Our second look at 'The Dark Knight Rises' digs into the bad and the ugly
After a ridiculous delay, we wrap our revisit of the summer's biggest sequel
Yes, that took longer than I promised.
Yes, I should stop mentioning a deadline if there's any chance at all I'm going to miss it.
On that note, let's dig back in. The first piece I published covered only one third of the characters I wanted to discuss. I broke them all down according to the broad archetypes of "The Good," "The Bad," and "The Ugly." Based on the comments section, I think some of you missed the point I was making. This isn't a re-review where I'm using "The Bad" and "The Ugly" to point out flaws in the film. Instead, I'm looking at "The Bad" as people who are motivated only by their own desires, who are willing to hurt others to get what they want. And with "The Ugly," I'm talking about people who fall into some grey middle zone between good and bad, people who can occasionally do the right thing but who are often driven to do the wrong things. I think those characters are the most fun to write and to watch because they get to have all the shameless fun of being a bad guy and all the cathartic release of being a good guy.
Hopefully after you read today's conclusion, you'll see what I meant, and I want to thank you guys for both being patient and for being such an active part of the conversation once I finally posted the first piece. I want to challenge you to participate even more next week while I'm on vacation, but more on that later this morning.
"The Dark Knight Rises" SECOND LOOK - PART TWO
One important rule that Christopher Nolan has taken full advantage of is that Batman needs a worthy adversary in each film, someone who reflects back some aspect of himself. In the first film, Batman barely understood who he was up against. It's not until Ra's Al Ghul reveals himself at what is very close to the end of the film that Batman understands what's happening or who is pulling the strings. As a detective, he fails in almost every way, staying behind the plan the entire time. In "The Dark Knight," he had a handle on the city, even if just temporarily, and when the Joker makes himself a threat, Batman throws himself into the hunt without any hesitation. He knows how to handle The Joker, and in the end, he catches him even if he has to compromise himself in the process.
Bane is basically a combination of both the theatrical gamesmanship of R'as Al Ghul and the destructive unpredictability of The Joker, and he's also a physical threat on a scale that Batman is simply unprepared for, a mixture that seems perfect for the concluding film in the trilogy.
Like The Joker, Bane has no identity other than "Bane." He's got that one name, that one identity. He is Bane from the moment we meet him. The Joker tells constant lies about himself and his backstory, and Nolan tells one big lie about the origin of Bane. That lie is designed to hide the film's biggest reveal, and we do eventually learn the truth about Bane. It seems fitting that in the one flashback where Nolan tells the full truth about Bane's identity, we finally catch that single glimpse of Tom Hardy's face.
Bane's big plan (which could more accurately be described as Talia's big plan) is designed to do one thing: destroy Gotham. And while it is indeed elaborate to the point of insanity, elaborate in a way you never see outside of movies, depending on all sorts of predicted behavior by Batman and also requiring a sort of supernatural degree of luck to make sure everything goes his way, there is a larger purpose here.
Talia and Bane don't just want to destroy Gotham… they also want to humble Bruce Wayne. This is a movie about revenge on a grand scale with an entire city as the battleground that is chosen. Bruce, who created Batman to protect Gotham, turns out to be the match that lights the fuse on the explosive that nearly levels the city. The grand gesture is the point of the plan, of course. As we've heard repeatedly in these films, The League Of Shadows believes in theatricality. Since they know how Bruce Wayne was trained, why he was born, they know exactly how to blow past his defenses.
The entire reconnection of Bane by Nolan and company is bold and striking, starting with that voice. I'll admit freely that it makes me laugh. I love doing my Bane voice for my kids, because it makes them laugh. I don't think that's a bad thing. It's such a deranged choice, and it makes him stand out as a character. By now, you may have seen this "gotcha" video about the way the voice was reworked between the release of the prologue and the release of the film.
I'm not really sure that video proves anything other than "films are often edited with additional sound mixing during the the six months before they're released," but it is interesting to see how Nolan's thinking on the voice evolved as they got closer to release.
Because so much of his face is covered, Hardy has to communicate much of what he's thinking physically, and it's a Lon Chaney performance. It's aggressive and often quite funny. There is such attitude in his body language. People have made jokes about the banners and the stills of Bane, and I've seen a thousand variations on "Come at me, bro!" and, honestly, that's not far off from the truth. The physical performance is what makes the voice funny, and vice-versa. He's like a gorilla wearing a monocle and a tuxedo. It's communicated so clearly, and there should be credit for finding a way to make him more than just a big guy in a mask.
