4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Victory has defeated you” — The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan wasn’t a hundred percent sure that he wanted to return to the Batman well, as he was worried that he’d lose interest. He also was struggling to come up with third films in series that were well regarded. (Just on the superhero end of things, you’ve got Superman III, Batman Forever, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Spider-Man 3 as cautionary tales.) But once he and his Bat-collaborators David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan hit on the notion of using the “Knightfall” and “No Man’s Land” storylines from the comics for inspiration for, in essence, the end of Batman’s career, he found the story he wanted to tell.

The studio was pushing for the Riddler to be the villain in the third installment, but Nolan wanted someone with a more physical presence. He focused on Bane, the antagonist in the “Knightfall” storyline from the early 1990s in which Bane broke Batman’s back, leading to first Jean-Paul Valley and then Dick Grayson wearing the cape and cowl before Bruce Wayne takes the bat-mantle back.

In addition, keeping the theme of focusing on Gotham City as a “character” in its own right in the films, Nolan took some inspiration from the chaos of the 1999 “No Man’s Land” storyline that had a major earthquake devastate Gotham.

The characters and actors who survived the last two movies all came back: Christian Bale as Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Fox, Gary Oldman as Gordon (now in his familiar post as police commissioner), Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow, and Nestor Carbonell as Gotham’s mayor, plus Liam Neeson returns as a hallucination of Ra’s al-Ghul. There are also lots of new characters, most notably Anne Hathaway as the latest iteration of Catwoman and Tom Hardy as Bane. Since Bane was originally written as Latin American (from the fictional nation of Santa Prisca, located in the Caribbean), with a costume based on luchadors (Mexican wrestlers), casting a white British dude was a bit odd, though at least this version kept Bane’s intellect from the comics. (In Batman & Robin he was reduced to a mindless monster rather than the genius of the comics.) In addition, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an idealistic GPD cop and Marion Cotillard plays a Wayne exec with a secret. William Devane appears as the president of the United States, a job that he has fictionally had several other times (The Missiles of October, Stargate SG-1, 24). Also of note to genre fans are brief appearances by Torchwood’s Burn Gorman and Stargate SG-1‘s Christopher Judge. Where Chicago was used for Gotham City in the first two movies (with Dark Knight in particular making use of the city’s underground roadways), New York City in general and Manhattan in particular substitute for Gotham in this one, as the plot requires Gotham to be an island.

Nolan was actually able to tell a complete story with these three movies, and while there could be ways to continue the saga of this iteration of Batman following the trilogy (especially with Gordon-Levitt’s character having the given name of “Robin”), it truly did come to an ending. There has never been any talk of a sequel, and the next live-action appearance of Batman on screen will be a different interpretation of the character played by Ben Affleck in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League, which we’ll be tackling down the line on this rewatch.

 

Deshi basara!

 The Dark Knight Rises
Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Produced by Charles Roven and Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
Original release date: July 20, 2012

The CIA captures an asset, a nuclear scientist named Dr. Pavel. A masked mercenary named Bane also wishes to capture him, and he is able to infiltrate the plane by pretending to be one of his own employees, “captured” by the CIA. His people crash the plane, leaving behind one of his own mercenaries as a corpse to make it look good, and take Pavel themselves.

In Gotham City, it’s been eight years since Harvey Dent’s death. In his honor, the Dent Act was passed—its exact terms are left vague, though apparently it doesn’t allow parole for mobsters, which is spectacularly un-Constitutional. Either way, the Dent Act has left Gotham’s organized crime in a shambles, er, somehow. Batman, who has indeed been blamed for Dent’s murder, has not been seen in eight years, and in that same period, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Even though he’s hosting a gala in Dent’s honor—one in which Gordon comes within a hairsbreadth of giving a speech that reveals the truth, but puts it in his pocket at the last second—Wayne doesn’t show his face.

