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The howling void at the core of “The Dark Knight Rises”

Back in 2009, I wrote theory about what the third of Nolan’s Batman films might include. They were predictions, and hopes, and maybes.

Whatever they were, they were absurdly accurate.

Spoilers below.

Involving Robin in Nolan’s story isn’t a half-assed attempt to cover for Ledger’s tragic loss. It’s actually the closure of a narrative arc that began with a very damaged man losing his father, and ends with him becoming a father for someone else. It’s about the choice to perpetuate the cycle or not, to alter the pattern, to recognize one’s potential for heroism not in oneself but in the eyes of another. Robin is Gotham: broken but ultimately good, and ultimately Batman’s responsibility. In the same way that Batman created the Joker, Robin could re-create Batman. Because if Gotham is Robin, and Batman is whatever Gotham needs him to be, then he’ll step out of the shadows and become the hero that’s needed.

I still hold with that opinion. But what I realize, re-reading my words, is that Nolan did make an attempt to cover for Ledger’s absence. He covered it with Matthew Modine’s storyline. He covered it with the John Daggett character’s attempted corporate takeover. He covered it with Scarecrow’s lethal kangaroo court. He covered it with an EMP gun. He covered it with unintelligible scenes of (Robin) John Blake yelling at the National Guard while plot was happening, elsewhere. He covered it with appearances by the Steelers,  a US senator, a former Torchwood actor, and Juno Temple as someone who should be named Holly Robinson but isn’t.

I mean, were we really supposed to care about Matthew Modine?

I could say the same about any of the film’s extraneous elements, but Matthew Modine’s arc really stuck in my craw. I understood that it was about Gotham’s city council pushing out Gordon when they really needed him, and that he symbolized Gotham’s attitude, eight years later, regarding Batman. But the thing about an unsympathetic supporting character is that you can’t rehabilitate him over the roughly twenty minutes he spends smeared across the whole film. You can’t make me feel bad about his death. When I saw him lying there in the snow, my first thought was: “Oh, good. He’s gone. Can we cut to some plot, please?”

Now co-sign that sentiment to John Daggett, or his assistant Stryver, or the blind inmate at Santa Prisca, Jen/Holly, or basically everyone that wasn’t Batman, Catwoman, Bane, Robin, Gordon, or Alfred. Or Talia.

Not that I really cared about Talia as a character, either. She’s always been a cipher, in much the same way that Marion Cotillard’s character is a cipher in Inception. (Nolan replaces her as a romantic prospect with a younger, wittier brunette hell-bent on her own freedom in that film, too.) I knew exactly who she was and why she was there; my only question was when she would reveal her identity. Talia is just a placeholder for the League of Shadows, and for the themes of fatherhood, identity, and heroism. Both Bruce and Talia are trying to live up to their fathers’ legacies. Talia is successful at it, and Bruce isn’t. Talia’s death is the first moment that Bruce realizes that this might actually be a good thing — that being his own man, even if it’s a nobody with nothing backpacking around Europe, might actually be healthier than killing himself to appease the ghost of his father. But Talia’s not my real problem with The Dark Knight Rises.

My real problem with it is that all of these extraneous elements are used to paper over the Joker’s absence. And that absence is the howling void at the core of the story.

I don’t mean that I wanted the Joker to make another appearance, or that I think the story should have been built around him. What I means is that much of TDKR is centred on the impact of Harvey Dent’s death and false hagiography, and that I find it hard to believe that the death of a district attorney would have the same impact on a city that, say, blowing up a hospital, hunting down guys in hockey pants and stringing them up, destroying a fire truck and police copter, blowing up the Major Crimes division, setting an assistant district attorney on fire, poisoning a police commissioner, blowing up a judge’s car, and threatening to sink an entire ferry full of passengers would.

Sure, the Joker lost the war for Gotham’s soul. But he won many, many battles. And those victories should have had an impact on the continuing story, and on Bane’s relationship to Gotham. The fact that Bane takes over the city so easily, and turns everyone into a Madame DeFarge, doesn’t make a lot of sense when you remember how the city of Gotham reacted to the Joker’s terrorism. They didn’t blow the boat. They didn’t kill Coleman Reese. And eight years later, the crime rate is so reduced that the mayor is looking to oust Gordon. Gotham is on the mend.

Was Dent’s repudiation really so demoralizing that the city of Gotham fulfilled all the Joker’s prophecies?