I've seen complaints that Bane's first fight with Batman is too brief, but that's the point. Bruce is finished the moment that fight begins. He's treating Bane as "just another bad guy," while Bane is treating Batman as the single most important fight in the world, a pure expression of his love for Talia.
That connection, that backstory for Bane and Talia, is what I wasn't expecting, and it's one of the things I really like about the film. Bane's single-mindedness is boring to me if it's just because "he's the bad guy." But as the payoff to a chaste love story, with this blinding lifelong devotion defining all of Bane's actions, I love it. And again, like R'as Al Ghul and The Joker, he uses his henchmen as disposable game pieces, easily sacrificed and never missed. He has no loyalty to anything or anyone but Talia. If you try to make sense of the politics of the film, you'll drive yourself crazy. Sure, Bane instigates a class riot, but look closer. He exploits an uneasy lower class to destroy the ruling class and in the end, he doesn't seem remotely interested in the fate of either of them except inasmuch as it affects Bruce. That's all he really cares about, and he knows how much Gotham means to Bruce. If they just kill him, and the movie makes it clear that they easily could kill him at one point, then he's gone. It's done. It's clean. The film makes the point several times that this is all about breaking down everything that matters to Bruce and making him watch. Gotham symbolizes everything that was taken from him as a kid, and Bane knows that the more he hurts Gotham, the worse it hurts Bruce.
Bane's overall attitude also makes sense if we view him as a dark funhouse mirror version of Bruce. Bane baits the hook with something that is designed to appeal to Bruce's arrogance, his overconfidence. Bane makes himself an irresistible target, and as confident as Bruce is, Bane's at least twice as sure of himself. Any moment where Bruce gets the upper hand or surprises him at all, Bane seems shocked. He's that sure of himself. Bane is what Bruce would have been if he'd followed R'as Al Ghul's order during his initiation. He also turned his back on Al Ghul, though, for a different reason. When I see people talk about the relationship that Talia and Bruce as supposed to have, it's one of those disconnects where you just have to set aside the comics or the animated series. That's not the story that's being told. This Talia could never fall in love with Bruce Wayne. She despises him for killing her father. She may have been estranged from R'as Al Ghul, and the film certainly makes it sound like her love for Bane complicated things with her father, but she still loved him. Bane should hate R'as Al Ghul for excommunicating him, but his love for Miranda is more important to him. He's willing to extract vengeance in Al Ghul's name because it is important to her. Who knows? Maybe in a different version of this world, Bruce accepted his place with R'as and he and Talia do end up together. That's just not the story Nolan wanted to tell, and so the romantic longing that drives this horrifying, destructive plan has been rebuilt completely, reassigned.
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The slow knife. She is the true villain of the film, although she spends less than fifteen total minutes of screen time revealed as Talia Al Ghul. Everything that happens in the film happens because of a plan she devised, a plan she executed, a hatred she has harbored since the end of "Batman Begins." As with "Batman Returns," where every one of the villains could be seen as an extension, she is another dark fractured mirror version of Bruce, twisted by the death of a parent, driven to wear a different face in her pursuit of revenge. The main difference between them is that her secret identity really is a secret up to the moment she reveals herself, whereas the truth about Batman seems to be known by almost everyone in the film.
When Miranda sleeps with Bruce, it's a calculated move. She knows he's vulnerable, and she uses that as a way of getting close to him, of finally getting in so he will trust her and take her to the fusion reactor. She's been biding her time but finally has to press because the mechanics are in motion. She's the one who wants Wayne's personal data, his fingerprints. She's the one whispering in Bane's ear, all the while portraying herself as a sympathetic presence. She throws a charity ball that she pays for out of her own pocket, shaming Bruce when he tries to poke at her in conversation. She is too good to be true, and that gets through to Bruce so that when Alfred leaves and he's broken emotionally, he needs someone and she's close. She's suddenly available and right there, and Bruce is human. It's one of his genuine mistakes in the film, trusting her, leaving her alone in Wayne Manor, for god's sake. He gets up from sleeping with her, puts on the suit, and heads out as Batman. How crazy is that, in the first place, and how easy would it have been for Miranda to just kill him in his sleep when they were together? All the mechanics, everything she puts the city through, playing innocent the whole time so that every move he makes, he's feeding directly to her, it's all because of her and her hatred for him for taking her father.
