[This post contains SPOILERS. DO NOT READ if you have not seen The Dark Knight Rises. For those of you interested in my opinion of TDKR: It is a solid summer entertainer that is well-worth the entrance. However it, in ITSELF, is not a classic for the ages, in the way that The Dark Knight was.]
Of all the popular superheroes, Batman, for me, has always been the most colorless. Look at his threads, for a start. A grey-black body-suit that lacks sorely the primary colors of a Super or a Spiderman. And what about his powers? Can’t stop a speeding train with his chest. Can’t see through clothes. Can’t spin webs. Can’t feel a tingle when there is danger close-by. Sure the man has some cool gadgets and a nice car but a superhero, aah, a superhero is defined by something almost transcendentally spectacular, something that elevates him above the realms of mortal-dom. That’s why Batman always seemed to need a strong supporting cast—the riotously plumed Robin to provide some physical color and a plethora of enormously colorful villains, enough to fill up one whole Lovecraft-inspired Arakham Asylum, to provide a degree of reflected bad-assery: if some one has so many super arch-enemies, it stands to logic that he must be quite the cat’s whiskers.
It was this essential problem with the character of Batman which I felt lay at the core of why the original pre-Nolan Batman films were such a disappointment—the makers just could not make him stand. They tried. They had Robin. They roped in Alicia Silverstone at the height of her bouncy appeal. They snagged Clooney. They brought in almost all of Batman’s major nemeses and had A-listers play them. Hell, they even made Clooney’s Batman have extra-erect nipples for those who buy tickets just for these things. Yet the franchise kept sinking lower with every successive installment, with the final entry beating even Adam West’s “Same bat time, same bat channel” television-rendition of “Holy Moly Batman” in its sheer campy hilarious deliciousness.
It required the genius of Christopher Nolan to rescue Batman from this deadpool of cinematically-crippled superheroes.
The way he accomplished this was, at the heart of it, quite simple.
He defined Batman’s superpower, unique in that it did not come from genetic mutation, alien parents, a military experiment or a lab spider.
It came from his humanity.
Or more precisely from two of humanity’s most noble defining characteristics.
One is, of course, man’s continuous striving to “rise” towards something greater. “Batman Begins” chronicles the beginning of that journey of ceaseless self-improvement first through the most extreme of physical conditioning and then through the conquering of fear itself. The Dark Knight Rises takes it to a glorious conclusion in its greatest sequence,(the only one that I felt truly transcended the narrative), when Bruce Wayne, with his back literally and figuratively broken, ascends the Lazarus Pit of darkness, death and despair towards “light” and “freedom”, ironically by embracing fear again. But fear of a different sort—one that stems not from the instinct of self-preservation (what will happen to me if I fall) but from empathy (what will happen to others if I cannot make it).
Which brings us to the second super-human (with emphasis on human) characteristic of Batman.
It is this empathy, the ability to “put a coat over a scared child” as Batman so beautifully puts its, that in Nolan’s world defines a superhero.It is that empathy that makes him embrace calumny at the end of “The Dark Knight”. It is this empathy that separates Batman from his nemeses—while both he and Bane may feel “love” towards a special someone, only Batman can feel for the whole of humanity. Which is why Batman wins while Bane, despite his overwhelming physical advantage over Batman, does not. And finally it is this empathy that is shown to define John Blake, whose entry into the Bat-cave at the end symbolizes the beginning of a new superhero.
It should be against the cosmic scheme of things to write so many words about Nolan’s Batman saga and not mention the word “Joker” once. Joker, the anti-Batman, one without an iota of empathy for any human being, a Nietzschean superhuman archetype, an embodiment of the absolute evil that may not be fathomed or reasoned with, the most terrifying visage of amorality possibly captured on screen (Hannibal Lecter looks possibly Spongebob in front of him), brought to life as much as by Heath Ledger’s bravura acting as well as, regrettably, by his death. It’s the kind of character that inspires serial killers and demented nut-cases. It’s the kind of character that makes a movie a genre-bending pop-culture phenomenon.
It’s also the kind of character that also kills a franchise, since it becomes almost impossible for any subsequent installment to raise the dramatic ante even further.
