Alex Stephenson Bat Erections: The Dark Knight ReRises

Last Tuesday, James and I released our podcast on The Dark Knight Rises. I was worried it would sound like I hated the movie, and according to some listeners it does, which is not entirely the case. While I still believe everything I said on the podcast, I also believe I really like The Dark Knight Rises, and love large sections of it. It’s probably not up to par with the rest of the trilogy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good movie. And since I’m a Christopher Nolan fanboy (always) and an apologist (sometimes), I’m not entirely ready to stop thinking about it, and I’m damn sure going to apologize for its flaws.

I suppose it’s important to note here that I have literally no idea why I feel compelled to say anything more about The Dark Knight Rises than I already have. Over an hour of my thoughts exist on our website (and on iTunes!), and I still believe everything I said, if only because I said it approximately six days ago. However, one of the biggest flaws of The Dark Knight Rises is that it tries to do too much, but even when those ideas don’t work, they’re worth talking about. 

This film, as opposed to its predecessors Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, deals with a much larger world of characters that we are all supposed to care about. Instead of succeeding in getting us to care about Bruce Wayne, it attempts (and fails) to get us to care about everybody, a problem that often exists in modern blockbuster cinema. Earth is perpetually in danger in modern blockbusters, be it from the Tesseract in The Avengers, or the exact same thing but with a different name in Transformers, or the exact same thing with the exact same name in Captain America: The First Avenger. This is a problem seemingly brought on by the advent of special effects technology: once it is possible to create anything, everything is an option. Suddenly, as the scale of your film needs to grow, there’s no reason to stop at anything less than the destruction of the entire world. While only Gotham City (and, one would assume, its surrounding area) are in imminent danger during the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, that’s more or less the totality of the Batman world Nolan has familiarized us with. The whole world isn’t really at risk, but the whole world we know is, and we’re supposed to care about everybody within it.

It’s almost impossible to care as much about such a large number of people in a movie, if only because no reasonable film has time to set up that many characters. In The Dark Knight Rises, the best-case scenario for the viewer is that they are emotionally invested in Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, John Blake, Commissioner Gordon, and Alfred Pennyworth (although there’s a solid chance he’s not even in Gotham once shit gets real). The Dark Knight Rises’ best moments are ones that show one or two of these characters dealing on a small-scale personal level, like when Wayne climbs out of the prison he has been banished to, or when Batman reveals his secret identity to Commissioner Gordon (who doesn’t have the Magic Orphan Eye superpower that John Blake appears to possess). These echo the best moments in the previous films, when we see Batman triumphantly swoop away to close Begins, or when he takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders to become The Dark Knight. These moments are why we got attached to these films in the first place, and since there are fewer of them in the new film, as the film focuses on the grander moments, we simply care less about what happens to anybody. 

The Dark Knight Rises’ final message is one of valuing the work of a collective; it essentially thanks its legions of fans by having a mass of Gothamites assist in Bane’s defeat. Batman wasn’t important as much as the Bat symbol was. Without the assistance of the citizens of Gotham, Bruce Wayne has no chance. The film depicts its world as an economically depressed place for most, but it also says that the human spirit will persevere and things will get better. We shouldn’t go so far as to become domestic terrorism hobbyists like Bane, but gathering as a collective and pursuing a common goal as opposed to going it alone is highly valued in this film. 

Similarly, I am not alone in loving Batman. There are legions of fanboys, and we’re all desperately in love with these movies. The Dark Knight Rises is likely the last time a lot of us will get extremely excited over a film; as we get older and smart enough to realize how illogical it is to be excited about stuff like this, it will get harder to be irrational. We’re called fanboys for a reason: only a boy would be stupid enough to casually claim he is emotionally attached to a Christian Bale character and mean it. But with The Dark Knight Rises, we’re still in 2005. It’s a superhero brand of Revertigo, and it makes us all eighteen again. In the months leading up to these films, we have nightmares of the Joker making coffee in our kitchen, or of rescuing Kelly Clarkson from a version of Bane who has decided to terrorize a water park. We were too young for Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings movies had too many fucking goblins for us to care about. Batman was our trilogy. But now it’s gone, hiding out in an Italian café with Anne Hathaway, and it took the fanboy inside of us with it.

