The Rant: The Dark Knight Rises – The Hero We Needed, Not the One We Deserved
A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine and fellow purveyor of juvenile analysis of all things cinematic (Nicholas Allen of the illustrious scorecardreview.com) unleashed a searing deconstruction (which you can find here) of the implications upon the movie industry that Marvel’s The Avengers exorbitant grosses will almost surely bring to fruition. Brilliantly using Ned Beatty’s ineluctable and thundering monologue from the classic 1976 satire Network as its central framing device, Allen’s article postulates (and I’m summarizing) that The Avenger’s critical and commercial success will exacerbate an already overstuffed summer superhero film schedule through expediting the adaptation of comic properties that completely fail to justify their existence on the big screen. He humorously offers an example of the kind of foolishness that might lie ahead for us by including a fragment of our past conversations “You want an Ant Man movie? Doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of him; here it is!”
Far more insidious (for an Ant Man movie is such an asinine idea that it might be actually fun) is a harsh truth about the movie business that Allen highlights through the selective inclusion of a fragment of Beatty’s speech, where the character states that, “…The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale.” In short, as Allen explains, any major qualm that one might raise about the sorry state of our superhero-dominated, reboot-crazed and exploitative cinematic landscape is an utterly arbitrary and moot point (which ironically would mean you should stop reading here). There is no point petulantly whining about these superhero films being marred by blatant irreverence for character or a disrespect for the fundamentals of good storytelling; the decision-making involved is contingent on one thing, and one thing alone: money.
This notion gains particular resonance when examining the unholy success of The Avengers. Despite beating the proverbial odds and emerging as an enjoyable, candy-coated summer blockbuster The Avengers’ inevitable effect will not be transcendental, but monstrous. Even as I type this, near tears, alone in my basement, a groundswell has been created and a chain-reaction set off due to Marvel’s successful gamble, whose effects will potentially include a third-time’s-the-charm Hulk reboot, a plethora of poorly conceived and hastily produced films (such as the Ant Man movie mentioned above) and even the beginnings of a superhero film “arms race” by two of the industry’s superpowers (Marvel and DC, or should I say, The Walt Disney Corporation and Time Warner).
In a more general sense, the effect of The Avengers will be the further solidification of American cinema’s obsession with the modern superhero film (a sub-genre which seemed to kick off with Bryan Singer’s X-Men all the way back in 2000) into something much more than simply a lucrative yet temporal fad. The boat loads of cash reaped by this cinematic juggernaut essentially guarantees that the studio suits will be firing up the assembly line with an even greater zeal and delivering an even greater barrage of mediocre films that we will have to endure long into the future.
But what is exactly so awful about this perpetual stream of big-budget and generally small-brained forms of entertainment? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. I am aware that many people will not share my (or Allen’s) opinion that The Avengers adding fuel to the superhero film genre’s flame is a negative thing simply because most of these films are predominantly lackluster. I mean just look at the series of films that constituted the build up to The Avengers. Sure, the first Iron Man film was pretty good and I personally thought Thor was fairly enjoyable but is it possible to make a case for Iron Man 2 being little more than a self-indulgent ham-fest? Does Captain America: The First Avenger have any redeeming value whatsoever? Or, is it simpler to ask as Allen does in his article: are most of these characters able to hold our attention in a film of their own?
Even if you don’t share this opinion about the dubious artistic merits of a majority of these films I think it would be impossible to deny that, at this point in history and after enduring the superhero film onslaught that we have for the past ten years, things might be starting to feel a wee bit exploitative. As we move into this second decade of the 2000′s, punch-drunk and inundated after years of trauma, our merciless abusers have decided to enact what I would like to refer to as Superhero Mania Part Duex.
For those of us who were unfortunate enough to come of age in the era of the superhero film, watching in unmitigated horror as our favorite characters were trampled upon, the sad reality is that we haven’t really seen anything yet. The worst attributes that we have observed about the genre including: a brainless tongue in cheek tone (Spiderman 3, Iron Man 2), garish idiocy (The Green Lantern), shocking excess (X-Men: The Last Stand, Spiderman 3), infantile characterization (The Fantastic Four series), and endless, origin-story rebooting (Superman Returns, The Amazing Spiderman, X-Men: First Class, The Man of Steel, The Incredible Hulk and the planned Daredevil, Fantastic Four and Batman reboots) will continue to be perpetuated because the industry has not yet been taught a painful enough lesson (which is something that an Avengers failure could have provided).
It is failure itself that too often gets a bad rap because without failure one never gets forced into the process of introspection. It is this process where decisions about amending habitual behaviors must be grappled with. This is the ultimate lesson that can be gleaned from the self-destruction of the Batman franchise in the late 1990′s, a lesson that the modern superhero film genre of the 2000′s could certainly benefit from and what the mammoth success of The Avengers denies. The silver-lining of the Batman fiasco of the 90′s was the slow evolution of the studio’s approach to this flagship character and its game plan in launching a successful re-boot. As Harvey Dent once said, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.” We had to go through the darkness of Schumacher to reach the ethereal dawn of Christopher Nolan and his take on the Caped Crusader.
