Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Dark Knight Trilogy

In the immediate wake of viewing a blockbuster film like The Dark Knight Rises, my usual instinct is to want to write up a review. But honestly - and I swear this is entirely unrelated to the fact that I've gotten out of the habit of writing reviews regularly these past few months :p - I'm not sure I could write anything substantially different or more interesting than what a thousand other reviewers are probably already writing, and it almost seems pointless to write anything if all it consists of is "awesome movie, P.S. Catwoman was hot". But, I did just re-watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in preparation for seeing the conclusion to the trilogy, so I thought maybe it would be the perfect opportunity for me to - briefly - consider Christopher Nolan's Batman saga as a whole, and explain what I liked about it (as I did, very much, like it).

(Spoilers ahead!)

First and foremost, I like that Nolan approached the saga from a very serious perspective, with an emphasis on realism. Batman was always on the grittier and more serious end of the superhero spectrum (and is largely the reason I've liked him above and beyond most superheros), and so it's quite fitting. But even beyond that, it's fascinating to see Batman and Gotham City's charismatic villains interpreted as if they were real people with relatively realistic means and motives, as opposed to a campy caped crusader fighting colorful cartoon criminals.

Batman Begins (2005)

The beauty of Batman Begins is largely in the psychological background that provides Bruce Wayne's motivation to become Batman, as well as his psychological struggle against his fears, and his desire for justice. Fear (and overcoming it) is the overarching theme, reflected also in the character of The Scarecrow, whom I enjoyed very much seeing for the first time in a big screen Batman movie. Another of the successes of Nolan's Batman franchise was his successful combination of more and less popular Batman villains - creating a balance between the faces Batman fans wanted to see, and some of the less popular villains that nevertheless suited the movie's themes most perfectly.

Take Ra's al Ghul, for example. I hold no claim to diehard Batman fandom, not being an avid comic reader, but I'd like to consider myself more than just a casual fan, having grown up with the live action TV series and the acclaimed animated series (as well as the previous movie adaptations), but Ra's al Ghul doesn't stand out in my mind as being one of the quintessential Batman villains (maybe he just wasn't iconic enough). Yet in Batman Begins he takes on a position of primary importance, featuring prominently in Batman's origin arc, and setting up the conflict that bookends the movie series - that of Gotham vs. the League of Shadows. It works really well, and it also serves to give the movie a flavor of authenticity - "we're using the villain that suits the story, not just the one who's the flashiest."

The Dark Knight (2008)

That having been said, you can't have Batman without The Joker, and the second movie in the trilogy, The Dark Knight, features two of the saga's most iconic villains (the other one, in this case, being Two Face). The beauty of The Dark Knight, in my opinion, is in the ideas it confronts, both in the comparison between Batman, The Dark Knight, and Harvey Dent, Gotham's White Knight, and also in the character of The Joker himself. All hype aside, Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is excellent, and the villain's role in the series is unique. He is the wild card, the psychotic who does not desire money or power or notoriety - he just wants to watch the world burn, and not for allegedly altruistic historical reasons, but just to show that it can. Batman Begins tackles the political philosophies of crime and justice, while The Dark Knight confronts anarchy, and the darkness within the hearts of all men.

Meanwhile, Harvey Dent's meteoric rise as a political celebrity after making unprecedented headway on cleaning the streets of Gotham City throws Batman's own vigilante actions into doubt and suspicion. Gotham needs a hero with a face, accountable for his actions, while Batman is willing to become a villain in the eyes of the public because he needs the advantages that only being outside the realm of law can provide. This theme is revisited in The Dark Knight Rises, as Batman's unknowing protégé, Officer "Robin" Blake, eventually comes to the same conclusion about the obstacle that rules present in the way of justice.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

But the purpose of The Dark Knight Rises is to conclude Batman's story arc, and in that process we're treated to a revival of the League of Shadows subplot, in the midterm aftermath of the late Harvey Dent's effective cleansing of Gotham's streets. But under those streets a new threat is growing, in the form of Bane, another less than iconic Batman villain (impressively constructed in this adaptation) who nevertheless poses a major threat to Gotham City, and who is able to go so far as to overpower an aging and weary Batman in sheer brute strength, and very nearly succeed in his plan to raze Gotham to the ground, after already turning the city's political order on its head.

Batman recruits some doubtful aid, however, in the form of a truly iconic Batman character, the not-quite-hero, not-quite-villain Catwoman. Here she is played to excellent effect by Anne Hathaway, who manages to do the character full justice, without stepping on the toes of (or trying to outdo) Michelle Pfeiffer's unforgettable previous performance in that role. Eventually, the loose ends are tied up, Gotham is saved once more, and Batman retires (for good this time) and starts a new life away from the troubles of his hometown. The city finally recognizes unambiguously the service Batman has paid to them, and a new light shines with a promise of protection from potential future threats.

The trilogy finished, I am left partly satisfied, and partly desiring for more. There are so many other iconic characters to tackle! The Riddler, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Batgirl, Harley Quinn (I thought Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played Rachel Dawes opposite The Joker in The Dark Knight, would have made a perfect Harley Quinn, and so was considerably disappointed when the movie failed to go that route). I realize that if they kept pumping out movies just for the sake of bringing these characters to life, the quality of those movies would probably suffer, and that that's probably largely what destroyed the previous Batman movie franchise (that, or Tim Burton's lack of involvement in the latter sequels). But my desire to see these characters reinterpreted in a new age, from the serious and realistic perspective that Nolan has brought to the saga, is strong. I may have to go back and re-watch those older movies just to satisfy my craving, for whatever good that may do...

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