Thursday, July 26, 2012

on the prospect of American reviewers reacting to a Batman film made by a British filmmaker

I've read some odd political readings of The Dark Knight Rises in the last week.  A Salon reviewer stating that Nolan advocates fascism is what I'd expect from Salon, and an equally silly reading of The Dark Knight as a defense of the Bush administration's war on terror is equally inane.

The end of Nolan's 2008 film has by now been revealed to be an ending that was supposed to disturb us.  Batman and Gordon choosing to lie to Gotham about Dent's mad killing spree and mutilation as a result of Joker's schemes should be troubling.  Gordon and Batman desperately attempt to stop the Joker from killing more people and in capturing the Joker what should have been Batman's greatest victory up to that point turns into a horrifying, miserable defeat. In fact a great deal of the plot for this year's The Dark Knight Rises is predicated on a recognition that Gordon and Batman in utter desperation do all sorts of wrong and ill-advised things in their attempt to contain and stop the Joker.  It's good that Joker's reign of terror ends but it comes at the cost of lying to the public about Gotham's white knight, who was only Gotham's white knight for as long as he could make his own luck.

Gordon and Wayne both suffer for their advocacy of a lie about Dent's reputation. Bruce Wayne goes into hiding and seclusion.  After being angry with her husband for faking his death Barbara Gordon would be more horrified to hear her husband, year after year, extolling the greatness of the same Harvey Dent who tried to kill her son.  In a snarky comment from John Daggett to assistant commissioner Foley we hear that Gordon's wife left him and took the kids to Cleveland. Gordon's committment to a lie to keep hope alive in Gotham has cost Gordon his marriage and family.  The idea that The Dark Knight could be read in any way as a defense of the war on terror is an implausible reading by now.

But what that reading highlights is a problem in American film reviews to frame the work of a British filmmaker in terms of American cultural narcissism.  Sure, people want to compare Superman to Jesus because that way we can say the Man of Steel has a christological appeal or an appeal beyond being the embodiment of what we want America to be.  I'm sure it's possible for people to just admit that Captain America is what some people would like America to be.  But Christopher Nolan is not an American.
The impulse to seize upon an artifact of pop culture that is out and about right now to make a social or political or doctrinal point for which one needed no pretext is always alive and well.  In the last week or so I understand there was a bit of blogging about 50 Shades of Gray, whatever that is, and a 13-year old book got cited as a counterexample of some sort.  If the book is more than a decade old and is used in a commentary about something that is afoot right now then it's possible that whatever an author's point was could have been made without resorting to a book more than a few years old.  For that matter it may be the author was making a point that ultimately had no need to use a recently published work of fiction as a pretext to make a particular point.

Which is to say that many attempts at a political commentary or interpretation of Nolan's Batman films have nothing so much to do with Nolan's actual films as the pre-committments of American reviewers who have to insist in advance that Nolan advocates fascism or a defense of Bush administration policies  and practices in the war on terror.  Here's a news flash for some people, never underestimate the obvous.  To say that a work of art is informed by something is not the same thing as saying that that work of art is about said same thing.  I propose that Nolan's films are well-informed by the war on terror and a dread of terrorism and financial inequality but not necessarily about them.

We live in such polarized times that people want to read Batman in socialist or fascist terms.  As I've written a little regarding Bruce Wayne in Batman: the animated series, he may be a billionaire but he can be considered the ideal "one percent". He does battle against criminals of every sort as Batman but as Bruce Wayne he works with Lucius Fox and others to provide jobs and opportunities for people.  In Nolan's film Bruce Wayne insists that some of the profits of Wayne Enterprises go toward funding orphanages so that the orphans of Gotham can have a place to live. Determined efforts to read one's own offenses and agendas into a pop culture artifact withstanding we know that liberals and conservatives and anarchists and so on will seize any and every pretext to talk and write continuously about these things.  When all you have is a hammer, after all.

Now clearly I love writing about superhero stories and can find interesting things about how superhero stories delve into the human condition.  What I hope we can do is to interpret what stories are saying themselves.  In the field of biblical literature the terms exegesis and eisegesis are relevant.  The former term describes a process in which we determine what the author intended from what was actually said in the text.  The latter term refers to reading something of ourselves and our concerns into the text which, in turn, is presented as backing up a conclusion we have reached in some way that is tangential or even completely independent of the text.

All that is to say that a good chunk of the social or political commentary on Nolan's Batman trilogy, as yet, comes off more like eisegesis than exegesis.  A great deal of it is simply American pontificating about what Americans were going to keep debating in an election year.  If The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2013 or 2011 then various insipid stunts left and right would be less popular.

Twenty years ago an older guy I knew warned me that "These days there aren't liberals or conservatives any more. The parties are being dominated by radicals and reactions who don't want to meet at any common ground. It's going to make getting anything done impossible." He told me that in previous decades Democrats and Republicans would differ on things but they shared enough in common to get things done.  This, he feared, was no longer going to happen.  By extension, I'm going to toss out the idea that in an election year radicals and reactionaries can seize any excuse to talk about what they were already going to talk about.  Pop culture becomes a pretext for propaganda as it always has and likely always will.