Nolan tries to side-step the shadow of Health Ledger’s Joker through deliberate creative choices. Since a large part of Joker’s nightmarish-ness stemmed from the knife-slashed smile extensions on the side of his lips, the festering wounds painted over on the mouth, Nolan chooses as Batman’s adversary someone whose facial expressions remain masked throughout. He makes that someone’s dialog-delivery flat and cold, as diametrically opposite to Joker’s maniacally joyous style as possible. The expectation was that the two would be epic in their own way and not be judged against the other.
The gamble does not work.For one, the metallic echo the Vader-lite mask puts to Bane’s words do not make him any the more menacing; just difficult to decipher. Even the lines that the ear does catch never quite chills the heart as “Why so serious?” did. Shorn of the underlying drama that defines the immortal characters of cinema, Bane is quite humdrum, more the Undertaker in Khiladiyon ki Khiladi meets Rahul of Dil To Pagal Hai than anything else. Forget comparisons with the Joker, Bane has trouble standing on his own. And remember it’s not his back that’s broken.
The Dark Knight had an intriguing meta-narrative—that when fighting total evil, one has to be prepared to do that thing the evil does not expect you to do. That is, the righteous have to be more evil than evil itself, a lesson that Alfred teaches Bruce Wayne through the “burning down the forest” parable.Leaving aside the “right” or wrong” of the so-called neo-con world view, the statement was bold, and most importantly artistically well-executed.
The Dark Knight Rising too has its own meta-narrative. That being that a “storm is coming” when the dispossessed (the canonical 99%) shall overthrow the 1% that leave so little ” for us”. Of course in Nolan’s neo-conservative world-view, the revolution of the dispossessed will be a holocaust of epic proportions, resisted only by heroic symbols of authority, as we understand it—the police and altruistic multi-billionaires. Provocative.
But here is the problem. Or rather two of them.
The symbolism of the meta-narrative is so heavy-handed that you wish Nolan would play it more subtle. Yes. I got it. This is the French revolution. The gutters. The storming of the Bastille. The ground “collapsing” under the feet of civilization. And then of course the cartoonish mock guillotine court with Scarecrow as the judge, more reminiscent of a street-play than a superhero saga.
The second problem is more severe and it stems from Nolan not being consistent in the message. A French/Russian’Khmer revolution would never have as its ultimate goal, a nihilistic “Blow everything up” philosophy of the al Ghul school. I would have been happier (and allow me a bit of liberty here) if Nolan had showed that even a revolution that starts from the noblest of intentions degenerates into a bloodbath because of the very nature of retributive violence. I would have been even happier if Batman had shown some novel emotional conflict (great narratives are all about multi-layered conflicts), perhaps a realization that the existing order for which he has fought for so long may not be worth maintaining as it exists, that the super-villain is, in essence, the dysfunctional system itself.
And that he, as Gotham’s savior, need not to destroy this enemy but do something even more difficult.
Not run away with his lady love. Not die. But stay. And fight in a way he has never fought before.
That to me would have been a far more satisfactory resolution to the saga than the climax from Agent Vinod.
Maybe Nolan had just too many balls to juggle with in “The Dark Knight Rises”. There were the spectacular action set-pieces to coordinate and plan. There was Catwoman’s shapely derriere to capture. There was over-emotional Alfred’s teary-eyed Alok Nath act. There was cheerless Fox. There was the building up of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character (Justice League?). There was Bane. There was Marion Cottilard. There was the famous Nolan twist, which unfortunately, seemed less Nolan and more Anees Bazmi. There was the “fantasy” last shot (or was it?) which worked so poignantly in “Inception” (The spinning totem— does it fall or not? Do we care if we are in a dream or in reality, as long as we are with the ones we love?) but here seems formulaic and maudlin.
If only Nolan had focussed his creative energies more on the dramatic conflicts of the Dark Knight Rises rather than all these other things. If only.
It might appear, and justifiably so, that I hated The Dark Knight Rises. I did not. It had many amazing moments and is many cuts above the average big-budget summer smash-em-up. My disappointment stems from what I believe could have been done at the very end, given the genius of Nolan and given the build-up.
It would be mean-spirited though to end on a sour note. Because Nolan’s Batman’s saga does not deserve it. Yes there may have been mis-steps. Yes there have been opportunities missed. Yes the ending could have been better.
But even then it cannot but be accepted that the trilogy, in totality, is a spectacular cinematic achievement, a nearly perfect melding of commercial with the artistic, definitely the most finely nuanced and original fantasy superhero series ever,setting the bar high, very high, for those that will follow it.