“Who Are You Pretending To Be?” John Blake and The Dark Knight Rises

ImageMy favorite character in The Dark Knight Rises was John Blake, the police officer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. At almost every stage of his young life, Blake has been let down by institutions supposedly designed to serve, protect, and provide for Gotham City’s downtrodden and impoverished. He’s almost a cartoonish embodiment of many of the institutional critiques present across all five seasons of The Wire (What if one of the boys at the center of season 4 grew up to become McNulty?), only he’s got the good fortune of inhabiting a heroic narrative with a happy ending.

The orphanage Blake was raised in lacks the public funds and the private support it needs to care for its current crop of boys, some of whom leave its confines and wind up dead on the street. He is considered a nuisance and a “hothead” by his superiors in the Gotham City Police Department (“What the fuck did I do?”), and until he catches the eye of Commissioner Gordon he seems destined to remain a beat cop. But even after he gets a direct line to the man in charge and free reign to do things his way, Blake eventually finds himself disappointed by Gordon’s role in the making of Harvey Dent into a martyr: while the audience might sympathize with Gordon’s concession to the realities that mar idealism, Blake isn’t buying it. He sticks around to help Gotham in its time of crisis, but once the city is safe he throws his police badge into the sea.

You know what happens next. Kind of. One of the things I liked so much about Christopher Nolan’s closer was the way the film used Blake to reveal the particular contours and critique the trilogy’s particular take on the Caped Crusader. Buried under all that ranting and posturing, Harry Knowles has a point: most fans don’t imagine a Batman who’d hang up his cape and cowl because a woman he loved was killed as a direct result of his actions. On the other hand, I’d probably have a bigger problem with the third film if Nolan didn’t follow through with the implications of the final third of The Dark Knight. He also complicates the idea that Batman’s forced exile at the end of The Dark Knight was a noble deed done on behalf of the needs of his city: Rachel Dawes was more than just a casualty of the war fought for the soul of Gotham, more than another interchangeable damsel in distress. But his decision to remain in a perpetual state of mourning and inaction also mean that Batman is on the sidelines, failing to prevent the various plots set in motion by the League of Shadows and, more locally, drying up the public works initiatives of the Wayne Foundation.

I think it can be easy to forget that the Batman in the Nolan films isn’t the hyper-competent, flawless and determined figure of Grant Morrison’s stories, or the dogged soldier seen in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Or maybe the comic book fans in the audience can’t help but recall these preferred versions of the character. Nolan’s Batman believes that he has more value as a symbol than he necessarily does on the streets every night. We’re not dealing with a seasoned veteran of daily combat. I think this interpretation of the character is a nice way of acknowledging both the limitations of Nolan’s world-building enterprise (he’s lucky that he had three long films to tell his Batman story), and the director’s own stakes in using his talents to make three movies about a guy running around in his underwear.

Blake seems to have the potential to become the hyper-vigilant, fully-committed force of nature that many Bat-fans know and love. His commitment to his own idealized image of Batman – which is an image distinct from Bruce Wayne, as we sense in his interactions with Wayne earlier in the film – almost borders on mania, to the extent that he is scrawling tiny bats in chalk throughout the city by force of habit. The Blake Batman (while I know that we get the cute reveal about his real name being “Robin,” it seems like Blake is determined to inhabit the primary role of Protector of Gotham, regardless of whether or not he dons the same mask) points toward a more progressive figure, one who may not even have access to the same breadth of monetary resources that have come to define Batman for many people. He might be flawed for different reasons: the flashes of anger might hint at a Jason Todd-like figure, or, given the “Knightfall” echoes in The Dark Knight Rises, a Jean-Paul Valley.

