The Dark Knight and the ACME Bomb: Batman and realism part I

The ending to The Dark Knight Rises left my wife doubled over laughing in the parking lot of the theatre. I tried to take a picture for posterity, but it was too dark. Given that no one else in the audience seemed affected in the same way, I expect I’ll need to explain why: simply put, our suspension of disbelief broke. And naturally, because everyone else was having a serious moment and because nuclear war is in no way funny, we couldn’t stop laughing.

What follows is part one of the ensuing conversation Gutter comics editor Carol Borden and I had about superheroes, realism, and the suspension of disbelief in the third film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

AM: Nuclear bombs are not made by ACME. The 1960’s Adam West Batman may have had a lot in common with Wile E. Coyote, but Nolan’s Dark Knight series is deeply invested in realism. If a bomb detonated over the bay 6 miles out of Gotham, there would be no happy citizens the next day. That bus load of children who watched it explode would have suffered permanent damage, and Wayne Manor would have ended up as a hospice for blind, irradiated orphans.

So why was I willing to suspend my disbelief about all kinds of other unbelievable things, but not about a nuclear bomb going off that close to Gotham and everyone being just fine and dandy the next day? Clearly we’ve gotten to a point where it’s acceptable to have an unrealistic treatment of a nuclear explosion in a film lauded for its realism, but it disturbs me how much about Hiroshima and Nagasaki has to be forgotten for that to be true. Which leads me to Godzilla and Toho Studios and the Japanese handling of nuclear themes in movies.

CB: The bomb certainly detonated in the most destructive way possible–in the air rather than on the ground. I think it lost me a little before then because I remember thinking, as I watched Batman clinging to the truck carrying that bomb, “This is a job for Superman.” A ticking fusion device that must be gotten out of a city in a very short time seems like a Superman-type problem. It just didn’t seem like Batman to me.

AM:  It’s believable that Superman would survive because he’s Superman, premise accepted. It’s believable that Batman would be able to survive because he has so much technology, again accepted. But it’s not believable to me that the nuclear bomb doesn’t behave like other nuclear bombs.

CB: Yeah. And, of course, by the time we get to the nuclear bomb not behaving like other nuclear bombs, we’ve had other implausible things happen. For a movie that’s supposed to make superheroes gritty and real, a lot is not acting like how it would likely or probably act. So then everything that’s off becomes a scab for the audience to pick.

AM: It’s the way the Dark Knight series is sold as gritty and realistic that makes the sudden detour into cartoonishness at the end stick out to me. I think what I was getting at with the question of where the line gets drawn around suspension of disbelief lies in the tension between the play for realism and the broad brush strokes of comics.

CB: Yeah, that’s totally what’s involved in where people are able to or decide to suspend their disbelief. When we talked about it right after seeing it, I remember saying something about how superhero movies are a fantasy, but we pretend they are not fantasy. And so trying to make a fantasy “real” just undermines the whole enterprise. Honestly, I’m starting to think that realism is a nauseous ouroboros gagging itself.

AM: Nothing is a problem to believe in the Adam West Batman because it’s all a lark. They have the ability to explain almost anything away with a few lines introducing a new boundary to what is possible in that world and everyone goes ‘Ok, exploding ice bombs just knock you unconscious’, then it’s all BAM POW!

CB: Yes, you suspend your disbelief from the start, or you walk away. And once you suspend your disbelief, you’re only kicked out of it if it violates its own rules. God, I love Adam West’s Batman so much more now. And I’m starting to re-appreciate Tim Burton’s all over again.

AM:  So what do you think about the historical, temporal and political implications of a big budget film that’s intended to be gritty and realistic treating nuclear bombs in a way that’s so disconnected from reality? What does it mean in terms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that a nuclear explosion can be treated that cartoonishly?

