24 July 2012

First Impressions: The Dark Knight Rises, Part 1: Bane is Vader and Batman is Rocky

Here we are at last folks, our impressions of the Best Film Summer 2012 has to offer - The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In a summer filled with such great films as Prometheus (2012) and Battleship (2012), it may be surprising that all could be genuinely topped with this installment. It almost makes you furious how good Nolan is, and just when we begin to doubt him or think that he can't top The Dark Knight (2008), he blows us away here.

I might get flack for that. I do think this final installment is better than Christian Bale's Sophomore Bat-Outing, but that's only because when The Dark Knight is stripped of Heath Ledger's Joker, it becomes a very weak film. That said, of course Heath Ledger elevates that film into something more, but Rises was a more complete film, allowed us to reflect on both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins (2005) in new lights, and provided an immensely satisfying conclusion to the Nolanverse. There are plenty of SPOILERS to come, but c'mon - it's Tuesday, you really haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises yet? Get off your ass and go!

There's clearly a few different ways these impressions can go - we need to certainly talk about the plot, characters, and other technical aspects, as well as its position both within its own franchise world and its cultural context. Let's start basic and then get weird.

Batman Inceptions

Needless to say, Christopher Nolan has found a cast he likes a lot. The Dark Knight Rises employs just about the entire cast of Inception (2010), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy for starters. To be honest I was really waiting for Leo to strut his way through Gotham at some point.

Gordon-Levitt is here, and it's obvious from the point when he visits Bruce at his home that he's turning into a Robin-like character. I'm not quite sure why Nolan feels he has to distance himself so much from much of the mythology - avoiding the names Robin and Catwoman, as well as even things like the Batplane. I suppose all of these invoke too much of the camp realm, which is a dangerous line for any superhero to cross, let alone the Batman. As Harvey Dent said,
"You either die brooding, or live long enough to see yourself become campy."
See, I just don't understand why Nolan didn't bring in Shia LaBeouf you know. In ten years I think we need a Shia-as-Indy and a Jordon-Levitt-as-Batman crossover film that will just destroy fanboy hopes and childhoods for generations to come. I will always point out, by the way, this post, and check the time, a full 22-minutes before the midnight premiere, where I called Gordon-Levitt playing Robin and Cotillard playing Talia al Ghul. The casting was just too perfect. I may have actually loved this film too much because I sat there while watching the whole thing stewing in my own justified crapulence and overconfidence in predicting fairly obvious outcomes.

We can move on to Tom Hardy's Bane, who is not getting the credit he deserves as an incredible role, likely because just about no one can follow in the footsteps of Ledger's Joker. I'll give a lot of credit to an actor who basically only had his eyes to express his motivation, and Hardy is just as expressive as he needs to be. I also had virtually no problem with his voice and I never thought it was an issue, dating back to last December's trailer. In fact, his voice was one of the most captivating aspects of his performance. Watching this film in IMAX, Bane's voice boomed above everything else in the film. It was frightening, imposing, and dominating - a perfect reflection of the character and what he is trying to do in this film. The accent is vaguely foreign, mysteriously Scottish or something which attests to his role as an outsider, a rogue mercenary international who is coming to upset Gotham, the ultimate American City and Batman, its ultimate hero (more on both that cultural point and the duality between him and Bats later).

The problem I have with Bane in this film is that during the ending much of his mystery is revoked. He goes from being the ultimate cunning antagonist of Batman to again, a mere pawn, the Vader to Tali al Ghul's Emperor, if you will. He stands meekly, crying and defeated as Talia drives the dagger into Bruce's side. It takes away much of the air of the last two hours of his conquest, and he goes down like a punk. Still, that in-the-moment feeling of tension, fear, and dread during much of his reign of terror is hardly comparable in films of this genre (even the ones that tried really hard) and he's at least a step up from his Batman & Robin (1997) incarnation.

By the way, Bane is quite literally Vader-like. Both are the big bads for most of the series until we meet the higher power at the end. On a much more literal level though, both of them cannot survive but for Black Breathing Masks, and both choke their lieutenants when they screw up or displease them.

Michael Caine is barely in this film compared with some of the other Nolan Bat-pictures, but his role is essential and in a handful of minutes he reminds us why he's one of the greatest living actors. Alfred isn't just some dude mixing Bruce Wayne's martinis and washing his Green Lantern underpants in these films - he's his closest friend, confidant, and a paternal influence on some of his more rash decisions. The scene when he leaves in protest is not only a powerful, defining moment in both characters' relationships, but he proves to be right when an unprepared Batman gets his ass stomped by Bane.

New Frenemies

There are a few moments in this film that try to establish what I'd call a "Pencil Scene." You know the one. For Bane it's the first plane scene, although that could be likened rather to the Joker Bank Robbery. For Catwoman, though, all her initial scenes are immensely clever and captivating, from her theft of Mama Wayne's pearls, to her escape and exploitation of scared girl tropes when her deal goes bad. They're scenes that hook and establish character in unique and awesome ways.

I would say that this may be the first film ever to capture what Catwoman should be and I'm excited for it. Michelle Pfieffer's version in Batman Returns (1992) was more focused on the character's desperation and unreliable mental state, while Halle Berry's version in Catwoman (2004) just didn't make any fucking sense at all. Anne Hathaway here makes Catwoman a reflection of Batman - and the resulting sexual tension makes the character and their relationship more interesting. More importantly than that though, she straddles the line between hero and villain in a way that mirrors Batman himself - she's only arguably more honest with herself about it. She's a kind of character you want to root for, and much of that is Hathaway's contribution.

Can we also say for the record that in this movie we finally wave goodbye to Bruce's bat-virginity? I mean, it's possible he has a few wild nights at Princeton, but come on, this is how it's done - bucky naked by the fire, a newly minted bum of Gotham. Get some butt, Bruce. Why does Talia do this? Who knows. It was probably to fuck with his head. Or she was just horny, who cares, but it's good to see Bruce finally getting some tail after chasing Maggie Gyllenhaal for years. That thing is gross.

Things that Go Bump in the Day

Moving on to Batman himself, this was Christian Bale's first film since his Academy Award win in The Fighter (2010) (except for this Chinese film, apparently) and it's clear that he's upped his game, which usually seems to be the opposite for Academy Award Winners. This film focuses more on his journey while The Dark Knight focused more on Dent and Joker. In that way it's more of a continuation of Batman Begins.

In fact, it's interesting that this film does return to much of the original's stakes - the League of Shadows, the Legacy of Ra's al Ghul, the cleansing of Gotham, as well as an individual's quest to become a symbol and find courage within himself. It's not unlike Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) going back to the Nazis in the desert, or Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001) going back to the States.

The Dark Knight Rises is a mixture of plot elements from both Begins and TDK, though - with Batman re-training himself both physically and mentally to become the Batman again (yes, it's basically Rocky III [1982]), but facing a polarizing enemy with machinations to play the city against itself. The key here, though, is how far the city falls and how much Gotham truly realises that it needs a Batman.

Next Up we'll discuss the film's political implications (even if Nolan says it has none), the duality between Bane and Batman, how much fun the Joker would have had in Bane's Gotham (or how pissed he would have been), and the real-life tragedy that has surrounded this film series.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you on Bane's voice. I actually liked it as loud as it was.


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