by Clayton Shank
One of the defining characteristics of The Dark Knight Trilogy remains how stubbornly grounded it is. We know that a crime fighter dressed as a giant bat is, for practical reasons, ridiculous, but Nolan’s films accomplish the arduous task of making it plausible. The fact that the first two films are loosely tethered to our perceived notions of reality make them, in my mind, the primary reason why the series is the finest example of the genre to ever grace the screen. Yes, there’s a self-seriousness going on here that some find absurd, but I find it refreshing and engaging. The resulting cinematic world makes for gripping drama, towering stakes, and lends a crushing weight to life and death. Only in the final two installments, however, has Nolan weaved our collective anxieties into his work, with The Dark Knight having a post-911 surveillance angle and The Dark Knight Rises having an economic, upward mobility subtext. Many scenes in Rises, specifically, play out as if the Occupy Movement went batshit (forgive the pun). Nolan has made it quite clear that his films are not political, in that they don’t take sides on any single issue, but rather tie in topically by placing Batman in a familiar universe. This extra layer of recognition stamps the films into our time for all time. Whether viewed now or in 50 years, Nolan’s Batman will also serve indirectly as a cultural document. This is not necessarily special when viewed in a larger context of films, but considering the subject matter and likely longevity of the material, that’s something to latch onto.
It’s been 8 years since the events in The Dark Knight, where Batman has been blamed for the murder of Harvey Dent (as well as Dent’s own murders) and cast out into exile. By the way, that’s exactly the amount of time it took Nolan to resurrect the series from the ashes left by Batman and Robin. Coincidence?
Commissioner Gordon: You’re a detective now, son; you’re not allowed to believe in coincidences.
We find Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a recluse, limping around with a cane that braces his injuries from the previous 8 years, presumably when he fell rescuing Gordon’s son from Harvey Dent‘s fate. Throughout the film Wayne’s physicality, or lack thereof, remains a motif which is not only startling, but actually a little groundbreaking. How many of our screen superheroes have had to deal with an aging physique? After a charity function at Wayne Manor explains how the Harvey Dent Act has kept Gotham at peace, Wayne is robbed by the nebulous Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a charming ‘me first’ cat burglar with dubious ethics and an unfortunate attitude towards cripples.
Hathaway perhaps was met with the most guarded reception upon hearing of her casting, mostly because her past roles don’t scream ‘gritty action hero’. Not to mention the nagging feeling that Catwoman was too campy to be believable in a series also boasting Heath Ledger’s The Joker. A great wardrobe touch by costume designer Lindy Hemming has Selina’s eye gear resembling cat ears when slid over her head, cleverly smuggling in the more fantastical elements of her character. For me, the character really works, notably by bringing some generous doses of wit to a series that has, to this point, resided comfortably in the shadows. Kyle is also, without a doubt, the best female character the Nolan brothers (Chris and Jonah) have ever written. Her dialogue, like her appearance, is sleek, sexy and confident. Like the characters of The Joker and Harvey Dent, Kyle’s character has her own score arranged by composer Hans Zimmer. In her early scenes, Zimmer drops a beguiling, almost Oriental-like backdrop that gives the scenes a little extra quirkiness and character. Aside from holding her own physically, Hathaway quickly makes the character her own. Not only does she embody femininity, but like a true femme fatale, she uses her femininity to her advantage. In more that one scene she emotes a fantastic personality switch ranging from frail and shy to sultry and imposing.
Kyle’s initial burglary is discovered to be in service of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist excommunicated from The League of Shadows bent on finishing Ra’s al Ghul’s work from Batman Begins. Speaking of which, it would be a good idea to refresh your memory of the first installment before you see Rises. The decision to make Bane the main antagonist was a good one, as he is diametrically opposed to The Joker’s theatricality and schemer qualities. Whereas The Joker wanted chaos, Bane wants to pull the pin on the grenade. In addition to a high intelligence and shredded physique, Bane wears a ghastly mask which administers a constant anesthetic to numb the pain of a prior accident. Think Hannibal Lecter meets the face-huggers in the Alien franchise. If you’re going to cast a villain who is Batman’s physical superior, why not go for broke and hire the titular character of Bronson? Hardy is nearly unrecognizable here, doing most of his work with non-verbal face cues and body language. Side note, it’s of mild interest that the only part of Bane’s face that’s covered is the only part that isn’t covered on Batman’s face.
