Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012):

This city needs me.
– Christian Bale, as Bruce Wayne, 
in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

I’ve been asked to pick my favorite from the trilogy of Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale as the titular Dark Knight. I can’t. The trilogy is three parts of one whole story and I don’t have a particular favorite. Each movie is outstanding in its own way. Let’s face it, if ever a franchise needed a reboot after so many dire efforts – it’s the Batman story! And, as reboots go, it doesn’t get any better than this. I doubt many fans even expected Batman Begins (2005) to be as brilliant as it was.

I’ve loved Batman ever since I can remember. It was the comic book of my choice as a child. Elements of The Dark Knight Rises movie plot is inspired by the Knightfall graphic novel series, particularly with Bane breaking Batman’s back and taking over Gotham.

When I was a child in the 70s, the only on-screen adaptation to enjoy were reruns of the 60s Batman TV show, starring Adam West in the role.

Remember the scenes with Batman and Robin slugging it out with the villain’s henchmen? KA-POW! ZAP! OUCH! ... etc. My imagination had tasted the dark, gothic delights of the graphic comic book and, even though I was a kid, the TV show was all too pale, pastel-colored, diluted, lame, tame and downright silly to please me.

Then, at last, came Batman (1989), starring Michael Keaton and with Jack Nicholson in the role of The Joker. Michael Keaton was formidable and intense in the role of Bruce Wayne and being a life-long fan of Jack Nicholson, he was a joy to watch as The Joker. The cast had a riot making this one, Tim Burton recreated a suitably dark, smokey Gotham, but still it wasn’t quite right. Still those pastel colors were there on screen, as if they were trying to make the sets and costumes look like a page from a kid’s comic book and there was too much emphasis on comedy. The worst thing about the movie was Prince’s music. Many will disagree with me, but it made me cringe. Sorry Prince.

Next came Batman Returns (1992). Michelle Pfeiffer purred and meowed as Catwoman and Danny DeVito waddled and sneered as The Penguin. It should have been (at least) a good movie. Again, many might disagree … but to me it was a poor sequel.

The downward trend continued with Batman Forever (1995), with Val Kilmer donning the mask. Tommy Lee Jones grinned and flipped his coin as Harvey ‘Two-face’ Dent and Jim Carey posed, shrieked and gurned as The Riddler. “Was that over the top?” The Riddler asked in one part. Frankly – yes! The movie was forgettable … very forgettable.

Batman and Robin (1997) was both beyond the joke and the last straw for many fans (me included). George Clooney was cast in the main role. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his one-liners as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman was the toxic botanist Poison Ivy, with the late professional wrestler Robert ‘Jeep’ Swenson as Bane, wrongly written in to the story as Poison Ivy’s brainless bodyguard and henchman. Everything about this movie was a misfire. The humor didn’t work and fans of the original stories had more fun pointing out where it all went wrong and critically crucified it. This turkey of a movie stunk so bad, it seemed the studios had abandoned the franchise forever, which suited me fine if this crap was the best they could come up with.

I admit that when Batman Begins came around in 2005, I wasn’t expecting much. I was more surprised that another Batman movie had come around at all. I sat down to my first viewing with more than a little apprehension and my teeth gritted. However, my dread turned to delight as director Chris Nolan went back to basics with the entire story: taking us through Bruce Wayne’s early years, the tragedy of the murder of his parents, Butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) becoming his guardian and confidante, Bruce’s phobia of bats inspiring him and becoming the basis of his alter-ego: Batman (Christian Bale).

We see how he builds his suit and gathers his equipment, explaining to Alfred that it was time the criminals shared his dread as he hones steel throwing darts into the form of a bat.

What marks Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy above all that preceded them is in the writing: they play it all for real. The characters are invested with feelings, character traits and emotion, and the stories are played out smart and plausibly. Bruce Wayne is not a superhero (as many wrongfully categorize the character); he’s very much human, with more than his share of pain, regrets, and moments of weakness.

The bad guys are also human, driven by psychosis or twisted ideology. Like Batman, they rely on theatricality, costumes, make-up, and high-tech gadgetry to get the job done. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is up against three villains: Gotham’s crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson):

The enigmatic and complex Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson)...

... the head of the League of Shadows, an organization that has endured for centuries, destroying entire cities that have succumbed to evil and corruption.

They take no prisoners and show no mercy to the innocent caught in the cross-fire. They believe the only way to cure evil in a place is to wipe it off the map, settling everything in one swoop.

