Saturday, July 21, 2012

Heroes of the Everyday Sort: The Dark Knight Rises

Don't tell my friends, but last night I saw The Dark Knight Rises, the third in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I don't want my friends to know, since next Saturday I'll be seeing it (again) with them, in glorious iMax, at Navy Pier on Chicago's lakefront. It'll be the first time I've seen one of the films on iMax, and I'm pretty excited, but I don't want to ruin the experience of the film for my friends. So I'm keeping it secret.

I would have been content to wait, I think. But my wife thought it almost criminal that, after seeing The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man on their respective opening nights, I would let this most important superhero movie of the year languish unwatched on screens for more than a week. So she mustered up her courage and went to opening night with me.

The debut was marred, of course, by the horrific shooting in a theater outside Denver, a shooting that some think was inspired by the trilogy. And in one sense they're probably right: dark themes can evoke dark thoughts and correspondingly dark deeds. And the Batman trilogy is, in fact, dark and gothic. There are moments in each film that might well haunt some people, might inspire others to indulge their sociopathy. In fact, much of the canon of Batman itself explores these ideas--whether our heroes fight pre-existent evils or provide fuel and a forum for evil to perpetuate itself. It's this kind of circumspection that lifts Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy above the pack of other superhero films, what makes these random acts of violence that seem to trace back to the films incidental rather than essential. The Dark Knight Rises is completing a Batman story but it's telling our story--a story of fear and what we do with it.

I could talk about the details of the story, of arch-villain Bane's concealed origin story and startling swagger; of cat burglar Selina Kyle's perfect blend of self-assurance, guilt and thinly veiled panic; of the guarded disappointment from Bruce Wayne's proxy parents Lucius Fox, Jim Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth; of the knowing reverence and yet cynical judgment of orphaned rookie cop John Blake. I could even talk about the surprising omissions--most notably the silence surrounding Heath Ledger's Joker, who was the apparent center of the second film, and whose memory Christopher Nolan chose to honor by leaving out of the third. I could talk about the profound aphorisms that snuck their way into the film's dialogue or the action that shook my seat from start to finish. But I'd rather talk about the Scarecrow.

Jonathan Crane, criminal psychiatrist, figured prominently in Batman Begins, the first film in the trilogy, and has minor roles in the second and third. Whereas in the first film he was menacing, he has since provided something closer to comic relief--at least as comic as a film can be in which a billionaire dresses in tights and fights crime, while his city is terrorized by a clown. A student of fear, Crane dressed himself in the first film as a scarecrow and terrorized people for fun while making his living as a proxy for Ra's al Ghul's incursion into Gotham City. In the second film he was reduced to a petty criminal. In this film he serves as a judge of the new Gotham, the Gotham "liberated" by Bane so that the powerful, who for so long had tyrannized the poor, now are themselves subjects of tyranny. The people of Christopher Nolan's Batman universe, as a result, are judged by fear.

Fear runs through all three films like a current, and by the end of every film we think we understand it. In this third installment we learn the truth: we've been wrong. Fear is not the enemy to be mastered, not the thing to be conquered in pursuit of immortality; fear is in fact our friend, who properly understood energizes our right pursuits and turns us away from our wrong pursuits. Accepting fear as our friend opens us up to another friend: humility, which teaches us to accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can, and to know the difference betwen the two. All along we've been misdirected by our understanding of fear (misdirection is another theme of the film), but in this film an older, wiser Bruce Wayne can learn lessons that eluded him in earlier installments. We're older and wiser too--more than ten years removed from the terrorist attacks of September 11 that made us so confused about a proper sense of fear. Events like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, threaten to drag us back into confusion, but I do hope we learn the lessons Batman learns in The Dark Knight Rises. What we need, year after year, are not heroes like Batman, whose abilities are beyond reality. We need heroes of the everyday sort, heroes who take notice of the everyday sorts of injustices and indignities that we far too easily neglect, who accept fear as part of life, and who let it push them to rise above it.

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