Tuesday, July 24, 2012


"The figure of the circle will obsess us...."  --Jacques Derrida

There's a Peanuts cartoon where Lucy gives Snoopy a red balloon to hold while she goes in to lunch.  Snoopy falls asleep, yawns, and releases the balloon, which floats away.  In the final panel Snoopy is walking a lonely railroad track, carrying a bindlestiff.  He thinks:  "Make one mistake, and you pay for it the rest of your life."

It could be the theme of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy.

Which means, first:  here be spoylers.  If you don't want to know the gritty details of "The Dark Knight Rises," do not read on.  I will spare no plot point in making mine.

This third movie rests heavily on the first two, but stands lightly.  You can see it without seeing them.  If you do, though, you will miss much.  In the climax of the second film, the Joker casts two boats adrift, each loaded with explosives, each with a detonator for the other.  On one boat, prisoners:  murderers, rapists, cutthroats.  On the other:  the "decent citizens of Gotham."  One boat must choose to kill the other, or the Joker will destroy them both.

In the third film, the entire island is set adrift:  the bridges to Gotham's island are destroyed, save for one.  If anyone crosses that bridge, a nuclear bomb goes off.  Bane, the villain, explains that one person in Gotham has the detonator, the trigger, to explode that bomb.  He means they hold the means of their destruction by their decision; but he is taken literally (of this more later).  The movie makes much of the point:  that some ordinary citizen of Gotham has the means of thermonuclear destruction.  And, as with the Joker, there is no escape:  the bomb will explode anyway, though no one knows that.  So again, a no exit scenario.

Who will be responsible for the death of the island?

Now, the first question should be:  why is Bane doing this?  The Joker was a self-professed agent of chaos, and he set up his no-win scenario to prove to Batman just how damned the citizens of Gotham were, just how selfish and self-centered they were.  And the "decent citizen" who insists the criminal's boat blown up to save them, seems to prove his point.  But then a criminal takes the detonator from the trembling official, and does, he says, what the official should have done:  he throws it into the river.

Taking responsibility means you live with the consequences.

That, of course, is where Bruce Wayne's story begins.  He isn't faced with the dilemma of Hamlet, forced to prove a crime based on the word of a ghost, as well as to avenge that crime.  But he is given the responsibility to avenge his father's death (and his mother's, but she makes almost no appearance in the trilogy), a responsibility thrust on him by circumstance, but one older even than the story of Shakespeare's Dane.  "Batman Begins" details how he discharges that responsibility, and the consequences that ensue (including the loss of the family mansion).  The "League of Shadows" has another responsibility, one it takes just as seriously (even as it creates its nemesis, training Bruce Wayne to become Batman; who begets his nemesis, the Joker, and also brings the League of Shadows back to Gotham by saving Gotham from it in the first place.  I told you there would be spoilers).  In all the talk about the Occupy movement and the speech Anne Hathaway delivers about the storm that is coming, in the third film, no one has noticed that Liam Neeson's justification for destroying Gotham in the first film is the same as the public figures today who think our economic problems will purge the body social and politic of corruption, of laziness, of those who are the problem, in other words. If we get rid of the poor, the weak, the lazy, if we flush them out of the "system" (to where, no one ever says), then all will be well again.   The League of Shadows has the same purpose, except they won't wait for forces natural or societal to finally do the work.  That goal is evil in "Batman Begins," and Batman offers a counter proposal for how to "clean up Gotham." By the third film the goal remains, but the purpose is lost, and the only motivation is revenge; revenge, and the mindless evil of destruction.   It's like the Joker returns, and this time, he does have a plan

And the money to carry it out.  Alyssa at ThinkProgress tried to make something of the socioeconomics of this third movie, but I think she's almost entirely wrong.  There is a "99%" sub-text to this film, but it doesn't play out as Jeffersonian democrats taking back the power from a sclerotic system that needs to be changed.  Instead, it plays out as a blatant act of terrorism where the people with the money create the means of their annihilation, unbeknownst to even the government (literally an unlicensed nuclear reactor, although this time strapped to a trailer, not on the backs of the Ghostbusters).  It's in the name of a good cause (renewable energy for the middle class!), and it's not exactly the denizens of the underworld of "Batman Begins" who take the streets of Gotham (it's actually the prisoners).  Nor do they rise to overthrow their bourgeois oppressors, or to right the wrongs done them by Marie Antoinette.  Indeed, it turns out the wealthy are buying the destruction of Gotham just as Bruce Wayne is using his fortune ("Where does he get those marvelous toys?", Jack Nicholson's Joker asks in Tim Burton's first Batman movie.  Chris Nolan's answer is: from Wayne Enterprise's defense contracts.) to save it.  But back to the question of responsibility.

