Sunday, January 6, 2013

Well, what Batman were YOU watching?

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This is a post I've been meaning to write since I first walked out of Dark Knight Rises for the first time.  Work obligations mostly got in the way, but I hope the finished product has benefited from the passage of time, from repeat viewings of the movies, and from watching some of the "making of" materials on the blu-ray release.  This is not a "review" per se, something I generally don't do here (at least not for my longer posts), but it is in large part a critique of and response to many of the reviews I've read since the film's release.  Needless to say, my perspective of and appreciation for this film (and the "Dark Knight Trilogy" as a whole) will come through in this post.  But beyond the fact that I greatly enjoyed each one of these films, I'm inspired to write about what these films say and how they say it.

To put yourself in the right head space, I'd recommend watching all three movies back-to-back.  If for whatever reason you don't have eight hours to spare, here are the cliff notes:

On that note, here is my central thesis for what you're about to read:  The "Dark Knight Trilogy" is the first representation of Batman adapted for the screen (perhaps even the first comic book adaptation of any sort) in which the very idea of Batman as "hero" is seriously questioned.  Indeed, "the Batman" is not even necessarily the protagonist in this series; instead, the real protagonist is Gotham City itself (and, by extension, us the audience) and, on that basis, the movies take us through a Socratic-style analysis of Bruce Wayne's intentions as well as his methods.  Needless to say for purposes of this analysis, the three movies -- all 459 minutes of them -- ought to be considered a single, three-act story to be fully understood.

Now, I'm a firm believer that, whatever right each of us has to our opinions, any opinion more complicated that "what's your favorite color?" may be judged by the weight of the support you bring to bear.  I'm about to present what I believe the movie is saying, and I'm prepared to support my perspective with evidence from the movies.  I'll be eager to hear reactions from anyone with the time and interest to read through my arguments. So with all that out of the way ...


Let me say that upfront that I am not a die-hard Batman fan.  I've never invested in the comic books, and my first real introduction to the character (besides watching a few Adam West reruns) was the Tim Burton version from 1989 ... which I understand many felt didn't really capture the Batman essence.  (Anyone who wants to blame Schumacher for that series going so far astray from the core Batman mythology really needs to follow this link.)  Shortly after Burton's film, I became a huge fan of Batman: The Animated Series, which has a much more favorable legacy and ended up contributing a lot of elements to the Batman canon, including the character of Roland Daggett who ended up in the Nolan films.

Since then, I've read some of the more recent classics in print.  Among those, I'd recommend The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum and What Ever Happened to the Caped Crusader?  I'm also a big fan of the recent Batman games, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City -- both rare instances of video game adaptations standing out as solid video games first and faithful adaptations to the course material second.

I'm rolling out my "credentials" on the subject because I want to be clear that I know that it was Joe Chill and not "Jack Napier" (who didn't exist in the Batman canon until the 1989 version) who shot Wayne's parents; that Batman has a "strict" no-kill rule; and that Bane got his super-strength from an experimental steroid called "Venom."  I know the back story, and I know that -- as "faithful" as Nolan can be -- he also likes to tweak the mythology as needed to fit the story he wants to tell.

I have to admit that much of my motivation for writing this post is in reaction to the wave of online complaints over the character choices that Nolan and co-writer David Goyer made for Bruce Wayne, Alfred and other key players.  Chief among these was probably Harry Knowles' scattershot rant on his AICN website, where I just couldn't take the smugness in his declaration that Warner Bros. needs to "find a director that loves Batman" like Harry does.  Because, I guess, he has special insider knowledge as to who the real Batman is.  You know, the kind of Batman who fights Man-Bat (a ware-bat who changes from human into a literal 7' bat)

and Clayface (kind of like a T-1000 terminator made out of vomit).

Don't get me wrong, these characters are great and a lot of fun.  But really, if you think Christian Bale was going to appear on screen going fisticuffs against a giant bat or a mutating pile of mud ... well, what Batman were YOU watching???

