2012: The Movies of the Year

The late Gene Siskel once described the job of being a film critic as “covering the national dream beat.” What he meant is that the movies document our collective unconscious. We may go to the movies to escape, but because the movies trade on our fantasies and not our conscious fears and desires, they often tell us more about ourselves than they intend to – and we may not always like what we see. This is how I would describe the movies of 2012. They reflected the dark side of our dreams, and what they showed us about our society left us with more questions than answers.

It is impossible to pick a film that best encapsulates America in 2012 – because there are clearly two: The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises. Neither was the most popular movie of the year – that honor would go to The Avengers by a wide margin – but the themes of both films encompass the political and cultural issues that have defined our year: income inequality, class warfare, gender issues, the perils of celebrity, our struggles with sensationalized violence, and a profound loss of faith in our democracy. The scripts for these two films miraculously weave these themes into the dual narratives of a young girl and a man-child who volunteer their services to society – and end up becoming its protector.

Released as a novel in 2008, The Hunger Games was loved equally by teenagers and adults. For a while there, it was impossible to enter a Starbucks or sit on a subway without seeing someone reading it. That it was popular with people of all ages speaks to our nation’s increasing emphasis on youth culture: the story was originally seen as a metaphor for the harsh world of high school, in which teenagers ruthless destroy each other, but the hardness of the world it depicts spoke also to those adults struggling to adapt to the recession that began the year the book was published.

Katniss Everdeen, the teenage hero of The Hunger Games, has been forced to take over as the head of her household and protector of her younger sister. Her father is out of the picture, and we never quite learn why, but it is clear that her emotionally and socially absent mother is unable to provide for her family. Katniss, who lives in the poorest “district” in America, is forced to hunt and forage to keep her family alive – that is until her little sister is chosen as to participate in the Hunger Games – in which 24 teenagers kill each other for the amusement of the aristocrats in the capital city –  and Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Orphaned by both her parents and her government, she is forced to survive on her own. Similar orphan characters have filled multiplexes for the last decade. From the Bourne movies to Slumdog Millionaire to Life of Pi, the films of the 21st century have been rife with characters who have been abandoned by parental figures and must find their own way. This trend reflects our moral uncertainty in the post-9/11 era and our fear, so often voiced by President Obama, that we are for the first time leaving the next generation of Americans worse off than their parents.

Of course, Bruce Wayne is also defined by the void left by the death of his own parents, and The Dark Knight Rises, more than any other Batman film, concerns itself with what happens to people who lack strong leadership. Bane, the film’s much-maligned villain, eliminates the power structure of the city, and without authority, the “good people of Gotham” descend into chaos and destruction. A subplot of Rises dramatizes his role as the orphan protector quite literally; when Wayne fakes his own death in the film’s final reel, he leaves Wayne Manor to the local orphanage, which had been struggling to stay afloat.

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Of course, there is a political corollary to the stories of abandoned children that have engulfed our screens of late. President Obama has shaped his entire political identity around similar themes. His first book, Dreams from my Father, primarily concerned itself with Obama’s lack of a father figure. Although his mother played a prominent role in his upbringing, Obama framed the formation of his political personality in the context of his father’s absence and a search for his heritage. His rhetoric has followed suit. In the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that launched his political career, he famously said:

“We are not a collection of red states and blue states. We are the United States of America.”

With these simple words – which he has often reiterated, as recently as 2012 victory night speech – he framed America’s citizens as orphan children, separated from each other and devoid of parental leadership, which he then offered with his candidacy.

* * *

But the orphan president hit some roadblocks. More than three years into his presidency, many Obama supporters were feeling let down by their protector. The list of their disappointments is long and well-documented: a cabinet full of career Washington types, capitulation on health care reform, increased use of some Bush-era tactics on the War on Terror, a surge in Afghanistan that produced no tangible results, negligence of the environment, etc. People were disillusioned, and understandably so. The sweeping change that Obama promised – and many believed was possible – had not been achieved, and the conventional wisdom by those who have written the story of Obama’s first term was that the young president was overwhelmed by the responsibility of the office.

Since a movie takes two to three years to produce from conception to release date, the movies of 2012 were hatched during Obama’s first year in office, when the contrast between the promises of his campaign and the realities of his presidency were the most pronounced. Occupy Wall Street was the grassroots manifestation of this disappointment, but the movies of this year also reflect this desire for systemic change and disappointment in their government, and they do it through one consistent theme: revolution.

