It’s been over two weeks since the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy hit theatres. I put up a spoiler-free review the Monday after it came out, but now that the movie’s been out for a little while—and now that I’ve seen it three times—I feel okay with putting up some MAJOR SPOILER WARNINGS and doing something a little more in-depth regarding the movie. My method will be rather inelegant, but make no mistakes, this will be alarmingly thorough.
To start off, Chris Nolan has said each of his Batman films deals with a particular theme: Batman Begins is associated with fear, The Dark Knight with chaos, and finally The Dark Knight Rises with pain.
Much of Begins is devoted to Bruce Wayne overcoming and making constructive use of his fears, and fear itself is the primary weapon of both Jonathan “The Scarecrow” Crane and Ra’s al Ghul, in the form of a panic-inducing gas. The Joker’s plan in The Dark Knight is to disrupt social order, and he later manipulates District Attorney Harvey Dent into embracing chaos and going on a killing spree. Lastly, Bruce spends a decent portion of Rises overcoming both physical and spiritual suffering, while his opponent Bane must use an anaesthetic gas to dull the excruciating agony he experiences at all times.
But while each film works with its own specific theme, there are three, just as important motifs that pervade the entire trilogy: the power of symbols, the use of theatricality and deception, and failure.
In Begins, Bruce creates his Batman persona to become more than just a vigilante but a symbol, immune from corruption and unbound, at least in the eyes of the public, by human limitations. In Knight, he starts to see Harvey Dent as a symbol for a new, morally steadfast Gotham, and when Dent succumbs to his murderous impulses at the prompting of the Joker, Bruce and Gordon elect to corrupt the figure of Batman rather than dash the city’s hopes. Rises brings this theme to its apex by not only making Batman a truly inspirational figure, but separating him fully from Bruce Wayne—becoming more than just a man, as Ra’s al Ghul suggests in Begins.
Theatricality and deception are key techniques for elevating Batman to his symbolic status. His intimidating appearance and voice, as well as the advanced vehicles and technology at his disposal make the Caped Crusader larger than life in the eyes of his enemies. It is also the primary strategy of Ra’s al Ghul, who disguises himself as an intermediary named Henri Ducard for most of the film, tricking Bruce into thinking “Ra’s” (actually a decoy) has been killed, and revealing himself when the hero is at his most vulnerable.
The Joker is constantly deceptive throughout The Dark Knight, hardly saying a true thing during the course of the movie, and Batman and Gordon’s decision to put Dent on a pedestal and blame his crimes on Batman is misdirection even Ra’s would appreciate.
In Rises, Bane tricks the people of Gotham City into thinking they can save themselves and bring about new order. To boot, his signature mask is both theatrical (making him look even more bestial) and deceptive (secretly being the key to warding off the otherwise constant pain he might endure. And of course, Batman deceives the people of Gotham into thinking he dies in the neutron bomb explosion, allowing Bruce an opportunity to start his life anew as well as freeing the city’s denizens from their need for the Dark Knight.
This leaves us with failure. In ComicsAlliance’s in depth review of Batman Begins, Chris Sims says that the flashback scene in which Bruce’s father, Thomas, says “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up” is maybe the most important moment in all three movies. While I don’t entirely agree, I see his point. Failure, and one’s ability to recover from it, is key to understanding Bruce’s motivations throughout the movies. He sees himself (perhaps wrongly) as having failed to protect his parents and his drive to avenge them, and by extension Batman, is born out of this. When Bruce is physically beaten by Ra’s in Begins’ third act, Alfred’s recitation of the late Thomas’ words encourages him to get back on his feet and stop the terrorist from going through with his plans.
The Dark Knight is marked with failure: Batman’s failure to save Rachel and protect Harvey, Gordon’s failure to fully root out corruption in his department, and Harvey’s own moral failings. Batman and Gordon don’t recover from these failures by movie’s end, but seeing as how Knight is the Empire Strikes Back of Nolan’s trilogy that can be forgiven—especially since so much of Rises is about the characters learning to pick themselves up again, hence its title. Bruce tries to pick himself up from his hiatus as Batman, though this is admittedly a false start, and results in his near-paralysis at the hands (or rather, knee) of Bane. He falls again, leading to his imprisonment in an underground jail that’s visually and thematically analogous to the well Bruce fell down as a child—a parallel that, in spite of its obviousness, I failed to pick up on until days after first seeing the movie. But, being Batman, not only does Bruce use this as an opportunity to physically heal himself (through EXTREME chiropractic treatment), but to accept and make use of his—aha!—fear of death. When he finally clambers out of the pit, he’s only in better physical shape but understanding of his own limitations and is ready to save Gotham from the chaos that has engulfed it.
