Thursday, August 9, 2012
Batman Ends in The Dark Knight Rises
I know that I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises while on vacation and here are a few thoughts that I have about Christopher Nolan's final chapter in his Batman trilogy. So much has been written across the blogosphere about this eagerly awaited film, so I'm limiting my observations to a fan perspective. While it's lacking in some areas, Dark Knight Rises successfully concludes an impressive trilogy of superhero films the likes of which we probably won't be seeing for a long time to come. Read on ...
Dark Knight Rises is a sequel in the truest sense, in that its plot relies heavily on the previous two films. Someone who has never seen a Batman film before might be able to derive some entertainment from Dark Knight Rises, but it would be difficult to understand the characters' attitudes and motivations and the significance of their actions without seeing Batman Begins and The Dark Knight first. At its core, the plot of Dark Knight Rises is similar to most other superhero movie sequels in that a new villain arrives for the superhero to vanquish, and that the superhero overcomes challenging adversity before the new villain is defeated and peace is restored. However, writer/director Nolan has weaved so many narrative and visual themes into his interpretation of the Batman universe that this third film is too rich in background to simply dismiss as yet another sequel.
Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the events of the previous film. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse during that time, still mourning the loss of his love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and content to retire his Batman persona after he was blamed for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Yet Wayne is forced to revive his alter ego when a new menace, a terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy), arrives in Gotham City with a vicious agenda that is linked to Wayne's past.
The most remarkable thing about Nolan's Batman movies is how he disassembled Batman's corner of the DC universe and then rebuilt it from the ground up to tell stories that even the Batman comic books couldn't tell. By doing so, Nolan gave new significance to characters such as Harvey Dent and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and provided a new perspective on Batman's crusade against crime. Instead of portraying Batman as a dominant personality that overshadows the persona of Bruce Wayne, Nolan depicts Wayne as someone who creates Batman as part of a much larger plan to save his failing city--nothing more, nothing less. (Curiously, thanks to Nolan's Batman films, Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) is now the only DC villain to appear in three consecutive live-action Batman movies.) Batman fans will see similarities in this movie to plot threads from comic arcs such as The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall, Bane of the Demon and No Man's Land, yet Nolan puts these threads together in a distinct and engaging way. I don't know if DC or Marvel will allow any other director to take such liberties with any other superhero, or if there is another superhero character who is popular enough to allow such a revision to happen.
Unfortunately, Nolan's approach to Batman is not without its drawbacks, and these drawbacks reach their peak in Dark Knight Rises. It appears to me that in his movies, Nolan took Batman and placed him in a cinematic environment that is similar in appearance and mood to other contemporary crime films. I once heard someone describing Nolan's take on Batman as what a Michael Mann crime thriller would look like if it featured superheroes; I'm incline to agree. In a sense, this an extension of what was done in Batman: The Animated Series, which included themes and imagery from 30s and 40s era crime fiction alongside the pulp sci-fi that is common in superhero stories. B:TAS did this as a nod to the creative influences that led Bob Kane to create Batman back in 1939; Nolan just takes the pulp crime aspect of Batman and updates it to fit contemporary crime drama.
However, B:TAS never discarded the pulp sci-fi aspects of the superhero genre while Nolan did, which leaves a few aspects of his Batman universe lacking in terms of narrative purpose and logic. The most obvious example of this is in the character of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson), a character who first appeared in Batman Begins and plays a key role in the plot of Dark Knight Rises. In the comics, al Ghul's sinister motives stem from his connection to the Lazarus Pits, pits that allow al Ghul to prolong his life by centuries. The Lazarus Pits aren't in Nolan's movies since they don't fit the gritty style of contemporary crime drama, which in turn takes away a key part of what makes al Guhl such a complex character and why he's a convincing and persistent foil for Batman. Neeson does what he can with his role, but Nolan's version of al Ghul falls far short of the comic book version.
The same can be said for Bane. Bane isn't one of Batman's more interesting villains, and Nolan gives him a deeper background than what is provided in the comics. Yet like the removal of the Lazarus Pits, Nolan removes Bane's addiction to Venom, a hyper-steroid that allows Bane to "bulk up" at a moment's notice and overpower just about any opponent with unrelenting muscular force. Nolan tries to give his Bane a new set of strengths and weaknesses in lieu of Venom, but once the weakness of this version of Bane is revealed towards the end of the film you can't help but to wonder why Batman wasn't able to figure it out sooner and beat Bane during their first battle. Such shortcomings don't completely ruin the movie, but they keep Dark Knight Rises from consistently reaching the heights for which it aims.
Dark Knight Rises is a satisfying conclusion to Nolan's trilogy of Batman films. While it's not as strong as the previous two film, it completes what Nolan originally set out to do--to provide a unique and complex version of DC Comic's most popular and enduring superhero.