Sunday, July 22, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Directed by Christopher Nolan. 2012.

Maybe it's time we all quit trying to outsmart the truth
 and let it have its day. –Alfred

Spoilers!

So out pour Gotham's poisons, from its wounds by the Joker. The peace Batman bought in The Dark Knight came at the price of truth and covering up the tragedy of Harvey Dent will cost Gotham. The reckoning of its sins will come in the form of Bain, a mercenary and rejected pupil of Batman's own mentor, Ra's Al Ghul.

From this premise director and co-writer Christopher Nolan crafts a brawling, blistering finale to his Batman trilogy. Unlike Batman Begins, which began by interlacing with his training the formative events throughout Bruce Wayne's youth, and The Dark Knight, which began with sequential capers featuring the Joker and Batman each dominating in their respective and then exclusive spheres, in The Dark Knight Rises Batman's bravura entrance is delayed until relatively late in the film. Instead Bane takes center stage with his bold and brutal high-jacking of a CIA jet. While TDK had Batman and Joker locked in a duel it will be Bane whose actions dominate DKR. Once his assault begins in the first scene, the rest of the film consists of attempt after attempt to stop him.

In contrast both Batman and Bruce Wayne are clearly at the end of their arcs in the trilogy and while Nolan conveys this in the plot and dialogue, the visual cues surpass and supersede. If we recall the opening of Begins the first scene with young Bruce features him falling in a well and, injured, crawling on the floor amidst a flurry of bats. In The Dark Knight we first see him hulking around as Batman on his own two feet, mauling criminals. Finally, Bruce enters The Dark Knight Rises limping with a cane. The similarity to the ancient riddle of the Sphinx, "What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?" is not limited to the arc of man's growth, maturity, and decline but also to the fate of the Sphinx. When Oedipus solved its riddle the Sphinx destroyed itself and when Bruce solves it he defeats his enemies and frees himself.

Yet such freedom comes at the end of a painful and tortuous path for both Bruce and Gotham city. In Batman Begins Ra's Al Ghul sought to destroy Gotham City by scaring its people into killing each other by means of a psychotropic drug, in The Dark Knight the Joker tried goading the people of Gotham into violence by uprooting law and order, and finally in The Dark Knight Rises Bane simply decides to annihilate the population of the city. When we bear in mind Bane's ultimate goal we may realize all of the chaos and destruction Bane unleashes upon Gotham is for the purpose of breaking Batman's spirit, of making Batman realize he failed to protect Gotham and to inspire goodness in its people, and that he was wrong to think they could be saved. We can then see Bane as the combination and perfection of Ra's and the Joker.

In fact we can be more specific and say Bane is the combination of Ra's' enmity and the Joker's anger. Ra's had enmity for Gotham, not for Batman or any individual. (Remember Ra's had the opportunity to kill Bruce but was content to repay his betrayal kind for kind.) Ra's did not want the people to suffer but  wished without any pity for them not to exist. In contrast the Joker felt anger toward Batman and not intrinsically the people of Gotham. The Joker wanted to use the people of Gotham to prove to Batman and all the righteous that the only way to live was "without rules." He did not want to kill Batman but to make him suffer so much that he would break his own rules and kill the Joker. Bane is the terrifying synthesis of these villains, wishing both to wipe out Gotham and make Batman suffer.

It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads... So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution... –Maximilien Robespierre

After Bane's successful blitz in which he both murders the mayor and traps the entirety of the Gotham Police Department underground, he plants the seeds of Gotham's self-destruction. Bane's politicking and theatricality are the means to this end and he presents himself to the people not as a ruler but as a liberator. Batman, in preserving the image of Harvey Dent, brought peace to Gotham for Dent's image inspired a special law which permitted the government to keep most of the organized crime world behind bars. Bane shatters Dent's image and the peace and not only reveals the truth about Dent to the citizens of Gotham but also releases and arms the criminals imprisoned by the now nugatory Dent Act. At last, standing in front of City Hall with his goons and looking very much like a 21st century Gracchus or Marius, Bane declares Gotham City freed from the lies of oppressors and returned to the people.

This "liberation" results in no sudden utopia but in instant violence and looting. At Bane's urging, Gotham's disenfranchised, criminals, and malcontents begin to raid the homes of the wealthy. Their reign culminates in the formation of a kangaroo court in which show trials pronounce the guilt of police and the rich and sentence them to a choice between death or a deathly walk across the barely-frozen river. The journey from storming the prison to revolutionary bloodletting has proved short.

This social war rages in the absence of Batman, beaten and locked up by Bane in a foreign prison, and becomes a crucible for a character we have heretofore overlooked: Selina Kyle. We meet her mid-heist, stealing from Bruce Wayne of all people. Wayne is quickly wise to her predicament: she has skills but she owes money to all the wrong people.