CB:  It’s kind of disturbing to me, mostly in its distancing from actual bombs and their actual history when it is supposed to be realistic in the sense of being how it would be in the real world. I mean, Bane’s bomb could’ve been anything that represented doom, but Nolan decided to go with something in particular and give some of the science behind it and talk about its half-life. So, yeah, there is a way that I feel like it’s kind of flippant to make a big point of referring to that whole history and nuclear fears, and then use the bomb as a plot device to save Bruce Wayne from Batman so Bruce Wayne can live happily ever after. It’s like a melodramatic nuclear plot device.

You mentioned Godzilla and Toho and, usually, I think of Godzilla movies as a way of talking about the experience of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon #5 (a boat that was irradiated during the US hydrogen bomb tests) because the experience itself was difficult to express–was so all-encompassing. But a more cartoonish, kaijutastic approach, a more fantastic approach, also avoids some of the things you’re talking about. If X = DOOM and doom is Godzilla in this situation, we can get straight to the experience without bringing up questions of “chatting about despair,” resonances from real events and real histories, let alone people getting caught on the realistic plausibility of Godzilla, “Gotham would not survive Godzilla. Batman would not survive Godzilla.” Because Godzilla is just a representation of doom.

AM:  I think you’re getting to the thing that made me want to tie TDKR and the Toho films together there at the end, the way in which Godzilla represents the devastation of nuclear warfare and how it operates similarly to comics or superheroes by being a step removed from reality and giving the opportunity to address reality without all the pesky details that get raised within realistic narratives.

CB: Because of what we’ve been talking about, I think of both Wile E. Coyote, SuperGenius, making his exploding carrots in the railroad car in that Warner Bros. cartoon where he hunts Bugs Bunny, and of Adam West in the Batman movie, attempting to dispose of a cartoonish bomb with a sparking fuse but running into Gothamites wherever he goes. And, sadly, I feel like both of those work better than TDKR because their parameters are clear and unviolated.

AM: Yeah, if the bomb had a sparking fuse on top and could be contained using an umbrella, or the Batman equivalent thereof, I think I could overlook the implications of that. It would be such a broad sketch of a bomb that it would really simply be “exploding thing #9.”

CB: Yes.  X = “exploding thing #9” or X = ACME bomb. So yeah, there is an icky moral dimension to using a nuclear device. And a problematic “realism” one.

AM: I think that realism is best served in fantasy-based narratives by rigorously maintaining the consistency and integrity of the laws of that specific universe.

CB: If Nolan hadn’t tried to immerse us in a Gotham that was like our world with people like us, then ACME bomb wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

AM: Or he could have made it a fancy new technology bomb and explained away how it was disposed of. Or given him more time to get it further away at least. And maybe had the children avert their eyes. I think it was the bomb science fail combined with the serious voice over while the citizens of Gotham returned to an idyllic sense of community hours after being willing to tear each other’s arms off for the last can of spaghetti-o’s at the corner store that left us stifling laughter through Alfred’s touching mourning scene.


Tune in next week for part two of our conversation about The Dark Knight Rises, in which Carol Borden talks more about suspension of disbelief, realism, character, melodrama and fantasy.

11 replies »

  1. Thought-provoking post. I do remember thinking that “the bomb would have/should have gone off by now” But then I shrugged and chalked it up to “movie reality.” My mind just assumed the bat-plane had gotten far enough away to not affect Gotham.

    I wonder if my lack of laughter at the end of the movie was due to my teenage years (in addition to my general uncritical viewing of movies 🙂 Growing up in the ’80s I remember my parents forbidding me from seeing “The Day After,” and I remember playing “Gamma World” where radiation gave your character cool mutations. I also remember countless movies (mostly James Bond) where time in the movie and the time on a bomb’s timer were unrelated. Nuclear bombs were simply not that scary/dangerous. They were always disarmed at the last second by easily pulling out the red wire. And if not, and the world ended, you’d have Gamma World! It would be interesting to explore the whole sub-genre of science fiction that portrays humanity surviving and advancing after a nuclear war.

