Monday, July 30, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

In preparation for seeing The Dark Knight Rises I re-watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight for the first time in -- well, I'm not sure how long. TOO long. I'd forgotten the power of those films, and how they never fail to draw a deep, visceral, emotional response from me every time I view them, without fail. Christopher Nolan's darkly compelling reimagining of the Batman legend is storytelling at its finest, exhilarating, powerful, and moving. I feel as though I can't really look at this film as a single entity -- it really is just the third act of Nolan's Batman epic. And as such, I thought it was beautifully told. There are apt to be lots of spoilers below, just so's you know. :)

After I finished watching The Dark Knight, I went back to my old blog and read my thoughts on that film (that was 2008? where has the time gone?). I was once again powerfully struck by Batman's sacrifice at the end of TDK, where he takes the blame for the crimes Gotham's White Knight, Harvey Dent, committed as Two-Face prior to his death. If the Joker taught Batman anything, it was that there is a very thin line between hero and vigilante. If all -- or at least part -- of the reason Bruce Wayne initially donned Batman's cowl mask was to become a symbol for the people of his city, to embody the idea that anyone could make a difference, he takes a step towards the ultimate sacrifice by allowing himself to become the villain in order that Gotham might have hope, an ideal to cling to in the darkest night. As the then-Lieutenant Gordan explained to his son, Batman isn't the hero Gotham wanted, but the one she deserves. They'll chase him because they need to, and because he can take it, because he's willing to be whatever Gotham needs in order to give the people of the city the strength to rise up against crime and lawlessness. That was Batman's gift -- taking on Dent's guilt and leaving Gotham with the hope of something incorruptible and pure -- a line he crossed a long time ago.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after Harvey Dent's (Aaron Eckhart) death, the former District Attorney memorialized as a hero. The Dent Act, inspired by his heroism, has given Gotham's law enforcement the power need to virtually elimate crime. Superficially, all seems well -- but Gordon (Gary Oldman), now the police commissioner, is increasingly sick with guilt over his part in perpetuating the myth of Dent's nobility at the expense of Batman's reputation. Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, whose notoriety only grows with each passing year that he spends in self-imposed seclusion on his estate. Following a large investment in Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) clean energy project -- a device designed to harness fusion power -- Wayne pulled funding when he learned that the device's core could be modified and transformed into a nuclear bomb. The failed project has left the once powerful and influential Wayne Enterprises in financial flux and turmoil, ripe for a takeover bid -- and waiting in the wings is an unscrupulous business rival, Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), eager to deal the once-mighty company a final death blow.

Superficially, Gotham is more peaceful than it has been in years -- but as her once-mighty guardians Gordon and Wayne sit sick with the knowledge that the peace was bought with a lie, no matter how well-intentioned -- the city itself is crumbling from within. There are rumors of an army assembling beneath of the city, led by a ruthless mercenary -- as Gordon painfully discovers when investigating the kidnapping of a congressman. Gordon's only ally is a streetwise police officer named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who grew up in an orphan's home funded by the Wayne family. Blake's family history is heart-breakingly similar to Bruce's -- and he has identified so strongly with the Bruce's family heartache that he's seen beyond the playboy persona and pegged the recluse as Gotham's Dark Knight. Blake and Gordon know their city needs its caped crusader -- but Batman has been absent for so long, could he survive another war with unspeakable evil? And as the ever-faithful Alfred (Michael Caine) worries, does he even want to?

Nolan doesn't miss a beat in bringing Batman's story full circle. I was blown away by how many threads from the first two films were woven into this final act. This is thorough, thoughtful, timeless storytelling. Over the years throughout this filmic journey I've been struck again and again by the manner in which Nolan utilizes the heroic journey template to bring Batman's story to life. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell posits that the archetypal hero receives a call to adventure that requires him to set himself apart, venture into previously unknown territory, survive trials and complete quests, and then return to society where he shares the fruits of his knowledge and accomplishments. According to Campbell, the purpose of trials is to conduct individuals 'across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life' (as discussed in my undergraduate thesis).

Tortured by his parents' murders, Bruce became Batman for a two-fold purpose -- to make a difference, to become a symbol of resistance to evil, but also in an attempt to exorcise the demons that haunt him. Because fighting evil at the level Batman encounters cannot help but change a man -- and every time he puts on that mask, every time he faces unspeakable evil, he dances with the risk of losing his own precious sense of humanity. That, I think, is how best I can articulate Alfred's grief over his son in every way but name -- his heart's desire is to know that Bruce could live free from the shackles of the past. His devotion is raw, pure, and heart-breaking. Caine's portrayal of Alfred breaks my heart every single time, and every time leaves me breathless, on the edge of my seat in awe of Bruce's drive and wondering how he can possibly come back from one more ride as the Dark Knight.