A teacher once taught me this simple precept, you can say whatever it is you want about a text if you can actually defend it from the text itself.  He was talking about interpreting poetry and literature and it's a ueful rule of thumb.  Many a review and commentary on the new Nolan film seems to work from a pretext which is then retroactively applied to the "text" of the film.  Sometimes those things are amusing to read but I don't take O'Heir seriously when he asserts that Nolan's Batman trilogy advocates fascism any more than I take seriously the assertion that Nolan has defended Bush's war on terror.

Hanna Rosin on men, women, and the continuing appeal of superheroes

In the movies the Dark Knight does not always save his lady, but in the Aurora theater the story unfolded differently. 

It may be impossible to overstate the significance of this observation about Nolan's films, that Batman can't always save the woman he loves.  But Rosin, famously the author of "The End of Men", the article and the book, takes some time to note that men being willing to die to protect the women they love still happens.  Rosin writes an article so short that I'm about to quote about two thirds of it.  She observes that the impulse men have to protect the women they love is more primal and more deep than codes of chivalry that would not look the same across all class strata. I might suggest here that this impulse may also be something that may not fit so neatly into a complementarian/egalitarian discourse. We don't know whether or not some of these men who gave their lives for their girlfriends or wives would self-identify as complementarian or egalitarian or consider those terms to mean anything.  When someone is firing a gun at someone you love what do those terms actually mean?

So, without further ado, here's a lengthy chunk from Rosin's article.

On the Today show interview, Jansen Young, the girlfriend Blunk saved, mentioned that Jonathan was thinking about re-enlisting in the Navy. She attributed that to his undying heroism, but it may also have to do with the fact that he, like a few guys in the theater, was working at Target and surely not making enough money to support one family, much less two. Young, meanwhile, had just finished getting her veterinarian degree, becoming the latest in an onslaught of women who have taken over that lucrative profession, which was not very long ago dominated by men.

None of these life details are meant to detract from the men's heroism. They are only meant to make it more poignant, and even beautiful. As I’ve traveled to different middle-class towns that are struggling after the recession to report my book The End of Men, I’ve found a strained and touching effort to redefine the roles of men. They are often not the breadwinners because in that slice of America, women are often financially better off than the men. They are often not the steady fathers because couples don’t get married all that much anymore, and the women, if they are working themselves, see the men as just another mouth to feed. But one thing I find consistently is the enduring need for men to think of themselves and women to think of them as the protectors.

Couples will often insist that the man is the head of the household even when he doesn’t seem to be checking any of the traditional boxes. When I ask how it’s possible that he should retain the title without any of the attending duties, I almost always get some version of the same answer: If anyone threatened us, he would rescue us. If someone broke into the house, I would call him. If anything happened to the children, if a fire, if a tornado, etc. Papers have described what happened in the theater as "chivalry." But it's not really that. Chivalry is a code of conduct connected to social propriety. Throwing your body in front of your girlfriend when people all around you are getting shot is an instinct that's basic, and deeper. It’s the same reason these Batman and Spider-Man franchises endure: Because whatever else is fading away, women still seem to want their superhero, and men still seem to want to be him.

the superhero girlfriends rise

A detail that will certainly be lost on those who dislike superhero movies is also a detail that has not been much noted in reviews of either The Amazing Spiderman or The Dark Knight Rises.

These guys would literally be dead without their girlfriends.

If you've seen The Amazing Spiderman then you know that if Gwen Stacy didn't already know Peter was Spiderman she wouldn't be in a position to come to his aid in his fights with the Lizard.  She's the one who puts together the antidote to Dr. Connor's mutagen that restores Connor's back to his humanity, missing arm and all.

If Selina Kyle had not burst in on the Batpod and gunned down Bane then Bruce would have died having been stabbed and unceremoniously beaten to death by Bane.

So, yes folks, this summer's superheroes literally would be dead without the intervention of their respective girlfriends.  Let's face it, we all know Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle have been considered made for each other.  DC comics would never let an actual marriage stick between those two in the comics (not that there can't be or haven't been tasteless torrid moments on rooftops, I hear).  Nolan has been given enough creative freedom by Warner Brothers and DC comics that he's been allowed to do what he wants.  If you can't figure out where that goes I won't spoil it for you because you probably don't care or will plan to see the film anyway.

In the past (and I'm looking at you, Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy) superhero love interests tend to be useless army candy.  Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane is a girl next door and not without likable qualities but after three movies viewers begin to forget, if they ever realized it to begin with, why Mary Jane Watson was at all likable.  She also has a "kidnap me" sign on her that villains ranging from the Green Goblin to Doctor Octopus to Venom can't help but heed.

In Batman Forever the hero is presented with a "you have to choose" double bind of a similar sort to the one the Green Goblin gives Spiderman at the end of the first Spiderman film.  In both cases the hero gets to have it both ways.

