Saturday, August 4, 2012

Watching The Dark Knight Rises From the Heart

Scott D. Parker

I read Jay’s take on The Dark Knight Rises on Thursday (read it now) and agreed with a lot that he said. We saw the same film, but I think we left with a different emotional impact. 

When I enter a movie theater to see a film for the first time, I rarely bring my brain. Other than my eyes and ears, I bring the one thing that suits me best for watching a movie: the heart. In this way, I allow the filmmakers to envelop me in their world, with all of its sights, sounds, and storytelling. It takes a pretty drastic film** to bring out my brain and start fussing over the details. It was with my heart that I watched John Carter this past spring and was so enthralled with the world of Barsoom that I overlooked its flaws. Yes, I saw them on subsequent viewings but that did little to change how I felt about the film when I first saw it in the theater. Ditto for many of my favorites films throughout the years. Sure, I can snark on and on about how so many bad choices were made with Return of the Jedi, but, when I sat down and re-watched it again recently with my boy, I became 13 again. (Well, I was 97% a thirteen year old; I still cringe with some of Han Solo’s antics.)

To date, I have seen The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) only once. In the week leading up to the film, I re-watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight because, after I had seen the third installment, there would never again be a time when TDKR would be new and unexpected. Oh, and SPOILERS abound here, so, like Jay wrote on Thursday, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled, bookmark this page and come back later. Bookmark his, too.

The trailers for TDKR pretty much indicated something I suspected: that Batman would not survive. When Batman responds to Selina Kyle’s comment “You have given them everything,” with his own “Not everything. Not yet.” I pretty much guessed—no, expected—Batman not to survive. So I was ready. As good as it is to watch/read a big story with a hero you know will survive (Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Frodo, every other superhero film), when you have a story in which your main character either dies of sacrifices himself (Batman, Harry Potter), the stakes are raised.

And my heart swells. It grows inside of me and gets me so wrapped up in the story that I let the narrative just sweep me along. That’s how I got with TDKR. This story is Big. As Jay pointed out, director Christopher Nolan aimed for the stars with this film. He wanted an epic and he delivered one. We can quibble about the details, but the epic size of the film—no, of the entire trilogy—was monumental. Let’s also note that the scope of his trilogy was enhanced greatly by the death of Heath Ledger. The actor’s death gave an exaggerated quality to that second film that was more than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong: had Ledger lived to see the film open, word of mouth would still have made its way to non-comic book folks to get them to see the film, it just may not have been the groundswell it actually was.

Back to TDKR. Jay is astute in his observations on the new movie. Gary Oldmans’s Commissioner Gordan and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake do provide the everyman quality to this story that you don’t normally get. Now, up until now, I didn’t really care that I didn’t have it because, you know, this is about the billionaire Bruce Wayne and all of his rich friends. Perhaps it’s a testament to Nolan’s craft is that he gave me something I didn’t know I wanted. I really, really enjoyed Gordon-Levitt’s role in this film, where he came from and why he did what he did. I could watch an entire film about Officer Blake (Gotham Central anyone?) and be happy. Tom Hardy’s Bane was a good adversary to Batman from a physical standpoint. Hey, he broke Batman’s back, didn’t he? And, yes, he lacked the intellectual capacity from the comics (I was a little disappointed that Bane was, like in “Batman and Robin,” just the muscle), but he physically commanded the screen for me. Whereas Joker, in The Dark Knight, talked on and on about anarchy, Bane was putting it into effect, and that proved quite scary. Michael Caine was called on to remind the audience of the tragic origin of Bruce Wayne-as-Batman. Yes, he cried a lot, but he was supposed to cry a lot. He failed, in his mind, Bruce’s parents and failed to keep the darkness away from Bruce. I think I’d be crying, too.

Another thing Jay finds lacking in TDKR is sub-text. Since all the characters stop what they’re doing and tell the audience how they feel, there’s no room for subtlety. There’s no room for the minds of the audience to put two-and-two together, to think on a line of dialogue or a character action later, while driving home from the theater, and then have that spark of understanding. Tis true, I’ll agree, but this is, after all, a giant comic book movie. Harry Potter, Frodo, Luke Skywalker: they all talk about what they’re going to do and then go do it. I didn’t have a problem with the characters in TDKR doing the same thing. It allowed me to experience the film viscerally rather than intellectually, and allowed me to get wrapped up in the final scenes with all the emotional baggage that had crept into me in the first two hours and the first two movies. 

And I loved the ending, the one with Alfred sitting in that European restaurant, and seeing what he saw: a happy Bruce Wayne, a smiling Bruce Wayne, that had finally emerged from the darkness of his parents’ murder and the darkness of Batman that threatened to engulf him and destroy him from the inside. And, yes, my tears flowed. 

Because finally, a superhero story ended. Don’t get me wrong. I love comics and read the new ones and re-read the old ones, but it’s great to have an ending. And it was a happy ending. It’s a good thing, too, because this trilogy is very “of its time,” that is, dark, almost oppressively so. Which is why I so reveled in the ending. The bright, sunlit ending of a great trilogy and a very good movie.
There will be another Batman and he’ll have to live in the shadow of this interpretation, and, either way, I’ll be there, in that theater, waiting for the new Batman film. There will also be time enough to re-watch The Dark Knight Rises and pick it apart from a structural, writerly standpoint. Heck, even I, in the theater, said to my wife, “Now, just how did Bruce get himself across the ocean to Gotham from that prison cell?” (I didn’t dwell on it because the entrance was awesome.) But for now, I am basking in the thrilling, emotional, heartfelt conclusion to this version of Batman.

**Lest you think I’m a deluded Bat-fan, I nearly walked out on “Batman and Robin” back in 1997. I didn’t, but it was years until I saw it again. And lest you think I think Batman should only be dark, far from it. Two cases in point: One, the old stories from the 1970s I’ve been reading. Batman is still a brooding figure, but he smiles, he has a bit of a sense of humor (current New 52 version doesn’t), and much of the emotional baggage is not present. Two, I absolutely love the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon from 2008. All the humor, all the corniness, all the flat-out fun of a comic book that is alive and moving. I really, really hated that it was cancelled to make room for—yet another—dark interpretation. Sigh.


David Cranmer said...

Sharp, insightful review. I'll probably see this film many moons from now but am looking forward to it.

Scott D. Parker said...

Dude. Why'd you read the piece if you haven't seen the film yet. The ending was spoiled.