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Thursday, August 9, 2012

[SPOILERS] The Women of "The Dark Knight Rises"

By Gillian Daniels, Editorial Assistant

The chief virtue of Christopher Nolan's Batman films is not the plots (the pace is often plodding) or the characters (most if not all already invented by the comic).  It's the way it redresses a fanboy fantasy as a serious adventure, in this case with damsels who aren't quite in distress.

In few heroes is the power fantasy more potent than in Batman, a playboy billionaire in public and a brooding, me-against-the-world Phantom of the Opera orphan in private. It's a cool idea and one of the most thinly-veiled testosterone-laden daydreams in popular media today. Nolan challenges some aspects of this middle school fantasy in The Dark Knight Rises, but at the end of the day, of the main female characters introduced in the movie, Bruce Wayne becomes involved with both. Batman, it seems, remains a fantasy still largely for and about men.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Tate/Talia (Marion Cotillard) remain largely defined by the men in their lives within The Dark Knight Rises.  They're able to challenge their roles to some extent but they never quite subvert them.

The role of Catwoman is a classic femme fatale. With her as a rival, she's the one who somehow brings Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) out of his Howard Hughes-style funk. Hathaway's character would be the spitting image of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she didn't steal from Bale and beat him up in their first scene together. For most of the film, she questions both Batman and Wayne without appearing to like either very much.

It's eventually revealed Catwoman's looking for a new start in life. Even before Batman shows up, she's a villain trying to make good. An important plot point in Nolan's film is that Wayne is willing to help delete Kyle's cat burglar history from every police file on the planet and allow her to start fresh, holding the key to her redemption. Catwoman's affection for him dovetails with her redemptive arc as if only Batman could bring out the good in her. By the end, they've become involved.  It's not bad that they're involved but it's questionable that she needs to fully rely on him for her salvation.

At least Nolan's Catwoman is set up to be Bruce Wayne's equal. Only she can maintain his interest and only he can maintain hers. This was certainly the goal of Batman: The Animated Series(1992) in which Batman discovers "the new cat burglar is a woman" (episode 15, "The Cat and the Claw Part I") and spends most of the series chasing after her, both for reasons of justice and romance. In his pursuit, he tries to redeem her multiple times. The structure of their relationship is ostensibly the same except that, before meeting Batman, Catwoman has no desire to change. It's only Batman who plants the idea in her head, turning her story into a redemptive arc. Anne Hathaway and Nolan's Catwoman, however, has enough agency that she's already made the decision to change and doesn't need the main character to put her on the path to redemption. It's a small — very small — but important improvement in the move from small to big screen. Catwoman's story is helped along by Batman, but she's still largely the one driving the change

Talia al Ghul has a similar story arc to Catwoman in the cartoons and comics. Batman also attempts to seduce this--gasp!--loose woman away from evil after a lifetime of working for her immortality-seeking father. Talia, like Catwoman, is unable to access her morals by herself. Unlike Catwoman, though, this is because Talia is lured repeatedly back into helping her father, Ra's al Ghul.

In The Dark Knight Rises, this is very much the same. Miranda Tate, in revealing herself to be Talia, shows that she seduced Wayne, tricked him into building a bomb, and has had the entire city threatened for months, all in service of getting vengeance for her father. Even her dying words relate to Ra's al Ghul and his rivalry with Batman, his role as her father and Bruce Wayne's antagonist defining Talia in her last moments. She's a woman used by a man to get back at another man.  A child seeking vengeance for her father isn't a bad story line, but it's problematic that we never get any reason for her goals beyond genetics.  Talia feels like a tool used to get back at the main character.

The biggest difference Nolan has worked into the movie, though, is including Talia's backstory. While Cotillard's character eventually comes to be defined by her father and then Batman, Nolan makes sure to detail her childhood and the person she is before becoming entwined with the destines of both. Talia's escape from her circumstances is emotional and riveting, and while Bane (Tom Hardy) takes part in her escape from the prison in which she's raised, Talia's agency drives her to run away and find an escape route where no one else could before her. She's an awesome female character.

Yet the price of admission for a main female character still seems to be sleeping with the cool male lead. It's a pessimistic point of view, but Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) probably doesn't have to sleep with Bruce Wayne to become his protégé. To my knowledge.

Probably one of the most innovative aspects of the movie having to do with gender is the female cops in the background when Batman first returns to Gotham. They seem to disappear during the stadium cave-in, though, and are, to my knowledge, largely absent when the cops descend once more to the streets. They are still women in casual roles who do not appear to have a romantic interest in the protagonist or are defined by their father's whims.

In a story like Batman's, where the main character is simultaneously a Lothario and a loner, it's difficult to create a female character outside these parameters. Nolan manages to make due with the material he has, though, showing that "fanboy" doesn't have to be an exclusive label. The Dark Knight Rises still disappoints, however, by keeping its otherwise kickass female characters defined by the men in their lives.

2 comments:

  1. I'd venture to say that Nolan's Catwoman has more agency than you give her credit; if it weren't for her, I bet Wayne actually would have lost himself in the Batman and let himself be blown up. I don't see how she's so much defined by batman as dependent on the clean slate program. Maybe it's important that a guy holds that key, but if it were a woman holding it, you'd probably just go the girls fighting girls over men route.

    With regard to Talia, I think your price of admission criticism is a bit harsh. She didn't sleep with him until AFTER he already gave her the keys to the company and the bomb. The sex happened after the primary purpose of the deception. Also, I think it's a bit of an understatement to call Ra's Al Ghul's devotion to the league's mission a "whim"

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  2. If Catwoman's road to redemption involved receiving the clean slate program from a woman, that would be vast improvement. I don't understand why that would be a "girls fighting girls over men route" or, honestly, what that means in this context.

    As for Talia? I'm absolutely justified in my harshness. The fact that, at that point, she didn't need to sleep with Wayne at all and then did so anyway is bullshit. I will only say that it was much more obnoxious before it was revealed Miranda Tate was Talia. Then that was just, "Look at this high-powered female executive! She's the only female member of the board! Now look at her screw the company owner!" Gross. It would have been better if she gave some reason about always being attracted to Wayne due to a kinship she felt with him or something, but she never says.

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