The Fire Rises!

Four years ago, Kristin and I attended the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight, and it was a night to remember for sure- Kristin was exhausted at the prospect of our third midnight premiere of that summer and the painfully early morning at work awaiting her in only a few hours. My friend Arielle was there with a fellow counselor from the Salvation Army camp she was working at that summer, a friend on loan from Ireland whom I had just met about five hours previous. My friends Zach and Joel were there representing the ridiculous (as per the usual); volleying a large beach ball back and forth over the immense line of people stretching out from the theater was one of their more noteworthy antics that evening. 

We drove to Madison for the premiere because Janesburg in the immensity of its wisdom wasn’t offering, but I kinda forgot along the way how exactly to get to the theater we had ordered our tickets at. After three failed attempts on my part to get us there and three circuitous reroutes around its coordinates, Arielle commenced with a nervous breakdown. “AAAAGH!” she suddenly howled, her psyche detonating like a hand grenade in the back seat. “Just get me there OR I’M GONNA PUKE!” 

That was a little tense, but about the only hiccup I can recall.

I was pumped out of my mind because of all the critical hype the film was generating, and the mystique that surrounded it due to Heath Ledger’s death, but I was still quite uncertain, almost a little wary, of how the plot and the Joker’s characterization would take shape. A good Joker’s hard to find- how do you arrive at the proper equilibrium between clown and sociopath? Corny celluloid Batman villains are a done a dozen- just ask Joel Schumacher. It’s easier to duplicate the camp of Adam West Batmania than it is to thoughtfully engage the characters as they are in the comics and attempt to do them justice in their depiction. Even the Tim Burton Batman movies, the finest of the original four, are too hokey for me- the cartoonish elements blunt the horror of the absurd becoming real, which to me is the essence of the Joker. 

Against this background, The Dark Knight ended up exploding my juvenile expectations with ease: this was a terrifying Joker, unpredictable in his frenzies of twisted, brilliant fury. Too many movie villains make threats and are too dense to follow through with them. The Joker makes no threats; he makes promises, and he delivers every single time. Here was a villain one rightfully should be afraid of, a man so without boundaries, you wonder after a while if he really is human. Ledger’s portrayal was so genuine, I repeatedly forgot I was watching an actor portraying a character- this was the Joker, Chaos incarnate, a personification of a fallen world’s bent towards entropy and annihilation.

So now fast forward four years, and here we are attending the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises with Henry, Charis, and Zoey.  Now we’re married with a little boy, and we’re not Janesvillagers anymore- now we actually live in a town that wants midnight revenue for new movies! Win.

I’ve been excited about this final installment of the Batman saga ever since I first heard it was in production, but it was the eight minute teaser with Bane seven months ago that really stoking my anticipation. A familiar feeling arose however as the release date approached: How do you possibly up the ante of intensity The Dark Knight so famously laid down? How do you deliver more while simultaneously delivering something new? Hollywood protocol calls for increasing the quantity of what made the last movie successful but qualitatively not changing a thing. It was crucial that The Dark Knight Rises not be a doubly exhausting Dark Knight, a mere performance enhanced rehash of what made that film so incredible. Having Christopher Nolan at the helm again helped to calm some of my anxiety, but the threat of letdown loomed over each Dark Knight Rises poster I saw.

Suffice to say, it was mad awesome. Fear not; The Dark Knight Rises rises above the standard set by The Dark Knight without in any way repeating it.

I admire what Christopher Nolan has done with the Batman trilogy; he has taken an enormous comics mythology and succeeded at telling a story that is both faithful to that mythology and able to stand on its own two feet as an original creation (most comic book movies scarcely succeed at one of these, much less both!). In my purist elitist days I no doubt would’ve bemoaned his decision not to dramatize any of the classic story arcs from the comics, but maturity has finally begun to catch up with me. 

Here’s the dilemma that arises out of committing yourself to making a Batman movie: the comics represent eighty years of story lines stemming from dozens of different writers through six different contemporaneous series, each one possessing the barest hint of continuity with the others. Inconsistency rules the roost when it comes to comic series (that last longer than a year, anyway); contradictions and reversals inevitably mar any attempt at continuity when there no structure to the overall saga and no end in sight. Sure, a particular plot may require a dozen issues to be resolved, but after that, what? Each story is generally its own self-contained, self-referential bubble, disconnected from any sort of larger metanarrative. Year after year, Batman just keeps on doing… stuff. Forever, apparently. Perpetually 36 years old and buff as ever, Batman is destined in the comics world to remain a vigilante Peter Pan of sorts.

This is what makes Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the Iron Man movies so good- rather than arbitrarily selecting one particular strand of story to adapt from hundreds of possible candidates, why not instead faithfully translate the characters to the big screen in a recognizable and authentic way, and then, using the relationships that exist between them all, and the motifs that propel the series, design a new scenario to test their limits within, one with nods to some classic comic storylines, but still unique in its own right? Because it’s uber difficult, that’s why! Nevertheless, both of these series have stared the challenge in the face and succeeded admirably, to the delight of rabid comic geeks and slightly more domesticated moviegoers the world over.

I have no intention whatsoever of spoiling The Dark Knight Rises for anyone; I will not get in the way of your socks, flip flops, or expectations getting rocked. I will say that the film’s pacing is masterful, that is to say, agonizing, in the development of the narrative and the unfolding of Bane’s plot to destroy Gotham and Batman both. The plot is labyrinthine enough to maintain the limited third person realism of a large conspiracy slowly being unveiled, detail by shadowy detail, but straightforward enough that the narrative never loses traction and starts kicking up mud. 

In keeping with my promise, I won’t expound upon any revelations from the movie itself. I just want to briefly explore two reasons why Bane is an awesome final nemesis for Batman:

1. Bane is the totality of the being behind the mask. Bruce Wayne, however, has been split for the last two films between his identity as Batman and his adopted persona of Bruce Wayne. He is most himself when he can uninterruptedly be Batman; when he dons the mask of Bruce Wayne he must self-consciously and unnaturally think and act as this artificial personality. He is closest to something like actualization of self when he can be as Batman, but the barrier of mask prevents him arriving fully at personhood. Wayne’s being is exhausted between these antitheses, but Bane is wholly himself at all times, without guise or pretense, able to spontaneously and purely be without hindrance. He is undivided will wedded to monstrous strength, an indomitable, fully actualized force. Bane’s unity of purpose and will threatens to crush Batman/Bruce Wayne’s dichotomized selves.

2. The the choice of Bane as villain presents Batman with his first foe who is his physical superior. This isn’t to say he doesn’t have any brains, but just plain looking at the dude makes you feel a little squeamish. Bane has all the Joker’s  ruthless determination of will, but is at the same time a concentration of pure, unbridled strength.  Subtle isn’t really a word in Bane’s vocabulary, but why would it be? He’s a hulking mountain of a man, brimming with brute strength; “menacing” borders on insulting understatement when it comes to him. He exudes threat simply by being onscreen. The Joker is the frighteningly lucid architect of nightmares he masterfully coerces you to live within; Bane is the wrecking ball mercilessly obliterating first your illusion of control, then yourself. 

Basically, Bane is terrifying, but even the awesomeness of his inclusion in the film is only one element of its overall fantasticity. The movie as a whole is only about an inch or so short of awe inspiring… if that. Christopher Nolan shows no signs of halting his crusade of incredible storytelling and mind blowing action. After adrenaline levels have returned to something approximating normal, believers will have plenty to mull over, too, on the nature of identity and of evil, and how to oppose it. So do yourself a favor and go see it twice, consecutively. Right now. 

Seriously.

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