One of the hired maids breaks into Wayne’s safe and steals his mother’s pearls. However, Wayne quickly determines that her real goal was to lift Wayne’s fingerprints. The thief—Selina Kyle—leaves the party with a horny congressperson, and sells the fingerprints to an employee of John Daggett, a member of the board of Wayne Enterprises, who is in bed with Bane. Daggett’s people try to kill her in lieu of paying, but she tricked them into using the congressperson’s cell phone—said congressperson is missing, and the cops are looking for him, and they trace the phone pretty quickly, enabling Kyle to get away.

In the ensuing melee, Gordon is captured and brought to Bane. Gordon manages to escape after being shot, and he’s found by Officer John Blake. Blake is an orphan who met Wayne in the orphanage sponsored by the Wayne Foundation—and he also recognized that Wayne was really Batman when he met him back then. With Gordon in the hospital and the threat of Bane—a threat that Gordon’s second-in-command, Captain Foley, refuses to take seriously—Blake goes to Wayne and urges him to become Batman again, as he’s the only one that can stop Bane. After a visit to his doctor, and also to Fox for some new toys, Wayne decides to get back in the cowl. He also attends a gala that Kyle has crashed—he has a tracker on his mother’s pearls—and confronts her. She says a storm is coming that’s going to destroy Wayne and people like him; Kyle herself plans to adapt.

Bane attacks the stock exchange, which is a cover to use Wayne’s fingerprints to make a stock transaction that will bankrupt Wayne and cripple Wayne Enterprises. Batman tries to stop Bane, and Foley is more interested in capturing Batman than Bane. Batman manages to get away, as does Bane, having made the transaction that torpedoes Wayne.

Alfred resigns, having grown frustrated with Wayne’s inability to move on from being Batman. Before he goes, he reveals that Dawes had chosen Dent over him before she was killed by the Joker, and also that he had a weird ritual during Wayne’s years away. Every year, Alfred would vacation to Florence and sit in a café. He would imagine that he’d see Wayne sitting at another table in the café with a woman, maybe some kids. They’d exchange looks, nod, and not speak a word to each other. Alfred knew that Wayne would only find misery in Gotham, the city that took his parents from him, and his one wish for his charge is for him to find happiness.

Alfred’s resignation leaves Wayne a bit of a mess, especially once he loses all his money. He’s able to keep Wayne Manor, but he doesn’t even have a set of keys. One of his allies on the Wayne Enterprises board is Miranda Tate, who becomes his lover. She has championed a fusion reactor, which Wayne had mothballed because a Russian scientist—Dr. Pavel—revealed that it could be turned into a bomb.

Batman convinces Kyle to take him to Bane, but instead Kyle allows Bane to capture Batman. They fight, but Batman is out of shape after being out of the game for eight years, and Bane is at the peak of his strength. Bane breaks Batman’s spine and sends him off to the same prison that he was born in as a child. Bane now owns the prison—it was bequeathed to him by Ra’s al-Ghul, though Ra’s later tossed Bane out of the League of Shadows. With Ra’s dead, Bane plans to finish his plan to destroy Gotham. He won’t kill Batman—he’ll torment him by letting him watch Bane destroy his precious city while suffering in the same prison that Bane himself suffered in.

While he recovers in the prison, Wayne learns of another prisoner, the child of Ra’s al-Ghul, who is the only person to escape. In truth, anyone can escape if they can climb a tunnel to the surface. Ra’s’s child is the only one who did it, protected by a friend in the prison. Wayne assumes that Bane is the child in question.

Meanwhile, Bane kills Daggett, having used his construction firm to mix explosives with concrete in various places around the city. Bane destroys every bridge to Gotham, and also blocks every tunnel. He destroys the football stadium during a Gotham Rogues game, killing dozens, including the mayor. Thousands of cops are searching the subway tunnels for Bane and his people, and the explosions leave them all trapped down there. Bane has also taken possession of the fusion reactor, makes Pavel change it into a bomb, and then kills Pavel publicly, after making it clear that Pavel is the only one who can disarm it. Bane has given the detonator for the bomb to a citizen of Gotham, he won’t say who. With the tunnels blocked and most of the bridges destroyed, the only road access in or out of Gotham is one bridge Bane left in one piece. It’s for supply convoys. If anyone tries to leave the city, Bane will detonate the bomb. If anyone tries to use the intact bridge for anything but food, he’ll detonate the bomb. In addition, Bane lets all the prisoners out of Blackgate Prison.