I suppose  the "easiest" way to finish up my discussion of this film, and in the hope of touching on as many of the elements that I loved, is to talk characters. I have loved every second watching Christian Bale's journey as Bruce Wayne/Batman. When Wayne the recluse was first introduced, my first thought was "Look! Wayne's an American Rochester!" (A Jane Eyre reference is always appropriate, no? Ha!!) Ever since Rachel's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) death at the end of The Dark Knight, Bruce has remained "stuck" in limbo, because with her death he believed he'd lost his one shot at a life beyond Batman. The revelation that Rachel would've chosen Harvey Dent if she'd lived, and that Alfred had kept that knowledge from him was positively gut-wrenching -- especially in how it leads him to reject the ever-faithful Alfred.

Meeting Blake and Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) are turning points for Bruce, as through them we see, I think, for the first time him realize that he has an opportunity to sow into their lives, to take everything his experiences as Bruce and Batman have taught him and share it (the final step in Campbell's heroic cycle). In Blake, Batman recognizes a kindred spirit, someone willing and capable of stepping into his shoes as Gothoam's symbol of resistance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was just amazing as Blake -- principled, driven, loyal to Gordon, willing to risk the ire of fellow officers like Foley (Matthew Modine) to follow his gut instincts. I loved the energy and physicality Gordon-Levitt brought to the role, and that hint of brokenness behind the eyes, so similar to Bruce's -- yet perhaps not quite so in danger of losing himself, because of how he seems grounded in serving/mentoring his fellow orphans. And while his full legal name -- Robin John Blake -- comes as no surprise by the end of the film, the official reveal is an extremely satisfying moment. I loved the fact that rather than develop a partner relationship between the two, Batman mentors Blake and then gives him the ability to continue as his heir.

I confess I was a little nervous when I first heard that Hathaway had been case as Catwoman. Catwoman has been a favorite character of mine ever since I was a child -- I loved her style, her cat ears, and as I grew older, that sense of ambiguity and attraction between her and Batman. The script handles her character brilliantly and Hathaway more than rises to the occasion. Selina Kyle is, in her own way, just as broken as Bruce Wayne, just as desperate for a fresh start -- and until she meets Bruce/Batman, unable to see a way to achieve that new beginning without selfishly doing whatever it takes in order to guarantee her survival. It isn't until she effectively signs Batman's death warrant at Bane's hands that you see regret crack her steely demeanor -- and when he returns, the realization that he still sees the possibility for good in her, in spite of what she's done, that is what empowers her to change. More than the momentary flirtation Bruce Wayne shares with Miranda Tate, I loved the soul-deep connection this film forges between Batman and Catwoman, and the way in which it explores the idea that these two broken, wounded people can rise above their pasts to make a difference in their world.

Tom Hardy as the mercenary Bane was interesting. I am really a fan of Hardy as an actor but the character of Bane left me a little...flat. Compared to the Joker or the fear unleased by Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), he struck me as such a run-of-the-mill terrorist. Absolutely, 100%, crazy and evil yes -- but more interesting because of his history with the League of Shadows and relationship with Ra's Al Ghul's heir than his status as an arch-villain. He didn't stand alone for me -- he was a puppet. I remember reading that Hardy had to redo his dialogue because the initial cut was so garbled -- and laying the re-done dialogue over the existing soundtrack didn't do Bane any favors, either. It seemed separate from the film, in a way.

That said, I loved the reveal of Bane's history and how it related to Miranda Tate, revealed to be the true mastermind behind the latest attack on Gotham, because she is the daughter of Batman's mentor -- Ra's Al Ghul. First of all, Cotillard is unbelievably classy-looking, and I loved her whole demeanor as Tate -- and then the turn, when she reveals that she's been playing Wayne all along. This was a long con, brilliantly executed, and her cold-blooded plotting honestly scared me more than Bane's thuggery.

