The people of a democratic New York come to Peter Parker’s rescue in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, a scene that has no parallel in the (arguably) aristocratic Gotham City of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises or either of his first two Batman movies.
This is a direct follow-up to my Fourth Bat-Thought, which, by the way, has been bat-updated.
With this post at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has me half-convinced that there is a political idea at work in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s not a conservative idea or a liberal idea, he argues. It’s an aristocratic one. Farrell’s noticed something about Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies that I missed. The regular citizens of Gotham City don’t seem to matter, not to Batman, not to any of the other characters, not even to themselves. They’re just part of crowds watching various elites, economic, political, and criminal, fight it out for the power to run their city. This makes Nolan’s Batman movies very different from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and Sam Raimi’s and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man films and from The Avengers.
In those movies, Superman, Spidey, and the Avengers are the protectors of the people of Metropolis and New York City not of the political, corporate, or economic entities called Metropolis and New York. And all along the way individual citizens pop up as characters in themselves. In Raimi’s Spider-Movies they don’t just show up to comment or be rescued. They take part in the battles Spidey fights on their behalf. They even come to Spider-Man’s rescue. (This happens in The Amazing Spider-Man,too, but the scene with the cranes swinging into place is not as moving or as emphatic as the scenes on the bridge in the first Spider-Man and on the train in Spider-Man 2. And it is literally mechanical.) The only regular citizen of Gotham I can recall in Batman Begins who makes himself felt as a character---I don’t remember any from The Dark Knight---is the homeless guy Bruce gives his overcoat to before he sets off to wander the world in search of his destiny. And that’s not symbolic of Bruce becoming one with the people in any ennobling and democratic sense. It’s him literally giving up his identity. To be one with the people is to be anonymous.
As a contrast, think about Bruce Campbell’s cameos in the three Spider-Man movies or the guy in the elevator in Spider-Man 2. These are characters who exist apart from their relationship to the hero, who have personal lives outside the plot. And they are representative of the people of New York City.
In The Dark Knight Rises the people are represented by John Blake, who is a cop, which makes him the People’s Tribune and so not really one of them and not a democratic character.
In the Spider-Man movies, the ones starring Maguire and (particularly) the new one with Andrew Garfield, the cops are clearly not representative of the people, at least not in their relationship to Spider-Man.
So I can see Farrell’s point. Nolan does tend to present the people of Gotham as a crowd to be controlled and, implicitly, a mob in the making if they aren’t controlled. But like I said, I’m only half-convinced that The Dark Knight Rises is meant to convey any explicitly political message. Nolan’s neglect of the common folk may tell us something about his personal politics or prejudices. But it seems to me more a result of his artistic ambitions.
Nolan makes movies in order to design and play elaborate games. His characters are pieces in those games. I don’t think he’s uninterested in his characters as characters. They’re not like Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett (except when they are), stereotypes on which the audience, playing along at home, can project whatever personalities we want. But I think Nolan’s way of exploring character is to put people into his game and move them around as if they were the top hat or the race car and see how they react. There just isn’t room on the game board or enough playing time (or money in the budget) for anything or anybody that isn’t part of the game except as background or obstacle.
Think of Inception. Nobody’s dreams include any random characters showing up to no plot-related purpose. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character always dreams of his wife and children, never of his tenth grade geometry teacher or kids from a McDonald’s commercial. Of course, all the dreams are being manipulated, but that’s the point. It’s the movie slyly commenting on itself. Nolan’s movies are like his characters’ manipulated dreams.
Politics of one kind or another, Nolan’s own or whatever the audience chooses to read into it, may seep into The Dark Knight Rises but if so, they are rather incoherently addressed. In fact, they are incompetently expressed.
And I just don’t think of Christopher Nolan as an incompetent filmmaker.
Editor’s note to readers who aren’t fanboys or fangirls: Under pressure from us, the author has promised to start writing about subjects other than superheroes again soon.