To celebrate the joint occasion of my birthday and the release of The Dark Knight Rises, a friend and I undertook a Batman marathon, beginning with Batman Begins at 9.00 in the morning and concluding with a showing of TDKR at 4.30 that afternoon. Watching Christopher Nolan’s three films in one go was a fantastic experience. It reminded me how much fun movie marathons are, re-asserted just what a brilliant and rare film-maker Nolan is and revealed a few interesting things about his Bat-trilogy, which I’ll expand upon a little here.
Nolan’s Batman films are tough, bleak and cynical – certainly not films you’d expect to get all misty-eyed and sentimental over. That’s not going to stop me though. Watching Batman Begins I realised just how nostalgic I am for a film that was released at a pretty important time in my life. In 2005, I’d just finished university and was lucky enough to go straight into a great job. Batman Begins was one of the big three summer movies of that year (Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds were the other two) and I was exposed to it every day on my way to work courtesy of a big, brooding billboard that featured Batman swooping towards camera covered in a swarm of bats.
I saw the film on opening day and was foolish enough to pre-book a ticket for a 5.30 showing (I finished work at 5). So that meant a desperate scramble across the city to make the screening in time – which, gladly, I did. Worth the effort? No doubt. Though I had some issues with the film (I wasn’t initially taken by the first act’s non-chronological storytelling), I loved Bale’s performance as Bruce Wayne, the (now surely iconic) Tumbler chase and Nolan’s bold visual sense. I left the cinema dazzled and slightly dazed, making all that anticipation well worth while. Batman Begins remains my favourite of the three films because of that.
Begins is not just a subjective favourite though; I reckon it’s objectively the best of the trilogy too and that’s because of Bruce Wayne. In 2005, Nolan started his Batman trilogy with one goal in mind: to make a film about Bruce Wayne. Not Batman and not the villains. Plain and simple, Bruce Wayne. He achieved that with aplomb in Begins because all of his big themes (more of which later) play directly into Wayne’s emotional journey: Bruce starts out scared but eventually masters his fear and channels it into something productive.
In the sequel, however, Nolan lost track of that somewhat. The Dark Knight isn’t about Bruce Wayne – it’s not even about Batman. Nope, The Dark Knight is firmly Harvey Dent’s film, and so Wayne is pushed back into the shadows, making the centrepiece of the trilogy something of an empty shell compared with Batman Begins. Though Wayne returns to the front and centre in The Dark Knight Rises, the spectre of his parents’ deaths is largely forgotten and as a result, the film never quite punches as hard as sections of Batman Begins did.
Fear, anarchy, power… All are repeatedly referenced during Nolan’s Bat-trilogy and while I sometimes think the director’s interest in big themes overshadows his characters (the same thing happened on Inception), these films represent some of the smartest and most complex tentpole movies Hollywood has ever released.
The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the richest and most complex of the three and the idea of power the most intriguing of all the themes it explores. In the film’s first act, a confrontation between Bane and scheming businessman John Daggett ends with Bane simply placing a hand on Daggett’s shoulder to reassert his dominance over the conversation. Daggett only has money to fight back with and it proves a pitiful defence against someone of Bane’s physical prowess.
Strength wins there then, but throughout the film it’s suggested that Wayne made a mistake in becoming Batman. What could Wayne have achieved if he’d never donned the cape and cowl and instead used his fantastic wealth to fund the police force, build hospitals or, as cop John Blake points out, ensure that orphaned boys receive care beyond the age of 16? One such boy is found dead in a sewer, his death a result of his involvement in organised crime that he may have stayed away from had he been given the kind of care Wayne’s philanthropic endeavours are supposed to supply. Money well spent is what Gotham truly needed, not Batman.