Nolan’s Bat-universe was first introduced to me back in the summer of 2005 when I was a snot-nosed 17-year-old. I remember coming back from a Friday night screening of Batman Begins, stumbling into my parent’s kitchen and immediately beginning to moan to my older sister about how disappointed I was with the film because the film’s fight scenes didn’t “…Allow me to see nutin!” I would eventually come to love the film (after multiple viewings) and grasp the intricacies of Nolan’s accomplishment – where the director played with the genre, imposed his vision upon a major pop-culture icon and still managed to adhere closely to what seems to be the character’s core essence. Nolan’s powerful aesthetic and thematic fixations are all over this series, with allusions to the neo-noir formulas of his past work and a clear articulation of themes that are both personal and universal (fear, sacrifice, obsession, nihilism) and resonate on a sociological and even political level (political idealism, criminal escalation, human duality).
Although far from being perfect (an inability to write decent parts for women and excruciating moralizing are just a few problems that seem to continually plague Nolan efforts) Nolan’s Batman films remain a shining beacon through the hazy mist of mediocrity that has defined our superhero saturated times. Aside from being artistically sublime in many regards Nolan’s Bat-films capture the pain, the ferocity, the anxiety and the disillusionment of their time-period while still being imbued with an entertaining level of pop scope and spectacle. They epitomize the power that film, even pop-film, can have when the man in control is concerned with being reflective of the world around him. Finally, the modern Batman films primarily stand in stark opposition to the great Marvel experiment of the 2000′s because of Nolan’s commitment to treat his source material respectfully and to give his series something that has been painfully missing from nearly all other adapted superhero properties: finality.
To Nolan, these films have never been simple properties that one must quickly rush out into theaters in the same assembly line fashion (described above) that seems to dominate the Marvel decision makers’ thinking. The series has slowly developed over the course of the last seven years with Nolan taking time to work on other projects in between and only commit to returning to the franchise if he feels there is a strong enough story to justify the continuation of the enterprise. In Nolan’s Batman series there doesn’t seem to be any thinking comparable to the decisions made by other superhero franchise captains – where the script seems like it was tailored to satiate the market and insure the highest level of profit for the studio. One egregious example of this can be found in Rami’s odious Spiderman 3, where his thought process seemed to go like this: “Wow, the kids really want to see Venom huh? The studio is also really breathing down my neck. He doesn’t fit into my already bloated storyline, but who am I to fight it? Here he comes!”
The story is what takes center-stage with Nolan’s franchise and eclipses other properties because you get the impression that there is an actual beginning, a middle and, with the impending release of The Dark Knight Rises next month, a definitive and potentially tragic ending for the story of Bale’s Batman. Watching films like Begins, Dark Knight and the various trailers and promotional materials involved with Rises it becomes instantly clear that the world of Nolan’s Batman is one defined by consequential violence (something that Marvel’s Avengers is painfully devoid of I might add, not to mention almost every other superhero movie ever made) and contains irrevocable events.
Nolan himself probably sums it up best when he commented in an interview with the LA Times that “… unlike the comics these things don’t go on forever.” An insightful quote to use when trying to understand how, despite the endless marketing build-up that preceeded the release of The Avengers and the push to position the propoerty as the cataclysmic “end-times” for the Marvel cinematic universe, you leave the theater feeling that somehow what you had witnessed was “just another day at the office.” Despite trying to appeal to the public that Marvel’s superhero team-up movie is a cinematic event I would contest that it remains little more than just another film. Bigger, louder and more enjoyable than the other Marvel films which led it up to it, but having little more weight than any of those individual films nonetheless.
Superhero films (like anything other type of film) work the best on an emotional and artistic level when they contain a plot line that might (ostensibly) reach an eventual conclusion. Having been subjected to a superhero sensory assault for more than a decade now, I can only wait in feverish anticipation for Nolan’s final entry to his Batman series – which will hopefully complete a trilogy brimming with high quality aesthetics, thematic topicality and a storyline with weight and a sense of conclusive power. In the genre of the superhero film his series stands as the ultimate example not of how things are, but how things should be. This Bat series is the evidence of what can happen when a massive media corporation is forced to stop shoving one of its flagship characters down the public’s throat temporarily and slowly work to rebuild a property from the ground up, a process that is assisted greatly through hiring powerful artists with clear visions.
I once dreamed of seeing the rise and fall of the superhero film genre (like my parents observed the death of the Western) but now, through the soul-crushing success of The Avengers it is clear that the stream of (mostly) forgettable comic adaptations defined by consequence-free plots (which often times seem little more than a set-ups for sequels) will continue and the executives at Disney and Time Warner will not cease with hurling the next installment of each series (or if one doesn’t work, producing a mind-numbing, origin story reboot) into theaters as fast as humanly possible.
Not that any of this really matters. As Allen points out through his analysis of Beatty’s Network speech, “The world is a business…” and superhero films (and Batman especially) are bigger than a Christopher Nolan, bigger than any single person. Depictions of Batman on film will of course continue (the next reboot is scheduled for 2015 for christ sake) but we will always know that for a brief, wonderful moment (2005-2012) we had a series that showed us what the genre was truly capable of. This is why that, due to our spending habits during the last ten years, when studio executives were given the green-light to continue making sub-par films, the Bale Bat-series and its writer/director Nolan may certainly not have been the heroes we deserved, but they were definitely what we needed.