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Filmism.net Dispatch August 4, 2012

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I'm still musing about all things Batman this week, and another interesting thing struck me about the character of Bruce Wayne.

Has it ever occurred to you how much we hate the rich? Just look at how gleeful we are when the rich topple. When the likes Bernie Madoff or Ken Lay (Enron) talk about how unfair it all is when they're bought to justice, we howl them down. Wouldn't we all love to be confined to our penthouse apartment in Manhattan under house arrest? It's no coincidence Alan Alda's character in Tower Heist was a thinly veiled Madoff caricature, and we didn't feel sorry for him getting his comeuppance one little bit.

So why do we love Batman or Tony Stark of Iron Man? Why don't we watch them on the news with barely concealed jealousy and vitriol, knowing they'll never find out what it really means to go without? Why doesn't the blood boil in our veins, Occupy-style, when we watch them and their 'problems'?

Here's a clue: they suffer. It's not just because conflict (and the suffering that results) propels drama. If someone's so much better looking, richer, younger or more successful than us, we won't sympathise until we feel superior. It's very hard to feel sorry for people who have it better than you do, it's just the physics of empathy, if you like.

In real life all we'd see of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne would be the yachts, the cool cars, the giant houses and the supermodels while the rest of us drag our sorry, exhausted hides out of bed to go to a dull job every day.

But the movie shows us what they're really like. Tony Stark is emotionally exhausted, constantly trying to prove his worth to a father that didn't care and isn't even around any more to vindicate his efforts. It's driven him to see everything (even people) as playthings to be discarded, mania and alcoholism.

And Bruce Wayne's similarly tortured with a compulsion that can never be satisfied. He spends all night wandering the streets of Gotham City in fetish wear trying to find and stop the petty criminal Joe Chill who murdered his parents, even though it's far too late.

But here's another crucial difference in both cases, and even though it's a male-centric view, women have seen it so many times at the movies they know the motif. When a rich male character can have any gorgeous actress, model or Italian Countess he wants, the woman he'll love will be the one who's unimpressed by his wealth and position. She'll be stoic, sensible, waiting for the man underneath to grow up and notice her and not putting up with any of the rubbish or baggage he comes with. Just as crucially, he won't know quite how to handle that.

We want to see that this unshakeable, cloistered and confident master of the universe can be tamed, bought to heel. We want him to be as human as the rest of us would be when faced with our match among the opposite sex. One wonders how the gender politics would work if things were reversed and a rich female heroine could have her pick of men but the one she's always secretly wanted is the only one who could melt her icy exterior.

(Actually we know the answer to that question, which goes to show how out of step and conservative popular culture is with gender equality. If she had more than one man on her arm we'd think she was a slut, but that's another story.)

So there you have it. That's how you make your rich character likeable. Make the pay for the unforgivable sin of having more money, toys and sexual partners than the audience.

I didn't get a chance to ask Anne Hathaway about it when I interviewed her for The Dark Knight Rises, but I did investigate the path that led her to the role. Read it here.

You might have also seen some of the negative critical comment about the movie. Time will tell whether we were all blinded by its good points and didn't see the fatal flaws some people have pointed out, but in the meantime these hilarious Gotham City newspaper headlines will give you food for thought. Beware: spoilers!

And for a complete change of pace, I can heartily recommend the charming and funny romp The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which interestingly has a Dark Knight Rises connection.

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