On the one hand, I can understand the frustration of seeing a beloved character with a well-established (if malleable) mythology making decisions that strike you as decidedly "out of character."  Greatest among these supposed "sins" for the serious Bat-fans out there is Bruce Wayne's decision to "retire" after the events of Dark Knight.  As an aside, I believe the script is ambiguous as to whether not Bruce Wayne never goes out as Batman after the death of Harvey Dent.  After all, he went to the trouble of rebuilding the Batcave, Alfred makes some remark about how long it's been since Bruce was down there (which at least implies that Bruce had spent some time there since it was rebuilt), and at some point a news reporter (or possibly a police radio) says something about "the last confirmed Batman sighting."  That all suggests to me that Bruce cowled up from time to time since Dark Knight, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see some "expanded universe" material in the near future -- maybe in the same vein as the respectable (if not excellent) Gotham Knight series.

All that aside, it apparently enraged many that Bruce Wayne retired, since BATMAN DOESN'T QUIT!  NOT EVER, NOT FOR NOTHING.  Yet, if we approach the character in this way, we've given up on Bruce Wayne as a human being and instead embraced him as a cartoon character, a force of nature maybe, but not a man.  So, as Hercules is infinitely strong and his father Zeus is infinitely powerful (or, for that matter, as Jesus is infinitely forgiving), Batman is both infinitely wealthy and infinitely devoted to fighting crime.  There's just one problem with confining a character to an infallible character trait -- the BATMAN WHO DOESN'T QUIT is also a frightful bore.  I mean, as a fictional character at least.  What drama can you wring out of a set-up like that?  How much character development can there be for a character who never fails, never questions himself and never changes? (Maybe Amadeus put it best: "Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus... people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!")

More to the point ... perhaps all of what Harry Knowles had to say about "the Batman" is true, yet the same cannot be said about Bruce Wayne, the man.  Not, at least, if you want to make a movie about Batman (and not, as the Burton and Schumacher movies were, a movie about Batman's villains).  But Nolan's films were about Bruce Wayne and -- critically -- his relationship with Gotham City.  In that respect, "the Batman" was a secondary character, and if you view the film from that perspective, a whole new conversation can be had that isn't dependent on whether Batman's suit was the right color, or whether Bain's origin or Ra's Al Ghul's accent were portrayed "accurately."

So that's Premise #1:  The "Dark Knight Trilogy" is first and foremost about how Gotham City reacts to "the Batman", and whether Bruce Wayne succeeds or fails at being a force for good.  That's the "what."

Premise #2 has to do with what Nolan brings to the table as a filmmaker and storyteller, the "how."  And I can sum it all up in two words:  Judge Faden.  Judge Who?!?  That's right, I wager you have no idea who that is, even if you've seen all three films several times.  Yet, understanding who he is, what his role is in the movies, and why you don't recognize his name is crucial to understanding how Nolan tells his story (for better or for worse).

Let's see if this dialogue taken straight from the Batman Begins script rings a bell:
WAYNE (O.S.):  Don’t turn around.

Gordon FREEZES- Wayne is behind his, pressing a stapler between Gordon’s shoulder blades as if it were a gun.

GORDON:  What do you want?

WAYNE:  I’ve been watching. You’re a good cop. One of the few. What would it
take to get Falcone?


GORDON:  Leverage on Judge Faden. And a D.A. brave enough to prosecute.

Anything? How about this:
RACHEL:  Who’s there?!!

She pulls out a TASER- PEERS into the shadows: Silhouetted by the window- a dark, cloaked figure. Batman.

RACHEL (CONT’D):  Take one step, I drop you!

Batman moves his arm- something DROPS onto Rachel’s bed: a FILE, spilling PHOTOS. She FLINCHES. GLANCES DOWN: photos of Faden and the girl in the limo.

RACHEL (CONT’D):  What the hell is this?

BATMAN:  Leverage.

See what happened there?  In the script (in which he's called Judge Phelan), there's a scene in which we actually see Batman undercover taking the incriminating photos of the Judge having an affair.  That scene was cut (an unfortunate decision, in my opinion), so all that makes it to screen is those two measly lines of dialogue, as shown in the following clips.

