I go to the movies for a lot of reasons. I love adventure (John Carter, The Hobbit, The Avengers). I love watching another person’s imagination work its way out in light and color (Life of Pi). I love the way that movies use sprawling images and wild tales to wrestle with intimate, personal questions (Tree of Life), and eternal mysteries—even if they don’t necessarily succeed (Prometheus). But if I had to narrow my love of movies (or stories in general) down to a single defining factor, I think I could make a good case for “moral complexity worked out to an honest end.”
What the heck does that mean, Pete?
Let me explain—no, there is too much. Let me sum up. The Man-With-No-Name in Drive is so driven to protect what he loves that he becomes a monster, destroying himself, and therefore separating himself from the object of his love and protection. Drive takes a single compelling idea and works it out to its conclusion. Happy ending? Not really. But it delivers an ending that feels true. It doesn’t sacrifice its integrity. Warrior works on a similar level. It’s about two brothers, both of whom we want to see win the title, but one of whom we know must lose. Warrior finds a way to resolve that complex problem with integrity.
A story gets really interesting, you see, when a character is faced with having to do the wrong thing for the right reason or the right thing for the wrong reason, or even more to the point, when a character has to choose between more than one equally right (or wrong), but exclusionary, decisions. This is, of course, the definition of “drama.” And that brings me to two movies that I was looking forward to seeing this year: The Dark Knight Rises and Django Unchained. They each appealed to me on this level of “moral complexity,” and while both movies delivered what I’d hoped for in some fashion, they also let me down in pivotal ways.
In the run up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I rewatched the first two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and coerced my wife into watching them with me (because she owed me for having watched Anne of Green Gables in its entirety—I even liked it). In Batman Begins, we discover Batman’s origins and meet Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows. Is he an evil man? That’s not immediately clear. Perhaps he is. Perhaps he isn’t. As an antagonist, he’s the sort that’s compelling precisely because he doesn’t think he’s evil. He sees himself as a savior, fighting corruption by destroying everything it touches, the innocent and the depraved alike. Ra’s al Ghul’s is a world of black and white; a society is either good and it deserves life, or it’s corrupt and it deserves death. There’s no room for grace in Ra’s al Ghul’s view; he’s the Javert of Gotham City, so to speak.
Bruce Wayne on the other hand believes that people can change and he’s fighting to let them prove it. Fighting not with guns but with wits. Batman is the “world’s greatest detective.” Batman doesn’t kill. Instead he uses the weapon of the enemy: Fear. He turns his fear into his strength. Is that wise? Maybe. Maybe not. The story aims to explore the answer, though, and by the end of Batman Begins, an ominous escalation has begun. The good guys are wearing capes; the bad guys are becoming the Joker.
In The Dark Knight the story becomes, not only more complex, but terrifying. The Joker is hate for hate’s sake. He’s evil that wants nothing more than to be fought. “Come on! Hit me!” says the Joker. “I want you to do it.” The Joker preys on our deepest instincts for justice and corrupts them. He doesn’t want to destroy Gotham like Ra’s al Ghul; he wants to blacken the souls within it so that its citizens will destroy themselves. And more than anything he wants to corrupt Gotham’s protector: Batman. He doesn’t want fame, or money, or to put forth an ideal. He wants corrupt and burn. He’s chaos incarnate. True anti-Christ. The only way to defeat an evil that wants to be fought, is to refuse to fight at all.
I confidently put The Dark Knight in the same league as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Each of those films provides a fascinating exploration of the nature of evil and the ways in which we respond to it. They each force us to look at the state of the world and ask ourselves how it got this way and how we ought to go about setting it right again.
