Monday, July 23, 2012

Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises

I'm going to cover some story points that are big spoilers. If you don't want to read them, feel free to click away and come back when you've seen the film. I had worked out this whole elaborate thing where I'd white out the spoilerish text and let anyone who wanted to, highlight the spoilers but that seems like an awful lot of work. Instead I'll warn you again that there are spoilers before I get to them. If you're interested in my capsule review - here it is (without spoilers):

Is this the best of the three Christopher Nolan Bat-films? No. It's the one with the most depth and the biggest action sequences. It's an ending that ties its predecessors nicely to it, but it's not a great stand-alone film. It's got some very emotional gut-punches, which I needed to see here, that dovetail with the action like a precision machine. It's manipulative in a couple of ways and the issues that inhabited the first two films (notably Christian Bale's Bat-voice) are still there. The score is lush, evocative, and dark with accents that echo throughout all three films.

In sum, I loved it. I was happy to have invested in all three films and I got an excellent Batman story. I'm much more a Superman guy, have been all my life, but this trilogy ranks as the second-best superhero movie ever for me. The first two Superman films top it, but not by much now.

Okay, from here on out I'm not going to warn you again about SPOILERS. The rest of this post will be filled with them. Last chance if you haven't seen the film yet, there are SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE.

Thank you, Hot Wheels. These are AWESOME.
You've been warned.

I saw a bootleg of the first six minutes or so online when it was up briefly and I have to say that it's MUCH more impressive on the big screen. (Not IMAX, I've never been to one of those theaters. And don't get me started on 3D again. Moving on.) The amplification of Bane's voice seems unnatural to me, as though he's too close to me in the mix. It was unbalanced in the plane especially, but also throughout the film. This may have been in response to the initial reports that Bane's voice was hard to understand in the test screenings. I don't know which was the right call, but maybe somewhere in the middle. If I would've had to lean into hearing Bane a little more, he might have been even more frightening.

As it was, the physicality of Tom Hardy's Bane is extraordinary. He definitely had a presence that made Christian Bale's Batman work harder. There's a surety to Bane that wasn't there in his previous incarnation and that was comforting. He came across as a criminal mastermind, though his motivations aren't as clear as that of the Joker's in The Dark Knight. My son and I watched both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in preparation for this film, and there are lines in both that echo in this one. Ra's al Ghul's pondering immortality and Alfred's lines about "some men just want to watch the world burn" are the ones that inform The Dark Knight Rises. At least for me.

I should say at this point that I'm always willing to suspend my disbelief when I enter a movie theater. I don't need to have a story spoon fed to me and I don't mind a lot of characters getting screen time in another character's film. That does not bother me. Nolan's stated intent that there would be no supernatural elements in the trilogy weren't necessarily a selling point for me but he was taking an interesting approach and I was willing to go along. I reminded myself of that before I went in. I was rewarded with this film.

I've read some complaints that there are too many characters in the movie and that Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle/Catwoman is superfluous to the film. This is wrong and goes to one of my central beliefs about why Batman is who he is and does what he does and why in the comics he'll never stop being Batman. The first two films show us a Bruce Wayne who doesn't want to be the only thing between Gotham and a descent into Hell. He is following his father's example and trying to inspire people to do good on their own. He's more a leader than a hero, but he gets saddled with the hero tag and then has to become the villain. All to save the city and its people. I think that's the message that's overshadowed by the flashy villains. Ra's al Ghul specifically states in Batman Begins that he's hellbent on tearing down Gotham.

That, then, explains Bane's motivations though he's reduced to a henchman by the big reveal near the end. The storytelling throughout all three films is magnificent and layered and requires a large cast of characters.

So while Bruce is trying to emulate his father, he's looking for the love of his life and thought he'd found it in Rachel Dawes. Her death and Bruce's inability to face it are what drove him at the end of The Dark Knight. They definitely influenced him through the eight years (storytime) between films. In that time, Alfred and Lucius Fox both are trying to get Bruce to cowboy up and be a man. He can't, though, he has descended into only being Batman and as we all know, that's terribly unhealthy, and that's why it takes so long for him to get back in harness.

This is the story that I'm supposed to take away from Nolan's trilogy.