The Knight of the Right
A number of critics have suggested that The Dark Knight Rises is right wing in its politics because of its nods to the Occupy movement. It’s an intriguing point and the film does indeed trade heavily in Occupy imagery, from the concluding face-off to Selina Kyle’s warning that Wayne will wonder “how you and your friends could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us”. But there’s one very important caveat. Bane and his army aren’t protestors, they’re criminals. Batman fights and defeats them because they are a danger to all society, not just its upper echelons.
The film references Occupy imagery not to draw a clear line between right and left; far from it in fact. Instead, Nolan uses the Occupy movement to muddy the water. Evil like Bane can have just cause and good intentions sometimes have negative consequences. Just look at at the end of Batman Begins, which suggests that Wayne’s creation of Batman spawned The Joker, Dent’s turn at the end of The Dark Knight or the chaos Selina causes in her pursuit of a fresh start. Life is rarely black and white.
The only way to achieve happiness is to find balance, and that’s the watchword of Nolan’s trilogy. Ra’s Al Ghul seeks to restore balance to Gotham in Batman Begins, Talia Al Ghul and Bane seek to do the same in The Dark Knight Rises and in The Dark Knight The Joker revels in the balance he and Batman share. “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you?…You… you… complete me,” he says. The Joker also has arguably the most important line of the entire trilogy when he tells Batman that “you and I are destined to do this forever.”
That is the only way true balance can be achieved. Chaos without order becomes anarchy, order without a bit of anarchy turns, in John Blake’s words, a system into shackles. The only path to success is a balance between those two binary opposites, and Bruce Wayne’s triumph at the end of the trilogy is not in beating Bane or even saving Gotham, but in finding a way to help his city and maintain a life of his own.
This is probably the single greatest flaw of Nolan’s Bat-films. In Begins, Rachel Dawes is a smart, resourceful woman who knows her own mind well enough to reject Bruce at the end of the film and move on to dating Harvey at the start of The Dark Knight. Had she continued in this vein, she’d probably be the best female character in any comic book film; sadly she didn’t. By her death in The Dark Knight, she’s just a plot device designed to tip Harvey over the edge. Forget failing The Bechdel Test; Rachel wouldn’t even be allowed to take it.
The same is true of both Miranda Tate and Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises. Tate is pure plot device for the first two acts, and when her true identity is revealed in the third act, there’s not enough time to show us who she really is beyond a few soundbites about revenge. Selina Kyle, meanwhile, seems to have been added solely to give Bruce a reason to live his life beyond Batman. Their relationship is pitifully under-written (and hugely undermined by Bruce’s earlier romance with Miranda) and Selina’s desire for a clean slate is not enough to maintain her character throughout the film, especially as she at one point steals from a man for no reason other than a petty vendetta.
Nolan hasn’t created a truly compelling female character since Memento, and while that in itself isn’t a condemning criticism, it is a huge problem in a film that has two strong women (and great actresses) in prominent roles.
This may be the most controversial of my points, and it’s one that even I myself am a little torn on, but in The Dark Knight Rises, I found Nolan’s Gotham disinteresting. Batman’s home city has become progressively more real across the three films, going from the sepia-tinted slum of Begins to New York by another name in The Dark Knight Rises. Gotham should be more. It should be a living, breathing entity eaten from the inside by the corrupt and violence it produces. It doesn’t need to be the art deco world of the Burton films, but it needs to have an element of fantasy to it, it needs to feel like a character. Nolan’s Gotham never does.
Nolan’s Batman films are cinematic landmarks that are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. But while I respect and enjoy the films, I can only say I love Batman Begins. No matter how smart, complex and culturally relevant these films are, they lack the heart that, for me at least, is crucial to all stories. That may sound overly sentimental and it may seem like heart has no place in films are as dark and gritty as these, but if you don’t care about the characters why should you care about the film?
That was a major problem as The Dark Knight Rises moved into its big finale. It’s technically brilliant, surprisingly bruising and epic on a scale rare seen, but was I on the edge of my seat? Was my heart thumping? Not really. The Dark Knight rose and rose high, but only rarely did he truly soar.