Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


Christopher Nolan’s Batman films changed my life.  Maybe at first in not very noticeable ways, but with increasingly large scale.  Batman Begins was highly enjoyable and introduced me to a bevy of Cillian Murphy fan girls (the pleasing result was being led to Breakfast on Pluto and other important works in the Modern Irish Novel).  Perhaps more lastingly, it fostered the creative impulse on FanFiction.net, and as I regard any writing I do as a good thing, it represents new directions in which my writing ventured.  However, it was The Dark Knight that took me by surprise by the complete obsession it engendered in me.  Perhaps the fact I was at the time employed part-time, away from home, and unattached contributed to the single-minded enthusiasm, but (and thank Swansea Central Library for coming to the rescue) I became a voracious reader of any Batman comics I could find.  I’ll never be an expert—I think I liked Batman at least since watching The Animated Series as a kid, but I only started reading the comics in 2008, and by then a 69-year legacy was already spread out.  But I must have had a decent enough grasp because I got a chapter on comparing Batman to Doctor Who published in The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who in 2010.  And I kept reading fan fic, and I kept writing it.  In this world of Fifty Shades of Grey, fan fiction can’t be considered completely irrelevant—some of the best writing I think I’ve ever done was for The Dark Knight.  And it’s brought me closer and closer to official sanctioning—I can’t discuss it at the moment, but I am working on an academic book that deals with Batman that should be out by the end of the year.  

But this is where it all becomes a bit bittersweet.  I have wondered over the past few days whether if the fan I was between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight would have felt differently, perhaps even much more positively, about The Dark Knight Rises than the fan I am today.  I suppose it’s irrelevant, but there’s no denying that while I am a fan of the Nolan!verse, I am also a fan of the universe of B:tAS and the various universes contained within generations of the comics, (even of the fan-produced audios!) of which I had very little knowledge in 2005.  One of the great joys of Batman—and this was one thing that linked it up in my mind, and which is, incidentally, one of the reasons probably that I am a big fan of both—is that you can superimpose your own continuity and your own “canon” onto what already exists and absorb what you like best out of all of that.  I really like these ideas of hyperdiegentic universes (thank Umberto Eco and Matt Hills for that) and the overlaying archontic (thank Abigail Derecho for that) quality to multiple readings of the same source text. I really like what J-Horror Girl did toward the end of Can’t Get You Out of My Head where two universes’ Jokers observe and react to one another. I got slightly bothered when I read someone’s comment basically accusing Nolan of “stealing” bits of already-written Batman from other people and making it “his” Batman in the films.  In my mind, in appropriating motifs, characters, and storylines, I don’t think this counts as “stealing.”  For example, Batman Begins gets much of its structure, characters, and tone from Batman: Year One.  Did I know that in 2005?  No, I learned it because I loved Batman Begins and The Dark Knight so much that I read “the originals” and found out for myself.  To me, this is a method of mirroring back things that have worked and transposing them onto a new form.     

Maybe this is my overcomplicated way of saying that with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s Batman ceased to be quite so much “my” Batman.  I can still recognize that it was a conclusion intelligent, well-crafted, and authentic, yet it didn’t move me in the same way.  I can’t help thinking this is my fault, that it’s due to something deficient in me, rather than the film being faulty in some way.  While I know I will see TDKR again, I don’t have the burning desire to see it, read about it, and think about it all the time. 
Let’s start with my two air-punching moments. {SPOILERS} I was so excited to see Cillian Murphy back for a brief scene as Jonathan Crane.  It was wonderful symmetry with his similarly short scene at the beginning of TDK as well as a nice framing device for all three films.  {/END SPOILERS}  And the other was the scene in which Catwoman and Batman, in a graceful, almost balletic display, fought their mutual enemies in tandem.  In general, I was extremely impressed with Catwoman—she was probably my favorite element of TDKR in general.  For one thing, although Rachel was a strong moral guide for Bruce/Batman in the two previous films, showing courage in the face of danger multiple times and one of the few people to criticize Bruce, in an action film, her role seemed rather passive.  As a person, she was admirable, but as part of a film, she sometimes amounted to no more than a plot device.  With very few other female role models in the previous two films, it was a breath of fresh air to have Catwoman/Selina so prominently featured.  Sure, as a thief who is much less hesitant to kill than Batman, she can hardly be called a paragon of traditional virtues.  Nevertheless, Catwoman has had her own moral code, and the Nolan/Hathaway version is no exception.  

Which brings me to the fact that some of my favorite Batman titles over the years have actually been Catwoman titles:  Selina’s Big Score, When in Rome, and so on.  She has been realized perfectly in the film, in my opinion, with the right amounts of style and glamour, fitness and finesse, a self-preserving sarcasm and wit, and, as I said, her own very defined opinion of right and wrong and who should be punished for which crimes.  I won’t go into too much detail about specific scenes and quips in order to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but I will say her interaction with Batman/Bruce was spot-on—she grew to fall in love with both aspects of him, which is definitely key, in my opinion.  Even if she betrayed moments of sentimentality, which Batman was always prompt to point out, she played him for a schmuck multiple times, getting under his skin like no one else could.  Finally, I wasn’t sold on seeing her costume before the film, but by the end of it, I really liked the way it combined function and style (and how her “ears” were actually her goggles). 

