Is “The Dark Knight Rises” a Western?

Well, of course. In fact, it’s a very specific western—a remake in a way of Clint Eastwood’s revisionist classic Unforgiven. It even has Morgan Freeman playing pretty much the same role. Even though he wears a bowtie rather than a cowboy hat, and is an inventor of weapons rather than an accomplished rifleman, he still plays the sidekick, partner, and best friend (and/or only friend left) to the film’s avenging hero.

As is the case with Clint Eastwood’s Bill Muny, Bruce Wayne has gone into early retirement. Several years removed from his killing days, Muny lives on a family farm, raises pigs and children, with the pigs giving him the most trouble. Several years removed from the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne shambles around his mansion, walking with the aid of cane. Both Muny and Wayne are the worse for the wear, age and rust taking the edge off their skills. In the earliest bit of action, Muny ends up getting kicked and beaten into unconsciousness by Little Bill. The same thing happens to Wayne, who thinks that his combat skills will enable him to take out the villainous Bane.

As Lee Clark Mitchell has pointed out, the beating scene, in which the hero is initially vanquished by his foe, is an important convention of the western, because the beating provides the prelude for the drama of the hero’s recovery. Only after he has been beaten to a pulp, suffered, and endured a slow and painful convalescence (usually with the aid of a Good Woman, although neither Unforgiven or The Dark Knight Rises follows that element of the convention to the letter) can we fully appreciate the hero’s show of will power that results in his dramatic recovery and eventual heroic return.

And my goodness does The Dark Knight Rises take this element of the western—the beating and recovery scenario—and run with it. Or, not really run with it, but slowly drag it out over the length of the middle third of the film. And I should mention two things here: 1) I didn’t love The Dark Knight Rises—it was well made, and I didn’t hate it, but I don’t think I will see it again. I found it overly long and ponderous. And parts of it annoyed me—but maybe that’s just superhero fatigue). 2) From this point on, spoilers follow. So if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now!

Beaten near to death by Bane, Wayne is secreted away in a hellish prison, where he is forced to watch telecasts of all the havoc Bane is visiting on Gotham. Ban has transformed Fox’s energy creation device into a nuclear bomb (and it’s too complicated and a bit too silly to go into how this took place, but see above about superhero fatigue—here we go again, another doomsday device). He also has to put up with whispered advice from two other prisoners (the first thing to go in prison, it seems, are the vocal cords) about how to heal himself and how to escape. Only one other prisoner has escaped—presumably Bane (but there’s a twist that I won’t go into). Part of the torture of the prison is the illusion of hope offered by an open dome, which allows the prisoners to glimpse the sunlight above. The other part of the torture is having to listen to the enigmatic wisdom of other prisoners (or maybe that was just torture to me). Anyone who climbs the inside of the dome and makes it to the opening is free. We see several scenes of failures, and, one of the disappointments of the movie is that it took me about two seconds to figure out the secret of getting out. All the prisoners have a rope tied to them, presumably to catch them when they fall (although it primarily serves to pendulum them into the side of the wall). Take off the damn rope! I kept wanting to scream at Bruce Wayne. After about an hour of film time, he finally takes off the rope, and what do you know, he makes the final leap to freedom.

And now it’s time for him to go after Little Bill. Or Bane. Or whoever it is that has the button that will trigger the nuclear device and destroy Gotham.

The Dark Knight Rises is also reminiscent of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, or, as DKR might be retitled, The Man Who Didn’t Kill Harvey Dent The Way Every One Thinks He Did. In the previous film The Dark Knight, Harry Dent and Bruce Wayne played out the Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne roles from the classic western. Harry Dent, the politician and lawyer figure, achieved posthumous fame for getting rid of the Joker and saving the day. Like John Wayne, the ‘Bat Man” was the actual hero of the day, but not only does he not receive credit for that heroism, he’s blamed for killing Dent. Like his partial namesake, Bruce Wayne disappears into seclusion. After the Stewart character reveals the truth about what happened, the film ends with the famous lines, “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” and the true story is left out of the newspaper (although not unrevealed, as anyone who has seen the film has just watched the facts unfold).

