A little late, I complete my ruminations on the cinematic excursions of the Caped Crusader, with consideration of how Christopher Nolan and his collaborators re-constituted Batman after the quality vacuum that was Batman & Robin, as well as offering my thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises.
When I read that the reboot of the Batman franchise was to be directed by the man behind Memento and Insomnia, I was pleased because those films impressed me (indeed, Memento clarified that my favourite type of film is a good thriller and I haven’t gone wrong with that approach yet). Just how impressive Batman Begins turned out to be took me (as well as others) quite by surprise. Not only did Nolan (along with brother/co-writer Jonathan, as well as David S. Goyer, DoP Wally Pfister and producer/wife Emma Thomas) deliver a detailed, consistent and plausible reboot and reinterpretation of the Batman mythos, they also created the best superhero movie made up until that point. The superhero sub-genre had been growing since Blade in 1998, got better with X-Men in 2000 and really exploded with Spider-Man in 2002. Blade II, X-2, Daredevil, Hulk and Spider-Man 2 followed in quick succession, so when Batman Begins arrived in 2005 (along with Fantastic Four), the superhero stage was already crowded.
What Batman Begins managed to do was delve deep into the psychology of a superhero figure, and strike a balance between character interplay and thematic exploration with spectacular action. Not that others had not done this as well – Spider-Man 2 and X-2 especially have plenty of action and plenty of character – but Batman Begins actually made the action sequences the least interesting parts of the film. Which is not to say they were bad: the explosive escape from the League of Shadows’ lair; Batman’s first appearance at the docks; the attack on Wayne Manor; Batman’s rescue of Rachel Dawes and the finale in the Narrows and aboard Gotham’s elevated train are all masterfully handled set pieces. In a year when Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was more Run of the Mill, and Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith went too far into CGI flamboyance, it was most refreshing to see a relatively new director stake such a claim in the blockbuster field. Yet despite the impressive set pieces, the inter-personal dramas between Bruce and Alfred, Jim Gordon, Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow, as well as the careful development of the Batman persona, make Batman Begins a remarkable investigation into identity, in relation to one’s own ideology, family background and social position, not to mention a varied exploration of the theme of fear. No other superhero film managed to accomplish so much and so efficiently.
With the superhero genre effectively deconstructed and reconstructed, Nolan could go to strange new places with the sequel, which is why The Dark Knight feels like something different and special. It is a superhero film only by virtue of having names, costumes and a few gadgets; otherwise, it is effectively a straight crime thriller. Except it is also more than that, as crime thrillers seldom have a criminal as malevolent and uncontrollable as the Joker. The Joker truly is the trump card in The Dark Knight, as discussions of motivations and objectives go out the window: as Alfred tells Bruce (and as we were warned in the teaser trailer), “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Nolan shows us the world burn in The Dark Knight – rather than Batman being a resource for law and order, Gotham becomes more violent and chaotic than ever. Much of the Joker’s power has been credited to Heath Ledger’s incendiary performance, but both as a character and an element within the plot the Joker serves to elevate the film into a thought-provoking philosophical discussion on chaos and order. The most dramatic sequences are, again, dialogue scenes such as the confrontation between Batman and the Joker in a police interview room, which infamously turns into a torture sequence, as well as the final stand-off between Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent. That these sequences stand out despite the tremendous opening bank robbery, the gripping battle between massive truck and Batmobile/Pod, and the high rise assaults in Hong Kong and Gotham, is testament to Nolan’s mastery of the cinematic craft, blending high octane thrills with serious themes and characters that can explore these themes in uncompromising ways. More than the best superhero film ever, The Dark Knight is a true genre-blender, merging elements of crime and political thrillers into a potent and compelling cocktail.
It would be fair to say that my reaction at the end of The Dark Knight Rises was one of relief: relief that it managed to live up to expectations. It did not supersede them – I think after the extraordinary nature of The Dark Knight, the expectation that it would be topped was unreasonably high. However, being aware of this, my hope was simply not to be disappointed, so I was relieved not to be. Earlier this year, my local world of ciné were nice enough to screen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in a single programme, so I got to see both on the big screen again before The Dark Knight Rises. Therefore I was well prepared to compare Christopher Nolan’s trilogy climax to his previous instalments.
The Dark Knight Rises succeeds as a trilogy closer because it builds upon yet does not deviate from what came before. We have much of the same: Alfred being regretful, Bruce being committed, Lucius being supportive, Gordon being fretful, and we have much that is new: Selina being deceitful, Bane menacing, Blake simultaneously idealistic and realistic, and Miranda being vengeful. I also expected Nolan’s remarkable ability to deliver superb action sequences, yet make these sequences the tip of the iceberg, two characters talking being even more dramatic than attack vehicles shooting at each other. Combining the two is effective as well: Bane and Batman taunting each other while they fight helps to draw the viewer in, feel the emotional as well as physical blows. Speaking of emotional blows, it was on the second viewing that I actually welled up during Alfred’s final speech, as he grieved for the Waynes and told Bruce’s parents how sorry he was that he failed to protect their son. Clearly, the film was powerful.
