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The Reconstruction of the Hero

Updated: Dec 8, 2019

“Why not just stay dead?”

As I sat through my second viewing of Skyfall earlier this afternoon, that single line of dialogue leaped off the screen and burrowed into my brain; as soon as the words left Gareth Mallory’s (Ralph Fiennes) lips, I suddenly realized just how closely the trajectory of James Bond’s character arc resembles Batman’s in this year’s The Dark Knight Rises. Each man begins his journey at his absolute lowest point, whittled down to almost nothing by numerous physical and psychological scars; looking back, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the period of time Bond spends “enjoying death” (pretty much a booze and drug fueled tropical vacation) and the crippled Bruce Wayne’s self-imposed exile. Each man must reassemble the shattered remnants of his life if he hopes to defeat the ruthless, cunning criminal mastermind du jour (while Silva and Bane appear radically different at first glance, their methods–orchestrating remarkably complex schemes-within-schemes-within-schemes–are nearly identical upon closer inspection). And each man manages to claw his way out of the deepest pit of despair (literally in TDKR’s case) and build himself into a better hero: Batman becomes the symbol of hope that Gotham needs and deserves, redeeming his failure to save Harvey Dent by passing his legacy on to a more worthy successor; 007 conquers his dark doppelgänger (Raoul Silva, another victim of M’s tough love) and proves–to his superiors and to himself–that he can still play by the ever-changing rules of the international espionage game.

I’m far too familiar with the protracted nature of film production to accuse Sam Mendes of ripping off Christopher Nolan, or vice versa; I simply feel that the similarities between the stories these esteemed directors chose to tell suggest a fascinating trend–especially when one considers precisely where each picture falls within its respective franchise. Nolan’s Dark Knight basically personified moral ambiguity, working against conventional law enforcement to combat Gotham City’s rampant corruption on his own terms; yet by TDKR’s explosive climax, he’s leading an army of fearless police officers into battle against Bane’s mercenary forces. The post-reboot Bond movies, meanwhile, stripped the series of its wonderful gadgets, its exotic volcano lairs, and a decent chunk of its supporting cast (Q, Moneypenny) to reexamine the traits that really defined the beloved super-spy; but in Skyfall’s closing moments, 007 steps into an office that longtime fans will find soothingly nostalgic–putting him one step closer, Mendes implies, to the classic formula introduced in Goldfinger.

Thus, both films feature the reconstruction an iconic hero–indeed, the reconstruction of the very idea that true heroes can exist. Nolan concludes his brooding, cynical saga with the comforting notion that “The Batman can be anybody,” while Mendes–without resorting to camp!–embraces the fun, adventurous attitudes of his premillennial predecessors (if you require evidence, look no further than the triumphant return of the Aston Martin DB5, complete with ejector seat)–“sometimes the old ways are best,” as Bond so eloquently puts it.

I find it particularly interesting that these developments occurred in the same year that saw the release of Marvel’s The Avengers, which tackles the concept of super-heroism with a wide-eyed optimism rarely glimpsed since the Silver Age of comic books. If The Dark Knight altered how critics and audiences perceived big blockbusters, then Joss Whedon’s enthusiastic, unapologetic, and (most importantly) monumentally successful celebration of colorful costumes and selfless sacrifice shook things up all over again. Did Nolan/Warner Bros. and Mendes/EON Productions sense change in the air and tailor their core thematic concerns accordingly? And what does this gradual shift toward brighter, more hopeful narratives–tales which emphasize the silver lining rather than the storm cloud–say about the times we’re living in?

Have we (the moviegoers, the cinephiles, society), like Bruce Wayne, finally escaped the cold, oppressive, hellish prison of pessimism and anxiety and bathed in the warm glow of a sun which reassures us that, yes, a few inherently decent human beings do inhabit this scary, hostile, chaotic world?

[Originally written November 15, 2012.]

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