Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has dramatically altered how we view “superhero” films. Prior to “Batman Begins”, there was an expectation that such movies would be as lurid as their printed counterparts; the audience’s suspension of disbelief was taken for granted, their willingness to accept a villain, say, who had fallen into a vat of chemicals at a playing card factory and thus was rendered “The Joker”, was assured. Villains’ lairs could be absurd, like Tommy Lee Jones’ Two Face’s divided home, each side featuring its own appropriately attired moll serving quail’s eggs on one half, and donkey meat on the other.
While there are films of this genre which remain ludicrous, they are now seen as and felt to be ludicrous. The paradigm has changed. The Joker is no longer the flamboyant giggling lunatic that Jack Nicholson portrayed in 1989, rather, he has become Heath Ledger’s genuinely menacing psychopath. Batman’s ephemeral searching for romantic fulfillment and mawkish mourning for his dead parents in the earlier films has since been transformed into a set of believable neuroses. The Alfred of old, who was a two dimensional and a somewhat staid and stuffy character, is now portrayed by working class and genuinely sentimental Michael Caine. We have swapped the packaging for the gift inside, surface glamour for depth and interiority. We have even traded lurid comic book colours for washed out shades of brown and grey.
These upgrades have made the Batman story much more interesting. As a result, it was with some sadness that I went to see the last of the Dark Knight trilogy. It is entirely possible that there will be more films made, but this last episode had a difficult birth, not least because it took Christopher Nolan some time to find a story that he particularly liked. Given this, this is very likely the swan song for the “Dark Knight”.
The film is set 8 years after the last one. Thanks to reforms instigated by the events in the prior episode, crime in Gotham has largely been defeated: this is a transformation which mirrors the changes in New York City. No longer needed to do battle with evil, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, albeit with fingernails and hair that don’t require much trimming. I was delighted that Wayne was shown to be unsteady on his feet: he has been hobbled by his superhero activities. To ram the point home, a doctor gives him a negative prognosis about his joints and flexibility: extreme sports, he’s advised, are out. In my opinion, Nolan has done well by bringing in age, wear and tear as a plot point. This aspect allows a topic to be explored which has hitherto been lacking from such films, specifically what happens if a “superhero” is, underneath it all, an ordinary man? What damage is done by leaping about and getting into fights all the time? Wayne is physically broken and spiritually bereft; but never mind, Batman is needed.
Batman’s return is necessary because the city is menaced by a new villain: Bane, as played by Tom Hardy. Perhaps the most unsatisfying aspect of the film is the lack of a full explanation of his origins: Bane has the physique and visage of a Mexican wrestler but speaks with the accent, intonation and eloquence of a Shakespearean actor. He is shown to have a sensitivity and appreciation for music, but is also capable of extraordinary violence. It is disturbing to consider that someone so obviously cultured can also be extremely brutal: however, many of the worst monsters that have plagued modern history, for example Reinhard Heydrich, possessed this combination.
At first, Bane’s purpose appears to be to instigate the ultimate “hostile takeover” on behalf of a greedy employer. However, he is actually a hard core terrorist, trained by Batman’s nemesis from the first film, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson); Ra’s al Ghul wished to destroy Gotham, and Bane intends to fulfill this charge.
As for the other antagonist, Anne Hathaway plays Selina Kyle, otherwise known as “Catwoman”. The “Catwoman” moniker was not deployed in earnest in this film, nor is there any particular feline behaviour seen; this is not Julie Newmar’s outrageously purring, meowing Catwoman. Rather, this “Catwoman” is a cat burglar who is also a skilled pickpocket and extensively trained in martial arts. Furthermore, she is not particularly evil: her misdeeds are more self-centred, i.e., she’s more interested in self-preservation and wiping her record clean. She also is capable of feeling remorse and acting on nobler impulses.
The Dark Knight Rises taps into our present societal traumas; this greatly enhances the plot. For example, Bruce Wayne is warned by Selina Kyle that he and his rich friends will have their fortunes swept away. Furthermore, Wayne Enterprises is in trouble due to bad investments; economic chaos is one of the forms of terrorism that Bane’s henchmen deploy. However, I suspect much of the audience developed some sympathy for Bane after he kidnapped selfish, crude yet well-dressed stock brokers to use as human shields in a getaway. A kangaroo court which is formed at Bane’s instigation to punish wealthy and powerful miscreants had disturbing echoes of Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union’s early days. In essence, Nolan suggests prosperity, peace and order are very fragile; this thesis implants an interesting element of social commentary into the film.
The Dark Knight Rises also packs quite a dramatic punch: there is a significant plot twist towards the very end. Up until that point, I had a relatively clear idea of what was happening and what would happen. Then it came, as sharp as a knife: some might say it was contrived, but nevertheless, it worked well and was genuinely surprising.
The Dark Knight Rises is not without its flaws: there are still remnants of the “Batman in Love” problem. In this film, his romantic attentions are divided between Selina Kyle and Wayne’s fellow billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). A lot of very fine actors, including the superlative Gary Oldman reprising his role as Commissioner Gordon, get too little air time. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Detective John Blake was excellent and relentless, he is too obviously set up as Batman’s future sidekick when it’s revealed his legal first name is “Robin”.
Nevertheless, when the film ended, it was rather melancholy to think that we won’t see any more of this; the rest may be left to run in the imagination. But perhaps Nolan knows best: 1989’s Batman, which was less than optimal apart from Nicholson’s performance, segued into some very unsatisfying films culminating in the dreadful “Batman & Robin” in 1997. Nolan has made it clear that he would rather tell no tales than relay a sub-par one: for this he should be complimented. Though the fans may be hungry for more, if he finishes at this point, he can be proud of a fine trilogy which will likely stand as the definitive superhero films of our era.