Hathaway does a splendid job with Selina Kyle, who projects confidence in her skills but a vulnerable uncertainty about who she is or what she believes. She is initially quite envious of Wayne and pitiless about the evaporation of his fortune, even claiming, unaware about what funds Batman, she does more with the proceeds of her thieving than he did with his billions. Yet Selina fears Bane even as she envies Bruce. While she looks on at the chaos unbound by Bane and the violence perpetrated by the mob against the monied, one of her larcenous friends asks her if this isn't just what she wanted: everything is everybody's. Her silence is a clear answer, but her turnaround doesn't end there. Later, in exchange for a little help, Batman gives her a computer program which will wipe all record of her and give her a much-longed-for clean slate. She now has the chance, as Bruce did, to leave Gotham to its fate. Before, she might not have approved of Bane's revolution but she refused to move against it because she thought the rich were evil, and if they were evil they deserved evil. Now, Batman's goodness and suffering has taught her pity.

She redeems her promise to Batman and this redemption is a transformation from enmity toward, if not friendship at least friendship's wellspring, kindness. Similarly, her rejection of Bane and his revolution in favor of accepting an alliance with Batman becomes a turn from envy to its opposite, emulation. Finally, killing Bane herself both fulfills her transformation from fear to confidence and makes amends for her earlier betrayal, itself rooted in fear.

Like Bruce, Selina had to discover herself, accept a mentor, and choose a path.Bruce too needed to lose himself in the world to find himself anew. He had to choose his father or Ra's as a mentor, and then finally decide what he would do to fulfill his goal. She had to continue thieving or become someone new, choose whether to follow Bane or Batman, and then finally act. She chooses to leave her past behind, follow Batman, and save him and Gotham. Selina's transformation was what Bruce long ago hoped Batman would inspire, an inspiration symbolized by the "blank slate" software he gave her to start her new life. Batman became Gotham's silent guardian by doing the unasked and not proclaiming it, and so did she. As we can see, Selina Kyle's arc is meticulously mapped and exists as an intriguing story in its own right as well as an essential thread to both The Dark Knight Rises and the trilogy.

In Selina's transformation and Bane's twin goals Christopher Nolan gives DKR appropriate themes for the finale to his Batman trilogy. These are not simply three films about Batman, but a trilogy with direction and purpose. Other characters populate Gotham city this time but they don't intersect with the themes quite so much. Lucius Fox returns but mostly as Batman's gadgeteer. In the grisled Commissioner Gordon, however, we see the toll of a lifetime policing Gotham, the exhaustion of a man struggling to preserve his honor, ethics, family, and life throughout decades of relentless corruption and violence. When we see on his face the guilt and burden of covering up Dent's crimes and betraying Batman we remember his statement from The Dark Knight, that "I don't get political points for being an idealist, I have to do the best I can with what I have." Finally, we find in Gordon an Everyman, a lifelong citizen of Gotham who one day sees a mysterious protector come to his beleaguered city, wage a war against its depraved criminals for nearly a decade, and one day give everything to a people who grew to despise him, and on that last day, in that protector, Jim Gordon found the Prince of Gotham.

Ultimately and appropriately, Batman lives at the heart of this trilogy. Now while Christopher Nolan weaves other threads, namely the nature and fate of Gotham City, he weaves them around Batman. Such is not to say they are extraneous since they are most emphatically not. The other themes, however, revolve around questions about man's nature so it is fitting the classical story of a man's growth, maturity, and end is the center. In The Dark Knight Rises, he struggles to rediscover his will when faced with the truth that he never had a future with Rachel, i.e. as Bruce Wayne. Yet Batman is either unwanted by the public or unable to defeat Bane. As a result Bruce/Batman is trapped in an existential limbo. The personal story of Batman, however, takes one the nature of a saga when we observe it takes place in the shadows of two men: Thomas Wayne and Ra's Al Ghul. Batman struggles toward his father's vision of a free and prosperous society while Bane tries to inflict his mentor's punishment on Gotham. This striking and significant symmetry lends unity to the trilogy and tremendous weight to The Dark Knight Rises finale.

Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is a shining example of filmmaking. It easily outclasses excellent adaptations of comic book characters such as The Avengers and Spider-man and outright shames the rest. Each film's plot is painstakingly constructed and the trilogy is thematically unified, an extraordinary feat for an original screenplay. While there are here and there convenient coincidences and commonplace elements, there is never a hint of carelessness. For the sake of criticism I tried a number of times to change re-arrange some elements of the films to see if I could not fashion some additional symmetry or meaning and each time I unravelled the film.

I initially criticized those who called The Dark Knight Rises "satisfying," as if it were a sandwich which temporarily sated one's appetite. I thought such faint praise for a movie which should simply be called excellent. Yet now I recognize in that reaction not cheap approval but a rather tender sentiment rising from the final scene in which, after having shared in the suffering of Bruce Wayne and the burden of Batman for three films, we feel free.


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