I've already mentioned how much I adore Caine as Alfred. It was also wonderful to see Morgan Freeman return one final time as Lucius Fox. I loved the moment at the end of the film when  he examines the Bat and realizes that Wayne had already fixed the autopilot issues -- and that against all odds he could've survived. That look -- oh it was priceless. In the category of people I never expected to see in this film, we have Burn Gorman, the Torchwood vet as Stryver, an associate of Daggett's, and then there's Sgt. Wu -- I mean Reggie Lee! -- as Ross, Blake's partner on the police force (thanks to Grimm I can't think of Lee as anyone other than Wu, lol!). I also loved seeing Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and Ra's Al Ghul make return appearances in this film -- Nolan never missed a beat. :)

Google The Dark Knight Rises and Charles Dickens, and you have your choice of articles discussing how Nolan was inspired by the classic A Tale of Two Cities when penning the script for Batman's final chapter. Dickens's tale of the French Revolution is all over the final third of this film in particular, lending a timeless quality to the chilling scenes of the show trials and Bane's efforts to get the Gotham populace to tear down its wealthy, and the scenes of the resistance led by Gordon and Blake. There is a particularly effective moment when Selena Kyle finds a family photo in a trashed home, and realizes, perhaps for the first time, the human cost of this "revolution."

When Bane throws Batman in his hellish pit of a prison, the trilogy really comes full circle. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne in prison, so eaten alive with the pain of loss and rage that he was willing to live there in order to fight criminals. This time, this time the prison is not only literal but a symbol, and in breaking out of it, Bruce sheds the shackles of his past. He is literally and figuratively reborn when he emerges from the pit, ready for one final battle as the Batman -- but not just for himself, for his broken and besieged city. In making that final, apparently fatal sacrifice to save Gotham, Batman reveals that he is finally ready to relinquish his dual identity and move on with his life. (Side note: the look on Gordon's face when he realizes that Bruce Wayne, the child he offered comfort to years earlier has been his staunchest ally against crime, responsible for saving his son's life -- it's a powerful illustration of how one never knows what little, perhaps seemingly inconsequential moments, sow into the lives of others to bear fruit years later.)

At Bruce Wayne's funeral, Gordon reads the following passage from A Tale of Two Cities:
"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, though long to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out....It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
That is a fitting summation of Bruce Wayne's final gift to his city -- enabling them to rise above, to survive and (hopefully) thrive after Bane's assault -- the gift of faith that they could do so without him -- but he doesn't leave them forsaken. In willing the Batcave to a worthy successor in Blake, in seeing the Bat Signal repaired, lies an assurance to two o fhis staunchest allies that they will never be alone. Unlike the immortality Ra's Al Ghul saught to achieve, Batman's legacy as a symbol of sacrifice and hope is oh so much more powerful. And Bruce's final gift, of allowing Alfred to see that he'll be okay -- oh that brought tears to my eyes. He's finally, I hope, achieved a measure of the peace that proved so elusive.

I sincerely hope that come awards season The Dark Knight Rises receives a slew of nominations. This film, and the trilogy as a whole, is an epic accomplishment in every sense of that phrase. From Nolan's masterful direction, to the tightly-plotted scripts, character arcs, set and costume design, and yes, the musc -- love Hans Zimmer's scores! -- Nolan's Batman trilogy is a breath-taking, cinematic tour-de-force. Seeing Bruce's hard-won measure of peace -- it's been a long journey but one well worth the taking.

*Images copyright Warner Bros./DC Comics.


Rissi said...

Oddly enough, this is the one superhero I've never been all that tempted to watch. 'Begins' did pique my curiosity because of Katie Holmes and this because of Anne (plus I like Christian Bale) but other than that... I've never rented them.

Everyone says they are so good though I don't see myself seeing them anytime soon.

Unknown said...

@Rissi - Katie Holmes is nothing extraordinary in Batman Begins, believe me. :P For me, Nolan's elevated the comic book film to an art form with these films...they are a cut above everything else out there IMO. :)

Heather said...

My husband has been watching the first few movies and man...they are scary. I just scamper in and out of the room and try not to be traumatized, lol, I am a baby! The Joker is just too much to take. Speaking of, I saw this the other day and its bizarre-- an article and video about how Ledger may have been doing a Tom Waites impersonation for the Joker. The voice itself is uncanny. Check it out:

However, Christian Bale will forever and always be Laurie to me :D

Unknown said...

@Heather - They are very dark and certainly not for everyone -- Ledger's Joker was almost too much for me, to be honest. But what keeps me coming back to the films is the light shot through the darkness -- that is, I think, beautifully done. Thanks for that link -- wild!!! And I too love Bale as Laurie. :)

Heidenkind said...

So The Dark Knight Rises references A Tale of Two Cities... just like a certain TV show I know. :) What is with all the Dickens references lately?

Unknown said...

@Tasha - Oh I know, I was just talking w/ Gina of Dickensblog about that very thing on Facebook today. And not just Dickens, but so many of the references I'm aware of are specific to Two Cities. Timeless, huh? ;)