Gotham Wars Episode III: Return of the Batman

Spoilers. Duh.

The epic trilogy has become a staple of the modern movie industry. We probably have Star Wars to thank/blame for that, though the likes of Indiana Jones, Mad Max, Back to the Future, The Matrix and Lord of the Rings certainly helped drive the pattern home. Likewise, comic book movies seem to be the new normal, if the blockbuster status of so many recent panel-to-film adaptations are any judge. Fifteen years ago, who would have expected not only a record-breaking Avengers movie, but a string of hit movies introducing the cast before they assembled into a team? Maybe it’s no surprise that these two great tastes, superhero movies and epic trilogies, have come together like chocolate and peanut butter. With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan shows he’s the first to get the mixture right, creating a new breed of superhero movie trilogy that represents its own interpretation of the Batman mythology, its own self-contained Gotham universe, its own beginning, middle and end—and that “end” is what sets it apart from most superhero stories in any medium. It’s not a perfect, either as a movie or as a Batman story, but it’s complete, and it’s something no one else has pulled off in the genre thus far.

To see what sets the Dark Knight trilogy apart from other superhero series, just take a look at what’s come before. The old Superman movies are a duology planned by Richard Donner with a couple of unrelated sequels pinned on later. There’s no underlying theme or pre-planned major character arcs tying the series together. The same goes for the 80’s/90’s Batman movies; they began as Tim Burton’s spin on the Bat mythos, and three leads and four movies later had descended into self-parody, again with no real underlying storyline or much in the way of character development. These movie universes lack consistency, and thus reality; the people on screen are cardboard cut-outs moving through shallow plots, and when it’s all over, nothing that happened in one movie matters much to the next (except for the addition of the occasional sidekick that tests well with audiences).

That’s not to say the genre hasn’t come a long way since the mid-90’s. The X-Men trilogy, for example, addressed some of those concerns, though it still lacked cohesion. Those movies feel like three stories from the same universe, but they don’t strike me as a trilogy in the sense I’m talking about—each movie is more or less its own story, and there’s no real conclusion at the end of the third film. The same goes for the Spider-Man movies, which probably came the closest to blending the superhero and epic trilogy genres before Nolan took his shot. And again we have the same problem—we have three stories about the same characters, played by the same actors, in the same universe, and we even have some repeated themes and some call-backs to earlier storylines—but there’s still no conclusion. As far as the movie universe is concerned, Peter Parker goes on having adventures as Spider-Man, just like in the comic books; the story continues, whether we get to see it or not. At the beginning of each movie, the characters exist in something of a default state, and at the end of the trilogy, the characters’ lives more or less revert back to that state, adjusting for any changes (such as dead secondary characters) the last movie made to the status quo. That’s closer to the way comic books work, of course, and in a sense those adaptations are “truer” to their respective source materials than the Dark Knight trilogy is to the original Batman mythos, but that’s not the level Nolan seems to be working on.

What Nolan seems to have aimed for instead, and what he’s mostly succeeded at creating, is a Batman universe on the same mythic plane as Star Wars (the real Star Wars, mind you, not George Lucas’ godawful fan-fiction prequels), a Gotham with its own identity and a Batman mostly independent of the decades of comic history attached to him. This isn’t the Batman of the DC Comics universe. That’s not to say he isn’t based on that Batman. Batman Begins borrows several elements from the classic Year One storyline, which details Batman’s origins and his attempts to shut down the mob in Gotham; The Dark Knight owes a debt to The Man Who Laughs (a follow-up to Year One that tells of Batman’s first encounter with the Joker) and The Long Halloween (the tragic story of Harvey Dent’s fall and Two-Face’s origin); and The Dark Knight Rises takes a similar nod from Knightfall (or, “that time Bane broke Batman’s back”). But this is a Batman who spends most of his relatively short career fighting the mob, not supervillains. Even antagonists that would have fit into Nolan’s Gotham, such as the Penguin, Harley Quinn and the Riddler, never appear, and forget about more fanciful enemies like Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Solomon Grundy or Mr. Freeze.

This is a Batman who’s Bruce Wayne deep down instead of the other way around, and you probably have to be familiar with the comics to understand what a difference that is. The gist one gets from the comics is that Bruce Wayne is the mask, the persona taken to survive in the normal world, and Batman is the real personality—Bruce Wayne doesn’t disguise himself as Batman, Batman disguises himself as Bruce Wayne. The trilogy touches on this theme repeatedly, as the comics have, but the films offer a resolution: Bruce quits being Batman after TDK, then briefly resumes the cape and cowl in TDKR before permanently discarding it again in favor of a real life. There’s a sense, as Rachel says in TDK, that Bruce needs Batman, and it’s obvious in TDKR that he’s unhappy with his eight years of retirement—but he’s still able to separate himself from that identity, still able to ultimately abandon it in favor of being Bruce Wayne, and that’s something you can’t say about the Batman of the comics. (To be fair, making time with Anne Hathaway in Paris is exactly the sort of thing that would convince most men to give up being badass superheroes.)

