Why the Dark Knight doesn’t rise high enough

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Dark Knight Rises is one of the best films of the year, and one of the best superhero movies ever. However, it fails to live up to the expectations generated by the first two films, and that says a lot about the ambition of a franchise that has deconstructed super-heroism and addressed complex philosophical and sociological themes, while at the same time making more than 1 billion dollars at the box office. (“Lost” is the only other example of such an intellectually ambitious yet commercially successful project I can think of in recent years…)

The most common criticism of TDKR you can find around the internet boils down to one word: the film is “bloated”. Christopher Nolan is accused of having tried to pack too much into a story that ended up running at 165 minutes.

That’s true, but only at a superficial level. I believe Nolan should have added something more into the film, something of critical importance, but talking about it requires a big deal of spoilers.

[SPOILER ALERT]

[ No, seriously. If you haven’t yet seen the film, go watch The Daily Show or something…]

What Christopher Nolan didn’t include in TDKR, the one thing that would have tied up all loose ends, is Bane’s motivation, and the story behind it.

Is Bane a populist or a terrorist?

In the film he’s both at the same time, and that not only makes him a superficial and foggy character, it also makes his job harder: “I’m here to free you, and I have a nuclear bomb!” is not exactly the most compelling rallying cry.

Had Bane been given a clear motivation, he’d have come across as a stronger, driven figure, and this would also have made his interactions with the other characters more natural, helping them develop their own narrative arc.

So, what could have Bane been?

A terrorist

Bane as a pure terrorist pursuing the destruction of Gotham City would have borrowed from the two previous movies: here you’d have a character who wants to see the world burn like the Joker, but does so out of a moral imperative like Ra’s al Ghul, rather than for pure madness.

While not very original, this take would have still raised interesting questions: Does Batman’s choice to spare his enemies result in them coming back with new, stronger faces? How will Gotham react to widespread, asymmetrical war after 8 years of peace? Will the already tough Dent Act be made tougher, and how will people react? Will common citizens invoke the return of the Dark Knight, so that the devil they know can save them from the devil they don’t? Will Bane and Miranda Tate destroy Bruce Wayne’s reputation framing him as the reclusive, paranoid mastermind behind the nuclear threat?

A populist

This is when things get more interesting. As a populist intent on bringing down the old order, Bane can be the perfect Batman mirror: a charismatic figure that challenges Gotham’s established powers and inspires people to follow his example and rebel. This take would also make many other characters more credible: it would give Selina Kyle a compelling reason to help him and bring Batman to him (in the film she seems to do it just so that the plot can move on); it can offer the citizens of Gotham an interesting role, instead of just fading in the background; it would cause an underprivileged Blake to struggle with what side of the law to stay on; it would also make Batman even more of  a troubled anti-hero, as for once he could be seen as an instrument of Bruce Wayne’s wealth, instead of the other way around.

However, doing this would require setting up an underlying social struggle, between a wealthy class that has been taking advantage of the economic growth that we can expect following 8 years with no organized crime, and a middle- and lower- class that may not have seen its quality of life improve since the days of Falcone and the Joker. Building this setup within the context of a super-hero movie and the limits of an already stretched script would have sure been a challenge, but it’s one that I’d have loved to see Christopher Nolan tackle, as it’d have brought out the best of his talent as a storyteller and a visionary director. Given how much the trailer hinted at this (“A storm is coming…”), and the narrative and genre-subverting potential of such a framework, I believe that this is THE missed opportunity of TDKR.

A populist that is later revealed to be a terrorist

This might have been the most coherent solution, in light of the previous films and the characters’ development. Bane could have introduced himself to the people of Gotham as a populist leader, offering them freedom and inviting them to overturn the establishment; with the violence spreading, he’d prove to Batman that Gotham is beyond saving, as ordinary citizens are turned into vandals, robbers and killers; at this point he’d be ready to unveil the bomb, having broken Batman’s faith in his city and given Gotham citizens’ a glimpse of hope before the despair.

This character evolution would also give Miranda Tate more time to develop a proper relationship with Bruce Wayne (as opposed to rain/kiss/sex), introducing her as a fellow member of the establishment at the mercy of an angry mob, before revealing her to be Talia al Ghul when the bomb is announced. It would also make Selina Kyle’s arc more credible, going from sympathy towards a populist to fear of a terrorist, with no need for an unlikely Mac Guffin such as the “clean slate”.

While this seems a more complex arc, it would have actually resulted in a more linear and credible plot, that would have laid the basis for stronger character interactions and compelling moral dilemmas: Is inequality a moral or a security issue? What are regular people willing to do when there is no law? Who are we willing to believe in?

At the end of the day, the catalyst for action in super-hero stories is the super-villain. If that character is not perfectly crafted, everything else will tend to fall apart, and it’s a testament to how good a director Christopher Nolan is that he still manages to make The Dark Knight Rises a really good film.

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