And why shouldn't she hate him? Let's imagine that you pare away Bruce Wayne's story altogether and you just tell the story of a young man who falls in love with the wrong woman and is punished horribly for it. His child is taken away, and forced to grow up in darkness and in pain, and eventually escapes, reuniting with her father. Together, they build something, an organization designed to strike back at the people who exercise their power over others with prisons and torture, designed to make sure that she and her father need never fear anyone again. Is her story really that far off from Bruce's? There's more drama in the relationship between father and daughter, drama brought on by a young man, and things are tense and weird as a result. Even so, when the father is killed, the daughter is destroyed, and she devotes everything she's got, along with her one love, to finding and destroying the person who did it to her. If the trilogy told her story, then the entire third film is all about her triumphant plan going perfectly well until the last three or four minutes, when it all goes to hell and she loses. The end. That's a raw deal for her, and this really has been building all that time for the character, even if I think Nolan did some clever reverse-engineering to tie it all together. His use of the clip of Neeson talking about his back-story from "Batman Begins" is spectacular, a great example of a distant mountain that he and his brother and Goyer dropped into that first film's script, and they've taken it and turned that hint into something big and operatic and, in the end, fairly sad.
I think it's always rough to see revenge played out on such a big primal scale. Miranda's wrath is horrible, relentless. She takes Bruce's money. She takes his legacy. She takes his dignity. She takes his freedom. And then she burns his city to the ground, which is really just a bigger version of R'as burning Wayne Manor to the ground in the first film. She makes him watch his beloved Gotham slowly crumble. She engineers and encourages from the shadows. It's only upon reflection that you realize how many things Miranda was doing in the time she's not onscreen. Writing a villain like this, someone whose main actions remain off-stage until the moment of reveal, is never easy, and I like the way Miranda reveals herself, the story she offers, the glimpses we see. Cotilard is awesome, and while this may be part three of a big giant corporate comic book movie, that's not the work she does. She plays this like it's real and important and just as serious as anything else she's done, and I think she's one of the things that really pulls the film together. Her few moments with her mask off, she's wrecked, and there's a dead haunted thing she's got going on that I like a lot.
These are often my favorite characters in any film, and in this case, Nolan seems to have fun with the archetype. Remember… when we say "ugly," we're not talking physical. We're talking about people who lie somewhere outside good or bad, people struggling with a moral code that is motivated by a strong sense of self-preservation, people who are hard to trust from moment to moment.
Nolan's version of the character is interesting because he goes out of his way to never call her Catwoman. She's referred to as a cat burglar in some newspaper stories we see, and she's got those goggles that somewhat resemble cat ears when she pushed them up onto the top of her head, but she's not Catwoman. She's just Selina Kyle, a shrewd and cynical operator making a living on the margins of Gotham's criminal underworld. Her first encounter with Bruce Wayne isn't quite what it appears, and not just because she disguises herself as one of the caterers to gain access to his home. He catches her wearing a necklace that belonged to his mother, and she manages to escape with it, but Bruce quickly figures out that she was not there to steal the necklace or, for that matter, anything. She was there to get his fingerprints. It's the first warning shot for Bruce that someone has some plan regarding him, and from that strange, seemingly harmless crime, his entire downfall is eventually engineered.
Selina's important to the film for several reasons, the first of which is that she seems to believe at the start of the film that there should be a class revolution. She talks to Bruce on the dance floor about the storm that is coming, and it's obvious Selina has contempt for people who have money. She's got herself convinced that she speaks for exploited women, and that she's better than the people she steals from because she knows what it's like to go hungry. Her relationship with Holly, the character played by Juno Temple, is etched in just a few scenes, but there is a connection between them that it's apparent Selina does not feel for any man. Selina's not the sort of woman to depend on anyone, and while she is intrigued by Bruce from the moment they meet, she also thinks of him as part of the problem. Once she encounters him in full costume as Batman, though, he begins to break through that external armor of hers. As with John Blake, I don't think there's a moment in the film where Selina's not entirely sure who Bruce is once she sees him in costume. Even then, she's still not sold that there is any way she gets to leave behind this life that she's built for herself. Her motivation in the film is something called "the clean slate," a magical computer program that will lift her out of every database on the planet so Selina Kyle simply disappears as if she never existed. That isn't just bait for Bruce to use to try to get Selina to help him… it also becomes the promise of a life he's given up on ever having for himself.
