July 20th, 2012


The Dark Knight Rises


            For a lot of people, the opening of The Dark Knight Rises was a sad affair, and it had nothing to do with a psychotic gunman mowing down twelve moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.  The Dark Knight Rises marks the end of one of the better movie franchises we've known in our inflated, blockbusters-only film industry.  Regardless of how the actual film turned out, it would be the last we were going to get from this Batman franchise, which meant it would be the last we would see of the familiar spectacle, thematic depth, and overall quality which we've cherished in recent years.  And that's a little sad.  Because, nowadays, there are far more Green Lanterns than there are Dark Knights.  In our computer-generated age of loud noises and pretty things, inspired filmmaking has largely fallen by the wayside.  Which makes it somewhat of an honor that these movies came in our time.  But hopefully, now that the trilogy has reached its stunning conclusion, we can establish the Dark Knight films as a model to aspire to for mainstream cinema, erasing the thought that a big-budget film cannot be thought-provoking or inventive with familiar genres.

            As a stand alone film, The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting tribute to the groundwork laid by the earlier two installments.  It tells its own sweeping story of challenge and triumph, good and evil, while delivering the same silver screen suspense that we've come to expect from this particular brand of superhero tale.  It did not disappoint; at least, not in the way it will when they reboot the entire franchise five years from now.

            As the film opens, we are clued in to the ramifications of Batman's decision at the end of The Dark Knight to take the fall for the wayward Harvey Dent.  Gotham City, aided by the Dent Act (which never would have passed had Dent's true nature been revealed), has finally been able to clean up its streets.  Bruce Wayne/Batman has been in seclusion for the past eight years, nursing a sore knee and working on his bow-and-arrow skills.  He seems conflicted about the past, but has made no effort to rectify it.  His sacrifice, which was to set fire to Batman's reputation in an effort to sanctify the departed Dent, has produced the intended effect: the city he swore to protect has found its peace.  At least in regards to this, Bruce Wayne has found a peace of his own.

            Of course, in the comic book multi-verse, peace can never last.  A bulging brute of a man named Bane kidnaps a Russian physicist and lays siege to Gotham.  Under the threat of nuclear apocalypse, Bane promises the citizens absolute freedom (which to him is synonymous with absolute anarchy), but it's pretty obvious that he is just a terrorist masquerading as a political revolutionary.  Gotham, right on cue with the other films in the trilogy, devolves into its usual chaos: neighbors start turning on each other, the bridges are demolished, the football stadium collapses, the mayor is given an unsanctimonious reprieve from office, and the entire police force gets trapped in the underground sewers.  A fair question at this point is whether Gotham is even worth saving, what with its propensity to turn viciously savage at the first speech given by any old super-villain who happens by.  I also wonder why there always seems to be a literal army of subversives waiting at the beck and call of these newly-emigrated villains; it seems to take Bane only days before he has a legion of devotees allowing him to stage an effortless coup d'etat to take over the city.  And, for the love of God, can they please build some sturdier prisons in Gotham?

            Regardless, it becomes obvious to our hibernating savior that he must reemerge and save his beloved city from the threat of Bane.  But things aren't quite so easy this time around (as if they ever were).  Having taken so much time off, Batman has lost some of his fighting fervor and possibly some of his belief in himself.  Coupling this crisis of confidence with a traitorous Catwoman, a financial empire in ruin, and the staunch opposition of a masked behemoth trained by the League of Shadows, it becomes clear that Batman has his work cut out for him.  To make matters worse, as Gotham falls further and further into discord, Bruce is beaten ragged and airlifted to some god-forsaken prison in the middle of an unnamed desert.  Here, depleted and damn near disintegrated, Batman learns what it really takes to redeem oneself: faith.  The faith he finds is not the brash overconfidence of the earlier films, but a deeper, darker faith born of his mortality and his desperate need to protect his city.  For most of the film, Batman doesn't seem like much of a superhero; Bane handles him with ease in their preliminary skirmishes.  And even when he emerges from the prison, having completed his rehabilitation regiment of pushups, pull-ups, and sit-ups (that brought back loving memories of my favorite sadist: Patrick Bateman), it is a man that climbs out of the pit and wanders into the desert, intent on saving his city from complete disaster -- not a superhero.  Superhuman?  Definitely.  But even Bruce Wayne admits that the point of the costume was the symbolic mystery that Batman could be anyone; in the end, Batman is no more capable than you or I, save for his uncompromising faith in the ideals of truth and justice.  For this cause, Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham ready to assume whatever role his cause dictates: whether Dark Knight or willing civilian.

