Cast: Christian Bale, Sir Michael Caine, Anne Hathway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 164 min.
Verdict: I suppose the definitive take on the whole Batman thing. And it blows its predecessors to pieces. And then, it picks up those pieces, wraps them neatly into a unified whole, and delivers what might be the best trilogy after all.
Genre: Action, Superhero
Of all the unenviable aspects of taking up the challenge of a sequel, and I think there are many, the worst I could imagine for a filmmaker is to try and thread together The Dark Knight and Batman Begins and somehow sell these two of mostly different aesthetic grains to the movie-going audience as pieces of a unified whole. Unlike the Mission Impossible series, or the Alien franchise, both of which can be imagined as big wallpapers for filmmakers to imprint their palms on, these Batman films are being made by a single filmmaker who, in many ways, is also trying to grow a little taller each film so as to reach that wall in the first place. I mean, he could have repeated (or extrapolated) himself each time, like the Wachowskis did with their wallpaper, or leave the one-two punch as it is, like Mr. Cameron did with his Terminator films and is somehow not willing to now by announcing a sequel to Avatar my kid might very well be watching with his college friends. In Batman Begins Mr. Nolan could cause a mostly classical take on the Batman legend by having a malevolent air about him in, where by barely containing him within the frame or by causing to retreat to corners of it or by having numerous shots of him fly while framing him from below, he could make the figure more than a man. Which gets contrasted, or bluntly undercut, by the “realistic” feel of The Dark Knight, where his flight is framed from above, or he is asked to walk amongst “ordinary” Gothamites causing him to be merely a masked man whose presence doesn’t really bother people all that much, and whose impotence in saving Gotham from the clear and present danger is brutally exposed by his inability to overcome Mr. Nolan’s stock-in-trade device – crosscutting – pitifully rendering him the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time. So much so that it is almost a fact as to who makes The Dark Knight, well, memorable, and who seems to have a back-up for every back-up. And another back-up just in case. Which makes the film’s final act an almost desperate riff on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I mean, let us face it, Bruce Batman Wayne is no John Doniphon Wayne. And not that I would lend too much credence to the whole Batman is Bush thing, but were he really an authoritarian figure, he wouldn’t mind pinning the crimes on The Joker, however false they maybe, and rationalize (the enemy we need) it as justice. But a sense of righteousness pervades Mr. Wayne, and he desires to have a purpose, a specific meaning to his existence, a need to be a hero and more importantly, get rid of his impotence. Just as Mr. Nolan’s ending is molded into what it needs to be via Gordon’s especially emotional speech and the powerfully convincing background score, I suppose the Batman rationalizes his decision to take the blame. The Batman in Batman Begins was a revolution against the established order, the Batman in The Dark Knight is merely another city authority/structure that ceases to make any difference.
