We Watched “The Dark Knight Rises”

Kevin Nguyen and Nick Martens have a lot to argue about with the new Batman film.

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Kevin: I remember having a conversation with you a couple months ago where I had said something along the lines of “I’m not really that excited about The Dark Knight Rises.” And then you told me that this would be one of those statements I look back on and realize what an idiot I am.

So I left the theater realizing what an idiot I am. I agree with the rest of the internet when I say The Dark Knight Rises was a terrific, satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

But in defense of my earlier skepticism, The Dark Knight Rises had a lot of things working against it. I’ve read a lot of Batman comics. Whereas Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were based on several of the franchise’s best series ever (Begins on Year One, The Dark Knight on The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke), the source material for Rises is incredibly lackluster. This film is based primarily on two story arcs: Knightfall, which introduces Bane, an extraordinarily bland villain with no motivation or personality and whose legacy is a single scene where he breaks Batman’s back. (This moment is iconic, but also feels unearned.) The second is No Man’s Land, an interesting but improbable storyline where an earthquake separates Gotham from the mainland, isolating the city and turning it into an abandoned war zone. No Man’s Land is by no means a bad series, but it’s also not the strongest.

I feel like the past decade’s wave of DC and Marvel films have done a good job of being broadly appealing, but have always made a point of being extra special to comics fans. But are the new Batman films a case where a familiarity with the comics actually subtracts from the experience?

Nick: Having a familiarity with source material usually hurts your appreciation of adaptations because it automatically sets you in nitpick mode, something geeks of all stripes are already prone to. I know that I enjoyed the second season of Game of Thrones less than the first because I read all the books while the show was on break. I tried to appreciate the show for what it was, but my mind still cataloged all the differences from the books, which is not a fun viewing experience. Plus, you lose the element of surprise. I haven’t read the comics you mentioned, but it’s easy to imagine why readers familiar with them would have a different and worse viewing experience than the blissfully ignorant.

One part of The Dark Knight Rises that did surprise me, though, is when Batman died. I was amazed and delighted that DC let it happen. In comics, the hero can never die because it kills the franchise (or, when they do, it’s some marketing gimmick and they bring the dude back in like three months). But for the conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, I realized the only appropriate end point was one where Bruce Wayne was not alive.

Because, really, the idea of superheroes does not make sense, and when a director delves as far into a character’s psyche as Nolan does into Wayne’s, it’s natural to question that character’s mental health. The Dark Knight Rises even made the issue explicit as Alfred pleads for his master to give up the cape (some of my favorite parts of the movie, by the way).

I felt that the film was trying to say that superhero behavior is unsustainable. For Bruce Wayne, it is basically an extreme reaction to the trauma of his past, and one that is not likely to rehabilitate his psyche. He refused to confront his issues and decided instead to engage in targeted acts of violence. This self-destructive trail leads to only one place, and it ain’t a long leisurely life with a cushy retirement in Florida. I was impressed that Nolan was willing to end his series on this somber but ultimately logical note.

So imagine my disappointment when, it turns out, Bruce Wayne was not only not dead, he was leading a calm, happy, idilic life, with Catwoman for some reason. I was suddenly very confused what kind of message the film was trying to send; I felt that it wanted to have its heavy downer cake and eat its happy ending at once. Maybe I’m projecting my desires too much and not assessing the ending the film gave us. What did you think of the ending? What did it say about Nolan’s purpose for the series?

Kevin: Actually, I liked the end a lot. It had a touch of sweetness and optimism that felt earned after three hours (or three films, really) of gloom and dread. And like all good endings to epics, it feels like a resolution as much as it does a new beginning. In fact, I was reminded of The Wire‘s finale.

But to your point, I don’t think Wayne’s survival necessarily refutes Nolan’s message about the consequences of heroism. Bruce Wayne is finally over the death of his parents, the death of Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal, and over being Batman.

Maybe the ending is more satisfying for someone who has read the comics. The romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle isn’t fleshed out over the course of Rises (though Hathaway surprisingly terrific), but throughout the history of Batman comics, she has been Wayne’s most enduring love interest. They have flings here and there, but things never quite work out because Batman’s stubborn righteousness is in constant conflict with Catwoman’s moral ambiguity. It’s only when the two of them let go of their alter egos that they can be happy together.

Luckily, I don’t think you need the context of the comics to enjoy the ending of Rises, but it certainly makes it a more pleasant surprise if you do. The ending also encapsulates what works so well about Nolan’s departures from the source material: he knows how to play with a fan’s expectations without pandering to them. The best example is when John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds the Batcave, insinuating that he will take up the reins as the new Batman. In the comics Blake is an extremely minor character with no real connection to Robin or Batman, so the reveal was a surprise to even the most dedicated DC reader.

