The Spoiler Rises: The Dark Knight Rises

I’ve loved the Nolan brothers’ and Christian Bale’s take on Batman since the first film came out in 2005 while I was in Japan. Between love of the film and homesickness, I must have seen Batman Begins five or six times in the theatre. I don’t normally see films on their opening weekends, but I was thinking about making an exception for their last Batman.

The Dark Knight Rises was in an awkward position its opening weekend; it should have opened as the culmination of the Nolan/Bale series critiquing policing and citizens’ responsibilities in an era of expanding government and shrinking responsibility, but almost immediately upon its release it was overshadowed by a single person’s anti-human actions.

Psychopathic attempts at terrorizing people going about their daily lives – and everyday citizens’ responses to those terrifying events – play a prominent role in the Nolan/Bale Batman world. The perpetrator of the real-life attack played into the mythos of the films, refusing to explain his reasoning at first, leaving assorted weapons and traps scattered about Colorado and remaining, like Bane, the Scarecrow and the Joker, a cipher. Trying to, anyway. In the real world, as Film School Rejects’ managing editor Scott Beggs notes, films may be touched by a tragedy, but life goes on.

Personally, when I heard about the shooting in Colorado, it did make me pause. Copycat events aren’t uncommon when something like this occurs, and I didn’t want to be caught in a theatre with a crazy gunman. But the would-be Banes of the world can only win if people give in to fear. And I really wanted to see that movie. (Seriously, they started showing ads on TV in JUNE. I waited long enough!)

Now then, about the film itself. There will be a few spoilers here, including a big one about the end. This isn’t going to be a review, more like a set of observations. (Let’s be honest – if I were to write a review, it would consist of, “Good film, go see it!” You don’t want to read that.) Originally, I was going to write mostly about Catwoman, but now I’m going to save the for another post. Enjoy!

One of the things that first drew me to Japanese animation was its limited form. Programming for the very young aside, most anime are created to finish in a set number of episodes, usually a multiple of 13. From an American perspective, this means that they are paced more like literature than television or comics. The Batman comics, for example, were popular when they were introduced in 1939, so DC Comics continued to create new Batman stories over and over again. Occasionally a different person was swapped into the Batsuit for awhile, but ultimately Bruce Wayne has remained Batman. Similarly, as much as I love Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, seasons pass and Buffy is still slaying the big baddie, same as always. If you love her the way she is and want to see her do what she does forever, this is wonderful. If you love her the way she is and hope better days will come, seeing her get hurt and keep fighting over and over and over again is psychologically draining. It never ends, there’s no happily ever after.

The Nolan/Bale Batman is different. Yes, they made a series of films and more films could be made in the world they’ve created, but they have ended the story of Bruce Wayne as Batman with The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne, after 73 long years, hasn’t just retired to his mansion to oversee other members of the Bat-family, he faked his death and left America entirely for a happy-ever-after with Catwoman. The three Nolan/Bale films give us a full story cycle – a hero’s journey – four times over: once in each film, but also once across the three films.

In this larger journey, Batman Begins covers Bruce Wayne’s departure from the world he knew, with his allowing Ra’s al Ghul to die signifying the destruction of the last bind between Wayne and his old life as a privileged young man of Gotham. The Dark Knight gives us Batman’s initiation. In loving Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne is led back to a normal life instead of his dual existence as part-time Batman, part-time socialite. By killing Rachel, the Joker allows Wayne to separate entirely from normal human concerns, leading to his blind faith that the people of Gotham will choose to risk their own deaths instead of killing others. In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne faces the issue that countless popular comic, film and TV heroes have before him: why go back? Why stop being the (super)hero who saves the world?

Bruce Wayne is an injured hermit at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises. Even though Batman hasn’t been seen in Gotham in years, he still lives in isolation at Wayne Manor as though he himself is only Batman’s ghost or shadow. Over the course of the film, we are reminded of what Bruce Wayne discovered as he created Batman: “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed, but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” Batman’s power lies not in the man behind the mask, it lies in the existence of a mask. That’s why Bruce Wayne can “die”. He may leave Gotham, but he leaves his city with the fruits of his efforts: Batman, the everlasting symbol.

The Bat Signal is regenerated for Commissioner Gordon’s use. The Bat Cave has been left ready for Robin John Blake to take up the mantle. Bruce Wayne’s hard-won knowledge has been left to the denizens of his world, leaving Wayne himself free to live again. The story of Bruce Wayne as Batman has come to an end, but the Nolan/Bale Batman world is wide open. The symbol of Batman supercedes the man.

For a quick snapshot of the hero’s journey, try this website, made by the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction

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Spoilerific discussion of Terminator Salvation

I saw Terminator Salvation yesterday.  I thought that it was pretty good, though it was not the fantastic relaunch that I had hoped for.  I went in having heard that it was horrible, so finding it not-horrible coloured my view, of course.  Yet having said that, I must say that I disagree with the story being written about it across the internet.  This story says that Christian Bale was originally approached to play Marcus, the protagonist of Salvation, and that his preference for the role of John Connor led to the director emphasizing Connor more in a way that gave us a disjointed narrative.  Consequently people seem to sort of blame Bale for the final product.

