Bat Movies Part 4: The Dark Knight Trilogy
Yesterday, I saw The Dark Knight Rises. I took my seat in a state of dread. In his statement, Christopher Nolan described the movie theater as a place of innocence, a hub for vehicles that transport you from reality and all the troubles attached to it. But where do you escape to when it's the theater that's turning on you?
Nolan's movies are full of panic and anxiety, so I questioned my willingness to endure an apocalyptic trilogy capper. But this movie was exactly what I needed. Nolan has always made dark films, but recently they've become not so bleak. As the lights dimmed in the theater, so did my dread. I gave myself into the sights and sound for a final time. And I found it all uplifting and inspirational.
(Those who haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises: This article, and its comments, is henceforth your own personal game of Minesweeper: Spoilers Edition. Play at your own risk.)
The first surprise was how much I enjoyed the villains. I thought Bane would be a total bummer to be around, but I found him almost charming: He sounded funny and could be funny when the moment commanded it, he was menacing as hell, and -- utilizing Tom Hardy's sympathetic eyes to full effect -- could elicit even pity. Anne Hathaway was perfection incarnate; her rendition of Selina Kyle is my favorite ever, in any form. It's a tricky feat to convince the audience that Bruce Wayne and Selina are right for each other, but Nolan delivers just enough interplay to make it work.
And The Dark Knight Rises is a movie of "just enoughs." Just enough Catwoman & Batman, just enough Bane, just enough Gordon, just enough time spent in a dank prison and at occupied Gotham. There are so many moving parts that too much or too little of any element threatens to throw the movie out of its orbit. Nolan keeps it all in balance. However, I'd still question him on Juno Temple's character. How useless was she?
But the real surprise: This is one pulpy movie. Not campy, mind you. The Dark Knight aimed to button the superhero down to reality, but TDKR functions on a grander physical scale. It embraces the outsized comic elements, things like a nuclear bomb plot, a gassy masked villain, and a man who is snapped in two, spending months in the desert to discover his power again. These things are believable, but not particularly realistic (in contrast to TDK being both at the same time). In doing so, the film exits our world and begins to operate on a mythical level. It's really quite easy to escape into this movie.
Now, Nolan is not one to let the details slip past him. So it's another surprise how little details are in place. I predict this is where people will have the most issues with the movie. Details like, how did Bruce Wayne get out of that desert and back into Gotham, which happened to be under full lockdown? Why is Gotham still so clean after 80 days of armed criminal occupation? Everything should be drenched in blood, dirt, and corpses. Instead, it looked like just an emptier Gotham City soundstage. I obsessed over one shot: I don't recall who was speaking, but in the background there was this row of garbage bins. No damage to them, lids still closed. No way they would've still have been there. Garbage cans are the first to go in a riot, everyone knows that! So why did Nolan let these things slide when they would've faced major scrutiny in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight?
The answer I think lies in the story Nolan needed to tell. You could create a whole movie out of Bruce's journey back to America. Or make a PBS miniseries out of daily life in occupied Gotham City. The movie is 15 minutes shy of a three-hour run time and that is just enough room to tell the story without having to cram it in.
Take, for example, the scene where police rush the thugs. It's ridiculous. Why would you charge headlong? That's suicide. Did the cops forget their tactical training while huddled underground? A scene like this would have no place in BB or TDK. In Rises, it's a good fit. In that moment, the story gets a big push forward, crucial when this late in the movie. A slowdown in the narrative would be deadly. Again, was this realistic? Nope. But, believable. A master storyteller like Nolan knows where to make that incision, prescient of how many little details you can remove before you lose the audience and they revolt.
Last note: the fight scenes. In the previous films, the fights were usually inundated with shaky cam, so I applaud Nolan's decision to shoot with steady clarity. There's a matter-of-factness to the way the fights play out, especially the backbreaker one. Nolan doesn't want you to feel like you're in the fight, he wants you to observe, much like Catwoman did. One feels helpless to the brutality, a resigned horror at the sight Batman's punches shrugged off as mere whiffs of wind. That dread builds up again in those moments. But so does a thirst for redemption and salvation. I am grateful The Dark Knight Rises delivered.
Let's set the DeLorean back real quick since I'm realizing I devoted the entire article to The Dark Knight Rises. My curiosity was piqued when I heard the director of Memento and Insomnia was doing a Batman movie. It's largely enjoyable. Even though it represented a hard reset, watching it again and it feels actually like a transitional movie. The production design, especially of Gotham City and the train that is central to the climax, is still Burton-inspired, with lots of brown and rising steam. The men are often tailored into sharp suits, a visual mainstay for every Nolan film going forward. Katie Holmes, however, is really out of place. I suspect that she wasn't Nolan's first pick, furthered by the fact that he was quick to recast the Rachel Dawes role for The Dark Knight. Holmes wears jarringly plain clothes, likely inspired by the successful Kirsten Dunst role in Spider-Man.
The Dark Knight is still my favorite Batman movie, though I'd have to watch Rises again to be certain. Rises had a big sweeping narrative arc that really pulls you in, but there are individual pieces to The Dark Knight that are beyond anything else. The novelty of seeing Batman in this ultra sleek modern world never gets old. And, of course, The Joker. Heath Ledger's performance will remain legendary. So complete was this vision of the Joker that TDK deflates considerably when he's not on-screen.
What's funny is how The Dark Knight now feels in the wake of Rises, which was maximalist with its storytelling in every way. I think the opening bank heist, largely free of special effects, is still the best sequence committed to a Batman film. The vertiginous rush seeing crooks zipline across a cityscape, the back and forth dialogue, and the rising tension as the bad guys start killing each other. It leads to Ledger's incredible introduction and one of my favorite lines, "Whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stranger."
The Avengers was a culmination of a decade of films and staggering business mergers. The Dark Knight Rises closes one of the best trilogies ever, one that redefined what can happen when comic book and cinema collide. We've entered what seems to be a curious age for filmmakers. It's not quite the '70s again, but with Joss Whedon and Nolan writing and directing these films, it's almost like the emergence of blockbuster auteur theory. Where will the superhero movie go from here?