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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises



"There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne."

The Dark Knight Rises, the epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, as it is now known, is like a massive jigsaw puzzle. Not all the pieces quite fit, some are jammed right in there to make for a scraggly patchwork. But when one steps back and sees the big picture, it's worthy of awe. Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan have the brass balls to conclude their story about Batman, honoring the tropes of what has come before while blazing new directions. The story of Batman, and more importantly of Bruce Wayne, comes full circle, and in its final breath, The Dark Knight Rises does rise above its flaws and achieves a kind of magnificence.

The Dark Knight Rises pulls freely from Batman comic books of the 1990s, such as "Knightfall", where Bane breaks Batman's back, and "No Man's Land", when Gotham City is cut off from the rest of the world after a cataclysmic earthquake. Yet the Nolans craft an ambitious Batman story we've never quite seen before; if it angers some Batman fanboy "purists", it's because the Nolans treat Bruce Wayne not as a "superhero" but as a person first. A person who has to regain what's extraordinary about himself after suffering through the tragedies of the death of Rachel Dawes and Batman taking the blame for the murder of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight

Eight years have passed since the events in The Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne has become a shell of himself, haunting the rebuilt Wayne Manor, a Howard Hughes-like curiosity to the rest of the world. Even after eight years retired, the time he spent as Batman left Wayne with no cartilage in his knees, kidney damage and a scarred, ravaged body. The fanboys rage: "Batman would never quit being Batman!" They demand Batman fight the never-ending battle against evil. But the Nolans have always floated the idea that there's a human being behind the cape and cowl, someone who wouldn't and shouldn't be Batman forever. Harvey Dent even said so in The Dark Knight: "Whoever Batman is, he doesn't want to do this forever. How could he?" Batman the symbol, the legend, can go on, but let us truly consider Bruce Wayne the man and what he needs. The Nolans display a compassion and a hope for Bruce Wayne that is simply unprecedented in any media.

As Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale is once again the primary focus of Rises. Bale throws everything into the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman this final time: limping, growling, screaming, leaping, falling, agonizing, and triumphing as the best cinematic Batman ever. Batman shared the stage more evenly with Harvey Dent, the heroic Commissioner James Gordon, and The Joker (never mentioned) in The Dark Knight, but Rises is mainly and fittingly about Bruce Wayne. Gordon becomes a casualty early and spends most of the movie in a hospital bed while missing and pleading for the Batman to return. (Gary Oldman's Gordon is unabashedly in love with the Batman, almost to the levels that Adam West's Commissioner was in love with him.) Note for all police commissioners: do not personally lead SWAT teams into the sewers; it doesn't work out so well. Michael Caine gives his most emotional performance as Alfred J. Pennyworth, whose monologues serve almost as a surrogate for the Nolans' vision for a better life for Bruce Wayne than being Batman. Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman returns, bemused as ever, giving Batman his most wonderful toy yet, a flying assault vehicle called (fittingly) The Bat*, before being horrified as his vast armory of Batman weapons and vehicles is stolen by Bane and the League of Shadows. Cillian Murphy in a cameo once more as Jonathan (The Scarecrow) Crane draws some welcome laughs.

New playmates for Wayne in this final chapter of the saga include cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway purring Hedy Lamarr-style and slinking about in a form-fitting updated Julie Newmar catsuit) and police detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an angry young orphan who has magic Angry Young Orphan X-Ray Vision that allowed him to see right through Batman's mask and figure out he's Bruce Wayne. Wayne/Batman mentoring Blake in his philosophy for masked nocturnal vigilantism is almost as much fun as Batman and Catwoman (no one ever calls her that) in costume smacking down Bane's thugs, though there isn't quite as much of it as one would like. Hathaway is rather fetching sprawled out on Batman's Bat-Pod and barreling down Gotham's streets blowing up Tumblers. Nolan doesn't deviate from the natural conclusion one reaches when seeing Batman and Catwoman together in their matching black night-time gear: they're made for each other. Selina Kyle's main motivation, besides being all excited about the "storm coming" and then freaking when it's Bane bringing the storm, is chasing after "the clean slate", which is a computer program metaphor that wipes away your past. Very necessary for the sexy cat burglar on the go.

The Academy Award-winning performance of the late Heath Ledger as The Joker is an impossible act to follow, but as Bane, an enormously jacked and masked Tom Hardy, creates a different kind of arch villain. Personally, I found Bane fascinating, and Hardy's Bane voice is amusing to imitate. I especially liked the joke of the young boy singing the national anthem and Bane noting, "He has a lovely, lovely voice!" Bane's comic book smarts are maintained, and while Nolan eschewed the notion of Bane gaining super strength through the super steroid called Venom, Bane remains an imposing physical threat who does break the Batman's back in a ferocious, if straightforward fight. I did enjoy Batman's futile screaming and desperation as he falls to Bane, completely outclassed and unprepared for whom he was facing. Bane is a great deal of nasty fun, especially when he launched into what seemed like a ten minute super villain monologue or when he taunted Bruce Wayne about his failures ("Your greatest victory was a lie.") and when he would have Bane's permission to die. In the climactic rematch with Batman, Bane gets his mask damaged and visibly panics, desperate to end the fight as he's overwhelmed by agony and defeated by Batman.

