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Batman's Bad Day(s): 'The Dark Knight Rises'

Batman has always been the Dark Knight. His origins are in an alleyway, his story is essentially a vengeance narrative that explores obsession, totemistic fascination with symbolism, and near madness.

The Dark Knight Rises

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy
Distributor: Warner
Release date: 2012-12-04

Alan Moore's classic 1988 Batman tale The Killing Joke provided comic fans with perhaps the series most compelling examination of the Dark Knight’s twisted psychology, revealing his restless search for vengeance as the doppelganger of his worst foes devotion to chaos.

“All it takes is one bad day,” the Joker insists, “to turn the sanest man alive to lunacy… you had a bad day once, am I right… otherwise why would you dress up like a flying rat?”

Christopher Nolan’s Batman has had more than few bad days since the trilogy began in 2005. Batman Begins gave us a Batman who learned his craft working with Asian street gangs and spending time in a foreign prison. Nolan’s second outing gave us a Dark Knight struggling against meaningless violence, and Heath ledger’s startling and haunting turn as the Joker.

It’s become conventional to talk about Nolan’s trilogy as “operatic” and to point to the sophistication with which he explored a comic book character. In fact, fanboys (myself included) have tended to tout the Dark Knight series as the comic book movie for those that hate comic book movies, the Batman films for people that just don’t get Batman.

The release of The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray provides a chance to remind us why this is more than another tights and capes film. In fact, it sometimes feels like a superhero Stations of the Cross, Mel Gibson getting his hands on the story of the Caped Crusader. Through almost three hours of run-time, Bruce Wayne has a succession of bad days.

Dark Knight Rises rewards a second viewing. If you saw it in the theatre, you may not have successfully followed the somewhat byzantine plot, overwhelmed as you were by the sheer weight of the imagery. You may have forgotten how perfect Anne Hathaway is as Catwoman. You may not remember how disturbingly Bane ate and swallowed whole the scenery, the weak and sickly elderly man’s voice that whined from his respirator/mask contrasting with his hulking physique.

You may have also forgotten the odd dread it provokes. Dark Knight Rises succeeds in part because of Nolan’s penchant for mixing all our cultural anxieties together into an entertaining cocktail. It’s a story less about Batman than about a city under siege, about the French revolution reimagined in a modern urban setting. This is a film that could have as easily been called “The Passion of Gotham City”, the beleaguered metropolis’ travails becoming the center of the film’s interest for more than an hour of running time. Terrorism, inequality of wealth, questions about the efficacy of the state, and the hero’s existential drama in a world gone mad all find their way into the film. No clear message on any of these topics is delivered. Nolan prefers to transmute angst into film and let us figure it out.

Some might conclude that there’s at last an implicit political subtext hiding behind cape and cowl. Dark Knight Rises sometimes seems to have a deeply conservative message about the problem of order in society. The villains seem a bit like some combination of Anonymous, Al Qaeda and the leaders of Occupy Wall Street. They use violence to transform Gotham into a workers paradise, despoiling the rich and creating show trials for enemies of the people. Gotham begins to look like Paris, 1793 or Moscow 1917.

Jonathan Lethem famously critiqued Dark Knight Returns as having a conservative message about law and order and casuistry in the service of higher justice. Lethem called it “a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion.” But does our confusion have to absolve? Does it ever? In fact, doesn’t moral confusion always operate on a spectrum of guilt and dread? In fact, I think that my first viewing of the film, the more visceral encounter with its imagery and texture, holds more weight. Its not an allegory or a satire and these films have never been.

The special features are remarkably spare. Sadly, the film does not come with audio commentary but instead asks you to sign-up for a multi-platform promotion that gives you a “second screen experience” if you download a Dark Knight Rises app. Disappointing.

Batman fans will be most excited about the “Batmobile” documentary included on the second disc that traces Batman’s favorite mode of transport. The feature traces the evolution of the vehicle from the earliest comics (where Batman apparently rode around in Bruce Wayne’s red sedan!) through the iconic vehicle of the '60s Adam West series to Tim Burton’s iteration and the Nolan “Tumbler.” Burton’s Batmobile was, as the producer/director himself says, “tough and perverse” and included a tail pipe off a British Viper fighter plane.

The “making-of” featurette, “Ending the Knight”, is a truly comprehensive look at the making of the film. One of the more compelling segments explains the creation of the stunning opening. Nolan begins The Dark Knight Rises with a sprawling action sequence that includes the introduction of Bane, features a hijacking and extraction from a plane in midair and the subsequent crash of the same plane.

Although most film audiences have become so jaded by CGI that they seldom ask the “how did they do that” question anymore, this opening scene has a texture that feels real. In fact, Nolan depends very little on CGI and this feature explores the incredibly complex (and dangerous) high wire act involved in filming this scene.

Batman has always been the Dark Knight. His origins are in an alleyway, his story is essentially a vengeance narrative that explores obsession, totemistic fascination with symbolism and near madness. Nolan did not add these elements.

But he did put the Dark Knight into our world. This does not feel like a “comic book film” but, ironically, has the heft and meaning of the best graphic novels. It’s one of the Batman’s many bad days and will likely serve future cultural historians as a gauge for just how many bad days our culture has had, as well.


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