Dark Days with the Dark Knight

batman

Credit: Warner Bros. / Everett

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012

I saw The Dark Knight Rises a few days after the horrific massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during its opening-night showing. Interestingly, the effect of watching Christopher Nolan’s movie with the real-life carnage in mind was, for me, the opposite of what moralists have been suggesting. Instead of heightening my anxiety over links between violence in entertainment and violence in real life, it reinforced my growing sense that Hollywood has lost whatever ability it ever had to put authentic human stories on the screen. The film is unreal and irrelevant on every level, lacking even the modest virtues of Nolan’s two previous Batman pictures: the mild novelty of Batman Begins is long gone, and none of the acting can touch the late Heath Ledger’s demented portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. If this is all that Hollywood’s best and brightest can do with a time-tested franchise and a quarter of a billion dollars in their budget, we’re in for many dark days on the silver screen.

The most surprising thing about The Dark Night Rises is how unsurprising it is. The bulk of its 164 minutes are devoted to two-dimensional characters in comic-book costumes (those Batman ears are truly silly) walking through mildly diverting melodramatic scenes, nearly all of them familiar from popular movies of yore. Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) moonlights as a masked vigilante who cleans up crimes the police can’t handle (all this is recycled from previous Batman movies, TV episodes, and comic books). To do this he relies on training from a ninja master who taught him superhuman stunts of strength and agility (recycled from Asian martial-arts movies). He also has futuristic gadgets provided by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his technical guru (recycled from all the James Bond movies). His antagonist, Bane (Tom Hardy), is a renegade ninja with a black visor strapped over his face (Darth Vader should sue for identity theft). The Dark Knight Rises isn’t very impressive as a movie, but it’s a pretty good trivia quiz.

The real raison d’être of The Dark Knight Rises isn’t melodrama, however. It’s mayhem, crafted with so much assistance from special-effects computer programs that plausibility is one of the film’s first casualties. This point is worth stressing, because the bloodletting that accompanied the Aurora premiere has prompted the usual anti-Hollywood outcries from conservative commentators. Even if links do exist between screen violence and real violence, which I doubt, they’re surely attenuated to the vanishing point in fare as patently artificial as this.

Indeed, the Colorado bloodletting bears out the need to get beyond simplistic attacks on popular culture. When social chaos grabs the headlines, it’s easier to blame movies than to examine root causes like the disintegrating safety net for families and maxed-out mental-health facilities. Films are a favorite target because when you attack a huge-profile enterprise like Hollywood you get some celebrity by proxy; going after famous, important people makes you seem famous and important too!

These things said, I’m no enthusiast of anything-goes moviemaking. I wish today’s cinema could be de-vulgarized in all sorts of ways – for starters, how about sharp reductions in brain-dead dialogue and stupid sex as well as pointless, exuberant violence? But what’s really going on with violent entertainment has deep roots in the American psyche. In some respects the present-day United States is a nasty place: look at the amount of gun violence, the grotesque influence of the National Rifle Association, the amount of violence by other means, the astounding number of people in jails and prisons, the number of people executed each year, the proliferation of domestic poverty, the ability of wealth to shape public policy, the accelerating decline of the middle and working classes, the horrifically large number of innocent people killed as a result of the Iraq invasion, the use of torture as an interrogation and punishment device, the embrace of indefinite detention for people not convicted (or even accused) of crimes, the acceptance of a permanent state of war against anyone declared to be The Enemy, and on and on. I find it hard to imagine how anyone can put those factors on one side of the scale, and put violent films on the other, and then say the Columbine or Virginia Tech or Batman shooters did what they did because movies got them all excited.

Michael Moore debunks simplistic cause-and-effect notions of media and violence in his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, and his reasoning is valid as far as it goes. What’s needed now is not just a less violent cinema but a more intelligent cinema that dares to think about issues and to encourage thinking in its audience. We are the beneficiaries of the most advanced audiovisual systems ever known, capable of moving our emotions, challenging our ideas, and opening our imaginations. Is it right that the most technologically sophisticated and financially expensive products of this system are entertainments like the Batman movies, designed to deliver their gratifications not to the mind but to the gut? Surely our entertainment industry can aspire to greater things.

Tikkun film critic David Sterritt is a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art and guest editor of Film Quarterly. His most recent book is Spike Lee’s America, published this year by Polity.
 
tags: Culture, Film, Justice & Prisons, Reviews   
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