And now that Mr. Nolan had made his vanity project in Inception, I suppose this was the problem statement he was presented with. I like to imagine this as one of those board-room conversation where the Chechen from The Dark Knight lays out the situation, and then says - Hey, No-lan-man! I have a pro-po-si-tion. Give us the Batman. And in its own strange way, The Dark Knight Rises, which indulges in what seems to be a commentary on how the two previous connect with each other while drawing threads from Mr. Nolan’s previous ideas (both filmed and unfilmed), in one inspired moment of post-modernist filmmaking (not merely reverential), goes so far as to provide for an almost tangible seam within the frame to describe what the trilogy truly stands for. It is a moment that wouldn’t have been possible in either of the predecessors, and it is a moment that needs both its predecessors to exist in exactly the form they are, and install within us the exact same expectations they have, so that Mr. Nolan could thread them together. Bane (Mr. Hardy) and his merry men walk into a stock exchange to do their stuff. It is a moment that derives from and builds upon its ancestors in The Dark Knight, which itself was modeled on heist (read Heat) film tropes. As they escape on bikes, with cop cars chasing them, we do not expect the Batman to make an entry. We would, had it been the first one, but after the second, which between first frame and its last destroyed all these shenanigans systematically, we don’t. Between our calibrated expectations and the narrative juggernaut of the typical Nolan narrative, where we’re merely receptacles for information the first time around we’re watching any of his films, we fully expect this to be a chase between cops and robbers. The dramatic stakes are akin to a film like Heat. I mean’s it is more relatable and serious. Into this predicament Mr. Nolan virtually inserts the Batman, almost deliberately subverting the expectations, and considerably reducing the tension within the moment and replacing it with the “awesomeness” that is the sole property of fantasy/superhero-genre/cinema. I mean, the stakes have to be “real-worldly” for the subversion to take place, and between all the hoo-haa between cops and terrorists, the frame is hijacked by the Batman, instantly switching the tone and the genre, and thereby, as Alfred J Pennyworth (Sir Caine) rebukes Bruce moments later, reducing the high stakes of a financial market collapse to a game of toys built by Lucius Fox (Mr. Freeman). It is awesome, amusing, escapist, and hopeful. It is a spectacle as there has been none in a superhero film before. We applaud, and I’m not sure we could react any other way. Meanwhile, for a man who’s burdened with a severe crisis of identity, a man who’s probably representing not merely a city or a country but by the accounts of the film a complete civilization, a man whose place in the order of things have been severely shaken, this applause feeds his courage to face this crisis. When Falcone laments Bruce, when Bruce exchanges his coat with the homeless man, when Bruce is found in the ancient part of the world “understanding criminals”, we discover the beginnings of a man who wears his tryst with primitivism as a badge on his chest, who isn’t one with the crowd but a demi-god flying over them and desperate to save them. He isn’t the one wearing the hockey-pads in The Dark Knight, but the film, causing a severe criticism of Mr. Wayne’s methods and motivations, almost completely dismantles his sense of self by the end.
The Batman here needs that moment to restore himself, needs every bit of beauty that exists in there, where the car cops surround him from every which angle, where probably for the first time since Batman Begins we are given a shot of his legs so as to signify mystery and thereby a larger-than-life figure, and where a helicopter hovering above bathes him in, well, spotlight. I tell you, The Dark Knight Rises is a film of incredible beauty, especially in this scene here, with its blues and reds and yellows so vivid, and the lustre off the Batman armor so breathtakingly graceful. It is a triumph for film, and I had almost forgotten how a real film image looks like. And as he coolly reflects on the situation there’s the old arrogance in his methods. Not surprising here is the introduction of the Bat that restores the equation between the savior and the Gothamites. And in a moment that is probably one of those once-in-a-genre things, like the final shot of Winchester’
73, a moment that again cannot exist without the previous moments serving their intended purpose, a moment so special it feels like a slap in the face of The Batman mythos, we see him running and jumping into his flying machine as Bane unleashes his most disdainful look. Right then right there my inner Batman spontaneously combusted. It is the lowest point for the Batman in the entire trilogy, and probably the harshest criticism of the “mythos/legend” building image in Batman Begins, where we see him perched on a tower.
Considering all of the above, the pace with which Mr. Nolan starts The Dark Knight Rises is quite a lovely touch. Bruce Wayne is a cripple, but once he gets out of the house, there is a pace in his stride. Bilge Ebiri here probably has the precise word to describe it – valedictory – and from the Batman running around from the stock exchange robbers to “saving” Selina (Ms. Hathway) to pursuing Bane into the underground tunnels, he seems to be making up for lost time. Mr. Zimmer is on overdrive, and the Batman, who is definitely not your average brawler, is running through Bane’s men like never before. As in, he’s apparently at the peak of his element, and near desperate to retrieve the city-structure that is the Batman from the shadows of irrelevance. Here is a man who intends to set the definitive example in what might very well be his final innings. Mr. Nolan’s relentless pacing in the tunnel is the key here, and I suppose a perfect externalization of Bruce Wayne’s state of mind. The “Batman” moments keep coming thick and fast – one of which happens to be an iconic movement-through-darkness where we see Batman’s motion in still flashes of the machine-gun fire – so much so that when the cage is closed, it feels like a punch in the gut. All the vulnerabilities and fears that were kept at bay by the pacing flood the frame. I wouldn’t want to dwell too much over what happens next, but yeah, coming on the heels all the “Batman” moments, through bone-crunching violence it literally deconstructs every aspect (fear, anger to name two) of them.