Here’s the thing: the Terminator franchise is about John Connor.  It may be named after the machines, but John Connor is the central character – even when he hasn’t been born yet.  Time travel is invented because of John Connor.  John Connor’s father’s hero is John Connor.  John Connor saves humanity from annihilation.  If you want to make a spin-off movie about a cyborg that wants to go against Skynet because of its human brain okay, I’ll probably go see it so that I can get yet another taste of the Terminator world.  But the main series is and has always been about John Connor and whether he can, despite all odds, survive to lead the Resistance to victory.

Some of my favorite parts of this movie involved Bale’s Connor trying to navigate his role as saviour with his lack of age/pre-Judgment Day military experience while keeping his ideals intact.  I thought Bale did a great job of showing us a conflicted man who was trying to do the best he could in a horrible situation… with little screen time.  For the lead character – or even one of two lead characters – Bale wasn’t on screen that much.  Even in the scenes with both Connor and Marcus the camera’s focus was on Marcus.  See, for example, the scene where Connor first interogates Marcus.  Marcus’ pathetically-restrained cyborg body is on full display even as Connor launches into a fabulous soliloquy about Skynet’s repeated assassination attempts.

I should note here that I think Sam Worthington did a great job with Marcus and I hope that this movie helps his career.  So this is not about Marcus being a bad character or badly acted or anything like that.  The franchise is just not about him.  It has steadily moved towards more John Connor per movie over the first three movies; (potentially) no John (ever) in the first, young John totally protected by a very prominent Sarah and the Terminator in the second, and then John begins his life as John Connor, leader of the Resistance, saviour of humanity in the third.  Since Salvation is the first of three new movies, it should have been about John Connor in his early or middle Resistance years.  We know (or think we know) that he dies before his wife sends back the second Terminator, so these three movies have to either be pretty tightly organized or work around that – and even if they work around it, they are action movies and so should still be pretty tightly wound.

Where do we end up then?  We know that Connor was able to empty prisoner camps from the earlier movies, and this movie posits that he hasn’t started doing that yet.  So why not have the main plot be him pushing against the Resistance command to save the imprisoned?  A recurring Terminator theme is bungling authorities – particularly in the form of that one psychiatrist and the police – so you’ve got thematic continuity.  You can still have the final mass shoot-out be emptying Skynet headquarters and saving Kyle Reese (who, it has been pointed out, was supposed to have spent considerable time in the camps).  Maybe an ending scene showing the exhausted, harried John Connor finally coming face to face with his father.  Tension, explosions, emotion, and you’re set for movie number two.

Alternatively, if you have to have a Marcus character, why not play up the related issues more?  What side is Marcus on?  As I suggested earlier, Christian Bale did a great job of showing Connor’s personal reaction to anything resembling a Skynet attempt to kill him, his feelings of responsibility for saving humanity, his proficiency as a guerilla captain, his fairness and his leadership abilities (both shown when he let Blair Williams out of jail despite her helping Marcus escape) in very little screen time.  But think what would have happened if we had had Marcus in Resistence custody for a longer period of time.  Arguments amongst the fighters about whether he qualified as a robot or a human, questions about whether the doctors could remove the chip controlling him (thereby making him an effective Resistence member and giving the Resistence some practice with Terminator-like technology for when they will, eventually, have to catch and reprogram two)… meanwhile the higher-ups would be howling, with Connor stuck in the middle.  Another effective sequence.

What both of these alternative Terminator: Salvation story lines do is unify the story.  As it was, the story felt very disjointed; switching between two viewpoints can be an effective film structure, but you have to use two people who are similar to each other, but total opposites in key ways.  A good example is Mezzo Forte, an anime that switches between the viewpoints of two teenage girls with similar appearances, both of whom are skilled in the use of violence.  But one is portrayed as a good-natured, sexually curious minx while the other is sexually cold and only seems to enjoy herself while hurting other people.  Flipping between their two viewpoints builds up tension throughout the film as we see them coming to the ultimate confrontation.  Contrast the newest Terminator.  At first Marcus seems to be human and in control of himself.  When Connor interrogates Marcus (not until midway through the movie) we start to see a confrontation building – but as quickly as their tempers got out of hand Connor regains control of the situation, suggesting his tactical and leadership skills.  So now they’re friends – but wait, they’re enemies, Marcus led Connor into a trap.  Until Marcus fixed himself (by pulling out a chip – couldn’t the Resistance doctors have done that?) and they’re allies again until the end of the movie.  There is no apparent reason to structure the movie in this bipolar way – it serves no purpose other than to make sure that when Connor and Marcus next meet we, the audience, know where they are both coming from.