While Selina is a valuable ally for him once he returns to liberate Gotham, the real value for him in their relationship is that Selina finally offers him an alternative to Rachel, someone who can accept him with his terribly flawed personal history and his barely functional pathology. She is just as bruised by life as he is, and like Bruce, she has her beliefs put to the test by the events in the film. Once she gets the revolution she thought she wanted, she sees that it's a world she can't abide, a world in which there are still wolves and sheep. She bought the idea that revolution would make everyone equal, and when she sees how awful things become in Gotham, it is the final step in her transition into the woman we see sitting with Bruce in that cafe at the end of the film. Bruce's faith in her isn't based on her behavior. After all, she's the one who walks him directly into Bane's trap. Instead, it's based on the potential that he sees in her, and having him see her that way seems to affect her, somewhat against her will.
Hathaway's performance is filled with tiny grace notes, from the way she backflips out a window or the way she sheds her disguise as she walks or the way she plays hysterical when the police bust into the bar where she's trying to get paid for stealing Wayne's fingerprints. It's one of my favorite things she's done on film, and she manages to create an iconic performance without simply imitating earlier variations on the role. There's nothing she does here that would connect her work to what Michelle Pfeiffer did, and that's great. It's one more way this stands as a unique take on the characters and the situations. Even when there's a scene that feels almost identical to a scene from 1992's "Batman Returns," with Bruce and Selina on a dance floor during a masquerade, they play out entirely differently. In the Burton film, Bruce and Selina are the only two who show up without masks, the joke being that they are almost always masked so their "real" faces feel more like disguises at this point. Their dance becomes a reveal as he lets her know that he's aware of who she is, and he tells her just enough that she realizes who he is. When Selina's eyes fill with sudden tears, disappointed and heartbroken, and she asks, "Does this mean we have to fight now?", it's one of the most human moments in any Burton film, sad and weird and beautifully played. In Nolan's film, the dance is a chance for Bruce to try to talk Selina into doing the right thing, the first of many conversations on the subject, and she grows angry with him for playing to her conscience. It's more about his growing fascination with her than anything else, and her anger in the scene reveals just how deeply-seated her hatred of Gotham's ruling class really is.
In the end, she is as important to Bruce's final plan as John Blake, and while Blake is purely good, a strong personality who embodies much of what Bruce has always aspired to be, Selina is much closer to the person he really is, flawed and weak and angry. Helping her find redemption also redeems him, and I love that he never becomes her savior. She is just as strong as him, if not stronger in many ways, and even in that last fight, it is her willingness to do the things he can't that saves him. When they show up in that final scene, that's not Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle anymore. They've left those names and all of that baggage behind, and those people have an unwritten life ahead, something neither one of them still believed was possible. It may be the most uplifting ending of Nolan's career so far, and I think Hathaway's particular presence, both physically and emotionally, is a big part of making it all seem plausible.
God bless Gary Oldman.
The opening image of the film is him eulogizing Harvey Dent, telling the lie he cannot stomach, creating the cancer that eats at him for this entire film.
When we see him seven years later, and he's got that speech ready to go at Harvey Dent Day, his confession, Oldman plays it perfectly. He's done. Gordon's as broken by the events of that night as Bruce is, and he's had a harder role in many ways because he's been visible. He's been using the foundation laid by Batman's sacrifice and he's been cleaning up the city. He has benefitted richly from the events at the end of "The Dark Knight." He got what he needed, and Batman took the heat for everything else. He wants to tell the truth, but he chickens out. Commissioner Gordon is morally compromised to such a degree that he can't even say it out loud. He's too afraid of it.