And that's it.  That's Judge Faden.

Yet, think about what that means to the plot of the movie.  It means that Bruce Wayne as Batman convinced a District Attorney to blackmail a sitting judge in order to compel that judge to rule a certain way on a case before the bench.  That is a major plot development that spills out in rapid-fire dialogue as an afterthought.  And that is how Nolan tells his story.

So that's Premise #2:  If you want to understand what Nolan is doing and saying with these characters, you have to pay very close attention to the details.  Yes, yes, it's relevant that Scarecrow's "fear gas" is spread by vaporizing the city's water supply.  Sure, you have to accept that the Joker has the resources to rig not just a hospital but also TWO ferries with explosives while simultaneously escaping from the police department's holding cell.  And it is important that Bane's mask fed him a pain killing drug, and that disconnecting his mask was the key to defeating him.

These are all important.  They're also minor, minor details.  What's really important to understanding these films?  That setting the wheels in motion to bring justice to Gotham City required blackmailing a judge, and the movie tells us this through two garbled bits of dialogue and that's it.  With that said, I'm going to take you through a synopsis of the three movies as told through the lens of my two premises.  Then, I'll express a few thoughts on why these movies, understood in this way, have stuck with me more than any other comic book adaptation and why I believe these movies transcend the "comic book adaptation" genre.

Now .... are you ready to begin?


We know very little of the Gotham City of Bruce Wayne's childhood.  Ra's Al Ghul tells us later that, through whatever mechanisms available to the League of Shadows, they sought to destroy the city through economic means during this time.  This could mean many things -- poverty, economic inequality, manufactured stock market crashes, whatever.  What we do know is that the collapse of Gotham City was forestalled through the efforts of Wayne's father to promote economic equality and opportunities for the lower classes of the city, and later on by the city rallying together in the wake of his death.  This is represented directly through the monorail that Thomas Wayne built -- which, it's important to keep in mind, Ra's Al Ghul would eventually use as the means of spreading the "fear gas" to tear the city apart.

This exact same motif appears later in the series, when Bruce's efforts to bring clean power to the city are corrupted by Ra's' daughter into a bomb to literally tear the city apart.  (This isn't the only instance of foreshadowing in Batman Begins -- just as we're told that Thomas Wayne's death galvanized the city to rebuild, so would his son's death prove to be a powerful symbol for Gotham as it rose from the ashes of Bane.  You could even say there's a repeating cycle at play here ...)

While responsibility for Thomas Wayne's death is indirectly the result of young Bruce Wayne's fear of bats, the man most directly responsible is Joe Chill.  Later, when Bruce's revenge fantasy against the man who killed his father ends abruptly with the Chill getting gunned down by goons employed by crime boss Carmine Falcone, we are confronted with the first conundrum of the series:   The murderer Joe Chill was himself murdered, is this not "Order"? Maybe, but is it justice?  Hardly. 

Of course, Chill's death was not an act of due process; rather it was an assassination ordered by the mafia to keep Chill from testifying against Falcone.  Thus, while Chill's death reflected "Order", it could hardly be called "just" - certainly not for any of Falcone's other victims.

Finding no solace in Chill's death, and realizing upon meeting Falcone that Gotham's justice system was deeply corrupted -- critically, that the entire power structure of Gotham City was in Falcone's pocket -- Bruce began his quest to find "the means to fight injustice."  This quest takes him off the map.  It means throwing away his money, his image, everything that made him also a part of that system, that "Order."

What does he find outside the established "Order" of Gotham?  Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, who also stand against that "Order" and -- you can argue -- for a kind of absolute, uncompromising "Justice."  The guilty must pay, the corrupt must be destroyed.  The net they cast is far and wide, and all of Gotham City is found irredeemable.  And are they wrong?  Even if we accept that Gotham has a few shining lights before Batman arrives -- say, Gordon or Rachel Dawes -- are these not highly comprised individuals as well, each participating (and lending a kind of false legitimacy) to a "justice" system that actually enables and facilitates a criminal syndicate?

