Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises -- masked saviors and mob rule

Director: Christopher Nolan, 2012. (PG-13)  

The long-awaited conclusion to Nolan's epic Batman trilogy came crashing into the cinemas with reverberating gunfire and pounding explosions. Tragically, the violence on screen was mirrored in real life in the Denver suburb of Aurora tragedy where a gunman opened fire at a midnight shooting killing 12 and wounding dozens more. This deranged individual left fear in his wake, both in Colorado and across the country.

Coincidentally fear is one of the themes of Nolan's series, a fear that impacts individuals and society. Nolan has said that The Dark Knight Rises focuses on the theme of pain, The Dark Knight centered on chaos (who can forget that chaotic figure of the Joker), and Batman Begins deals with fear.

The  film opens with a thrilling aerial escape that introduces us to the principle villain: Bain (Tom Hardy). Wearing a partial face-mask that obscures his face and modifies his voice, Bain is a hulk of a man. Physically imposing, he is bigger and stronger than Batman, certainly a match for the caped crusader.

Meanwhile seven years on from The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has hung up the cape and retired to a hermit's life in a corner of his mansion. Physically wounded, he is mentally scarred by the death of his girlfriend. He has not moved on. With Harvey Dent's death at the end of The Dark Knight, Batman left Gotham City in a cloak of shame, the scapegoat bearing the sins of the city.

Yet this is a new Gotham City, one that is seemingly free of crime. With the passing of the Harvey Dent bill that put organized criminals behind bars, Gotham has no need of Batman anymore.

When Bain descends on the city with his band of mercenaries and descends into its sewers, trouble is brewing. It is not long before crime once more appears on the streets.

Nolan sets up a frenetic pace and a pounding score. As in his previous films, he is the master at staging action sequences. Along with the opening piece, there are three more well orchestrated sequences: the taking of the stock exchange, along with the ensuing Bat-bike chase, the demolition of a football field during a game, and the finale street battle that starts like The Gangs of New York and ends like The Avengers.

Back from the earlier films are Michael Caine as Alfred, the heart and soul of the Wayne family, providing the pathos needed; Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the inventor of Batman's gadgets; and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, the principled but now compromised policeman who knows the truth. Along with these are newcomers Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as a young and idealistic policeman; Marion Cottilard as a billionaire philanthropist who wants to give the city and the world sustainable energy; and Anne Hathaway as Seline Kyle, aka Catwoman. Bale and crew are solid, but Hatahway surprisingly steals the show as Catwoman. I was disappointed when she was cast, but she delivers on all cylinders. From her opening interaction with Bruce Wayne while stealing his jewels, to the partial change of heart and character with her final interactions with Batman, she sizzles.

Yet for all this, the film does not quite rise to the level of the middle film. The Dark Knight had more moral dilemmas, two key villains and a stronger plot-line (not to mention the outstanding performance of the late Heath Ledger). Having said that, The Dark Knight Rises has plenty of twists and turns, and is a satisfying conclusion to a remarkable series that will stand with other great trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and The Godfather.

When Bane sets his bombs exploding, he brings crime back to Gotham and he isolates Gotham from the world. Taking out the bridges, he essentially puts the whole city under siege with the military waiting and watching from outside. Meanwhile, he tells the citizens to rise up and take back the city, take back what was theirs. He pits the poor against the wealthy, the rabble against the rich.

Selina Kyle gave billionaire Bruce Wayne the early warning: "You think this can last? There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Cat burgler vs playboy corporate owner, the class war is about to drop from the sky. And then later, she says, "I do what I can to survive." Isn't this the cry of the 99%, the Occupy movement?

With echoes of last year's Occupy events and hints of the French revolution, the populace rises and a form of anarchy occurs. Pulling the rich out of their penthouse hideaways, they are hauled before a kangaroo court presided over by Scarecrow (from Batman Begins), a modern Robespierre, to be given summary "justice". Presumed guilty their mockery of a trial results in a choice of exile or death. This revolution does not redistribute the wealth, but destroys the wealth and the wealthy.

