Batman: Nolan pulled it off

Before I begin, I should note that I’m not a huge fan of the Batman comics. I never had the money or access to read comics growing up. I’ve read some of the seminal works – Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, for example – but I’ve never read a long-term storyline.

That said, I’m a huge fan of Batman on screen. The 1960s TV show, the Justice League cartoon from the 1970s-1980s, the Batman animated series of the early 1990s, the original four movies from Tim Burton and (allah help us all) Joel Schumacher and the first two mind-blowing movies from Christopher Nolan.

So I was one of several million eagerly anticipating The Dark Knight Rises. I saw it a few weeks ago, and rather than react instantly, I decided to let it percolate a bit before commenting.

* It’s a success. There aren’t a helluva lot of successful movie trilogies, beginning to end, out there, and none of them involve superheroes. Nolan’s Dark Knight trio rises to the occasion. It’s not that I love everything about each of the movies. But as a trilogy, they work. I often thought about the last season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer while watching the Dark Knight Rises: Go back to the beginning. The idea that the League of Assassins is an organization of sleeper cells designed to regenerate time after time is brilliant, effectively executed and (as I understand it) fairly true to the comics, as well as reflecting the current state of terror groups around the globe. Batman/Bruce Wayne thinks he’s saved Gotham for the last time, yet he cannot escape the League of Assassins and his part in taking them down the first time they tried to Soddom-and-Gomorrah Gotham. The theme, that of being unable to escape history, is a huge part of the Bruce Wayne construction and his evolution as Batman. Nolan takes that outside of the death of the Wayne parents and it’s effect on Bruce, which has been touched on in every Batman product ever, and brings it back around to Batman the hero, his history, his demons.

* It’s not cheesy. Nolan made Batman … serious. Would anyone from the four 1980s-90s films have won an Oscar? Not even Nicholson pulled it off. But Heath Ledger’s posthumous honor for his turn as the Joker was well-deserved and would have happened even if he hadn’t passed. There’s no other superhero franchise that can lay claim to being a serious cinematic endeavor. The Dark Knight trio is just that: Dark, layered, engaging. Nolan takes what he does well, stories of great depth and troubled heroes – see Inception and Memento – and applies it to a guy in tights and a cape. Darkness is not unique to the comic, but to the screen Batman, it’s huge. This may be the most important thing that Nolan accomplished, and when someone goes to reboot the franchise, they are going to be working under a huge shadow.

* No girl power. I thought Nolan effectively employed Carrie Anne Moss in Memento and Marion Cotillard in Inception. But the women of Batman – Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ann Hathaway – are cardboard cutouts. Holmes is almost painful to watch in Batman Begins. Maggie Gyllenhaal is given nothing to work with. Cotillard is good but gets lost in a large cast. Hathaway, though, is the biggest casting mistake. Catwoman is temptation embodied, the ultimate seduction, sex on a stick. I never once got any heat from Hathaway, I never felt like she outsmarted or outplayed Batman, and I kept thinking “More Marion” every time Hathaway was on screen. I never felt like she seduced Batman, which, of course, meant she didn’t seduce the audience. Cotillard stole her thunder, with significantly less screen time. Hathaway was a poor choice and, much like Gyllenhaal, not given a ton to work with.

* Some problems. I thought the idea of having Alfred leave so he wouldn’t have to watch Bruce waste away or kill himself tilting a windmills was inspired, in part because it moved one piece of an overcrowded cast out of the way and in part because I’d never seen that done. That said, it didn’t add much to the movie except during the cheesy ending. I loved Joseph-Gordon Levitt right up until he said his name was Robin (worst twist since Shyamalan’s The Village). Bane was initially very intimidating, but in the end came off a bit … weak. Again, he kind of got lost in the oversized cast. I wanted more about him, more from him. As soon as Miranda (Cotillard) said she grew up poor, I knew she was with the League of Assassins. (If I’d had five more minutes, I’d have realized she was Ra’s’ daughter, because I kept thinking “The child in the pit doesn’t look like Bane.” I was this close). Plus, the ghetto chiropractor that cured Bruce Wayne’s broken back in the third-world prison … that was cringe-inducing, not in an ouch-that-would-hurt sort of way, but in a that-was-stupid sort of way.  I don’t think any of this ultimately undermines the movie, but it makes it less satisfying than Nolan’s first two Batman flicks.

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