Sunday, September 2, 2012

How real can a superhero be? Realisms in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy

There is no doubt that The Dark Knight Rises is full of themes and imagery which relate to the world. If the movie does not feature a direct critique of actual events, then it certainly uses these events as a tonal indicator.

In the latest film, for instance, we see scenes reminiscent of the Occupy movement, what Zizek described as an acknowledgement for the yearning for “people power”.

The film may not have anything direct to say, but it uses real events to heighten the tension in a film which is at base about a grown man who dresses like a bat and beats up bad guys.

In fantasy, emotional realism is often said to be very important. A certain degree of reality is needed, it seems, so that we can swallow the massive dose of fantasy we are being fed. Christopher Nolan, director of the latest Batman trilogy, perhaps recognises this. In cinematic terms, this is the realist Bruce Wayne we have seen.

The ridiculousness of the Batman is addressed in its own way, but it is the ridiculousness of a wild card, something that enters into the traditional system of the city - cops, organised crime, and everybody else in between - as a wild unknown, a joker in the deck.

“You complete me!” the Joker laughs in The Dark Knight as Batman beats him up. But the Joker is more like a sly observation upon Batman’s role in Gotham as the wild card in the deck, beyond crime, but also beyond law and order, as some sort of incorruptible thing.

A symbol. 

A symbol which creates a new paradigm. This paradigm which includes the Batman and also its caricature in the Joker. There could be no Joker without Batman. And so, the pretension of the symbol as incorruptible is turned on its head with the arrival of the Joker.

Batman brought the Joker upon Gotham. And this is a certain type of realism. The series deals with the Joker as a real character, placing him as the nutter who dresses up in a weird costume like Batman, but who has chaos as his goal instead of order.

We see other copycats of the more traditional variety who dress like the revered symbol, who Batman berates for “wearing hockey pants”. One of these Batman-lite vigilantes is then killed by the Joker and hung from city hall, as if to say “I am the only pretender in town, forget these ill-thought-out nobodies”.

In a kind of Derridean move, the Joker subverts Batman’s desire for order. Just as Derrida asks whether or not there is a madness inherent within Descartes’ cogito, the joker asks and plays out the same question.

Derrida begins his essay “Cogito and the History of Madness” with a quote from Joyce on Ulysses: “A transparent sheet separates it from madness”. Does not the Joker ask the same question of law and order, which Batman seeks so desperately to institute in its entirety (what ever that may be)?

Dressed as a nurse, the Joker goes to Harvey Dent’s hospital bed where he lies suffering from severe facial scars and the death of the woman he loves. Here the Joker explains his philosophy to Dent. He explains that everybody has “plans”: the mayor, commissioner Gordon, though he does not mention Batman interestingly. He points out that their “plan” allows for violence of its own - sanctioned violence - which allows the killing of troops in a foreign country - and, by extension I would say, the enemies the troops are fighting.

Threaten the kind violence that steers away from the plan, the expectation, even if less lives are at risk, and, he explains, “everyone loses their minds”. His mission, then, is to expose the system as holding within it a sanctioned version of that which it ought to oppose, just like the madness inherent within Descartes’ cogito. We can view the Joker as some form of Derridean agitator.

There is a realism at work here that acknowledges the Joker as a foil to Batman - what is a hero without an arch-nemesis? - but it is not merely the Joker’s presence which makes him “real”. It is his madness, his over-identification with the symbol of the Batman that makes him real, to the point where he has no history anymore.

He continually asks people throughout the film if they want to know how he got his scars, giving them a different answer each time. It is as if he has crossed that line which Bruce Wayne comes startlingly close to crossing, over-identifying with the symbol, becoming lost within it, becoming it.

Bruce Wayne’s link to the real world comes in the form of Rachael, his childhood friend and love interest. Is it no wonder that, in the years after her death in the first film, that he has drawn away from the symbol of the Batman, hanging up the cowl as he wallows in his own reclusion from the world?

Alfred berates him for not living his life as he ought to even after he has turned his back on Batman. But Bruce Wayne was never a fully developed man in the first place. He is obsessed with a childhood trauma that has never truly left him. And his love interest, his one hope of redemption (as he sees it) is someone from his childhood who he has known all his life.

What Bruce Wayne craves is some sort of return to innocence, to a time before his parent’s death, and this is what Rachael represents. So it is no wonder that, when he hangs up the cowl after Rachael’s death, he retreats to his room, the Batcave, like a sulky teenager, unwilling to face the realities of the world.

The last film then seems to point us towards some sort of redemption for Bruce Wayne, but not for Batman. For can we really say that we are invested in Batman’s redemption, the character of Batman, his emotions, the psychological realism of Batman? He has none.

When Wayne describes Batman as “a symbol” he is describing something empty. It has no psychological realism. It is not treated as psychological. But it is empty, and something empty needs to be filled. But rather than infer consciousness upon it, the people of Gotham project their dreams and nightmares upon it.

The symbol of Batman then takes on a terrifying quality of being what ever anyone wants it to be. A symbol of hope then, but also a symbol which opens a door for something like the Joker.

So, one would expect Bruce Wayne’s redemption to be on the cards in the third film as he is the psychological heart of the story. And this is indeed what is on the cards. In the end, he kills the Batman. We then learn that he, Bruce Wayne, escaped. Free from the cowl, he can finally see the world from the perspective of a man in the world, not from the puritanical position of the fundamentalist beholden so completely to some symbol - that of the Bat. And that has been Bruce Wayne’s tension all along. Will he take that last step that the Joker did and fall so completely into the symbol so as to obliterate his own personal history, or any sense of self at all?

No, by the end of The Dark Knight Rises he is a child no more. The destruction of the Batman sees to that. He sees a way out only in the death of the symbol which he hides behind so completely. It is only in a moment of trickery that he escapes.

Problem solved. Gotham is finally free from the Bat and all the extremities it brought with it. 

We are glad to see Bruce Wayne survive, presumably living some sort of life somewhere with Selena Kyle. He has become a man. He made a symbol of his grief, of it something terrible, something hopeful, something too extreme and wildly oscillating. Now he can leave it behind. 

Only he can’t.

He passes it on to his “son”, his heir apparent. Robin. The next Batman. And the terror of the Bat continues, the legend with it, and the hope of the symbol is continued. But like the way Ulysses is considered a work of genius, and yet is admitted by its author to be verging on madness, so Batman will bring a certain type of madness into the world.

Realistically speaking, that is.

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