            As usual, the film's true strength comes from the man at the helm, Christopher Nolan, and his almost literary devotion to theme.  He uses his plots and characters as reflections of the larger issues at stake.  Batman's (and all superheroes') primary struggle is finding their appropriate identity and purpose.  The caped crusader grapples with his future just as often as he is haunted by his past.  Which is why it makes sense that after the eight year gap between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has not moved on, collapsing into a regretful self-despair.  Gotham City may no longer need him to be Batman, but he does need to be Batman.  This theme of misplaced identity is deftly cross-examined against Catwoman (Anne Hatheway), who is a master burglar looking for a fresh start.  When her inevitable relationship with Batman begins, their cross-purposes (her trying to forget the past, him trying to reclaim it) expose their contradictions.  They find a bond in their shared unfulfillment, both victims to the irrevocable details of their lives.

            Bane's allure to the people of Gotham feeds on a similar idea of victimhood: the immense wealth disparity that has left the vast majority of people feeling disenfranchised and cheated by the system.  Bane offers them nothing but upheaval, but it is attractive to those scourged by a sense of entitlement.  One gets the feeling that Bane and his bomb have very little to do with the peace-shattering chaos that quickly blankets Gotham.  Their citizen's court (which seems like a clear reference to the French Revolution and the demented blood thirst of its "Committee of Public Safety") even notes that Bane has no rank or jurisdiction in Gotham City.  Bane's true efficacy lies in convincing the people of Gotham to take themselves hostage, while simultaneously leveraging the threat of nuclear destruction for his own purposes.

            But as a character, Bane is one of the more frustrating.  Because comic book villains are necessarily temporary, due to the episodic nature of the narratives, their worth is relative.  I can't tell if Bane seemed a bit too obscure to identify with because of inadequate character development or because the Joker was so effective in the previous film.  In many ways, Bane was doomed from the start, as Heath Ledger's performance was so dynamic and memorable that he could never have stacked up.  But overcoming evil is essential to the superhero tale, and the exact nature of that evil is of particular importance.  And if the Joker was provoked by innate menace, Bane seems pretty unfocused.  What exactly does he want out of all of this?  Sure, an endgame is explained in the waning minutes of the film (which I won't spoil here), but it is much less satisfying than the pure simplicity of the Joker's unfounded nature.  If the Joker never had a motive for anything he did; Bane has far too many motives.  Bane is a mash-up of interests: the struggle to avenge his dark past, the struggle to destroy Gotham, the struggle to punish Batman, the struggle to find really killer wool coats, etc.  These sometimes conflicting interests spread him pretty thin; further, by the time we get Bane's supposedly true motive, aren't all his other actions rendered inconsequential?  In the end, Bane seems like a lackey.  The Joker, on the other hand, was always calling his own shots.

            However, Bane's true role fits in nicely with the foundation laid in Batman Begins, the oft-forgotten first film in the Dark Knight trilogy.  This was a deft move by Nolan, as it brought the films a sense of cohesion that had been lacking (The Dark Knight seemed like a film unto itself, completely disconnected from the original).  And the closing half hour of the film was a pitch-perfect maelstrom of action that provided an appropriate swansong to the electric intensity that permeated the entire trilogy.  I will be shocked if this film doesn't win the Oscar for Best Editing, as the seamless transitions through the last portion of the film, with so many things happening at once, are breathtaking.  I could have done without the heavy nature of the dialogue (there were a few too many extended monologues and back stories), whereby it seemed that every word spoken by every character was intended to carry some dramatic resonance, but by and large, Nolan has created yet another riveting script that has translated into a captivating feature film.

            Still, true to form, The Dark Knight Rises is about the possibility of one man making a difference in an indifferent world.  The pit at the prison serves as a rather obvious metaphor of this theme: while we may be alone in our struggle towards the light and freedom, that does not cheapen the importance of the process.  Regardless of the sacrifice it requires, doing the right thing is always justifiable.  And always worth it.  In these troubled times, with financial obstacles pressing down upon us and the violence of criminals every bit as real as that which we see on movie screens (or at movie theaters, for fuck's sake), accepting the shackles of our limitations just isn't an option.  We have to climb that wall no matter how many times it takes.  Modern life is one extended opportunity to "Rise" to the occasion; we mustn't squander it with fear and presumed defeat.

            It is the crux of what it means to be a superhero, or a cop, or a fireman, or a soldier, or a teacher, or a priest, or any of the other roles that we might assume in our lives: what difference will you make?