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Commentary, Movies

10 Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises, Part I

The Dark Knight Rises opened this week, and it’s already thrilling audiences and dividing critics. Here are 10 thoughts on Hollywood’s latest movie phenomenon.

Before I delve into the realm of fiction, though, a brief word on the all-too-real tragedy that occurred in Aurora, Colorado on Thursday night. The task of trying to make sense of such a horrific event is thankfully above my pay grade, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the innocent victims who lost their lives for the most senseless of reasons: they went to watch a movie. While it seems inevitable that for the foreseeable future The Dark Knight Rises will be associated with this unfathomable event, it is my hope that, like the film itself, this article can be seen in the spirit in which it was intended: as a brief distraction from the evils of the real world. Let us never forget, however, the twelve individuals who perished. May they always be remembered, and may their hopes and dreams live on in all of us.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead! Like, a lot of them! All of them, really! I don’t hold anything back! So if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, I IMPLORE you to stop reading!)

(ANOTHER Warning: C’mon… don’t tell me you skipped over the first warning. You did? Dude, not cool. Seriously, this is for your own good. You’ll enjoy the movie SO much more if you don’t know what’s going to happen. There are some plot twists that are just, like, AHHHH. So come back once you’ve seen the movie, ’kay?)

1. The Verdict

Wait, the verdict at the START of the article? You betcha.

First, let’s get all of my biases right out in the open. I’m an enormous Batman fan. I grew up watching reruns of the 60s Batman series, have seen three different Batman movies at least twice each in the theater (Batman Forever, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight), and Batman comics are the only comic books I’ve ever read on a regular basis.

So this obviously means that I loved the new film, right? Hold on there, partner.

Being an enormous Batman fan – and especially a Batman comics fans – means that I bring a set of very specific preferences and expectations into the theater with me. I like my Batman to be presented in a certain way: dark, troubled, and as realistic as possible given that you’re still talking about a guy in a cape. And if a Batman movie stays true to the spirit of the comic books, all the better; Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman is a good film, but it’s not a good *Batman* film because of how drastically Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson’s Joker depart from the core elements of their respective characters. (And don’t even get me started on the complete mess that is Batman Returns.)

Patrick Bateman’s business cards are nice, but I bet Bruce Wayne’s are better.

Christopher Nolan’s previous two Batman films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, did an excellent job of translating the modern-day comics’ version of Batman onto the big screen. (Keep in mind that the Batman character has been around for over 70 years, so it’s impossible to say that there is one definitive version of the Dark Knight.) The best analysis I’ve ever heard of Christian Bale’s performances in the films came from one of my film professors, who opined that Bale’s brilliance stems from the fact that he portrays Bruce Wayne/Batman with the same exact mannerisms and intensity that he brought to deranged serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Like Bateman, Bale’s Batman is consumed by his demons to the point of obsession, but instead of a desire to kill, Bruce Wayne is driven to right the wrongs that led to his parents’ murder – even if righting these wrongs occasionally leads him into morally questionable territory.

So what did I think of The Dark Knight Rises, then?

Yeah, okay, I loved it.

Once again, Nolan has captured the essence of the Batman character, this time bringing the arc that encompasses the three films to a logical and satisfying conclusion. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne is finally able to let go of his obsession – or perhaps more accurately, allow others to take up the mantle that he realizes he cannot carry forever. As always, Michael Caine’s Alfred serves as the lifeline that anchors Bruce Wayne to humanity, and it is this lifeline that ultimately prevents Batman from needlessly sacrificing his life, either literally (by letting himself get blown up by the fusion bomb that threatens Gotham City) or figuratively (by letting his crime fighting fixation go on endlessly at the expense of other aspects of his life). In the end, we find Bruce Wayne safe and sound in Italy, Selina Kyle at his side, finally able to let go of the pain that had dominated his life. A fitting finale for the Caped Crusader.

2. The Comics

It might surprise the moviegoing public at large to know just how much of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy is rooted in stories from D.C.’s line of comics. Unlike Tim Burton’s films, which came out not long after the comics made their turn towards a darker style in the late 80s, Nolan and his collaborators have had the benefit of over twenty years of brooding Bruce Wayne stories to pull from, not to mention the four-plus decades of stories before that. As such, Nolan’s films are almost like a “Best of…” pastiche, pulling together the greatest representations of Batman and his villains from the thousands of stories available in print. Batman Begins cribs heavily from Frank Miller’s groundbreaking 1987 comic Batman: Year One, which is largely responsible for the change in tone seen in Batman comics in subsequent years, as well as from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween, which was one of the earliest stories to feature a Gotham City in which organized crime is as big a threat as traditional supervillains. The Dark Knight also pulled from The Long Halloween, mostly for its characterization of Harvey Dent/Two-Face, and from stories like Ed Brubaker’s Batman: The Man Who Laughs and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, both of which featured a more vicious, maniacal, and terroristic version of The Joker than had been seen in comics previously.