But this is all speculation, and I love that Nolan ends the film with Blake rising to the mantle without outlining the look of its new form (part of me was wondering if Blake in Bat-costume was going to materialize in the movie’s final scenes). While the serial-loving Bat-fan in me would love to see a follow-up (or even a follow-up trilogy) with Gordon-Levitt in the title role (I’d even want a new director, to further distinguish Blake from his predecessor; though Nolan can certainly come back for his version of The Dark Knight Returns, an interpretation I don’t see much of in The Dark Knight Rises aside from the emphasis on Wayne’s scarred body), I was left satisfied with the potential hinted at in the film’s conclusion.

In short, Blake is the heart of The Dark Knight Rises for this particular viewer. I don’t know, maybe the frustrated and disillusioned graduate student in me was in need of some fantasy and wish fulfillment (a mad vision of myself throwing my Ph.D off The Tobin Bridge the night I finally complete my studies!).

A few other quick notes:

-I don’t get to the same conclusions about the images of the police and Bane’s militia as this post, and I wonder how much of Nolan’s research into the Occupy movement’s visual language made it into this film. It’s there if you want to see it, but I think Nolan was careful not to create an image of “the rabble” as a crowd of dimwits. One of the first scenes in the wake of Batman’s victory is of various residents emerging from their homes in relief: it’s not like the entire city was camped out with Catwoman or hanging out at The Scarecrow’s courthouse. Additionally, one could argue that the “police” in the battle with Bane’s forces aren’t technically police officers, given their lack of institutional authority in the city. This is a quibble; I wouldn’t take this line of thought too far, but seriously, what makes a police officer? And what’s the difference between a martyr and a man in uniform? Heck, you could compare the false martyr of Harvey Dent to the sea of dead officers at the end of the militia’s initially-successful routing of this defense. Or you could throw the whole thing at the film’s apparent interest in the limits of martyrdom: it’s better to be a martyr who can walk away from his crucifixion than nothing but a name on a statue.

And the Bane / Occupy connection seems tenuous at best. In fact, such a reading might be as much generated by romanticized notions of the Occupy movement’s transgressiveness / flirtations with violent revolt as it is motivated by perceived outrage at the co-opting of its imagery. I haven’t sat down and compared Bane’s rhetoric to Occupy rhetoric, so there may be convincing parallels. Generally speaking, I found the Exiled piece to insist a little too strongly on literal / singular interpretations of various elements of the film: for example, I’m pretty sure Nolan isn’t necessarily eliding the League of Shadows neatly with the renewable resource set. It’s almost like some of this stuff might be more layered (and, god forbid, playful) and intentionally contradictory than, say, the foundations of a well-reasoned treatise on the state of American culture might be in a different genre. On the other hand, the revision of A Tale of Two Cities in The Dark Knight Rises is definitely worth hashing out some more, and that rant raises some interesting places to start looking. And the search for nuance should also acknowledge the “nuanced” nature (or lack thereof) of most Hollywood superhero fare. That being said, I think the film’s political matter is intentionally muddled and its conclusions harder to parse than some people do. I wasn’t convinced that the film was subscribing to the need for more strong, white men running things the way things should be run (oh god, imagine Aaron Sorkin’s Batman?!). But as I’ve said probably a bunch of times, if not implied in my other pieces for this site (see my Prometheus review, for instance), I’m a fairly generous reader by default, and sometimes to a fault.

-That Harry Knowles piece really is absurd, gross, and everything terrible about self-appointed defenders of a fictional character’s “true” nature. Can’t the Cowl contain multitudes, son?

-Is Bane’s racial identity meant to be ambiguous? People seem to read him as “white” or “Middle Eastern.” In any case, what are people saying about race and these films? Have there been many discussions? Is race a blind spot for Nolan / the trilogy? Is Tom Hardy amazing? This list of his inspirational touchstones for Bane over at Wikipedia is almost too good to be true?

-I enjoyed Chris Sims’ capsule review over at Comics Alliance. I should have just told you to go look at that. Looking forward to hearing the nation’s pre-eminent Batmanologist weigh in on the film.

That’s it for now. I feel like I’m just getting initial thoughts down on paper. In any case, I can’t wait to see this movie again.

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