I anticipate Christopher Nolan’s films more than I actually like them. Memento, The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight…I’m always wowed by the bigness of his vision, but I don’t like his postmodern shrugs, his punishingly devious mind games, his stage-managed Hume quandaries.
So I anticipated The Dark Knight Rises. And I got ready to be disappointed. I was rubbing my hands, limbering up to grapple with a smudgy worldview and mentally plunder the gold from this particular Egyptian.
Well, I got my gold, but I didn’t have to do much plundering. The Dark Knight Rises was amazing. Not perfect, but amazing — and for two reasons. (The second reason is bigger.) One, it was better than The Dark Knight, which almost no one thinks it actually is. Two, it’s the Gospel story. Who knows if Nolan actually meant to tell an old-fashioned fairytale, but he did — a big, brawling, bombastic fairytale where the good guy actually wins and actually gets the girl.
Of course I have quibbles. I have complaints. The movie could have been even better. But the bones of the story are good.
Kicking off with just a few of the things Chris and his brother/fellow writer Jonathan should have improved:
1) Dialogue. About 60% either wobbles squirmingly on the edge of dry plot exposition/character explanation, or gives you a laugh you can see coming a mile away (without binoculars). “My mother always warned me about getting into cars with strange men.” “This isn’t a car.” Har har. Sure, I laughed, even though I’d already heard it a dozen times in the trailer. I was hyped up with post-midnight adrenaline and brimming with benevolent appreciation for the whole thing. But for really good dialogue (including laugh lines), go for something like The Social Network or True Grit.
2) Shoving a vertebrate back in place…really? I’ve had ribs put back in similar fashion, but I’m raising my eyebrows at this one. If anyone has actually had their spine kinked in like this, by all means enlighten me.
3) Bane needed more time. Take off the mask. Linger on the death scene. But before he dies, let him kill a few more people that we really like. (Am I cruel? It happens in God’s story all the time.) Bane is a better bad guy than the Joker, but you don’t remember him as well. More on Bane later.
4) I liked the storming-of-the-Bastille-esque chaos and the kangaroo court and the anarchy on the streets, but is anyone really sure why thousands of people (who are presumably glad about eight years of clean streets) flock so willingly around a masked terrorist? Because I’m not. In every revolution, you have at least two different sides, and Nolan should have developed these sides better. Let the bitter, life-isn’t-fair people embrace Bane as their own, but most of the Gothomites frankly don’t seem to fit that bill.
Now for the good stuff.
Every Fairytale Needs a Good Bad Guy
I said that Bane needed more character development, but unlike the Joker (who is fascinating only because he’s maniacal and unexplained — which is just a copout on Nolan’s part), Bane actually has a good startup kit to a realistic character arc.
His name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word bana, meaning “killer, slayer, murderer,” and is also used as a name for the Devil in Beowulf. Bane’s story begins — and this is important — with a fall into evil. He is first inspired and then betrayed and banished by a man so ravaged by bitterness and guilt, he can’t stand to look at the person who reminds him of how dark he is. That is real texture. And it makes Bane’s evil make sense. He is Ra’s Al Ghul’s avenger and hater at the same time, a man with as many chips as muscles on his shoulder.
He is also a fit enemy for Bruce Wayne. It’s no accident that both of them are really good brawlers and that Bane is just that much better; Bruce needs an enemy that matches him physically — not someone he can drag across the table and slam into a wall.
Bruce’s and Bane’s lives are actually appropriately similar in several other ways. Where are Bruce’s parents? Gone. Where are Bane’s? Gone. Trained by the same surrogate father, offered the same power, one of these warriors refuses and the other one grabs, and that’s what puts them on a collision course.
The Joker claimed that Batman “completed him” because he loved watching him clean up after his mess, but Bane has bigger, deadlier things in mind. He isn’t a dog chasing cars. He isn’t after mere chaos. He isn’t simply trying to prove that the people of Gothom are evil. Bane is out to utterly destroy the city that Bruce Wayne has sworn to protect. He is the serpent who promises to give power into the hands of men; he tells them they will be like God, so to speak. But his gift is the gift of tyranny and bloodshed. Bane promises freedom, but he brings slavery. He promises life, but he delivers death. And wherever there’s a dragon, you can be sure there will be a knight. (Or a hobbit, but that’s pretty much what Batman is reduced to. It’s the little guys, the ones with broken backs, that you have to watch out for.)
Of course, we all immediately compare Bane to the Joker. (I’ve been doing that all along.) Bane certainly isn’t as off-the-wall striking, but he’s more credible and, ultimately, scarier. The Joker is electrifying and disturbing because he gets under your skin and inside your brain and wiggles strange ideas around. But I don’t buy it. (He’d be scarier if I could.) The Joker is our favorite person to watch because of Heath Ledger’s insane performance, but he isn’t nearly as believable as Bane. As one critic put it, the Joker is basically an omnipotent Satan: an ultra bad, ultra creepy, ultra contrived wacko who is everywhere at once. But unlike Satan, the Joker has no backstory. The Devil has a beginning, a fall, an arc. What do we have about the Joker? Nothing but knives and lint.
