Saturday, 21 July 2012

Why Do We Fall?: "The Dark Knight Rises"

Minor Spoilers Ahead

Where to begin with The Dark Knight Rises? While I may be a tad disappointed in it, I can't generalize and say this movie is a disappointment, or a failure. Believe you me, it's not. We get plenty of blockbusters each year that blow stuff up and attempt to be epic. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, despite being too lengthy in some respects, genuinely feels epic. It's scale harkens back to an almost old fashioned idea of what a Hollywood epic once was and can still be and it ends Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy on a well balanced note of conclusion and continuation.

It's remarkable that The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises are all superhero films yet despite that genre label they all seem to exist in a different genre of their own. Also, on the tonal spectrum they're miles apart. The Avengers is probably the most "comic booky" of the three, the one that's most in love its central characters and what it means for them all to finally come together in one movie. It's also probably the funniest of the three and it doesn't forget to give its larger than life very relatable human moments. The Amazing Spider-Man is the sweetest and most intimate of the three. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have a sexy and cute chemistry that sets the groundwork for the tragedy we know is to come. It's a pretty low key movie, more concerned with Peter Parker than Spider-Man in some respects- though it does have some great shots that feel straight out of a  Spider-Man comic book.

The Dark Knight Rises is the darkest of the three superhero films this summer and tonally the one most distant from its comic book origins. This feels like the least "Batmany" of Christopher Nolan's trilogy and I'm still trying to figure out how much of a good or bad thing that is. Nolan's vision from the very beginning, with Batman Begins, was to ground Batman in the real world. It wasn't a completely realistic universe but it played like it was. The same with The Dark Knight, which was a superhero epic within the context of crime drama. Both films achieved an almost perfect balance between creating a contemporary and stripped down universe while still feeling quintiessentially Batman. After making such definitive and mythic statements on Batman, It was no doubt difficult for Nolan to know where to go next. With The Dark Knight Rises Nolan has made the most "real world" feeling of his Batman films yet. All three films in the the trilogy are reflections of America's inner turmoils. In Batman Begins it was a battle against a city's police corruption.  The Dark Knight asked the question of how one fights terrorism in a post 9/11 world. In The Dark Knight Rises, it's economic crisis and how it leads to Gotham being at risk of annihilation. The previous two films were able to relate the mythology of Batman to its conflicts but this film seems the least concerned with Batman's place within its battle.

The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired the cape and cowl after taking the fall for Harvey Dent's (Aaron Eckhart) crimes as Two-Face. Nolan has joked that while he hasn't been able to do his Howard Hughes biopic, he has filled that gap by making these Batman films. Bruce certainly isn't too far away from Hughes' type of eccentricity. He's become a recluse and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) mentions that he doesn't have long fingernails like people say. I love the detail of Bruce becoming a recluse because it fits in to Nolan's "real world" style. In reality (he he), it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Bruce Wayne as a shut in hermit. The fact  he no longer operates as Batman adds even more resonance to the hermit characterization. There's a pretty good joke early on between Bruce and Selina and a certain kind of weapon that I won't reveal.

Selina Kyle is, of course, Catwoman. While Nolan was uncertain of how her character would fit in to his universe, his brother Jonah turned him around. The Dark Knight Rises deals with class divisions and the overthrowing of the rich. Catwoman works perfectly within this context because she's a cat burgular who wasn't born in to privilege. This is in stark contrast to Bruce Wayne, a man who, despite the tragedy of his parents' murder, was always provided for. I liked Hathaway a lot as Catwoman. When Hathaway was first cast I felt it was a little too conventional and "Hollywood" a choice but she does a great job of being funny, sexy and hardedged.

The villain of the film is Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist leader that was trained by Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), Bruce's former mentor. Bane isn't as diabolically entertaining as Heath Ledger's Joker but nevertheless Bane fascinates me. In many respects he feels the most "realistic" of the villains in the trilogy, making him the most intimidating. I felt a genuine sense of dread as he cuts off Gotham from the outside world and plans to destroy it. Like The Dark Knight, it's a heightened form of terrorist threat but one that's eerily plausiable.

I wish there was a little more of Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. He seems to spend most of the movie in a hospital and I wish for the last movie there was more of a role for him to play before the final act comes around. I did however love a moment between him and Batman near the end which ties their relationship back to the first film in an unexpected but I feel meaningful way. Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a strong performance as John Blake, a patrol officer who becomes a detective after Gordon is shot. Levitt has a great scene early on with Bale where we get a sense of how much Bruce meant to him as a young orphan since Bruce was an orphan himself, a 'Billionaire orphan" as Blake calls him. I don't want to reveal what else happens in the scene but Blake's knowledge, while it may not make logical sense, makes dramatic and thematic sense.

Michael Caine has a great scene which pays off on a decision Alfred made in The Dark Knight but I felt he and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox also deserved a little more to do. I don't want to reveal too much about Marion Cotillard's character Miranda Tate but I wish she was a little more prominent as well. For a while it seems like she's going to be a new love interest but that''s dropped pretty quickly. She does get to shine towards the end but that's all I'm saying.

And what about the (Bat) man himself, Christian Bale? Bale got a little overshadowed by Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart in the last movie but here he has a little more room to shine. Bale is pretty terrific here, convincingly conveying Bruce's lack of passion for anything in life in both sad and humorous way. He also conveys Bruce's brokeness in Bane's prison. And I have to say- I love the Bat voice. While after The Dark Knight came out it seemed a little ridiculous and over the top, I couldn't do without it. It's both hilarious and, when Batman repeats to Bane something he told Batman earlier, pretty intense and awesome.

Since Batman Begins Nolan has been criticized for his action sequences but I feel Nolan has improved over time in terms of his action sequences. I feel his action work here is arguably his best work yet just in terms of clarity. The fight scenes between Batman and Bane have a real weight to them and unlike the hand to hand combat in Batman Begins you can see Batman fighting. The prologue of the film, involving Bane, aside from being a great homage to the James Bond film Licence to Kill, is also a simultaneously unsettling and exciting feat of zero gravity action filmmaking.

There is a long stretch of time when the film does feel too lengthy and I was feeling that the film just wasn't as memorable as The Dark Knight or had as many great moments as that film- or even Inception. But by the time we finally get to the final action set pieces I was thinking "This is kind of great" and I was totally in to the race against time to save the city.

I said it was probably hard for Nolan to say much about Batman after the last two movies and that Batman didn't completely fit in to the film's main battle. This film seems less about Batman's relationship to Gotham's conflict and more about about Bruce Wayne's redemption, in a physical sense at least. While he comes back as Batman early on in the film, it's not enough. He truly has to learn how to be Batman again and that means having to push himself physically more than ever before.

The ending of the film, without revealing too much, is able to both conclude its story yet suggest a continuation of the Batman mythos in a way that works within Nolan's universe as well as provide a intriguing take on the Batman mythos in general. I'll probably have to give the film another viewing in order to catch some plot points I missed before as well as get a firmer hold on the themes the film is exploring. But after just one viewing I feel The Dark Knight Rises, while maybe not the best of the trilogy, nevertheless concludes the trilogy in a respectful and resonant manner.

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