Dear reader, it might probably be advisable to bring into perspective the fact that Mr. Bale’s version of Bruce Wayne is one of the loveliest guys imaginable. But when he claims to Blake that the Batman as a symbol was meant to signify that anybody could be him, you are reminded of that guy in hockey-pads and you cannot help rolling your eyes. Bruce, as much as I, wants The Batman to be something of an institution, but it is so closely linked to his self it is tough not to make it all about himself. And I suspect this – the separation of the self from the institution – might be the very point from where Mr. Nolan and his brother and Mr. Goyer must have wanted to take on the Batman mythos in The Dark Knight Rises. Which might make it thematically inconsistent with its predecessors, unless you realize that the one true theme of the trilogy has been to be critical of Bruce’s/Batman’s ways, and that almost every character basically exists to hold a mirror. That Mr. Nolan and his brother and Mr. Goyer were making it all up as they went along, and the very fact that they never had a trilogy in mind allows them to take a fresh approach each time. The manner in which Selina Kyle is framed during their brawl on the rooftop with Bane’s men, where probably for the first time in the trilogy the Batman isn’t fighting alone, and her “invisible act” sure provide for an amusing shift in the power equation between Gotham and its savior.
It might be worthwhile here to consider Gordon’s (Mr. Oldman) tryst with the Batmobile in Batman Begins, which stands in stark contrast to Selina Kyle’s flair with the Batpod. It might very well be a character thing, but during the film’s final moments, where a hapless Batman groans so pitifully (Mr. Bale sure does go all out), Gordon gets the job done. Mr. Nolan seems to be going all out too with his cross-cutting here, using it to set up situations both textual and extra-textual, with cops facing Bane, to Gordon trying to diffuse the bomb, to Selina trying to create a route for escape, to Blake trying to rescue as many citizens as he can. That everybody achieves varying degrees of success, and arrives at different realizations, and is thus inspired by different motivations, is a clear redistribution of power from the Batman, a verifiable seeking-of-allies/passing-of-baton, a ritual symbolically and quite explicitly performed by the Batman when he asks Gordon to light the fire and asks Blake to drop a small explosive on the hole covering the cops, and most importantly asks Selina to handle the Batpod. The thing is, Batman is finally willing to let go.
I suppose that final statement flies in the face of the assumptions of The Dark Knight Rises confirming his status as a plutocrat, or a fascist or many such things. Their might only be a few reviews out there not dwelling on the whole “Occupy Wall Street” angle, or the 1% v/s 99% debate, and many might even have expressed frustration for the film not handling these themes. I might be a little wary of going along those lines, especially because I might have a pedestrian understanding of the whole phenomenon. But then, speaking of topicality, if I were to bring into discussion the whole chapter of the Maruti Manesar plant, I don’t know, we might have a different set of points to argue over. The thing is Mr. Nolan, to the disappointment of some and it is justified, provides the rich-poor divide as a causative agent for the breakdown of law-and-order, and which happens to be his primary concern. I don’t even know if he understands the whole economic divide, forget providing an examination. What concerns him here is the failure of existing structures to let the society function in its present state and the accompanying dread (Bane’s speech, as mobs take to the streets, is quite something as far as montage goes). And unlike many, he believes in these structures, believes in their neo-conservative values, and believes in their justification of the necessary use of force. He believes in cops just about as much as he believes in Harry Callahan. I suppose it isn’t much of a belief in the first place, and is simply pragmatic (ideal + muscle), and when we speak of the inter-cutting involving Gordon and Blake towards the climax earlier, where the different sets of motivations are set-up and contrasted, we need to realize about the co-existence of the law and the outside muscle that is at the heart of Mr. Nolan’s politics. Superhero or revisionist, Mr. Nolan always believes in that aspect of the authority, and thereby the Batman. So yeah, when the Bat soars over the cops providing them with the necessary muscle, it becomes, after all the chasing in the previous films and all the blames, a moment for the ages.
