Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Indulge me as I play armchair director (and spoil The Dark Knight). I think Two-Face should have been the villain in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Here's how The Dark Knight should have gone: keep everything the same up through the explosion that kills Rachel Dawes and scars Harvey Dent, spend the rest of the movie resolving the Joker, and in the final scene have Commissioner Gordon visit Dent in the hospital where we see he's become Two-Face, ending with a close-up on his burned face.

But that's not how the story played out, and although Two-Face is gone, the influence of Harvey Dent remains in the story. I've seen The Dark Knight Rises twice now in theaters, and while it's not the story I think would have been best, I shall do my best to discard my preconceptions and evaluate it on its own terms. As a conclusion to director Christopher Nolan's trilogy, which began with Batman Begins (2005) and continued with The Dark Knight (2008), it is satisfactory.

Eight years following the defeat of the Joker, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a reclusive, his body debilitated to the point he walks with a cane. Batman has not been needed since he and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) agreed to pin Two-Face's crimes on the Dark Knight to preserve the reputation of Dent, even though the guilt of protecting the legacy of the man who threatened his family is getting to Gordon. Crime in Gotham City is at an all-time low as a result of the Harvey Dent Act, which was passed to crush organized crime. But a new threat rises. The masked terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy), an ousted member of the League of Shadows, emerges in Gotham to wreak havoc on the city. Also figuring into things is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar hired to steal Bruce Wayne's fingerprints. These events propel Wayne to bring back the Bat, over the objections of his longtime butler Alfred (Michael Caine).

Nolan's Batman series has been more grounded in realism than other incarnations of the character, and that continues here. Case in point: Bane. In the comics, he's a hulking giant figure given super strength by a drug known as Venom that is pumped directly into his brain by a series of tubes, and his outfit brings to mind images of luchador wrestlers. In the film, his outfit is nowhere near as outrageous nor is there any mention of Venom; instead, he wears a mask that feeds him a supply of gas that keeps in check otherwise debilitating pain, and while he is an imposing presence, he's not freakishly massive. Selina Kyle is never referred to as Catwoman, and the only cat image she's associated with are when the goggles she wears are positioned on top of her head like cat ears.

The film also plays on something that's been getting news time in real life: the growing income gap between rich and poor. At one point, Selina, who lives in a rundown lower-class apartment, tells Bruce Wayne about a coming "storm" that's coming for Gotham's wealthy elite; she thinks of herself as a modern-day Robin Hood, taking only from people who can afford it. Bane presents himself as a revolutionary liberating Gotham (although he plans to destroy it) from the manacles of oppression, exposing the lie of Harvey Dent's life, breaking open Blackgate Prison, and leaving Gotham's upper class to be devastated by its vengeful denizens. Using the threat of a nuclear explosion, Bane and his army seize control of Gotham, impose martial law, and and establish kangaroo courts (led by the Scarecrow) to execute its fallen leaders, corporate types, and police.

Some have been comparing The Dark Knight Rises to a A Tale of Two Cities, and there certainly are parallels. The breakout at Blackgate is reminiscent of the storming of the Bastille, both symbols of a corrupt ruling body's oppression, and the punishment for enemies of the state is death (walking across the frozen river until they fall through the ice Gotham and the guillotine in France).Bruce Wayne begins the movie a shell of a man hidden away from the light of the world, similar to Dr. Manette. Even the surprise villain in the end has a motivation that reminds one of Madame Defarge, the vengeful daughter of a slaughtered family, and Batman's final actions can be seen as a play on what Syndey Carton does for Charles Darnay: a sacrifice and a deception involving identity.

The Dark Knight Rises returns to theme introduced in Batman Begins: Batman as a symbol. Bruce Wayne takes up the mantle of a bat to inspire fear in Gotham's criminal element. In a time of peace, he's not really needed, but when trouble returns, the residents of Gotham look to the sky for their dark protector and lament when he is not there. Throughout the film, there is another character John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police officer who deduces who Batman is. An orphan himself, Blake is inspired by Batman, and in the movie's final scene, it is suggested just how he'll carry on the Caped Crusader's legacy. When Batman returns for a final confrontation with Bane, he  galvanizes the city's police to take back Gotham. The whole point of the trilogy has been building to where Batman has inspired the good people of Gotham to take, where one man can make a difference. With him having achieved that goal, it makes this movie a logical point for Nolan and Bale to conclude their series.

There were things that bothered about the film. While the previous movies certainly had questionable plot developments, The Dark Knight Rises has probably the largest share of contrivances, coincidences, and unlikely scenarios. Part of Bane's plan involves bankrupting Bruce Wayne; he accomplishes this by storming the Gotham stock exchange and using Wayne's fingerprints to mess with things. Are we to believe no questions Bruce Wayne losing his fortune the same day terrorists shoot the place up and access the computers? Comic books fans will be pleased to know the movie recreates the famous moment in which Bane breaks the Bat, and while that scene is effective and intense, Bruce Wayne's recovery stretches plausibility (if one of your back's discs was jutting out, would punching it back in place really be all that it takes to not be paralyzed). Bane, smartly portrayed to be vastly different from the Joker - intelligent and crafty but not insane and just an awesome physical element simply outmatching Batman - is severely undercut in the climax, both because his rematch with Batman is over too quickly and once the surprise villain is revealed, he's almost immediately dropped unceremoniously. Considering he succeeds against Batman on a number of levels where most villains failed, I think he deserved better.

Unlike the previous movies of the 80s and 90s, Nolan's Batman trilogy has to be taken to together and in the proper order, and The Dark Knight Rises is the finale. It builds on the themes and developments from the previous entries and reaches it logical climax, narratively and thematically. The characters we've been with all three movies - Wayne, his butler Alfred, Commissioner Gordon - and the characters we've just met - Selina Kyle, John Blake - all have their arcs and moment of catharsis. Maybe it's not the movie I would have made, but I have to admire what Nolan accomplished.

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