I was also highly impressed by the introduction of police officer character Blake who, in keeping with the sentiment of Year One espoused in the first film, was one of the few good characters who could be trusted.  {SPOILERS}  I agonized throughout the film whether he was going to turn out to be evil, even though from reading an Evening Standard review which promised to be “spoiler-free,” I had a feeling he was going to turn out to be the Robin character.  And frankly, well-done.  They managed to strip all of the camp out of that stereotype and make him realistic and yet with just enough of the ghost of the original character to pull it all together in the end, in one of the film’s most exciting sequences.  {/END SPOILERS}  As ever, it was a pleasure to see recurring members of Batman’s “gang,” Alfred, Lucius Fox, and Jim Gordon (who in the end got a highly mobile and heroic moment akin to the one driving the armored truck through downtown Gotham in TDK).  {SPOILERS} It was sad if not surprising that Gordon’s family had left him.  {/END SPOILERS}

To make this film was in some ways a Catch-22, because you were never going to please everybody.  There was such pressure, I imagine, to do everything twice as good and twice as big as in TDK.  To that end, I will make the controversial statement that I found this blowing up of scale ineffective in many senses for me personally.  Examples?  The opening.  For me, it was confusing, in fact boring (seriously!  I was shifting to look at my watch!), and I kept thinking to myself, “When they introduced the Joker in a scene that was in function similar to this one, they did it much, much better—such seamless marriage of intent, performance, and narrative.”  This was something I found myself thinking throughout the film.  Most of the big set pieces of the film had me reacting this way—instead of being impressed, I was just annoyed and thinking how much better it might have been.  I guess this is irrational of me and rather unfair.  I realize the fact TDKR was set eight years after TDK was done for many reasons, but I suspected one was, in the wake of the fact that Gotham’s crime rates were down, its populace enjoying “peacetime,” to make the absence of the Joker believable and more palatable.  I KNOW that Heath Ledger’s death would have altered any plans there were for the third film[1], but the complete absence of even a stray remark .  . . kind of hurt me.   I’m sure, as I said, the clean break was deliberate, for multiple reasons, and yet the fan girl was disappointed.

I suppose this “reset” button coupled with the strong resurgence of themes, ideas, and even characters from the first film almost made me feel that TDK had been forgotten.  For one thing, other than Rachel’s death, Gordon’s promotion, and a few sundry odds and ends, you haven’t missed much if you saw Batman Begins, then missed out on TDK, then saw TDKR.  Again, I’m sure much of this was done with an ideal symmetry in mind, and if I was purely objective I think I might be able to appreciate that more.  As it is, the fan that I am today has developed a real annoyance with the whole Ra’s al Ghul storyline, and while I think it was done better in Batman Begins than it was elsewhere, its return was greeted with apathy by me.  {SPOILERS} Though I was very impressed by Ra’s himself making a cameo.  {/END SPOILERS}  

To that end, although I understood the necessity to the story, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way Bruce/Batman was sidelined from the main action.  Er . . . how not to spoil .  . . {SPOILERS} The long sequences in “some unnamed Middle Eastern country” bore much thematic symmetry to the long sequences in “Bhutan”—which I actually really liked as a new contribution to the Batman mythos—yet felt in some sense like they belonged to some other film.  Perhaps I’m being needlessly nitpicky.  I have to admit I did feel another potential air-punching moment when Bruce did manage to climb out of the well of sorrows or whatever it was called.  Just as, despite the appalling violence, I did feel some savage pleasure as Batman was able to beat Bane in the final confrontation.  {/END SPOILERS}

And that’s a point.  He’s been notable by his absence so far in this review.  What of Bane?  I have to admit I have not yet read a comic where he featured prominently, so I like to think I came in with an open mind.  My feelings of ambivalence regarding the whole film are probably focused on the figure of Bane.  I like Tom Hardy, and I think he had the physical presence required for a villain who needed to be believably able to smash Batman to a pulp.  Although the review in the Evening Standard claimed that there was no “excuse” given for Bane’s wish to take over and destroy Gotham, which would have been a “multiple choice origin” on par with the Joker’s, this was not the case, and while the truth was ingenious and also made Bane somewhat sympathetic, it also diminished him somewhat as a villain in the end.  