And there you realize that through The Dark Knight Rises, between all the construction and the reconstruction and deconstruction, Mr. Nolan has found a human way to deal with the whole superhero myth. He doesn’t examine the experience of it, but the motivations for it to be caused in the first place. Bruce Wayne, after three films, and what might be ten years, finally and systematically (I suppose an apt word for Mr. Nolan’s filmmaking) discovers himself in that ancient pit. He discovers, much like all of us, the fear of mortality. As Liam “f***ing” Neeson declares in The Grey – “You're scared. You don't need all that nonsense, all that chest puff bullshit. What's wrong with being scared? I'm terrified. And not an ounce of shame in saying it. I'm scared shitless.” Mr. Bale is a wonderful actor that way, wearing his arrogance as a mask but profoundly vulnerable deep within, and when his more purposeful strides in the earlier attempts give way to a modest self, it is an almost complete revision of Bruce Wayne. Mr. Nolan completely changes the manner in which he, or most others, have shot or framed Batman to date, inspiring him to not perch over rooftops and jump-in from above, but walk amongst people and fight with them. He is firmly contained within the frame and in an astonishing moment (the exact opposite of Batman’s takedown of Falcone’s henchmen in Batman Begins) where he takes down half-a-dozen of Bane’s men, Mr. Nolan gets the whole movement in one single shot. That was my wife’s sole regret as we walked out, that Bruce for her was the chosen one, and he deserved a final “Batman” moment or two as he knocks out Bane and co. I refuse to believe that. It is a truly inspired move, to bring the Batman finally into the light of the day, to Batman to walk from amongst the people, and walk and fight with a human resolve and desperation. The skill might be absent but the fear is back. He isn’t too far from the child who thought the world had ended when his parents died. Mr. Nolan here brings back Bruce Wayne from the romance of the William Graham (evil-within-me) territory, completely nullifying his understanding of the evil that he faces, and the manner in which he wrongly projects his fears into a myth. What we fear about Bane is what the Batman fears about as well. So yeah, The Dark Knight Rises makes Bruce Wayne just about as much a chosen one as you or me or Blake.And at the risk of sounding pathetically cheesy, both for the film and for me, the Batman is in all of us. I profusely apologize for making you go through the agony of the previous sentence, but in Mr. Bale’s unassuming face, and the perfection of that ending, I realize Mr. Nolan has made a film where I’ve always cared for Bruce Wayne more than the Batman. I imagine the script, and the ending, I think of the numerous ways in which it could’ve been set up, and I marvel at how the entire team, from Mr. Nolan to Mr. Smith to Mr. Pfister to Sir Caine to Mr. Bale to Ms. Hathway, have hit the precise note. There is some serious craftsmanship there, I tell you. Through those shots of Bruce standing before the armor, to the single-mindedness of The Dark Knight Rises, Mr. Nolan has made the Batman, much like The Phantom, something of an abstraction. The reasons might differ for a person to get into it, and to interpret it his way. Meanwhile, with practically nothing by way of fortune, Bruce Wayne probably isn’t all that different from Robert Fischer (Mr. Cillian Murphy, Inception). I imagine him to start afresh, from practically nothing, using merely his intelligence and his enterprise to build a new empire. Or maybe he would marry and have kids and have a nice job. Either way, for Alfred, that realization, that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree, might be all that he wished for. I suppose then, it is the start of a beautiful beginning. What’s more, it is in Florence!
Note: As always, there’s a lovely discussion happening on at Jim Emerson’s place.