Bruce Wayne fights crime to continue the work his father started; so it's a better reason than mere anger at how he was orphaned (the prime motivation of Frank Miller's Batman is sheer anger at evil in the world.  Christian Bale's Batman is more nuanced and human than that.  Anger is adolescent; it can't burn for long, even in the darkest heart.).  But his decision has consequences, the responsibility he takes on doesn't end the story, it's just the beginning of it.  And so the second film is all about what that responsibility generates:  the Joker.

If you've seen the second film, I assume that analysis is obvious enough I don't need to belabor it.  If you haven't, take my word for it.  The Joker is unleashed on Gotham because Batman is imposing order on Gotham.  He makes the point explicitly in the film, Nolan's version of the encounter between Micheal Keaton/Batman and Jack Nicholson/Joker:  "I made you?!  You made me!"  The Joker is as inspired by the Batman as are the citizens of Gotham who dress up in Batman costumes and carry shotguns out to try to stop Gotham's crime bosses (and only get in the way).  As Heath Ledger's Joker asks Harvey Dent, now hideously disfigured, in the hospital:  "Do I look like a guy with a plan?"  The end result of the Joker's chaos, we find in the third film, is the new order of strict laws and finally an end, in the interregnum between the time of the two films (second and third) to the crime of war and Gotham's war on crime.  And having taken on responsibility for Gotham, then having created the greatest threat to Gotham since defeating the League of Shadows, Batman retires to lick his wounds and mourn the death of his beloved.

But being responsible for saving Gotham from the League of Shadows does not mean he is not still responsible for what follows.  Defeating the Joker, Batman took on the responsibility for the death of Harvey Dent, the better to clean up Gotham.  That plan worked, but the Batman had to disappear.  Now the League of Shadows returns, and the Batman has the responsibility of stopping them.  But the League of Shadows is not back to finish what was started; it is back to do the Joker's work.  It is back as literally a suicide bomber, but this time with a nuclear bomb.  Gotham will not be cleansed; Gotham will be a nuclear wasteland.  And why?  Because they can.  The Joker wants to watch the world burn; Bane wants to destroy Gotham, for love; and to prove himself worthy, just as Bruce Wayne wants to prove himself worthy.

See what responsibility can do to you?  It is not too much to say Bane acts out of love; but not out of any kind of love you have in mind right now.  Hold that thought; we will come back to it.  Because love makes you responsible, too.

The idea of responsibility is an old one; but we generally think responsibility ends things, rather than begins them.  Even when we think of the rite of passage, the journey from childhood to manhood* (which journey takes up about one third of the story of "Batman Begins"), we think of the acceptance of responsibility as the goal, as the sign one is now an adult.  It is, in other words, the end of the story; what happens next, is another matter, and sometimes literally to another person (because the adult has put away childish things).  Greek tragedy focused on this:  the classic tragic hero finally recognizes both his error, and his responsibility for it.  Oedipus, in response, gouges out his eyes and then carries out his pre-announced punishment, forcing himself into exile.  Creon, standing over the bodies of Antigone and Haemon, hearing of the suicide of his wife, collapses in grief and, realizing what he has done, prays for death; but he doesn't get it.  Responsibility ends the plays; and what happens after, is another story.  Responsibility is what should end the story of Nolan's Batman.  But Bruce Wayne takes on his father's mission; not to avenge his death, like Hamlet, but to carry out his vision of a Gotham redeemed from violence, through the vast Wayne fortune.  Batman takes on the responsibility for Gotham's future, and that is not another story; that is the second part of the same story.

