A second look at 'The Dark Knight Rises' attempts to dismantle Chris Nolan's magic trick
Every single time I've sat down to finish this article, I am struck anew by just how complicated any conversation about "The Dark Knight Rises" has become for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie itself.
And once I sat down to finish it, it quickly turned into an unwieldy and completely disorganized collection of thoughts that I couldn't quite get my arms around.
I originally planned to publish this the week after the film opened, but it has stymied me for the last two weeks because of what happened in that theater in Aurora, Colorado. I don't believe the film had anything to do with the actions of that deranged piece of garbage, but I think the media has worked overtime to make sure they connect the two with a near non-stop assault. I just saw that a BBC3 documentary is being rushed through production called "The Batman Shootings," a disgusting title, and sure to be a classless piece of sensational garbage.
One publication I've seen made the editorial decision to only refer to what happened as "The 'Dark Knight Rises' shooting" in every single headline they've run, as many as four or five a day so far, and it turns my stomach every single time. It feels gross for anyone to take this film that represents the conclusion of six years worth of storytelling involving one of the biggest characters in pop culture and permanently saddle it with what that lunatic did. And if it seems like I'm going out of my way not to say his name, it's because I refuse to play into his agenda in any way. He wanted to tie himself to something huge and unavoidable, just like someone deciding to shoot John Lennon, and if you give him the gift of celebrity, doesn't that mean it worked?
I will say that it gave me hope when I saw the victims of the shooting chose to wear Batman t-shirts to the first hearing for the shooter. Good for them. They understand that they can't allow this guy to determine how they feel or why, and I hope that act, more than anything, sent the message to him clearly that he did not succeed with whatever his goal was in the theater. He didn't permanently ruin this thing they love. He can't take it from them. Sadly, the real reason the blame finally shifted is because we've had another incident, this time in a Sikh temple, and suddenly it seems silly to have gotten so worked up about the film instead of the shooter.
Having acknowledged why this was difficult, I'd like to turn the conversation back to the movie. Enough of you have asked me enough times about this piece that it feels like it's time to finally have get back to talking about the fictional world of Christopher Nolan's Gotham.
At the beginning of this summer, I decided to take a second look at Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" because the film troubled me, and because I felt like it wasn't possible to sort all of my thoughts out in a typical film review. I don't believe it is an imperative to keep any and all plot discussion out of a review, but I do think it's possible to discuss your feelings about a film without giving away each and every surprise a filmmaker has built into their narrative. As a result, I felt like a second piece on "Prometheus" was appropriate, and it gave me a chance to drill down about the things that bothered me.
When I saw "The Amazing Spider-Man," I also had a very strong reaction to it, and when I saw how many people had an equally strong but opposite reaction, I felt like heading back for a second look was important. While I ended up feeling the exact same way about the film on the second viewing, it helped me clarify why the film didn't work for me, and I think in both cases, writing about the films after they were in theaters gave you guys a chance to interact in a different way.
If any blockbuster film this summer deserves a second look, for me it would be Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," which I knew was going to hotly divide audiences. Sure enough, the reactions have been all over the place, with some strongly negative pieces. Dozens of websites have published their own versions of a "second look," and it's been interesting seeing how the exact thing one person loves is the thing another person hates. When I saw the film a second time, I took careful notes about the things I wanted to discuss in a follow-up, and I decided to break things down using my favorite character templates, established so memorably by Sergio Leone. I love the way he divides his characters into three camps, the "good," the "bad," and the "ugly," and I think the same can apply here. I think all of my points can be made simply by discussing character, because many of the most vehement reactions I've seen come from people who are upset about what they see as a misinterpretation of the characters, something I can certainly understand as a sticking point.
I don't agree, but I can see why it would bother them.
So let's start with…
BRUCE WAYNE / BATMAN
The criticism I've seen most often so far boils down to "Batman doesn't quit."
It's funny how the people who seem most adamant about that seem to be, in many cases, the people who loved "The Amazing Spider-Man," which I thought threw out many of the core ideas about that character. I guess the difference is that if you like something, you'll accept whatever changes are made in adapting it, and if you don't like something, you won't. If you enjoy the end result, you'll expand your idea of what that character is, and if you don't, you end up becoming a hard-line purist over this or that point. Personally, I think it is a disastrously stupid idea to make Spider-Man into a "chosen one" archetype, destined for his role as a hero from childhood, with every single character somehow involved in his secret identity. On the other hand, I can completely accept that in Christopher Nolan's version of this Batman story, Bruce Wayne would choose to disappear for eight years after the ending of "The Dark Knight" because, as we've seen in all three of the films, this particular Bruce Wayne has always been looking for an exit strategy, almost from the moment he came up with the idea of using his resources to fight crime on a street level.
