Friday, July 27, 2012

The Rising

SPOILER ALERT: I can't write about "The Dark Knight Rises" without revealing key plot points.  You've been warned!

The most important, effective and moving scene in "The Dark Knight Rises" is one that does not include Batman, Bane, Selina Kyle, John Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, or any other major character.  It doesn't take place in Gotham City; rather, it takes place in the distant, impregnable prison where Bane has placed Wayne, rather than killing him (as he easily could have) during his first encounter with the Batman.  From the prison, there is only one route of escape - to climb up the walls of what to the eye appears to be a large well, with little footing or anything on the sides to grasp.  Only one person has ever escaped, and Bane clearly does not expect Wayne to be the second, given the battered, broken state of his body.

Of course,watching the film we know that that in order to fulfill his destiny Wayne must escape, must return to Gotham, and must take on Bane - just as Luke Skywalker's destiny required him to return to the Death Star to confront Darth Vader.  That Wayne will escape is a given.  It is how he escapes that provides a critical insight into what the characters of Bruce Wayne and Batman are all about.  Throughout the history of Batman, it's always been a story about brains over brawn.  To become Batman, yes, Wayne had to become a great warrior, and his wealth allows him access to a veritable toy store of technological marvels.  But it's always been about overcoming his own fear, and in turn taking that fear and striking it in the hearts of criminals.  Just as often as not, the best way to do that has been to outwit them, rather than outfight them.

To escape the prison and return to his destiny, Bruce Wayne must set aside his physical prowess and use his intellect to ascertain the only way out of  hell.  Just as importantly, he must let fear grip him once again, as it did on the night his parents were killed.  Those deaths were the seminal moment of his life, and it was the fear he felt at that moment which resulted in his becoming the Batman.  So while the physical side of Wayne is a factor in his escape, it is not the only one, and it is far from the most important one.

It's hard to put into words what a stirring moment this is.  Despite my best efforts to stay objective and not be drawn into the fanboy trap, I found myself sitting there, goose bumps running up and down my arms.  To get a sense of what it was like, listen to the soundtrack selection (above) that accompanies Wayne's ascent back to Earth.   If you don't have the time or inclination to listen to the entire piece, fast forward to 4:45 and take it from there.

Time has a way of lending focus to one's thoughts about movies, but right now I feel confident in saying that "The Dark Knight Rises" is a great film, and perhaps the greatest of the trilogy.   Nolan did something very wise with TDKR, and that was to steer away from the more obvious foes of Batman.  There was talk for a while that Riddler would be the antagonist, but that would have been a grave mistake, trying to follow Heath Ledger's definitive Joker - a truly terrifying, yet charismatic character - with anything remotely resembling a human foe.

With Bane, Nolan has the perfect villain, stays true to the Batman backstory (right down to the move where he breaks the Batman's back, as if it were a twig), and avoids comparisons with Ledger's Joker by making Bane a Vader-like terror, almost half-machine to anyone who looks him straight in the face.  Bane's motives are not always clear (by the end of the movie, they are), but by making him half machine, it doesn't really matter - this is a monster, one who may desire nothing more than taking nihilistic pleasure from instilling pain and suffering on the masses.  Kudos to Tom Hardy for lending the character something that resembles a soul - a very dark soul.

Many have commented that TDKR contains less Batman than any other Batman movie.  That's probably true, but I think it misses the point.  I say that because I think what Nolan is exploring here (not unlike Frank Miller and Alan Moore before him in "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Killing Joke") is the concept of Batman, the conditions which create him, and how by his very existence he might in turn might be accused of creating those who dare to rise up and challenge his moral authority to protect the citizens of Gotham.  As TDKR begins, there has been an era of relative peace in Gotham, yet it is a peace that is based on a lie (to be fair, a lie that the Batman himself allowed to take root, at the end of "The Dark Knight").  The conditions for a Batman, therefore, have never really disappeared.  He just needs a little nudge, so to speak, one that Bane is more than willing to provide.

Notwithstanding the presence of a terrifying villain, the most important characters in the movie are two who make their first appearance in the trilogy - John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).  They are important because they represent components of the Batman ethos - components of Bruce Wayne's psyche, if you will.  Blake represents the good side of Bruce Wayne, as well as providing a counterpoint to how Wayne evolved into the Batman.  He is openly idealistic, and in his youth chose a path of light (becoming a police officer) rather than darkness, despite coming from similar circumstances as Wayne.  Selina Kyle, on the other hand, is the dark side of Bruce - almost a living example of the old Bob Dylan lyric that "to live outside the law, you must be honest."  Yes, she's a thief - but one who is guided by a sense of justice (albeit one who at first is a little misguided).  She is also quite funny, proving that there is also something that she can teach Wayne.

Gordon-Levitt and Hathaway are both marvelous in the roles.  Gordon-Levitt achieves a state of gravitas that demonstrates he has a long, successful career ahead of him, playing just about any type of role that he pleases.  And Hathaway does something I did not think was possible, which is to push Michelle Pfeiffer down to #2 on the list of Selina Kyle performances.  Hathaway plays strong, she plays smart, she plays funny, and she plays sexy (boy, does she ever).  She's come a long way from "The Princess Diaries," that's for sure.  As for the rest of the cast, there is nothing to complain about - Michael Caine once again serves as the faithful conscience of Bruce Wayne, Gary Oldman is a commissioner equally at home being idealistic and cynical, and Morgan Freeman just sort of takes it all in while the world is collapsing around him.  I would like to have seen more of Marion Cotillard, but that may be asking too much for a movie that was already almost 3 hours long.  And I freely admit that I was really pissed off at myself for not figuring out the truth behind her character, given my familiarity with the Ras al Ghul storyline.

Nolan has clearly established himself as one of our greatest modern filmmakers.  If his best work remains ahead of him, then we are all in for a treat.  For now, he deserves all the kudos he receives for having created a remarkable trilogy - one with a great final chapter.

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