What made Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight such a compelling comic book movie and crime story is that Nolan subverted the "hopeless double bind" by actually making it hopeless.  Joker lies about where Dent and Dawes are so that Dawes gets incinerated and Dent has half of his face burned off.  As Hanna Rosin noted earlier this week the Dark Knight doesn't always save his lady and that, dear readers, it what makes Nolan's Batman trilogy a benchmark for the superhero film.  After a decade or more of the superhero getting to save the girl he likes and whomever else, Nolan and Bale gave us a Bruce Wayne who completely fails.  He can't save Rachel and even his act of saving Dent is the end of Harvey Dent being able to make his own luck.

If you've seen the movie you know what happens after that.  The only way Batman is able to keep Two-Face (Dent) from killing a child is by knocking him off of a precipice.  In other words the Joker egged Dent on to a killing spree and the only way Batman could stop Dent from killing a child led to killing Dent.  Instead of the superhero having it both ways the superhero makes a series of tragic and unintentional mistakes that lead to BOTH people in the double-bind dying.  Bane thought he'd broken Bruce Wayne's back and spirit in The Dark Knight Rises but we know that what broke Bruce's spirit was seeing just how the darkness of the Joker and Two-Face emerged from within the heart of the city he loves.

Then again, Selina Kyle shows up in the city, too.  Selina gives Bruce a reason to actually get out of the house, even if it's because she steals Martha Wayne's pearl necklace. I'll try to spare you yet more spoilers about a movie that just came out.

The new Spiderman reboot may be considered cliche but here, too, I would suggest that in this summer's blockbuster superhero movies the love interests are actually interesting.  Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle and Emma Stones Gwen Stacy are both fantastic, equals to the costumed crimefighters they associate with.  As science goes Gwen is Peter's superior.  When Peter Parker sneaks in to Oscorp to try to meet with Dr. Connors Gwen identifies him as one of his schools best and brightest, second in his class.  Parker's bewilderment at being just second is palpable.  He even blurts out "second?"  Gwen whisper, "Yeah."

"Are you sure?"
"I'm pretty sure."

Because Gwen and not Peter is Dr. Connor's assistant at Oscorp we've already been SHOWN who the best and brightest science student at Parker's high school is, Gwen.  She's also, unlike Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, able to figure out quickly that Parker is Spiderman.  From a scripting perspective this makes more sense then getting through two whole movies to have MJ say "Somehow I think I always knew".  Somehow we think she could have telegraphed that in some way earlier in the story.  I still enjoy the first two Raimi films but where Parker's prospective girlfriend goes MJ needed some improvement.

We're sufficiently into the 21st century now that superheroes should have girlfriends where it makes sense what we would like about them.  Mary Jane Watson doesn't have that in the films and only die-hard pre-committed Spiderman fans would get why anyone might like her in the comics.

I disrespectfully submit that what is needed for Spiderman is not a slavish devotion to 1960s era gender tropes as applied by Stan Lee.  In Spiderman comics he wrote three kinds of women: 1) weepy clingers 2) vapid party girls and 3) worried old biddies.  We can do better than that.  Gwen Stacy in the first few issues in which she appears had the promise of being something else.  That didn't come to pass.  Gwen became a weepy clinger who cried about Parker all the time.  Mary Jane saying "Go get `em, tiger." is not entirely different.  Seeing as we live in the 21st century now and Spiderman's at the half-century point or so, DON'T hew too closely to the comics.  Do something better, keep giving us a Gwen Stacy that ISN'T too true to the source material.  For crying out loud you don't get Emma Stone for the role and then do exactly what Stan Lee and company did with Gwen!  Seriously, Stone deserves to do something.  Fortunately in Webb's Spiderman film Gwen does get to do a few things.

And fortunately for Nolan's Batman trilogy we get a Selina Kyle who works very well and makes perfect sense within Nolan's Gotham.  Here's something fanboys may fail to grasp about Selina Kyle--Catwoman is sexy but incidentally so. She happens to be gorgeous and glamorous but her real defining traits are that she's fast, smart, and resourceful enough to never actually get caught by Batman.  Batman can identify her and figure out what she's doing but she eludes him when the time comes to turn her in.  That's what happens in the film.  Catwoman's sexiness should not derive from black leather or fetish gear or having some particular "sexy" look, it should derive from her being Bruce's equal.  Early in The Dark Knight Rises Bruce remarks on Selina Kyle's skill as a thief. Alfred jokes that perhaps Bruce and Selina Kyle should compare notes on her brilliant thievery over coffee.  Bruce sighs and asks, "Alfred, you're really trying to set me up with a jewel thief?"  Alfred replies, "I'd set you up with a chimpanzee if it got you out of the house."  Selina's good enough of a thief that Bruce Wayne does get out of the house and the rest, well, I'm going to suppose you've seen the movie already or that if you haven't you don't want too many spoilers just yet.

All that is to say that in 2012 we finally got superhero movies where the girlfriends are fun, sexy but more importantly DO SOMETHING. In the past superheroes had to save their girlfriends all the time and this year we got the girlfriends saving their superhero boyfriends from certain death by doing things the guys weren't able to do. This doesn't make Batman or Spiderman less heroic, it just means that 21st century versions of these characters ini movies are humble enough to admit they need help.  Batman can admit he doesn't stand a chance against the League of Shadows by himself but he'll still tell Selina "With your help I might".