At the end of "Batman Begins," the fuse was lit. In the scene where Bruce and Rachel talk about his identity as Batman, she holds out the hope to him that there might come a time when he'd be done with his mission and he could leave that life behind in order to be with her. Much of "The Dark Knight" deals with Bruce struggling towards that place. He sees Harvey Dent as the right kind of replacement, someone that can do what he set out to do, and in a better way. Bruce works hard to free himself, only to have the end of the film clamp down on him like a trap. He burns down the reputation he built as Batman and he accepts blame for the murders of several people, and then he retires the Batman from the public eye completely. It's not because of Rachel or her death, although that certainly informs the personal misery that he stews in for those eight years. He retires the Batman because he has to. If he shows up in public again, every cop in the city has been told that he murdered police officers and Harvey Dent. He's a criminal now, hated by many, and Bruce is willing to let people think that if it serves a greater good.
This film is all about Bruce redeeming his creation and finding a new way to leave this life behind, a way that affords him some small chance of happiness as well as leaving Gotham in hands that are more capable and less compromised than his own. It's important that we see that this is an evolving idea. There is nothing about Nolan's Bruce Wayne that is set in stone and unchanging. From the start of "Batman Begins" to the end of "The Dark Knight Rises," there is constant change, and that distinguishes these from most franchise filmmaking right away. The point of a franchise character is stability. You can throw some curves at your lead characters, but you cannot change them fundamentally. You have to return them to zero at the end of each film so you have somewhere to go with the next one. Stagnation is the friend of franchises. Creating a dynamic character arc is the opposite of what many franchise filmmakers do, and when we're used to characters treading water, dramatically speaking, it can seem disconcerting to see one who is so actively engaged in the pursuit of an ending to his own story.
Some people have complained about the scene where Bruce visits a doctor played by Thomas Lennon, saying it makes no sense for him to just now be learning about all the damage that's been done to him over the years. I thought it was fairly clear that Bruce wasn't learning anything new from Lennon at all. He was just using the doctor's visit as an excuse to be in the hospital so he'd have access to Commissioner Gordon. It's good that we hear the laundry list of physical damage, though, because it gives us some idea of just how hard it is for Bruce to suit up and put himself in harm's way again. It's nice to see even a suggestion that this way of life might be physically traumatic over the long term for someone, and since Bruce isn't a superhero, it's a nod to the reality of just what sort of toll it would take to be Batman. He's not hiding in Wayne Manor because of those injuries. Those injuries are just a fact of life for him since he became Batman. When he finally decides to suit up again, he's not starting from a place of being totally broken. He's just out of practice. Rusty. He's let himself go soft, so he struggles to get ready for battle again. We see the device he puts on his knee that helps him with greater striking power.
But he's not what he was, and that's what worries Alfred about him going head to head with Bane. He's got all the training he's always had, and he's still a powerful person, but he's not the sort of singularly focused lunatic that he was in "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight." In those films, he is coiled at all times, ready for violence. He wants to lash out and hurt someone, and he keeps himself ready to do so. In "The Dark Knight Rises," he has been in this self-imposed exile, and he's gone fallow in the process, while Bane has been out there, getting ready, his will focused on this one particular task. Batman may think he's ready for Bane, but Bruce Wayne isn't.
The scene where Batman makes his first return to Gotham is one of my favorites in the film. He's having fun. He's been looking forward to this for a while, and he seems almost pleased about finally taking out the Batpod again, about trying out his freaky EMP gun, about the unveiling of the Bat. He doesn't seem too concerned about Bane and his men. He's treating them like standard-issue criminals at this point, and it's really just because there are so many other people involved that he doesn't end up going head-to-head with Bane right away. Instead, he plays with the cops a little, he pulls one of his classic disappearing/reappearing moves, and he shows off his new vehicle in a sequence that seemed to end with a very deliberate "Blade Runner" reference by Nolan. It's no accident that the Bat looks a whole hell of a lot like Rick Deckard's Spinner, or that the glass and steel canyons of Gotham suddenly feel a lot more like the neon spires of Ridley Scott's film, or that Zimmer practically quotes the Vangelis score in a few scenes in this film.
Quick digression: Batman's a creep. Or at least he's creepy, in that he does creepy things. He's a surveillance freak. Batman is Big Brother for Gotham. And make no mistake… Bruce only really cares about one city. Gotham. Using tapped feeds into security cameras, he can run almost constant surveillance of every inch of the city. He's always watching. And isn't that what he told Lucius Fox that he wouldn't use anymore at the end of "The Dark Knight"? It looks to me like he just moved that into the Batcave where Lucius doesn't know the extent to which an inactive Batman can crush basic civil rights for everyone in Gotham. We see him watching surveillance footage of Bane at the Wall Street break-in. I'm pretty sure he didn't check that tape out of the surveillance locker.
