Sunday, July 22, 2012

ABANDONED THEATER: Pain, the major theme of The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: There be spoilers, here. Do not read this if you have not seen the movie. MAJOR SPOILERS! OK, continue.

Every movie has someone who hates it. The Godfather, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Bladerunner. They all have naysayers and some of these haters have legitimate concerns to the “quality” of these films. I think it is safe to say they are adored and acclaimed on a critical and cultural level, though. They are great art and/or entertainment. The Dark Knight also holds a special place in critical and cultural cinematic history. While some do not like it, it has enough backing to make it an important landmark in genre film.

I have to admit, I did not anticipate The Dark Knight Rises, the third movie in this trilogy about a man who dresses as a bat, to be this divisive. The opinions are still pretty high when you aggregate them, but even the most positive reviews tend to focus on the movie’s flaws, which are undeniable, instead of its successes. They focus on its lack of Heath Ledger and the facts that it is not a game changer like The Dark Knight or Batman Begins were. So, in the spirit of refutation, allow me to take as many criticisms as I’ve read and try to debate them, culminating everything into my biggest reason why this film is the best blockbuster of the year: it flawlessly executes its major theme (Pain).

First off, the movie is not too long at 2 hours and 44 minutes. The story moves by at a clip and in the two times that I watched it, it never felt overlong or boring. If anything, Nolan could have taken more time on certain scenes and stretched the movie to 3+ hours.  While the pacing could use some ironing out, this flaw hardly ruins the movie. A lot of the emotional impact still resonates with the audience, whether it is Alfred’s pleas to Bruce or Bruce’s evolution in the Pit. The end, too, feels completely earned, in spite of the criticisms against the movie’s clunkiness. Nolan probably could use some pointers in 5-Act structure, given his Shakespearean intents, but he still knows how to craft a story as shown in the earlier Batman movies, The Prestige, Inception, ect, even going as far as to play with structure as in Memento. He knows story, but occasionally he loses sight on how to fill it. If he clunky plotting was a major problem, though, the end would not have worked. If the movie still impacts the audience in a positive way emotionally, dramatically, and thematically, then it’s pacing is moot because it still managed to work.

Now to Bane. Is Tom Hardy as brilliant as Heath Ledger in the villain role? No, absolutely not, but he doesn’t haven’t do be. He is still great, while doing something completely different than Ledger, overcoming what could have been a role-killing facial apparatus that allows his character to inhale morphine. Bane is a psychotic terrorist who represents pain and plays a significant part in Bruce’s evolution. The Joker proved to be the anti-Batman in his chaotic aspirations. Bane is the super-Batman, filled with almost supernatural strength and the ability to dole out bone-crushing blows like no other opponent Christian Bale’s Batman has ever faced. The fight scenes between these two characters are incredibly well-shot, and prove to be some of the highlights of the entire trilogy. They are brutal, a physical representation of the movie’s and the character’s themes onscreen for all to see and experience. The punches seem real, the sounds crack. When Bane bashes in Batman’s cowl, I wince. When he punches with lightning-quick blows, I suck in a breath. When he iconically breaks Batman’s back over his knee, I close my eyes. Bane’s manipulative, detached, flamboyant speech-patterns and voice stick in my head, and make a wonderful, memorable vocal performance by Hardy. Is he hard to understand, sometimes I guess, but Bale’s Batrasp (Batgrowl?) and Gary Oldman’s mumbling are sometimes hard to hear, as well. The movie requires paying attention, and in a second viewing, which I gladly sat through, all dialogue is picked up. Hardy and Nolan have pushed Bane to be the second-best villain in the series, matching Aaron Eckhart’s great all-American depiction of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.

Bane maybe the physical representation of this major theme: of pain and resurrection, but other characters have their parts to play, too. Ra’s Al Ghul died a painful death at the hands of Thomas Wayne’s train in Batman Begins, but he overcame even death to continue his plans through Bane (and Talia!). Gordon’s pain is from the guilt of using Dent’s death to lie and create the Dent Act (The Patriot Act). Alfred’s pain is from watching the person he cares about more than anyone, Bruce Wayne, constantly put himself into near-death situations. And of course there is Master Wayne himself, always pushing himself to the brink, trying to reach his limits, not fearing death. But as we see, pain is used to teach Bruce that the theme of Batman Begins, fear, what Scarecrow represented in that film and in the Batman canon, is necessary. In order to reach his true potential as a crime fighter and as a person, Batman must not use his rage to defeat Bane and the League of Shadows. Instead, he must use his own fear of failure to win out the day. Through the physical agony of having a vertebrae sticking out of his spine, through the anguish of failing and falling from climbing out of the Pit, Bruce learns the truth, and literally rises to the occasion with an apt and well-done metaphor. The speed of Bruce’s recovery stretches believability, but the intent is well-known and well-done thematically. And the Pit itself, so connected to Ra’s Al Ghul, has another theme that only Batman fans could truly pick up on: The Lazarus Pits that resurrected Al Ghul in the more supernatural, less realistic comics and cartoons.

