Amping the Ante

The other evening, I finally went to see the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. The punch line (and never was the term “punch” more appropriate) is that I have to give it a definite thumbs down. It is, without question, my least favorite Christopher Nolan movie, and that’s saying something, because (unlike some), I quite like Nolan’s work.

I’m a life-long comics fan and a life-long fan of the Batman. I’ve known the worlds of DC and Marvel for over 40 years. For me, Superman has a slight edge, but the Batman has always been a close second. Those two comprise a full quarter to one-third of my comics and gnovels (graphic novels) collection. Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight Returns is one of two seminal works I hold in the highest esteem. (The other, of course, is Alan Moore‘s Watchmen.)

And, as I mentioned, I’m a fan of Nolan’s work, and I liked both his first two Batman movies. I fully expected to like his latest.

But I didn’t.

I was fine until about halfway through when I realized two things:

1) There sure are an awful lot of people being killed for my “entertainment.” 2) Is it just me, or is the plot mind-numbingly stupid?

Those two realizations rather put a dampener on things.

Oh, sure, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman) was a creditable entry in the list of Catwomen, although I’m afraid she’s only third following Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry. The movies those two appeared in weren’t much to speak of, but I mean, come on, we’re talking Michelle and Halle here (if you asked me to name the 25 most beautiful women in the world, both would be on my list)!

[While we’re on the subject of Batman Returns, portraying the dapper and elegant Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin) as a disgusting, filthy, stinking, almost actual penguin (have you ever actually smelled penguins? yikes!) was almost as stupid as casting Arnold as Mr. Freeze (worst Batman movie ever).]

And I also liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt as (Robin) John Blake. It’s been fun to watch his career since the days of Tommy on 3rd Rock From the Sun (one of the better comedies television has brought us). One wonders if, contrary to Batman canon, sparks will fly between Selina and the new Robin. Women: if you had to choose between Bane’s Batman and Gordon-Levitt…?

But those were scant high points in an otherwise very disappointing end to Nolan’s Batman cycle. Computer-generated special effects have come of age and no longer have any ability to carry a movie for me. They no longer impress me or even interest me very much. I need a good story and good characters.

And The Dark Knight Rises just doesn’t have a very good story, nor are its villains very interesting. The story basically is that insane people want to blow up Gotham City. Batman stops them. (Sorry for the spoiler.)

Heath Ledger’s Joker was at least very interesting as a performance, even if the character was too over the top for any real character development. Tom Hardy‘s Bane was, at best, mildly interesting to me (more for seeing acting through a mask than anything else).

But insane villains ultimately aren’t that interesting. It’s like having an earthquake or tornado for a villain (which, of course, has been done). A force of nature is a threat to be fought or endured, but it’s just there… a thing with no real character. Not very engaging, is what I’m saying; not very interesting.

And if that was the extent of things, I’d probably have enjoyed the movie. It wouldn’t have ranked very high in my esteem, but very few comic book movies do, especially the superhero comic book movies. They come, they go; they’re a bit like junk food. Tasty, non-nutritious, quickly forgotten.

A lot of what would be stupid or silly in a normal movie gets something of a pass in a comic book movie, because comics are lurid and melodramatic and silly and sometimes stupid if you really think about them. So are the movies based on them.

The Bane character goes back to a Batman comic novel, Knightfall, from 1993.

It’s the idea of casually killing lots of people, innocent bystander people, non-combatants, that’s begun to get to me. It’s the constant upping of the ante of shock and violence that’s begun to get to me.

Our world has become over-amped and casually violent. Just spend some time reading what people say on the interweb; we rarely seem to treat each other with respect or gentleness, particularly when we hide behind the anonymity of our pseudonyms.

I recently wrote (ranted, actually) about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and it was during the big battle for Gondor that I began to feel vaguely uncomfortable at all the death in the name of entertainment.

Odd, perhaps, to care about CGI characters dying; they’re nothing more than pixels, really, but the point of a story is that you suspend your belief and accept the reality.

And, yes, the battle is in the book, we can’t blame the movie for that, but here’s the thing: books are at one end of a storytelling continuum that describes the amount of reality versus imagination required by the audience. Movies are on the opposite end. Books describe, and you imagine. Movies show you specific and increasingly realistic images. Humans are hugely visually based, and images have a very strong impact.

In part one of Knightfall, Broken Bat, Bane defeats and nearly kills the Batman.

What’s happened in movies and television is that we’ve constantly upped the ante. Directors attempt to shock us with violence, often in the service of making a legitimate point.

We come to accept and become used to that visual language, so the next time it takes even more to reach the shock level. When you look back, it’s astonishing how far we’ve come.

Or perhaps I mean how far we’ve sunk.

I used to believe that violence in film and television (and now in many video games) was not a problem. They certainly weren’t a problem for me or for anyone I knew.

But it’s hard to ignore the amped up nature of society now. It’s hard to ignore the sheer casually violent attitudes we often have towards each other.

As always, I suspect the solution involves a form of education or broadening of input. The reason violent media is not a problem for me and people I know is that it is a small portion of our diet. We eat the nutritious food enough that occasional forays into junk food are harmless — even enjoyable. But we all know what can happen if junk food comprises your entire diet.

This has gotten long. As a concession to the tl;dr crowd (oh, ye of the short attention spans), I’ll end this here,… but I shall return to it anon!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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