Monday, 20 August 2012

On Batman & Dickens

WARNING! major plot spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises and A Tale of Two Cities.

(via wikipedia)
The most recent Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, was the big event of the summer before the Olympics came along, dancing and attention-hogging. But, a few scant weeks ago, hard as it is to imagine that simpler time, Christopher Nolan's third man-in-cape movie was generating serious press attention.

Reading through some of the reviews, a central issue of contention seemed to be whether a superhero blockbuster could count as serious art. Some favourable critics praised the film for this very achievement – although usually with the caveat that it transcended its comic-book origins, rather than admitting Batman into the pantheon of great characters with Odysseus and Hamlet and those guys from The Godfather. The few dissenting critics usually accused the film of pretension, of over-reaching its generic shortcomings, and toppling embarrassingly. Chris Tookey, the Daily Mail's ever ill-judged critic, hammered this point home, somehow managing to accuse the film of failing to be serious in the serious art sense and simultaneously being too serious and not enough fun.

It is perhaps in defence of the serious, artistic nature of his film that Nolan has revealed the influence of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities on The Dark Knight Rises. As a staunch lover of Dickens, it was this possible precursor of the film that was at the forefront of my mind as I entered the cinema.
Dickens's original cover (via wikipedia)

There is certainly congruity between the two works, footprints that Nolan's been following, left by his illustrious predecessor. Their imprint, however, is only faint, and it would certainly be misleading to claim that A Tale of Two Cities is a or the major influence on the film.

But it would be equally false to state that Nolan's claim to inspiration was merely pretension and bombast, a pimply comic-book kid's attempt to win mainstream credibility and artistic integrity.

The lines of influence are often hard to trace, and harder to unpick, like a frozen cobweb. While The Dark Knight Rises shares little tonally, structurally or aesthetically with Dickens, to deny the novel's role in Nolan's work would be churlish. The inspiration is clearly there, flicking in and out of focus, disappearing for long periods of the film, and returning right at the end with startling clarity.


A Tale of Two Cities is drenched in the Bible. Beyond the linguistic echoes, the novel engages with essentially Christian themes: sacrifice, rebirth, resurrection, redemption. These themes have altogether more secular parallels throughout The Dark Knight Rises: the rebirth of Doctor Manette, rescued from insanity and incarceration, is reflected in Bane, Talia and Batman's various escapes from a hellish prison in India. Manette's shifts from domesticity to traumatised shoemaking (it makes sense in the book) resemble Bruce Wayne's period as recluse, a prisoner of his own mind. Then there are resurrections of other, less literal kinds: Bruce Wayne's happy ending in Florence, finally freed from the burden of Batman; Ra's al Ghul's reappearance onscreen, and continued existence through Bane and his daughter's beliefs; Miranda Tate's revelation that she is Ra's al Ghul's daughter, a more literal re-birth. 

What a resurrection really looks like (via
And then there are the sacrifices, most obviously Batman's heroics right at the death, saving the city from nuclear holocaust, but being incinerated himself. This is the clearest Dickensian parallel, closing following Sydney Carson's self-sacrifice that ends A Tale of Two Cities, where he goes to the guillotine in the place of his friend Charles Darney. Carson's sacrifice grants Darney, and his wife and child, a rebirth of sorts, a new lease on life; Batman's fulfils the same function, finally allowing Bruce Wayne to divest himself of his cape and mask, go to Florence and bone Anne Hathaway.

Yet even as Nolan most closely parallels Dickens, he strays far from his master. Carson's death offers a relatively simple trade-off: he takes another man's place, he allows another life to continue, his life pays for another's. And he very definitely dies. Nolan, instead, cheats us a little. Ostensibly Batman dies, valiantly sacrificing himself to save the whole city, acting as a scapegoat for society at large. But, of course, the next reveal is that Bruce Wayne survived, that there was no body at the epicentre of the blast, no death at all. Batman dies only a metaphorical death. The superhero is sacrificed, but the man in the cape survives. The whole sacrifice comes to seem almost selfish, more of a way of getting out of his responsibilities as a superhero, of sneaking off on holiday, than of saving the city.

Bane: hench (via
This bitter aftertaste is not necessarily fair – it is just an emotional response to a fairly weak storyline, to a narrative dead end. It is in this moment where The Dark Knight Rises is most constrained by its generic roots: Batman, after all, cannot die, not for real. If Nolan hadn't revealed his survival, it would have been written into the prologue of the next reboot. (Is there any more disgusting concept than the current Hollywood vogue for 'rebooting' previous franchises?)