Yet, Bruce ultimately rejects this vision, taking his stand when ordered by Ra's Al Ghul to execute a criminal.  "This man should be tried" is Bruce's response, but Ra's responds pointedly, "By whom? Corrupt bureaucrats?" Again, it's hard to argue with Ra's based on what we've seen so far.  (Hilariously and infamously, Bruce's refusal to execute a single individual leads to a confrontation in which Bruce appears to kill dozens more by exploding the League of Shadow's compound.  Call it another conundrum I guess ...)

Returning to Gotham City, Bruce as "the Batman" begins his campaign to upset the established "Order".  Again, the city at this time is an "orderly" place in that there is a system in place.  It is corrupt, to be certain, in which justice is subverted by judges in the mafia's pocket (hey, Judge Faden!), the insane asylum is run by a madman, and the cops are on the take.  It's important to note that even Commissioner-To-Be Gordon knows full well that his partner is on the take yet refuses to do anything about it.

The appearance of Batman in the first movie is all about introducing chaos, a kind of anarchy into a corrupt system.  I noted before that one of Batman's first act as "hero" is to blackmail a judge.  On top of that, he threatens the police with violence, spies on private residences and wantonly destroys personal property.  Thus, the next "conundrum" -- that Batman must overthrow the "Order" and introduce chaos in pursuit of justice.  It's easy to hand-wave this concern away if we only watched the first movie.  Indeed, the first movie gives us an easy out, since it's obvious that letting a masked vigilante flaunt the law is preferable to letting a global terrorist destroy Gotham City.

In fact, if Batman Begins was a stand-alone film, the metaphorical implications of the plot would be rather disturbing, at least for the progressive minded.  What was the means by which Gotham City would be destroyed?  Mass transit, bringing the moral degeneracy of the poor neighborhoods into the high income neighborhoods of the city, while the solution lies in the very wealthy physically beating evildoers (likely the very poor) with their fists outside the bounds of the law. (This is exactly how a friend of mind, a lawyer like myself, interpreted the film when we first saw it.)

But, of course, the story doesn't end there.

Dark Knight opens with Gotham City in chaos, and it's all thanks directly to Batman.  Sure, on the one hand, drug dealers are scurrying into the shadows and the mafia bosses can no longer meet in broad daylight ...

... but on the other hand, the brashness of the new D.A. Harvey Dent leads to open assassination attempts in court ...

... and the banks that previously provided safe shelter to the mafia's ill-gotten wealth is suddenly targeted by a new breed of criminal, one with no "respect" for the old ways.  It's an old saw at this point that Batman "creates" criminals, but the message in Dark Knight is a little different.  It's not that the presence of Batman creates the Joker, it's that once you have a vigilante who isn't bound by the Order of the criminal justice system, then you get criminals who see no advantage in playing by the old rules either.

Much can be said about the Joker, particularly in light of Ledger's masterful performance.  For our purposes, there is one thing to keep in mind about Nolan's Joker ... he never lies about who he is or what he's doing.  He is an agent of chaos, and his goal is to show Batman that they're both operating on the same principles of chaos.  ("Don't talk like you're one of them!" he tells Batman, "You're not... even if you'd like to be.")  He announces exactly who he is going to kill, what buildings he is going to detonate, and when it all is going to happen.  So sure, the stories he tells about his background are clearly fabricated.  And yes, he does trick Batman by switching the locations of Harvey Dent and Rachael Dawes. None of that changes the fact that he's always honest about his intentions.

With that in mind, we have our next "conundrum" -- while the Joker, an "agent of chaos", tells the truth, the powers-that-be in Gotham City must employ a series of lies to maintain the new Order that Batman seeks to impose.  Gordon lies when he says that the police department has no involvement with Batman.  Harvey Dent lies when he claims that he is Batman.  And, of course, in the end, the entire city must bear the lie that Harvey died a hero and not a sociopathic madman after his confrontation with the Joker.

