Friday, August 17, 2012

Scorched Earth Villains: The Dark Knight Rises

Last week, I confessed that those sinners who seek redemption are my favorites. They interest me, perhaps because my personal weltanschauung defines men and women as imperfections striving for perfection. Literature and film featuring such men and women mirror life as I know it.

For this reason, the latest Christopher Nolan brand of Batman, The Dark Knight Rises, disappoints. The villains are just too villainous. They belong to the Scorched Earth school of villains, the Osama bin Ladens, Idi Amin Dadas, and Adolph Hitlers, and although those appear throughout history, they are quite rare.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the character Miranda, also known as Talia, at first seems to possess a social conscience, but later we learn that she is a sociopath, and Bane, Miranda’s hired thug, is merely brutish, a throwback, his development arrested by disfigurement and pain. He seeks salvation in a fallen god, Miranda, apparently because she feels empathy for him and only him among all other living creatures.

Poor Batman was the instrument that killed Miranda’s biological father, the twisted guru and founder of the League of Shadows, where Bruce Wayne trained. The League’s avowed purpose is to sharpen the human weapon, giving it strength and skill to beat the strongest enemies in hand to hand combat. They also perfect the fine art of stealth.

But once a man becomes a killing machine, he may lose his way, at least under Ra’s Al Ghul’s leadership. A man begins to believes he can and should glean the guilty from the innocent with most people falling into the Guilty camp and everyone else merely collateral damage. Ra’s style is remorseless, and Batman refuses to do his bidding. In fact, Batman becomes Al Ghul’s enemy; consequently, Miranda blames Batman for her father’s death.

With the help of Bane, Miranda masterminds a plot to reduce Bruce Wayne to his most basic fear, not the bats that he faced and overcame, but his own suffering and death. She also plans to destroy Batman’s beloved city, Gotham, all undertaken to exact revenge upon the home of the man who destroyed her father.

Never mind any moral compasses. Miranda and Bane lack them. They foster, then facilitate anarchy and mob justice like that seen during the French Revolution when, according to Carlyle’s account, blood literally ran in the gutters. Men more than women, rounded up from Wall Street offices and drug from fine, palatial homes, are guilty by reason of location and must choose one of two punishments: death by hanging or death by drowning in frigid waters while trying to traverse its frozen surface, calling to mind Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice:”

. . . I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice

Most, of course, choose exile and a walk upon the ice, a somewhat crueler fate, one most laced with hate, because the condemned begin with the faintest hope that he may find the thick ice and escape. No one does, of course, except Commissioner Gordon. Someone must be left behind to restore Gotham, and it must be someone who represents law and order while embracing the occasional need for vigilantes with hearts of gold.

Miranda and Bane also will literally scorch Gotham’s earth after turning nuclear power from good to devastation, letting anarchy run until the clock runs out on the nuclear restraints. Then women, men, and children, especially orphaned boys, whom Bruce, Blake, Selina, and Fox have worked to save, will die in the searing, sickening blast, trapped in their own prison, an island cut off from escape to the mainland.

Miranda and Bane do not survive, of course. The Dark Knight Rises, like many other serial blockbusters, tries to bring the world right again by killing the soulless, demented killers. And the movie tries to give us a small point of bright light in Batman’s escape from the hell hole into which he was dropped, broken and battered, afraid and alone. There his suffering inspires sympathy from fellow sufferers who tend to Wayne’s injured body and mind. Their brotherhood allows Wayne to cast off his rope of dependency once again to rise from the depths contrived by man’s depravity and sally forth to carry away the last trace of Miranda’s madness. He flies the nuclear device over the sea where it detonates with nary a thought or subsequent headline to the eco-impact or collateral damage to dolphins, sharks and whales. After all, Gotham and all that humanity have been saved once more by the Bat.

Selina undergoes a transformation from sassy opportunist with no allegiance other than her own well-being to Batman’s sidekick and love. She redeems her sins and crimes by risking everything to save those sometimes sordid citizens of Gotham. Best of all, she saves the Bat when Bane, for a second time, beats him low. Selina eschews the high moral ground and brings a firearm to every fight; she used one to shoot Bane just when Bruce is out of options.

Selina is the only smarmy character who enjoys such a transformation. She is one of two who match my criterion: a flawed character who creates her own salvation in good works. Batman is the other. He’s sometimes cocky, sometimes frightened. He takes for granted his wealth and fails to meet the needs of orphaned boys whom he’s pledged to support. He fights and falls back, sometimes so long and so far behind the lines that people suffer more than anyone should, but in the end, he rises toward his own redemption, away from despair and duplicity. One wonders if he will succeed though.

Can he possibly save himself? Well, only if you believe that people can change when given the right soil in which to flourish. I’d like to believe. I really would. But sometimes books and films make such belief impossible. Batman, as least as Christopher Nolan imagines him, dwells in a broken world. Batman merely restores it to a delicate balance between noble and ignoble, but how many days will elapse before Dystopia returns? Few if we believe in Hollywood where Scorched Earth villains are common fare.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” one or more of the following films:

·      The Karate Kid (1984)
·      One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
·      No Country for Old Men (2007)
·      Michael Clayton (2007)
·      Flash of Genius (2008)
·      Erin Brockovich (2000)
·      Spiderman (2002)

As you watch each of these, search for the villain without any moral compass whatsoever, the one who allows innocence and innocents to die as they pursue their selfish ends, the one who has no awakening and no second-thoughts or apparent doubts about the path upon which he walks.

If you prefer to read books instead of film, then search for two books that inspired two of the films above. I recommend Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Writing Challenge:

Make an argument for unease and/or sorrow resulting from works wherein a Scorched Earth villain dominates. Does such a villain make the closing tone of the movie or novel heavier, weighted more with death than life?

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Once upon a time, movie titles earned quotation marks to signify them in text, but the movie industry has grown exponentially and grown up. Films now stand alone, not as entertainment sidebars, but as works existing to inform and entertain. In fact, films stand as equals beside novels, plays, non-fiction books, a series for television, an album or CD. All of these deserve italics or underlining.

Parts of these wholes, including chapters in novels, acts or scenes with their own titles in plays, one program in a TV series, or a song from a CD earns quotation marks.

For example:

·      Unless by Carol Shields (novel)
·      “Notwithstanding,” Unless by Carol Shields (chapter in the novel)
·      All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (non-fiction book)
·      “The Wizard of Fed,” All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (one chapter in the book)
·      Breaking Bad on AMC (TV series)
·      “Dead Freight,” Breaking Bad on AMC (recent episode in the series)
·      Abbey Road, The Beatles (CD)
·      “Come Together,” Abbey Road, The Beatles (one song recorded for the CD)