I’m pretty sure that, by the time Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises actually hits theaters on July 20th, the internet will have leaked so many “inside scoops” about the film that every spoiler-hunting fanboy will know the whole damn plot already. I try my best to avoid spoilers as much as possible before seeing any film, but I’m not perfect. So when ComingSoon.net posted pictures of Anne Hathaway in full costume as Catwoman, I couldn’t help but take a quick peek…and for the first time since this film was announced, I became truly worried about how it’ll turn out.
Contrary to the grumblings of others on the internet, I think Hathaway herself will do a fine job as Selina Kyle. As Anna pointed out in yesterday’s Women in Cinema, she is an immensely talented actress who has effectively explored her dark side before. She is also gorgeous and sexy, so I never had any doubts as to her ability to rock a skintight outfit. Not that she even needs to have overt sex appeal at all, since Nolan’s Batman films have always attempted to present a costumed hero scenario in the most realistic light possible, including favoring pragmatism over aesthetic appeal. The series’ claim to realism was never its main or even secondary strength, but it’s a cool touch that has in past flown in the face of fanboy expectation (The Joker’s painted face is a good example of this). But then I glanced at these…absurd things:
And then I suddenly remembered what could truly sink Nolan’s final Batman film: his problem with women.
I like Christopher Nolan. I think he’s a talented auteur who has made some outstanding works in his career. Memento was one of my favorite thrillers of the previous decade, and whatever The Dark Knight’s flaws, I hugely admired his injecting of palpable, borderline-nihilistic terror and operatic bleakness to such exhilarating effect in a summer superhero flick. I am not one to call him the Best Director of All Time, but it’s not his fault that he’s annoyingly overrated. But Nolan does have some shortcomings, and because he has such a cult of personality surrounding him, those flaws are being exacerbated with each consecutive film. I’ve complained before about the things that make me hesitant to embrace him wholesale, but perhaps the most disheartening trademark of his directorial style to emerge is how his female characters are consistently “othered” by serving as eye candy and/or as a plot device for square-jawed male protagonists…usually by being killed.
**Warning: Spoilers Ahead**
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the women of his last film, Inception. You had Ellen Page as a graduate student with the allegorically-loaded name Ariadne, recruited by Dom Cobb to be the “architect” in his dream (*ahem*) team. Almost immediately she is introduced as not only a brilliant young woman but also dangerously impulsive, since it’s clear in her mind that she shouldn’t accept this mission yet she does anyway. Despite this, Page makes the odd choice of playing such an impetuous character in a meek, restrained manner, which I guess Nolan didn’t have a problem with. Not only that, but she flattens her character further by dropping the elaborate architectural experiments in the origami cityscape in favor of boring locales like the ice fortress. There really isn’t any sort of link between the dream worlds and the personality of who designs them, and as the story goes on Ariadne’s role becomes less and less substantial. Although Page flat-out stated that her role in the film is primarily an audience proxy, it is still disappointing that that was all she was considering the promise and supposed importance of Ariadne. The second female character in Nolan’s sci-fi heist film was Mal, the viciously recriminating product of Dom’s subconscious. Here we have a near-perfect manifestation of nearly all of Nolan’s favorite tropes with women: she’s dead, her memory haunts the film’s hero, and she isn’t even really much of a person so much as a psychologically tormented male’s projection of one. Even worse is that Nolan structures his film to stack the deck against her and in favor of Dom, and when she’s finally revealed as a victim of his duplicitous act of inception, it comes way too late to have the necessary emotional impact.
Now let’s take a look at Rachel Dawes, the principal female character of the previous Batman films. We already got a major problem in just the casting of the virtually talentless Katie Holmes, who supposedly had the role written specifically for her. I wouldn’t have been able to tell; she looks younger than Christian Bale despite her character logically having to be at least two to three years older, and she looks too blank-faced and weak to have landed a job as the ADA of one of the most crime-ridden fictional cities in the country. I can only assume that her sex appeal was what got her the part so easily. To Nolan’s credit, he probably knew that she left a negative impression as Batman’s love interest (though I’m sure her Razzie nomination helped to nudge him to that conclusion as well) and recast Dawes due to “scheduling conflicts” (right…). Maggie Gyllenhaal was certainly a step up in talent, and her role was arguably more substantial if just as implausible (two handsome men who happen to be among the most powerful in Gotham are both vying for her? Um, okay.). But then, being in a Christopher Nolan film, eventually she’s gotta die to fuel the dark motivations of her man. Was it necessary for the plot? Perhaps, but we’re not talking about an isolated and probably justified incident, we’re talking about a pattern.
See also: The Prestige, whose entire rivalry plot kicks in when Angier’s wife may or may not have been killed by Borden’s mistake. Oh, but it doesn’t stop there, as Borden’s wife Sarah also has to inflict emotional torment on her husband by killing herself. Luckily, Scarlett Johansson, by virtue of giving the weakest performance in the film, escapes the doomed relationship right before she purses her luscious lips and lectures Borden that He’s Just As Bad As His Enemy. None of the three leave much of an emotional impression beyond, “Wow, she’s really pretty.”
In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to Ellie Burr from Insomnia and Natalie from Memento to find women who break that trend. As a matter of fact, Ellie – in Nolan’s most underappreciated film – presents a refreshing counterpoint to the typical female character in his films, as it is the deaths of Eckhart and Dormer that propel and conclude her arc, respectively. Natalie is even more interesting once her situation comes into full focus. At first she appears to be a possible jilted lover of Leonard’s, before then transforming into a manipulative femme fatale, and then concluding (beginning?) as the baffled girlfriend who suddenly owes some dangerous people a lot of money. Far from being simply an antagonist, I would argue that Natalie has the most diverse motivations in Memento, cunning enough to use Leonard’s cluelessness to survive, wounded enough to turn to him for emotional comfort, and wise enough not to follow him on his eventual path to destruction…and all of these come unexpectedly. Credit to Carrie-Anne Moss for refusing to pigeonhole Natalie, or cheapen her presence in Nolan’s complex story. Looking back, it is surprising and a little sad that this was the last decent role of her career.
I should make it clear that I am not accusing Christopher Nolan of misogyny. I don’t think his tiresome use of the hot “dead lover” motivation comes out of any sort of hatred for women, I just think he too often doesn’t know what to do with them.
So what does this all mean, you’re probably asking? Why this whole tirade over Catwoman sporting a pair of high heels? Does that mean The Dark Knight Rises is going to be a bad movie and we should all just chase Nolan with torches and pitchforks? Of course not. I am still absolutely going to see this film and I’m still hugely excited for it. In fact, my anticipation is so high that it’s the only film that I will break my self-imposed superhero moratorium for. Partially my anticipation comes from the casting of Selina Kyle in this final chapter, as she is shaping up to be the most substantial woman in any of Nolan’s works. I have been eager to see how he meets the challenge and hopefully overcomes what I’ve observed to be a troubling flaw of his.
But then I look at those fucking ridiculous, implausible high heels and I wonder: is he just going to get worse? Is Catwoman going to be yet another sexy cipher for the mind of Bruce Wayne’s psyche, and will the director kill her off to accomplish that? If you’re not taking her seriously enough to give her an outfit that makes no sense just to make her look more appealing to men, what’s next? Can someone here calm my worries?
Tags: Anne Hathaway, Christopher Nolan, pet peeves, sequel, the dark knight rises