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CINEMA: Apocalypse Wow!

 

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012, directed by Christopher Nolan, 164 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC When word came that director Christopher Nolan was filming the latest installment of the Batman franchise amidst the Occupy protests outside of Wall Street last fall, the mind reeled. The best blockbusters, and that surely includes Nolan’s own entries into the genre, have found a way to divine the hopes and fears of our national id, because how else are you going to charm hundreds and millions of dollars from the public anyway? With the national narrative of the 2008 financial collapse still being written, one wondered how would Batman insert himself into the drama? Perhaps the more telling question would have been how will Bruce Wayne insert himself into the drama, because it is the worst fears of The One Percent that The Dark Knight Rises is channeling. The Dark Knight’s concluding chapter could easily be re-titled “Batman Vs. Occupy Gotham.”

Would it be naive to expect that a film costing a quarter of a billion dollars to carry any other message? Perhaps, but just because the politics are, well, a little “sticky” it doesn’t keep the final chapter of the Nolan series from being fairly awe-inspiring, as satisfying as a well-stocked buffet, and worthwhile despite it flaws. With the latest Marvel entries being serviceable yet unimaginative, how refreshing to see the Batman series complete a nuanced long-form story, rather than remake itself over and over again.

As The Dark Knight Rises begins, it has been eight years since the Batman has appeared and Bruce Wayne is withering away in a Howard Hughes-like isolation, interrupted by a cat thief (the well-tailored Anne Hathaway) who cracks Wayne’s safe (shades of Marnie!) and steals not just a string of pearls but Wayne’s fingerprints. It turns out this Catwoman/Selena Kyle lives with a roommate on the bad side of Gotham, working for man called Bane, who is plotting revolution with an army of men beneath of the streets of Gotham (shades of Stallone’s Cobra!).

I’ve heard a few women recently groan about the continuation of the Batman series and I have to admit, it doesn’t offer much to women. Rachel, wh0 is still being mourned by Batman, was little more than a nag on his conscience and in general, the female characters in Nolan’s films aren’t very well-defined. The final film introduces Marion Cotillard (of Inception and that Edith Piaf biopic) as another pretty weight on Bruce Wayne’s conscience as Miranda, the Green businesswoman seeking commitment from Wayne Enterprises.

On the other hand, Selena Kyle is a foxy anarchist babe and when Bruce Wayne catches her mid-heist at a luxurious event, she scans the scene and asks “You think all this can last?” She warns Bruce that the revolution is coming. Bruce Wayne finds her attractive but misguided, “I see more in you” he says in that Christian Bale-terse kind of way. Before Bruce can invite Selina on his yacht to discuss the ideas of Marx, Bane emerges from his hole in the ground. In a gorgeous and mournful ballet of destruction, Bane isolates Gotham, storms the Stock Exchange and delivers a speech on behalf of the masses, declaring that he will return Gotham to its citizens.

When Bane’s plan uses computer programs to crash the economy, the film appears as if it is going to reference the very-real horrors that this vicious economic downturn has inflicted on our citizens. But no, the nightmare created here is instead the old paranoid right wing fear that movements of the underclass are destined to head straight down the road to Stalinism. Bane’s Gotham resembles one of those 1950s Anti-Communist propaganda films where Reds take over the town, move the rich out of their mansions and hold show trials of good patriotic Americans. It seems wonderfully audacious that Nolan actually shows gray-haired matrons tossed unceremoniously from their townhouses, and bankers tried in grotesque, kangaroo courts.

Nolan isn’t politically fervent, he doesn’t try hard to make the upper crust sympathetic, but when it comes to channeling nightmares, it is interesting that Nolan creates an uprising from below (where it is even admitted that the Wayne Foundation has cut back donations to the orphanage) rather than from Gotham’s corrupt government. Memories of recent political turmoil and the details of Gotham’s descent clash: should we feel sympathy for Gotham’s financial class being put on trial when our own financial malfeasance has evaded prosecution? And it’s hard not to compare the real-life images of NYPD policemen, batons swinging, wading into unarmed protesters during last year’s Zuccotti Park protest with the eerie “take back the streets” fantasy of the Gotham cops converting the city into a massive battlefield while clashing against Bane’s mindless, suicidal thugs.

With Gotham locked down under martial law, it’s up to Batman to put down the revolution, save Gotham, and return power to “The Man.” With world beating super-heroics like that, the whole franchise again shows its debt to the James Bond series, with its doomsday countdown, shape-shifting speedsters and the ever-likable Morgan Freeman back as Batman’s very own “Q,” Lucius Fox. The series’ hold on the male imagination is due partly the gadgetry thrills (“The Bat” helicopter is a joy to watch dart across the sky) as well as its theme of fatherlessness. Bruce Wayne may not have a dad but he has at least four father figures, and Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman all join Freeman in being deeply worried about Bruce Wayne’s soul. It’s a comforting fantasy to imagine such dignified fathers caring so intently.

Where The Dark Knight raised some hackles for its over-extended pacing, Nolan invests The Dark Knight Rises’ with enough urgency and grace to justify its two hour and 45 minute running time. When Nolan goes for grandeur he reaches back to the tricks he showed in Inception, shifting landscapes from their moorings and giving the sensation that the whole world is collapsing. Yeah, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 did that too, but it is the combination of great actors, longtime Nolan collaborator cinematographer Wally Pfister’s overcast visuals, Han Zimmer’s unrelenting score and that primal fear of societal collapse that allows the film to transcend its comic book trappings.

While Nolan’s sharp sense of narrative and spectacle aids him considerably, not everything works. Anne Hathaway is as miscast as Katie Holmes was back in Batman Begins. Selina Kyle is supposed to be an impoverished young woman who has had to do anything to survive, which is hardly a quality the regal Ms. Hathaway exudes easily, especially made up so beautifully as she is here. Ms. Hathaway has never shown much physicality in her prior films, and she doesn’t here either. We see her posing in the leather outfit but never really moving around in it, the way we did so memorably with Michelle Pfeiffer 20 years ago. Nolan has no feel for female characters and sadly he not a very sexy director either, leaving Catwoman a limp kitty. As for Tom Hardy’s Bane, the character, speaking with an accent right out of an English boarding school, is much more interesting (he gets his own older star father figure, in Tom Conti) but I don’t feel like I can judge his performance any more than I could compare the performances of the guys behind the Jason hockey masks.

I could have used a more restrained ending as well, The Dark Knight Rises leaves no mystery to how a sequel would start (we may be seeing a lot more of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the future) but it is otherwise a gorgeously rendered send-off for the unexpectedly moving series. The film ends on a upbeat note, although some will be disappointed to find out that if the shit hits the fan, Batman is willing to use drone technology to defend Wall Street. Then again, Nolan’s trilogy never shied away from exploring dark thoughts.

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