Justice, though, is not served by these types of revenge-fueled actions. Injustice may be omnipresent. Indeed, the recent example of Duke Energy Corporation's CEO Bill Johnson illustrates the great chasm that divides the haves and the have-nots. Fired after one day on the job, he received a cool $44M. Most workers in the US wonder if they'll even get a pension or be able to retire after 40 years of work, and Johnson gets in one day what most won't amass in their entire lifetime. And the CEO of one East Coast conglomerate made almost $200M in the last 5 years. These compensations figures are obscene when the unemployment is still over 8% and millions are on or beneath the poverty line.

But we should not respond in kind. Jesus said, "You will always have the poor among you" (Jn. 12:8), and such economic inequality will not be solved through socialism or communism, Instead, Jesus offered a different form of revolution to his followers. His revolution is subversive, involving loving enemies and turning the other cheek. He lays out his manifesto in the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where we respond in radically unexpected ways, such as living in peace (Matt. 5:9), giving out light (Matt. 5:14), walking in truth. Ultimately, these all are subsumed by living in love (Matt. 5:44).

Peace cannot be built on a lie. At the beginning of the film, Commissioner Gordon is eulogizing Harvey Dent in a ceremony: "I knew Harvey Dent. I was his friend. And it will be a very long time before someone . . .  inspires us the way he did. I believed in Harvey Dent." He had put away his real speech, one that was the truth. Instead, he continued to support the falsehood that Dent was the hero. The preceding eight years were built on this lie. Gotham's peace was a house of cards. And it came crashing down when the truth emerged.

Lies must be exposed by the light of truth. Fears must be faced and embraced. Only then will we have a chance to emerge stronger, victorious. Gotham's citizens hide in their homes, avoiding the gangs of insurgents. Bruce Wayne lies broken avoiding the fear that stalks him. But when he and they finally stop running and hiding can fear be defeated.

Another theme of this film is masks. Both Batman and Bane wear a mask, and they are clearly symbolic. Masks can be used to hide our identity, to protect ourselves. Batman tells young Blake, though, that his mask allows him to protect not himself but those he loves. Enemies might get back at him through his loved ones, as happened with Rachel in The Dark Knight. Blake countered that a mask might provide anonymity to allow the hero or savior to be seen as an everyman. In this sense, the mask communicates that anyone could do this, could be a hero. It is not left to a select individual.

Interestingly, our savior Jesus Christ never wore a mask. He did not hide his identity; he did not protect himself. Even when challenged by the powerful Pharisees he not only continued to do his Sabbath-breaking miracles, but he also called them what they were: hypocrites (literally, the ones wearing the masks). He faced up to Herod, who held his life in his hands, and spoke truth even when he could have begged for mercy (Jn. 18:37). He went to the cross unmasked with head held up. He looked his accusers and killers in the eyes (Lk. 23:34), even forgiving one dying next to him (Lk. 23:43).

The trilogy does depict the character arc of Bruce Wayne, understanding his fears to embracing his fears and ultimately finding redemption in self-sacrifice. Coming toward the final battle, that would see a mano-a-mano fist fight between Bane and Batman, Catwoman tells Batman: "You don't owe these people any more! You've given them everything!" But Batman replies, "Not everything. Not yet." Batman is on a mission to defeat evil through his sheer acts of strength and willpower. He is willing to complete his debt and give everything for these people, much like Jesus. But unlike Batman, our savior gave us his life when he owed us nothing. He never owed us, not one iota. In contrast, we owe him everything. We owed him as enemies and sinners. His death on the cross was as a substitute for us. That kind of debt can never be repaid. "It is by grace you have been saved" (Eph. 2:8).

Jeffrey Overstreet aptly sums up the Batman savior in his review of this movie:
In his own egomaniacal fashion, guns blazing and fists flying, he’s determined to become Gotham’s savior, overcoming evil on his own strength, “taking on the sins” of others like Harvey Dent, putting his life on the line to save his city. Ultimately, he is making himself the sort of deliverer that Jesus’ own followers wished he would become. His revolution is achieved with violence rather than love. And it achieves only postponements of destruction, not the defeat of death itself.
Fear, chaos and pain can only be defeated in the true savior, the unmasked one: Jesus Christ.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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