Am I the only one who began to hum the oh-so-catchy Parks and Recreations ditty when Bruce Wayne…well…fell into a pit? Because he stayed in that pit for a long time. Would this pit—an obvious allusion to the earlier childhood pit and his current depressive abyss—transform Batman (I’m sorry, “The Batman”) from a super strong masculine fighter into a fresh brand of cerebral hero? Now, I realize Batman has never had super powers and has always relied on his toys, but his powerful male body has also always been his primary tool. But I sensed a change. Hobbling around his mansion in a bathrobe and getting physically bested by—horrors!—a skinny woman, this Bruce Wayne hinted that Nolan was, for once, creating stakes in a superhero film by suggesting that continually bruising and battering a man’s body could have an effect not just on his morose soul but also on his knees.
Next, he loses all his money. This manufactured plot point is even less believable than the whole sun-setting issue. Bane is holding the stock exchange hostage during the day (i.e., before 4 pm), yet he is then chased (maybe thirty minutes later) in total darkness. Holy daylight saving time, Batman! More to the point, you can’t trade away your entire company by pushing one button; Nolan seriously needs to hire a consultant who has read The Wall Street Journal at least once. If one is willing to dismiss reality (this is a comic book film after all), then you are left to ponder the more interesting question of whether this aging, physically damaged, and semi-impoverished (if you don’t count that mansion and BatJet) Batman could defeat the forces of chaos as a broken man. But then he fell in the pit.Surrounded by surly Eastern European men (and, really, are there any other kind?), Bruce Wayne is taught that men can return to fighting shape even if they’re pushing 45—even if their bodies have literally been broken over the knees of the scariest Darth Vader fanboy ever. Because all you need to cure a broken spine is gruel, an old rope, and lots of flashbacks. And don’t forget exposition. Apparently, excessive exposition can heal all physical ailments. When Bane (a terrifying yet delightfully theatrical villain) and Batman first fight, it was like watching Michael Jordan, circa 2012, take on Lebron James. Wincing at the pathetic spectacle of Batman getting ass-whooped by Bane, I hoped Bane would simply get to the end already and throw Batman down the sewer so that Alfred could find him and nurse him back to health while saying “it’ll be awlwright” like only Michael Caine can.
Instead of offering a new type of masculine hero, Nolan simply bemoaned Bruce Wayne’s current state and consequently reinvented him with the help of that old rope. During the final encounter between Bane and Batman (after Bruce Wayne somehow crossed the globe without money, identification, a cell phone, socks, or transportation), Batman is suddenly Bane’s physical equal. Yes, he does eventually use his knowledge of Bane’s mask of pain, but he doesn’t employ this trick until long after they have exchanged multiple testosterone-charged blows. Physical masculinity triumphs! There is no other way for a male superhero to be a man except through his body!
Except that he is saved by a woman.
And not just any woman: the first fully formed female character in the entire Nolan franchise* (or perhaps in any Nolan film). Even President Obama said that Anne Hathaway was the best thing about The Dark Knight Rises, and, I agree with our commander-in-chief. I similarly agree with many critics that Hathaway’s portrayal of Selina Kyle injects much needed humor and spunk into this emo series (only Heath Ledger was able to bring dark humor into the earlier film). What I find more interesting than Hathaway’s humor though is her reinvention of the leather-clad comic book babe.
While Batman’s narrative trajectory hews pretty closely to masculine gender norms, Hathaway’s Kyle plays with and undermines assumptions of the female gender—especially those of comic books, which, let’s be honest, often portray woman as boobs with guns or weaklings to be saved (or an odd combination of the two). Before seeing The Dark Knight Rises, I discussed it with a male friend who said that he hated the Catwoman character because she was so unrealistic. So unrealistic, you say, in a film about a rich man who fights crime with pointy ears? But I digress. He argued that an 110-pound woman—no matter her strength and training—would not be able to beat up a 250-lbs jacked fighter. Although my initial instinct was to punch this particular man in the face, I had to agree that he had a point. If Gina Carano had been cast as Kyle, she could have realistically pummeled most male foes, but Anne Hathaway was forced to lose weight (and thus strength) for this role. Batman is then not wrong when he remarks that she would have had a difficult time beating up a circle of trained male fighters. But it is this “weakness” that makes her character inventive and, paradoxically, stronger (not the weight loss, mind you, which makes me want to punch a Hollywood exec in the face). Gone is the Laura-Croft-esque, boobilicious fighter and in her place we find an intelligent woman who knows when to use crying to her advantage.
Kyle enters the film in the submissive role of the maid who longs to catch a glimpse of the reclusive billionaire. Even after Bruce Wayne catches her wearing his mother’s pearls, she pretends to be a lowly, silly girl who just couldn’t help but try on a glittery necklace. As she declares “You wouldn’t hit a woman just like I wouldn’t hit a cripple,” she kicks out his cane and escapes through the window. Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have hit her (because he deems her weak), and she knows it. Consequently, she gets the better of him as she does repeatedly throughout the film.
Although Kyle initially appears to be playing the standard femme fatale role by seducing a wealthy older congressman in order to fleece him, the audience soon learns that she is not a young social climber or common criminal. She doesn’t want money; she doesn’t want a man; she just wants to erase her past. When the plan to release the congressman and hand over Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints goes horribly wrong, Kyle doesn’t fight the police, make a run for it, or put on a sexy face: she plays the role of the hysterical female, crying and gasping for air until she turns around and walks out of the bar without a word. She’s just a silly, weak woman; they won’t suspect a thing.
The Nolan series—intelligent and entertaining though it has been (including this film, which I like a lot more than this review would suggest)—has featured flat, dull, and uninspired female performances: woman who have no chemistry with Batman or Bruce Wayne because they are too perfect. They may be attractive or nominally intelligent, but they aren’t complex or wounded; they simply want to protect him from his inner demons. Kyle, on the other hand, is wounded and knows that Bruce Wayne will always be haunted by his past because, even after drinking at all the French cafes in the world, so will she.
One of the only characters not to receive a back story, Kyle represents someone who likely grew up in poverty, which led to abuse, prostitution, petty and then more serious crimes. When she tells Bruce Wayne that the proletarian “storm is coming,” one suspects that she longs for any storm big enough to wash her away. Unlike the mindless mob following Bane’s instructions to destroy Gotham, Kyle is intelligent and sad enough to realize that there is no utopia. Humanity is cruel and requires order. She is not a radical. She is like Bruce Wayne—different though their backgrounds may be—because she grew up with loss and understands that one can never depend entirely on anyone else. She doesn’t need him, but she wants him. Although I originally thought she might be a lesbian because she has a very close relationship with her roommate Jen (and I think there may be some bisexual undertones here), this is still one of the few heterosexual action movie pairings that works because both characters are so profoundly fucked up.
Batman fell in the pit, and this film may very well have stayed there if it hadn’t been for Hathaway’s turn as a new kind of action heroine: a woman who may look hot in leather and cat-eye sunglasses but who, more importantly, is allowed to be strong yet flawed and forever haunted by Gotham’s shortcomings.
*I’m not counting the criminally underused Marion Cotillard because her role in the film is to, first, pretend to be the boring Nolan heroine before being unveiled as the other standard Nolan female type: the explainer. “It’s a time bomb!” “I’m doing this for my father!” “Bane loves me!” “I can recite exposition even when I’m three-quarters comatose!”