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On The Dark Knight Rises

July 25, 2012

So, The Dark Knight Rises.

I’m a late-coming Batman fan. Before last summer, I pretty much hated Batman. He was boring. I was a Marvel man, through and through: I hated superheroes stories, but I loved superheroes. I adored the X-Men (whose comics I have read practically cover to cover) because they’re really a soap opera: a story about human beings told through the conventions of tights and explosions. The Dark Phoenix Saga isn’t about superheroes: it’s about young lovers, it’s about people changing, it’s about losing people you care about.

Batman, meanwhile, was everything wrong with superhero stories: self-obsessed ranting about a character who doesn’t fit into a larger, practical world. He’s unbelievable, even compared to a dude who can shoot lasers out of his eyes. Batman would never exist in the real world.

The Dark Knight began to change my opinion of Batman, who’s now, to be fair, one of my favorites. It wasn’t a story about Batman, but rather a story about two rivals. Sure, it was about superheroes, but it told its story in a way easily extrapolated to everyday life. It wasn’t so much a superhero story as it was a detective one, a one about rivalry, about insanity. It delivered a lot more than just a man in tights punching other men.

The Dark Knight Rises does the same, but does so even more dramatically. Instead of a layered narrative about two of Batman’s oldest and most thematic foes, characters in The Joker and Two Face who represent ideas antithetical to Batman, here we have Bane, a villain famous for “breaking the bat” but who really has no ideological beef with Batman. Even the film’s mystery villain has no ideological connection to Batman.

In many ways, it’s striking how much The Dark Knight Rises orphans Batman. Batman matters, of course, and he’s indirectly related to the film’s central themes, but—and this is key—Batman does not have to be in this film.

That’s what makes it the more successful than The Dark Knight, in my mind. The Dark Knight was a gritty superhero drama; The Dark Knight Rises is a film about terrorism, socioeconomic station, and growing old that happens to feature comic book characters.

This has led to a bit of a disconnect in the nerd community. Even among the people I went to see the film with, people weren’t fond of it because it wasn’t about Batman. The dreaded, “It wasn’t true to the comics,” critique was uttered. (Let’s forget, for a moment, that Batman has tonally shifted, over the years, from incredible camp to a dude breaking Batman’s back to Bat Shark Repellant to the surreal Arkham Asylum to the Joker cutting off his own face or something in the first issue of the reboot of Detective Comics.) The disappointment I’ve heard from fans centers on one of two things: it either wasn’t as good as The Dark Knight, or it wasn’t appropriate for a Batman film.

The first is an interesting critique: they’re two films doing different things. Batman is a character being developed in The Dark Knight. Here, he’s a weapon. We don’t need his origin story again, but that’s, largely, what comic fans want: it’s why Batman’s going to be rebooted within five years, because fans want to be told that Bruce Wayne’s parents are dead again.

The second is very valid, but it’s a point I vehemently disagree with. It’s the reason I actually kind of like the sort of dreadful third X-Men film, while fans detest it violently.

In terms of “true to the comics”, the third X-Men film departed as dramatically as possible from its source material, the Dark Phoenix Saga, as possible. It took the basic idea behind that series, then it told an entirely different story. It wasn’t a story about love and loss; it was a piece about the corrupting influence of power, the gray areas of morality, and growing up. Very different plot, and I think the difference between people who think the film is shit and who think the film is okay is how much they’re comics fans first. People who read The Dark Phoenix as kids, they hate the film. People who appreciate stories, they’re lukewarm: it’s an okay story idea, but executed poorly.

Meanwhile, The Dark Knight does the same thing. Knightfall wasn’t really about socioeconomic stuff. As much as comic fans put Bane up there as a “cerebral” villain, he’s really, pretty much, a drug addict in the comics, one who’s a physical match for Batman. Sure, he’s pretty smart in Knightfall, but he isn’t an ideological villain: he’s a guy who wants to fuck Batman up.

Here, he’s used for political purposes. He’s used by Christopher Nolan to say something about society. This may “break from the continuity”, but Batman is the least consistent superhero of all time. The film, effectively, creates a completely new villain, pairs him with established Batman, and we watch the fireworks.

If that’s not true to the canon, then so what? If it makes an entertaining film, then who cares how close it is to Batman, the comics character? Well, a lot of people, but that doesn’t diminish the work as its own thing. The Dark Knight Rises, as its own thing, as part of a trilogy, makes sense. It builds on earlier concepts from the previous films, and, like a noir, goes to the only place it can go. That Batman doesn’t die intially frustrated me—how could a noir work this way, I ask, as a fan of Nolan’s Following and the genre as a whole—but then I realized it didn’t matter: everything had changed, dramatically, which is the heart of the noir. Nothing will ever be the same.

That, in short, is why I loved the film: nothing will ever be the same again, and the world is better for it.

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