The confrontation between Bruce and Selina at the beginning is what spurs him back to action, partly because she's a lovely woman and partly because she's stolen something of his mother's. Again, he's so connected to his parents he can't stop being Batman. When she leads him into a trap that leads to Bane breaking him, he is driven by the need to stop Bane killing his city and he doesn't necessarily blame Selina for her actions. Bane is definitely a powerful persuader in this film and he does it with physicality.

The fights between Bane and Batman are epic in scope. These are heavyweight bouts and huge. Both men are fighting hard in every confrontation. In The Dark Knight, Joker is amazed that people don't behave the way he expected them to. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is amazed that Bruce overcame his fear. "Why do we fall? So that we can learn to get back up." Another important line to the overall story.

Bane's much larger social experiment in this final film is, again, epic in scope compared to the Joker's. Bane definitely brings the world to Gotham in effect telling Bruce that he can't hide no matter what. The link between Bane and Ra's al Ghul is not tenuous, it's just not overstated. There's complexity to the storytelling that's compounded by the reveal of Talia as being behind everything. There was a lot of speculation that she'd appear in the film and Nolan and the cast denied it often enough that I wondered if it were true she wouldn't be there. The film would have made less sense if she weren't behind everything, though, completing her "father's work" which he stated in the first film, remember?

I mentioned earlier that Bane is diminished by the reveal of Talia. That he's merely her henchman is the one thing that I didn't like about the film. There are two moments of foreshadowing with Miranda Tate that lead up to the reveal, but there's nothing in Bane (that I can remember from my first viewing) that says he's obviously working for someone else. He's linked to the League of Shadows as having been excommunicated and the entire story is painted that he's a madman on his own. A man who just wants to see the world burn. That there was someone else behind him should have been hinted at, though that might have tipped Talia too soon. I don't know what the right storytelling choice was but it may have been the one Nolan used. Regardless, Bane is still formidable until that point.

As a standalone film, The Dark Knight Rises isn't the best Batman movie. As part of the trilogy, it's essential. Everything that was promised by the first two films is delivered in this one. Bruce grows up, he finds love (maybe) and Gotham is saved. Ra's al Ghul's vision of destroying Gotham like Rome is cheated and Alfred knows that the boy he helped to raise is finally living a life of his own. Not his father's and not Gotham's.

I'm going to leave the police in the film for another post some other time. I'll talk about John Blake in that one and the potential for him to be the new Batman. That could be very exciting if that's what Warner Brothers decides to pursue. This post is already too long and I have to say one more thing before I go.

The shooting in Aurora, Colorado, is horrifying and my thoughts are definitely for those who were hurt or killed by a lone nut with guns. Catwoman's line about "the whole no gun thing" sticks with me in particular here because while I believe Americans should be allowed to bear arms if they choose to, it's not to bring them to the movie theater where we go to be thrilled or scared in safety. Guns, like a good many things in any American's life, are a private thing, a private choice to be made for one's peace of mind. We don't need to be carrying them around in public, we don't need to have them to be safe. Instead we should focus more on respecting everyone equally.

As a culture we tear down those who are perceived to be somehow 'lesser' in some way from us. We need to stop that and right now. There's a thread of isolation in nearly every story about people who pull the trigger in a public space. What can we, as a society of people who care, do to help those folks who feel so lost? Bruce Wayne felt lost, lonely, isolated, but he abhorred guns and chose a different path.

Think about that. Social networks aren't the answer. Legislation isn't necessarily the answer, either. Keep your guns, I'm fine with that. I don't want to know that you have them. I'd prefer to think that things can be handled with rational discourse where people can agree to disagree and respect that the other has an opinion. We should learn to talk to one another again instead of using violence to impose one's will upon another. We are supposed to be better than that.

American society should be a leader in this regard and rational discourse should be respected over simply taking a contrarian stance. The young man in Colorado who is alleged to have done the shooting is only the most recent person to have abandoned rationality in favor of force. We should do better than that and let our heroes use force in movies, where they face a greater threat than we do. where they are better than we areLet's not confuse storytelling with reality any more, okay?

After I wrote this, I was pointed to Charlie Jane Anders' assessment on i09. If you got this far and you're unsatisfied with what I said about the film, definitely check out what she has to say by clicking here. You won't be sorry.

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