Gordon, Blake, and Foley are among the few cops who weren’t trapped underground. For the next three months, they mount a resistance, trying to find the bomb and figure out a way to stop it. Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors, including Fox and Tate, are in hiding, with access to the reactor. If the bomb is plugged into the reactor, they can control it. A special forces team sneaks in with a food convoy, but Bane learns of them and kills them.

The Scarecrow is running a kangaroo court, sentencing people who have committed offenses in Bane’s new order. The accused has a choice in sentence: death or exile. Exile involves walking across the frozen river and hope you don’t fall through the ice. Nobody has succeeded in making it across, and when Gordon is captured and chooses death, Crane declares the sentence to be death by exile, so they still have to cross the ice.

Wayne manages to escape the prison and return to Gotham. (It’s not clear where the prison is, nor how Wayne gets back into Gotham when it’s so completely closed off from the world.) He meets up with Kyle, who apologizes for turning him over to Bane. He accepts her apology and thinks there’s more to her than she gives herself credit for, even though there’s no evidence to support this notion.

There’s also a ticking clock. The bomb will go off after a certain point whether or not anyone detonates it. Batman saves Gordon from death by exile, gives him a doodad that will block the signal from the detonator, and also helps Blake free the trapped cops. Blake is charged with getting the kids from the orphanage out of the city. Unfortunately, the cops guarding the bridge are under orders to keep anyone from crossing the bridge, so even though Blake insists that the bomb’s gonna go off no matter what, and the kids, at least, should be saved, the cop on the other side blows the bridge, cutting Gotham off even more.

The GPD fights Bane’s forces, while Batman confronts Bane directly, comporting himself much better in this fight. At one point, he damages Bane’s mask, which reduces the bad guy’s effectiveness something fierce. Batman demands to know who has the detonator—

—and it turns out to be Tate, who stabs Batman with a knife. Her real name is Talia al-Ghul, Ra’s al-Ghul’s daughter. She’s the one who escaped the prison and Bane was the friend who helped her. This entire masterplan is hers, not Bane’s, and her goal is to finish her father’s work. She’s pissed at her father for leaving her in that prison, but Batman killed Ra’s and kept her from being able to confront him about it, so she decides instead to do what he couldn’t and destroy Gotham. However, Gordon is able to block the detonator’s signal. Kyle saves Batman by killing Bane—even though she had said she would be leaving Gotham behind—and the pair of them are able to keep Talia from getting her hands on the bomb. However, with her dying breath, Talia is able to flood the reactor chamber, so they can no longer place it there to depower the bomb. Instead, Batman takes the bomb and flies it out into the bay far away from the city to detonate out over the ocean.

Both Wayne and Batman are declared as being among the (many) dead. Alfred is sad that he wasn’t there for Wayne. Wayne bequeaths the mansion to the orphans, what’s left of his estate to Alfred, and the batcave to Blake, who quits the GPD. (We also find out his real first name is Robin. Gawrsh.) Alfred uses his newfound inheritance to travel to Florence, where he sits in a café and sees Wayne and Kyle sharing a meal. They nod at each other.

 

“You have my permission to die”

I had issues with Batman Begins, but overall thought it was a good movie, if not as great as its hype. I thought The Dark Knight was one of the best comic-book movies ever made.

This, though, is a goddamn mess. Nothing in this movie makes anything like sense, starting with the Dent Act—or, as it would be more aptly named, “the plot device.” The terms of this act are not at all clear, nor how, exactly, a law will allow it to be easier to lock up criminals—at least not unless it’s spectacularly un-Constitutional. I find myself wondering how many innocent people were locked up without a chance of parole under this nebulous law.