Actually, I take that back. Nolan’s best change was his portrayal of Bane. I already complained about Bane (I forgot to mention he’s addicted to a drug called Venom ugh), but The Dark Knight Rises took a lackluster, cartoonish villain and turned him into something menacing and symbolic.

What’d you think about Bane?

Nick: Yeah, I loved the Robin twist, though I’m asking for a refund on my English major for not catching it before it was stated explicitly.

And I agree. Bane was a great villain. He was at his strongest in the scene you alluded to earlier, when he beat the crap out of Batman and eventually broke his back. Batman is an ideological character, so its important that his villains feel like they have an equally strong ethos (or, with the Joker, are defined by a complete lack thereof). I loved how that fight scene played up the contrast between Bane’s utter conviction in his beliefs and Batman’s flagging dedication. Bane felt genuinely terrifying in that moment.

Where I falter with Bane is when I try to figure out what his ideology actually is. He seems pretty much like a Marxist, since his plan is to give Gotham back to the people by isolating it from the outside world, removing the police from power, and literally putting the upper class on trial. In that vein, it even makes sense that he would use the threat of a nuclear weapon to keep threats at bay. What does not make sense is why he wanted to detonate the device. I don’t think a person who believes in the people would blow them up.

I suppose the answer to this question is that Bane actually has no ideology of his own; rather he is utterly devoted to Talia al Ghul, aka Miranda Tate, aka Marion Cotillard. Which, I think, sucks. We spend the whole movie building up fear and respect for Bane, only to have it all thrown away for a cheap plot twist and a boring-ass villain with zero character development who dies like five minutes later in a car crash.

That move felt almost cartoonishly typical of Nolan, who seems to love nothing more than making a callback to an earlier scene that changes its context (the androgynous leaping child is actually a girl! OMG!). I wonder how you feel about the impact of Nolan’s style on this series. He is certainly a talented filmmaker, able to imbue any story with an artful weightiness, but he certainly has his crutches too. Was The Dark Knight Rises too Nolan-y for you, or just right?

Kevin: I’ve seen and enjoyed every single film of Christopher Nolan’s. And yet I would not call myself a Nolanite, because that is not a word and because I don’t find him to be a terrifically compelling filmmaker. But he’s growing on me.

A lot of Nolan’s shortcomings seem to be recurring issues throughout his movies. The flashback-twist gimmick you called out is a good example, as it appears in every single one of his movies. As a writer, Nolan struggles with pacing, developing relationships between characters (he’s too busy balancing a too-large cast of familiar faces), and most egregiously — and best evidenced by Bane — an inability to give those characters meaningful motivations. Usually, they’re driven by some Freudian thing from their past, which is sometimes serviceable (Inception), sometimes forced (Memento). Sure, he’s got the tortured, introspective soul down, but that often comes across as humorless. Sadly, the most convincing characters are the dueling magicians from The Prestige who, y’know, just wanna be magicians.

As a director, Nolan has a great eye for tone and atmosphere. But dude can’t direct an action scene for the life of him, particularly fist fights, which look like they were choreographed by… whoever choreographed this.

But Nolan is getting better, and all of the complaints I just made are present but less relevant in The Dark Knight Rises. The fight between Bane, for example, is tense and ominous. Sure, the betrayal of Miranda Tate was a cheap shot, but the boyish optimism of John Blake and the conflicted survivalist in Selina Kyle are stronger ideas than we’ve ever seen from a supporting cast in a Nolan feature. (And maybe it’s to his credit for coaxing great performances out of Gordon-Levitt and Hathaway.)

Nolan’s great at building suspense and spectacle, but they take precedent over narrative, which is why his movies don’t hold up on second viewing. But as both a writer and director, I think Nolan has improved with each film. I like that his Batman series has a finite ending, but are you sad that Nolan won’t be behind the lens of another trip to Gotham? Maybe the next one could’ve been even better?

Nick: I’m glad Nolan’s run is over. Don’t get me wrong, he did a great job with the series, but I feel like he’s said about all he has to say in this genre. Besides, the trilogy is the natural size for a set of action movies, as Star Wars and Indiana Jones showed us when they gave birth to form in its modern incarnation. Any time you see a franchise pushing past the third entry, it generally signals the death of creative vision, as Star Wars and Indiana Jones showed us when they desecrated their legacies. Obviously, Batman will continue, but I’m glad we have the Nolan trilogy as a single entity that demonstrates superhero movies at their best.

But since the series will carry on without Nolan, that raises the question of who will fill his shoes. So, I ask you, who should direct Batman next?

Kevin: Good question. Who could direct a film about a deeply tortured introvert living in a sentimentalized version of New York City? 

Oh yeah. Woody Allen.