So then arrives The Dark Knight Rises, and I was anxious to discover what conclusions the director, Christopher Nolan, might draw from all this exploration of evil and violence and escalation. In the new villain, Bane, we have Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker combined. He’s a man who believes he’s saving the world from corruption, and he does so by unleashing the base human emotions of envy and entitlement, sitting back to laugh as society tears itself apart. And what are his tools? The very tools used to stop Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker—Batman’s own personal arsenal. Bane takes what’s meant for good and turns it to evil. So what new method of war will Batman employ to defeat his own tools used against him? And where will it escalate from there? War without end. Amen?
Up until this point, Nolan’s movies, despite their flaws, had done an admirable job of maintaining the integrity of their characters’ moral complexity. There were few easy decisions, everything had consequences, and the resolutions were generally as complex as the problems they solved. But it’s at this point that The Dark Knight Rises lets me down. The culmination of all this escalation of violence ultimately boils down to a fist fight. Batman, who couldn’t best Bane with brute force in Act 2, comes back in Act 3 to best him with the same brute force (even though he’s just recovered from a broken back). This is not a satisfying resolution because there’s been nothing to break the cycle of escalation and violence. Oh but wait, you say, Batman saves the city by making the “ultimate sacrifice,” thereby showing us that the the final solution is something higher. Well, I could buy that if Nolan had the insight to end it there, but he didn’t. The final scenes are of a continuing promise of escalation in which someone new finds Batman’s arsenal and takes on the protective mantle. So has anything changed? Has anything been learned? Has all of our exploration of evil come only to this? A fist fight, and Catwoman pulling the trigger that Batman wouldn’t? I cry foul. I still enjoy the movie and applaud it for what it does well, but I mourn the complexity it failed to maintain.
This brings me to Quentin Tarantino. He’s one of my favorite directors. From Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds, his films have tickled my film-lovers fancy in complex and often troubling ways. Foremost and most simply, he speaks the language of cinema so fluently that even when he hasn’t got much to say, it’s a delight to hear him say it. But that’s also a frustrating thing. What does he have to say, if anything, and how long am I willing to listen?
In some ways, Tarantino makes me feel like I’m a parent waiting for a talented child to grow up. With each successive film, I sit down in the theater hoping to discover that he’s arrived and set about the business of his masterwork. Pulp Fiction certainly established such a promise with its denouement of unlikely mercy proclaimed by the “tyranny of evil men.” There have been ups and downs since, but Inglourious Basterds, an incredible film, hinted again at those old promises with its bold ironies and its apparent indictment of violent entertainment. So enters Django Unchained.
Django is a fantastic piece of cinema. The dialogue is sharp, the direction (and by extension the acting) is top-notch, the (camera) shots, edits, and music are all the stuff of film-geek heaven. What’s behind it all, though? Anything? A lot of people accuse Tarantino of indulging style over substance, and in that respect I’ve often been one of his defenders. With Django, Tarantino is interested in legend-building. One of the characters in the film recounts the Wagnerian tale of Seigfried and Brunhilde in which the “princess” Brunhilde is imprisoned in a ring of fire to await rescue by a hero who knows no fear. Django’s wife in the film is actually named Broomhilda, and her ring of fire is a barbaric plantation; the analogy is clear. That’s the kind of idea I can really appreciate, and on that level I enjoyed the film. In Django, Tarantino is giving us a legendary African-American hero that Spaghetti-Western cinema has never really had. That’s a great idea to build a story around, and it’s potentially a story well-worth the telling.
I worry, however, that Tarantino has begun to repeat himself. Django indulges in the same vengeful fantasies we’ve seen in previous movies, but shows us very little of the accompanying moral complexity. The complexity isn’t gone completely, but it’s certainly not in the forefront as I’d argue it is in Inglourious Basterds.