The Dark Knight Rises similarly wants to have it both ways, but it does so in a much clunkier fashion. The ambivalence about western (or superhero) legends, the revisionist elements of both Unforgiven and Liberty Valence, the self-conscious commentary on the genre itself that we see in those two western films, DKR seems to want to do something similar, but I didn’t think it worked very well. The Dark Knight, the second in director Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman films, did a much better job of registering the cultural ambivalence of the moment, capturing the uncertainties of the war on terror. How far should we go to protect ourselves from a madman bent on destruction? Is it okay to tell a lie in service of a greater good? DKR seemed to pull away from addressing that dilemma other than to give it lip service every now and then.

The political point of view of The Dark Knight Rises has already taken up a lot of space on the internet. As Russ Douthat observes in “The Politics of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,” “after watching the final movie’s faux-revolutionary villain appropriate the themes and exploit the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement in order to launch a 21st century Reign of Terror, I don’t really think the saga’s rightward political tilt can be denied.” That both the western and the superhero genre in general have  traditionally suggested a “rightward political tilt” is not exactly news, either, although the western, as a genre, seems to have developed an ability for political ambivalence and ambiguity that superhero films perhaps have not. However, as Douthat also notes (and his article provides a good overview of various political interpretations of the film), both leftward and rightward leaning takes on DKR have misinterpreted and overstated the case. Nonetheless, while watching The Dark Knight Rises‘ baseball cap- and hoody-wearing “thugs” run amok over Gotham, I kept thinking of all the peaceful Occupy protestors in the real world—and of the infamous moment where a passive and peaceful seated protester was pepper-sprayed by security.  That version of the Occupy movement doesn’t make it into DKR.

As is often the case with westerns, pseudo-westerns, quasi-westerns, or whatever we want to call DKR, I found myself thinking of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and of the advice Tuco offers his would-be killer, “When you have to shoot, shoot—don’t talk.”  To put this in superhero terms, “When you have to push the button that ignites that doomsday device that will bring your villainous plans to fruition, push the button that ignites that doomsday device that will bring your villainous plans to fruition–don’t talk.”  And, yes, the Villain, with the Bat Man on the ropes, pauses for a long conversation, supplying both exposition and motive (there’s way too much explanation of both in the dialogue of this movie), and, of course, gives the good guys time enough to implant a device on the bomb that blocks its detonation. Granted, the bomb is going to blow up anyway, button or no button. “You only bought yourself ten minutes,” the Villain tells Bruce Wayne, but ten minutes is as good as ten hours in superhero time.

The best part of the film is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (the alterego of Cat Woman), who is a pleasure to watch every moment she is on screen. Unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, she isn’t burdened by the necessity to enact Heroic Masculinity, to Suffer like a Man Must Suffer in Order to Be a Hero. As a result, she brings the only note of fun and enjoyment in this otherwise ponderously serious adventure. And she doesn’t have to perspire as profusely as Wayne—the visual signifier of the Great Agony of his Manly Struggle. So, she looks fresher, and she has a twinkle in her eye, and an acerbic wit to her commentary. In Selina Kyle, the film had a potential hero for the 99%, if it had chosen to go in that direction, light on her feet, athletic, acrobatic, and daring.

One final note on the western elements of The Dark Knight Rises. At the end of the film, the Bat Man even rides off into the sunset—albeit, a sunset of his own creation. The soon-to-explode nuclear device is towed out to sea and away from Gotham, and the direction is east rather than west, but the explosion is as much sunset as sunrise, artificial and manmade though it might be, and it signals what the sunset often means in the western—the cowboy hero is moving on, leaving behind the town he has just protected but knows he will never really be able to fully join.


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