Of Superheroes and Celluloid: Allegory, Truth, and Technology in the Dark Knight Trilogy

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Friday, June 7, 2013 - 15:45 to 16:30

Jay David Bolter’s article “Transference and Transparency: Digital Technology and the Remediation of Cinema” identifies a “cyberphobia” that emerged in films of the 1990s, just as digital technologies were gaining widespread acceptance in the industry (and, indeed, as blockbusters increasingly began to rely on them to create theretofore unimaginable spectacles). He goes on to note that “In the early 2000s, cyberphobia has by no means entirely subsided; however, the film industry is increasingly ambivalent, as it both fears and seeks to embrace digital representational practices” (15). This technological ambivalence is evident in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: emerging out of a film culture that is endlessly predicting the death of cinema at the hands of the digital, Nolan’s Batman films allegorize the director’s own perspective on the film industry’s adoption of digital camera and projection technologies and the supposed obsolescence of celluloid in such an environment. As Stephen Prince has shown in his book Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality, using digital tools in combination with live-action cinema does not only not represent a radical break with cinema’s supposedly photographic ontology, but it can also increase cinema’s reality effect rather than destroy it. Nevertheless, for Nolan, celluloid possesses all of the mythical (and often fallacious) qualities long associated with the medium, including exclusive access to the truth, to “the real,” while digital abolishes our access to reality with its algorithmically-produced representations.

The Dark Knight trilogy -- and its latter two films in particular, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises -- are often read as allegorical commentaries on the post 9/11 Bush era and the “Occupy” movement, respectively. I will present a markedly different reading of these films as an allegory of the battle between celluloid and digital for the “souls of Gotham” and its moviegoers. Nolan aligns celluloid with the superhero Batman, who significantly lacks the superpowers that define most costumed comic book heroes. Batman is a normal human being, bound by the laws of the natural world. Like celluloid, he has a finite life, bears the markers of age and use on his body, and is susceptible to flame. Naturally, he is also the hero of the trilogy: in Nolan’s view, celluloid is to be exalted not despite its weaknesses, but indeed because of them. The qualities associated with digital technologies, on the other hand, are spread across Batman’s rogue’s gallery of villains: e.g. the symbolic immortality of Ra’s Al Ghul, the (ontological) anarchy of the Joker, the binary logic of Two-Face, etc. By vanquishing each of these villains and repeatedly saving Gotham from the threats they represent, Batman is meant to demonstrate the superiority of celluloid over digital cinema.

In this presentation, I will the explore the films’ positions on reality, vulnerability, and symbolism, in particular, in order to better elucidate this allegorical reading. Ultimately, Nolan’s trilogy takes a bold stance against technological “progress” in favour of something physical, something “real,” something more akin to man than Superman.

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