That responsibility has consequences.  It creates the Joker, and the struggles of "The Dark Knight."  But the end of that film doesn't discharge Wayne's responsibility, either.  Once taken on, it is not something you can set down when you wish to.  The model here is another great tragedy:  Shakespeare's "King Lear."  Lear opens the story by trying to set aside the responsibilities of the crown, but keep all it's privileges; and there, all his troubles begin.  Wayne, in "The Dark Knight Rises," has not become Lear (it is clear he isn't the recluse it seems he is, either; but that's later in the story), but he was withdrawn from responsibility for his company and his charitable foundation, to the point that both are endangered.  Once you accept responsibility, you don't have the privilege of laying it down again.  Responsibility does not end things; it is only the beginning.

So Wayne has turned over responsibility for the law and order of Gotham back to the law and the police of Gotham, and that has worked well for 8 years.  Life, however, intrudes, and it turns out even the seemingly casual intrusion of Selina Kyle as a catburglar in stately Wayne Manor is part of a much larger plan, an effort aimed directly at Batman.  Not only can you not hide; you can't even run.

What happens is the story of the film; why it happens, is the theme.  And the theme here is the burden of responsibility; is how responsibility isn't the goal, but the obligation, the burden, that true starting point.  Bane is the mastermind behind everything that draws Bruce Wayne out of crime-fighting retirement, but behind Bane is the true mastermind, and she is as wealthy as Bruce Wayne, and just as strategic a planner.  There is a point, late in the film, where Batman and Selina Kyle (she is never called "Catwoman") make common cause around a computer program Kyle wants, and Wayne has.  The program will erase all mention of a person from all computers everywhere; the perfect "new life" Kyle desperately wants to buy.  Wayne, however, bought it first, realizing what a weapon it could be in the "wrong hands" (and proof Bruce Wayne has not been spending 8 years in solitary, collecting his fingernails and storing his urine in glass jars).  At that point in the story, if not earlier, you've come to realize Wayne has become a planner, not just a fighter; a thinker, not just an action figure.  Still, his only weapon against Bane is his fists; and that's not nearly enough.

The mastermind, though, behind the plans, is the daughter of Ras al Ghul.  She is not so interested in avenging her father's death, however, as in carrying out his plans for Gotham.  Why?  As much as anything, to prove herself worthy of her father's League of Shadows.  It seems she was the child born in a prison created by her grandfather.  Her mother was put there, pregnant, for marrying against her father's (the daughter's grandfather's) wishes.  She is the only one to escape the prison, and Bane is the former prisoner who protected her as she did so.  He acted from love, as al Guhl did when he married Talia's mother.  Talia's mother is punished for her irresponsibility (in her father's eyes).  Bane is punished for being responsible for Talia's escape, for saving her life.  When she returns, she becomes responsible for Bane, and they become responsible for each other.  This is one more version of love.  Ah, but again, responsibility is only the beginning; and in this beginning there are many sad endings.

It seems that, in her escape, Bane was severely beaten.  A doctor, also imprisoned there, takes on responsibility for treating the injured Bane.  He is a doctor, this is a patient; but a doctor is always responsible for the care he gives.  He can, of course, only do so much; it's a prison, not a modern hospital.  But excuses count for nothing, and good intentions do not erase responsibility for your actions (one of the more appalling truths one learns in law school, or if not there, in adulthood; if you are lucky.  To not learn it is to live with very dangerous illusions about yourself in the world.).  Bane is left in chronic and debilitating pain, something only relieved by the iconic mask he wears (this alone prove his Achilles Heel; only when Batman damages the mask is Bane weak enough to be defeated by force).  But the doctor who tried (did he mean well?  Did he not?  We don't know.) is returned by Bane to the prison long after Ras al Ghul has liberated it and emptied it.  By that time the prisoner has become Bane, and has proven, like his lover Talia (al Ghul's daughter) too dangerous even for the League of Shadows.  Cast out of her father's organization, Talia and her beloved are determined to prove themselves worthy of it.  Rather like Bruce Wayne, who will save Gotham because of his father's legacy, they will destroy it to prove themselves worthy heirs to Ras al Ghul's legacy.

The sins of the fathers aren't just visited on the children, they are embraced by them as a responsibility.  And responsibility is not ameliorated or exacerbated by intentions; we pay the price for them whatever might have been hidden in our hearts.  This the doctor knows, because when he tells Wayne the story of the child who escaped the prison, he lets Wayne think that child was Bane, not Talia.  He knows he is responsible for what Bane has become, as much as Bane has made the doctor responsible for Bane's chronic pain.    Yet ha also teaches Wayne a valuable lesson:  that the only way to live with responsibility, is to accept responsibility.

