Against The Hype

movies, criticism and their pleasures

The Dark Knight Rises: Why Christopher Nolan is a Fascist Filmmaker

August 04, 2012 By: Colin Low Category: Full Essays

Try as he might, Christopher Nolan can’t quite master multitudes. In the third and last instalment of his Batman trilogy, Gotham City is overthrown, and the wealthy are hauled off to a people’s court. But where are all the people? They’re faceless masses, huddled neatly to either side as an asylum-loosed judge delivers the sentence. Mansions are pillaged, crowds riot at hotel entrances—but only for the brief length of a voiced-over montage. Just as abruptly, the streets become conspicuously empty. Before this, entire held-up stock exchanges and stadiums turn meek as lambs at the sight of a few guns.

Throughout The Dark Knight Rises crowds are always docile, organized or absent, and mob agency looks a lot like the will of a few. Perhaps this is Nolan’s point. For him, history is a clash of fascists benevolent and malicious; send enough megalomaniacs running around, and the masses can be trusted to hand over their fates. Even the hostaged ships in The Dark Knight, who stood inspiringly against the Joker’s plans to set them on each other, did so at the hands of a mere three people amid two boatloads of cowering passengers.

Nolan’s iron fist
“Do you really think he’d let someone else hold the trigger?” asks a character about Bane, this movie’s main villain. The same applies to Nolan, who remakes his villains in his own image. The Joker, a self-professed agent of chaos, is also paradoxically a mastermind of elaborately controlled maneuvers. Yet he’s played by Heath Ledger as such an enigmatic, self-contradictory force of personality—a charismatic who wields ideology to his own ends—that the charges don’t quite stick. Bane, despite his rippling physique, is far more person-sized. He’s a bland ideologue, and we are told enough about what he truly intends for Gotham that his ideology-laden speeches to the city’s 99% fail to rouse belief. It doesn’t help that these speeches try to masquerade hardened criminals and an anonymous terrorist as representatives of the disenfranchised ordinary citizen. (If this is also Nolan’s point, that the masses can be so easily duped by incoherent posturing on their behalf, then maybe all the straight-faced polemics over this movie’s politics prove him right.)

Too many audiences of The Dark Knight Rises have tried to pin down Nolan’s ideology based on what his characters say and do, when Nolan already shows his hand in the conditions of his movie’s making and unfolding. Is it so hard to tell what he thinks of people? It’s not just his movie’s canyon-wide distinctions between demigods and the masses. We also know he’s a multi-million-dollar technocrat who lavishes attention on mid-air plane hijacks, motorcycle chases, acrobatic aircrafts and explosions galore over those being saved or killed. We know he’s a plot wonk who favors late-game twists, copious exposition and implausibly convenient actions at the expense of character-driven developments. (At his worst, an entire police force gets rerouted toward a single mission, just so a massive stadium game with the city’s mayor presiding can have no security whatsoever.) We know his notion of feeling is to stop a film in its tracks to let Michael Caine blubber and Joseph Gordon-Levitt clench his forehead, though at least this time, all employers and parents and lovers worth mourning enter the movie pre-dead.

The Cat gets away
If Anne Hathaway, as jewel thief Selina Kyle, escapes this dearth of character complexity most unscathed, it’s because her role is the only one that doesn’t constantly require her to wear her heart on her sleeve. (Nolan’s usual notion of screenwriting: say what you feel!)

I’ll admit I was wary. Hathaway, who most impressed me with her wounded petulance in Rachel Getting Married, struck me as too meek and naive to emanate the sultry vengefulness that Michelle Pfeiffer so brilliantly essayed as the same character in 1992’s Batman Returns. The movie’s trailer also featured Hathaway at her least convincing, as she grapples with Nolan’s unwieldly portentous one-liners by weighing them down further in pace and emphasis. (This approach worked for Pfeiffer, since it imbued Tim Burton’s lightweight comic enterprise with some measure of gravitas, but we’re talking about Christopher “Why So Serious” Nolan here.)

As it turns out, Nolan and Hathaway are savvy enough to play into the latter’s convent-girl persona before dropping it with a smirk. This Selina Kyle, like a less expansive Joker, has the brains to keep ahead of everyone else’s brawn, with the off-guard initiative and quips to prove it. Given such strategic advantage, Hathaway attacks the role with rapid-fire intelligence, mocking nonchalance, and quicksilver shifts in persona—though she’s also a knockout simply strutting under a cocked hat brim. (In more ways than one.) Too bad Nolan isn’t generous enough to dole out such bouts of resourcefulness to more of his characters. If his choice of Bane as villain indicates anything, it’s that he ultimately prefers brute force.

Sure, superheroes and their foes might always have been fascist. But at least The Incredibles, one of this movie’s closest compatriots in foregrounding that theme, was put together by a studio of animators who had good reason to cheer on teamwork among elites. By contrast, The Dark Knight Rises is a lot closer in spirit to Watchmen, which Zach Snyder directed with as much bloodlust and cynical disregard for the world as his characters. Yet I doubt Nolan meant to suggest that Batman torques everyone else in line with his relentless machinic vision, one so totalitarian that probabilistic nuclear decay is rendered as ticking away with the per-second precision of a regular old timebomb. Of course, I’m grateful that Nolan exists to inject ambition, scale and grandiosity to a blockbuster milieu plagued with generic or incompetent studio hacks. But left to his devices, the razing of a city can feel too simply like a giant chessboard that shuffles around at the whims of plot.

