Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Bane of Our Existence
"Okay, What Joker Put Yeast in My Dark Knight?"

"All stories end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you"--Hemingway

"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story"--Welles

So, Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy ends in a nearly 3 hour film that neatly wraps up the story.  How does it end?  That would be telling.  The comics went through a phase where Bruce Wayne ruminated that he was working towards a world where he wasn't needed.  That's a nice little "buttoning up" of the "Dark Knight" story, but it's not complete.  What of Bruce Wayne?  Nolan has the opportunity in his version to really end it—he doesn't have to sell comic books next month—so, he can take it anywhere he wants to go.  And one realizes (if one really wanted to end the story) that the only real happy ending that could be achieved is if Bruce Wayne became the one thing he never knew as a child—a caring, present father.  Anything else makes the story a tragedy, and Bruce Wayne the last victim of the gunman's bullets that killed his parents.  Given this series' downbeat tone (that of the sacrificial martyr) and of the available previews for The Dark Knight Rises, such a scenario does not seem likely.  Given that, Nolan can take the tragedy of his hero in any number of directions.

Bane (Tom Hardy here) is the perfect villain to bring into the mix.  A hopped-up minor character, he is best known as the lead antagonist for the "Knightfall" storyline (that seemed to last a couple years).  In "Knightfall," the drug-pumped super-villain released every criminal in Gotham's prison system for The Bat to deal with, while he hung back, biding his time.  Then, when the Batman, weakened and exhausted, finally confronted him, Bane broke his back, leaving Wayne paralyzed and unable to fight on.  It fell to the rest of "The Batman Family" (including the once-and-future "Robin's") to take on the mantle and continue the fight.

Nolan's canvas is a bit broader, taking into consideration the events of the two previous films to create something a bit more apocalyptic, a rumination on the fractious quality of good vs. evil and the slippery slope to Hell that ideology and good intentions can be tilted towards.  Nobody's pure in this one, there's no whack-job with delusions of grandeur behind the assault on Gotham City, with avarice their sole motive.  Everybody, wearing white or black, thinks they're doing the right thing.  And everybody's wrong.

It's eight years since the events of The Dark Knight that resulted in the deaths of D.A. Harvey Dent, Rachel Dawes, and the subsequent disappearance of the man suspected in the killings, the Bat-man (Christian Bale).  Now, Bruce Wayne is an exile in his newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor, walking stiffly with a cane due to some unknown injury (part of me wants to think it was due to him being stabbed by one of The Penguin's umbrellas).  He sees no one, is a recluse, and there are rumors he's turned into a Howard Hughes-style eccentric, apparently due to a massive investment in a clean energy prototype that failed and cost Wayne Enterprises a fortune...or at least half of it.  The chief backer for the project, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) tries to get past the constant guards of faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine, putting in the most emotional performance he's done in years) and Wayne exec Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who fill the functions of acting as Wayne's heart and brains (and conscience), if not as surrogate Mother and Father.  A rival exec, Daggett, is trying to take over W.E., by any means necessary, in this case, employing a terrorist named Bane, who has his own bones to pick (and break) with Gotham's golden boy.  At the beginning of the film, Gotham in morosely complacent (and obviously filled with exposition), having cleaned up crime by the draconian Dent Anti-Crime Act, which has incarcerated over a thousand criminals in Gotham's Blackgate Prison.

But things are percolating underground, disrupting Gotham's infrastructure.  Bane has an army of misfits and big plans that have outgrown the desires of his patron, and there's a lithe cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who is caught with her hands in the Wayne Manor safe by the man himself ("Oops," she says, not very convincingly).  Yes, she's pilfered Martha Wayne's pearl necklace, but more importantly, Bruce Wayne's fingerprints.  What does she want with those?

It's only one piece in an intricate puzzle of escalating consequences that Batman must unravel if he is, once again, to save Gotham City, and he must confront his past and overcome great injury, physical and emotional, if he is to prevent a catastrophe...one of his own devising.

That's the gist of it, but it is convoluted by elaborate set-pieces that are, frankly, jaw-dropping, and ends up with Gotham isolated from the rest of the nation, in the hands of criminals with big ideologies and little concern for how roughly they're applied.  The police are paralyzed—most of them trapped in the deep infrastructure of the city (a little too conveniently) while Bane initiates a countdown to total destruction.

