27 July 2012

More First Impressions: The Dark Knight Rises, Part 2: All About Bane

Welcome folks once again to our second round of Impressions of Chris Nolan's epic masterpiece (maybe), The Dark Knight Rises (2012). A few days ago we talked about some of the cast and other basic elements, but in this post we're getting into the real gritty elements of Gotham and its wacky citizens. Needless to say, this is more of a discussion of the themes of the film than a review, so SPOILERS abound from here on out.

The first thing I want to address today is this film's relatively cold reception across the Internet. There hasn't been a tremendous amount of praise, in fact, the film has seen more detractors than anything in the reviews I've consumed the past few days. I believe there are two major reasons for this: 1) The expectations after The Dark Knight (2008) were astronomical, but this is unjustified because The Dark Knight is no more solid of a movie, save for Heath Ledger, and 2) The Dark Knight Rises doesn't have more plotholes than any other film put out by Hollywood, but because it's steeped in Nolanism and Realism, it's not supposed to.

Where I think The Dark Knight Rises succeeds, arguably more than any other film this summer (along the same lines as Prometheus [2012] in this regard...), is that it absorbs and holds its audience so intently that it becomes easy to go along with the story and expect the next beat emotionally, not necessarily logically. Whether or not that makes for a better film I'll leave for you to decide, but I think it ultimately makes for a mesmerizing film. It doesn't matter how or why Batman found the time to cover a bridge in gasoline and place the lighting trail right next to Gordon on the frozen river - what matters are the emotional and symbolic beats it creates as it thumps along in the present. After all - he's Batman, his sneaking back into Gotham doesn't need to be seen - it both adds to his mystique and frankly, isn't important to the core emotional stakes of the narrative.

The Bane Supremacy

In The Dark Knight Rises, the Joker served, as he often does, as the perfect antithesis of Batman. Instead of the monochrome dark colours Batman uses to hide, the Joker dresses in bright flashy suits, expressly to stand out. Instead of selling himself and his reputation out for the sake of order, the Joker is true to himself in his devotion to chaos. Even subtle things like when he throws the champagne over his shoulder and sips the empty glass represent the reversal he has in the world.

Not bad for a dude who eats everything through a straw
Bane exists in part an antithesis of Batman, but is much more a reflection of what Batman could have been. While he was kicked out of the League of Shadows for banging the daughter of its leader, he was still devote to its cause, and in a way, remained Ra's al Ghul's vision of what Bruce Wayne should have been. Things do get twisted, though, but it's much more intimate. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is a counter to Batman, but in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is a counter to Bruce Wayne. Bruce is wealthy and fairly aloof, Bane is in touch with the people and acts as a rugged guerrilla leader against the rich. They both hide out in caves near waterfalls, are excellent detectives and businessmen, and know the meaning of protection and sacrifice. There is some alter-ego inversion here though, Bane's mask is literally the inverse of Batman's - it covers only his mouth and lets his eyes and forehead show to the world. Batman covers his top half, eye shadow and all. As this author at io9 points out, Bane is thoroughly defined by his mask as well as his unmasking and breaking of Batman's. This is very much more Bruce's story than Batman's, though, and that's where it succeeds.

A Tale of Two Batmen

Where I think some people have complained too is that this feels like a very un-Batman-like movie (see also my analysis of a very un-Spider-Man-like movie, Spider-Man 3 [2007]). Batman has gotten old. He's basically the Kurt Warner of Superheros now, back for one last hoorah (Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, no less. Nothing like seeing Ben Rapistberger's fat jowls in IMAX). While this has happened, though, he's still retained his Bat-mentality, which has grown cocky and arrogant over the years. For most of Batman Begins (2005), Bruce was this terrifying menace to the criminal underworld, who used intense planning, preparation, darkness, and ninja skills to advance his goals. In The Dark Knight, criminals have gotten wise to Batman's tactics, and while he's still effective, only the Joker openly admits that he's their major problem. Bruce has still done things that no other mortal man should be able to do, and through Gordon and his manipulation of Harvey Dent's Legacy (as well as the boner he still carries for Maggie Gyllenhaal), he feels like he triumphed.