Here, we have to confront one of those supposed "nit-picks" that I hear people bring up a lot ... why didn't Gordon just blame the Joker, or some random goon for all the murders that he pins on Batman?  The movies give us an answer, over and over again -- because Bruce Wayne needed an "out."  He started "the Batman" to send a signal to Gotham City, that they could rise up against the corruption.  And what did he get for it, at least at first?  Copycats with guns, mafia escalation, and the public clamoring for a return to "Order."

The central plot of Dark Knight is Bruce's attempt to instill Harvey Dent as his replacement -- that is, a functioning justice system.  If the public couldn't put their trust in Dent, if they didn't believe in Dent, then the only hope they'd have for "Order" would be "the Batman", and that outcome would be entirely contrary to Bruce's vision.  A powerful force in the shadows, above the law and controlling the city through fear?  Bruce would have become Falcone!

The only alternative in this situation was to become the villain so that Gotham City would rally together against him.  The answer to "the Batman" was the Dent Act.  Yet, the cycle doesn't end there.  If only "justice" were so simple!

Which brings us to Dark Knight Rises, which tells us from the very first scene what it is about -- our final "conundrum":  is it better to maintain an unjust lie if doing so maintains "Order"?  When we first set foot in Gotham City back in Batman Begins, we found a city without justice in which men were executed without due process, all in the name of maintaining "Order".  How different was that Gotham City from the one we find under the Dent Act?

Unfortunately, we don't know too much about the Dent Act, only that - on the one hand - the prisons are filled to the brim and - on the other hand - the streets are basically crime-free.  Whatever the means to this end, we are told that it requires maintaining a lie.  (If I were rewriting the movie, I'd have included a scene showing exactly how the Dent Act operated in practice.  I bet it would look not too dissimilar from the court of Jonathan Crane we see under Bane's rule.  Instead, we have to rely upon John Blake's condemnation of Gordon later in the film as the signal from the screenwriters that the Dent Act is unjust.)

At this point, the full power of the metaphor is brought to bear on the story.  The police, relying upon the "peacetime" brought by the lie, fail to see a criminal enterprise building under their noses.  Operating through the Daggett Corporation, Bane is able to line explosives through Gotham City.  Yep, the very foundation of the city is corrupt and ready to explode.

Meanwhile, harking back to his father's efforts, Bruce Wayne has devoted his resources to developing a fusion power generator only to bury the project upon finding that the generator could be weaponized.  Let's put that another way -- Bruce, having decided that the truth could tear the city apart, decides instead to bury the truth to keep the city safe.  Yet, in so doing, he also denies the city the opportunity to have cheap, clean energy.  More to the point, by keeping the secret of the generator to himself, he creates the very means by which Bain is able to threaten the city with destruction.

By the time Bain takes over Gotham, the society he creates should be very familiar to the audience.  We saw it at the beginning of Batman Begins and again after the events of Dark Knight.  Kangaroo Courts in which sentences are handed down without due process.  Executions conducted without justice.  The people controlled through fear.

All that is to say, "Order" maintained through the lie -- that Gotham City was being returned "to the people", that anyone could be holding the trigger to the bomb.  Indeed, the city has become the dark mirror-image of everything Batman sought to achieve.  Just as "the Batman" could have been "anyone" ("That was the point," says Bruce), so too could "anyone" be holding the trigger that would destroy the city.  Love it or hate it, agree or disagree, Nolan's message to the audience conveyed through Bane's speech is clear -- the lie behind the Dent Act was an affront to justice (as recognized by Bane as well as by John Blake, one of two moral compasses of Dark Knight Rises), and yet any revolution that overturns the lie of the past may simply impose a new lie in the name of "Order". From Falcone to Batman, from Dent to Bane, Gotham City has been forced to live under one set of lies after another, all in the name of "Order" (even when, ostensibly, the goal was "justice").

Plenty of people have bitched and moaned that Alfred -- the other moral compass of the movie -- abandons Bruce (another one of those things he'd NEVER do); yet, how can we possibly disagree with Alfred's plea, that "Maybe it's time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day."