    You both are very well versed in post-WWII Japanese film and come from (I think) a different frame of reference than my conservative, suburbian teenage years. I feel I should watch “The Day After” and/or the BBC docudrama “Threads.” I imagine that I would view the use of nuclear bombs in movies differently.


  2. It seems like there were things moving at cross-purposes. The only gritty realism was in the LOOK, but not the characters, dialogue or plot. For me that’s what kept kicking me out. The look clashed with the plot. The reason a cartoon works is because it’s not trying to look realistic, and thus it makes almost anything possible and acceptable. If they wanted a gritty and realistic Batman in both plot and look it’d be a really boring movie because you’d have to make a film-noire detective story with an idiot ruining the seriousness with his stupid costume.


  3. My assumption, watching TDKR, was that the bomb went of underwater. I’m not a fan of ‘it went off underwater so it’s okay'(because, y’know, sea life) but I certainly didn’t believe it exploded in mid-air. Now I have to see the movie again.


  4. hey, everyone! thanks for commenting.

    tim–i have some of that history myself. for me, things like Threads and The Day After operated within clear constraints. sure, it’s easy to get picky and talk about what would really happen using the experiences of people who have actually survived a nuclear attack. but the movies you mention were cautionary tales about nuclear weapons. so i generally have no problem with them–any more than i have trouble with the implied nuclear devastation of the Mad Max trilogy. i guess it would be interesting to think about The Day After in the context of exploitation and hygiene films…

    but all that aside, there’s no particular reason for the bomb in TDKR to be a fusion device other than the sense of realistic cutting edge science it gives the film and the sense of the devastation a nuclear device evokes. but for the plot to work, the bomb could be anything. and it might possibly be better off being anything because then people’s minds would not get hooked on it and alex and his wife wouldn’t burst out laughing at what’s supposed to be a moving scene. but i don’t want to speak for alex here. personally, i was having trouble with the movie well before the bomb. i really did half expect superman to show up and fly it into space.

    dr. o– cartoons always define the boundaries of their worlds very well, whether it’s the realistic work of walt disney or the rubbery, surreal world of fleischer studios or the sentimental but always grounded in physics business at pixar.

    chris– you must report back if you do watch it again!


  5. I’m pretty sure the bomb went off underwater. I saw the movie twice and read a lot of online discussion about that particular plot point online back in the summer. I’m a huge fan of the movie; it will be difficult for me try and criticize it, though.


    • thanks, Less Lee!

      while what we’re talking about, the ways that realism obstructs itself does not rest on where the bomb detonates, i can’t say underwater detonation is really much better. hello, radioactive base surge, raining radioactive material and storm surge.


  6. I wish I had come across this link when we were having our discussion. I had already been thinking of Grant Morrison’s use of the phrase “adolescent nihilism” when a character in his comic book, Flex Metallo, discusses “realism” in comics. Anyway, the idea of the bomb standing for nihilism is very interesting.


  7. Wait…there are people who really think Bruce survived that explosion? It was extremely obvious that the scene at the end was in Alfred’s head.


  8. Uh, Jono, it’s been confirmed that Bruce fakes his death ala dark knight returns. That was the point of the ending. That’s why we found out that he fixed the autopilot. That’s why Alfred sees him with Selina at the café and she’s wearing the missing pearls. Nolan, Goyer, Caine and many others have confirmed that. Most of us got it. Apparently you didn’t.


  9. Furthermore, Jono, as Nolan pointed out, the entire theme of the movie is that Bruce has to get back his will to live (something he lacks at the start of the film). That’s why he and Jonah put in the metaphor of the pit. As Goyer explained in The Journey of Bruce Wayne special feature, as he’s rising out of the pit, he’s also rising out of the darkness that ruled his life. He’s choosing to live, and he knows that if he wants to live a happy life, he has to leave behind Gotham.

    That was the point of showing us the autopilot reveal and the fixed batsignal and the scene where the estate handlers find out that the pearls are missing again.


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