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.