Warner Bros.

Reality Bites; Film Should, Too

A scene from Warner Bros.’ “Gangster Squad,” which will be removed from the final cut due to its likeness to the July shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

We fear bullets. We fear emptiness. We fear life. We fear death.

But in an age of overwrought political correctness, astronomically ridiculous all-inclusivity, and children who get medals simply for “participating” in a little league game, our biggest fear seems to be insensitivity.

A month ago in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman entered a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his three-part social parable also known as a Batman trilogy. He opened fire, killing twelve people. That’s a reality.

The fiction of the films, however, are so much more than an glorification of violence. Nolan speaks to us on readily understandable levels of cinematic comprehension, albeit begging, in his own right, for small scale social revolution filtered through a pair of black tights and a pointy-eared mask.

The media began a connection between the film and the shootings, often calling the incident the “Batman Movie Massacre” or “The Dark Knight Tragedy;” headlines seeking to link a very tangible act of terror with the impressionistic experience of going to the movies.

In the weeks prior to the shooting, Warner Bros. Pictures was running ads for its period film, Gangster Squad, as it was set to be released in late September of this year. The film boasts an impressive cast including Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and Sean Penn. From the looks of the trailer, it’s a beautifully shot film with impressive sets, costumes, and explosive action. Near the end of the trailer, we see a few armed men enter a movie theater from behind the screen, tearing through it and opening fire on the audience. At no point during the trailer (the first time I saw it was prior to the Aurora shootings in a packed theater) did anyone seem to show any sort of concern for the victims of the onscreen shooting. Nor did they seem alarmed when the trailer ended without the perpetrators being apprehended for killing anyone in that theater. The film is fiction, and the audience accepts that.

Following the Aurora shooting the ad was pulled. The film was placed into “release limbo,” and reshoots were deemed necessary out of respect for the victims of the Aurora shooting. The scene (which was gorgeous, at least from what I could gather from the trailer) is cut from the film, replaced with something completely different (hey, Monty Python) when the film sees release in early 2013.

Not only are the film’s Oscar chances severely dashed (early year and mid-year releases hardly ever see a nomination), but an entire artistic endeavor was compromised for nothing. Are we to the point in our society that we can no longer accept fiction for being fiction, and must begin distorting fiction to make us feel better about our reality? Although Fox News viewers would have you believe otherwise, the majority of the American public is smart enough to understand the difference between a news report and a scene staged for a film. A reshoot will not bring back the victims of the Aurora shooting, nor will it make the memory of the shooting any less impactful.

Life and death happen. If anything, movies are the first ones to tell us that. If cinema didn’t contain death, it would be entirely too difficult to suspend our disbelief. We engage with films because of their likeness to our reality. A world without death is a world not grounded in reality and difficult to accept. Bullets kill people. Sometimes in a movie theater. That’s part of life. It happened. And to compromise a film’s plot and an artist’s vision simpy because it coincides with our “reality” at any given moment does not, in fact, erase our reality.

Perhaps HBO Films should have shelved the release of 2001’s Wit ,a brilliant drama revolving around one woman’s battle with cancer, because countless millions are infected with the disease worldwide. Perhaps we would have forgotten about World War II if Saving Private Ryan never saw the light of day. Perhaps your 90-year old grandmother with Alzheimers will remember who you are if you don’t watch Away From Her. Ignoring reality in cinema is propaganda. And, in this case, an insult to the victims in Aurora.

But maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually remember to go see Gangster Squad now because Warner Bros. has successfully associated it with the tragedy, sending news outlets clamoring to the sets of reshoots to inform you that you’re being compromised.

And the day we start compromising escapist fantasy, ladies and gentleman, is the day we truly die.

Coming Full Circle; “The Dark Knight Rises” Runs Rings around the Superhero Genre

Eternity; the pang of our unyielding hunger for more Batman goodness has endured for what seems like one. An insatiable need for the raw, the real, and the nitty gritty from the underbelly of the often overly commercialized “superhero” action subgenre birthed itself after our exposure to the cinematic tools (rising above mere goodie-slams-baddie-with-amazing-CGI gimmicks) contemporary auteur Christopher Nolan brought to the table in 2005’s Batman Begins. It was a reboot of an aging film franchise no one dared rouse from its defeated slumber since Joel Schumacher’s 1997 disastrous Batman & Robin, a rebirth which not only taunted the sleeping giant but forcibly prodded its awakening with brute force and cinematic mastery.

The release of Begins’ sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight, saw Nolan exacting a razor sharp precision and understanding of the essence of his iconic subject; the aura of darkness which surrounded the mythos of the Batman universe oozed from every corner of the film, fully deconstructing our ideas of what a “superhero movie” should be. With these two films, Nolan became the “fantasy” killer; a harbinger of a new breed of “superhero movie” that wasn’t a “superhero” movie at all.

And so, we come full circle. Seven years; the amount of time its taken The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, to see the light of day. Seven years well-spent, building to a momentous finale that’s as viscerally pleasing as Batman Begins yet lacking the lyrical, sinister darkness that made Rise‘s direct predecessor the crowning jewel of the entire franchise, Nolan or non.