It seems unlikely that I’ve ever been more excited about anything than I was for The Dark Knight, and similarly with The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve lost hours of sleep in anticipation of the films, and the dreams listed above were not isolated incidents. While working at a video store in the hours leading up to The Dark Knight’s release in July 2008, I did pushups in the middle of the store for no fucking reason other than the overexcitement brought on by playing Batman Begins on the televisions hung throughout the place. I know all of these things are insane, but that’s fine. Bruce Wayne’s psychoses lead him to become a masked vigilante, and mine lead me to care way too much about that fake masked vigilante. I knew these things were illogical as I did them, I just didn’t care. Now, though, I think I might.

I will be excited for films again: this is not me drawing a hard line in the sand that says, “You are now an adult who will never care about anything other than remaining safely sardonic at all times.” When it was announced that a new Terrence Malick film would be gracing film festivals this year, I threw confetti in the air and blew up some celebratory balloons of existentialism. But I will never be as emotionally involved with a film than how I felt at the end of The Dark Knight, or when Bruce Wayne rises out of the prison in its successor. Now I can experience these moments as they unfold before me, but once the movie is over I think, “Wait… how did Bruce get back to Gotham so fast?” I’m less okay with glossing over the more illogical moments in a film now, much like I’m less okay with being illogical in my day-to-day life. I was never going to be eighteen again, and I was fine with that, but now I don’t know that I’ll ever be as excited about anything as I was as an eighteen year old. And that’s much worse.

Assuming I fulfill my life expectancy, it seems plausible and even likely that twenty years of my life will pass in which I don’t watch one of these Batman films. In fact, it seems more likely here than with most other good films, because I know these so well that I feel less inclined to watch them. (Once you know every shot, rewatching loses its luster.) I still love making jokes about Thomas Wayne asking a young Bruce why we fall, but there will probably come a time in my life when I wouldn’t get that reference if somebody said it to me.

I recently ran into a woman who used to rent movies from me, and she now works in an optometrist’s office (although I suppose I never knew where she worked before). The first thing she said to me was, “I recognize you from somewhere,” before I mentioned I was the movie store guy who unsuccessfully tried to get her to rent Saved! for four years. Despite genuinely enjoying talking to this woman, and laughing a lot while doing so, she was never somebody I would consider a friend. I doubt I thought of her even once since I last saw her. All of our previous interactions revolved around a money for movies transaction, and when I saw her again, she took my money so she could use optometry technology to momentarily blind me. I’m sure she had made fun of me in the past for talking about Batman too much (as I was wont to do for most of 2008), but that was not a topic we broached before I left her office. We didn’t immediately start jumping into a conversation when I walked in either, but when we started actually talking, nothing really seemed to change. I asked about the child she was pregnant with when I last saw her four years ago, and she asked what I do now that my old job is essentially nonexistent. She could still make me laugh, and vice versa. It was a brief run-in, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. I assume I’ll never see her again, but I know that if I do, a momentary refamiliarizing may occur, before we get back to the same enjoyable conversations we had years ago.

I’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises three times now, and as soon as I finish this paragraph I’m going to see it again. I would imagine I’ll see it another few times, because that’s just what I do with Nolan’s Batman movies. I’ll probably see it a total of seven times in theatres, which isn’t abnormal for me but also isn’t particularly normal any more either. I doubt I’ll ever see anything that many times in theatres again, if only because these days I have more varied tastes, and tend to spend more time thinking about movies than I spend actively watching them. And that’s where my more negative comments about The Dark Knight Rises come from – the fact that now I’m older, smarter, and can grow a solid beard. Once I leave the theatre, I can’t remove myself from thinking about the movie I just watched, and pretty much every movie tends to have some significant problems when you think about them for as long as I tend to now. But while I’m still in the theatre, watching Bruce Wayne climb 

out of a prison in the most triumphant of fashions, a younger version of me has goosebumps, and is still so invested that he feels like he can join in on the masked vigilantism. I may not know why we fall forever, but I know why I fell for these movies. And I never want that feeling to go away, even though it already has. I just need to trust that it can still pick itself back up when it’s really needed.


Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.