For all the challenges faced by an actor attempting to follow the all-time performance of Ledger, Hardy succeeds. His performance gives Bane a multi-layered, menacing sheen with surprising undercurrents of tragedy. There’s been plenty of commotion about Bane’s voice, which is a byproduct of the mask and achieved in post-production. I’ll admit that some of the louder dialogue comes off as cartoony, but it’s the quieter, subtle moments that achieve the frightening detachment Nolan was looking for. In some moments of terror and brutality, Bane has a casual, matter-of-fact demeanor that makes him almost…dare I say…charming. When Batman and Kyle escape from a rooftop brawl early on, Bane doesn’t look at the two as worthy adversaries but rather mosquitoes that need to be swatted. It’s all in his eyes.
Returning are regulars Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who get a little less to do this time around in service of first timer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The character of Blake is especially rewarding and gets a surprisingly vast amount of screen time. An earlier draft of the screenplay had Gordon-Levitt as The Riddler, to which it looks like some minute traces of the character remain. An orphan and brilliant policeman, Blake has not only deduced Wayne’s secret identity but is also the driving force in resurrecting him from obscurity. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (Oscar winner for La Vie en Rose) rounds out the ensemble as Miranda Tate, a love interest of Wayne who also partners with Wayne Enterprises’s efforts to design a machine offering sustainable energy. We learn Bane plans to convert the device, using the help of Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), into a fully functioning neutron bomb capable of eviscerating Gotham City. In the breathtaking prologue shot over the lush greens of Scotland, Bane and his mercenaries kidnap Pavel in an aerial hijack sequence shot daringly practical.
Now might be a good time to mention that if you’re only going to see this movie once, see it in IMAX. Not the digital IMAX (or LieMax) many theaters offer, but rather the grand, 70mm IMAX. It’s impossible to adequately describe how the gorgeous, all-encompassing photography enhances the experience. You’ll just have to take my word the surcharge is worth it. Some advice: the best seats are usually in the very back row, center. Don’t question, just go.
Getting back to the realism that underlies Rises, I found it curious that two of the largest set pieces revolve around money and sports. A bravura action scene finds Bane terrorizing a stock exchange.
Trader: There’s no money to be found here!
Bane: Then why are you people here?
The resulting chase provides the film with one of its most memorable images, a slick Wall Street-like trader sitting reverse, bound and gagged on a motorcycle. I’m having trouble recalling a more amusing human shield. Another key scene has Bane destroying a football stadium hosted by the fictional Gotham Rogues (some real life Pittsburgh Steelers). It could be argued that the two ‘gods’ ruling American life are money and sports, which obviously aren’t mutually exclusive. No two areas of our discourse may be more thoroughly idolized. Nolan theorizes that while Bane’s fiscal attack would cripple Gotham financially, an attack on a sports stadium would cripple them psychologically. This point hit a little closer to home than I was expecting.
Let’s take a birds-eye view for a moment. What’s so fascinating about Nolan’s trilogy is how he’s made an immensely satisfying experience largely without his eponymous character. Think about it. Batman isn’t introduced for a full hour in Begins, he shares the screen in thirds with Dent and The Joker in The Dark Knight, and in Rises he’s absent for much of the first and second acts. No adaptation of the character has paid more attention to Bruce Wayne and the world he inhabits. Without the comic book pretense, these films would still work just fine. Nolan develops each of his characters with a measured persistence so even when Batman’s not on screen, we’re never bored. The shining example in Rises is Blake’s early monologue recounting his tragic, broken childhood. Being an analogous upbringing to Wayne’s story, this exposition speaks volumes of Blake and reverberates for the rest of the narrative. Continuing on, each film in the series explores noticeably different terrain. Begins is, relatively speaking, the most traditional superhero flick of the lot, serving as an origin story, while The Dark Knight and Rises could easily be described as crime and war dramas, respectively. Translation: Batman isn’t just a superhero anymore.