The fact that superheroes can't really die is more interesting than mere corporate idiocy, however. The reason superheroes – and here I mean big superheroes, the ones who have truly penetrated popular consciousness, an elect club containing Superman and Spiderman and Batman and maybe few others, but not bullshit like Thor or Daredevil – can't die is because they aren't corporeal. They form a secular mythology, becoming potent symbols for justice and balance and agency. And symbols are quite hard to kill.

It is in this secularism that Nolan most diverges from Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities is resolutely Christian, and Sydney Carson definitely Christ-like. Batman is more like an equivalent to, rather than surrogate for, Christ, a redemption figure for a society that mostly gave up believing. Christ's sacrifice is made out of extreme, unconditional love, so Dickens's is a novel imbued throughout with love. Nolan isn't very interested in love: his genius is in examining fear. His Batman films are fascinated with fear, from the opening terrors of the Scarecrow back in Batman Begins, with his ability to make people see their worst nightmares, to the frighteningly inventive terrorism of the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Scarecrow: scary. (via
The Dark Knight Rises is no different in this regard. Its best moments are those when Bane's forces of darkness create a choice between two horrible options. The US military are convinced to shoot their own civilians if they try to escape from Bane's Gotham, because if they do, he will set off his bomb. Dissenters are sentenced in darkly absurd courts, and given the option of exile or death. Most choose exile, only to discover that exile is another kind of death. And, when, Commissioner Gordon chooses death, not exile, he is sentenced to death by exile. I laughed, quite hard.

Civil Unrest

Nolan is excellent at coming up with these horrific scenarios where society gnaws on its own entrails like a dog. The best villains in his Batman films exacerbate the innate cruelty and violence that bubbles under the veneer of everyday people. It is here that Nolan's other major influence from Dickens comes into play: the brilliant, pounding riot scenes that are, to my mind, the centrepiece of A Tale of Two Cities. For Dickens, the French Revolution became an example of a society eating itself: he was, like most Victorians, terrified of its implications, and its potential for spilling over to Britain.

The French Revolution: scary (via
Despite his terror, however, Dickens was sympathetic towards the causes of the French Revolution. The most irredeemable character in the novel is the aristocrat Monseigneur, and the deprivations and cruelties experienced by common Frenchman are injustices of the worst kind to Dickens, readily assaulted by his prose. There is no such sense of the troubles of everyday people in The Dark Knight Rises: any social protest element of Bane's revolution is entirely self-proclaimed, and entirely unsupported - on screen at least - by the citizens of Gotham. His is a revolution in the traditional mode of authoritarian dictators, declared to be for the people, but in no way run by the people. Perhaps this is more threatening than Dickens' democratic overflow, but I don't think so. 

Storming the Bastille: fun (via
Despite the apparent similarity in the few riot scenes, and the conscious allusion as Bane storms Gotham's prison to the Bastille, the tangible fears of societal upheaval in Dickens are not really present in Nolan. It is here that the claim for inspiration is thinnest, most desperate. It is here that the film is most constrained by its genre. Bane is beautifully, malignantly evil; but such improbable evil is less threatening than the potential evils waiting to be unleashed in everyone else, everyone who isn't an assassin-trained tank of a man wearing a facemask, and overcome by rampant nihilism. This is most surprising because Nolan has such a good understanding of fear. Perhaps in an eagerness to avoid being politically pigeonholed, he has backed down from a genuine political threat to Gotham's order. Perhaps he is being political, but through the veil of allegory, using the superheroes as the rest do, as mythic symbols. Somehow, I doubt it. I worry that Nolan has read Dickens imperfectly, or tried too hard to differentiate himself from his master. The result is an excellent fillm, but a flawed one, a film that relies on superhuman evil and the absurdity of nuclear destruction (for, as Dr Strangelove and Cat's Cradle ably demonstrate, absurdity is the only appropriate artistic reaction to nuclear weapons) rather than the far baser, far closer to the bone terrors society is capable of inflicting upon itself.

1 comment:

  1. Disappointed Nolan Fan25 August 2012 at 20:02

    I agree that the handling of the popular protest elements was really lame! All across the trilogy there were hints that Gotham had real problems with social deprivation (like the killing of Bruce Wayne's dad in the first film, after he had built the railway to help tackle recession...), and this could have been a chance to ask whether corporate Gotham needed saving - Batman as crusher of popular uprising is a great premise. Instead the uprising just got swamped by Bane being inexplicably evil, meaning a nice superhero-saves-the-day ending...

    I haven't read the Dickens novel, so it would be cool to know how he deals with the popular protest/scary riots thing. Maybe I'll check it out!