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Friday, 24 February 2017

THE GNOSTIC KNIGHT RISES


Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," the acclaimed middle chapter of his Batman trilogy, asked its viewers to consider whether it might sometimes be permissible to promulgate blatant, factual untruth as a means toward achieving a righteous end.

That film sicced Heath Ledger's harrowing Joker on audiences, portraying the perpetually grinning clown-villain not merely as a venal and murderous criminal (a la Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman"), but rather as a kind of festering human plague with no discernible agenda except to foment general chaos and expose the mass of humanity as essentially loathsome, their proclaimed morality and ethics a mere hypocritical veneer beneath which lurks nothing but a repulsively bestial core.

It was notable that Christian Bale's Batman/Bruce Wayne had no really effective response to the Joker's cynical take on humanity. At one moment he did insist that Gothamites were better than the Joker claimed they were, albeit with scant evidence. (During one powerful moment, a seemingly wicked minor character performs an unexpectedly heroic deed, but he may simply be an exception to the rule; there is certainly no cornily "stirring" affirmation of the human spirit in the offing.) By the time the movie is over, in fact, the truth is so altogether grim that Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) decide to concoct a Noble Lie in order to fight corruption and steer Gotham down the path to virtue. At the same time, Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps him from being exposed to a harsh truth of a personal nature.

In "The Dark Knight Rises," both of those lies are exposed, with frightful consequences. Yet by the time this final chapter of the trilogy concludes, the gulf between private knowledge and public ignorance is once again reinforced. Some commenters on "The Dark Knight" claimed to see expressed a kind of neocon-Straussian approval of then-President Bush's "war on terror," since in that movie Batman used extra-constitutional, legally dubious methods to combat The Joker's murderous depredations. The masses were kept in the dark, and finally handed a massive lie, in order for justice to prevail. That allegorical reading is probably overstated; Nolan as a director seems utterly uninterested in such narrow topicality, and he certainly eschews the expression of overt partisanship. Still, his Batman trilogy is undoubtedly rather right-wing, and perhaps even fascistic, in its orientation. (See Trevor Lynch's review at Counter-Currents for a thoughtful elaboration of those right-wing themes.)

In "Rises," a new villain surfaces, with a similarly ruthless and destructive mindset, if a slightly different overriding concern. Unlike The Joker, Bane actually subscribes to a transcendental belief system, albeit of an occult, esoteric sort; he is a member of the League of Shadows, a group that sees modern life as irredeemably decadent and wishes to work for its destruction. Bane's rhetoric, of course, is quite different when he seizes control and speaks to the people of Gotham. Addressing the masses, he adopts an Occupy Wall Street-esque populist line, attacking the rich for their supposed greed and encouraging the exploited working class to rise up and take what is ostensibly theirs.

Bane unleashing the mob.
The chaos that follows, complete with show trials, summary executions, and wide-ranging terror — including a mob's storming a prison a la the Bastille in 1789 — pushes Gotham toward the brink. That outcome is ardently desired by Bane, though not for his stated reasons; in fact he uses leftist catchphrases (which he calls "myths of opportunity") and exploits anti-rich resentment among the lumpenproletariat in order to effect the destruction of the corrupt modern world.

To vanquish a man such as Bane, Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon must once again craft a countermyth, culminating in a denouement in which the commoners of Gotham are once more not told the whole story. Though this time there is no direct deceit involved, the gulf between the esoteric and the exoteric still persists. The elite retain a secret knowledge of events that is kept from the masses.

In the end, Batman/Wayne gives his all to save Gotham, at tremendous cost. The thoughtful viewer, while admiring the hero's strength of will, may remain disquieted by the realization that Gotham may not ultimately be worth saving. Might The Joker and Bane in fact be correct in their scathing assessments of human nature? One film critic of a conservative Catholic orientation has in fact raised that very issue, in a tone of some distress.

In his review of "Rises," Steven Greydanus expresses a vigorous wish that the film could have included what he calls a "United 93" moment, in which ordinary citizens demonstrate their moral mettle by taking a stand against the bad guys. Greydanus seems to consider the absence of such a scene an unfortunate omission on Nolan's part. Unlike Greydanus, I am thoroughly grateful for the absence of such a moment, as the very notion of such a scene in such a movie strikes me as self-evidently discordant, contrived, and ridiculous. Nolan's Batman trilogy isn't populist fare, but something far grimmer, allegorically speaking.

By the end of "The Dark Knight Rises," Gotham sits in ruins. What's more, a tattered American flag is prominently visible in a crucial late scene. The pictorial implication is clear: Gotham is America; both have been ravaged by corruption, and both are earmarked for karmic destruction. Batman's compassionate and self-sacrificial final act, then, isn't performed out of an optimistic belief that people are good at heart and thus "worth" saving. Rather, the caped crusader does what he does out of a sense of stoic resolve.

In that way, interestingly enough, the look and feel of "Rises" somewhat resembles the fierce and painful aesthetic of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." (See my review at The Last Ditch) In both, the hero must be broken down and endure a kind of Hell-on-Earth in order to bring redemption to the unworthy. He must indeed perish, in order to be able to rise again, majestically reborn. Ω

Originally published at The Last Ditch, August 6, 2012


 

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