There’s something wonderfully paradoxical about Nolan’s achievement here. His trilogy is many things, but crucially it is non-conformist. Many thought the director of Following and Memento would dumb down his approach for something as non-apologetically commercial as Batman films, but to the contrary, Nolan has adapted his approach and pushed the genre into deeper realms. True to the type, moments of crowd-pleasing find their way into the light, but the difference is what the audience must endure to get there. These aren’t Disney films as much as they’re Grimm Fairly Tales. Nolan’s hand often comes off as cold, but he is not afraid of a happy ending as long as we are willing, along with his protagonist, to claw through hell to get there. I expect the reason the Batman films have struck such a nerve is the same reason I don’t expect to see any young children dressed as Bane this Halloween. Nolan’s pushed the envelope thematically and tonally, bringing the blockbuster into the 21st century, all while operating defiantly old school. He shuns 3D, uses practical effects and stunts in lieu of CGI whenever possible, doesn’t use a 2nd unit (he supervises every second of footage) and is the proud claimant of the only summer tentpole this year actually shot on film. What novelty! On the other side of the summer playpen lurks The Avengers, which this film will inevitably be compared with. It’s an unfair comparison on its face; the two films live in different worlds. Marvel’s business behemoth has been remarkably efficient at redefining the scope of a franchise, but there’s also a feeling I can’t shake while watching Iron Man zip through the sky and Thor crack skulls with his giant hammer, however enjoyable it may be. It’s a feeling of disconnect. A feeling of corporate motivation. A lack of a personal touch and emotional involvement that always makes me feel an arm’s length away. I know them are fightin’ words, so let me qualify this with the obligatory ‘to each his own’.
Before you feel I’m blindingly drowning this film in praise, let me acknowledge that The Dark Knight Rises is a flawed film. If one were to vet the screenplay for logical gaps or inconsistencies, they would surely find them. The romance of Miranda Tate and Wayne isn’t given enough time to bloom, despite what the movie intends. It’s not quite as unforgivable as Thor’s romance with Jane in his first outing, but it’s disappointing. Without giving anything away, the climax would have benefited mightily if their passion was at least as warm as that fire they made love beside. Also, and this is a recurring problem in Nolan’s films, every now and again the electric pacing overwhelms key plot points, making proceeding scenes feel messy as we strain for some recollection of what has been said or done. It’s only revisiting the film that often clears the path. This point is no more valid than in the stupendous climax sequence in which roughly 3 months time has elapsed. The film moves so fast that I’d see many interpreting those months as more like 3 days. With the action being read as spread out, what transpires is more believable. With the editing as it stands, the film occasionally feels sloppy and overstuffed. But hey, with a 164 minute run time, maybe this is just what the doctor ordered. It’s hard to fault Nolan considerably when he comes up a little short, if only for the staggering goddamn ambition on display.
That being said, in the end I was conquered by The Dark Knight Rises. Whatever the flaws of form, they were no match for the bursting sentimentality I felt watching Bruce Wayne‘s path to redemption. With the aid of Zimmer’s thumping, tribal score and perfectly placed flashbacks, the third act builds to a crescendo I never saw coming, and made me want to stand up and cheer for the first time in at least a decade at the movies. The Dark Knight Trilogy has owned the big screen for the last seven years, casting a brilliant shadow of conversation and anticipation. Through all the darkness, despair and yes, even a little nihilism, Nolan finally leaves his tortured series and characters behind with glimmers of not just optimism, but even outright hope. Something I think we can all agree Batman has earned. The bar has been set for any future would-be franchises, and it is towering. Bravo, Mr. Nolan, Bravo.