Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cerebral Superhero Movie Undercut by Tragedy and Political Farce

When blowhard weight-watcher Rush Limbaugh made the bold declarative statement a few days back that there was a liberal conspiracy tying Bane, the villain in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, to Bain Industries, the company that presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney retroactively retired from, those people capable of analytic thought and comic book historians all had a hearty chuckle.  But to postulate such a ludicrous decades-long-in-the-making conspiracy out loud is par for the course where people such as Rush are concerned, speaking without thinking, again and again.  He's since backed off of that assertion and now likens Batman to Romney, while Bane is an Occupy Wall Street villain.  This, again, is a crass distraction tactic grossly misrepresenting the intent of the film's creators, but acutely points out the major thrust of the film's message, nonetheless.  Batman as benevolent billionaire (an image that Romney would prefer to project, minus the Howard Hughes overtones gossiped about in the film's first act) and Bane, a genius terrorist displaying talking points of "power to the people" while holding a city hostage under threat of destruction via neutron bomb (very much a fever dream version of what the Occupy Movement ostensibly stands for in the mind of paranoid delusional neoconservative shills).

Then, on opening night, at a Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado, a gas-masked young man named James Holmes allegedly opened fire on a crowd of movie-goers, killing a dozen and injuring dozens.  News reports were murky and details were erratic surrounding this, the death toll and numbers injured rising and falling.  Hints at an MKULTRA or Manchurian Candidate-style implementation of psychotic outsourcing.  Rumors and politicization occurred immediately, mostly by ultraconservatives, raving about values systems without a hint of irony (or perhaps forgetting the automatic weapons they promote decent God-fearing Americans as having a right to bear, even if mentally unstable).  The suspect didn't shoot himself, as so many mass murdering lone gunmen are wont to do.  People say he calls himself The Joker, and his house, a booby-trapped mess of firearms and explosives, will likely be a rich resource of speculation for the weeks and months to come.  Sadly, out of all the confused news reports, attempts at aggrandizing oneself on the shoulders of senseless murder or pointing fingers in tearful anger, only The Onion actually nailed it on the head.  

This tragedy and the embarrassment of the aforementioned Limbaugh Flip-Flop (let's coin that, see if we can get a gif of a whale with Rush's face, beached and flopping, circulating throughout tumblr) unfortunately overshadow a film that stands at this point in time as one of the most cerebral superhero films to grace the silver screen.  

We all had a good time with The Avengers, though perhaps our misgivings about Nick Fury's secret shadow masters (remember, the ones that tried to nuke New York?) might have been directly addressed if the universe there operated as it does in Dark Knight Rises.  Bane's introduction is immediately engaging.  The cast of characters is introduced to us at a sane pace, their stories emerging more organically than many standard billing dramatic films.  The spice peppering the film is a simultaneous resentment and endorsement of entrenched power structures.  

The Dark Knight Rises is "a thinking man's" blockbuster cinema done right.  Bane's "Goatse" mask synths his voice into perfect Vaderesque villainy without immediate cries of shenanigans coming to mind.  "I am a necessary evil," he tells the nefarious industrialist before snuffing out his life.  Tom Hardy sells the role without the aid of facial expressions, getting a chuckle from the audience in the midst of outright carnage. Christian Bale does justice to Bruce Wayne, as was expected, and Michael Caine portrays his textured concern as Alfred Pennyworth with exceptional depth.  In fact, every single actor in this film (with one exception, catch phrase: "hothead") bring their roles to life quite skillfully. 

The movie goes through the checklist of superhero set-up but does not in any way seem rushed or slap-dashed together.  Nolan's choice of scenes inter-cutting throughout the movie make this a film about the subjectivity of each character's reality and the assumptions they make about the nature and circumstances of their reality, being acted upon. These are expressed continuously throughout the film, from Bane's constant nonchalant murders to Selina Kyle's most quotable potable whispered into Bruce Wayne's ear as she picks the valet ticket out of his dinner jacket: "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. … When it hits, you're all going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

The class warfare promised by Bane's scheme is only blinked across the screen at certain intervals.  The idea of icons and symbols are tossed around nimbly, the old themes of fear and the brilliant undermining of realism and fantasy alike play themselves out in grander and more minute scales throughout.  It's a controlled game, with nary a chink in its armor.  Pacing is the watchword of this film. There's no lag or pause that was not well-timed or carefully planned.  What could have been an awkward clustering of special effects and villains (see: Spider-Man 3) instead hits home with a real sense of character and, more importantly for this film, palpable pathos.  

There's a bitter irony surrounding the fact that this movie, hardly an open advocate for gun violence despite the near-constant gun-play (remember, Batman hates guns), became the target of a gun-toting madman's murder spree, and there's an even more bitter irony played out in the doublespeak of the villain Bane being mirrored by pundits, politicians, and philistine pigs to serve their own dubious agenda.  These facts, and the facts surrounding the haul of critical accolades and worthy praise already resting at its feet (and that of the trilogy as a whole) secure this film not just as a fitting portrait for the cultural zeitgeist of America today, but quite possibly the high-water mark of superhero film-making as a whole. 

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