Now, I’ve heard critics yawning over the fact that Bane himself isn’t much more than a beefcake with two fists and a serious attitude, but guys…that’s pretty scary. He wants to blow Gotham to hell and he’s got the bomb to do it. That’s scary. He walks around snapping people’s necks. Have we seen a hundred movie bad guys do this? Yup. And it’s scary. Tom Hardy’s gypsy-accented voice (based on bare-knuckle boxer Bartley Gorman’s), his unpredictable swings from murderous to urbane, his hulk and swagger (Hardy packed on 30 pounds to tip the scales at 200, and he’s only 5’10”) all manage to transcend mere cartoon villainy and enter legitimate devilry. And it’s scary.
Fatherhood and Father Hunger
We are defined by our fathers. Everyone on earth receives their identity based on which father they serve — God the Father or the father of lies. The characters of The Dark Knight Rises are all similarly driven by their fathers — good or bad, dead or alive, natural or adopted, missing or never there in the first place. Miranda serves her father the destroyer. So does Bane, and his thugs serve him. Blake (a rather simplistic yet refreshingly noble character) is inspired by Bruce’s fatherly visit to the orphanage. Selina definitely does not have a father, and her struggles come from trying in all the wrong ways to survive without one. Bruce serves the memory of his murdered father, the first man to teach him the lesson of death and resurrection. (“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”) The story is all about which father you serve.
The movie also hinges around giving hope to the father-hungry. New father figures appear throughout: a flashback of Gordon putting a coat around the shoulders of newly orphaned Bruce (which Bruce specifically claims was crucial in making him the hero he is), Bruce standing in as a father for the young orphan Blake, Blake in turn acting as a father to the orphaned boys, and at the end, the Wayne mansion becoming a refuge for the fatherless.
It’s hard to stop finding the parallels here. The hero begins the story in exile (bedraggled, bathrobed, and self-imposed, but exile nonetheless), which he leaves because he receives a new calling—a huge part of which is the quest for a new bride. Cue the flirt fests with Selina, and did anyone miss how many times people pushed him towards the “quite lovely” Miranda?
Then the hero gets thrown into a pit—the same pit the devil crawled out of. (This is where I got excited. I knew what was coming.) There he silences the voice of the evil one (smashes the TV), climbs out victorious, and frees those in bondage, among them several thousand heroes who have also been trapped in a big pit. The devil promises freedom, but only the Prince of Gotham can make them truly free.
The hero has been betrayed by a false bride — two of them, in fact, just as Christ was betrayed by the bride he came to save. (And because Batman is human, there are also Samson-Delilah undertones here, which is the only reason I’m mostly okay with the fact that Bruce sleeps with Miranda — except that their ex-marital snuggle is never condemned in the story. Only her betrayal is.) Then he comes back to save the bride who desperately wants a clean start and knows she can’t get one herself. In fact, the worst spot on her record is betraying the one man who can save her. Like the disciple Peter, Selina becomes willing to die with the man she once denied.
The movie ends in a furious, exhilarating burst of gospel plot points. The hero faces the dragon in a duel — the one single shot of the movie that made me sit straight up. The dragon is ultimately crushed by the woman he tormented, just as the Serpent’s head is crushed by the Seed of the woman. The hero “dies” a priest, bearing the curse of the people away. He gifts his people with his spirit that holds a “sanctuary in our hearts.” He prepares a place for the poor and needy. (In his father’s house, there are many mansions…or at least a ton of rooms.) He leaves a disciple who is clearly going to follow in the footsteps of his savior. And the hero is resurrected—and is witnessed breaking bread with his bride.
The two biggest complaints I’ve seen from other critics are that the movie is 1) boring and 2) gloomy. Phil Villarreal sighs on OK Magazine: “I recommend taking a nap for an hour or so in the middle to make it pass quicker. Nolan helps you out with that by making the mid-section into a sort of cinematic lullaby that rocks you to sleep with…many, many, many scenes that do not show Batman being Batman.” (1) What Villarreal doesn’t understand is that in order for the knight to rise, he must first go down. He doesn’t understand the exquisite triumph that comes when Batman is Batman only after he can’t be Batman. And the longer he can’t be Batman, the better. Break a hero, and his victory will be that much sweeter. Cast the heir into exile, and the world will watch in awe when he comes back to claim his city.
As for gloomy, here’s what Joe Morgenstern from WSJ has to say: “The most stunning thing about the film, though — and this is said not by way of praise, but with anxious wonderment — is how depressing and truly doomy most of it is…Happy days are done and gone.” (2) Kurt Loder on Reason.com agrees, stating that “the picture ends in a very dark way.” (3) Now, I’m assuming these critics actually stayed till the end of the movie, and didn’t walk out when Alfred is shedding tears at his master’s grave, which means they must have seen the signs of Bruce Wayne’s new life, which means they simply don’t actually grasp the power of resurrection. This was truly the film’s sweet spot. The light of Easter makes the darkness of Calvary worth it.
Whether he meant to or not, Christopher Nolan worked hard to make up for the ending of the second Batman film — a moral dilemma so contrived, you could almost hear the storytellers grunting as they shoehorned it in, just so the movie could close on a justification of its title: “He’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” Breathe, everybody. Whew. Got it in. Well, The Dark Knight Rises proves one thing. Wait a couple years, and Nolan can apologize for anything with 2.5 hours of big-screen heroics borrowed from the Book he ignored last time. Good job. Apology accepted.
Fatherhood. Father hunger. Tyranny. Slavery. Sacrifice. Death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost. Judas, Peter, disciples, Satan, Christ, a new bride — The Dark Knight Rises has it all.