A billion dollars creates a lot of electromagnetic hum. Bring the world’s billion-dollar election into close proximity with the latest billion-dollar blockbuster, and sparks are going to fly between them. "Do you think it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing, four-eyed whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?" seethed Rush Limbaugh this week about the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, the name of who’s villain shares near perfect consonance with Mitt Romney’s venture capital form. Never mind that Bane first appeared in a comic book in 1993, as Rachel Maddow was quick to point out on her MSNBC show. The issue was quickly taken up by the ditto heads. "How long will it take for the Obama campaign to link the two, making Romney the man who will break the back of the economy?," asked Conservative commentator Jed Babbin. "Hollywood does it again," sighed GOP advisor Frank Luntz.
Not since the right-wing blogosphere erupted in blue blemishes over the disrespect shown the marines by the Na’vi in Avatar has a blockbuster so neatly bisected the national mood. There is much for Limbaugh to get worked up about should he actually get to see the movie: a one-man muscle mountain in a thick metallic mask, Bane is a Chomskyean anarchist issuing pseudo-situationist folderol about the “decadence of Gotham” in a surrounsound bass voice as she shoots up the stock exchange and straps bankers to his bike as a human shield. As John Hayward pointed out in Human Events. “Bane is more like a brutal expression of the Obama-endorsed ‘Occupy’ movement.” The Guardian’s own Catherine Shoard suggested “Mitt Romney will be thrilled.” So which is it: critique of late capitalism or take-down of mob rule? Is Bane an ‘Occupy’ populist or an anarchist demagogue? And if billionaire Bruce Wayne is a 1%er how can Batman be a defender of the people of Gotham?
That we are even asking these questions is a sign of the sinewy ambition of Nolan’s series, which has consistently taken a thermometer to the fevered brow of post-9/11 America. There we were wondering why Reese Witherspoon’s movie about rendition didn’t take off, or why Oliver Stone’s Bush satire fizzled like a wet firework, and all this time Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan were stealthily stitching together a shadow portrait of civil-liberty-infringing, due-process-squashing, waterboard-and-read-em-their-rights-later America, under cover of a movie about a man in a cape.
The enemy of all these films, remember, is terrorism. In the first film, Batman Begins, Batman went up against the League of Shadows, a centuries-old secret organization who mission is to “restore balance” to the world by destroying corrupt empires — Rome, London and now Gotham — by unleashing a poison gas that amplified their fear. The war-on-terror subtext grew even stronger in The Dark Knight, where the Joker’s sprightly anarchy is designed to provoke over-reaction from the city’s law enforcement— driving upstanding DEA Harvey Dent to torturing suspects and Batman to Patriot-act-style espionage — until they are left staring at their own reflection in the Joker’s grinning visage: “You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain.” The film was called by Slate "a bleak post-9/11 allegory about how terror breaks down those reassuring moral categories." Its take-home message, according to Annalee Newitz at io9 was, “there is no goodness without corruption, no order without chaos, and no justice without crime. We can only hope for fictional stories of pure, untainted goodness to sustain us through the dark, ambiguous times.” Happy July 4th.
To some, this will be taken as a sure sign that somebody needs to lighten up — as Heath Ledger’s Joker says in The Dark Knight “Why so serious?” But pulp has an uncanny habit of drilling into the national mood with a stealth denied more blockishly well-intentioned dramas. Francis Ford Coppola almost turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather he disliked Mario Puzo’s book so much, calling it “sleazy”, representative of everything he “was trying to avoid my whole life.” And yet with the help of cinematographer Gordon Willis he retooled Puzo’s pulp novel into an investigation of capitalism’s underside, served up with a lustrous, Shakespearean claret. There are few great films about the Great Depression — people were too busy trying to get out of it — but take the velocity of their desperation, and run it through a series of crime dramas, as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger did in the 1940s and you end up with the tenebrous thrills of film noir.
Like Coppola, Nolan has taken a story with its roots in pulp and fashioned from it a dense cinematic mythology. Batman was created in 1939,after his creators had greedily sucked the juice from pulp magazines, comic strips, newspaper headlines and movies like The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Bat Whispers (1930). As the Movieblog noted recently, The Joker was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s character in the expressionist crime drama and noir-antecedent The Man Who Laughs (1928):—
“Dating back as early as his first appearances, straight through to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader has always inhabited a world which seems as fragile and broken as any noir protagonist. Just because he trades a trench coat for a cape and a fedora for a cowl, don’t underestimate Bruce Wayne’s flirtation with the darker side of cinema… Batman didn’t always win and – even when did – there was usually a significant body count behind him.”
The original practitioners of film noir — Lang, Wilder, Preminger — had their own reasons for seeking out darkness: the spectre of Nazism at their backs, they shot their newfound homeland in looming expressionist shadow, as if testing the fragility of their new haven. Nolan has nothing to match that horror in his backstory — just a string of mega-hits — and yet you wonder if an American director would have staged the decimation of America’s infrastructure with as much keen-eyed audacity as Nolan does in The Dark Knight Rises.
After all, it took a German to blow up the White House in Independence Day. Maybe it took a Brit to detonate Gotham’s bridges in cool long-shot, to view its toppling towers as distant puffs of smoke, or — the coup de grâce — to crater an entire football field, the turf giving way beneath the players’ feet, just after we hear a sweet little boy delivering the national anthem, thus giving new meaning to “the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air”, “the terror of flight”, and “the gloom of the grave”. Sure, Nolan’s trilogy is dark but did you check out the national anthem recently?