23 July 2011

The Dark Knight Concludes

Like any good geek, I have a lot of love for Christopher Nolan's Batman films, and I eagerly look forward to the third and final installment of the series, The Dark Knight Rises.

Someday I mean to write something lengthy about Nolan's Batman as a response to Frank Miller's two hugely successful Batman graphic novels, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Anyone familiar with Miller's books can see their influence on Nolan's movies, but I think a lot of folks miss how Nolan offers a commentary which does not look kindly upon his predecessor. Maybe this just reflects me projecting, but I suspect that Nolan has caught on to Miller's fascism and wants to critique it.

So I believe that Alyssa Rosenberg has it right in her reflection that Nolan might put Bruce Wayne in a wheelchair by the end of his movie, and that he should.

If Batman Begins was about the virulence of criminality, and The Dark Knight was about the limits of government institutions in the face of unspeakable evil, it would make sense for The Dark Knight Rises to be about the fragility of the superhero enterprise as a whole. Batman may be able to stop a small number of very dangerous criminals and terrorists. And society may be able to accommodate his violations of rules—such as bans on electronic surveillance—because he’s one man, and because he isn’t broadly challenging norms. But if Gotham can’t or won’t change its institutions in the name of building a safer, less corrupt city, and instead relies on one man with a limited license to break the rules, then the city is awfully vulnerable to that man’s destruction.
His Batman has been a fragile, limited bulwark against chaos, occasionally surprised by a flash of human goodness. If Nolan breaks Batman, he’ll provide a sharp rebuke to his fellow superhero storytellers. And he’d be the first among them to tell a truly complete story, to make a cohesive argument about superheroism, in the three movies allotted to him.

I particularly like her point about the advantages of telling one big story with the trilogy. No less an expert than the greatest English-language comics writer of all time, Alan Moore, tried to tell the DC Comics editors this very thing twenty-five years ago:

As I mentioned in my introduction to Frank's Dark Knight, one of the things that prevents superhero stories from ever attaining the status of true modern myths or legends is that they are open ended. An essential quality of a legend is that the events in it are clearly defined in time; Robin Hood is driven to become an outlaw by the injustices of King John and his minions. That is his origin. He meets Little John, Friar Tuck and all the rest and forms the merry men. He wins the tournament in disguise, he falls in love with Maid Marian and thwarts the Sheriff of Nottingham. That is his career, including love interest, Major Villains and the formation of a superhero group that he is part of. He lives to see the return of Good King Richard and is finally killed by a woman, firing a last arrow to mark the place where he shall be buried. That is his resolution--you can apply the same paradigm to King Arthur, Davy Crockett or Sherlock Holmes with equal success. You cannot apply it to most comic book characters because, in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth.

The reasons this all came up in the Dark Knight intro was that I felt that Frank had managed to fulfill that requirement in terms of Superman and Batman, giving us an image which, while perhaps not of their actual deaths, showed up how they were at their endings, in their final years.

I cannot imagine that Nolan has not encountered this argument.

Let me add another speculation to Rosenberg's. I notice that Nolan makes a point of showing that Batman requires more than just Bruce Wayne in a cape. We can see his Batman as a conspiracy of tough old guys. Without Gotham cop Jim Gordon, technical whiz Lucius Fox, and right-hand man Alfred Pennyworth, Batman cannot function. Plus, Nolan's Bruce Wayne regards Batman in a very instrumental way; he sees Batman as a tool for fixing Gotham City.

Contrast that with Frank Miller's Batman. While working on Dark Knight Returns, Miller said:

Bruce Wayne is Batman's host body. Bruce Wayne died when his parents got blown away. He really loves fighting crime.

Nolan gives us a completely different Bruce Wayne. He does not want the job but he feels compelled to do it. Unlike Miller's Batman, who cannot retire, Nolan's Wayne wants to. Maybe a crippled Bruce Wayne will look at the world without Batman and decide he likes it better that way. Maybe the tough old guys can do the job at least as well without him. Maybe Nolan won't just have Bruce Wayne relieved to hang up the cape ... maybe he will make us feel the same way.

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