Academic Writing

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s Batman has become a respected, beloved and honored cinematic series. The Dark Knight films, all starring Christian Bale in the lead role, have taken Batman to a dark, brooding place that he had never before been taken. Much of that is due to the serious tone of the films coupled with the deeper Bruce Wayne back-story that audiences have been presented with and the vibrant and multifaceted villains that have been reintroduced to in this series. Led by Heath Ledger’s iconic and immortalized take on The Joker, the villains are now expected to offer an element of psychological depth that had yet been explored to this extent. That said, The Dark Knight set the gold standard for what all future Batman movies could and should offer.

The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years after The Dark Knight ends and the death of Harvey Dent. Police Commissioner Gordon has let Batman take the fall for it and along with the death of his beloved Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight)years earlier, alter ego Bruce Wayne has lost the will to carry on his mission of protecting the city and leaves that job up to the police force. He becomes a recluse, closing himself off in his mansion and neglecting his financial responsibilities and public persona. It is only when Bane, a new and powerful villain appears in Gotham does Wayne realize he is needed and dons the bat suit once again, albeit somewhat reluctantly. In addition to being at odds with this new force of evil, Batman/Bruce also has two new potential love interests/femme fatales to deal with – Marion Cotillard as Miranda and Anne Hathaway as “cat”-burglar, Selina Kyle. Because, what would a Batman movie, or any movie at that, be without a love interest?

Bane is a villain who seeks chaos, not unlike his predecessors yet his underlying motivation is not made particularly clear. He repeats the dogma that he is giving Gotham back to its citizens and in doing so decides to blow up the Gotham Stock Exchange, the symbol of financial corruption and elitism. He portends to be the ultimate 99%er and relishes at the opportunity to bring chaos to the streets by overturning the class system. This is of course rather ironic as the Right Wing Conservative pundits, namely Rush Limbaugh, have accused Nolan of embodying left wing Hollywood liberal bias for naming his latest villain after Mitt Romney’s former company and as his involvement there is being scrutinized. Aside from the fact that the film is in-fact vehemently anti-99% as it depicts the mob mentality as destructive and dangerous. Further, Bane was actually first introduced to fans of the comic book in 1993 by DC comics, nearly 20 years before the issues of the 2012 election were even a thought.

But, I digress.

Bane is more than a traditional villain from superhero comics. By today’s standard he comes off as a relentless, morally corrupt heartless terrorist. He has superhuman strength and intellect and Bruce Wayne who has been holed up in his mansion as a recluse is now no match for him. Personally I found Bane to be almost cartoonish rather than evil. The mask obstructs his face throughout the entire film which detracts from any sense of humanity that he might otherwise have and thus relinquishing some of the fear he should be demanding. Contrasted to The Joker’s mask which was merely paint, and severely smudged at that, which still allowed Ledger to convey maximum expression and create a psychologically complex villain with a dark past. Moreover, when a psychological look into Bane is offered it falls flat due to a lack of being able to see his expression – you can barely even tell it’s Tom Hardy playing him. Besides that, the mouth-mask/voice effect often made it difficult to understand what he was saying and when I could hear him he sounded a lot like Sean Connery. A great Batman movie is usually based on the strength of its villain and with Bane, it just doesn’t deliver the same punch.

Gotham has traditionally shot in multiple locations and while it has always been a gritty urban area, it has never been “outed” as being a specific locale (Chicagoans want to believe it’s supposed to be their town and New Yorkers are smug enough to just assume it is, because why would it be anywhere else). Even this film was shot in the UK, Pittsburgh and New York, as well as others yet there were moments when it’s anonymity was clearly lost in favor for identifying Gotham as Manhattan. The presence of the Freedom Tower, Brooklyn Bridge, and Empire State Building mark it as such as a very obvious way even though the city is also supposed to contain a Football stadium in its center. With the city under siege it felt more like a gritty apocalyptic and dystopic thriller based in reality and practically pulled from the headlines rather than a superhero blockbuster.

Further making it feel less like a traditional Batman movie is the apparent lack of Batman himself throughout the film. For much of the movie Bruce Wayne is either locked in his ivory tower or locked in a dungeon (not really a spoiler, don’t worry), but in neither instance is he actually Batman. I wanted to see the Bat Suit, the Batmobile and other fun Bat-gadgets, but this film is a lot more heady than it is The lack of screen-time Batman actually had was surprising and definitely felt lacking as I found myself asking, “Where is he?!” He does, of course, return for the final showdown, one which was spectacular and offered an edge of your seat thrill, which is just what the movie needed.

That being said, this dark direction seems to be making sense for the evolution of the genre in our day. With the economy still in shambles, the job market no looking particularly optimistic, our world seems dystopic. Yet, the American dream does prevail and there is still is a sense of self-reliance and helping yourself when others won’t or can’t. Batman resounds in particular as he is famous for his lack of superhero powers. He’s an ordinary man who made himself great through strength of character (and a hefty trust fund left for him), but despite that he does so without the help of supernatural features. In that regard Bane and Bruce Wayne are direct foils. They have many similarities, but it is their social status that separates them. Both are orphans, both are particularly talented in terms of their strength and intellect, yet the one born in poverty and imprisoned becomes a mass murderer and torturer while the other born in the Regency Room of Wayne Manor becomes a savior. Rises asks, can you escape your destiny? Can you break free of whatever bucket society puts you in? Should you even want to? It presents a reality where social status definitively determines how your life unravels, a markedly Un-American ethos.

Finally, I had a hard time separating my perception of the film with the shooting tragedy in Aurora, CO. The film was obviously made well before the incident occurred, yet as I was watching the film, my eyes occasionally distracted by the two police officers who surreptitiously poked their heads into the theater to make sure all was calm, I couldn’t help but be wonder about the frivolity in which our culture promotes gun violence. Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about it in this regard without the Aurora tragedy but during the multiple sequences where Bane and his henchmen storms around Gotham shooting their guns and missiles I was profoundly uncomfortable by the blasé attitude and everyday nature we place on abject violence on screen – especially on contrast to how there is uproar over sexual promiscuity on screen. The severity of being nonchalant about violence on screen was particularly heighted and adversely effected my reaction to the film.

In all, while there were lulls during the film and stark departures from what makes a Batman film great, the third and final installment in the Nolan/Bale trilogy offers fans a satisfying conclusion to the most financial successful and culturally relevant Batman series to date. It has offered new insights into characters audiences thought they knew and brought new depth and meaning to what it means to be a superhero.

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