Gotham's reckoning: a discussion of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises

In a Waffle House on highway 95 in South Carolina (not far from Myrtle Beach), I sat down with W, a 21-year-old film major of USC, to discuss The Dark Knight Rises over coffee and cheese eggs with raisin toast.  We mention some spoilers, so this post is meant for those who have seen the film.

FD: Did you like the movie?

W: Uh huh.

FD: Why?

W: Because it successfully concluded the trilogy, and most three parters don't, except Toy Story 3 (2010).

FD: Tell me about the James Bond correspondences.

W: As we learned from Inception (2010), Nolan loves Bond films. There's a very Bond-esque giant winter fortress in Inception with its own paramilitary. The Dark Knight Rises strongly resembles The World is Not Enough (1999), since they both involve a bald villain who takes the fall for a scheming society lady. Also, like Bane, this man constantly feels pain, and there's also the stealing of a radioactive bomb.  Also, Fox (Morgan Freeman) resembles Q in the way he likes to show off the hero's new toys. The opening scene of TDKR resembles many aerial hooks of the Bond films.

FD: What of Bane in the comic books?

W: In the comics, Bane wasn't constantly in pain. He does break Batman's back however.

FD: Didn't you find Bane mere macho fodder for the professional wrestling-loving masses?

W: No. He brought a certain revolutionary speaker vibe to the movie.  He knows how to inspire people, so he's more than someone who just hits people for the sake of it.  He always had a plan. It's important that Batman has a villain who can fight him physically.

FD: Why?

W: The previous villains like the Joker and the Scarecrow are more interested in scheming, mind control, and being chaotic for the sake of it. Bane can both fight and scheme.

FD: Didn't you find his fights with Batman kind of tedious?

W: No, well maybe the second one.  Nolan has gotten so much better at directing action. I also liked seeing Batman get the crap get kicked out of him. The lack of a score in that scene gave it more weight. The second big fight scene might suffer from repetition and the viewer's relative exhaustion at that point.

FD: I had a problem with Bane's plausibility. Why does he set up a social experiment in which he obliges Gotham to enact its own small French Revolution, since it all proves a moot point due to the bomb?  Why didn't Bane just kill Batman when he had the chance?  Bane is constantly enabling the next plot twist by leaving Bruce Wayne's options open. The Occupy Wall Street-inflected scenes such as the takeover of the stock exchange give the moviemakers the opportunity to play with our longing for economic equality.

W: The League of Shadows want to tear apart societies that have grown corrupt.

FD: Kind of like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible.

W: Yes, Bane reverses everything.  He makes a statement about the most corrupt, the most decadent--how their lives can be torn from them, while the lower classes, the shoe polishers, the construction workers can take over.

FD: If that's the case, why threaten to blow them up?

W: Bane mentions to Batman that there can't be true despair without hope, and so he builds up the city's hope even as he retains the same goal of destroying it.

FD: Doesn't that make the populist impulse pointless?  It seems to me that all of The Tale of Two Cities aspects, the class tension, all of Bane's talk of "Courts will be convened, spoils will be enjoyed, blood will be shed" is mostly in there to help with the trailer.

W: It's a way for him to create this big hullabaloo and then destroy it.

FD: I guess what I'm wondering about is--does the film really seem to care about populist themes at all, or are they marketing window-dressing for a standard James Bond plot?

W: If that's the case, it's incredibly interesting visceral window-dressing. Bane inspires people to join him.  He puts the whole society of Gotham in this apocalyptic light. It's a method of control.  You're right, though. Ultimately, it's not a movie about Occupy Wall Street.

FD: It's disappointing, because then what appears to be the major thrust of the movie proves bogus.  I felt cheated. I'm probably looking for ideological depth that isn't there.

W: (Nods). It might be there, but we would need to watch the film again. To answer your second question, throughout the whole beginning of the movie, Alfred wants Wayne to retire. There's this implication that Wayne doesn't care if he dies as Batman. He's crushed by Rachel Dawes' death. Bane keeps Batman alive because he realizes that Batman doesn't fear death, so Bane has to punish him by crippling him. Then he intends to destroy Gotham as he forces Wayne to watch it on TV in the prison.

FD: Yet, to me, all of that just seems like giving Batman opportunities to come back.

W: I agree that Miranda (Marion Cotillard) should have killed him later on.

FD: These dubious motivations and plot holes don't bother you?

W: Nolan is more a filmmaker about emotion and getting you to side with certain characters instead of being a creator of clear coherent plots. In Inception, you want to see Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) deal with his wife's death. In The Dark Knight Rises, you want Batman to rise, to get back to his former glory and then disappear. What Alfred wants for him is the emotional core of the movie.

FD: Oddly, Alfred reminded me a bit of Etta Place (Katherine Ross) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  She tells her two buddies that "I won't watch you die.  I'll miss that scene if you don't mind."  In the same fashion, Alfred tells Wayne "I won't bury you. I buried enough members of the Wayne family."

