The Dark Knight Rises has been out for about 10 days, so most of you have probably seen it by now (if not, what the hell’s stopping you?). That means we get to talk SPOILERS, and that means it’s time for us to look back at the top 10 things that made the film great.
OK, so when I say us, I obviously mean me. We don’t always agree on things here at NerdBastards (check out some of the arguments we’ve had on Twitter for proof), and Jeremy and Jason have already hit you with their thoughts on the film with a Bastardcast that I very much recommend you listen to. You should also know that this isn’t an attempt to dispel criticisms of the film. I’m not one for berating other critics for disagreeing with me, or for saying they’re “wrong” about a work of art (at least, not very often). As my review clearly conveyed, I loved the film, and while I’ll probably notice a flaw or two a bit later, right now I’m still in love with it. I’m in love with the acting, the photography, the scope of the thing. So in that spirit I’m using this space to highlight the 10 things about the film that worked best for me. With all that out of the way, let’s get to the goods.
Oh, and in case it wasn’t already clear to you, it should be noted that this will contain MAJOR SPOILERS from the entire film. If you haven’t seen it, you won’t want to read this.
(Oh, and this will be in chronological order, so don’t expect any ranking.)
The Opening – After the ultimate flashbang of The Dark Knight, and after Joss Whedon blew us all away with The Avengers, Christopher Nolan had to get our attention in the opening minutes of his final Batman film. He did it by taking us out of Gotham and off of solid ground. But the aerial kidnapping was about more than a display of awesome practical effects power in the ultimate age of CGI. It was the Arrival of Bane, a daring showcase of ultimate and almost inconceivable power. It was taking the destructive force of The Joker and ratcheting up to even more devious proportions. And it would only get bigger from there.
Bane – The movie doesn’t work without Bane. Last time the film hinged on The Joker, and Heath Ledger knocked it out of the damn park, and then some. That means a few things. One, everyone went into the movie wondering how in the hell Tom Hardy was going to top what Ledger did. Two, Christopher Nolan was faced with the challenge of raising the stakes of the hero vs. villain dynamic without making it simply about explosions. And three, it meant Bane absolutely had to drive the movie, because if he didn’t it would look like Nolan was cheating. While any comparison with Ledger’s performance will almost certainly not turn out well, Hardy turned in a masterful performance from behind that spidery metal mask. His body had the lumber and swagger that you’d expect from someone so physically dominant, he maintained a constant intensity in his eyes, but the thing that really sold it for me was the voice. Some people found it jarring, and I think there were a few who even found it funny, but for me it only enhanced how monstrous he was. That might not be the last thing you expect to come out of that dude’s mouth, but it has to be close. The grandiose, often hugely melodramatic pronunciations of Bane were such a startling juxtaposition to his imposing physicality that it only made it him more intimidating. There’s that powerful moment when a man in his grasp asks simply “What are you?” I was thinking the same thing.
Catwoman – My God did Anne Hathaway kill this. She managed to throw in everything you want in a good Selina Kyle: sexuality, wry humor, vulnerability, determination, a fascination with the power of Batman and a terrifyingly graceful set of ass-kicking skills. She was just brilliant.
Alfred – Michael Caine has always been one of the great joys of this trilogy, and this was his crowning achievement as Alfred Pennyworth. He was funny, he was smooth, he was Alfred, but then things took a very deeply emotional turn, and after everything he’d been through alongside Bruce, he had to walk away. It’s here that Caine reveals he might be the best actor in the cast. In one scene, he completely pivots the emotional tone of the movie. And then there’s his final moment, which ranks among the more heartwarming things I’ve ever seen in a superhero film.
John Blake – If there’s a character that absolutely had to work other than Bane and Batman, it was John Blake. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the perfect blend of vulnerability and strength as this Gotham cop who longs to be something more than just a cog in the machine. He had to work not only because he had an important role to play in Gotham’s salvation, but also because, for Nolan, he represented the next phase of the Batman symbol. He succeeds on both counts, and even pulls off a couple of speeches that could have seemed hokey in the hands of another actor.
The Bat – I really don’t have any deep analysis here, but damn that was a neato flying contraption, wasn’t it?
Bane vs. Batman – One of the overriding memories I have of my press screening of this film is centered on Bane and Batman’s brawl in Gotham’s sewers. I was sitting next to a couple of fellow comic book geeks, and when Bane lifted Batman over his head we all held our breath. When he dropped him over his knee we all winced, and one of my fellow viewers whispered “Oh my God, he did it.” This was the oft-rumored iconic Batman comic book movie playing out on the screen, with brutal effectiveness.
