While I'm working on a more in-depth piece on Nolan's DKR I wanted to post some initial reactions that stuck with me following last night's midnight showing.
1. Bane is Awesome.
While I enjoyed Knightfall and many of his subsequent appearances in the comic books over the years, I was never a huge fan of Bane. I'll admit that I have a streak of conservative - and completely illogical - dislike of villains that are not part of Batman's more traditional rogue's gallery. Whether it was Bane or Hush, I found myself resisting the allure of many new characters over the years. Irrational perhaps, but there it is.
Fortunately, this predisposition does not appear to have insisted itself into my viewing of the films and I went into Dark Knight Rises looking forward to Nolan's interpretation of the character. Not only have the previous two films in the Batman trilogy given me complete faith in the director’s vision, but I also am a fan of Tom Hardy.
In order to understand the character’s portrayal in the film he must first be divided into his two main components, his physical presence and his voice. Based just on Bane’s physical appearance he could be rejected as simply an unoriginal stand-in for a thousand different brawny bad guys that have appeared in countless action films over the years. While the mask is visually interesting overall he’s just a big dude.
Yet, when you hear Bane speak, suddenly a whole new world of depth is created. Rather then just a gruff and angry voice muttering garbled threats through a mask, his voice is engaging and bespeaks a deep intelligence. It is strangely melodic and only enhances the quality of the dialogue. Moreover, it demands you immediately disregard the notion that he is just another ripped tough guy cliché.
Nolan clearly saw the voice of Bane as a way to reorient the viewer to his vision of the character. I found it so intriguing that I it caused me to reappraise the physical component and really see the villain for the threat that he is. In the comics I accepted that Batman was broken by Bane because the continuity and the story made me accept it; but I didn’t believe it. Nolan and Hardy’s careful construction and execution of the character made me believe that this person would break the Batman. He is not an empty cliché, but the real deal.
Furthermore, just the fact that The Dark Knight Rises was able to construct an engaging antagonist after Heath Ledger’s Joker set the bar so ridiculously high is a testament to both the actor and the director’s skills.
2. The Film Understands the Power of Symbols
I started writing this portion of the post and before I knew it I had about 1,500 words on the importance of symbols in the superhero genre. To spare a large degree of exposition I will simply state that symbols are important and uniquely embedded in the comic form in ways that are not present in other mediums. Consequently there is always a danger when a comic book property is brought to film that something might be lost. Nolan and the film’s producers clearly understand the significance of iconography and the way it creates meaning for superhero stories and use it effectively.
The entire franchise can be seen as a meditation on the role of heroes and villains and how society needs these symbols in order to inspire and challenge us. When Harvey Dent becomes Two Face and the people of Gotham need a hero, Batman willingly become the villain so that Dent can be restored. It doesn’t matter if its true, but that people have something to inspire them.
This is most explicitly demonstrated in DKR when Batman’s symbol burns on the top of the bridge, letting the people of the isolated city know that there defender had returned to them. While there were numerous moments in the film where the audience started applauding, that image received the most sustained and enthusiastic reception in the theater.
Additionally this understanding of the import of symbols also serves an additional function that helps maintain the necessary suspension-of-disbelief. In the comics the fundamental ludicrousness of a man dressed like a bat to fight crime is downplayed by the nature of the art and way the story is read. In film that potential for silliness is harder to disguise as the character must move and talk. Christian Bale’s performance has sometimes been mocked – even by fans of the films – for his gravely voice. The problem is not in him specifically, but that all of the actors who have donned the cowl have invariably look a little comedic.
The difficulty is compounded in Nolan’s franchise because unlike the other directors, he has attempted present the Dark Knight in a hyper realistic world. In a world that could very well be our own, a man in a bat suit is even more ridiculous then in Tim Burton’s gothic imagining, or in Joel Schumacher’s campy black-lit Gotham. The film’s reinforcement of the importance of symbols subsequently downplays this threat to the viewer’s giving themselves over to the film, by reminding us that it’s not important what or who Batman is, but what he represents. An actor in a suit can be mocked, but a symbol of something bigger and more inspiring is not so easily dismissed.
Legacy and heritage are probably two of the most central themes in the DC universe. The idea of mantels being passed from generation to generation is not only deeply embedded in the company’s mythos, but also mirrors the nature of the comic book fandom throughout the decades. Therefore, Nolan’s decision to pass role of protector of Gotham City from Bruce Wayne to Blake (Joseph Gordan-Levitt) was a necessary step in the conclusion of the story and no doubt resonated with longtime fans of DC comics.
However, the introduction of an actual sidekick was dangerous to the overall quality of the movie and ran the risk of being unbelievably cheesy if not handled correctly. So I think it was an excellent decision by Nolan to have Robin in the film and assume Batman’s roll, but not actually have him don a costume and fight side by side with the Dark Knight. There was just too much potential for cliché and might have been enough to shatter the credulity of many viewers.
More to come in the future. Thoughts?
As a necessary postscript to this piece, I must send my deepest condolences to the families and victims of the terrible shooting in Aurora, Colorado.