Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Post 9-11 Crime Adventure for 10% of The Whole Family

A reasonable approach to analyzing an anticipated, expensive, star-studded creation like director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night Rises might be “What works?  What doesn’t work?” Hype will be hype, high-school-age moviegoers will be high-school-age moviegoers (until they’re not), and the magic of the movies will always be there, as long as those who go believe in it.  

            The Dark Knight Rises gives us elements we have learned to look for.  It is disastrously long, and it is orchestrated so well and with so much momentum that one never has a moment to say “how many hours have I been here?” It gives us new experiences with old characters and makes sure to baffle and delight us with new ones.  The smaller characters with forgettable names are so well-cast and well-used that they feel like Oscar winners.

            So what works about The Dark Knight Rises?  We start off again in Gotham eight years after the last installment  Speeches and parties show us a time of peace, where the false idolization of Harvey Dent has allowed the police to put the lid on crime--supposedly.  Bruce Wayne is now a shadowy figure who limps about his castle and gets robbed of something important by a smart-talking girl dressed as a maid.  Meanwhile, a terrorist called Bane wreaks mysterious, deliberate sorts of havoc with a posse of devoted followers who willingly die at his command.  Nolan clocks through plot points with precision and mystery enough to thrill and excite us, but as always the characters' journeys are what draw us in.     

Better than in the past two movies, Bruce Wayne works.  We have always been a little unsure about this unstable billionaire, and you will be for a while yet.  But Christian Bale shows a limping, prematurely old Bruce Wayne who has been beaten by Batman.  A doctor humorously tells us that Bruce has lost all cartilage in his knees and should definitely not go heliskiing, following which Bruce plummets out of the window on a wire.  We shake our heads at him as if we were his mother.  His stubborn resistance to Alfred and Fox, who both think that nothing would be better for Bruce than to find a girlfriend, wins us over because we see determination at the end of it.  As messed up as Bruce is, he has a selfless heart.

As a villain, Bane works surprisingly well.  With the limitations of his costume Bane can do about three things: walk around, punch people, and move his eyebrows.  Nolan once again shows us a subtle sort of wizardry here—we expect a villain like Bane to speak in a low, gravelly voice that never changes inflection or dynamics, (a little like another guy in these movies I could name, and will later) but Hardy’s Bane is nothing short of musical, with fantastic inflection and variety.  Even when his eloquent mumblings become difficult to understand through his beatbox machine, his delivery was compelling enough that I forgave him wholeheartedly. 

            Even with a compelling plotline revolving around the Gotham City Police Department, the world of Rises lacks realism, returning to the fantasy style of Batman Begins.  There we found an Asian society of Assassin-Weirdos and an Island of Crazies.  The Dark Knight, however, felt like it was happening downtown.  The Joker made his suit himself.  The magic of that world was at the psychological interior of everyone in the story—the psychopathically creative heart of the Joker as well as the Atlas-syndromed steel-plated heart of Batman.  Arkham Island practically disappeared.  The horror of watching humans go to extremes was riveting. 

            The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t give us the opportunity to go there.  Ledger’s death made that impossible.  (And honestly, who knows if we would have been able to bear another three hours of that?)  So instead we are shunted back to a world where instead of blowing up hospitals we run a bizarre virus through Wall Street, Batman is thrown into a Grecian prison and a robe, Catwoman makes sexy moves and sexy jokes, and Gotham reels with the blows of Bane’s anarchist philosophy more than his impressive biceps.  Opinions on whether this is good or not will mark the discussions on the film, so figure out where you stand.  Luckily for Nolan and for me, however, this world allows us to explore Allegorical Heroism. 

            Someone just cringed somewhere, but believe it or not this is actually where The Dark Knight Rises shines.  It is in Bruce Wayne's moment of complete despair and failure that humanity comes out more than anywhere else in the trilogy.  Batman takes the hardest beating of his career, in a way that disturbs and disheartens.  It is not far short of merciless.  But watching Bruce follow the injunction to "Rise!" is awe-inspiring and emotional.  I found myself rooting wholeheartedly for a man who, just a movie ago, I thought was just a little too screwed-up to get redeemed.

            On a final note, the female characters in The Dark Knight Rises feel out of place.  It might just be a man’s world for these obsessive, moralizing superdudes.  The fact that they even have time to think about sex amid all of their idealistic world-destroying/saving is beyond me.  Honestly, women balance principle and practice better than men.  Shouldn’t a reasonable companion be helpful for these two philosophical rivals?  Here, the women seem just as confused and they don’t help at all.  Clearly that’s one of the morals for us superhero wannabees: Go get a nice girlfriend.  Look what happens when you don’t.