It's interesting seeing him enjoy himself when he suits up again. Batman appears to have fun with Selina Kyle in his interactions with her. Right away, she seems pretty sure who Bruce Wayne's "powerful friend" really is, and there's almost an are-you-kidding-me? quality to their scenes together. Batman pushes her to have some sort of ethical awakening, and it disturbs her greatly to be provoked like that. From the first moment he catches her in his safe, he's more interested and intrigued than threatened. He pokes around, identifies her, studies her a bit, but he doesn't go after her like he's afraid of her or like he even thinks she's a problem in any significant way. He sees something in her that he reacts to, that he recognizes. He can't help but root for her to do the right thing, and he pushes her, little by little, each time they run into each other. I also like that she eventually refutes his reluctance to use guns with a practical example it's hard to deny.
When she leads him into that cage for that encounter with Bane, and when he hears the cage close behind him, the fun goes out of the movie with one slam. As it should. Because Bruce Wayne's hubris, his colossal arrogance, finally catches up with him and literally breaks his back. And how else can you describe his actions in the first third of this film? It's an extension of the way he conducted himself through most of "The Dark Knight." I think Nolan's Batman is a hugely flawed person, and he's struggling with those personality flaws all the way through. The end of the last film hinged on a lie that he suggested for what seemed like the right reason at the time. And in this movie, when we see him for the first third of the film, he's sort of being a cocky asshole about things. He's become reckless. He ends up in that room, totally unprepared for it, and when Bane destroys him, it's not difficult. I've read people complain that the fight's not cooler, but that's not the point. It's a humiliation. Bruce and Batman both are beaten and broken, and he's sent back to the very start of his journey.
When Nolan drops Bruce at the bottom of that pit, he's right back in the well he fell into at the start of "Batman Begins," the one where he first encountered the bats that have been at the center of his pathology ever since. In that instance, he hurt himself and had to be rescued by his father. The way Nolan's managed to find a way to blatantly repeat the imagery is, I think, one of the things that I find most compelling about the way he handled this movie. He has no one to save him here, no one who can carry him. He is forced to confront all of his feelings about all of his father figures in this film, including his actual father. Alfred, R'has Al Ghul, Lucius Fox, Gordon… he has to deal with every one of those relationships before he is ready to finally save Gotham, choose a successor, and move on to a new life. In order to climb out of this, he has to refocus what it is he wants. He has to make some decisions about who he's been, who he wants to be, and how he has to do things. It is a final transformation in a series that is all about a character running from who he was, desperate to claim power for himself, desperate to impose order on a world where parents die and everything turns to ash.
That last scene of Bruce in that cafe is something I'm guessing no Batman fan would have expected to see at the start of "Batman Begins," and that's exactly why I like it as a conclusion for the character. Nolan's told a story that brings this character to a conclusion in a way I've never seen anyone else attempt. I'm sure we'll see more Batman films down the road from the studio, but there's something beautiful about the notion of healing Bruce Wayne, something optimistic that the ongoing grind of an eternally angry Dark Knight never really allows.
I wish I could track down the actual quote where Christopher Nolan first addressed the idea of introducing Robin into the film universe he was building. He seemed adamantly opposed to the idea in any form, which may be why he was able to maintain some degree of secrecy even after casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His version of the character is so different than the traditional take on Robin that it's not really fair to call him that. Sure, Nolan throws in that wink at the end when he finally reveals his real first name, but this is a take I've never seen on the character.
Without John Blake, though, the film doesn't work. Blake is Bruce Wayne without the trauma. He is an orphan, so they share that, but he wasn't formed by violent crime happening right in front of him. I think you can make the case that Nolan has portrayed Bruce as a high-functioning mentally ill person, someone driven past a breaking point and struggling to deal with that. Blake, on the other hand, took strength from his difficult childhood and he turned that into focus. When he was old enough, he joined the Gotham police department so that he could help change and defend the city that he loves. While Bruce Wayne trained himself to be a detective and a fighter, Blake seems to have a natural ability as proven by his first scene with Bruce when he just flat out tells him, "I know you're Batman." He also proves it in all of his interactions with Gordon. He's born to be a cop, born to protect people, and he is utterly incorruptible.
