sources of all the crime in Gotham is one that Nolan set up in 2005's Batman Begins, which he co-wrote with Goyer. First, Joe Chill (Richard Brake) makes it clear that he killed the Waynes out off fiscal necessity, not malice, telling judge at his parole hearing, "I was desperate, like a lot of people back then." Then Rachel (Katie Holmes) takes Bruce (Christian Bale) to see the homeless people who are literally living below the rest of Gotham. "They talk about the depression as if it's history, and it's not. Things are worse than ever down here... [they're] preying on the desperate, creating new Joe Chills every day." Shortly thereafter, a mobster (Tom Wilkinson) taunts Bruce about his wealth ("You've never tasted desperate!"), which sends Bruce to abandon his wealth and go around the world in search of the skills he'll someday need to become Batman. During this time, Bruce says, "The first time I stole so I wouldn't starve, I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong."
Nolan teased the subject out a little less explicitly in The Dark Knight (Bruce continues to publicly gloat about his wealth, over which others show envy; in one version of the multiple origin stories he shares, Joker claims his wife was disfigured by a bookie, and "we had no money for surgeries."). But he hits it hard in The Dark Knight Rises.
So hard, in fact, that at the time of the movie's release, it seemed almost distractingly heavy-handed. There's a scene where Bane and his thugs take over the stock market trading floor, and they stop to have someone explain that the money in the stock market is, in the scheme of the larger economy, really everyone's money. In that same sequence, one of the traders tells Bane, "This is the stock exchange, there's no money you can steal," to which Bane replies, "Really? Then why are you people here?" When another member of the 1% (Ben Mendelsohn) asserts that he has paid Bane "A small fortune," Bane asks, "And this gives you power over me?" before breaking the man's neck. And then there's Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), a thief who makes it clear, time and again, that poverty forced her into a life of a crime: "I started off doing what I had to. Once you've done what you had to, they'll never let you do what you want to." Later, when Bruce loses his fortune but is allowed to keep his mansion, she comments, "The rich don't even go broke same as the rest of us."
Yet Nolan's film was undeniably prescient. The movie began filming in May of 2011, and a major aspect of its storyline includes Bane posing as a revolutionary who wants to overthrow the 1%, while his actual motives are far more sinister (he's going to nuke the city - so it's safe to say that his concern for the underprivileged of Gotham is insincere).
In September of that same year - when the film was just weeks away from completing production - the Occupy Wall Street movement began. When The Dark Knight Rises was finally released in July of 2012, some critics accused of it siding with the 1% by portraying the 99% as an angry lynch mob.
Those critics, however, missed Nolan's larger point. Nolan demonstrates empathy for the people who align themselves with Bane (he gives a face to at least one of the economically impoverished kids who goes to work for the villain, once again, in the less-than-subtly-symbolic location of the sewers beneath Gotham). He punishes Bane for directing that hardship under false pretenses, and he punishes Bruce for dropping the ball, allowing the Wayne Foundation to stop making charitable donations to local orphanages. It's the whole reason Bruce ultimately donates his fortune to the orphaned children of Gotham.
Put more simply, Nolan is not saying the 99% are an angry mob - he's saying that economic inequality paves the way for a despotic demagogue to capitalize on that anger by manipulating it to break the system.
Which is more or less exactly what happened a few years later, when Donald Trump was elected. Trump, in fact, was so Bane-like, that he seemed to quote the character in his inauguration speech:
Nolan obviously didn't get everything right, though... Donald Trump looks far more freakish than Bane.
The Dark Knight Rises is, on a narrative level, not all that awesome - it's overly ambitious (the first draft of the script was said to be 400 pages, which would have made for a 6.5 hour-long movie), and it feels weirdly rushed given its run time of 165 minutes. Never mind the plot holes (e.g., How did Bruce get back to Gotham from the pit?)... it doesn't really sell the emotional beats, because nothing has time to breathe. That makes it the worst of Nolan's Bat-movies and a lesser entry in his oeuvre.
And still, even when he's not firing on all cylinders, Nolan managed to make a movie that is relevant and interesting (to say nothing of the fact that the dude knows how to put on a big show - some of the practical stunts and effects in this movie are bonkers). The guy is a goddamn genius. He doesn't know how to be boring.
¹Someone in Hollywood must have agreed with me, 'cause they hired Miller to write Robocop 2.