The Dark Knight rises, in multiple senses, and even from a Year One-inspired beleaguered beginning, TDKR strips all supports from Bruce/Batman in this swansong for the hero.  Financially and spiritually bereft, lured out of retirement by a conflicting set of values, Bruce makes many almost fatal mistakes, which of course test him as a hero.  Even the people he trusts make mistakes, which makes him even more vulnerable.  (There were certainly several gasp-inducing moments to this end.)  Whatever your opinion of Gone with the Wind, you have to agree that Scarlett O’Hara gets put through the wringer as far as her character is concerned, and as such makes a perfect illustration of a hero who actually changes and grows through the course of a fiction.  Has Bruce changed?  Physically and mentally, his endurance has risen parallel to his commitment to Gotham, and the ending certainly seems to suggest that he has changed.  {SPOILERS}  Oh, what to say about the ending?  On one hand, I really like that Bruce/Batman was able to get his statue and his “afterlife,” with Catwoman no less, and have a successor to inherit the mantle, much like successive Robins—or indeed, Dread Pirate Robertses—inherited their mantles.  But part of me felt he should have died.  You see, there are two Phantom of the Opera camps:  those who think at the end of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, he died of a broken heart, and those who think he lived and went on to do other things.  (Evidently Webber himself is of the latter camp, as evidenced by the film and by the existence of Love Never Dies.)  I am of the broken heart camp, because I like the mythic finality.  However, another part of me wondered whether it wasn’t all some delusion of Alfred’s, given Bruce’s earlier “hallucination” of Ra’s.  {/ END SPOILERS}

Perhaps the vision of “my” Batman would have never worked on the screen anyway, and I’m sure Christopher Nolan knows better than I do.  Yet I do feel discouraged by having such a strong mixed reaction to the film, as it means I cannot express the same gung-ho enthusiasm about it as I was led to believe would be my due after having lived so vicariously through TDK.  

Who knows, perhaps after time I will grow to appreciate it more? 


[1] I conscientiously avoided any news or scoops about The Dark Knight Rises until the last possible moment, so I don’t know how much or how little planning was affected.

4 comments:

Aya Vandenbussche said...

I very much enjoyed reading your review. Though I disagree, as I felt differently, I can understand most of what you say. I think I come from a stronger Nolan fandom than a Batman fandom (though I am itnerested in exploring that) and hence the feelings were different.

However, I do feel that your claim that you can see/enjoy TDKR without having watched TDK is very problematic. One of the things I love about this trilogy is just how different each film is to the others, and while I think each stand on its own, I think as a trilogy they work strongly and illuminate each other beautifully. I think there is a lot more that connects TDK with TDKR than you give it credit, but I will probably write about that

SPOILER ALERT: as for the ending, I know it is something I tend to do a lot, but I think in this case I am really not on my own, it was very much a Sherlock Holmes ending, and I do know Batman was often referred to as the greatest detective and compared with Sherlock. Faking your own death yet leaving the city with a symbol to look up to is (apart from a Sherlock Holmes thing to do) what I expected this trilogy to be. Of course you can be cynical and say it was ended in a way which allows the studio to bring the franchise back should they want to, and many do adapt this view. While it might be true, I felt it was also very true to the way the trilogy and Batman's character was developed in theses films.

You are not the only person I heard that felt the lack of presence of the Joker. I have to say I didn't share this feeling at all, but I guess this is a personal pov and feeling.

I shall write my own thoughts after I watched it on Sunday.

workinclasscem said...

I completely agree with everything you've said and especially the whole no Joker, I mean I can understand out of respect for Heath, of course they could never replace him, the only person that could come close would be Scott McClure (the joker blogs) and that's pushing it, and it would totally be absurd anyway, but to not mention him at all? I gotta say though that if they just spoke of him, like said his name, I would have personally hated it, unless Nolan would have done it in a less cringe and tacky way, but I doubt it could have been any other way, but then again in saying that they could have maybe (and I know Bane blew up Blackgate to let the prisoners out, but Crane got out as well and he would have been in Arkham right? so maybe he blew out Arkham as well ?? who knows) shown the Jokers cell (with hahas all over the walls and Joker cards everywhere etc.), with it being half blown up and empty, so the audience would know thats he's escaped, and then leave it at that, I would have so loved that! but anyway thats just my opnion, I might make it a prompt for the fanfic authors, because thats seriously the only way Joker fans can get there kicks now, (all hail ff.net), I'd also like to say that I've only just come across your blog and it looks amazing, your posts look so interesting, I'm going to be reading them for the rest of the night now! :D x

workinclasscem said...

I completely agree with everything you've said and especially the whole no Joker, I mean I can understand out of respect for Heath, of course they could never replace him, the only person that could come close would be Scott McClure (the joker blogs) and that's pushing it, and it would totally be absurd anyway, but to not mention him at all? I gotta say though that if they just spoke of him, like said his name, I would have personally hated it, unless Nolan would have done it in a less cringe and tacky way, but I doubt it could have been any other way, but then again in saying that they could have maybe (and I know Bane blew up Blackgate to let the prisoners out, but Crane got out as well and he would have been in Arkham right? so maybe he blew out Arkham as well ?? who knows) shown the Jokers cell (with hahas all over the walls and Joker cards everywhere etc.), with it being half blown up and empty, so the audience would know thats he's escaped, and then leave it at that, I would have so loved that! but anyway thats just my opnion, I might make it a prompt for the fanfic authors, because thats seriously the only way Joker fans can get there kicks now, (all hail ff.net), 
I'd also like to say that I've only just come across your blog and it looks amazing, your posts look so interesting, I'm going to be reading them for the rest of the night now! :D x

Le Mc said...

Thanks very much for the comments and for reading.