Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gotham Noir: The Dark Knight Trilogy

The chief achievement of Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman films is to reconfigure the saga of Gotham City's caped crusader as a sprawling neo-noir graphic novel. From the start, with BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan and his collaborators sought to expand the canvas for the series. Unlike the set-bound comic-gothic theatrics of Tim Burton's Batman films or the plastic sex-toy quality of Joel Schumacher's films, BATMAN BEGINS is a full on epic. It uses real locations, jets around the globe to broaden the canvas further, fills out the cast with a gallery of supporting characters, and focuses on Bruce Wayne rather than the black body armor he wears at night. It feels less like a comic book movie and more like, well, a movie movie.

With THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan and his team kicked things up a few notches. It's conventional knowledge at this point that sequels are only as good as their villains. Nolan wisely saved the Joker--Batman's most lasting and deeply disturbing nemesis--for the second movie. With Heath Ledger's inspired performance, Joker became less of a Jack Nicholson dancing id and instead became something much more interesting. Taking their cue from the Alan Moore graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE, Nolan and his creative team turned Joker into Batman's twisted opposite. Batman represents order, the Joker represents chaos. The key insight of the film is that both of them are extremes. I won't make any grand claims about THE DARK KNIGHT as a metaphor for the current state of American justice or as a deep comment on the so-called "war on terror" that has consumed the country over the last decade. I will say, though, that like all works of art THE DARK NIGHT is a product of a certain time and place. It's almost impossible to imagine this version of Batman appearing before the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and the resulting policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. I'm not sure than Nolan has any profound statement to make on these issues, but I'm not sure he needs to, either. The defining characteristic of his series is ambivalence. Bruce Wayne is trying to walk the blurry line between the fascism of Ra's Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS and the chaos of Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. That is an unresolvable tension.

Nolan picked the perfect actor, Christian Bale, to give his hero this permanent cloud of antiheroic intensity. While Michael Keaton made Batman a neurotic--particularly in the interesting and underrated BATMAN RETURNS--and Val Kilmer and George Clooney both sank beneath a leaden leading man blandness, Bale is the first actor to play Bruce Wayne as a quasi-fascist vigilante. This interpretation owes much to the work of Frank Miller in his graphic novels BATMAN: YEAR ONE and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, as well as the Jeph Loeb graphic novels THE LONG HALLOWEEN and DARK VICTORY. It also finds some precedent in the obsessed crime fighters of noir and neo-noir: all those out-of-bounds cops in THE BIG HEAT, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, CRIME WAVE, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and DIRTY HARRY. Bale's interpretation of Batman is the first cinematic presentation of the character to question his motives and the effectiveness of his cause. Nolan's films, moreover, are the first to suggest the very noir possibility that Batman's war on crime is one he is destined to lose. In this incarnation of the character, his heroism comes from the blunt fact that he persists despite an inability to ever really win.

The series is not without its flaws. Case in point, the fight scenes. The fisticuffs in BATMAN BEGINS, in particular, are so choppy as to be indecipherable. Nolan slows things down a bit in THE DARK KNIGHT, but in the first two films there is not a single notable fight. In part, this might have something to do with the famously uncomfortable batsuit. (There's not a single good fight in any of the Burton or Schumacher films either.) But it also reflects the frantic pacing of the editing of the films. Nolan's films clip along, even when we want them to slow down so we can see (much less savor) what's happening. Compared to the ass-kicking in the Bourne films or the new Bond films, the fights in the first two Nolan Batmans are mostly a dark blur.

The first two films also suffer from the Rachel Dawes problem. Every previous attempt to give Batman a girlfriend flopped because, as a character, he's defined by his isolation. While it's an inspired choice to give Bruce Wayne a childhood friend turned hard-ass assistant-DA turned love interest turned martyred victim, Rachel Dawes somehow never comes into focus as a character in either film. The problem is casting. While both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal can be effective in the right role, neither exactly exude toughness, a quality the crusading prosecutor is supposed to have in spades. As Rachel Dawes, both actresses come across like the pretty-but-forgettable assistant-DAs who showed up on inferior seasons of LAW & ORDER. I'm not suggesting that Angie Harmon should have played Rachel, but she is probably closer to what the character needed.

Which brings us to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the last film of the trilogy and, apparently, Nolan and Bale's last go-round with the character. The new film picks up eight years after THE DARK KNIGHT and finds Batman retired. Having taken the blame for the crimes of Two-Face in the previous movie, Bruce Wayne has hung up his cape and cowl and retired to his mansion to nurse his wounds in a Hughes-like seclusion. He's drawn back into crimefighting with the appearance of a new enemy, the masked Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking figure with some kind of deadly master plan to seize control of Gotham and break the Batman.

I won't say more about the plot because a) part of the fun of Nolan's films is that they spring surprises in their storylines, and b) I'm not sure I can. Bane's exact plan, and his motivations, become clearer as the film progresses, but in the end I'm not sure they make much sense. One reason that THE DARK KNIGHT remains the best film in the trilogy is that Ledger's Joker is the most clearly defined villain. His inexplicable nature is the essence of his character. He is, in his own words, an agent of chaos, and his very lack of a motivation beyond a desire to see the world burn is his most terrifying aspect. Bane, on the other hand, is a mystery with a solution, which ultimately makes his character more convoluted. The more the movie explains him, the less it really matters. By the end, he remains a rather vague, if threatening, presence. The difference, then, between Ledger's Joker and Hardy's Bane is the difference between a truly inspired interpretation of a iconic character and a well-done, professional interpretation of a conventional character.

Having said that, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES does make for a strong finish to the series. It is a very dark film--both in terms of its story and its cinematography--but it's also a lot of fun. Bale completes his run as Batman in fine style, and Hardy makes for a formidable adversary. The usual heavy-hitting supporting cast (Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) is joined by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Matthew Modine.

The film also fixes both of the problems from the previous entries in the trilogy. The hand to hand stuff is easily the best in the series, and the two centerpiece fights between Batman and Bane are the action highlight of the film. As everyone knows by now, Bane beats Batman in the first fight, and as everyone can deduce, Batman comes back for a rematch. This emphasis on fisticuffs means that the showdowns have to be good, and they are.

Likewise, with Rachel Dawes out the picture, the movie makes room for two major female characters: the spunky Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway) and sexy Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Both actresses are perfectly cast here, with Hathaway bringing a roguish charm to her role while Cotillard is, well, Marion Cotillard, a performer of seemingly effortless intelligence, sensuality, and mystery.

Given the demands of commercial entertainment, Nolan more or less has to end on a triumphant note, but for a franchise worth billions of dollars the trilogy as a whole is a remarkably downbeat affair. I intend that last observation neither as criticism nor as praise, but merely as an observation. Whether they are a reflection of the national mood over the last decade, or a simple expression of the director's vision, the Nolan Batman films have a darkly noir heart.

Postscript:
The tragedy that occurred in Colorado the night of the film's midnight opening seems to demand acknowledgement in any piece of writing about the film, yet paradoxically I feel like discussing mass murder in conjunction with the showing of a movie (any movie) diminishes the importance of the real world event. In other words, a discussion of how and why a man would elect to murder as many of his fellow human beings as possible gains little from talking about where and when he decided to carry out his crime. Furthermore, to talk about how that event impacts the viewing experience of a motion picture strikes me, at present, as bad taste.

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