Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Rise and fall

Nolan stumbles, but lands the follow-through in ambitious, fascinating 'Dark Knight Rises'

The Dark Knight Rises
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Matthew Modine, Ben Mendelsohn and Morgan Freeman
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 44 minutes
(out of four)

Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy has always been more at home as a crime saga than a comic-book story, and never has that been more evident than in the finale, The Dark Knight Rises. It's hard to even call this a superhero film - and not just because the presumed superhero rarely makes an appearance. Looking back at the whole arc of the series, it becomes clear that the axial character was always Gotham City itself - as a crumbling society and as a reflection of a man, and oh yeah, that man just happens to be a masked vigilante/hero (antihero?).

That's territory for urban thrillers and film noir - not superhero movies, which are typically more single-mindedly centered on heroism, good vs. evil and the like. Nolan moved beyond that, building his Gotham mosaic from the ground up, offering a more multi-faceted look at morality - both of the decaying city and even of the Batman himself.

What Nolan sets out to accomplish in TDKR (and largely does accomplish, though not without significant hiccups) is to not only follow through on the course set by his first two entries, but also provide a direct mirror and companion piece to Batman Begins. The middle passage (2008's The Dark Knight) is easily the strongest, but the beginning and end (of what is now a pretty succinctly concluded narrative) have a necessary kinship that Nolan takes careful measures to emphasize.

His willingness to expand upon the issues he confronted in the first two films is one of the main reasons Rises feels more like a dramatic thriller than a comic-book spectacle. All along there has been talk of a reckoning for Gotham - of the need for and/or inevitability of the once-great city's destruction - and indeed that reckoning comes in the form of a man who is nothing short of a domestic terrorist.

Technically speaking, most movie villains would be considered terrorists, but usually they just feel like Bad Guys. Not this time. Bane - a scarred, hulking, masked mercenary played with sardonic menace by Tom Hardy - has one thing primarily on his mind, and that is the downfall of Gotham. And that includes, at the forefront, he who represents both its guiding light and its darkest underbelly, Batman (Christian Bale). A protégé of the deceased Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), Bane has looked upon the face of a society that's morally upside-down - its richest getting more powerful, its poorest getting more desperate - and taken it upon himself to dismantle it. Just as Ra's Al Ghul, in Batman Begins, insisted was necessary.

The eight years of peace enjoyed by the people of Gotham since Dent's death (and presumed martyrdom) and Batman's disappearance were indeed the proverbial calm before the storm (a continuation of a motif explored prominently in TDK); Bane is just the faceless arbiter of their demise.

While his introduction into this existing narrative is handled awkwardly at times, Bane nonetheless brings a pretty interesting dynamic. Like many cinematic villains before him, he is rooted to a moral cause, one we may ideologically identify with. It's his methods and physical tyranny that conflict with our sense of humanity and turn him into a monster. In a lot of ways he's straight out of the history books - a fascist masquerading as a revolutionary, a saboteur masquerading as a symbol of salvation.

Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is on much the same side. She's a poor girl who can't escape her criminal past, which only condemns her to repeat it. She moonlights as a cat burglar, shifting from innocence to sensual villainy in a single breath. She's not inherently evil like Bane - only a product of a corrupt society, which is probably one of the reasons Bruce takes a liking to her even as she keeps stealing from him. The sexual chemistry between Bale and Hathaway significantly trumps that between Bale and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a business associate of Bruce's who sort of halfheartedly becomes the film's love interest. (Which is not to take anything away from the Tate character as a whole - who is an essential piece to the film - nor Cotillard's performance, which is excellent as usual.)

TDK famously ended with Batman taking the fall for Two-Face's crimes, protecting Harvey Dent's symbolic goodness for the sake of the city and its inhabitants - even at the expense of his identity, and the life of the woman he loved. Rises picks up eight years after the fact, with Batman reduced to the status of an escaped and nearly forgotten fugitive and Bruce Wayne in self-imposed exile inside the walls of Wayne Manor. The gangs and super-criminals who once ran the town are nowhere to be found, Rachel is long gone, and Bruce has little to live for. He doesn't even move very well anymore, weakened by age and hobbled after too much punishment to his body. Nights of crime-fighting will do that to a man.

Bane's rise to prominence begins rather suddenly with a financial raid that not only throws the city into turmoil, but nearly bankrupts Wayne Enterprises. And it indeed does lead to something of a revolution in Gotham. The problem is, I almost wish the whole movie had taken place during the revolution. The first hour or so is clunky in its construction, and I confess to being a little let down for a while.

There are some really good scenes in that opening hour (particularly one involving Selina making a handoff at a bar), but the exposition and dialogue make for a strangely stop-and-go opening. It feels like we're getting introduction after introduction - like pieces of information are just being piled on top of one another. I couldn't help but think the film could have found some way to dramatize all the elements in the setup more effectively.

My fears were eventually put to rest during the second half of the film, where everything begins to come full circle and move propulsively toward their logical conclusions. Nolan is able to use the film to both shed light on and punctuate everything that has come before (particularly Batman Begins), while still managing to surprise us - and, in a couple of nicely foreshadowed moments, move us.

I still wish more would have been done with the Gotham City of the film's second half, if only because Nolan uses that canvas so brilliantly at times. But what initially looks like it might be a stilted and underwhelming finale eventually manages to bring it home. With this trilogy, Nolan was able to create one self-contained and rather spectacular narrative, while making three distinctive films. The first was a journey of self-discovery wrapped in a neo-noir; the second was an epic crime drama examining the relationship between good and evil; the final chapter is a bleak pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-political thriller - the most ambitious and most flawed of the three - that brings everything to a head. The Dark Knight Rises has its share of problems, but Nolan knows exactly where he wants to go with this saga, and in his last hurrah he finds a thoughtful and often thrilling way to get there.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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