Sunday, July 29, 2012

Nolan's Gotham

*CAUTION: Spoilers!*

So I took this previous Saturday off to sit in the theater and play catch-up with some movies that I'd wanted to see for awhile: "Prometheus" and "The Dark Knight Rises." While I thought "Prometheus" was entertaining visually (but lacking in plot and story), it was "The Dark Knight Rises" that really got me thinking.

I remember hearing about the update of the franchise. I remember my initial reaction was a groan and a "why?" after the debacles that were the last several Batman movies previous. Clooney and Kilmer just didn't have the same panache that Michael Keaton's did (which is a weird thing for me to say, much less think), but those movies began with Tim Burton's appropriate level of camp and then simply devolved into nonsense and awful writing later on down the line. So it was some trepidation that I saw Nolan's first entry into the revamp.

To be frank, I loved this first film. Not only were we as an audience given two villains who had, as of yet, been put on screen (Ra's Al-Ghul and the Scarecrow), but we're also given a look at a Gotham City that is both natural and realistic while still feeling very dark and oppressive. The key to Nolan's success in all three movies has been with the absolute realism the superhero mythology has been treated. Batman is not a god, he is a rich man in an expensive suit. The Batmobile is not a slicked-out sports car, it's a military prototype with warts. The villains themselves aren't mythical or superhuman; they are intelligent, but supremely flawed men with certain gifts for science and knowledge. This is what superheroes and super-villains would look like in the real world; this is how they would operate in the real world. There's no camp here, it's all real danger being played out in the movie. These are people and events that could actually exist in our reality, which helps to heighten the level of excitement and danger.

And like I said, I was dubious. I already had a tarnished view of the Batman franchise, other than the first two with Michael Keaton. Burton's Gotham felt perfect for Burton. Nolan's Gotham feels perfect for Nolan. Two completely different approaches to the same character that both feel right for the men directing the vehicles.

Ah but then...then I heard about Heath Ledger being chosen to play the Joker. And then there were talks about the appearance of Harvey Dent/Two-Face in the next film and, while I was excited to see what Nolan had in store, my doubt reared its ugly head again. I remembered Nicholson's Joker and wondered how that could be topped. Who could possibly dance with that particular devil in any kind of light, moon or sun?

And again, my expectations were blown out of the water. Chaos, anarchy, the breaking down of morals and ethics - all things the character of the Joker stood for in the comics. Review after review said the same thing: this was the best Batman movie ever. And it wasn't just a few reviews, it was ALL of them. Even the critics who didn't completely love the movie couldn't deny that Nolan had stepped up his directorial game, that there was something undeniably stark and hard-hitting about this comic book movie that stuck in the maw of the viewer long after watching.

Ledger's death shortly before the movie came out was tragic. I had seen him in "Brokeback Mountain" and a few other flicks before, but I guess I had never realized the kind of acting range he had within him. His portrayal of the Joker was nothing less than stunning. Again, a realistic approach to a character that originated in something more fantastical and unreal (a vat of acid originally changed the man into the Joker in the comic books). Smudged white face paint, smudged red lipstick, scars leading out from the lips across the cheeks...he was walking terror and Ledger played him brilliantly. While Nicholson's Joker was great, Ledger's scared the hell out of me because I could see someone actually morphing into that version quite easily.

Again, it's Nolan's realistic approach to superheroes and villains that seems to elevate his trilogy beyond just a simple comic-book movie filled with costumes and explosions. He relishes tackling big, difficult ideas. With "The Dark Knight," it was the moral fiber of the common man versus that of the criminal and followed up with the idea of sacrifice and symbol working for the greater good to press on, to continue living after the fear subsides. There is deep, deep storytelling and morality play-work going on in these movies, which only serves to suck the viewer in further.

So as I sat in the theater yesterday, waiting for the lights to dim and the previews to scream across the screen, my doubts about this third and final nail in the Nolan trilogy were firmly laid to rest. I chose to purposely not read any articles or spoilers about the movie.

I had my own ideas about what would happen to Batman versus Bane (a character who, in the comics, breaks Batman's back severely, making him a paraplegic), but I've also got a pretty dark bent to my imagination and should've known better. In this final entry, Nolan sends us eight years after the end of "The Dark Knight." Batman is essentially a fugitive to the people of Gotham after having taken the blame for killing Harvey Dent. The Batman has disappeared, the cops have reclaimed the city, and things have mostly been quiet. Bruce Wayne has become a hermit and the world seems to be doing okay without the caped crusader.

Until Bane shows up and begins causing problems in the underground part of the city. I was a little confused at first as all these little bits of criminal activity didn't seem to fit together and then ka-blammo...the moment comes when it all hits, when the world starts crumbling around Gotham and leaves the city exiled and under Bane's control while Batman lies, back broken and ill, in a foreign prison only one person has ever escaped from; Bane himself.

In the comics, Bane is attached to several tubes that pump a drug called 'Venom' into his system, making him bigger and stronger as long as he takes it once every 12 hours. This particular aspect of his personality is removed while the mask remains (due to injuries he received years earlier in the prison). Bane is realistically strong without being campy and ridiculous, so it's no surprise when an already semi-wounded Batman gets taken down and imprisoned easily.

The side-story here is that of Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, aka, Catwoman. Where Pfeiffer's Catwoman walked a weird kind of bi-polar line, Hathaway plays the role in a more deliberate, apathetic way and it works. I read a few things and heard some people say they didn't enjoy her in the movie, but I totally loved her in the role despite having disliked the idea when I first heard she'd been cast. She makes for a great middle ground between Batman and Bane and even provides most of the movie's humor in great ways.

What happens to Gotham is feasible; what happens to Batman is feasible. This is both the beauty and the terror of Nolan's Gotham City. These aren't people with special powers, they're extraordinary people doing extraordinary things under extraordinary conditions. But it's believable, which lends it a power previous inceptions (ha!) of the movie didn't contain. The moral quandaries that Nolan proposes don't feel saccharine and over the top; they're real questions that demand answers. At the very least, they demand the viewer to think about what they themselves would do in the situation and that is what makes his trilogy so good.

Now, let's talk about that ending...

One: I'm a little disappointed that Batman/Bruce Wayne didn't actually die. That was my initial belief before the movie even started. But again, I should've known better as it's Hollywood and I've already read rumors of the franchise getting rebooted in a few years. Though I think the next person will have a really hard time topping Nolan. Either way, it's inferred that Wayne moves on and starts a new life with Selena Kyle at the end.

Two: It's also inferred that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character would be taking over for Wayne, that he would be eventually donning the cape and cowl in an effort to protect the city on his own terms. I loved this. I also hated this as I know Nolan has said he's not making another movie and I think Gordon-Levitt would make an exceptional Robin (though at this point, he wouldn't be a sidekick and I'm sure the point was that he'd become the new Batman, not something else). Either way, that led to pretty mixed-emotions for me as I think Gordon-Levitt has turned out to be a pretty phenomenal actor in most of the things he's done recently. It'd be a shame if he weren't allowed to flex a little superhero muscle in another movie of this franchise, especially since he's got the youthful look a Robin needs to have. I'm hoping for spin-off, but I know better.


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