Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Second take (2012)

In  Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns comic, Lana Lang is attempting to defend Batman: "We live in the shadow of crime . . . with the unspoken understanding that we are victims-of fear, of violence, of social impotence. A man has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been in our hands. We are under siege  -  He's showing us that we can resist." It's an important point, one that has seemed crucial to Christopher Nolan's take on the Batman universe. The idea here in those lines is about transferring some amount of autonomy to the citizens of Gotham city - "the power is, and always has been in our hands".  More on that in  a bit.

It's a bit hard - nay impossible - to be completely objective about a movie series if you've been the kind of fan that Nolan's Batman films made you.  If you were a proud comic book nerd, you gushed at the ways the movies had paid homage to different parts of the canon, ultimately weaving in a new narrative that stands proudly aside the best of what DC has to offer. And if you were just the regular cinemagoer, you marvelled at the complexity of the narrative, the brilliance of the performances, the sheer thrill value of the movies. 

The problem with being a fan is that it becomes particularly difficult to write a review resembling anything approaching balance. I sensed fleeting moments of disappointment within myself while watching the Dark Knight Rises, and yet when a friend began dissing the movie as we walked out, the rabid fan in me took over. You will not dismiss this movie, the fan said, you will acknowledge the brilliance of Nolan's vision, you will accept that this is the best conclusion to a motion picture trilogy yet, you will ... you get the drift.  But over the days that have passed since I saw the movie, it is that mild disappointment that has festered and grown, not the admiration for the parts that worked. 

Try as I might, I have been unable to love The Dark Knight Rises the way I loved some of its individual parts, or the way I loved its predecessors.  So what did I appreciate?

One part of Bane's plan: the idea of having Gotham cut off from the external world and be forced to retreat into a Hobbesian state of nature. The fact that it must face this, its greatest challenge punctuated the absence of Batman,  and also the absence of its state sanctioned law enforcers. To the extent the movie focuses on that, its conflicts are grandiose, its stakes never higher.

Anne Hathaway: Her Selina Kyle takes pride of place in the canon of magnetic characters Nolan has etched out. Every line reading she does is delicious, and every time she's on screen, the movie fires up with a vitality it lacks otherwise.

The sheer spectacle: Except for the opening sequence which was filmed in a curiously flat manner, the set pieces in this finale upstage anything that's come before by a long shot. The mid-movie football field implosion is fantastic, as is the frenetic final half hour.

But then,  there is the question of what the movie does to Gotham city. This has been a series as much about the battle for Gotham's soul as it has been about Bruce Wayne's.  The Dark Knight crystallized this by giving us the two standout sequences of the series - and perhaps cinema as a whole.  There was the terrible choice that the citizens of the city had to make as they sat on two explosives-laden ferry boats; and there was the choice that Batman has to make when he finds out the lives of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent are in imminent danger.  The citizens make the ethical choice despite all indications to the contrary (of course Batman himself is on shakier ground here, but that's another story). Despite the Joker's best efforts, he is unable to tilt the citizenry into anarchy, thus also proving something essential: Gotham is a city worth saving. The League of Shadows might have believed it was beyond hope, and the Joker may believe it is beyond hope, but the citizens by choosing to not press the trigger prove them wrong. They take, as Lana Lang would say, some amount of power into their hands. Social order prevails.

Cut to The Dark Knight Rises. The ferry-boat thought experiment has now been in a way expanded to include all of Gotham within its ambit. Anarchy reigns wide in the city - but not quite. There is also the fascistic regime of the Scarecrow presided "sentencing" court, where the only  sentence is, effectively,  death. Across the city, the 99% seem to resort to thuggery and looting (thanks for demonizing the Occupy movement guys!). The law enforcers are of course trapped underground, until they're rescued for the final standoff.

Who are they and Batman fighting for? For a city that's content to finish itself off, bomb or no bomb? For a citizenry that is unable to raise its voice, take a stand, open its doors to kindness, demonstrate some sense of an ethical compass?  I don't know where the Gotham of the last movie disappeared to, but it's not on display here. Unlike the Dark Knight, the city doesn't earn its salvation.

While my biggest gripe with the Dark Knight Rises is its (mis)treatment of Gotham, there's also the fact of its alarmingly ham-handed dialogue - poor Michael Caine is saddled with a clunky bit of exposition which he is required to deliver through blubbering tears. Then there is that disappointingly conventional idea of a nuclear bomb serving as the plot driver, devolving into an annoyingly familiar race against the clock. Batman's ultimate enemy is really chaos and anarchy - to saddle the conclusion of this trilogy of ideas with such a stock Hollywood device feels like a failure of ambition.  Also, Bane? Doesn't work. After the physical fear toxins of the first and the mind games of the second, to have it all come down to a question of sheer brawn?

That said, the movie still works as a conclusion to the arc of Batman/Bruce Wayne.  "If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely. Are you ready to begin?". That's the challenge Ra's al-Ghul puts before him early in Batman Begins, and that's a theme that has echoed through the trilogy. The Bruce Wayne who was ready to shoot his parents' murderer in cold blood has disappeared, replaced by a man who refuses to engage in retribution, to a man ready to sacrifice everything for his beloved city, and finally, a man who comes full circle. As we leave him, he's able to close one journey and pass on his identity to another.

Gotham, as we say goodbye to it, still needs Batman. But Bruce Wayne, finally, doesn't.

Look, it still works. It works spectacularly as a comic book movie in general, it works perfectly as a Batman story in particular, and it is just about serviceable as a conclusion to this fantastic series of films. But, to echo the words of Commissioner Gordon, the Dark Knight Rises is not the movie I needed it to be. Maybe, with the over-high expectations, it's the one I deserved? 

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I agree that the explicit message of Batman was counter-revolutionary/anti-Occupy (though I'm sure one could read between the lines). There's one piece you left out, though, that made all the anarchy in Gotham a little more palpable/interesting to me: Bane's somewhat Joker-esque determination to show people hope so that they could fully experience their inevitable demise. I thought that was an interesting idea that they toyed with.

    Also, Jodhpur! Do only former expats get excited about that stuff?