Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

As The Dark Knight Rises comes to an end, and with it the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it overcomes its faults and delivers on the collective fascination audiences have had with this character, decades beyond the seven years since Batman Begins reinvigorated the franchise. Even given this modern myth’s reach and importance, the film’s emotional through-line is greater than what might be expected for a tale of such a dark, complicated hero – a credit to the actors and how they embodied familiar iconography. The initial resonance the film had was personally humbling, but the ending also cements the themes that Nolan has been exploring throughout his feature film career, themes that are tragically apropos in recent days.

This “synopsis” portion of the review only has vague spoilers, not truly concerned with plot, in order to appraise some of the basic elements of the film; the portion below the embedded trailer is the focus of my approach, and does discuss some plot points.
The Dark Knight Rises quickly establishes a continuing ideology that reigns over Gotham City, as well as an approaching threat to its limits. The legacy of fallen district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is foisted upon a memorial gathering in a brief comment from Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). The masked leader Bane (Tom Hardy) – apparently both infamous and mysterious to his own followers and the CIA – is introduced in a stunning action set-piece over the plains of Africa. The film then settles into the details of the story in a pained, deliberate manner, much like the out-of-practice habits of former billionaire crime-fighter Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). It has been eight years since the events of The Dark Knight, when Batman took the blame for Dent’s actions as the horrifically scarred “Two Face,” in order to uphold a vision of hope for a city that could not ultimately trust its true hero. The script, while reminding the audience of all of this and reflecting on where Gotham stands now, sets the final pieces on the board, and this is slow going, with much of the expository dialogue seeming unsure and excessive. As co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, from a story that the director and David S. Goyer developed, the film surprisingly takes a while to find its footing, purpose, and momentum. There is an early highlight of the film, however, in a simple, effective, and charming scene: when Wayne meets Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Any prejudices of Hathaway’s ability to play Catwoman – though she’s never named that in the film – quickly go out the window. She is transformative, alluring, and dangerous, and Kyle eventually makes an impression on not just Wayne, but his trusted butler and caretaker Alfred (Michael Caine), as well as business confidant and Batman gadget expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Supporting the Wayne / Batman storylines are two new characters: Wayne Enterprises board member, clean energy advocate, and gorgeous socialite Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and an earnest, intelligent young police officer, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Just as the characters are each concerned with a larger ideal, so are the actors committed to honoring the efforts that have gone into this saga, and there are some devastating scenes that are more powerful than the now-or-never action sequences.
As the gears are set in motion, the film significantly picks up, and the cinematography by Oscar winner Wally Pfister beautifully plays off the stunning production design of Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh. The music by Hans Zimmer is not quite as stirring or propulsive as in the earlier films, but the familiar themes are reassuring. Among the strictly filmic elements, how action is utilized is the most remarkable improvement over the first two Batman films. The trilogy was edited by Lee Smith, and wherein the earlier films the quick, confusing cuts during combat sequences might have been explained away as capturing the essence of Batman’s fighting techniques and mystique, here the action is clear and brutal – which also matches the styles of the characters. All told, The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most ambitious popular films in some time, and though parts of the story are not as distinct and awe-inspiring as one would hope, the levels of craft and skill on display are remarkable. It is a fitting end to a trilogy that strove to be more than a blockbuster comicbook franchise, all the while reflecting the iconography, ideology, and legacies that mark the varied history of the source material.
Here is some of the filmmakers’ work in one of the recent trailers – the crux of this piece (including some spoilers) will follow:

One of the strongest elements of The Dark Knight Rises is how it incorporates themes and storylines from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, while mirroring the origins and intentions of Batman and Bane far more deliberately and effectively than how the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) or the Joker (Heath Ledger) were treated, in regards to protagonist vs. antagonist. That this is also inherently tied to its weakest segments is frustrating, but not disappointing. As Bane orchestrates his plans for Gotham, the film flashes back to “hell on earth,” a dank subterranean prison in a distant land that he escaped from seemingly through sheer force of will.  The imagery used for the prison, particularly the shaft teasing a blinding light, is similar to the cave that Wayne fell down as a child in the opening of the first film; a grown Wayne woke from that recollection – in a foreign prison by his own design, in order to study the criminal element – and later returned to the cave, after he learned to control his fear and vowed to exploit it in others. In the final film, we learn that Bane was excommunicated from the League of Shadows, the highly trained cabal led by Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) that tried to destroy Gotham in the first film, and which Wayne was inducted in but left during an act of sabotage, even before he learned their true intent. Wayne had everything, but the only thing he cared about was taken from him as a boy when his parents were killed – he is only left with an initially misguided quest for vengeance. Bane had nothing, and the only thing he cares about is proving his worth by destroying everything. As clever and frightening as the earlier bad guys are (and Ledger as the Joker is classic, an all-time great magnetic performance), they weren’t designed to so closely resemble the good guy. These motifs and characterizations should be rich throughout, but The Dark Knight Rises essentially sidelines Wayne, and more importantly Batman, in a drawn-out act when Bane literally breaks him, then abandons him in hell on earth. The issue is not that Bane is not a “charismatic” enough villain, or even that nothing could improve upon the absolute phenomenon that is the Joker, it’s that he’s actually more immediately powerful – physically and psychologically – than Batman, so there is little left to do but wait for the inevitable: an iconic scene from one of the more famous Batman comicbook storylines. Then we watch the siege of Gotham from within, the countdown starts, and we trust that the exiled hero will save the city.

The primary momentum of the film is Wayne’s struggle – this doesn’t qualify as a theme, though it does lend itself to the actual theme of the film (and the trilogy). To have him be out of commission in the opening of the film, injured and a recluse, and then be marginalized again so soon after his “comeback,” immediately felt like a mistake to me. It made me question what I had always believed about Batman, that he never gives up, that he is unwavering in the face of any adversity. Batman Begins chronicled as realistic an origin as possible, with many struggles as Wayne/Batman found his calling and his approach. The Dark Knight presented Batman in his element, and the main conflict was one of ideologies, in a brilliant turn by Nolan. The Dark Knight Rises combines both of these templates, to track both the fall of and the return of Wayne/Batman. After seeing the film again and having some time to think about it, I’ve decided that instead of viewing Batman as an infallible, unbreakable force that does what we can not, perhaps it’s ultimately more interesting and even poignant to think that he does give in to fear, to guilt, but then fights to overcome those tendencies and his more immediate antagonists, and does what we will not.