As you can see, writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, as well as David S. Goyer, have been incredibly consistent in their treatment of the trilogy’s themes. With the exception of Grant Morrison’s run on the Batman books, I’m hard pressed to think of any creators in any medium who have been as ardent to see their themes through to their conclusions.
You might notice I’m apt to refer to Bruce rather than Batman. This is entirely intentional and, I feel, keeping with what the Nolans and Goyer were working toward. I dislike the idea that Batman is the “true” personality and Bruce just a social mask. As Chris Sims argued, Batman is as much a performance as the drunken douchebag billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is. He’s at his most open when privately conversing with Alfred and Rachel and, later on in Rises, with Detective Robin Blake. As with pretty much every other recurring motif in the trilogy, this dynamic is fully resolved in The Dark Knight Rises—which, at least partially, is the story of Bruce separating himself from the Batman.
Fun fact: a couple of years ago I outlined a Batman series from start to finish, and it concluded with Bruce retiring to a life of comfortable anonymity. Seeing something very similar at the end of Rises was then not only very satisfying, but also leads me to believe that Chris Nolan can read minds.
I liked that key to Bruce escaping from the Pit was his acceptance of his own mortality. A man with a healthy fear of death makes no missteps or wastes a single blow, which explains Batman’s effectiveness in his final duel with Bane. And of course, it also juxtaposes him with almost every person Batman has faced up until that point. Nearly every one of his major opponents has, in some way, been okay with the possibility of dying in the course of completing their missions. In Begins, Ra’s accepts his death with an eerie calm; in Knight, the Joker would be more than happy to die at the hand of Batman or Harvey, as both possibilities would prove him “right,” and Dent makes it clear at the climax that he cares little for his own life by that point, being a single coin toss result away from putting a bullet in his head; in Rises, Bane and Talia have worked dying in the neutron bomb explosion into their plan. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all are bested by a man who’s come to savour every moment.
While I can’t say Tom Hardy’s Bane is a revelation in the same way as the late Heath Ledger’s Joker, his is my favourite performance in the movie after Bale’s and Hathaway’s. The Rises incarnation of Bane isn’t just the best version outside of the original comics—it’s actually better than the source material, not only in appearance but as well as demeanour and how the character is worked into the film’s themes.
In Knightfall, Bane is a fairly Nietzschean figure who seeks to dominate Gotham by taking out its champion, Batman. And while that’s a fascinating concept for a character, he’s also a bit of a one trick pony, more than a little gimmicky (what with the luchador mask/Venom combination) and utterly devoid of personality—basically early ’90s comics in a nutshell. Rather than resembling Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench’s grim overman, Hardy’s Bane is a memorable mixture of dapper and aloof. He’s strangely upbeat for most of his screen time, and poses so casually it’s obvious how comfortable he is with his power.
Two small things: Hardy’s heavily filtered voice, while unintelligible for one or two lines, is awesome. I’m reminded of General Grievous from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, though of course Grievous wasn’t nearly as intimidating or effective as Bane. I also really hope this version of the mask makes it into the comics. There’s the bestial look I mentioned, of course, but it’s amazing how much Hardy is able to express with just his eyes alone. I’d take this over the luchador mask any day of the week.
It’s no secret that the effectiveness of a superhero villain depends on their relation to the protagonist. Batman’s rogues gallery is a wonderful embodiment of this ideal: Ra’s is Batman without ethical limitations; where Batman uses fear constructively, preying on those who would prey on the fearful, Scarecrow uses it destructively, simply preying on the fearful; the Joker, being obsessed with chaos and destruction rather than order and harmony, is Batman’s ideological opposite; Harvey Dent/Two-Face is one of the people Batman failed. Traditionally, Bane has always been a sort of anti-Batman, with the Dark Knight’s strength and skill set but using these to serve himself rather than those in need. Having Bane try to fulfil Ra’s legacy undermines his original purpose a little bit, but that “black mirror” aspect remains: Bane is the person Ra’s wanted Bruce to be, intimidating appearance and all.
At 4thletter!, Gavin Jasper wrote about how Nolan’s take on Bane is a cumulative villain—that is, encompassing the traits of all of the villains Batman has previously encountered. Any attempt to paraphrase his comprehensive analysis would be a disservice, so rather than trying to break down how his individual traits apply to each villain, I’ll point out how the character encompasses each film’s theme. I’ve discussed Pain twice already, but he also uses Fear to intimidate and Chaos, ironically, to control.
Bane’s breaking of Batman is a neat reversal of how it originally went down in Knightfall, where Bane first gradually wore Batman down over a period of weeks by effectively forcing the Caped Crusader to fight the majority of his enemies, not physically confronting him until Bats was emotionally and spiritually unable to take it any longer. In Rises, Bane physically defeats Batman first, then imprisons him to destroy the man’s spirit as a kind of final nail in the coffin. Of course, he underestimates Bruce’s desire to recover both physically and spiritually, and this “slow knife” strategy that Bane and Talia have crafted ultimately works against them.
