Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and so on below.
The UPS truck came yesterday. Thus it was that once Theodore was put down, I took a break from Cicero’s letters, and I told Flesh of My Flesh, “I’m making dinner, and then we’re watching The Dark Knight Rises.” The issue being, you see, that she hadn’t seen it yet. Skyfall was the first movie we had been able to see together in since The Avengers, and that was just because for my birthday, some friends offered to watch Theodorus Rex while we went out by ourselves.
I very much enjoyed Skyfall, incidentally, and have seen it twice now; the transformation of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond into, effectively, the old James Bond, is complete. If one knows something about the history of actors who might have been Bond, the presence of Ralph Fiennes (as well as the reveal of him as the “new” M, who’s really the “old” M) is clever; he was one of the actors being considered back in 1994 to take over the role after Dalton declined to participate in what became GoldenEye. If I’m remembering a particular issue of Premiere sufficiently, the list before they finally circled back around to Brosnan was Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Neill, and Hugh Grant. Fiennes, then, as a former field agent whom we see take a bullet and fire off some of his own shots, takes on some real-life resonance, given that part of the idea with Gareth Mallory seems to be that he’s what Bond would have been if he’d just been a bit more respectable.
I liked the approach with Skyfall of “James-Bond-as-art-film”; we get a lot of Bond fighting in silhouette, and this can get a bit trippy, particularly when he’s silhouetted against lots of moving neon lights. Sam Mendes also seems to be trying to tell you something with how he frames shots; Bond is frequently centered in the frame, as is Javier Bardem’s Silva, but then, at the very end, when Bond is looking out over the city from MI6’s roof, it starts out with him centered only to have the camera nudge just a little bit right so that Big Ben is now centered. The point seems to be that Bond has finally decided once and for all that he’s doing what he does, not out of anger for Vesper’s betrayal, not out of the repressed trauma of his parents’ death, but for queen and country.
But I’m supposed to be talking about The Dark Knight Rises.
So, four and a half years ago, The Dark Knight took up a big chunk of my summer. I saw it, I think, nine times on the big screen all told, six of those in IMAX, and really what I did during July and August of 2008 was call up my friends and say, “Hey, want to go see The Dark Knight in IMAX with me?” I didn’t have much else to do; I had a French reading knowledge class I was taking, and I was working, but so far as I knew at that point, I was definitely not going to be working on a grad program anytime soon, and my wife was in Germany, followed almost immediately by her spending close to a month in Seattle after her dad was diagnosed with cancer. The Dark Knight seemed as good a way as any to kill time.
Obviously, my life has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I have other ways my time is occupied these days, thank God. Still, I managed to see The Dark Knight Rises four times on the big screen, two of those in IMAX. So, draw whatever conclusions you will about that — such as, for example, baby or no baby, PhD program or no PhD program, I’m still an unrepentant nerd.
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the Batman took the rap for Harvey Dent’s murders rather than have Gotham lose their knight in shining armor. The storytelling reason for this seems to be so that Batman takes on some qualities of being an urban legend, almost a Spring-heeled Jack kind of figure; I suspect that the practical, real-world reason is because it had been seven years since they started shooting Batman Begins, which itself required Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne over a seven to eight year span, and The Dark Knight was supposed to take place something like six months after Batman Begins while being made three years later. Everybody looks noticeably older than they did in 2005, in other words, and this gives them an in-story way to explain that.
In the intervening years, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, letting the physical and mental damage he suffered as Batman settle in. He tries to become a philanthropist, but he finds out projects that can save the world also have the dark side of probably being able to destroy it, a realization which just drives him further into the shadows. Commissioner Gordon has been able to use the memory of Harvey Dent to lock up a lot of people, but the lie is eating away at him. It’s a status quo that’s, for all intents, a well-polished rotten apple.
Enter four characters who each stir up the hornet’s nest in their own way. Selina Kyle is a jewel thief who has taken a curious interest in Bruce’s fingerprints; John Blake is a young cop who sees that everybody is pretty much just going through the motions to keep everything looking nice; Miranda Tate is an investment partner of Bruce’s who wants to show him that the world is worth trusting enough to save it… and then there’s Bane, who is manipulating much of this (or is he?) specifically to force Bruce to get back into the ring as Batman.