"How were my sloppy seconds, Mr. Wayne?"
His lackadaisical attitude can be seen early on in the film. He's reached the point where he can't even defend himself against Catwoman and doesn't even seem like he cares. When Bane comes along then, Bruce naturally underestimates him. In his own mind he has grown into the Legend that he hasn't quite earned yet. He doesn't train for his fight with Bane, nor does he control where they battle. In fact, he very handily half-asses it and lets Catwoman lure him into Bane's lair fairly easily. Here's where we're even more un-Batman-like: just about every fight in the Nolan Trilogy has been a close, intimate flurry of punches, where Bruce gracefully disposes of enemies quickly and efficiently. The camera is close up and rushed to enunciate this effect. For his fight with Bane, though, Wally's camera is noticeably pulled back, which emphasizes the weakness and misplacement of the fight. Batman isn't Batman here - and that's the point. Bale growls and screams but in broad light and juxtaposed with the prepared might of Bane he just looks like a pathetic little man. He gets his ass kicked. Now, setting his spine with a straight shot to the back, that may be stretching it, but c'mon, he's Batman, he has to be a little awesome.

Moving on to some of the later fights, it's also strange to see Batman fighting as part of a huge group, as well as in daylight. This whole franchise, arguably, is about the layers of control Batman is trying to place on Gotham. He is usually able to control the situations he's in, even when he takes down the Joker in the construction site. Bane forces him to come out in daylight to confront him and forces him into an atypical fight. This feeds into more of Bane as an alternative Batman as well - while Bruce wraps himself in darkness, secrecy, and haunts the night, Bane flaunts himself to the people in the sun. He's Day-Batman. The fact that Bruce eventually triumphs over Day-Batman basically attests to his final awesomeness.

Let's Get Political: Bane Capital vs. the 99%

With all this talk of Bane's populism, we might as well talk about the politics of this film. It's eerily prescient how much the flick calls on the Occupy Movement and the rallies against the 1%, even though it was filmed months before the Movement took hold (almost hard to believe it's that recent, to be honest), and written quite a while before that. That being said, there is an interesting contradiction at work here: What use are Bane's politics if he doesn't believe them? Or does he believe them?

I also loved how he ripped the photo perfectly in half
Bane's essential statement is a familiar one: Rise against the rich and powerful people of the world and put the power back into the hands of the commoners. It's a story that's been richly retold since the French Revolution, and Bane's brown flak jacket actually recalls that image. Bane's dictatorship is really interesting, though - while he is clearly in absolute and unquestioned control of the city, he cares less about running the courts, deciding anyone's fate (but Batman's) or crafting any kind of cult of personality around himself. His reign is equal parts totalitarian and anarchic.

So what's going on here? Clearly it's Bane's final plot to sulk behind Talia al Ghul and blow up the city, including himself, her, and everyone else. Why delay that for five months while creating total chaos in the name of liberation? Does Bane actually believe any of this stuff?

My guess is that he does. Some of his side comments and the loyalty he invokes in his henchmen are too strong (See, "No brother, they're expecting one of us in the wreckage," "There's no money for you to steal here" / "Then what are you doing here?" and "What a lovely voice."). I think this is a matter of Bane again trying to be Batman, but in reverse. Batman deals in deception and "theatrics," which Bane promptly denounces and disarms. Amidst the secrecy and conspiracy around Harvey Dent, Bane instead claims to be the liberator, and he doesn't hide much from his adoring fans or the public at large. That is, except for his primary goal, which is to factually destroy the city. The way he sees himself, though, is as a liberator. He may have thought he could have earned a statue somewhere as the dude who took a stand against the opulence of Gotham and was blown up for it when the detonator landed in the wrong hands. In this sense, Bane is still politicised, but he's also just a douchebag.

I'm not really sure if this theory holds up, I would welcome some others to explore his contradiction.

I think that's about it for tonight, stay tuned for more in 24 hours.

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