n a recent edition of the Scotland On Sunday, the weekend broadsheet’s resident film critic Siobhan Synnot devised an opinion piece entitled Lighten Up Batman, with its central intent detailing her own disdain over the average superhero film being constructed around the neurosis of the man behind the mask – yearning for the obligatory costumed saviour to stop whining about the terrible ordeal of having extraordinary abilities or resources & just get on with saving the day. Despite being overtly selective in her choice of referencing, there were a few valid points (specifically the predominant exclusion of women in the heroic role), yet in the case of the Caped Crusader, scepticism must peer over this perceived insight.
It is fairly well established that not only is Batman not a superhero (he’s a masked vigilante – and yes there is a difference), he’s a creation primarily inspired by death. So to bemoan that this particular heroic creation doesn’t carry out his by in large illegal crime-fighting service with a smile, is quite bewildering. Yes we may have had the swinging sixties lunacy of the Adam West-starring television series and the high rubbery camp awfulness of Joel Schumacher’s mid nineties efforts to suggest forms of light-heartedness in the life of Bats, but few would argue that Bruce Wayne and the world he inhabits is at its most compelling, when things are bleak. Christopher Nolan realised this when he took inspiration from the graphic novels of Frank Miller & breathed new life into a once moribund movie franchise back in 2005. Seven years later, he’s on the cusp of delivering the most critically acclaimed & commercially successful live action cinematic trilogy since The Lord Of The Rings – all of which has been achieved by Batman having an outright refusal to “lighten up.”
If Batman Begins depicted the personal demons of Bruce Wayne manifesting into a form of retaliation, whereas The Dark Knightportrayed the power struggle between the opposing forces of the law in Gotham City, The Dark Knight Rises is very much an amalgamation of the two, with the overarching sense of seeking closure – whether that’s of a redemptive, peace-making or of a mass destructive nature. Set approximately eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Wayne is a broken man – physically & mentally. Having taken the blame for the misdemeanour’s of a fallen Harvey Dent, Batman has retired – taking Wayne’s momentum & drive with him whilst reducing the billionaire playboy to little more than a cane-supported shadow ghosting through the confines of the rebuilt Wayne Manor, wallowing in grief over a life lost & a purpose abandoned. Gotham too is in a near-comatose state, heavily traumatised by the anarchic antics of the joker & the supposed death of the publicly celebrated Dent at the hands of Bats. Criminality has by in large subsided, a result of a piece of draconian-like legislation entitled the Dent act – an instrumental policy in cleaning up its streets, yet at the same time an indirect cause of an even greater gap between Gotham’s haves & have-nots.
It is in these two factors which primarily set the trend for the events that take place in Rises – a man who has lost all purpose to exist & a city in “peace time” sleepwalking into a resentful division that’ll threaten to destroy it. Much to Synnot’s displeasure no doubt, a number of comic book films which have come before have attempted to portray the conflict between the heroic figure and the individual behind that chosen alias. In the case of Nolan’s Batman universe, no other series of direct or indirect adaptations have managed to articulate the disconnection anywhere near as successfully. We’ve always known that of all the costumed heroes, Bruce Wayne was probably the one most troubled by the contrast between their own self and their alter-ego. This is an idea that Nolan reinforced to a tee in Batman Begins & The Dark Knight. The idea that in order for Wayne to successfully embark on his vigilantism, he has to (on the surface at least) lead a life of chauvinism, political/social ignorance & projected selfishness (“the apple falls very far from the tree Mr. Wayne” a disgruntled board member remarks in the wake of Wayne’s “drunken outburst” during a lavish birthday party in Batman Begins, little knowing that his life has just been spared).
In other words (and as Rachel Dawes points out in that same film) the public face of Bruce Wayne is his true mask, not the one of the caped crusader. It is this idea that is so crucial to the first hour of Rises, as it takes to around the sixty minute mark before he dons the Batsuit once again. In a film of this magnitude, it would have been so easy for the likes of Warner Brothers to insist upon Wayne strapping up & getting back in the game early doors. The fact that he doesn’t is of huge credit to the Nolan brothers & the studio themselves, as it reinforces both the physical & psychological damage inflicted upon Wayne in The Dark Knight, as well as articulating the inner struggle of leading such a contrasting double life & the existential void experienced by Wayne when his truer self is all but extinguished.
Re-awakening him from his melancholic slumber comes in two forms. One, the introduction of Selina Kyle (a hugely enjoyable Anne Hathaway, who by in large has silenced the many naysayers – whose opinion seemed to have largely been based on well-known fare likeThe Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada & hosting the oscars, rather than her more challenging work in Brokeback Mountain orRachel Getting Married), an enigmatic masterful thief with a slight taste for the theatrics (and wisely, never referred to as Catwoman). The other, the threat of an uprising by the disenfranchised citizens of Gotham, led by a mask-wearing mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy), who has a connection to the league of shadows – the fanatical vigilante group led by Ra’s Al Ghul, whose inspiration gave Wayne the discipline to manifest his anger into the symbol that the Batman provides.
Much has been made regarding the success of the new antagonist (specifically, the audibility & suitability of his voice), as well as numerous (and it has to be said, unfair) comparisons with Heath Ledger’s Joker. Whilst it is true that the accusation of his voice being reminiscent of “Stephen Fry bellowing into an empty yoghurt carton” occasionally holds merit (the scene on the steps of a prison as he denounces the character of Dent for example), there are however moments when its impact works to chilling effect (Wayne’s arrival in the pit being the stand-out). In regards to the audibility, numerous reports from various different cinemas have also suggested that some audiences are having greater problems understanding him than others (on average, the screenings in 70mm IMAX projection appear to be the least problematic). So in summary, the success of the Bane creation may well be influenced both by how you personally respond to his voice (some have found him terrifying, others, comical) & where you happen to witness Rises.