In Gotham City, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent (a political figurehead and defender of Gotham) is dead, the crime rate is down, and the city’s sole beacon of hope hobbles around its decrepit mansion like an old man after one too many whiskey sours. This is a mere shell of a man, limping and struggling to regain composure after one scene sees a woman half his frame and a quarter of his build literally knock him off his feet; this isn’t the man who went toe-to-toe with the Joker but a single film ago—that’s the point exactly—this is Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the “human” behind the mask, fading away in the shadows of Batman, a face Mr. Wayne can no longer wear thanks to the murderous accusations which taint it. Gotham no longer needs a hero, for Harvey Dent lives on in post-death legislation and honorary holidays immortalizing his protective legacy…or so they thought.

And alas, the image of security can only sustain for so long; Gotham needs Batman once again after a devious plot to destroy Gotham comes via Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious brute originating from the Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson, who makes a brief cameo here) school of villainy, hell-bent on carrying out his forefather in crime’s wishes of scraping scum like Gotham City from the bottom of earth’s boot. Bane’s plot involves shutting Gotham off from the rest of the world, making routes into and out of the city impassable via some impressive explosion sequences, staging a jailbreak of Gotham’s most vicious criminals, and instigating an all-out overthrow of the bourgeois world people like Bruce Wayne inhabit. After a few weeks of the underdogs rising against “the man,” a nuclear weapon will detonate, destroying everything within a six mile radius.

The initial “attacks” range from visually stunning (an airplane sequence which opens the film) to socially commentative (an attack on the stock exchange) to a combination of the two (a football stadium is eviscerated), culminating in a grim tone that, in true Nolan fashion, forces the audience to examine their own commercially conditioned morals, seeing as bourgeois societal control is an equal partner in crime here.

Bane’s villainous intentions share similarities, in many ways, to those of Heath Ledger’s now-infamous Joker in The Dark Knight. Anarchy is key for both men; at the very least it’s stripping power from those who have been deemed worthy only by a public system of urban politics and blind submission of Gothamites, citizens who have been taught to fear Batman because he supposedly killed Harvey Dent, but willingly indulge in the monetary splendors Bruce Wayne pumps into the city. Once Bane shows up, however, they’re more than willing to embrace the former. The point being; power (through fear or through money) rules Gotham, and once fear trumps money and renders it useless, well, what else is left to do other than submit? And it’s here that we truly start to miss the antics of the Joker. Where the Joker played upon the morals of his victims, Bane is a mere brute wall (literally and figuratively) of villainous flesh, a chunk of evil who’s too bulky and cold to inspire empathy yet too fantastical to take entirely serious. Bane is a force where the Joker was a presence, and in that transition of evil we lose a sense of depth (and a key character with whom we could have identified with) along the way.

The Joker, in essence, is the sort of villain birthed from the societal confines of depravity, going after the elite social order that it was, at times, hard not to will the destruction of in The Dark Knight. Part of his appeal (and the film’s appeal, for that matter) was the ease with which we could understand (not necessarily “agree with”) his intentions. Attempting to fill that void in The Dark Knight Rises is an outcast in the form of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), also born into the lower echelon of Gotham’s class structure, who’s made a career of stealing from the rich and willing the demise of the bourgeoisie; her ideas of overthrowing Gotham’s first-class citizens are realized, albeit not by her own hands. Willing something to happen means nothing if action isn’t taken, and she straddles a fine line between “light” and “dark” that only a wishy-washy, pseudo-villain-with-heapings-of-charm could. While Hathaway is the best “performer” of the actors in the film, her character’s presence is unjustified and, to be honest, entirely unnecessary except to balance the unmotivated “necessity” for Bruce to find love where the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight left a void. It’s difficult not to compare Hathaway’s Catwoman to that of Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, if only to place into perspective the former’s frivolous presence. Hathaway is playfully sassy and Pfeiffer was darkly sinister, the latter a consummated affair where former is but a mere striptease.

In fact, it’s the film’s superfluous elements which ultimately detach The Dark Knight Rises from any level of supreme greatness it could have achieved. The screenplay is bloated with far too many characters, events, subplots, and other excess fat which could have been easily trimmed to narrow the focus. But, I get it; the scope of the Batman universe has never been about downplaying anything, and the task of wrapping up one of the most inventive reboots in cinematic history is no easy task. The strength of the film lies within its ability to simply remain faithful to the tone and scope of Nolan’s initial blueprint in Batman Begins; whereas the evils of The Dark Knight were much more disturbing, complex, and brimming with the passion of indulging within its own sinister mythos, The Dark Knight Rises feels cold and calculated, thrilling on the surface but, thankfully, twisted and morally ambiguous in its own right. It is, at times, difficult to choose a moral “side” of the battle, primarily because the power of Nolan’s Batman saga as a whole has always been the ability to present the material slightly ambiguously; yes, we think killing is “wrong” and there is a clear distinction between “hero” and “villain,” but who can’t feel inclined, at least in part, to side with someone like the Joker, morally corrupt but with intent to destroy an equally corrupt system of bourgeois politics and societal oppression?

Perhaps I’m getting too philosophical for my own good. The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.