When Bane finds Gordon's speech, that's not part of the plan. That is just gravy. That's just a bonus. Bane is delighted to find that speech, and he takes enormous pleasure in reading from it. Bane uses every tool at his disposal to get the people of Gotham to do what he wants, and the idea that the public officials who spoke so glowingly about cleaning things up were all corrupt and compromised is a powerful motivator for Gotham to implode. Gordon knows he's screwed things up, but he also works to redeem himself here. He does a pretty great job once the world has ended and there are only a few cops left in Gotham, and he organizes an effective resistance. I really like the way Gordon takes John Blake under his wing and trains him in the film. Bruce sees Blake as a cleaner version of himself, and Gordon sees the same thing in him. Blake is that symbol for so many of the other characters, a force of real good, and part of the reason Gordon makes such a good showing in the film is because he's inspired by Blake's belief. Gordon sees a zeal in this kid that makes it easier to do the right thing, and there's real trust between them, especially after the sequence at the hospital.
The implication is that Gordon has no personal life at all, though. He appears to be ver, very alone in the film. His wife left. He doesn't see his children. He is his job now. He is all about cleaning up the streets of Gotham. He lost everything for the right end result, and he's got some serious regrets that build up for him. I am glad Gordon eventually does do the right thing, and it's rough to see him suffer like he does in the film. Oldman is so good at laying bare whatever the most tender, painful part of a character is, and he invests this Gordon with a gnawing horror at the idea that his lie means that none of the rest of it is worth it, and that he's thrown away his only chances at any sort of happiness in life. Oldman's turned what has often been one of the broadest, silliest characters in the Batman universe (although he's not exactly Aunt Harriet) and made him into a man struggling with a truly heroic nature every bit as much as Bruce Wayne. I think this Jim Gordon is a man I'd trust with the safety of a city. But I'd expect him to reach out to Batman to help make sure that happens. The repaired Bat Signal on the roof at the end of the film, Gordon's emotional reaction when the coin finally drops and he realizes who Batman truly is, it's Oldman who pulls it all together, who can barely contain his own emotional outcry, finally free of the lie and sure of the future, ready to believe in a Gotham that will finally run right, ready to face whatever happens next knowing that Batman is out there.
He may not have a ton of screen time, but Gordon has been one of the best things about this series since the start, and it's great to see that he got to close it out by pushing Gordon to the breaking point and beyond. It's great work.
And finally, we're going to treat Gotham like a character here. This includes the police, Matthew Modine, the criminal underclass, the orphans, the stock exchange, the orphans, the kangaroo courts… all of them. All of them are Gotham. And they are tested in this movie. And they fail.
I've heard a number of people complain that they don't believe the boat sequence in 'The Dark Knight Rises" when the ferry full of convicts decides they're not going to blow up the other ferry. If that seems too optimistic to you, then welcome to this film, where that ferry full of convicts would have thrown the switch and never looked back. In this film, everyone is the worst versions of themselves. For much of the middle of the film, Gotham fails the test. The underbelly of the city is opened, and what comes spilling out is the nightmare of the ruling class, a cacophony of furious anger, the marginalized suddenly given some voice, some power. Of course, for one group to suddenly be on top means another group has to suddenly be on bottom, and the violence here, the uprooting of the social order, is an expression of just divided and damaged the city really is.
Well before I moved to Los Angeles, I was already fascinated by the city's history. It is a city built from blood and corruption, a city that was defined by some fairly rotten human beings and their selfish actions. For all of the darkness that is wrapped up in the DNA of the city, I would say after 22 years of living here, that Los Angeles is also a wildly optimistic and hopeful city. You can build something beautiful on top of corruption, but there's always a chance the rot will spread. That's what Bane plays on, and when he whips Gotham into a frenzy, things get ugly. We see how ready cops are to hate Batman. We see how easily Gordon's reputation can be tarnished. We see how long it would take before the city started to eat itself alive, but more than that, we see how quickly Gotham snaps back, how badly it wants to see a balance established, a peace of some sorts restored.
There will always be crime in Gotham. There will always be reinterpretations of the character of Batman. But in what feels like a perfect metaphor for the way Warner has been handling the character since 1989, just as one man hangs up the Batsuit, another man picks it up. The symbol lives on, and no matter what happens, Gotham will rise. We will return to the city again, and there will always be some sort of conflict going on for the soul of the city, a struggle between order and chaos.
My money is on The Bat.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is still in theaters now.
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