When the chips are down, these uh, these “civilized people”, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

Maybe so. But in a film so full of references (and even cutaways) to Harvey Dent, you’d think that if the Joker were right all along, someone would mention it. If Bane really is that curve, shouldn’t someone notice? Shouldn’t someone mention the other tragedies Gotham has endured? Instead, the Joker becomes noticeable for his very absence. That shambling shadow of a man leaning on his cane isn’t Bruce Wayne, it’s this film. It’s crippled by Ledger’s loss.

The Joker was part of Goyer’s original vision for three films. This doesn’t mean Nolan intended to include him (far from it), but The Dark Knight leaves the possibility open. And all three films are obsessive in their continuity: the detective investigating the Waynes’ death in Begins is commissioner by The Dark Knight; the photograph of Thomas and Martha that Talia and Selina each examine is the same one that appears in Begins; Bruce Wayne drinks his greens in all three films; the pearl necklace Selina steals is the same one Thomas showed Bruce and gave to Martha; the members of the Wayne Enterprises board are all the same in each film; the Scarecrow appears in all three films; Gordon’s wife is leaving him because of what happened in The Dark Knight. The list goes on. With that attention to detail and habitual reptition of elements, the Joker’s absence is curious. No one mentions him. No one remembers him. It’s as though he never existed. As though eight years later, Gotham has decided never to speak of him again, for fear that he will return. Instead, we hear about seemingly every other inhabitant of the city.

This is not the case in the TDKR novelization. In that telling of the story, the Joker is the sole inmate at Arkham. Or he might have escaped. Nobody knows. So much for being destined to do this forever.

My point here is not to say that the Joker’s presence would have made everything better. What I’m saying is that in failing to acknowledge his role in Gotham’s history within a film that is about the city of Gotham as much as it is about its heroes, the Nolans and Goyer have made a mistake. It’s a mistake that they then paper over with every possible character and event they can think of, and it’s about as effective narratively as staunching a bullet wound with a Band-Aid.

Do I have other problems with the film? Sure. I personally dislike any vision of Bruce Wayne that isn’t always late to a fundraiser. I think that the political and economic criticism of the film holds water precisely because this iteration of Bruce Wayne abhors public life even when it benefits others, and has shirked the civic responsibility of public advocacy, social innovation, and initiative. This Bruce Wayne does not depute at city council meetings. He doesn’t attend fundraisers, much less organize them. He doesn’t lobby on behalf of deserving causes. In short, he “retires” from heroism without taking up the hard, slow, tedious work of civic progress in its place, then has the audacity to complain when Gotham pays the consequences. Build some free clinics, you spoiled brat. Start some soup kitchens. Work on some healthy school lunch campaigns. It’s not that hard, for men of means. You have secretaries. Use them. I’m deeply biased, but the Bruce Wayne of the 90′s animated series at least put in some time as a wealthy benefactor for Gotham society. It was part of his cover. It was why no one suspected him of being a superhero; he was busy being Richard Branson.

But this characterization of Bruce Wayne, for as much as I dislike it, does fit with Nolan’s vision. Nolan’s Bruce is a guy who got kicked out of college. He then spent seven years away, infiltrating crime syndicates and learning to kick ass. He dealt with his missing parents by trying to find father figures: in Ras, in Gordon, in Alfred. He never began a serious relationship. He slept in every day until three in the afternoon. This is a guy who doesn’t know who he is without the mask, just as Rachel Dawes (both of them) said. Losing his money and running away to Europe with a cat burglar is actually the best possible thing for him, because it’s the first time in his life that he isn’t worried about a legacy or an obligation. When Selina Kyle says that he should just quit because he’s already given Gotham everything, she’s right. When Alfred says he really wishes Bruce would just find himself, he’s right. And when Bruce says that well, some guy dressing up as a bat clearly has problems, he’s absolutely right.

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  1. Peter Watts

     /  August 3, 2012

    Good review. About the only thing I could add was that some of Nolan’s wallpaper was apparently lifted from Star Wars.

    Reply
    • Madeline

       /  August 3, 2012

      Thanks!

      And yeah, agreed. It seems like “everything but the kitchen sink” was the strategy in both cases. In TDKR’s case, I think just a little more editing would have made for a much tighter and more coherent narrative. (Matthew Modine’s storyline didn’t really factor into anything plot-wise, which is why it annoys me. I’d cut that.) That, and one teeny mention of the Joker. We didn’t even hear his name, for goodness’ sake. It was all Harvey, all the time, when Harvey’s villainy was only a factor in roughly the latter third of TDK.

      At least they got Catwoman right. She was honestly the best part of the whole thing.

      Reply

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  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, anime fan, and immigrant. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. She has been a guest on TVO's The Agenda multiple times. Her novels are published by Angry Robot Books. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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