When faced with Bruce's stubborn insistence on maintaining the lie to preserve "Order" rather than seeking true "justice", Alfred has no choice but to leave.

And no, I'm not saying there's no different between Batman and Bane, between Falcone and Dent, between Good and Evil.  What I am saying is that Nolan has forced us to consider what it really takes to achieve "justice."  What does it mean when we decide that a masked vigilante, an independently wealthy white man beholden to no one who beats people up at random, is an acceptable alternative to law enforcement.  You may say in response that, "Well, of course the city needs Batman, because those 'systems of justice' are too corrupt or inept to handle crime."  Okay ... but then what?  Do we walk away, like Alfred, or confront the ambiguity, like Blake?


This all leads me to my final thoughts for this post ... the "why?"  Why is it worth spending almost eight hours with these movies trying to parse out a message tucked away in cryptic bits of garbled dialogue, when maybe all you wanted was an action blowout featuring a masked man beating the hell out of crazy clown?  The answer is that the lens you bring to a movie can determine your entire viewing experience, and the movies I've seen criticized by so many bore such little resemblance to the movies I've enjoyed that I was compelled to present the movies as I saw them.

I left off the last section with the question, what happens when Batman takes off his mask (which is, pointedly, exactly what the Joker demands in Dark Knight)?  If you're of the Harry Knowles-mindset, I guess the answer is, "That never happens.  He should NEVER take off his mask."  But that means a world in which crime and corruption never end and, hence, Batman can never retire.  While there's nothing wrong with that as a story-telling device, it creates a world that is either unrealistic in its permanence or unbearably bleak.  If the former, we're in the realm of comic books, in which Batman is perpetually in his late 30s, his parents were always killed about twenty years ago, and no one ever dies (at least not, you know, "forever"). If the latter, what we're watching is a dystopia, a vision of the end of civilization in which our only hope for "justice" is an endless cycle of violence.

There is a third alternative, of course, and here is where I believe Nolan leaves us, on a rising platform as the next "Batman" begins the cycle anew.  There is no "answer" to the conundrums I mentioned above, no end to the cycle of truth versus lies, "Order" versus "justice."  But we do learn with each turn of the cycle.  John Blake, assuming he picks up the cowl and becomes "Batman" (or "Red Robin" or "Nightwing" or whatever), has witnessed the cycle play out first hand.  He saw what happened to Gotham City under the Dent Act, how -- on the one hand -- blindly following orders can lead someone to blow up a bridge full of children while -- on the other hand -- allowing masked vigilantes do as they please can lead to anarchy.  The hope, then, is that Blake can at least improve on that cycle when it's his time to make a hard decision.

So while Gotham City will never NOT need "the Batman", if we do not constantly question the Revolution with every turn, we're doomed to forsake "justice" in the name of "Order."  To reach this conclusion, however, we the audience have to do something that is very unnatural to us (even in the cynical age of the "Anti-Hero") -- we must accept that Batman is as much a hero as a villain, if left unchecked, if not brought to justice at the end of the day.  This is true of progressive do-gooders like Thomas Wayne, true of Commissioner Gordon, true of anyone you would entrust.  There is no answer for all times, just the next turn of the cycle.

I can understand why fans of Batman find these movies disappointing.  Where's the Riddler?  Where's the Penguin?  When will we get a plausible movie universe in which Batman and Superman can coexist?  To those complaints, I can only say that we have those stories.  We have countless comic book lines, we have the masterful Justice League cartoon series -- hell, we have Lego Batman.

But those weren't the stories Nolan was interested in telling, so going into the "Dark Knight Trilogy" with those expectations means you've doomed yourself to disappointment (while missing out a deeply engaging discussion that the movies present instead).

In any event, for the disappointed, you won't have to wait too long before Warner Bros. starts firing up the next Batman reboot.  So just hang on, the "Dark Knight Trilogy" may have ended, but Batman is far from over ...

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