Then there is the mysterious character of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the new CEO of Wayne Enterprises, a quickie lover for Bruce Wayne, and a big believer in clean energy and Wayne's fusion reactor. Taking cues from his magic show movie The Prestige, Nolan hides Miranda Tate's true purpose and identity in Rises in plain sight, decoying and feinting with stories about Bane's origins that reaches right back around to R'as Al-Ghul and reveal Tate as Talia Al-Ghul, Daughter of the Demon. Batman was simply shocked when Talia shanked him, but it's understandable: While trapped in Bane's prison pit and healing from his broken back, Bruce Wayne was visited by R'as Al-Ghul (Liam Neeson)'s Force ghost. And like Obi-Wan's Force ghost did to Luke Skywalker several times, R'as mislead Bruce into believing Bane was his son. And speaking of hiding in plain sight, the ultimate destiny of John Blake - full name Robin John Blake - was a jawdropper.

The plot of The Dark Knight Rises is labyrinthine. Details involving the theft of Bruce Wayne's fingerprints by Selina Kyle, a Russian nuclear scientist kidnapped by the masked mercenary Bane, the wheeling and dealing at Wayne Enterprises which causes Bruce Wayne to lose his vast fortune as Miranda Tate is installed by Lucius Fox as CEO, an underground army plotting to take over Gotham City, and a fusion reactor beneath Gotham River which is turned into a nuclear bomb as Bane reveals his grand scheme to destroy Gotham City and fulfill R'as Al-Ghul's destiny a la Batman Begins are lobbed fiercely at the audience. The third act is almost an hour of Gotham City under siege, occupied by Bane and the League of Shadows under the threat of a nuclear holocaust, as Bruce Wayne must find a way to escape a Middle Eastern prison and lead the war to save Gotham City as the Batman. 

The #OccupyGotham act of Rises is the most unwieldy and problematic. Gotham City was really Chicago in the previous installments, but Gotham has grown in the last eight years and has now jarringly become Chicago, Manhattan and Pittsburgh side by side, linked by bridges destroyed by Bane. For five months, Bane and his small army held a city of twelve million people hostage; with many people isolated from their homes, like the executives of Wayne Enterprises trapped in Wayne Tower. Yet somehow everyone was able to maintain their haircuts and made sure to be dressed well even when they had no way to shower for months. Three thousand police officers are trapped in the tunnels under Gotham, but they were able to get food..., uh, why? Why would Bane allow them to not starve to death so they couldn't rise up against him later? As one character notes, "this situation is unprecedented", but many of #OccupyGotham's intricate and logical details seemed to slip through Nolan's grasp, at least until Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham (the hows remain a mystery), became Batman again, and mounted an explosive, all-out assault on Bane's forces.

As Bane mounted #OccupyGotham, Bruce Wayne was trapped in the 'worst hell on Earth' prison, which gave him the chance to heal and regain his true Batmanity. We're told this prison pit where Bane was born is filled with the worst murderers and thieves on Earth, but it didn't seem so bad. Supposedly it's a dark place with no light - Bane says he didn't see light until he was a man - but the place seemed awfully well lit. Maybe Bane was speaking metaphorically. The inmates seemed like a bunch genial chaps who all enjoyed watching rock climbing and chanting together. One of them can even smack a protruding vertebrae back into place. Look hard and maybe you'll see one of those guys helping Tony Stark build a suit of armor in a corner. I really enjoyed Wayne's multiple attempts to climb the pit and duplicate the leap and escape a child once made (who turned out to be Talia). Bruce Wayne is always driven by anger and a lack of fear of death, but he learned the importance of that fear, that he cannot truly rise unless he eschewed his tether and does so with the fear of failure and death. These heady notions would serve Bruce Wayne well into the ending of Rises.

That ending. Despite The Dark Knight Rises' flaws, Nolan's biggest gamble and triumph was truly ending his story of Batman, and he does so in a better, more uplifting fashion than Frank Miller did when he gave Batman his "ending" in the seminal graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns". Batman takes it upon himself to use The Bat to fly the nuclear bomb away from Gotham, perishing in a nuclear explosion. But Bruce Wayne did not die. How did he survive? After giving it a good deal of thought, I discovered the answer: I don't care. I don't care. Because I didn't want Batman to die. More importantly, I didn't want Bruce Wayne to die. What the Nolans achieved with Rises' conclusion was something the comic books, which must publish Batman stories ad infinitum, can and will never do: give Bruce Wayne the happy ending he's deserved for 70+ years. Because "anyone can be a hero", and Batman is a symbol who can rise again if he's needed. But this Bruce Wayne, our best Bruce Wayne, deserves a chance at something more, a better life, "a clean slate" with Selina Kyle. In grand style, The Dark Knight Rises finally, bravely and boldly, gives a noble and fitting end to Bruce Wayne's dark nights.

* Note that Batman never drives a Tumbler Batmobile in this movie. Why would he? He has The Bat. Once you go Bat, you never go back.