A countdown of five months.

To quote The Riddler: "????"  Five months?  How suspenseful is that?  And you'd think that somebody, somewhere, would be able to unravel the plot or situation in such a time-frame.  But, it's basically a set-up for what Nolan depends on to generate suspense throughout the movie—the last minute "save," that is usually explosive and comes from nowhere, because the writer-director has made motivations ambiguous enough as to be unreadable.*  Everyone has got a secret that will be revealed at the most opportune moment of drama.  If the mystery was revealed in a drawing room, it would feel like cheating, and the revelations almost psychic.

Speaking of unreadable, Tom Hardy's Bane is hampered by a mask of a morphine dispenser (to keep him from feeling pain), as opposed to the enhancement-juice-pumping-apparatus from the comics (This leads one to ask: if the guy can be stopped by breaking the mask, why does Our Hero employ so many body-blows?  Face-shots, man!!).  He is perpetually muffled by this thing, which Hardy compensates for with an almost jolly Father Christmas speaking style, making a clever, unnerving ying-yang effect for the character.  Ultimately, though, he's something of a vapor-tiger, like Darth Vader, the big bloated bloviator who's merely a "blind," a distraction for the real danger.

But...five months??**

Another thing: Nolan has come out publicly saying that he wants to make a Bond movie (and the snowbound facility infiltration in Inception is a bowler-tip to them).  I would submit that he already has, this film being it.  So much of it is borrowed from Bond that all one needs is a casino scene to make it complete (a costume party has to suffice***).  The opening sequence, the-villain-that-feels-no-pain, the duplicitous females, obligatory "Q" scene, the tick-tock final set-piece and other aspects can be attributable to Bond films of the past.  At least someone is borrowing from the Bond series this time, instead of the other way around.

But, his world of comic-book fantasy is far more gritty and down-to-Earth than any other, and that's what makes "The Dark Knight Trilogy" good; it's relatable, it feels like it could happen, if someone had the will, the wherewithal and the wallet to do it.  It also feels of our time.  There's been a lot of gas about the politics in this film—uninformed, desperate gas—but the whole uprising scenario, the subjugation of the privileged with no benefit to the less fortunate, the breaking down of society and the cleaving of its people is the stuff of water-cooler vitriol and feels like the temper of the times.  The Tea Party AND the Occupy Wall Streeters can both find things to point at and go: "See?"  I'm not going to speculate which side is right, and Nolan is obtuse (and politically slippery) enough to play it right down the yellow stripe of the road.  But, this British director is saying something about the State of the Union with a full child-warbled rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (before a particularly horrific football game) and a shot of American flags in tatters on a city street, deep in the movie.  They're there for a reason, but not for anything specific enough other than "we're a fragile alliance and we're in trouble."

And that we need heroes—selfless ones, for whom profit is not a motive—and that, "anyone can be Batman."**** 

The Dark Knight Rises is a long-afternoon Matinee.

Bane's "big moment" in 1994.

* Case in point:  there's a scene where Catwoman uses a Wayne-supplied bat-bike to blow a hole in a tunnel to make an evacuation tunnel for the sealed-off city, a task initiated by the Caped Crusader.  Following it, Nolan sits on a pull-in shot of Hathaway with an enigmatic smile on her face that communicates...nothing.  Except an odd complacency.  It will only be resolved...if there's anything TO be resolved, later in the film. 

** There are neat touches, and a refresher of both The Dark Knight AND Batman Begins will help.  One nice thing—Nolan recalls a scene from BB when a young Bruce Wayne falls down a tunnel and is subsequently rescued by his father, by having a similar scenario played out here, with the Obi-Wan presence of a dark father figure from his past.  Nice touch.

*** A masked ball at which, like in Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne doesn't wear a mask.  Heh.

**** Just not Nicolas Cage, please...


Candice Frederick said...

ahhh agreed. it is very neatly done at the end of an epic film. Bane was nearly incomprehensible, until you watch it the second time. a lot of the pieces really come together. it's such a rewatchable film, which is how you know it's made an impact on you.

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