Thursday, August 9, 2012

Batman's Human Tragedy

The “Batman” comic book series tells a dark story, and director Christopher Nolan captures that in his film trilogy, ending with this summer’s final installment, The Dark Knight Rises.  Batman is Greek tragedy, and clearly the brothers Nolan know it.  This film has a sharp and involved screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan based on a story by David S. Goyer along with Christopher, in turn based on Bob Kane’s original characters .
One of the many posters.  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.

The last time, in 2008, we were blown away by a tragic hero fallen, taking the rap for the unexpected villain that District Attorney Harvey Dent evolved into, Two-Face. (To have seen The Dark Knight is not required to enjoy this film, but it’s a terrific movie and you ought to see it in any case.)  Here we are eight (story) years later, the unjustly excoriated Batman is believed to have been driven away, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, and even Wayne Industries has fallen on hard times.  Harvey Dent has taken on new life, but not as Two-Face — rather as a poster boy for a reactionary law-and-order regime.  The Harvey Dent laws would have condemned their namesake to life in prison without hope of parole since the insanity defense is no longer allowed and all prisoners are detained in a prison in the middle of the city. Bruce Wayne is still broken hearted, and Commissioner Gordon is still keeping a dreadful secret for the good of the people.  Or so he believes.
Tom Hardy -- really! -- as Bane.  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.

A new super-villain has stepped to center stage. Bane is a masked reject of the League of Shadows. Unlike other villains in the series who threaten Gotham, Bane poses a serious physical threat to Batman himself, as well as a criminal threat to the city.  Batman and the comic book series have lots of history, much of which I’ve forgotten, but which Christopher Nolan brought us in the first film of this trilogy, Batman Begins.  The brothers Nolan do their best to bring us up to speed to fully appreciate the story they’re telling, mostly but not entirely succeeding.  For instance, the League of Shadows, which was where Bruce Wayne learned a lot of Batman stuff from Ra’s Al Ghul and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), until the League plotted to wipe out Gotham because of the evil that raged there.  That’s as far as my memory reaches – it is rather vague on the complexities of Bruce Wayne’s past; nonetheless I had no difficulty following the story, the characters, and the plot of The Dark Knight Rises 

Christian Bale returns as the troubled, repressed and still furious Bruce Wayne, more Howard Hughes in his later years than the powerful playboy he was in his wealthy youth, and the first two films.  Bale is a wonderful actor, whether maniacally evil or dumbly sane, and his Batman is a tragic hero whatever his origins.  Terrific work throughout this trilogy is crowned in this last film.

The old standbys are here: 
Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine as Alfred.
Alfred, the Wayne butler, a handsomely aging Michael Caine.  He cries, we cry.  We knew at the time he shouldn’t tell that lie, even though he was trying to protect Master Bruce from any more pain.  Sometimes parental figures just cannot help themselves.

The wily Morgan Freeman returns as Mr. Fox, the clever fellow who runs Wayne Industries in the boss’ absence and presence.  Mr. Freeman is a figure of strength and contained power, a good guy we could wish was real.

Commissioner Gordon, loyal, strong, too honest, is played beautifully by the chameleon Gary Oldman.  Gordon hasn’t lost his touch, immediately spotting the talent and passion of young Officer Blake.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon.

Through these interwoven stories of people’s hearts and lives, fury and faith, we meet officer and then detective Blake in the person of the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Since childhood, he has had the power to hypnotize, and he’s a worthy addition to the canon of memorable characters.  He is fierce and sure and strong and makes me regret this is the end of the trilogy. 

Catwoman is this time around played with anger and intelligence by Anne Hathaway.  Hathaway’s Selina/Catwoman is flawed, she is exciting, weak and strong, and she helps make the political game believable here.  This Catwoman is one of the poor and powerless, until the roulette wheel of Bane’s plot revolves.  A truly interesting character as recreated by a largely character-driven script (despite all the explosions), brilliantly embodied by Ms. Hathaway. 
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman.

The lovely and charming Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a smart, rich businesswoman who’s quite annoyed at business partner Bruce Wayne for holding back a device that could provide unlimited energy to the city, all because he fears it would also be misused as a weapon.  Well, guess what happens.  Guess again.
Morgan Freeman as Lucius Cos and Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate.

Bane is a terrifying and dastardly fellow filled with hate — some of it righteous — played by Tom Hardy behind a mask and a beefed up body.  Honestly, I had thought it was a body double, so far was it from the lean body I’ve seen on Hardy in recent films.  Hardy bulking up for the role put me in mind of DeNiro putting on pounds of muscle to play Jake LaMotta, and I hope Mr. Hardy’s career is as solid and long as Mr. DeNiro’s in reward for his gutsy dedication and terrific character work.  There was just one problem with his performance, and that was that although Bane’s mask was appropriately creepy, it also occasionally muffled his words.  This detracted from his all-important storyline. 

If there’s a flaw in The Dark Knight Rises, it is that of any single unit of a trilogy.  The first was a long time ago (2005, to be precise), and there are moments and characters that, while they work fine on their own in this film, do not have the intended depth if you haven’t seen the first 2/3 (preferably recently).  For instance, Cillian Murphy reappears as Dr. Jonathan Crane, here the Judge in the masterful courtroom scenes.  We met him in the first film, Batman Begins, and his presence here makes good sense if you (1) saw that film and (2) remember it, or (3) if you’re a fan of the comic books, in which case you’ve already accomplished (1) and (2).  For the rest of the audience, powerful as these scenes are, just a little bit is lost. The “trial” scenes were beautifully recreated in the style of starkly detailed comic book panels, showing the devolution of Gotham society to one reminiscent of the French revolution as Gotham goes mad.

The Dark Knight Rises has all the requisite fights, chases, explosions (really clever ones), and other forms of action.  There are more good performances in roles large and small, but it’s out there on the big screen, and I advise you to go see it.  Christopher Nolan has done a superb job directing the fast-moving script that knows when to slow down, pause, then kick it back up.  The film runs a bit long, but darned if I’d know what to cut.

I look forward to owning three DVDs to watch in order on a dark and rainy — or snowy — weekend, but the power of the images on a huge screen is undeniable in a film like this.  It is terrifying and disturbing to see chunks of my city blowing up — Gotham is way too familiar and realistic.  This is not a criticism.  In The Dark Knight Rises, there was no attempt to make believe Gotham was part of a comic book, as other interpretations of the great city have done.  If a tad fantastical, that was our city — whatever city you live in.  And we all want a Batman to rise to help us help ourselves.

As for the ending of the film….I leave that up to you.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, wondering if I should see it again at the Imax….