Vengeance is a real thing. We all feel the need for it. We all enjoy seeing justice carried out. We enjoy seeing a bad guy get his comeuppance. But however righteous vengeance may feel, vengeance is not a virtue, and human history is a testament to the damning circular logic of revenge. Attempting redemption through vengeance is a recipe for destruction, and while I certainly admit the enjoyment of the occasional revenge tale (The Crow, Kill Bill, The Princess Bride—mentioned all in the same sentence for the first time ever), it’s not only unsatisfying in the end, it’s dishonest. The answer to the “tyranny of evil men” must, in the end, be something better than the tyranny of vengeful men. If you want to draw me in and show me the pain, price, and nature of human evil, you are going to have to come up with a better resolution to the tale than a spirited fist fight (The Dark Knight Rises) or a gory and inconsequential shootout (Django). In Kill Bill The Bride got her revenge, but she suffered for it, was changed by it. In Inglourious Basterds the gang gets their moment of wrack and ruin, but they pay for it with their lives, dying in the theater alongside the Nazis they hated. But Django dances into the sunset, unscathed emotionally or physically, after killing dozens of people and even lowering himself to the level of a black slaver to do so. Make of Django a 19th century gunslinging Seigfried if you will (please do!), but leave him his complexity. Let us believe his journey has cost him something. Leave us hoping he’s come to the end of his story with a better idea of right and wrong than his antagonists had.
That’s where Tarantino seems stuck. That’s where Nolan loses his battle. The final answer to evil and violence cannot really be more violence. I don’t need to see Batman and Django become pacifists, but I certainly don’t enjoy seeing them become the new tyranny, which is arguably where they both end up. I think it betrays, cheapens, and undermines the power of their stories and presents a destructive answer to a world that is full of questions and looking (rightly or wrongly) to society’s storytellers for wisdom.
Imagine, if you will, the way we’d have felt had Frodo defeated Sauron in a duel? Would that have been a story for the ages? Would we still be singing Victor Hugo’s praises had Valjean and Javert squared off and traded blows on the banks of the Seine? I don’t think so. And that’s why I’m disappointed in Nolan and Tarantino. I still like their movies, but I had dreamed that they’d dig a little deeper and hit upon something true in the end.
All this led to several solemn talks with my wife about gun control, war, pacifism, and the human instincts of defense and vengeance. We didn’t come to any clear answers, and that’s rightly the case. The world is a morass of complexity, and the stories we tell about violence, evil, and human nature should reflect that. We live in a grey mist of moral paradox that none of us can fully navigate, and anyone who offers easy answers is offering the revenge cycle of Django or Ra’s al Ghul. Anyone who claims there is no answer is enslaved to the Joker’s chaos. Somewhere in between is Bane, demanding what is merely fair rather than what is just, and everywhere we turn, what we mean for good is used for evil. When Bob Kane created Batman, the “world’s greatest detective,” he set out to tell fun stories that upheld decency, justice, and law. When The Dark Knight Rises premiered, his dream was corrupted by a madman in a theater with a gun.
God tells us that what man has meant for evil, He has turned to good. He untangles the knots we make. He unravels the evil of the world and makes of it beauty, truth, justice, peace, and he does it in ways infinitely complex and beyond our limited understanding. It’s the lack of this mystery that leaves me unsatisfied when films like Django Unchained or The Dark Knight Rises insist that eye-for-an-eye comeuppance are enough. The paradox of our fallen world is that all of our good is turned against us, and yet we must not cease from the good work we do, because we have the assurance of one greater than the world, one who has overcome the world, one truly and eternally incorruptible. Our great hope is of the day when tangling at last shall cease, when of strands both old and new the world shall be remade—incorruptible, unfallen, eternal, yet no less complex—no longer spiraling and twisting in cycles of moral ambiguity and vengeance, but becoming more and more clearly its true shape and self.
Until then, we wrestle our broken natures; we strive, like Batman, to be more than merely men, but less than new forms of evil. And like Batman, we often fail. We are tragically and inevitably tempted toward revenge. Do we dare reduce it to the simplicity of just deserts? If we aim to tell stories that are true, then our telling ought to reflect, not merely the false finality of vengeance, but the complex and eternal mystery of mercy.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.