A key part of this power, like the previous installments, are the ideas that feature so heavily (but not heavy-handedly) in The Dark Knight Rises. Slavoj Zizek gives a very interesting discussion on the politics of the film, concluding that it is in some ways impressive and in others ham-fisted. Other reviews comment on the film’s engagement with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the potentially disturbing politics the film suggests. For me, a great element of the trilogy as a whole and its finale in particular, is the presentation and engagement with a debate over a type of heroism that is surprisingly egalitarian.
In my last post, I discussed the failures of the previous Batman movies to deliver a truly compelling take on the Dark Knight. I think a key reason was a specific failure to explore the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne in much depth. Crucially, this was what Nolan indicated he would be doing with his reboot of the franchise, so that was another reason I had high hopes for this re-interpretation.
When first conceiving of his vigilante persona in Batman Begins, Bruce describes an incorruptible symbol. Alfred tells Bruce in The Dark Knight what the “point” of Batman is: “He can be the outcast, no one else can”. For Nolan/Bale’s Batman, that is indeed the point of Batman, he can be and do what no one else can. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce explains to John Blake and Jim Gordon that Batman is a demonstration that anyone can be a hero. I think this may be the reason Batman has always resonated with me, and why my work on the character thus far has focused upon discussions of heroism. Nolan’s trilogy is distinguished from the previous interpretations of the Dark Knight through its emphasis on “realistic” feats and devices rather than more outlandish events in such franchises as Spider-Man (Raimi and Webb) and The Avengers. Critics have pointed out the implausibility of such features as the Bat, Bruce’s trip from wherever the prison was back to Gotham without passport or money, and Selina Kyle’s heels, but nonetheless the films still take place in a world far-removed from genetic mutations into lizard creatures and devices that open portals to distant parts of the galaxy. However, being closer to our reality extends beyond the gadgets and the vehicles.
In my previous post, I argued that Batman Forever impresses me the most of the earlier Batman films, because we have an internal and external struggle for Bruce Wayne. This dramatic tension is played out on a far wider scale across Nolan’s Dark Knight Legend, as we focus upon Bruce’s attempts to deal with his past, present and future. Batman is a form of therapy, but ultimately lacks catharsis: he can make a start of helping the people of Gotham, but when it all goes horribly wrong in The Dark Knight, he gets stuck, as Alfred identifies, he never moved on. Yet by the end of The Dark Knight Rises, he has moved on, “rising” out of the pit of depression that made him a recluse by the start of the film.
Bruce’s rise is only one of a number of appearances of the trope of rising in the film. Once imprisoned by Bane, Bruce literally rises out of the hole in which he is imprisoned, as did the previous inmate of the prison, whom both viewer and protagonist believe to be Bane, but turns out to be Talia/Miranda. The components of Bruce’s lair rise out of the water in the Batcave, a walkway rising under Alfred’s feet as he approaches his master/charge. In his final act of sacrifice, Batman rises out of Gotham in order to carry the bomb out of harm’s way. This final rise is also Bruce’s way of moving on, as he effectively “kills” Batman. The film’s finale might have benefitted from the ambiguity of not seeing the reverse shot of Alfred’s POV in Florence, when he sees Bruce and Selina, free of Gotham, but I choose to believe it is what he sees, allowing us the viewers to share in the catharsis of all three characters: all have risen from the darkness, the anguish and the pain that we have spent three movies sharing with them. How fitting that we share their rise as well.
Metaphorically, not only does Bruce rise out of isolation, but Batman rises from the state of pariah, and Gotham must rise above the state of martial law imposed upon it by Bane. Selina rises from cat burglar to freedom fighter, James Gordon rises from the depressed and injured state that he has fallen into, while John Blake rises from the rank of uniformed cop to something more distinguished. Indeed, the final shot of the film both presents and expresses rising, as it is filled by the platforms of the Batcave, rising with Robin Blake (the new Dark Knight?) upon them, literal and metaphorical rising encapsulated in a shot that both ends this legend, yet allows us to imagine what more could happen.
This, perhaps, is the final point of Batman: we can all be heroes in one way or another. We need not put on costumes or fight crime, but “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” So perhaps that is the message we can take from The Dark Knight Legend – whomsoever, in whatever circumstances, helps out fellow people, is a hero. That is the power of the Dark Knight Legend, taking the idea of heroism seriously, both as a dramatic device, and as an in-depth thematic exploration. To that height, Nolan rose, and certainly delivered me the Batman I always wanted.