On that note, now’s a good time to discuss Talia. I suspected Marion Cotillard’s character would be some incarnation of Ra’s’ daughter though not that she would be one of the primary antagonists. I’m so used to Talia being an antiheroine in the comics that her betrayal of Batman took me by surprise. The timing couldn’t be better, though, as Talia is currently the big baddie in Grant Morrison’s eccentric Batman Incorporated title.
Some reviewers, professional and amateur alike, said that Talia’s twist appearance reduces Bane to the role of a glorified henchman, but I disagree. Bane and Talia are fighting their war on different fronts, much as Batman does both in and out of costume. While Bane is doing most of the physical heavy lifting and intimidation, Talia is covert, gaining the trust of Bruce and Lucius Fox and, ultimately, access to the fusion reactor that will become the key plot device for the climax of the film. As well, she’s the League’s mole in Gordon’s resistance movement, likely leading to their arrest before they can identify the bomb truck. I find their relationship to be less boss lady/henchman (as in Schumacher’s Batman & Robin) and more like a really, really committed Bonnie and Clyde. It’s actually a little unsettling.
Tangentially, how awesome was it that Talia al Ghul made it into a blockbuster film? Pretty awesome.
I was thinking about Bane’s cumulative villain status and wondered how Talia fit into all of these established themes. That’s when it occurred to me: if Bane is the black mirror of Batman, Talia is the warped reflection of Bruce Wayne. Given that, as I mentioned previously, so much of Rises is devoted to separating Bruce from Batman it makes sense that his moral reflection would consist of two separate people.
Pay attention to the arrow-shaped scar on Talia’s back. It’s briefly glimpsed following Bruce and “Miranda’s” love scene, and matches the brand Bruce would have received back in Begins had he’d been initiated into the League of Shadows.
Lastly, if you ever see the movie again, pay close attention to Talia’s dialogue when she’s masquerading as Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate. She’s actually being surprisingly honest in her conversations with Bruce and rival board member John Daggett (likely a reference to Roland Daggett, a corrupt businessman created for the Paul Dini-Bruce Timm animated series), short of flat out revealing who she is. For example, she refers to Bruce’s fusion reactor as the world’s one chance for a sustainable future. It is, technically, but Talia sees using it to destroy Gotham City as a means of cleansing the world, thus saving it. There are a lot of neat gems like this, and I would transcribe them but unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the script.
Loved the look of disgust on Blake’s face after he shoots two of Bane’s henchman, as well as when he throws away his gun afterward. Of course, he grabs a shotgun minutes afterward so I’m not too sure how committed he is to Batman’s “no guns” rule.
I’ve got to say, Bruce ending up with Selina was awesome, as I’ve always been of the opinion that Batman and Catwoman are meant to be.
I mentioned it in my spoiler-free review, but I’ll say it again: Hathaway’s Catwoman/Selina was awesome, maybe the best incarnation of the character outside of the comics. It’s also funny to note that two female leads in competing superhero blockbusters this year (Hathaway in Rises, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers) wear skin-tight catsuits for a good portion of their screen time. That being said, Nolan’s cinematography avoids most of the boob/ass shots that pervade nearly every depiction of Catwoman. Good on him.
Each movie in Nolan’s trilogy takes elements from previously published Batman stories: Begins draws from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Year One and Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano’s The Man Who Falls, as well as certain elements of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Sam Hamm and Denys Cowan’s Blind Justice; The Dark Knight is based heavily on plot and thematic elements taken from both The Long Halloween and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke as well as the police interactions from Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s amazing Gotham Central series; The Dark Knight Rises, lastly, incorporates early parts of Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench and Graham Nolan’s Knightfall, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the massive Cataclysm/No Man’s Land event in the Batman books. With the wintertime, mob-ruled scenes in Gotham, I also see some similarities with Rocksteady’s excellent Batman: Arkham City game, though that’s likely a coincidence as both works were written in and around the same time.
On that last bit, I was really, really taken by the League’s occupation of Gotham and Gordon’s opposing resistance movement. It’s something I’d never thought I’d see in a superhero movie and is testament to Nolan’s willingness to go above and beyond the standard conventions in these types of movies. This element, along with the Gotham Central bits in Knight and Scarecrow’s appearance in all three movies really fleshed out Gotham as an actual city rather than the elaborate set piece it was in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films.
And finally, I never thought I would actually see Bane pick Batman up and break him over his knee in a big budget, live action movie, but holy shit I did and it was amazing.