“Don’t be afraid.” Those were the dying words of Thomas Wayne, said to his traumatized young son after being shot behind a theater by a thug named Joe Chill. The scene in Batman Begins resonates anew with eerie irony – and hopefully, a little inspiration – one day after the opening of The Dark Knight Rises and the tragedy in Aurora. Despite the terror felt nationwide following the violence in Colorado, and even in spite of it, moviegoers packed into multiplexes yesterday to watch the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies. And now, you have questions, opinions, quibbles, praises, and many other things to say about this heavy superhero spectacular – particularly the way it ended.
So let’s talk about it. Fearlessly.
And with a massive amount of detail… which is to say, SPOILER ALERT!
Seriously: If you have not yet seen Rises, STOP READING NOW. Because we’re not holding back on anything, beginning with…
THE FINAL FATE OF BATMAN, PART ONE
The Dark Knight’s Golden Parachute Retirement Plan
What happened: To save Gotham City from nuclear incineration, Batman (Christian Bale) jumped into his newest high-tech military grade vehicle – a flying machine dubbed The Bat – and towed an unstoppable ticking bomb into the sky and out to sea. KABOOM! The Bat went up in ‘shrooming smoke. In the aftermath, the caped crusader was declared deceased, as was his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, who was believed to have been killed during Bane’s (Tom Hardy) riotous war on Gotham’s wealthy and elite. But that’s what Bruce wanted Gotham to think; in truth, he bailed out of The Bat before it went BOOM! We last saw Bruce at an outdoor café in Italy, enjoying the company of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and quietly toasting Alfred from a nearby table, thus fulfilling his guardian’s happily-ever-after dream for him. Bruce was finally freed from the pain of the past, from the self-destructive enterprise of Batman, from the ghosts and ghouls of Gotham. Or, to paraphrase Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities: It’s a far, far better thing than I do than I’ve ever done; it is a far, far better European vacation that I go to than I have ever known.
Reaction: With Rises, we got a superhero story that ended with a superhero deciding that the life of a costumed vigilante – no matter how needed or noble – was really no kind of life at all. Fancy that. The Dark Knight series was ultimately rather ambivalent about its iconic protagonist; the message seems to be that Batman was a flawed fix for a culture in crisis. Yes, he represented great values – perseverance; incorruptibility; justice. But Batman was a vigilante. Not acceptable. And Bruce Wayne was a damaged man who felt like a monster and so he acted like one. Playing this perverse part kept him trapped in a pit of anger and despair that he needed to escape. Batman brought hope to corrupt Gotham – but Bruce degraded himself each time he put on the suit. Not good. And no more.
Question: Were you bugged by the fake-death chicanery?
THE FINAL FATE OF BATMAN, PART TWO
The Cowl Is Passed
What happened: Bruce Wayne left his Batman legacy – suits, stuff, and subterranean HQ – to disillusioned ex-cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The final moments of the film saw Blake swinging into The Batcave and riding a rising platform filled with cabinets containing all of Bruce’s secrets. Sly in-joke: John’s legal first name? “Robin.”
Reaction: Smart, surprising, satisfying.Very V for Vendetta, too. Nolan and his writers began setting up the idea that Batman is a transferable title in Batman Begins, when Bruce explained his theory that Batman should be a cultural symbol that transcended the man behind the mask. Rises paid it off nicely. The story was Bruce’s final chapter and Blake’s origin story. Sneaky-neat. Can’t wait to watch the movie again to better track that arc.
Question: Does this mean that Gordon-Levitt (who was excellent) is about to get his own Batman franchise? Our sources say: No. Which means we’ll never get an answer to our other burning question: Will Blake keep Batman’s name? Or might he rechristen himself Nightwing?
THE TRUTH ABOUT BANE
What happened: The first two acts of Rises presented the film’s primary force of antagonism as an ideologically-driven revolutionary bent on bringing power to the people by forcing it on them – and by slaughtering the corpulent blue bloods of Gotham City. The big twist? Bane didn’t really give a crap about anyone, plebes or princes. He also wasn’t his own man. Bane was just a jacked-up puppet, acting on orders from – and out of love for – Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a.k.a. Talia al Ghul. She’s the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), whose League of Shadows tried to destroy Gotham City in Batman Begins, because they had deemed it corrupt and fallen. Basically, Talia wanted to finish her father’s work – and avenge his death.
Reaction: The whiplash turn brought the saga full circle, and rightly brought the larger-than-life lout down to human-scale size – but too much so. And his death – he was blasted by Catwoman with a projectile from the Batpod – felt anti-climactic. Bane deserved to be more interesting than he turned out to be.