The Hunger Games hinted at this, with its images of revolt that echoed some protests of the anti-war 1960s; this theme will become a bigger part of the story in its three sequels. Christopher Nolan chose income inequality and class warfare as the topical themes of The Dark Knight Rises; Bane plotted his revolution in the urban sewers, with imagery that connoted the various revolutions of Paris. It is no coincidence then that 2012 was the year that producers finally chose to adapt and release the musical Les Miserables, whose plot hinges on the June Rebellion of 1832. These themes are so prevalent that we cannot chalk them up to individual artistic choices; even the artless Total Recall remake set its action plot in a future society where the 99% are used as a slave labor for government aristocrats.

If these films represent the emergence of a new archetype, it is clear that there are still old myths to draw on. There were two Snow White films this year, and both were overlaced with themes of class warfare. Julia Robert’s Mirror, Mirror was a flop, but Snow White and the Huntsman was one of the surprise hits of the summer, and both movies incorporate income inequality into their famous stories. Each film’s Evil Queen is depicted as the one percent, siphoning money from the poorer districts to pay for her castle, jewels, and lavish wardrobes. In each, the young Snow White leads a revolution, destroying the Evil Queen, redistributing her wealth, and returning the land to the people. The story of Snow White has now overtaken the capitalist fantasy Cinderella as the go-to fairy tale for producers looking to connect with modern audiences; I would in fact suggest that The Hunger Games is just a loose adaptation of it.

It is noteworthy that all three of these films place a woman at their center, as gender politics were such a large part of this year’s political culture. The Hunger Games in particular addresses themes of gender equality. During the games, Katniss teams up with her fellow District 12 resident, a boy named Peeta, who harbors a schoolboy crush on her. Katniss occupies the role of protector of her people that is traditionally assigned to men; but she also wears the pants in her relationship with Peeta. He is in fact so physically inferior to her that is the basis for a joke. As they split up to search for food, he jokingly suggests that he take her bow and go hunting, before laughing and going off to gather fruit. But Peeta can’t even do that right – Katniss finds him about to eat poisonous berries and knocks them out of his hands.

Hunger Games

The Dark Knight Rises brought the only prominent female Batman villain back to the big screen. Even in 1992’s Batman Returns, Catwoman was a symbol of female empowerment; played by Michelle Pfeiffer with costuming that brought to mind the world’s most beautiful dominatrix, her Catwoman was a lonely secretary killed by her macho boss, only to be resurrected as the yin to Bruce Wayne’s tormented yang. In Dark Knight Rises, she is a cat burglar with moves, smart and strong enough to match up with Batman as a foe and later as a friend; this being 2012, the female lead in the film can’t just be the villain. Catwoman eventually suffers a crisis of conscience and joins Batman’s quest for order.

The prominence of the female action hero in 2012 (also seen in films such as Prometheus and Brave) reflects a deep shift in our social and political values. President Obama touted his legislative accomplishments on women’s issues – the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that required insurers to cover birth control – on the campaign trail. He succeeded in making it a point of contrast between him and Mitt Romney, aided by Republicans’ failures to provide satisfying rhetoric on the issues (“binders full of women,” Todd Akin’s rape comments, etc). Obama would ride a near-historic gender gap to re-election, but the election of so many women to the U.S. Senate provides the best example of this dramatic cultural shift. In both film and politics, women leapt into roles traditionally filled by men. No direct lines can be drawn between the success of The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises and the election of so many women to the Senate (including several from states that had only previously elected men), but the major shift that took place on Election Day is not simply a response to a few poor comments by Republicans. It represents the kind of shift in social values that the movies – our collective dreams – both reflect and reaffirm.

These dreams have not yet become the nightmares that these films hint at, but they are getting close. Each of the themes that figured so prominently into The Hunger Games and many other films of 2012 – revolution, the increased role of women in positions of leadership, income inequality – reflect our fear of the unknown future and a desire for change. We feel that our current means of solving society’s problems are no longer working – Congress’s current job approval rating is a testament to that – but as the people spoke in 2012 presidential election, we do not have a real alternative.

Obama’s re-election was the result of a narrative of fear, not of the hope that he harnessed in 2008; most pundits attribute his victory to the campaign’s success in creating a negative perception of Romney early in the general election. In fact, both The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises directly reference this shift in strategy, even using his campaign buzzword. The Hunger Games stayed largely faithful to the book, but they did add one telling scene. Midway through the film, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains why they hold the Games each year. “Hope,” he says. “It’s the only thing stronger than fear.” The Dark Knight Rises contained a similar line: “There can be no true despair without hope.” In these films that take every opportunity to incorporate politics into their stories, there can be no doubt who they are referring to. This is the dark side of the hope that Obama promised; when it doesn’t work out, things get nasty. These two films reflect the national mood: although we hoped for change once again in 2012, we are getting awfully impatient waiting for the results.

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