As a result, it's not just convenient that he shows up as a potential replacement for Bruce. Instead, Bruce realizes that this guy is the endgame, the one who should be Batman. The symbol is important because it inspired Blake in the first place, and Bruce knows that he's leaving things in more able hands than his own. Bruce is not strong enough to keep playing the part, but more than that, he knows the ways he's failed. He knows what compromises he's made, and he knows what he's lost because of this thing he's created. Batman has inspired Blake, and Bruce realizes that he may not be the one who was meant to wear the suit in the first place. Maybe his whole role was to light the match, and Blake is the one who grew up believing in this symbol. The purity of it has given Blake the moral compass that Bruce never truly had, and handing over the costume and the equipment is Bruce's way of doing the right thing.
I think the most heroic moment in the movie is also a completely futile action, but it speaks volumes about who Blake is. When he's trying to get the orphans off of the island and he faces down the armed military who have been tasked with guarding the bridge, he puts himself in harm's way all the way up to the moment when the bridge is destroyed and he's suddenly sure that they're not going to get anyone out of there. Instead of just giving up, he still works to keep some small bit of hope alive for the kids on the bus, hoping to somehow hold off the fear and the horror just a few moments more. It's a sad but ultimately sort of beautiful gesture, and in the film's final moments, as he explores his legacy, left to him by Bruce Wayne, and as the full truth of his new life sinks in, his reaction is quite moving. That last shot, as he finds the platform and rises out of frame, is all I need to see to know that Gotham finally has the right hero, and that Batman isn't going anywhere.
ALFRED PENNYWORTH and LUCIUS FOX
Bruce's surrogate fathers have very different hopes for him. Actually, they both seem to want him to be healthy and happy, but the ways they assist him in his struggle to find some degree of peace are at almost direct odds.
Alfred's dream of Bruce finding peace far away from Gotham began before there was ever a Batman, and over the course of the films, we've seen how worried Alfred is, how deeply he feels it when Bruce is in pain. Like Gotham, like Bruce, Alfred has been living with a lie for some time at the start of the film, and the only reason he finally reveals the truth is because he hopes that it might give Bruce permission to stop mourning, to stop hiding and actually strive for a life again. The idea of lies coming back to destroy the people who told them is a major part of the film's structure, and Alfred's motivations might have been good ones, but it's still a lie he's been telling for years. It is a sign of just how important Bruce's health and sanity is to him that he finally tells the truth, knowing full well it will end the relationship between them. As Bane points out, keeping hope intact during the darkest moments in a life is what makes the failures hurt so much. Bruce has been carrying Rachel's death around inside of him like shrapnel, and each time he thinks about the two of them running away, it re-opens all the wounds. Alfred's tactic is a final resort, but it has the desired effect. Suddenly, Bruce can't imagine Rachel as perfect. Suddenly, the escape he thought he always had as an option turns out to have been an illusion.
With Lucius, there is a part of him who has always enjoyed being the man who builds the toys for Batman. He's a genius in his own right, and he loves the challenges he's been asked to meet. He believes Bruce has been on the sidelines too long, and he wants him to suit up again. He wants to know that his work is being used for something good, and the rest of the work stays locked up in a vault that only Lucius has access to, a necessity because of the lethal potential inherent to these things he makes. When he shows Bruce The Bat for the first time, there is a pride that Fox can't hide.
Lucius has a more cautious moral code that Bruce, and we saw some of that in the end of "The Dark Knight" when he threatened to quit if Batman kept the spy network up and online. In this film, Lucius knows that he's been enabling Bruce to do something very shady things, but under supervision. He's also become far more concerned about making sure no one else uses his creations in the wrong way, and the way he and Bruce handle the fusion reactor in the film speaks volumes about the paranoia that has become everyday for them. In general, the set-up with the fusion reactor seems to me to comment on the way we create these terrible destructive technologies even as we wring our hands about the "wrong" people getting hold of them. If something is that dangerous, then isn't the moral transgression the act of creation itself? When something is created simply to destroy and kill, it is the making of that tool that is ultimately responsible for whatever use it is put to, no matter who wields it. If you build the atom bomb, it doesn't matter if you're the one to drop it. You built it. The fuse was lit by you. Sure, Bruce and Lucius talk about how they put in safeguards and they'll only allow the technology to be used if it can be done safely, but that's talk. They still built this thing in Gotham, putting the lives of everyone within the potential blast zone at risk without those people having any say in the matter at all.
It is fitting that both Lucius and Alfred are sent signals about the true fate of Bruce Wayne, since they are the people who are arguably the most important to Bruce in the world. They are both given a sense of peace at the idea of Wayne out there somewhere, free at last of the burden of the Bat, and whatever guilt they've built up over the course of the series, they are also finally free.
In the second part of this article, which you'll see on Thursday, we'll look at both "The Bad" and "The Ugly," wrapping up our revisit of the film. Sorry I've taken this long, but between these two pieces, I hope you'll think it's been worth the wait.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is still currently making money hand over first in theaters worldwide.