‘The Dark Knight Rises’: Into the Pit and Out

It’s the trapezius. And it’s startling.

When first you see Bane’s (Tom Hardy) traps in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s confronting Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale). Before this moment, you’ve been focused on the villain’s metal-toothed muzzle-mask, the sort worn by Hannibal Lecter or maybe a more compact version of Darth Vader’s. The mask makes him like and also unlike Batman, for while both masks hide identities, Batman’s hides his eyes and not his mouth, where Bane’s covers the opposite portion of his face. Still, the masks occasion discussions of their purpose, whether, in Batman’s case, they’re supposed to “protect people you care about,” or in Bane’s case, to keep his self-defining physical pain at bay (the gizmo features tubes and a medication-delivery system).

Bane’s function in the Chris Nolan Batworld is thus to mirror and oppose Batman, to make more acutely visible the pain Batman feels and acts out, to showcase the ways that pain can be put to motivational use, and also, of course, to provide Batman with an aggressively articulated foil, a bane of his existence. As such, Bane comes at Batman with a prodigious force and bloody fury, premised on the fact that he is — as his traps indicate — built to deliver the hero’s punishment and thus his motivation for rising.

He must rise, the film reminds you, because at the end of The Dark Knight, he didn’t kill Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), but took the blame. Now, as The Dark Knight Rises begins, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) bears a colossal burden of guilt because he knows the truth. The other guy who knows, Batman, only makes Gordon feel worse, because Batman, as ever, is struggling. He’s struggling with the Dent outcome, struggling with the dead parents and the dead girlfriend (a point hammered home as he gazes on their photos while leaning on his cane), and he’s struggling still with what it means to be Batman. Even as Alfred (Michael Caine) urges him to “move on,” to have a life apart from the symbol and the job of Batman, Bruce Wayne/Batman can’t.

It’s not clear here whether Batman exacts more pleasure — or sense of identity, which may or may not be the same thing for him — from inflicting or taking punishment. For all the vigilante business, for all the effort to achieve payback for his parents or to right the wrongs of criminals, Batman is, to the franchise’s credit, never quite settled how he feels about what he does. It’s fun to drive the Batpod or fly the Bat (a hovercrafty thingamajig introduced in this movie). It’s entertaining to decimate villains. But because the Batman movies also point out costs for the good times, Batman remains in-between, punished by whoever is willing.

The supposed tradeoff for Batman’s struggles and the Commissioner’s guilt is that Gotham City is experiencing low street crime rates but also huge disparities in wealth (like, you know, America). That most Gotham citizens believe the lie underscores a basic point made more than once in Nolan’s trilogy, that they are mostly faceless and generally dim, consuming what’s put in front of them without much in the way of discrimination or critical thought.

These dim sorts are set against those who have a special access to the truth. In this movie that’s a police officer named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who more or less stands in for the franchise fans: they know, like he intuits, Bruce Wayne’s secret. He believes Batman can come back, he gets it. Just so, Blake gains the Commissioner’s trust, takes an early informational meeting with Bruce Wayne, and at the ready when the plot tips into its second phase. This would be the phase that comes after the setup phase, wherein Bane takes over Gotham and Batman is designated the underdog, despite his gargantuan wealth, weapons stash, and ingenuity.

Because Bane makes Batman go in this movie, because he’s coming after Heath Ledger’s Joker, he’s got to be variously impressive. At the same time, he’s awfully predictable, coming into view when Batman needs a nudge, or more precisely, when you know he needs a nudge. Batman’s other most effective nudger is the Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who is, so neatly, the means by which he meets Bane, or maybe, the means by which Bane gets at him. Their threeway is most dramatically conveyed in the scene that brings them into the same space, yes, the very scene that introduces Bane’s massive musculature. As it happens, Selina brings Batman to the battle (which leads directly to his exile to the Lazarus Pit, a literal hole in the desert across the world from Gotham, from which he must… rise). She then stands behind a gate to observe the abuse, her catsuit tight, her lips red, and eyes wide. As Bane pounds on his prey, the scene’s focus is increasingly on Selina’s horror is designed to mirror yours: a series of reaction shots emphasize her realization that what she’s watching is horrific and, no small thing, what she/you knew what happen even if she didn’t admit it to herself.

Selina”s self-protective ignorance drives the plot. She gets Batman and and Bane together, through a set of steps including a cat burglary and a crude betrayal (that you definitely see coming and that Batman should see coming and, given his inclination to be punished, likely does). Her visible dismay at the beating allows her some complication, in that she comes to identify with Batman/Bruce Wayne as a victim. This emotional maneuver is tricky, because: 1) she sees him as a rich, arrogant bully, that is, her opposite; and 2) she’s fully capable of delivering her own punishments, with speed and agility and very high heels, thus making her like and unlike the boys who do so with noisier brutishness.

Selina is thus both sort-of villain and hero-in-the-making. To establish her sympathetic bona fides, at least at first, she burgles with the help of a street urchin roommate named Holly (Juno Temple). Though Juno is rather unceremoniously disappeared from the movie about halfway through, for a minute she affiliates Selina with a plainly poor person. This is important, in the sense that Selina herself does not look poor (along wit the catsuit, she prefers high-end designer outfits). But it’s important in this particular mythos that she is poor, or at least a spokesperson for the poor. More than once she instructs Bruce Wayne/Batman concerning their plight and ethos, lumping him with one-percenters who are by definition “out of touch,” alerting him to the fact that “There’s a storm coming, and when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”” He nods politely, and you get her point, that the underclasses are furious — quietly so far — at the systemic unfairness he and his wealthy associates keep rigged.

All this said, you come to the beatdown scene with more knowledge than Selina. For you see Bane’s introduction into the movie, you see him overpower a CIA contingent, set in motion a scheme to get hold of a nuclear device, and also to let loose an army of inmates from Gotham’s prison. While Bane asserts these prisoners are of a piece with the poor (the same poor Selina represents, and indeed, she’s incarcerated at the time Bane frees the prisoners — this plot may be overkilled, but it also neat), The Dark Knight Rises also complicates exactly that formulation. For one thing, Bane is a liar. For another, burglars and other 99-percenters are not precisely the same as supervillains with gigantic traps and guns. And for still another thing, the 99-percenters here include as well cops in uniforms (like Blake).

This last point is made visible during something like a giant set piece, as Bane’s army and the cops have at each other. The camera pulls way, way out, to show the battle from overhead, the tiny figures hitting and kicking at each other like so many blimp-cammed players on football teams (this comparison is set up earlier, when Bane explodes a sports stadium, leaving big blustery players and fans alike fearful and compliant). The spectacle cops-criminals throwdown is most interesting for the way it re-heroizes the authorities. When they’re employed to keep order for rich people, the cops look like bullies. When they’re doing it for Batman (a rich person in disguise?), they appear less odious, more righteous.

All of which brings us back to the traps. It’s possible to read Bane as the most abject and also absolute incarnation of the 99%, essentially faceless and exploited throughout his life, terminally loyal to a cause, and struggling with identity questions that he can’t talk about. Amid his perpetual crisis, he’s found time and means to labor at his body, to build it into a monumental special effect. No cape, no kevlar, no batwings or batdarts. Just a body, bulky and scarred, accomplished and frightening. In a movie that runs too long and repeats itself, that makes its metaphors obvious and inflates its symbols, he is bracingly singular and dauntingly concrete.

RATING 5 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.