When a film ends with a passage quoted from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, implicit permission is granted to begin its review thus: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – a morally serious movie being released to huge acclaim, massive audiences, philosophical exploration, knee jerk misunderstanding, and most horrifying, but all too believably, the murder of twelve people hoping to be among the first to see it. In that light, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ perfectly captured the zeitgeist: maybe it was 9/11, maybe it was Diana’s death, but at some point in this generation, the 24 hour news cycle started eating its tail, both feeding and nurturing the appetite for things to be categorized (and, frequently, avenged) before they had been understood, or in some cases, before they had even happened. A Presidential election could be stolen, and give way to two wars against two nations (and the rules of war) in vengeance for a crime committed by people from neither nation, without anything like the appropriate outrage, resistance or lament; art events of global significance could be forgotten before they had the chance to be reflected on; and a mentally unstable man could fall through the cracks of a broken healthcare system, and choose to respond preemptively to a film that challenges our addiction to violence, by murdering a dozen people watching that film, before he had seen it himself.
Ironically, one element of an antidote to the react first, ask questions later cultural sickness we suffer from was the production process for the recent Batman films – with years-long meditative gaps between the three of these immense-scale, operatic-philosophical, almost docu-dramatic comic book films. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan brings a distinctively British sensibility to an American tale: the fine line between duty and obsession, and between service and self-care are central, English accents echo in the background of a story that includes implicit reference to both a terror campaign reminiscent of the IRA’s killing of public figures, and a political response that prefers snap judgements and civil rights-infringing security ‘solutions’ over accountable criminal justice mechanisms paralleled with reasoned exploration of the unjust power foundations of why some people create chaos for others; not to mention the fact that the grey Gotham sky always threatens a Manchester rainstorm.
It used to be that the answer to the impact of the French revolution (explicitly evoked here, not just in the Dickens quotation, but also both in the portrayal of a popular uprising against the aristocracy – including nuanced visions of good rich people like Bruce Wayne/Batman who uses his power to defend the vulnerable, and attractive blue collar people like Selina Kyle/Catwoman who ultimately self-criticizes her own dehumanizing of the powerful) was to echo Chou en Lai’s 1976 shibboleth that it was ‘too soon to say’. Chou may have been an apologist for Mao’s genocide, but he also understood, with WB Yeats, that good things ‘come dropping slow’. Life deserves to be treated with quiet respect; time is required to make sense of it.
So who knows if ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ – some kind of extraordinary film, a thrilling night at the movies, a humane cry for a better way than ultraviolent ultraspectacle : demanding that people take responsibility for their own lives, to take a second look at the human faces behind the media’s monsterization of people who hurt people, to wonder if the line between good and evil runs through each of – and not between – us, and ultimately positing the notions that hope and despair need each other, that a certain amount of fear (humility) is necessary for true courage to take flight, and fear of death to make life worth living, non-lethal, thought-through, self-costing (but rewarding) intervention is the only thing that works over the long term, and that such action can only emerge from what the New Testament defines as obedience learned ‘through things suffered’ – will last as a work of art, or be remembered primarily as the occasion for mass murder in a movie theater? It’s too soon to say. This interim report would guess that it hasn’t been understood yet – that despite its minimal role for women, and tendency to bite off more than it can chew, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ may ultimately be seen as the capstone of the most morally serious blockbuster, theologically thoughtful, and realistically inspirational film series yet made.