The impression at the end of The Dark Knight was that Batman would take the fall for Dent’s death, and also for his criminal acts—but not that he would stop fighting crime. And yeah, okay, this mythical, magical Dent Act may have cut down on crime in Gotham, but it can’t possibly have gone completely away—humanity doesn’t work like that, plus laws take a while to become effective. Instead, we jump the timeline eight years and find out that Wayne has retired Batman, but also retired from humanity, allowing his body to go to seed and hiding from the world, and that he’s done so since immediately after Dent’s death.

This makes about as much sense as Superman disappearing for five years to see if Krypton didn’t really explode—to wit, none. Gotham was still a mess at the end of the last movie, with a lot of work to be done. Sure, Batman would have to cooperate less with the GPD thanks to his taking the rap for Two-Face’s crimes, but why would that translate to him hanging up the cowl?

Eight years is, at once, a ridiculously long time and not nearly long enough. For a retired Wayne to be plausible, you need to move forward longer, à la Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or the animated series Batman Beyond. Eight years is enough to make me believe in an older, crankier Batman, like the one Ben Affleck will play in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, but not one who’s given up.

Christian Bale does, at least, give his most convincing performance in the trilogy. His Wayne is already broken mentally and physically long before Bane shatters his back. Kyle’s theft of his mother’s pearls at least gets his brain back into it, but years of punishment followed by years of indolence has done a number on him physically. He’s good enough to hold his own against Bane’s thugs and against the GPD, but not in a one-on-one with someone as brutal, as talented, as fearless as Bane. It takes the crucible of Bane’s prison—which has already formed Bane and Talia into fearsome foes—to bring him back to truly being Batman.

Which he then only does for five minutes. The whole movie is predicated on the notion that anybody can be Batman, that Batman is the symbol and anyone can wear the cowl. This flies in the face of eight decades of stories, but whatever. Replacing Wayne as Batman has had mixed results—Jean-Paul Valley in the post-“Knightfall” stories was an offensive disaster, but having Dick Grayson in the role actually worked, not to mention Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond—but the notion is still a specious one.

All so he can go off and retire with Kyle, but that relationship also doesn’t work. Oh, Anne Hathaway is magnificent in the role. She’s a worthy successor to Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Michelle Pfeiffer, and nicely washes out the bitter taste of Halle Berry. She brings charm and verve and humor and brilliance to the role. She’s beautifully chameleonic, effortlessly talented at her chosen task, and yet she also has an undercurrent of desperation, of the knowledge that it could all be taken away from her at any moment. (Her bitter declaration that rich people don’t even get to be poor like normal folks, following Wayne’s revelation that he’s been allowed to keep the family mansion despite being broke, is brilliantly delivered.)

But Bale himself has zero chemistry with Hathaway. (In that, at least, it’s consistent, as he didn’t have any chemistry with Katie Holmes or Maggie Gyllenhaal in the prior films, nor does he have any with Marion Cotillard’s Talia in this one.) On top of that, the script keeps insisting upon Batman seeing something more noble in Kyle, even though there’s no onscreen evidence to support it. Neither is Kyle returning from opening up the tunnel to save Batman’s life from Bane, as Hathaway has done too good a job of portraying her as a self-directed thief and the script has done too poor a job of convincing us that she’s got any heroic impulses.

Ultimately, Batman wants to see the best in Catwoman because that’s how the characters have been written in the comics for eighty years. But the movie doesn’t do the work to make us believe that. We have the same problem with Talia, in fact. The daughter of Ra’s al-Ghul in both the comics and the film, the comic book version is in love with Batman (and he with her), but she is loyal to her father as well. That conflict has made life difficult for Talia. Here, Talia has no affection for Batman, but is conflicted toward her father—so naturally, she fulfills his plan because, um, reasons? I guess?

Both Talia and Bane seem to be continuing Ra’s’ work in destroying Gotham—but why? Ra’s wanted to destroy Gotham because it was beyond saving, and then Batman first stopped him and then actually went ahead and saved it. We spent the whole first part of the movie proving that Ra’s was wrong, and then Bane takes steps to destroy Gotham anyhow.