Wayne cannot escape the prison as Talia did, until he does it as Talia did.  The escape requires a dramatic leap to a ledge; if you don't make it, you die.  Prisoners who try to escape do so with a rope that catches them so they won't fall.  Only when Wayne tries without the rope, does he have a chance to succeed.  But Wayne insists he is not afraid of death; that, says the doctor, is the problem.  If you don't fear death, you don't care about life.  And as his escape makes obvious, if you don't care about life, you can't battle your way back to resurrection.

I don't mean to inject a Christian theme here.  I don't even want to characterize resurrection in this film as anything consonant with the Christian concept.  But Wayne is buried in an underground jail, with one exit:  to rise by climbing out, back to the world.  And he cannot do it by conquering his fear of death  (he's already dead, metaphorically).  He has to do it by yearning for life, for return to the world of the living.  He has to take responsibility for being alive.  It is the final true act of adulthood.

The story line, then, comes full circle.  Wayne saves Gotham from the bomb he built (and tried not to complete; another part of Talia's master plan), and he and Selina get to start their lives over (her with a cleaned computer slate, he with another death.  He is presumed dead for a period in "Batman Begins," and officially "buried" at the end of this film, only to be seen by Alfred precisely where Alfred expects him.  To explain that would really take a while, so if you've read this far, either see the movie, or you already know what I mean.).  Not only is the circle complete, but he hands off the cowl to Robin (no, seriously; again, you know what I mean, or you can find out).   The only true end of responsibility is to accept it:  Wayne leaves behind a will that takes care of Alfred, but also establishes a more permanent home for orphans.  His responsibilities to Gotham ended, he takes up new ones with Ms. Kyle.  That, finally, is another story.

Responsibility is our beginning, and our end, and we discharge it only in death.  The Greek tragic heroes lived with their responsibilities; Shakespeare's tragic heroes discharged it in death.  They took it on, but it ended with them because they did.  Bruce Wayne's father passed responsibility to his son, just as Talia took it from her dead father.  But where Ras al Ghul meant to purge Gotham and set it again on the "right path"  (much as many apologists for the economic crisis see it as part of the natural order, clearing out "dead wood" or "cleaning out the corrupt and lazy"), Talia and Bane seek only mindless destruction.  They think this makes them worthy of al Ghul's mantle, makes them truly responsible for what should be done.  Al Guhl would leave ruins that could be rebuilt; Bane and Talia would leave a radioactive wasteland.  They do it as a duty, as proof they can be "responsible," which for them means they can be relied on.

In "Batman Begins," the character of Rachel Dawes serves as a foil to Bruce Wayne; she highlights what responsibility does to individuals.  Rachel laments, by the end of the film, that Bruce is no longer the boy she grew up with.  But he stopped being that boy the moment his parents were murdered.  This only becomes obvious to her when Bruce is stopped from avenging his parents' death by killing the killer, when someone beats him to it.  When she throws Bruce out of her car in disgust, his journey to becoming Batman begins.  Does he do what he does in part to redeem himself in Rachel's eyes?  Yes.  But he hasn't recovered her by the end of the film, and by the end of "The Dark Knight," his choice of who to save is her doom.  Still, he thinks he had all but reclaimed his childhood, all but redeemed his losses since the night his parents were killed, until the third film, where Alfred tells him the truth.  And it's an interesting point in the story.

One of the subplots of "The Dark Knight Rises" is just how dark the Knight has been, and how many have shared in his darkness.  When Bane reveals that Harvey Dent was a psychotic killer driven mad by his injuries and the death of Rachel Dawes, he also reveals that Batman and James Gordon used a lie to impose order on Gotham, and to take prisoners until crime was under control.  This revelation disgusts even "Robin," a police officer who helps Gordon and Batman, and in the final scene, takes on the Batman mantle.  The other great lie of the story is more personal:  Alfred's decision to burn the note Rachel leaves with him (not knowing she will never return) telling Bruce her true love is Harvey Dent, not him.  For 8 years, in the third film, Bruce has lived thinking Rachel would have married him; but Alfred finally reveals the truth, and Bruce feels as betrayed as "Robin" does about Gordon.  It is a neat parallel, but an important one:  when you take on responsibility, you take on all the consequences of that responsibility, and your intentions, good or bad, don't really matter.  You are still responsible. Forgiveness for your decision is not automatic just because you accept the consequences of your decision.

