Almost 24 hours ago, I attended the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. It got out at 3:00 and I got to sleep about 3:45 AM. I was up again at 5:30 AM.
With hardly any sleep, I am going to attempt to summarize my experience.
Oh and if you have not seen it yet, don’t read this as it contains spoilers.
Instead I ask that you bookmark this page and come back afterwards to tell me what you all thought.
From the first radio dramas to the Columbia Pictures serials, superheroes have been attractive sources for adaptation. As film making and special effects technology has progressed, the meaning and use of the genre has gone through many changes. It took the intervention of Michael Uslan to convince Warner Bros. that Batman was a modern American myth. Likewise it took Chris Nolan’s trilogy to take that notion and make something of it. As I have pointed out in previous articles, the Batman franchise has been primarily a marketing device for toy makers and the like. So it was something of a surprise to see a director find a moving drama in a comic book character, weaving an emotional story that reflected the modern urban landscape in an epic trilogy.
The superhero movie genre has gone from being a unique spectacle to a set of trilogies and re-boots. Today, we are used to seeing the origin stories of heroes several times over. When Batman Begins was first released, the long road from angry young Bruce Wayne to the crime fighter Batman seemed like a necessary step to exorcise the demon of the previous four Batman movies. But anyone paying attention should have noticed that Nolan’s Batman was a far cry from the 1966 William Dozer TV series and the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher flicks that aped their formula of casting celebrities as guest villains and firing set piece action/stunt sequences at the audiences.
The Dark Knight Trilogy (as it seems to be called now) uses the concept of Batman as a modern hero moving through a chaotic world of world-threatening danger and terror. This is not a plastic movie designed to sell toys (which are rubbish, by the way). This is a sophisticated cautionary tale showcasing the decline of the western world, as depicted in a superhero adventure.
Wayne’s first mentor was Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, an international association of killers and assassins devoted to reshaping the world to fit their vision. In the first film Ra’s al Ghul attempts to convince Wayne that their goals are the same. Yet Ghul sees complete destruction of the corrupt and diseased society as the only possibility while Wayne is convinced it can be saved. This story is retold in The Dark Knight when the Joker introduces absolute chaos into Gotham City’s criminal underworld with the belief that humanity in general is immoral and broken. The final act of the Batman trilogy is the most intense and explosive, a battle for the soul of Gotham and its future.
The film opens eight years after the events of the Dark Knight. Wayne’s lifelong love Rachel has been murdered in a senseless act. Believing that she would have married him had he saved her, Bruce crumbled to pieces at her loss. Once a hopeful shining knight of Gotham, Harvey Dent had gone mad. Rather than allow such a great man to be vilified, both Gordon and Batman agree to make him a hero and the dark knight the villain. In the interim, the city’s crime has declined and the criminals have rotted in prison under the ‘Dent Act’ which does not allow for parole. An utter recluse, Bruce Wayne has changed from the socialite to an urban legend that no one sees. As his empire crumbles around him, Wayne nurses the old wound of Rachel’s death and wallows in self-pity.
Wayne is shaken from his reverie by a sly cat burglar, Selena Kyle, who manages to crack an impregnable safe and also steal his finger prints. Selena Kyle is on the knife edge and she wants out. A life of crime has made her the target of far too many organizations and she is rapidly running out of hiding places. By working for Bane, however, she has entered something far more deadly.
Entering this situation is Bane, a malevolent mercenary who is far more than what he seems. Ra’s al Ghul may have been a gentleman-like villain, but in sharp contrast Bane is an absolute animal. With an army of devoted followers at his heels and the support of corrupt Gotham businessman Daggett who seeks to steal Wayne Industries out from under the faded playboy, Bane is unstoppable. As the film progresses, we learn that Bane is hardly a mercenary at all, and he is creating an underground society that will tear Gotham down by its foundations, literally. He is the greatest threat that Batman has ever faced and as Wayne is a shadow of his former self, how can he hope to defeat him?
The cast of Nolan’s Batman films has never disappointed and this time we have a few additions to the ‘family’ including Tom Hardy as Bane and Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle.