A running theme of the movie — which goes all the way back to Batman Begins — is that of the “clean slate”. The express purpose of the League of Shadows, after all, was to “wipe the slate clean”, as it were, when cities got too big and corrupt by destroying them, which is the objective that Bane has inherited; Selina Kyle wants to wipe out her own past (there’s a MacGuffin of the “gangland myth” of a computer program that can do this, which it turns out that Bruce acquired to keep from being used; since the Joker had no traceable record in The Dark Knight, it’s possible that this is intended to be an oblique reference to him); Gordon, Bruce, and Blake are all living with accounts needing to be settled, and so on. Is a revolution how society ultimately has to pay its bill? As R’as Al Ghul suggests in Begins (and as Bane trumpets in Rises), is burning away the brush always the solution, and it’s just a question of scale? Can one man show a better way? One might not be entirely wrong to detect a Christ allegory with where Nolan and company end up with this question (albeit thankfully not in the somewhat ham-fisted way that Superman Returns did), but it seems to me that Plato’s cave is far more explicitly referenced.
Rises does a nice job of bringing things full circle back to Begins; the story keys off of R’as Al Ghul’s conviction in Begins that “Gotham must be destroyed”, and shows that just because R’as Al Ghul died, it didn’t mean the idea died. R’as Al Ghul left a legacy, and it’s a legacy Bruce has to deal with.
Incidentally, for anybody familiar with the comics, there’s only one way the character of Miranda Tate was going to make any sense at all, and if you’re paying attention, they telegraph her identity as Talia from the get-go. She talks like R’as (she has a line about “restoring balance” early on), and there are visual callbacks as well, like showing her good at building a fire, much as R’as was in Begins. A reward of repeated viewings, too, is noticing that the little girl in the prison stabs somebody in the back in one of the first flashbacks, much as the adult Talia does to Bruce.
There are other interesting references to Begins; there’s the explicit comparison of the prison to the well young Bruce falls into in Begins, but there’s also Batman walking on ice (apparently having learned to mind his surroundings after all), and the memorial statue of Batman unveiled at the end bears a striking resemblance to the nightmare Batman that Scarecrow hallucinated in Begins. Both Begins and The Dark Knight end with conversations about thanking Batman — Begins: “I never said thank you.” “And you’ll never have to.” TDK: “Thank you.” “You don’t have to thank me.” — and while Rises has its own ending, it has its own version of this conversation: “Thanks.” “Don’t thank me yet.” It’s a little grace note that seems to say a lot about where Bruce sees what he’s achieved relative to his own ideals — in Begins the story ends with his ideals having won the day, in TDK his ideals have cost him dearly, and at this point in Rises it’s unclear whether or not he will even survive his own ideals.
The point of Rises, and I suppose of Nolan’s whole trilogy, is that in this story, Bruce Wayne isn’t trying to become a superhero, he’s trying to build a myth. As R’as says in Begins, “You have to become an idea.” The idea that there might be a big unstoppable demon that comes after you if you’re a bad guy, and you’ll never know who it is, is much more powerful than there being a human being who can be taken down with a bullet. In Begins he takes on the initial trappings of the legend, in TDK he sees a human being who he thinks could become the idea without having to pretend to be somebody else, only to see that person corrupted, and in Rises he has to complete the mythmaking by, effectively, dying and coming back from the dead — both so he can just be Bruce Wayne once and for all, and so that Batman can be that much more powerful. Along these lines, Bane is presented as sort of a counter-symbol to Batman; “No one cared who I was till I put on the mask,” he says.
Do Nolan’s films constitute a “definitive” Batman? Well, what do you mean by that? “Definitive” according to whose take on the character? Frank Miller’s? Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s? Bob Kane’s? Paul Dini’s? Adam West’s? Just by the nature of film, where you’re basically blowing up a short story into two or three hours and only being able to do it once every few years, you’re never going to be able to bring out all the nuances that one can play with in an ongoing serial like a comic book or a TV show. Like any film adaptation, the best you’re going to be able to do is honor the spirit of the source material while doing your own thing as well as you can. Batman, by virtue of being a symbol, is open to a lot of interpretation, and I think Nolan has made three pretty great movies with his interpretation. Somebody else will probably come along and do their own interpretation in a few years, and there may very well be things I like about that one better, perhaps things I don’t like as well; who knows? The comics themselves will still be sitting on the shelf right next to these movies, as well as Tim Burton’s 1989 film. What I think one can say is that this trilogy is a long Batman story that incorporates a lot of ideas and images from the comics as well as the animated series (there’s a decent amount of Batman Beyond in Bruce’s solution), and while it’s something you could never do with Batman as he appears in the comics (unless it were an Elseworlds mini-series or something of that nature), it’s a great way, from where I sit, to encapsulate the character onscreen in a self-contained story.
OK. Back to reading some Latin.