Bane proves problematic on several levels, starting with the casting. In the comics, Bane was a genius, a tormented soul, a super-strong madman. He was also Latino, his costume inspired by luchadors. On film, he’s been done twice—the first kept his Latino heritage, but made him into a mute monster, Poison Ivy’s mindless henchman; the second casts a British actor in the role. Sigh. Hardy, at least, does a very fine job with the character’s physicality—which is good, as the mask covers most of his face, leaving him without the use of facial expressions. Body language and voice is all he’s got, and the latter is ruined by the filtered voice from his mask which ranges from incomprehensible to otherworldly—seriously, every time Bane talked, it felt like he was being beamed in from a completely different, barely related movie. When he first spoke up on the CIA plane, I didn’t buy that he was in the same space-time continuum as Aiden Gillen’s agent, and that remove remained throughout the movie.

Bane’s takeover of Gotham is also utter, complete, total nonsense. First of all, his entire plan hinges on the GPD sending most of their forces into the tunnels. When the tunnels blow and the cops are trapped, supposedly something like 90% of the cops are trapped down there.

This could not possibly happen. Police forces in large cities work twenty-four hours a day, which means that every single precinct/district/whatever functions on three eight-hour shifts per day. Sure, maybe you pull a few people in off another shift when there’s a crisis, but ultimately, the most number of people who would be patrolling the subway tunnels looking for Bane would be most of one shift, maybe a few more—but even in the worst-case scenario, 60% of the cops would still be above ground.

But even if I buy that Bane somehow trapped 90% of the cops underground, you expect me to believe that they just sat there for three months? That nobody among this huge collection of cops figured out a way to blow through the rubble to get out? Keep in mind that all of them were armed, so they had gunpowder out the wazoo, and nobody had the wherewithal to MacGyver something?

For that matter, that entire time Bane had Gotham under his thumb, nobody was able to figure out a way to deactivate the bomb? Nobody at Wayne Enterprises with some technical know-how? Nobody at a government think-tank or at the CIA (who must have had some notion of Pavel’s work, not to mention a whole file on him) was able to figure out a way to deactivate the bomb? Nobody in or out of Gotham was able to figure out a way to block the detonator signal, at least? The only response the world outside Gotham was able to arse together was sending in three people from Army Special Forces?

One of the major themes, and best parts, of Dark Knight was that even in the face of Joker’s nihilism, the people of Gotham were still good people, still heroic people, still willing to fight in the face of adversity. That’s out the window one movie later, as everyone just sits around waiting for something to happen. (Well, except Gordon. Gary Oldman continues his excellent work in these movies, as Gordon has never stopped being a cop, never stops thinking ahead, and he expertly leads the resistance within Gotham, with help from Blake and the few cops remaining, as well as Fox.)

And then Batman returns, er, somehow. Wayne was taken to Bane’s prison—which is implied to be in another country—and he got out by climbing with nothing but the ragged clothes on his back. So how did he get home? He doesn’t have any money (that’s a plot point and everything), he doesn’t have a passport, and Gotham is completely closed off: the tunnels are blocked, all the bridges but one have a big-ass hole in them, and the water surrounding the island is frozen. So how’d he get back?

Finally, in the end, Batman removes the bomb from the equation and detonates it over the ocean, letting everyone think he died in the attack, so he can go off to Europe and have a chemistry-free relationship with Selina Kyle, presumably paid for by her thievery, since he’s still broke (and legally dead). Screw Gotham, screw his parents, screw his family legacy, screw the people who have suffered due to Bane’s takeover, screw everything.

Some hero.

 

Next week, we turn our attention to something a bit more mystical, as we look at Ghost Rider starring Nicolas Cage.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is a guest at ConnectiCon XVI this weekend in Hartford, Connecticut. He’ll be at the Bard’s Tower booth for most of the weekend, alongside fellow scribes Jason Fry, Dan Wells, Brian Lee Durfee, Dave Butler, and Kuta Marler. He’ll also be doing a couple of panels: check out his schedule here.

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