The latest supervillain, Bane is a charismatic cult leader of massive proportions. He is also such an intimidating fighter that he is more of a force of nature than a brawler. I had seen Hardy in Bronson, so I knew he had the chops to pull off a supervillain, but I viewed Hathaway as a tepid romantic actress with absolutely no depth. Thankfully I was wrong and hopefully she will benefit from her performance in this movie and advance onward to more challenging multi-faceted roles. As Kyle, Hathaway was playful and cocky with the occasional revelation of a damaged personality underneath. A memorable and entertaining character.
Of the returning cast members, I was happy to see Michael Caine as Alfred, once more as the voice of compassion and reason, acting as a foil to Bruce Wayne’s steadily declining humanity. Alfred is determined to save his young charge, and cannot seem to fathom that it is impossible. Likewise, Lucius Fox attempts to arm and prepare Bruce in his war in crime with mind-boggling gadgets and devices, but he too is powerless against Bane. Jim Gordan seeks to ground Batman in the people of Gotham, reminding him of his mission… but all of this is sloughed away when Bane breaks Batman’s back and hurls him into a pit, the very birthplace of evil that he had escaped from… the prison of the League of Shadows.
It is Bruce Wayne’s soul itself that must ascend and overcome insurmountable odds and replace the chaos and death that has taken over Gotham City with hope. This is possibly the riskiest Batman story one could tell as the character is so damaged by his past and unwilling to move past it. Batman seems destined to die at a villain’s hands. Therefore fighting for hope is the most challenging Batman adventure of all.
Of course Dark Knight Rises is currently very closely associated with the tragic shooting in Denver, CO when a man assaulted a packed midnight showing with a machine gun. Over fifty people were shot including a six month old baby. 15 of those people are now dead. The violent attack prompted the postponement of the Paris premiere and the movie has become tainted by the catastrophic act. It is deeply saddening that such an act took place, and it is unfortunate that such a poignant and intensely dramatic film has been impacted in this way.
Batman is one of the most important and recognizable pop culture icons of the Western world and Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy has taken inspiration from this character and crafted a modern epic, telling the story of a hero and his journey inward. The city of Gotham itself became just as important a character as James Gordon or Alfred Pennyworth. Gotham was depicted as a city that bred murderers and was also in danger of being consumed by madness, it was given the power of life and death over hardened criminals and finally all but destroyed by terrorism and anarchy. Through it all, Batman was its protector, savior, and martyr. A wraith of vengeance, Batman was a reminder of the crime that threatened to drag the city into darkness. But the genius of Nolan’s vision was to investigate the cause of crime and the schism between the classes that prevents one half of society from relating to the other. Only in such an exclusive and isolating reality could a young boy’s parents be taken from him while no one protected him.
Even so, this decaying and flawed reality is worth saving, worth protecting and it is that message that rings so loudly through Dark Knight Rises. The sacrifice that Bruce Wayne made cost him the possibility of happiness or a ‘normal life.’ What is difficult for anyone to understand is that Bruce Wayne was lost forever in Crime Alley, he instead became a symbol of justice – both cruel and undying. As viewers, we are heartbroken to see Wayne in so much pain. It is easy to think that he should be able to cast aside his hurt and move on to a new life, but what Alfred fails to understand is that while he may appear to be playboy Bruce Wayne, that is in fact the mask that Batman wears and can never remove.
There will of course be more Batman movies, that is inevitable. But I cannot imagine the possibility of a film series that even comes close to the intellectual maturity and emotional impact of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Much like the comic book medium, the superhero movie continues to evolve. I enjoyed the Avengers, a self-confessed popcorn movie for the masses, but when a movie like Dark Knight Rises comes along, it is a harsh reminder that so much more is possible when handled correctly. Just as a comic book can directly affect the reader in a personal and vivid way, so too can a comic book movie.
As a lifelong fan of Batman from the TV series to the comics, cartoons and beyond, I cannot praise this work enough.
(I have a lot to say on this, so I may come back and add more later…)