Questions: Did you wonder during the movie if Bane was going to be revealed to be someone we knew? At one point, I had convinced myself that Bane was actually Ra’s al Ghul, reanimated and reconstructed with bionics and stuff. As for the rogue’s much talked about voice, I enjoyed the arch garble that Tom Hardy developed for the character, even when I didn’t totally understand it. I bet Bane could do a wicked funny Goldfinger impression. No, Mister Wayne, I expect you to die!
THE PLEASANT SURPRISE: CATWOMAN
Going into Rises, fanboys and media types were skeptical that Anne Hathaway had the chops and presence to cut it as Catwoman. Let the haters eat crow. The Rachel Getting Married Oscar nominee made for a cool and credible femme fatale/anti-hero, and better, she brought some refreshing levity to a movie that really needed it.
FINAL THOUGHT: THE SUBTEXT (Updated, expanded on 7/22)
Much has been written about the Batman movies being allegories for the war on terror and other aspects of post 9/11 America. Rises certainly strummed those chords. But the marketing materials suggested we’d also get a story that tapped other charged currents, from revolutionary unrest in the Middle East to the “Occupy” protest against economic inequality and injustice. Some tried to frame the Batman vs. Bane conflict as class warfare writ gothic, a dark fantasy riff on the clash between the 1% (greedy playboy billionaires like Bruce Wayne) and the 99% (the pissed-off everyone else, repped by Bane and his minions).
I’m still trying to make sense of these themes as they were presented in the film. Bane’s switch from self-righteous agent of judgment to Talia-whipped puppydog muddied his metaphorical meaning. The revelation that he was aligned with the League of Shadows – self-appointed judges of civilization, who believe it is their duty to raze unworthy societies – rendered him more fundamentalist-terrorist than revolutionary. Like Ra’s and the Joker before them, Bane and Talia were dark mirror twins to horror-forged, fury-fueled Batman/Bruce. They had no faith in Gotham to change for the better, and refused to give Gothamites the freedom to fumble toward it. Off with their heads!
It takes a willful misread of Nolan’s Bruce/Batman – or forgetfulness about the character’s backstory and trilogy arc – to assert that he’s some kind of jackbooted stooge of the upper crust. Still, Bruce was willing to let “Bruce Wayne” – meaning, the vacuous, selfish billionaire he played in public – be counted among Bane’s victims. Even Bruce wanted that guy dead. Rises does lean toward the 99%. One moral of the story seemed to be that the 1% can and should do more to build the better world we all want (or should want) – and if they don’t, there will be a reckoning, sooner or later, justified or not.
Bruce clearly got the message. In the end, Thomas Wayne’s wayward, wastrel son redeemed the family name and legacy of sacrifice and service – remember that Bruce’s father used his resources to fight poverty and build civic projects that benefited everyone, high and especially low – by turning his mansion into an orphanage. The Wayne Manor Home For The Spiritual Reconstruction Of Damaged Young Men. He also gave his heart to Selina Kyle, the film’s counter-culture archetype. I found it interesting that Catwoman – who lived close to the street among downtrodden women and made her living by fleecing wealthy men – was allowed to have it both ways: She got to play for Bane and sock it to the rich; and she got to be the one who took him down for good when his (bogus) revolution went scary-rotten. She was never punished for her sins, because the movie’s perspective is that she wasn’t wholly responsible for her sinfulness. Gotham failed her. Who’s apologizing for that? Ergo, screw Gotham. The movie clearly loves her – and wants the love of anyone who identifies with her.
Similarly, there’s the significance of Bruce’s hand-picked next-gen Batman: John Blake, a poor orphan, not a rich one; who went from being The Man (i.e., a cop) to an alienated everyman betrayed by the law he once swore to uphold; a man of the people, now the people’s hero.
But still: A vigilante. And so the strange cycle goes.
Admittedly, this is all fuzzy, prickly murk. But I have enjoyed picking through it. Where I find meaning in this trilogy of Batman movies – but not comfort – is in their tone. The Dark Knight cycle has captured the unease of our times – the post-traumatic stress of so much catastrophe; the ominous dread that there’s more and maybe worse to come; the worry (and denial) that we’re handling the whole thing wrong and becoming worse for it. It was all brilliantly jittery. And like Bruce Wayne, I’m ready to leave the dark night behind and make a better, truer future.
Especially if it begins in an Italian café with a hot cat burglar.
Your turn. What did you think of The Dark Knight Rises?