For a movie so dire and depressing, the victories of the characters are all the brighter at the end of the film. Even with Bruce’s supposed death, the city bands together, honoring the Batman and discovering a new future, possibly with a new Batman?  These sorts of sentiments are why The Dark Knight Rises is a great ending to one of the Top 5 trilogies in cinematic history. The ending was satisfying. Bruce lives a mostly normal life, we assume, giving into Alfred’s well-intentioned and wise advice, with Selina Kyle. Jim Gordon is a patriarch for the city, respected for his sacrifices and forgiven for his trespasses. Wayne Manor will provide a real service to Gotham as a foster home for a city with an obviously many orphans. John “Robin” Blake, with the help of Bruce, finds the Batcave and is the protégé to Batman, leaving it in honorable hands.

The hints towards the movie’s 3 major twists (Bruce will give up crime fighting, Miranda Tate is Talia Al Ghul, Blake is Robin) were more obvious upon a second viewing, some being more obvious than others. Miranda is idealistic and black & white, like those of the League of Shadows when we first meet her. She is scarred physically. When the prisoners in the Pit describe Bane and “the child,” they choose their words carefully, leaving the door open for Bane to not be child, who was Talia after all. She is the brains behind the operation, which takes a bit from Bane’s importance in the wider view of things, but impacts Bruce more personally, having him being betrayed by someone he cares about and by someone so connected to his own past. When she stabs him, it shows the pain theme (emotionally and physically) pushing itself back into the forefront of The Dark Knight Rises. Bale’s face, mostly obscured by the cowl, displays such agony that he looks worse off here than he even did in the Pit. It takes Catwoman’s timely entrance to save him, which comes back at the end of the film, where she even saves Bruce from having to be Batman.

Bruce gives up crime fighting, which is not surprising given Alfred’s impassioned speech about his fantasy in Florence, where he sees Bruce Wayne with family, having moved on with his life, living normally. When Alfred’s fantasy comes to fruition, it is powerful, and earned by Nolan and his team. Everyone wants Alfred, the loveable man he is, to be satisfied. Everyone wants Bruce Wayne to be satisfied. We root for these characters.

But who will take the mantle?  How about Robin?  John Blake, played by the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt  being the heir to Batman is hinted throughout the entire movie. He is a good detective, knowing Batman’s true identity by deducing it both through personal experience and his intelligence. He is a beacon of justice and good. He hates guns, as shown when he kills the goons running the cement trucks in self-defense. He becomes disillusioned with the current justice system. He is a “hothead.” And, most of all, Batman is training him when he returns to Gotham from the Pit: Batman tells him to wear a mask to protect those he loves, shows him how to use his tools, and tells him to go be a hero by saving the children which pretty much tells him that his time to be a superhero has not arrived yet. Blake is reckless and brave, a true heir to Batman’s throne. Again, his plotline is developed and earned.

So in a movie where nearly everything is earned and developed, even the love interest between Bruce and Selina (played flawlessly by Anne Hathaway), which is 100 times better than Bruce’s relationship to Rachel in the previous films, how can this movie be anything less that good? Its flaws pale in comparison to where it succeeds. It is not the best installment to the series, and it is not a game changer to the super hero genre, like The Dark Knight was, but it is truly and utterly satisfying.

I give this film a Strong 9.


  1. I totally agree that the film's central theme is pain. It's almost three hours long for God's sake! Hardry har har.

    I'm just joking. Another great piece of writing, man.

  2. Solid review TJ. This is probably my favorite movie of the year for one reason and one reason only: it was probably, if not, the most epic piece of cinema I have seen in quite some time. Great send-off to everybody’s favorite caped-crusader, even as sad as it may be. Now it’s just time for Superman to hit that big-screen once again.