Two last points.  The first: a little tweak that would have made the movie a lot better for me, and set up interesting issues for the coming sequels.  The heart thing.  Overdone, under-believable.  Open-heart surgery between two guys who may or may not be compatible by an ex-veterinarian in the open on the edge of a nuclear battlefield?  And that doesn’t even get into issues like wasn’t Marcus swimming in a gunky river with his heart exposed a couple hours beforehand?  I’m not a doctor and even I know that that heart is in an icky condition.  So, my tweak/question: why didn’t they just make the heart mechanical?  They could have said that to keep Marcus’ human brain alive Skynet needed to create a machine-heart that mimicked a real heart’s actions precisely.  Then we have a reason for why it can be transplanted more simply than an actual human heart (no worries about rejecting organs, for one), and there will be an interesting fold to future Terminator movies: John Connor would be a cyborg, partially created by Skynet.

My last point is really just a hat tip to director McG.  Apparently there was a topless scene for Blair Williams in the movie and he cut it because it felt forced, like it would only have been there to provide eyecandy for boys.  Yes, sir, it would have been.  Kudos on cutting it.  I can see where you might have felt the urge to have one – after all, there was a full-blown sex scene in the original and you have a married couple that one might assume would occasionally indulge.  (I’m looking forward to seeing where that plot thread is going, by the way.)  However the movie that you ended up making was more of a war movie – one man lost behind enemy lines meets up with kids who are promptly kidnapped by the bad guy; he proceeds to team up with a good(?) guy he meets nearby to get kids back.  That kind of story does not lend itself to topless shots.  Therefore some credit is due for putting story/art ahead of horny boys who are too lazy to find a free porn site.

By takingitoutside Posted in Reviews Tagged

On Genre

Today in class we discussed the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and one that was new to me: science fantasy.  We spent a fair portion of the class on it, but I felt like I could have kept going for ages.  I have some issues with the idea of genre as it’s commonly used today. I feel like genre is helpful as a tool when it is used to pull together works that hold similar elements, or to lead someone to new works that they might find interesting.  On the other hand, I heard a lot today about people who say that they won’t like something because it is fantasy, or science fiction.  I don’t think  that it’s just SF and fantasy, I think that that is true for autobiography and what have you. In this sense it limits the works available to a person instead of bringing them new possibilities.  And I don’t mean to say that I don’t do it too – I totally beeline for the SF/fantasy/graphic novel sections of bookstores.

In another class this morning we discussed a Japanese “genre” called joryuu bungaku, or “female-stream literature” that is more extreme than sci-fi or fantasy Joryuu bungaku. It consists of literature written by women. That’s just about its only requirement: written by women. And it has its own small section of bookstores. The problem is, if a woman writes science fiction it goes in joryuu bungaku, if she writes an I novel it goes in joryuu bungaku, if she writes historical fiction it goes in joryuu bungaku – and these aren’t big sections compared to the (men’s) SF, I novel and historical fiction sections, so fewer women’s books are offered for sale. I heard this morning that some bookstores are changing this style of presentation, but critics still review books in these terms.

Joryuu bungaku is different from SF and fantasy in that it isn’t a division by content so much as by author, but that’s really my point: it doesn’t matter how you limit what you’re looking at, it matters whether you’re limiting it.

To insert a bit of theory here, I feel like genre is used by many to impose structures (yes, of the structuralist/post-structuralist variety) onto post-modernist works.  In other words, many works – most of the best, in my opinion – are not simply fantasy or romance or whatever.  They can be classified into many and varied genres.  For example, the Lord of the Rings books came up in class today as an early classic of fantasy.  But they also form a story of friendship (or fellowship, in the books’ terms), a war story, an epic, a story of good triumphing over evil… they even throw in something for linguists!  I could use these books for a number of purposes, even teaching diversity.

Another classic fantasy series that came up was the Chronicles of Narnia.  But the Chronicles are as much a Christian story as a fantasy.  Offhand I can’t think of a single book that I have enjoyed that couldn’t be categorized into more than one genre – and that’s not even counting things like when it was published, where it was written and who wrote it.  I wonder if, in the future, we might see a more cloud-like organization of books.  “Cloud” in the sense of tag clouds on websites, as in the Fellowship of the Ring gets tagged with fantasy, yes, but also war story, epic, good versus evil, conlang, elves, dwarves, horses, absolute monarchy, fiction, serious, twentieth century, American, et cetera.  The web could help with this: imagine walking into a store looking for a new book and stopping at a terminal instead of making straight for a genre section.  You could type in or click on a few tags – “funny”, “American”, “romance”, “young adult” – and be given a list of books available in the store along with their locations.  Then you take a look at them, and choose whatever suits your fancy that day.  More options, less restriction.  Perhaps then we wouldn’t have such strong stereotypes about just who watches Battlestar Galactica.