The criminal psychiatrist, Dr. Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), uses a hallucinogenic gas and psychological methods to exploit the source of his victims’ fears and break their mind.

Other key characters are brought expertly to life: Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), honest cop and Commissioner-to-be James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the wise-owl in the Applied Science Division of Wayne Enterprises who supplies Bruce with his hardware. Each character is well-rounded and believable – full credit to the writers again. The movie ends with the guilty punished, evil vanquished (for now) and Gordon explaining to Batman how, although they have won, there is now the problem of escalation. As he describes the latest bad guy to emerge from the shadows, he hands Batman the criminal’s calling card. It’s from a deck of playing cards. Batman turns it over to reveal the card of The Joker. “I’ll look into it,” he calmly reassures.

This led the story on deftly to The Dark Knight (2008):

Based on the graphic novel, The Killing Joke, the movie opens with a bank robbery and the entrance of The Joker, chillingly played by Heath Ledger, who tragically died in the same year.

The movie has some brilliant set-pieces, particularly the chase through the night streets of Gotham as The Joker attempts to kill Harvey Dent.

The Joker is a terrifying entity, a ruthless killer with a maniacal cackle. Part of what makes him dangerous is his unpredictability; you can’t anticipate his next move.

He describes himself as an agent of chaos who likes to introduce a little anarchy into a situation … just to see what happens next, declaring that whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you … stranger! 

The warped nature of The Joker is described when Bruce Wayne discusses the situation with Alfred:

BRUCE WAYNE: Targeting me won't get their money back. I knew the mob wouldn't go down without a fight, but this is different. They’ve crossed the line.

ALFRED PENNYWORTH: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn't fully understand.

BRUCE WAYNE: Criminals aren't complicated, Alfred. We just need to figure out what he's after.

ALFRED PENNYWORTH: With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don't fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anyone who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.

BRUCE WAYNE: So why steal them?

ALFRED PENNYWORTH: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ...

... follows on eight years later. Bruce Wayne is a recluse after taking the rap for Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent’s crimes and death. He’s hung up the cape and is content to take the blame so the city can have the hero he feels it needs, in the legend of what Harvey Dent stood for – not what he ultimately became at the hands of The Joker’s manipulation. The city of Gotham at last has an uneasy peace, but it’s only a period of calm before a new storm is set to hit. Batman is forced out of retirement when Bane (Tom Hardy) dramatically escapes from a prisoner transport plane.

Beautiful and crafty cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), thieving her way to a clean slate and fresh start in life, leads Batman to Bane’s underground lair.

Bane (Tom Hardy) is Batman’s most formidable adversary. He’s highly intelligent, baroque in his manner and communication, a calculating strategist, and lethal in his dealings with those around him.

Like Bruce Wayne, he was also trained by the League of Shadows, until even that organization kicked him out because he was too extreme to handle. Tom Hardy excelled in the role, gained weight and trained to add a physical menace to his appearance.

The performances are excellent and the visuals and effects uniformly seamless. There are also a host of supporting roles and cameos that add greatly to an already polished movie. Among them: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Juno Temple, Uri Gavriel, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Nestor Carbonell, Alon Abutbul, William Devane and Tom Conti.

Chris Nolan has proved himself to be an exceptional director, with works as original, dark, intelligent and diverse as his neo-noir debut thriller, Following (1998), Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010). I’m looking forward to seeing what Chris Nolan comes up with next. Unlike some directors and studios, he gives the audience credit for having the intelligence to appreciate complex non-linear stories that are not needlessly shortened or dumbed-down.

Is this really going to be the last Batman movie ever made? Time will tell. The ending of The Dark Knight Rises does leave possibilities for a continuation.

But if this is the last outing for Batman, then he couldn’t have hoped for a better conclusion than this. For now, Hans Zimmer's thundering soundtrack of the Batman trilogy resonates in the mind, building to its feverish climax.
Every year the term ‘event movie’ is used. It was never more true than for this third (and final?) part of the Batman trilogy. The cop in The Dark Knight Rises could have been addressing the viewing audience when he stated: “You are in for a show tonight!”


  1. Great post. I still cannot find time to watch the latest, thrid part but when I do I will leave you another comment :))


  2. Excellent synopsis of the Batman movie franchise.

  3. Huge Batman fan from the comics and annoyed by the Batman TV show that turned it all into a joke. The novel the Witches of Eastwick noted that the TV show has missed the boat and the "real evil" that Batman fought. "Batman Begins" is my favorite Batman film.