Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When death is expected, life is the best plot twist. Why I hope Bruce Wayne survives The Dark Knight Rises.

With two months to go before Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, much of the summer will focus on rampant speculation.  This speculation will mostly focus on two would-be plot turns.  A) Is Miranda Tate (Marion Cottilard) Talia Al Ghul in disguise? and B) Does Bruce Wayne die at the end of the picture?  I don't pretend to know the answer to either of these questions, although Cottilard recently gave an interview swearing that her character was not Ra's Al Ghul's daughter in disguise.  Personally, I hope neither of those things are true.  First of all, there has been so much assured presumption among fans and pundits over the last two years concerning these matters that it would be lovely for all of the guessers to be wrong.  At this point, it is almost taken for granted that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) will perish by the end credits.  Thus at this point, it would actually be more daring, 'ballsier' if you will, for Nolan to leave Bruce Wayne alive at the end of his three-part Batman saga.  Second of all, the 'shocking death' has slowly morphed over the decade from an unlikely plot twist into a writer's crutch.  Does anyone here remember the last time they were truly surprised by a last-minute fatality on their favorite television show or a major new movie?  What was once rare became occasional in the era of The X-Files, inevitable in the era of The Sopranos, and absolutely expected as the likes of Lost and 24 wrapped up their series runs.  What was shocking is now painfully predictable.  And the 'shocking fatality' is now seemingly the primary mode of surprise and plot-twisting in contemporary pop entertainment.

Obviously I'm speaking more about episodic television then movies at this point.  But I feel the conventional presumption of Bruce Wayne's demise speaks to a certain lack of imagination, perhaps more so towards the watchers of genre entertainment than the writers.  Arguably the king of fantasy television, J.J. Abrams, crafted some of the best plot twists the television medium has ever seen during his run on Alias and Lost (yes, I know he wasn't hands-on the whole time, but I digress).  And no matter how I felt about how Lost chose to wrap itself up, it earned kudos throughout its run for giving us often shocking season finales that either had nothing to do with a climactic character death or used said major death as a smokescreen for something more fantastic.  We all knew Charlie was going to perish in the third-season finale of Lost, so we were completely blind-sided by the actual climactic reveal, which was that several of the castaways had made it off the island and that we would know be seeing 'flash-forwards' in place of flashbacks (anyone want to name a better cliffhanger in modern television history?). But there still remains the fact that writers of film and television use the 'shocking' demise of a major character as a crutch in all-too many situations.  We as audience members were once *shocked* when Terri Bauer was murdered just off-screen in the season one climax of 24.  But as the show progressed, it became a quasi betting game to successfully predict which major character would die off next.

No matter how good The Avengers was, would it not have been better had it contained even a single 'surprise' other than (yes...) the death of a major character at a critical juncture?  That Joss Whedon and company basically went 'well, we bumped off someone important, now this film is both surprising and important to the ongoing narrative' shows a certain almost laziness on a basic plot level.  And pretty much every week comes a flurry of allegedly shocked fans of The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones all-abuzz who which character kicked the bucket this weekend.  You could argue that such shows are set in proverbial war-zones, but that mentality now extends to series set in 'peace time'.  A few weeks ago, after Mad Men aired an episode chronicling a professional and personal low-point for Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the internet exploded with speculation, ironclad in its certainty, that Pete Campbell was going to be killed off before the season was over, probably sooner rather than later.  Pete had a bad day and now he was marked for death.  Surely Pete couldn't just suck it up and go on with his life, right?  But why wouldn't viewers think this, in a television era where even shows like The O.C. killed off its female lead (Mischa Barton) at the climax of its third season even after setting up a perfectly reasonable departure for her.  No one thought it was strange that writers felt the need to have college-aged Marissa Cooper run off the road by a jealous ex as opposed to, I dunno, just leaving for college?

Again, while I do think the climactic character death has become a bit of cliche, there are enough exceptions to partially negate any complaints I have about the practice from the writers' point of view.  But it is a problem among entertainment writers and more-so among fans.  The audience, the bloggers, the fans at-large expect mortality even in situations where the more logical narrative conclusion would be survival.    Whether because we have become conditioned to expect death at every turn in long-form storytelling or because we lack the imagination to presume a more creative outcome, we now expect what was once classically unexpected.  For that reason, along with the idea that everyone who is randomly speculating is 100% wrong, I hope Chris Nolan has something else, or at least something more, in store for us on July 20th.  This entertainment industry deserves a better class of plot twist.  Here's hoping Mr. Nolan is set to give it to us.

Scott Mendelson                  


corysims said...

You're going to be wrong with one...that I know for sure. Unfortunately, the papazzari gave it away.

Brandon Peters said...

While I wholeheartedly agree with this article, I don't know if it's fair to pass judgement on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones as they are adaptations of literary works. And the deaths are following what their source material provides/steers.

Rick said...

I do think he's going to live, it would be stupid for him to die honestly. Although I do hope Cottillard turns out to be Talia; she's pretty much the perfect person for it so I think it would be a waste for that not to happen. And I just love Talia and Ra's as characters, so I'm always happy to see them.

cary said...

In Total Film July issue, Bale mentioned "rebirth" of Bruce Wayne. Probably, Batman dies but not necessarily Bruce Wayne. Gotham is destroyed and it's Bruce Wayne's money not Batman that Gotham needs to rebuild the city.

Disco Paco said...

Gordon's going to die in the first act. I think. If that happens, I don't think they'll kill of Bruce Wayne. Maybe they'll paralyze him and/or hand over the Batman reigns to a young 'un.

Scott Mendelson said...

That's actually the kind of finale I would love, where Bruce Wayne realizes that *he* and not Batman can be the symbol of hope that Gotham needs to break out of its cycle, and that his influence and money can do far more good than his actions as a nighttime vigilante.

Scott Mendelson said...

This is true.


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