Christopher Nolan unleashes the final installment of his brooding Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, this weekend. Amid the fanfare (and the tragedy), J.H. Ramsay reflects on a series which has invigorated an old story, and a film which deftly ends the legend.
Dir. Christopher Nolan
In May 1939, Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Batman. Writer Finger and artist Kane, second generation American Jews, likely had no idea what they had started with the publication of Detective Comics #27. They probably thought it was a one-off shot in the dark. They likely expected their cheesy, underwear-clad, masked character to throw some punches, bring in some bucks, and fade into obscurity. No one was looking for immortality in that early, golden age of comics. Heroes were expendable, a fad for kids sure to fade. None of the writers or artists or editors or producers were trying to create high literature that would persist through the ages.
But for Kane and Finger, that’s what happened. Somehow, just two years out of college, they became responsible for the creation of an American icon. And that’s how we got to where we are today. 73 years later, we’ve arrived at Christopher Nolan’s masterful The Dark Knight Rises, itself quite iconic.
Christian Bale reprises his role, for one last time, as ‘The’ Batman in this final stretch of Nolan’s trilogy. It has been eight long years since Bruce Wayne last donned the cowl and cape. He walks with a cane. His doctor shows him x-rays of knees and joints devoid of cartilage. For some reason he grew a scraggly goatee. Basically, he’s out of the game. And Gotham City likes it that way. After the events of The Dark Knight (2008), Batman took the fall for the deaths of several cops and the district attorney. To everyone but the wily police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and inquisitive rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the guy’s a fugitive and a terrorist.
But now there’s a new threat, and it’s the perfect opportunity for Gotham to get its hero back. Bane (Tom Hardy), a notorious mercenary, has taken up residence in the city’s sewers. He’s building an army, killing a lot of people, and generally causing havoc. So Bruce finally gets to shake off the dust and get back in the action. But he’s not the only one dressing down in black.
Thrown into the mix is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the ethically enigmatic, high-heeled jewel thief, better known to DC fans as Catwoman (although it’s worth noting that Nolan chooses never to mention that alter ego). Kyle is sometimes on Batman’s side, and sometimes not. She kisses him twice, and only really betrays him once. So probably statistically she’s more of a good guy than a villain. But still, you know, ethically enigmatic and all that.
The appeal of Batman, I think, has always been in his Rogue’s Gallery of villains. The writers of Detective Comics and Batman have always exploited a common pool of recurring maniacs and murderers, finding new ways to combine and recollect them. Brilliant writers like Jeph Loeb, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Frank Miller were experts at throwing vivid new arrangements of familiar characters against Batman. I’m happy to say that Christopher Nolan has the heart and mind of a comic book writer, and knows – like Loeb, Moore, Morrison, and Miller – how to use his villains. In this film, each so perfectly fits with the next. Their combinations are logical and creative. Their integration flawless. The success of a good Batman story isn’t in the character development of Batman. It’s in the configuration of his opponents.
Hardy’s Bane is a terrifying force, so clearly more powerful and determined than Batman that much of the film you’re wringing your hands and wondering how anyone could possibly beat the guy. Hathaway’s Catwoman is appropriately attractive, but escapes the depths of sex-symbol demotion (perhaps unlike Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in 1992’s Batman Returns). She captures faithfully the timeless comic book personality – at once desirable, dangerous, unobtainable, and ferocious.
Together, this ensemble cast drives a near-perfect end to Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Sure, it gets shaky at parts. Some characters don’t get enough screen time to believably develop, and the pacing at parts (particularly in the first hour) is not exactly ideal. But make no mistake, this is a story that absorbs you, with a balance between comic-book action and serious, emotional depth – particularly in the relationship between Wayne and his triumvirate of fathers; Gordon, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) – that you will never want to end.
To say that Nolan has done justice to Bob Kane and Bill Finger is an understatement. In fact, Nolan has elevated Batman to a level of heroism and iconography that the figure has never before seen. He hasn’t just dragged the Dark Knight out of the shadows and thrown him onto the silver screen. He’s translated a superhero into mythology. I doubt that Kane or Finger could have imagined such an apotheosis.