W: That seems like an arbitrary correspondence. I was concerned about other plot holes.  How did Batman get into Gotham after it was sealed off? How did he get his back fixed so fast?

FD: What did you think of Batman's final resurrection?  I predicted that, based on the movie's title, that Batman would ascend into the heavens and then sit on the right side of Catwoman.

W: Toward the end of the movie, someone mentions that Bruce fixes the autopilot on the Bat.  He jumps out, and he has (I guess) Catwoman pick him up.  He and Catwoman are living on her stolen goods in Florence indefinitely. Both of them could live with the slate clean from that point on.  He becomes immortal because he doesn't have to exist.

FD: The movie begins with a memorial to Harvey Dent, and it ends with Batman's gravestone.  So, the movie is framed by memorials.

W: Yes, Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent in the second film, and he takes the fall for Gotham the second time.

FD: So, you like getting yourself emotionally involved in this movie even though intellectually you can tell there are lots of problems.

W: Yes. When you watch Batman Begins (2005) you get bogged down by the clunky action scenes, but now with Rises you can get caught up with a guy learning how to be hero.  It's hard to imagine anyone taking on all that Nolan took on (pressure from fanboys, critical expectations, multiple story strands) without leaving in some problems. When you watch the movie, you notice them, but you don't care, due to the compelling nature of Batman's situation. In The Dark Knight (2008), you don't care much about Batman, but it doesn't matter because of the Joker's intrinsic interest.

FD: Bruce Wayne's various reversals at times reminded me of Rick Blaine's (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca (1942). Rick eventually goes against all that he stood for (his isolationism, hard-boiled demeanor, refusal to sit with customers) at the beginning of the movie. Similarly Wayne begins Rises as a humorously gothic Howard Hughes-esque recluse, but almost immediately he loses all of his money, comes out of hiding, romances Miranda, gets over his leg wound, etc. Batman seems more made up of extreme oppositions and inconsistencies than other superheroes, and that may make him more interesting.

W: Yes.

FD: Would you agree that Nolan's emphasis on Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine helps make up for the loss of the Joker?

W: Mostly, the Catwoman.

FD: Why?

W: She's drawn more directly from the comic books.  She has more personality.  Her sexuality and charm puts a fun spin in a movie lacking  that kind of playfulness. She acts real timid as a maid until Wayne figures out that she's a thief and then she abruptly changes persona when she  escapes from the manor. She plays a victim screaming in a bar to disguise her role in that violent situation. She has that Oliver Twist/Robin Hood kind of subversiveness.

FD: Any last thoughts?

W: This series makes cash grabs like The Amazing Spider-Man look terrible, because in the latter there's no passion in the moviemaking, and the villain (the Lizard) is so predictable and stupid. You can directly compare this film to The Avengers, which is all about fan service, a charming romp. Joss Whedon is good at making witty, focused, and (at least initially) intimidating movies. The Dark Knight trilogy is all about putting an emotional, character-driven, and darker spin on the superhero genre. I like Batman more than any of those heroes because he has gravitas, he's complicated, an anti-hero--a vigilante in a more real-world scenario.


Richard Bellamy said…
Liked the conversation here, FilmDr. This is a long film that manages to keep the pace lively for most of its length, and I love what Nolan shows us. I agree with W's final exchange. The Amazing Spider-Man is vapid in comparison with Nolan's film. In addition, The Avengers is merely a "romp" in relation to The Dark Knight Rises.
Thanks, Hokahey, One can defend The Amazing SpiderMan's acting and direction, and I really liked the playful way in which the various superheroes interacted in The Avengers. I look forward to your review of The Dark Knight Rises.
Paul Duane said…
Two quotes that made me think: "It's hard to imagine anyone taking on all that Nolan took on (pressure from fanboys, critical expectations, multiple story strands) without leaving in some problems."

And the one about "fan service".

My own particular issues with Nolan's films don't usually take on board this sort of thing so I welcome the greater understanding it brings.
Yes, I never thought much about fan service concerns until I talked with W. I find it interesting how critics have swung from total praise (initially) to mostly blasting the film now. Nolan delayed the $250 million production just so Marion Cotillard could participate. If nothing else, he knows how stars can make such a driven beast of a film more sympathetic and likable. One critic blasted Alfred's character for his consistent weepiness, but it's not anyone. It's Michael Caine showing us his sensitive side, so that makes any sentimentalism much more acceptable and engaging. As Bruce, Christian Bale seems way more human here than he did in The Dark Knight.
Bane Capital said…
I think that the "fan service" label cheapens what Whedon does. Obviously not everyone who saw the Avengers was a fan of the comics or had seem all (or most, or even any) of the earlier Marvel films. I suppose that it could've been service for Whedon fans, but everyone knows we'll eat up everything he does anyway.