I started my day with a trip to the cinema to see The Dark Knight Rises, and then came home to re-watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, in a bid to work out exactly *how* Christopher Nolan does it (and what it is, actually, he does).
But first, a disclaimer. This blog post *will* contain spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, there are certain things in the film that it might get quite excited about that aren't just the fact that I'd run off with Jim Gordon like *that*. So, if you don't want to know about stuff in the film, and you've not seen it yet, Do. Not. Read. On. Ok? Done.
Maybe we should get the excitement bits out of the way first, then I can move on to being baffled as to how a film this serious and sincere works this well as entertainment and to thinking about what-in-America the politics of this trilogy might be. In a rush: Joseph Gordon Levitt, who was clearly always going to end up in *that* place, and who doesn't want to see *that* Batman film, if only Chris Nolan would do another one; Talia al Ghul, which we all knew was coming, but which added a nice circular plot to the whole trilogy; Tom Hardy's ability to act with his eyes (but, not the voice, which was distinct, but felt like it wasn't connected to his body); Gary Oldman, Gary Oldman and Gary Oldman; also Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, who made my mascara run; and most of all, ANNE HATHAWAY as Selina Kyle, who is a piece of magic and joy, and the best, most interesting thing in the film. Also, I want her hair.
OK, done that now. On to the entertainment.
Which, in The Dark Knight Rises is interesting, because Christopher Nolan's Batman films don't *do* entertaining fun - not like The Avengers was a blast of entertainment. They're not spritely, or witty (Nolan can do wit - as Eames in Inception testifies - but he's not, here), or particularly well written - in terms of the dialogue. But they do sure as heck pack a punch. They're completely, unafraid-ly, about something; the characters are strong (Batman just *has* good, layered, characters, as long as you don't try and trash them like Batman and Robin did), and the plotting is oh-so-tight, which means that the story just builds and builds, and the tension with it, so that even though you could pretty much predict where the film was going (and yes, the ending as well, it is a superhero movie after all, there *are* rules), it still works. It woos you with its sincerity, almost. I enjoyed it hugely, and it feels like a really really good ending. I know there'll be more Batman films - but they're going to have to work really hard to live up to this set.
The something they're about, though, now that's something I'm not sure quite works - indeed, I'm not sure it *can* work, neatly - although I enjoy playing around in it, and I've enjoyed reading both Alyssa Rosenberg (yes, yes, her again, she's my cultural criticism touchstone right now) and Andrew O'Hehir of Salon on the subject the politics in Nolan's Batman's this week.
Rosenberg rather thinks Nolan pulls his punches on the politics of Bane's Gotham, arguing that it would be more interesting if it made a serious case for an alternative system to Gotham's capitalism, rather than being the rule of one while the people get to play. I can see *why* she thinks that, and I would like to see that film - but I think that Nolan was less interesting in bulding an alternative than he was in bringing back The League of Shadows from Batman Begins and contrasting the chaos that they want to bring in order to reset the system (as opposed to the chaos that the Joker wants to bring, in The Dark Knight, for the fun of it), to the vigilanteism that Batman has to carry out (and Gordon, Dent - before he becomes Two-Face - and Blake condone) in order to restore the system without resetting it. It's the chaos Nolan seems to see in the French Revolution (and there is a reason why Gordon reads the end of A Tale of Two Cities at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, beyond making me sniff into my cuff) - whether he's right about that being chaos without alternatives or not is another question, though.
I think it's Selina Kyle, not Bane, who comes closest to truly seeking an alternative to the socio-economic system that has run and ruined Gotham. If the film is in anway connected to the Occupy movement (and it has been suggested that it taps into that), it comes in the kind of storm she's looking for - one that enables you to shed the negative ties of a past where you had to do certain things to survive, one that creates a system where it's not the case that, 'The rich don't even go broke like the rest of us,' - as she says to Bruce when he tells her that he may be bankrupt, but he's going to get to keep the house. And it's something that Bruce is open to, as he's sympathetic to her, as he wants a future where he doesn't have to be the playboy millionaire or the viligante Batman.
O'Hehrir, meanwhile, is looking at the first two films as offering the critique of an inside-outsider (Nolan being an Anglo-American, with English sensibilities living and working in Hollywood) on an American ideology of individual will and individual heroism, of the individual's ability to change the future. Batman Begins begins (duh) Bruce Wayne's attempt to make his city a better place to live in, and The Dark Knight shows how far you have to go to even begin to make that happen, as the Joker pushes him to rendition, sophie's-choices, and cell phone surveillance in an attempt to restore order. At least one of my friends has said that he actually didn't like The Dark Knight because he felt it asked you to empathise with a hero who would do things that *he* thinks are wrong, even if you do have good intentions and destroy the technology afterwards (and even if you do have a converstation - with Lucius Fox - acknowledging the problem). In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan acknowledges that again in a conversation between Alfred and Bruce about when a particular tool is a useful tool and when it is a weapon - and whether a skilled individual should risk the helpful tools he has created falling into misuse by making them available to the government and police.
But it's a tension Nolan can't get away from - that the idea of Batman and superhero stories can't get away from (heck, it's the basis of Watchman, after all) - because he can't get away from the fact that he's making a multi-million dollar superhero franchise movie that is one of summer's major entertainments. And I don't think he wants to, really. Nolan may entertain by going at you primarily through the head rather than the heart, but he still wants to entertain you by telling you a really strong, smart, story. I think he wants to tread the lines between the Frank Millar Batman and the Alan Moore critique. To entertain you, but to make you think about what it is you're being entertained by.