Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Feminist Review: The Dark Knight Rises

***The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler.

So I’m writing this movie review with a lot of spoilers, because well, according to my facebook newsfeed, everyone’s already seen it. But even if you have seen it already, you’re probably desperately longing for my insightful commentary of the film; I mean, how else will you know what to think of it?

No one here is going to deny that Christopher Nolan has managed to take the superhero movie to a whole other level: the characters have far more complexity, a hell of a lot less campy lines, and a darker, grittier setting than the more upbeat Marvel comics. Even the fight scenes in this Batman film had a visceral heaviness to them, with each punch sounding so thick and weighty, you could just feel the epic-ness pounding you from the screen.

My praise for Nolan as a filmmaker however comes mostly from his dealings with evil. Most directors have laughable Lokis (The Avengers) and shapeless Sinestros (The Green Lantern) whose overwrought motivations and plans for world domination just get more tiresome with every rendition. The genius behind Nolan's villians is in how he makes them insidious by how fascinating we find them, exploring that ever-present possibility of the darker side of humanity is so psychologically interesting that we can’t turn away.  For example, Heath Ledger’s Joker was infamously brilliant and is, I think, the best superhero villian, given that his motivation was just “wanting to watch the world burn,” and it felt so...seductive. 

In a similar vein, Bane was inscrutable and intense; it wasn’t about some in-your-face world domination or strawman plot of blowing up the moon. Bane’s motivations are completely hidden until the last ten minutes of the movie. And that’s the draw. That’s why we keep watching. And in the last few minutes, when we learn that motivation, it was so simple, so seemingly counter to his character, that you couldn’t help but pity him. That motivation was of course love, and it was humanizing, equalizing even.

I feel a little bad bringing up the human fascination with darkness and villains in the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado, but as with anything, it has become a media event, one where we desperately want to know the motivation of the killer. As humans we seek that casualty in those we consider perverted and ill in an attempt to validate our own humanity. 

Besides the characters, the plot eerily parallels the current economic climate in the United States, looking basically like the occupy movement on crack. The class warfare depicted in the film, with it’s disturbing scenes of makeshift courts to punish the wealthy, French Revolution style executions, brought home the problematic images of what happens when poverty reaches it’s breaking point. Even the scene of Bane breaking into Wall Street (which felt evocative of Rage Against the Machines, “Sleep Now in the Fire”video) was a reminder of our economic vulnerabilities in the West.

Ironically enough though, the movie seemed almost an affirmation of class status quo, since these revolutionaries were the bad guys, and the billionaire (granted now broke billionaire) was the one who had to save the day and reassert order. On the one hand, at the end, there were scenes of the orphan boys heading off to stay in mansions and the bravery of the policemen, working class heroes if you will.  However, I felt that the film had a lot of potential to address economic disparity, but didn’t seem to come to any new resolution, just reasserted whatever economic platforms existed in the first place.

In terms of its feminism, it was pretty low. Marion Cotillard was Miranda Tate, the reserved, but stalwart, intellectual. Her character felt a bit stock to me: reserved do-gooder female seeks financial backing from billionaire do-gooder for her latest project and then falls in love with him (though I did love Nolan’s use of a slightly older, more interesting actress, instead of the standard young, perky brunette). However, of course, she shifts in the end, revealing her own complexities; her backstory was vastly more entertaining once I realized how gender ambiguous it was.

The other female character was Anne Hathaway as the always seductive, but startlingly normal, Catwoman; she’s a little more relatable than other renditions of the character, despite still wearing a black spandex bodysuit most of the time. This Catwoman, just like all the others, is always bad ass, though of course it must be in four-inch spiked heels. I’d normally talk it about it, but what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Female action heroes are still accessed mainly as an object of sexuality, even if you can probably look past the Catwoman character a little bit more, (though mostly because she is supposed to act like a feline, which are famously sinuous and flexible creatures).

For the most part I considered Hathway’s acting to be just her usual repertoire, except for one scene, which held probably the best acting I’ve ever seen from her. There is a moment of shift, when she goes from being a warm-blooded killer (cats are mammals friends, can’t say “cold-blooded” here in the interest of accuracy) to a terrified screaming witness at a shoot out, begging for help, back to being a killer. I thought it was a rather telling scene, since it embodies the two reactions you see for female characters in that situation. Either they are participating in and enjoying the killing, or they’re so completely terrified that they just scream.

These are the only two female characters with any lines, and they certainly never speak with other females (failing the Bechdel test), however besides it’s lack of female characters, the film was excellent. It had its campy moments, but I felt that on the whole, those were rare. Christian Bale was sufficiently gaunt for a struggling superhero and a lonely billionaire, and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman were pillars of wisdom and fatherly concern.


  1. Catwoman had scenes with another woman. Her friend Holly, who she protects and guides. There are also female officers who fight against Bane's army.

  2. Count me among those who were cheering for the balanced view of the movie's treatment of economic inequality, both exposing the excess and thoughtlessness of the privileged and the gullibility and hypocrisy of their critics. But admittedly, I can see how its transcendence of economic platform and consequent embrace of character as the root of moral fiber (another point of cheering for me) might be seen as complicit in upholding the status quo.

    One of my favorite parts is when Bane stands atop the tumbler and sermonizes about giving control back to the people while his eyes betray his cynical mockery and utter contempt. Indeed, my own feelings about Occupy Wall Street ran along similar lines. Add that to the obvious allusions to "A Tale of Two Cities," and its possibly Burkean undertones made me a fan.

  3. The Dark Knight Rises is the film event of the summer. A completely satisfying piece of filmmaking that delivers so much more, making for an excellent sign off for one of cinema's finest trilogies.

  4. Feminists seem to like cats