Batman and the way we fear now: Ross Douthut
Both stories feature a team of superheroes battling an overwhelming menace attacking Gotham/New York, with the usual betrayal, trickery, and power struggles, and (without giving it away) almost exactly the same plot twist at the finale.
But the evil in director Christopher Nolan's pic comes from below, with menace, treachery, and a political appeal to the 99%. It's a fantasy in political claustrophobia, dark, menacing, and cruel, with little or none of the irony of The Avengers. The tone could hardly be more different, for better or worse.
And the villain's plan, as Ross Douthut points out, makes no real sense in a material, carnal, or spiritual way. Bane is a suicide bomber determined to destroy the city, but he has no plans to escape, and clearly intends to destroy himself and his minions in the end, to become part of his annihiliaton.
Alfred Hitchcock liked to point out that the stronger the villain, the stronger the picture. In terms of both psychological depth and opportunities to act, this half-machine named Bane cannot compare to the gleeful nihilism of The Joker, perhaps the greatest of all supervillains.
So maybe this is a crummy picture. Certainly doesn't make much sense as a plot.
But Douthut makes an indelible point about the portrayal of Bane, which has little or nothing to do with plot, and much to do with the sheer excessiveness of its evil:
Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer, from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan's take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.
Indeed, even when there is some sort of ideological cause involved in these irruptions of evil — as there was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course in 9/11 itself — the main objective often seems to be destruction for destruction's sake. Calling Osama bin Laden's terrorism "Islamist" or Timothy McVeigh's terrorism "right wing" is accurate, so far as it goes. But the impulse that brought down the twin towers or blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building feels more anti-civilizational than political — and thus closer to the motives of a group like the League of Shadows, the secret society that seeks Gotham's destruction throughout Nolan's Batman trilogy, than to the enemies America confronted in the past.
Nolan's films are effective dramatizations of the Way We Fear Now. Their villains are inscrutable, protean, appearing from nowhere to terrorize, seeking no higher end than chaos, no higher thrill than fear.
So maybe this is a great picture. Both critics and audiences seem to think so, and the horrific massacre in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater perversely attests to the film's visionary qualities.
Still, after two looks, I think it struggles to compare to Batman 2 and Heath Ledger's Joker, but does do a fabulous, fun, and subtle job of introducing us to Robin and Catwoman.
Catwoman has the best line in the picture.
"There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," she says. "You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."
And here's Anne: