I attended this really wonderful lecture on superheroes and the War on Terror, and how a number of very important comics post-9/11 became self-critical in their examination of states of emergency and exceptional politics, and the autoimmune system that leads to the violent pursuit of ‘order’ becoming the greatest source of chaos. Because superheroes respond to ’emergency’ situations and operate within a non-legal or extra-legal capacity to inflict sovereign violence on the enemy (the enemy itself prone to slippage e.g. bin Laden, Hussein), they serve as the perfect analogy for global politics in our world which for 15 years has been in a permanent State of Emergency (and so one where illegal, extra-legal (exceptional) violence is now expected, as well as (exceptional) surveillance). This brings us to the figure of Batman who Frank Miller outed as a fascist in The Dark Knight Returns as well as the sole cause of the Joker’s existence (a weirdly prescient analogy for the War on Terror). The Dark Knight is descended directly from this Miller-ish scepticism of Batman’s usefulness, with Alfred and Lucius saying throughout “yeah it’s kind of your fault for declaring a ‘with us or against us’ crisis situation,” and the film existing as a series of decision-moments in which this debate can play out. Before long however Nolan weighs in and closes it off. The “it’s your fault”s become “somebody had to do it”s and “things get worse before they get better”s, and Nolan contrives a situation in which Batman has to turn surveillance in on the citizens of Gotham in order to save them, which of course he does. After this there is a thing about popular opinion and myth-making and fall-guys, which of course is supposed to be analogous to the Obama Hope campaign, and the villainy associated with Bush (this being 2008). Such is the wonder of reader-response that we can read this in any way we want to, but chances are we will either see it as a criticism of the War on Terror (a sort of horror film in which Batman is the villain, exercising the Patriot Act at every turn), or a love-letter to the Bush administration as the non-heroic ‘man we needed’ (justification of his actions Whatever the Cost). There is no right or wrong way to read the text, nor is there a right or wrong way to view the situation, but fwiw I find it hard to agree with the former reading in light of Nolan’s classism in the Dark Knight Rises and bro-science anti-environmentalism in Interstellar. The conflicts and conversations are there because they have to be (a rare case of comic-lore stifling an individual’s creativity for something better than if he/she were allowed free rein).
A piece of right-wing propaganda which kisses Bush on the cheek and says “don’t worry, we know who the real hero is” and insists that we proceed down the path we have taken before “things get better” (a tragi-comically misguided statement 8 years on), could still make for this horror film reading, or at least provide the viewer with thrills in its “with us or against us” mindset, as many jingoist guilty pleasures have over the years. My issue with Nolan is not his worldview (though I despise it) however, but his films themselves, maybe as exemplified by The Dark Knight. I genuinely cannot see what people get from his films, and I cannot see what interest he has in making them either. He does not seem interested in humans or emotions, which is fine, but he does not seem interested in the sensorial experiences that films can provide either. Michael Bay for example discards human poetry for effects fetishisation and action formalism- he gleefully explores the filmic language of editing or at least enjoys blowing shit up. Nolan in the Dark Knight conservatively cues talking points for exposition which establish action bits. His characters speak dryly and functionally with occasional Bad Ass one-liners fit for movie trailers and desktop wallpapers. The people who are not Important are instead anonymous (‘panicked man on boat’, ‘horrified party guest #3’) which can be expected in superhero films, and as I have already pointed out Nolan is not interested in people, but that does not mean that his worlds have to be so lifeless either. It’s this anonymity, these predictable 21st century Dark visuals (my gut tells me that we have Nolan to thank for this, but it’s probably Fincher), and the nature of Gotham as solely existing as (non)context for Batman and Joker Doing Things. Kubrick was a misanthrope who built unforgettable worlds and atmospheres, films like The Matrix are 90% exposition for the function of worldbuilding and not just talking (and the Wachowskis directed the shit out of every conversation any way), and even the much maligned Warcraft which flows biblically also wants badly to exist outside of its processes (and also had surplus heart and humanity, but whatever). Green Room, shaved down to a stage for ultraviolent encounters, feels more alive than any of Nolan’s films, and Saulnier would probably resent that too. As far as violent encounters go, Nolan seems just as disinterested in action as he does humans, emotions, worlds, and cinematic languages. As mentioned before, Michael Bay who can seem just as cynical as Nolan w.r.t. human emotion, tends to break from meat-space logic for cinematic thrills and experiments. A more conventional director might consider humans as bodies (rather than feeling things or narrative devices) in spaces, and so focus on ways to explore bodies against bodies, and bodies in environments. A lesser director might only consider these bodies, and not filmic environments. Nolan does not care for the immediate space of a scene, and breaks from them so regularly with geographical and temporal jumps that there are no stakes because there are no bodies in the spaces, only flashes of contact, and either the choreography of said bodies or their editing severs them from simple cause and effect. I suppose that this really is horror cinema for the Age of Emergency because there are no bodies, there are no environments, there is no time, and there is no reason. It’s action formatted to the logic of a 21st century news channel, and just as propagandic.
Still I am unable to divorce the film from the director and his filmography. I wonder again a) what anybody sees in his films and b) what his motivation is for making them. He cannot tell a story visually (or verbally either, but that’s another matter), he does not care about stories, and he does not care about the things that anyone would expect him to, having freed himself from the confines of narrative and human emotion. I suppose that his cinema is a cinema of ideas, e.g. ‘the one with the Joker’, ‘the one about the War on Terror’, (or gleefully thrown around back when his trilogy began) ‘it’s Batman but it’s really dark’, and not of film or film experiences. I thought I could enjoy this as an idea- as the horror film that Nolan never intended it to be, but it insults just about everything I care about in narrative and visual media in the blandest, most grandiose way possible. I fucking hate this film so goddamn much oh my god.