“Why do we fall?” – The central theme of the first Nolan Batman film came back in a big way here as we watched Bruce Wayne execute the ultimate pick-up. It brought the trilogy full circle, and it made a cohesive superhero story the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Gotham in Winter – Unlike Tim Burton, who simply used a wintry Gotham as a cool set piece, Nolan offered it up as a bit of extra thematic oomph. We get to see Gotham in the winter of its discontent, under the thumb of Bane and wilting without the light of its savior. It’s a powerful visual centerpiece.
The Ending – This is the one I’ve been building to, again because of something that happened in my screening of the film. A group of very obvious comic book geeks were sitting behind me, and they seemed to enjoy the movie for the most part. When the movie ended, though, one of them just was not having it. After it was revealed that Bruce Wayne had given himself a trap door out of the Batcowl, and that he was off living a happy life abroad while John Blake found new purpose in the Batcave, the whole auditorium applauded, except for this chick 9and maybe a couple of others, but they weren’t closer enough to hear). As the credits rolled, she launched into a diatribe about how that ending was completely disrespectful to Batman. “Superheroes don’t just give up their title,” she said. “None of them ever do that! Not Batman, not Spider-Man, not Superman, NO ONE!.” Nolan’s solution to his saga, for her, was a slap in the face to comic book lore. While a simple search of comic book history will reveal that many superheroes have at least attempted to give up their mantles at some point or another, and Batman himself has had to pass the mantle off to someone else for a time at least twice (three times if you count Batman Beyond), that’s not really the point I want to make here. There’s a longer explanation for why I’m just fine, even happy, with Nolan’s ending, and I’ll get to that, but first I want to offer a simple explanation, a simple reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman couldn’t and shouldn’t rely on comic book convention for its ending.
Comic book superheroes are immortal.
It’s that simple. We’re talking about creations who appear in thousands of stories over hundreds of issues for decades at a time. They might fade away, but they never burn out. Hell, even Uncle Ben has popped up in other universes since his death early in the life of Spider-Man. It’s an advantage of the form. You can kill and resurrect your darlings as many times as you want.
The Nolanverse doesn’t work that way. Rachel Dawes is dead. So is Harvey Dent. So is Joe Chill. So are all of The Joker’s victims. Even Ra’s al Ghul missed out on immortality in this universe. The issue of Bruce Wayne’s own mortality was never really going to come up until the saga concluded, but one thing Nolan has always made abundantly clear is that being Batman is hard. He’s fought for years to appear as more than a man, but at the end of the day he’s an aging dude with a bum knee who feels obligated to go back out and make another go of it against a gigantic madman who promptly breaks his back. Then he has to spend his days convalescing in a prison where a guy “fixes” his back by pounding it into place with his fist, then he has to climb out of that joint, and then he has to come back and fight the guy who caused all the trouble once more. Just thinking about it is enough to make me want to go back to bed.
So, in a cinematic universe where we’re supposed to deal with the minimum amount of suspension of disbelief, we’ve got a guy pushed to his absolute physical limit, who knows he’s at the end of his rope and creates a way out for himself. He saves the day and retires to spend time with his hot cat burglar girlfriend. You can’t blame him for that, and it all makes sense when you consider the physical parameters of Nolan’s universe. But there’s a more important reason why it had to end that way.
Nolan was very heavy-handed and very obvious with the central theme of The Dark Knight Rises‘ final act, because he wanted to make sure you all understood: Batman is not about the man behind the mask. Yes, Bruce Wayne’s story is the central element, and yes Bruce Wayne will forever be Batman to all of us, but in a more real-world sense Nolan was saying something to us about the nature of heroism. The man who saves the city can be anyone with the determination and the sacrifice to do it. First it was Bruce Wayne, now it’s John Blake. The important thing to take away from it isn’t that Bruce Wayne is no longer Batman in this world. The important thing to take away from it is that, in this world where bones break and people die, Batman never will.
And finally, because people won’t stop asking me, I have to talk about a possible future here. Nolan’s made it clear that he’s walking away, he’s done, but he certainly left open the option for a Gordon-Levitt-centric vigilante flick to follow. I don’t know where (if anywhere) Warners will take that, but I will say that it’s fertile ground. While I don’t want Levitt to be Batman, he would certainly make a hell of a Nightwing.