5 Comments to “The Dark Knight Rises: Why Christopher Nolan is a Fascist Filmmaker”

  1. I’ve actually never really thought about Nolan’s crowds, but now that I think about it, you’re right that he doesn’t seem very good at characterizing or using them. I guess that’s probably because he likes his films tight, and crowds, when un-generalized, are anything but that. It might also be because he’s so technocratic that what he would really like to do is create every single individual that makes up the crowd, but because he can’t possibly do that, he doesn’t put any thought in them at all.

    Speaking of weaknesses though, something I really didn’t like in TDKR is the way emotions were so clunkily conveyed. You’re absolutely right that he basically halts the entire movie just so characters can “emote”, but instead of propping the film up with emotional support and possible Oscar-acting-nomination scenes, it just disrupts the pace and leaves me… indifferent. I honestly didn’t think much of Alfred’s “I’ve failed you, Master Bruce” scene. And poor JGL’s forehead, all that exercise for naught.

    One thing I really can’t get past in most of Nolan’s films is the lack of emotional complexity. It seems that all his characters have one emotion, or if they’re really important, maybe two. That’s perhaps why his most successful characters are also the ones that are the most inscrutable (I’m mainly thinking of the Joker here). This didn’t use to bother me as much, because the complexities of the plot usually made up for the absence of emotional complexity, and too much complexity in a film would make it too much to watch anyway. But as I’ve mentioned before, I thought that TDKR’s story arc was too typical, lacking Nolan’s usual puzzle box intricacies. So the mono-emotional characters became glaringly obvious, and I remained largely unsympathetic.

    And as for Bane as villain-of-the-instalment, I remember reading in an interview that Nolan wanted to get away from the ideological, cerebal villain that was the Joker. I think he wanted to show that sometimes, it isn’t enough for a superhero to outsmart or out-principle the villain. A superhero generally has to best his enemies physically as well – that’s what makes them ‘superheroes’ and not ‘really smart guys’. And I find myself unable to fault him for going back to the old comic book principles. Although I can fault him for the execution – seriously, how was Batman able to defeat Bane the second time around? Was it really because he knew no fear? Wha-?

    But taking a step back, I really did enjoy TDKR, although my crazy high expectations made it a disappointing experience. It’s still a cut above the other superhero movies I’ve seen, although now I’m slightly wary about what Nolan’s gonna do to Superman, especially since I’ve never really liked that particular superhero to begin with. But I know I’m gonna watch it anyway.

    • Colin Low says:

      Wenqi: Thanks for writing such a long reply! Looking at crowds was my specific take on Jim Emerson’s description of Nolan as a “one-thing-at-a-time” filmmaker (referring to Nolan’s tendencies for each shot to present just one thing). But it also applies to emotions: “mono-emotional” is the perfect descriptor for Nolan’s characters! I didn’t include it in my review, but part of my problem with Hathaway’s Selina is how she ends up saddled with that desire for a “clean slate”. Before that she’s nearly as inscrutable as the Joker, and better that way.

      I’m still of two minds as to whether Bane’s problem is the idea or the execution. When you’re battling for a city’s fate, it hardly seems that physical prowess should be your biggest threat. And I don’t find boxing scenes very compelling as drama (my favorite part of that scene was the camera swooping around in the darkness before Bane snatches Batman from behind him). But I take it that the second time around, Batman defeated Bane by dislodging the tubes that fed Bane his pain suppressants, though that felt very much like a Power Rangers-ish “hit the Z Putties on their chest” deal.

  2. I quite fully agree with the bit about Batman’s characterisation and Nolan’s crowds. His ideology is crap and his execution of a crap idea even worse – but then again, much of the inspiration of the movie comes from DC comics. Although of course Nolan has a stylistic license to interpret Batman the character as he likes, a liberty he doesn’t seem keen to use. And Nolan’s crowds are very inception-like: faceless, and useless, always ordered around and never an agency of its own.

    And “But left to his devices, the razing of a city can feel too simply like a giant chessboard that shuffles around at the whims of plot.” is just… <3

  3. you can call me an admirer, colin low says:

    when i told people i didnt like the trilogy, they gave me this look good enough to kill me, i felt like the guy from “i am legend”. Am the only one who hated these movies(the first one i thought was alright) i mean i seriously wonder how many of them calling themselves big time batman fans after watching this bullshit produced by mr nolan, actually know who batman is, read the comics as kids or atleast watched the cartoon lol
    All i wanted to know was why think out of the box when the comics of bob kane are laid out right in front of you and all you were supposed to do was show it on the big screen
    What i saw in this movie was just a fake bane dominating all of the movie with a robot voice, and whats batman doing, gets inspiration after being kicked in the a**, comes back to break banes mouth yet again
    i think you might want to check these links out as well
    cheers!! keep blogging

  4. banebanality says:

    the Nolan´s Batman is excesive violent, decadent and boring. My idea of super hero movie is a product made for young people not for adults with maturity problems. A film is not a documental, a film needs magic like a fine art work.


Leave a Reply