One form of criticism that cannot be justified however is the comparison between Bane & the Joker. The Dark Knight already explored the notion that not all criminals or terrorists operate on a easy to distinguish purpose of intent, or in other words, the battle of the cerebral (a battle which Batman, arguably loses). With Rises, the focus is very much on the physical – an antagonist who can go toe to toe with any blow Batman has to offer (and in one particular brutal sequence, completely overwhelms him). Both the Joker & Bane are formidable foes to Bats, but in completely different ways that work in their respected forms. It’s perhaps true that Ledger’s Joker remains the more electrifying, memorable & best-executed villain of the two, but that shouldn’t diminish the intent behind Bane & the performance of Hardy. For the evidence, observe his eyes. Behind that breathing apparatus, there’s a commanding, visceral energy in his unrelenting gaze that heightens his creation above the simplistic muscular goon which he’s been undeservedly accused of by some (you only have to look at Schumacher’s interpretation of the character in Batman & Robin to comprehend the difference).
If any criticisms however can be attributed to The Dark Knight Rises, it would be regarding the basic plot threads, some of the character decision-making & the pacing (on first viewing, it does feel a bit jarring that the first half takes place over the course of a few days, whilst the second half elapses over nearly six months). One of the main issues with Nolan’s Batman films that many have latched onto is the occasional lapse of exposition behind a particular development. Depending on how forgiving you are, you can either attribute this as story information that doesn’t necessarily have to be shown (you fill in the blanks, so to speak) or straight-out holes in the plot. It also occasionally falls into the trappings of traditional Hollywood blockbuster entertainment (in regards to the ticking time bomb, it’s always amusing how 1 minute on the clock seems to be stretched out over 5 in the films running time, or how the main assemble of characters will all pause for a moment to hear the dying words of the main villain despite being literally moments away from a cataclysmic atomic explosion), with a number of convenient ‘appearing at the right time’ moments in addition. How much these incidents bother you will probably be based around how much you have already invested into both the Batman character, the world Nolan has created & the structure of his films in general. If you’re already a massive fan, you’ll by & large see past these flaws. If you’ve been relatively indifferent up until now, that position is unlikely to be swayed.
Nevertheless, irrespective over niggles in the exposition, there are a number of things triumphant about Rises. One of the reasons the work of Christopher Nolan is loved by so many (yours truly included) is his ability to make large-scale films that capture both the wide-eyed imagination, scope & excitement many of us as kids grew up with when experiencing mainstream cinema. Yet at the same time, containing the depth & intelligence an adult viewer requires – never for a second treating his audience with contempt (step forward Michael Bay). Through this skill, he has given the world of Batman something so few costumed hero adaptations have been able to do, which is to provide thematic depth & emotional weight at the same time. All three films, whilst existing in a world of their own making, all offer a subtle parallel to the world we live in (the most obvious ones in Rises being the resentful nature times of austerity provide & how western society is by in large apathetic to political participation), yet by the same token, they never lose sight of the required dramatic engagement required at its centre. It is in the performances of both Christian Bale & Michael Caine in the roles of Wayne & Alfred when this concept is no more apparent, who both deliver their best displays of the trilogy, providing real credence to the scenes they share & the paths that both characters find themselves on by the films closing moments – an ending of which achieves that wonderful juxtaposition of providing closure & ambiguity in one fell swoop.
Speaking of closure, Rises also sadly marks the last of the collaborations between Nolan and his long-term DOP Wally Pfister (a partnership that has blossomed ever since Nolan dragged him away from such straight to video titles as Stepmonster, Object Of Obsession & Animal Instincts II to work on his second featureMemento). In the current cinematic landscape of the digital age, when the processes of CGI & 3D rule supreme, partnerships like these two are to be absolutely treasured. Their belief in the strength of 35mm film, the immersive quality of 70mm IMAX (if you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to see it in this format, with Glasgow’s science centre the only place in Scotland that offers the proper experience of seeing Rises the way Nolan & Pfister intended it to be viewed) & the concept of shooting as much as you can ‘in camera’ are some of the key ingredients in what has made their partnership and their collective work so special.
That harking back to the traditional aspects of cinema is also a reminder to all that whilst digital advancements shouldn’t necessarily be discouraged, it should never be at the complete expense of those who still wish to pursue the former. Seeing the likes of the Avengers tearing up downtown Manhattan may well be an exhilarating experience, but it doesn’t quite capture the same wide-eyed awe of seeing a real eighteen wheeler being flipped upside down or a thousand people charging at one another on Wall Street. Pfister, a man responsible for so much iconic & memorable imagery in this trilogy alone, will next be embarking in the role of director (with Nolan as executive producer on his first project) & I for one cannot wait to see what he comes up with.
But what next for Bats? Will Siobhan Synnot get her wish & we’ll see a return to a more light-hearted romp of the “gee whizz” or “you’re not sending me to the cooler” variety? Will Warners & DC reignite their ideas for a Justice League franchise & incorporate him into that fairly fantastical world of Superman, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman & the Flash? Will my dream scenario of a HBO television series that’ll do for Gotham what The Wire did for Baltimore come to fruition? (probably not, but we can only hope) Will it take 2 years, 5 years, a decade to reboot? Only time will tell really. Yet, many of us Batman fan boys & girls can now rest in the knowledge that after four failed attempts by Tim Burton & Joel Schumacher in getting under the skin of a character many of us were captivated by in our youth, Christopher Nolan has delivered a trilogy that has fulfilled just that – with an ending that’ll provide debate for years to come and crucially, brings his saga full circle. Whoever ends up with the unenviable task, it goes without saying they’ve enormous shoes to fill.