This revelation leaves Bruce Wayne completely alone, and it's no coincidence that the next event in the film is his first encounter with Bane, and a defeat that leaves him literally a broken man in a prison from which there is virtually no escape.  Alfred tells the truth about Rachel trying to convince Bruce the city needs Bruce Wayne, not Batman.  In the end, it turns out Alfred is right, because even as Batman flies the time bomb away from the city on a suicide mission, he reveals to James Gordon who the man behind the mask is, in much the same way he revealed himself to Rachel.  Rachel needed Bruce then; the city needs Bruce now.  And in the end, it gets the Wayne legacy, which does the city as much good as Batman ever did (and is less likely to draw any more crazed criminals seeking chaos or destruction).  Wheels within wheels within wheels; or if your prefer, circles within circles.

Responsibility involves all the people we are, but it is also a condition costing not less than everything.

Bruce begins to realize this in "The Dark Knight," when copycats dressed as "Batman" interrupt his attempt to capture some criminals, and then one of them is captured by the Joker.  He is responsible for their actions just as he is responsible for the Joker coming to Gotham; but it is an entirely different responsibility than the one that led him to become Batman, or that cemented his estrangement from Rachel.  He's also responsible for that estrangement; yet another kind of responsibility.  And he is responsible, again, for Talia and Bane returning to Gotham, just as the Doctor is for leaving Bane so damaged yet not dead.  This is not why Wayne decides to oppose Bane; but in the end, it is why he must.  It is why he returns from the prison Bane has left him in, and struggles to the end to stay alive to stop them. That he is responsible for the bomb that holds the city hostage, is yet another kind of responsibility he bears. The point here is not to detail and define the different meanings we can attach to the word "responsibility;" just to point out they exist, that we are not dealing with a monolithic term.  Responsibility itself is a kaleidoscopic term:  it changes as you turn the tube, but it never goes away.

I mentioned earlier the trigger to that nuclear bomb, but didn't elaborate.  Bane announces to the stadium full of people stunned by the explosions which have just consumed the field, that the trigger for that bomb rests in the hand of someone in the crowd; and that if anyone tries to leave the island (all bridges but one destroyed, so it is effectively cut off), the bomb will be detonated.  Much is made of which citizen of Gotham has this trigger, and while Batman insists Bane would never trust it to anyone, the faith, the trust, that it is "out there" persists among almost all the other characters in the film.  It's an interesting point, since it is obvious Bane never would release that trigger, and that his statement was metaphorical, not literal; rather like saying the person held in criminal contempt of court "holds the keys to his cell."  The old phrase means he can release himself at any time, by clearing the contempt; it doesn't mean he goes into the cell with the keys in his pocket.  Bane, likewise, means that if anyone tries to leave the island, they will be responsible for the bomb going off.  They "hold the detonator."  So to speak.

But responsibility that great is too great; evil that profound is too profound; so the characters all act as if that switch were somewhere, with someone, rather than face the awful truth that Bane holds them all under a terrorist threat that makes you suspicious of everyone else you see.  Oddly, the only people who understand this fully are the police guarding the remaining bridge.  When "Robin" leads a bus of orphans to what should be safety across that bridge, the police take their responsibilities seriously, and destroy it; lest Bane destroy the city.  They do exactly what Bane has already done; they become his agents.  Such is the multifoliate problem of responsibility.  And what no one can believe, except a few after Batman returns, is that the bomb will explode anyway, that it is a time bomb, not just a detonator-activated bomb.  Again, accepting that kind of responsibility, responsibility for your own death because you are trapped with a suicide bomber, is more than any character in the film can countenance; even when they have to.

"Make one mistake, you pay for it the rest of your life."  That is the lesson Bruce Wayne learns, and he finally pays for that mistake with his life, a death which allows him a resurrection, another new start.  He took the boy who lost his parents and made the Batman of him. He finally kills the Batman so he can live as Bruce Wayne, again.  Not an opportunity many of us will have; but that isn't the point.  The point is to examine the question of what you are responsible for, and how far your responsibility extends, and how clearly you can see that, how calmly you can face it.  The point is to be a hero; and that doesn't involve fighting in an action movie.  It involves accepting your measure of responsibility, and accepting it for good and all, even to death.

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