How much unrestrained enthusiasm can a reviewer get away with before being dismissed as an uncritical fan, I wonder. I might just be about to find out. For the second time this year I’m struggling to rein in my enthusiasm and keep check of the superlatives I feel the need to toss about with wild abandon in what should be a sober critical review of a remarkable movie. This is not a situation I often find myself in, and it’s all the more surprising as the two movies in question are from the same far-fetched Superhero genre, one that has come to dominate our screens and the box office in the last decade. Few of this genre’s offerings aspire to be any more than entertainment and while that’s not an unworthy aspiration, it’s also true that when the thrill of the moment has passed, there’s often little to say and even less challenge in saying it.
Sometimes, though rarely, a movie makes a virtue of this shortcoming, as was the case with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. With tongue in cheek I claimed earlier this year that Whedon’s movie had robbed me of my critical mojo: I knew I should write something critical and profound, but had to settle with “Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is absofrakkinglutely awesome!”, which is to say that the movie achieved what it was intended to achieve to perfection: I was thrilled by it and fully entertained. But I was not intellectually engaged. This is no criticism of the movie as it was not intended for intellectual engagement.
But now we have the final chapter in Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR). This is another beast entirely. While both movies are exemplars of the genre, they could not be any different. To some degree the difference between the two is a matter of cosmology: the Marvel (Avengers) and DC (Batman) universes are both dark and dangerous places, but ultimately the threat in the Marvel universe occurs on a superhuman scale, which is to say that it is the thrilling stuff of comics. On the other hand, the darkness in the DC universe, at least as it is captured by Chris Nolan, is all too believable: although the narrative and action occur on an epic scale, the evil we witness is perpetrated by humans – it is evil on a human scale – and for that it is all the more unsettling.
It’s no surprise that such a cosmological difference sets very different tones in the two movies. Whedon’s movie is delightfully and intentionally lacking in seriousness. The thrill left in its wake lingers long – far longer than we’ve come to expect from movies in this genre – but for all the great characters, ensemble performances and epic action, in the end there is little substance to the narrative beyond the thrill. That is not the case with TDKR. Nolan’s movie is as serious and intense as it is thrilling, and its seriousness is as much to do with the universe in which it is set as Nolan’s thoughtful exploration of myth and myth making, and the power of myth.
Overlooking, ignoring or dismissing the trilogy’s exploration of myth has led some to regard the ending of TDKR as far-fetched and unrealistic, although it has to be said that on that basis we’d need to dismiss the entire trilogy as the ending is no more unbelievable than many other moments in the action in which Batman defies the odds and the laws of nature with the implausibility of any other superhero.
More important however, if we can accept that the Batman trilogy is an exploration of myth, this should make us more tolerant of the far-fetched narrative and ending: myth concerns itself with truth (psychological truth) not reality. On many levels the Batman narrative operates as mythology operates, with elements of the fantastic, but even so the truths it speaks about the hero’s journey are all too human. It is in fact the mythological aspect of this narrative which keeps the whole thing on a human scale, because for all that myth concerns itself with gods and heroes and monsters, it tells a profoundly human story that speaks to us about ourselves.
If you are in any doubt about this, consider Bruce Wayne’s darkest moment in TDKR [SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REMAINDER OF THIS PARAGRAPH] Broken and abandoned in a hell hole, Bruce Wayne’s Will to Live is fuelled by a myth that the villain who put him there, Bane, escaped from this place. It is Wayne’s belief in the myth that fuels his escape. Only later does he discover that Bane never escaped. It’s not merely that there is power in the myth of Bane’s escape, but that the myth speaks directly to Bruce Wayne’s inner being. The myth inspires him, it speaks to him of remarkable human potential, and he makes it so. [For all that Bane and Batman are opposites – it’s no accident that Bane’s mask covers the part of his face that Batman’s mask leaves uncovered – they share much in common, including the exploitation of myth for their own ends.]
But what is this truth that the Batman trilogy, and the ending in particular, concerns itself with?
In the character of Bruce Wayne, Chris Nolan presents a man who understands the power of myth, a man who crafts the myth of the masked avenger to inspire some and terrorise others. At the same time of course, Bruce Wayne is Chris Nolan’s Hero of Myth: Nolan launches Wayne on the archetypal journey of the hero that begins with innocence and ends with the transformative power of death [for those who have not seen the movie yet, let me say that I’m not giving anything away when I say that].
The trilogy opens with Bruce Wayne’s childhood, but even when the adult puts on the persona of Batman there is something childlike to the man: he is driven by his passions, notably anger, as well as a childlike sense of right and wrong. Over the course of the movies we follow Wayne’s quest to discover his power, and witness his growing disillusionment (with himself as much as anything else) as innocence passes to experience.
For much of his journey Wayne’s strength and drive is a reckless fearlessness. But this is also his weakness. He does not fear death because he has nothing to live for and without that, his is a half life. Arriving at an understanding of this could represent the hero’s attainment of wisdom, and his journey might end fittingly with the discovery of a reason to live. The hero’s death in these circumstances would be a tragedy but it is often the tragedy of myth that the hero only learns truth in the final moments of life. His mythic journey could now come to an end, wisdom acquired – if not by the hero, by the audience at least – through the transformative power of death.
The ending of The Dark Knight Rises, for all that it might seem far-fetched, tells us that the hero has acquired wisdom. That his journey is over.
Much more could be said about this remarkable narrative, but that is as far as I want to take a critical analysis of the movie for the moment. When the dust has settled, a serious look at the entire trilogy is warranted, but now is not the time for that. Now is the time to express our gratitude to Chris Nolan for The Dark Knight Rises, a veritable triumph of storytelling, myth making and the use of myth.