In any case, as the film ended, I was profoundly moved. It had struck a chord within me early on, when Tate accuses Wayne of “practiced apathy,” and concluded with Batman committing his life to showing that this is not the case. Not wishing to stand on ceremony, I’ll break the Fairly Objective Tone of the (amateur) Critic, and relate that in the past two years I’ve suffered the loss of a loved one, some family medical scares, my own injuries, and other personal, academic, and career setbacks. I retreated in some ways, including from the one discipline that brought me release and gave me confidence, something that not many commit themselves to. I was at first unable to practice martial arts because of some injuries, and then this became prolonged due to circumstances beyond my control, which then further impacted my ability to train as I became more out of shape. I was the highest ranked student in my dojo and was never there. As I’ve slowly tried to return, I’ve questioned if I can get back to “where” I was, let alone succeed. One might think that the training and mindset that went into becoming a second-degree black belt wouldn’t dissipate, but sometimes we face challenges so great that we need reminders. I never thought I’d actually relate to a Batman film, but as I watched The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX, I was inspired again, enough to focus on recommitting myself. The initial main criticism I had of the film – “But he’s Batman!” – coupled with its use of flashbacks to drive home points that had supposedly already been learned by the hero and audience, was forgiven when I realized I had much of the same faults of the character and needed the same encouragement: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.”
I’d like to share my thoughts on the conclusion, briefly, before moving on to the larger picture...
I thought everything about the ending was perfect, particularly the quote/allegory from A Tale of Two Cities: “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.” I felt this really spoke to both the duality of Wayne and how Gotham has changed. As noted with the clearly established villain of Bane, above, of course the same themes and motifs apply to Talia, as it was her that climbed out of hell. I did not see her reveal as a surprise, since pretty much all of the Internet predicted that upon Cotillard’s casting, but I thought it was handled well. There was a little too much speechifying, especially considering the time bomb, but that’s standard procedure. Even though it was briefly telegraphed with the comments about the Bat’s autopilot function, I thought Batman flying the bomb out over the bay was a bold move by Nolan. He decidedly killed off the character of Bruce Wayne so that Batman could survive, making the ultimate decision as to what was more important. The scene at the café was solely for Alfred’s benefit, and I don’t think it was too “clever” or any of the other nitpicks I’ve seen in some comments – it showed that Wayne was not only concerned with his lifelong friend, and wanted to make amends, but that he was still in his element as far as knowing where and when someone would be. The earlier scene with Alfred and Bruce broke my heart, and is probably my favorite scene in the film. I’d like to think that Wayne returns to Gotham (with Ms. Kyle) in secret and helps train Blake, perhaps even reassuming the mantle of Batman while Blake becomes Robin or Nightwing. That very last shot was all manner of perfect.

There is no sensitive or appropriate way to segue into the topic of the shootings at the Aurora, Colorado theater, but I wanted to share what I realized about the consistent themes of Nolan, and how eerily applicable they are to this tragedy, only because I feel not talking about it would be somehow more wrong.
Moments after the screening I was at finished, I read the news and felt sick. What happened was horrific and senseless. I cannot begin to express how much this makes my heart and mind hurt, and how disgusted I am at some of the attention the killer has received. I cannot presume to understand what anybody else might think, let alone those who were there or their loved ones.
In the week since, I’ve thought of little else. It was only from wanting to make this review somewhat coherent that I thought about all of Nolan’s films – Following (1998); Memento (2000); Insomnia (2002); The Prestige (2006); Inception (2010); and his Batman trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) – from an auteur perspective, trying to find any answer, just to have something else to think of.
All of these films (I had never seen Insomnia until Monday, but it fit my theory) share one overriding, character-centric theme: a trauma, corresponding guilt, and shouldering responsibilities – not necessarily moving on, or even taking blame, but having to live with certain consequences. Some of the films have positive endings; some have negative endings. Each of Nolan’s protagonists encounter and embody this theme, however. This is particularly true of Wayne/Batman when the trilogy is taken as a whole. There are ideologies within the films that can be contested (and they may very well be more muddled in the final chapter, but this is indicative of the topics), but something ultimately has to be done.
In light of what happened, I feel this is incredibly pertinent.
For last Thursday night’s attacks, the killer had plans for what he did, and was seemingly able to carry out those plans with alarming ease. We know that he is to blame. I believe that this topic – the ease at which the killer was able to acquire his arsenal – should be politicized, in that the issue of gun control should be discussed openly in proper forums. (This is not that forum, though I welcome feedback.) This includes the presidential debates. We need to reassess the ideologies that are plaguing our democratic systems, allowing those with intent to harm to shore up assault weapons and ammunition, while the supposed “taboo” of an honest look at the Second Amendment grows ever more incendiary. We cannot give in to fear and societal structures that hamper earnest debate over something that was drafted over two hundred years ago with no knowledge of its consequence. Our decency has been tested and will continue to be until we can take steps to prevent such acts, unimaginable to most.
In short, I do not believe it is dismissive or insensitive of those killed or wounded in Aurora to want positive change. All they wanted to see when their lives were shattered was a hero.


Please consider donating to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund.

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