The cover of Batman #497: Bane “breaks” the Bat. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll recognize this image.

The comic book influences on The Dark Knight Rises are even more obvious than its two predecessors; the plot of the film is basically a mash-up of two epic Batman comic arcs, Knightfall and No Man’s Land (each of which lasted over a year), with a dash of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns thrown in for good measure. 1993-94’s Knightfall was the original saga that unleashed the villainous Bane on Gotham City, and it features one element that survives almost entirely intact into the film: Bane’s “breaking” of the Batman. 1999’s No Man’s Land depicts a Gotham City that has been devastated by an earthquake and becomes completely cut off from the outside world. Throughout No Man’s Land, anarchy reigns, and it’s up to Batman and his allies to restore order. And The Dark Knight Returns (right up there with Batman: Year One as the most influential Batman stories of all time) features a Bruce Wayne that has spent many years in retirement but is forced back into action as a result of a new and dire threat to Gotham City.

The handling of these storylines is one area where the Nolan brothers, who collaborated on the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises, really shine. Superhero comics are notorious for having great plots that are all too often light on story and depth of character. While several of the aforementioned comics thankfully don’t suffer from this weakness, in instances where the comic source material is a bit flimsy (Knightfall, for instance), the Nolans are able to weave the comics’ best story elements into the rich tapestry that they’ve already created, infusing the story ideas with a renewed gravity and vitality in the process. It’s a case of the groundwork they’ve laid in the previous two films paying major dividends, and kudos are in order for all of the screenwriters who have worked on Nolan’s films – and, indeed, for the comic book writers who inspired them.

(And incidentally, if you haven’t read Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, do yourself a favor and proceed to your nearest comics shop immediately. You’ll enjoy them even if you’re not a comic book fan. Great storytelling is great storytelling.)

3. The Unidentified Cat Burglar: Selina Kyle

Yeah, yeah, she’s clearly Catwoman… but I like the fact that the film never refers to her as that explicitly. After all, Bruce Wayne didn’t exactly decide to start calling himself “The Batman”… people saw the costume and had no trouble coming up with the name themselves. Selina doesn’t need to be walking around referring to herself in the third person, so there’s no harm in letting the name go unsaid.

So here’s a secret: As big a fan of Batman as I am, he’s actually only my second favorite comic book character. Selina is #1.

Another famous comic book cover, this one from Catwoman [Vol. 3] #51. I shall refrain from further comment.

If the characterization of Bruce Wayne has been all over the place over the course of the past 70 years, then the characterization of Catwoman has possibly been even more scatter-brained. She’s been everywhere on the spectrum from murderous she-devil to Justice League ally, with the convoluted backstory to match. In recent years, however, and in large part due to Miller’s Batman: Year One and Ed Brubaker’s fantastic work on the 2002 Catwoman comic reboot, Selina’s character has come to be defined by a specific morality: she is fiercely loyal to her friends and community and will use virtually any means at her disposal to protect and provide for them, including robbery, violence, duplicity, and seduction. Like Bruce Wayne, she has a checkered and violent past (in Batman: Year One, she’s a prostitute before deciding to enter into a life of crime), and that history contributes to a character that is richly layered and endlessly fascinating.

When word began to leak that Catwoman would be featured in the third film of Nolan’s trilogy, my mind began thinking about dream casting scenarios. Given Selina Kyle’s complexities, I immediately knew that Nolan would need an incredibly strong actress, but I also knew that he would need someone who could convincingly pull off the character’s sensuality, fit the physical type required (let’s face it: Catwoman has to be a hot chick), and manage the extremely demanding stunt and martial arts requirements. From the beginning, only one actress ever seemed to me to be the perfect fit: Anne Hathaway. I already knew that she would look great in the catsuit, but it was her performances in Get Smart (which features several major action sequences) and Rachel Getting Married (which is simply one of the finest acting performances of the decade) that convinced me that she was the only actress who could be Nolan’s Catwoman. Needless to say, I was ecstatic the day that Hathaway was announced as Selina Kyle, and her performance in The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t disappoint.

Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Perfection.

The key to Hathaway’s performance – and Nolan’s interpretation of Catwoman – is the fine line walked between friend and foe, alluring and alarming. Yep, she’ll steal your car, but she’ll do so with a wink and a smirk, and even when she seemingly goes beyond the pale by turning Batman over to Bane, we know that she only did it because she had to. The key moment for the character, and the moment when it becomes clear that Nolan’s vision falls in line with the comics’ recent interpretation, is when Selina faces the decision of escaping Gotham City to save her own skin or returning to help Batman fight off Bane’s hordes. In the end, she makes the choice that we always knew she was going to make: she helps protect her home. And like Bruce Wayne’s Alfred, Catwoman has her own anchor to humanity: Holly Robinson, portrayed in the film by Juno Temple. While the film doesn’t spend much time getting into the relationship between Holly and Selina, it’s clear that they’re close, and for fans of the comics like me, it’s a great treat to see Catwoman’s most loyal friend make the leap with her to the silver screen.

4. The Villain: Bane

Comic book Bane. He looks like a Mexican wrestler.

Another secret for you: Of all of Batman’s greatest nemeses (Bane, Joker, Two-Face, R’as al Ghul), Bane is my least favorite. By definition, comic book villains are all cartoonish to a certain extent, but Bane has always struck me as particularly silly when compared to his evil brethren. In the comics, his strength derives from a super-steroid known as Venom, and Bane is consistently drawn with ridiculously unrealistic muscles (even by comic book standards), a mask that looks like it belongs on a lucha libre villain, and a system of tubes jutting out of the back of the mask that delivers the doses of Venom required to keep him strong. The Bane of the comic books is also depicted as being a supergenius… though it’s hard to take someone’s intelligence seriously when they’re wearing such a ludicrous costume.

It’s with great relief, then, that I report that Christopher Nolan’s version of Bane is the best interpretation of the character I’ve ever seen. Gone are the most cartoonish trappings of the character – Venom and the tubes – and in their place is a new, claw-shaped metallic mask that delivers an analgesic pain reliever instead of a super-steroid. While still physically imposing, Tom Hardy’s Bane doesn’t have the sort of overly amplified muscles usually reserved for Mr. Universe contestants, and the overall result is a character that bears more of a resemblance to a vicious street fighter than a professional wrestler. Like Scarecrow in Batman Begins, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises has been Nolanified: darker, more realistic, and fitting in seamlessly with the overall tone of the trilogy.

5. The Plot Twist(s)

I hope you heeded the spoiler warning earlier, because I’m about to give away the biggest shocker of the whole film.

So as it turns out, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is actually Talia al Ghul, the daughter of R’as al Ghul, and has been working with Bane the whole time. It’s a stunning revelation that mirrors a similar twist in Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne learns that Liam Neeson’s character is not merely one of R’as al Ghul’s minions but actually the evil mastermind himself. Amazingly, I didn’t see the swerve coming even though a) I’m familiar with the Talia al Ghul character from the comic books, and b) I’d seen people speculate about it online. While I may just be an idiot (there is ample evidence to support this conclusion), I’d also like to give some credit to Christopher Nolan, whose film managed to capture my attention sufficiently that I became a passive spectator, vulnerable to every twist and turn of the plot and prone to having the wool pulled over my eyes. Well done, sir.

John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the everyman of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

As for the film’s other major twist – the revelation that John Blake’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) legal name is Robin and that he will presumably follow in Batman’s footsteps as a crime fighter – my reaction is somewhat more mixed. Unlike the Talia al Ghul twist, which plays a major role in the film’s third act, the Robin revelation is little more than a throw-away. As a corollary to Batman’s character arc, however, I think that the development is effective; it wraps up the evolution in Batman’s public persona that has occurred throughout the films, from mystery to menace to symbol of hope, and shows that his legacy will live on even if Bruce Wayne retires from crime fighting. My only squabble is admittedly minor: As any comic book fan will tell you, the first Robin’s true identity is Dick Grayson, not somebody named Robin John Blake. As such, I’m not entirely sure why we couldn’t have simply learned that Blake’s birth name was Richard Grayson – he did grow up in foster care, after all, and could have plausibly had his name changed at some point along the line – but my slight reticence stems more from a misplaced sense of propriety over the character and Nolan’s own history of remaining very true to the characters in the comic books. Overall, the Robin plot twist serves its purpose.

Check back later in the week for Part II of “10 Thoughts.”


About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.


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