All that said, as much as I think Nolan’s succeeded in creating a new sub-genre, TDKR is easily the weakest part of the trilogy. That doesn’t mean it’s bad—Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the original Star Wars movies, but it’s still entertaining and a decent close to the trilogy. But much like The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight set expectations high for the third act, and neither trilogy delivers 100% on the middle chapter’s promise. I want to say again: I liked it. But there were a few things that bugged me.

For starters, and it looks like I’m not alone in this complaint, there wasn’t enough Batman in this Batman movie. We’re teased in a few early scenes where Bruce stands in front of the costume, then we get a short chase scene, two fights against Bane and some Batwing (sorry, “the Bat”) action… and I think that’s about it. Nor do we get much of Bruce Wayne; his character arc seems to sputter off into nothingness halfway through the movie, after which he languishes in a prison until the finale. If this prison gave Bruce a decent challenge to show character growth, that might have been an interesting choice, but he defeats this trap not by demonstrating intelligence or eight years of maturation since he outsmarted with the Joker, but by going through what amounts to a training montage (don’t let the lack of 80’s power ballads fool you). It’s a meaningless physical challenge for a character famous for his mental prowess.

The other central characters seem just as absent for much of the movie. Alfred, the emotional heart of the trilogy, disappears before Bruce, only to reappear at the end so he can reinforce how the writers telegraphed the ending hours before. Jim Gordon spends most of the movie in a hospital bed giving orders to new cop characters. And so those new cop characters, whose names I couldn’t remember by the time I walked out of the theater, are what we’re left with for what probably felt like more of the movie than it actually was. Here’s a hint for the directors out there—the third act of a trilogy is too late to introduce major characters and expect the audience to give a damn about them. I might have made an exception for Selina Kyle/Catwoman, except just like all the other interesting protagonists, she disappears for a good chunk of the movie’s run time.

That leaves us with the villains. Again, I hate to make unfair comparisons to TDK, where Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker carried the film, but you can’t escape those comparisons when you’re making a sequel, and neither of TDKR‘s villains is up to task of filling Ledger’s clown shoes despite the amount of screentime devoted to Bane. Nolan tricks the audience into believing for most of the film that Bane is a child who escaped the same prison Bruce is cast into (a reference to his comic origins, where he’s a child imprisoned for his father’s crimes), which feels like cheap misdirection aimed square at fans of the comic. Granted, Bane wasn’t that much of a villain in the comic either; he was created as a gimmick to “break the Bat” and fill registers with cash, just like “killing” Superman and “cloning” Spider-Man. He’s fairly true to his origins here; in the comic’s Knightfall storyline, Bane’s plan to take control of Gotham involves freeing the inmates of Arkham Asylum to plunge Gotham into chaos, then, after our hero is exhausted from back-to-back supervillain battles, Bane ambushes Batman at Wayne Manor and delivers a spine-snapping coup de gras. Nolan’s Bane frees the mobsters jailed under the Dent Act and strips Bruce of his fortune, but the underlying idea is much the same. We even get the iconic over-the-knee back-cracking from Batman #497, albeit in the sewers instead of the Bat Cave.

The problem—and this relates to the lack of Batman in the movie—is that Bane and his quarry don’t have any chemistry between them. They’re enemies, but only in the sense that they’re on different sides; every encounter between them involves communication primarily via fists. Batman and the Joker develop a relationship in TDK that mirrors their relationship in the comics—as the Joker might point out, Batman is just as crazy as he is, and the two fit together, like the twin faces on Harvey Dent’s coin. The two get to talk to each other over the course of TDK and trade philosophical barbs. There are other Bat-villains with similar relationships to our hero in the comics: Ra’s Al Ghul, who considers Bruce the only man worthy of his daughter; the Riddler, who seems to love the mind games he plays with Batman as much as his crimes; Two-Face, who was an ally of Batman when he was Harvey Dent; Catwoman, who serves as an ally and romantic partner as often as an adversary; Killer Croc, who has a long-running and very personal grudge against Batman. Bane isn’t on that level; he’s all muscle and voice-distorted menace, he’s out to take Batman down for symbolic instead of personal reasons, and like the prison, the obstacle he presents to Batman is purely physical. It doesn’t take character growth or intelligence to beat Bane, just hundreds of push-ups and a rocket launcher.

Talia Al Ghul (or Miranda Tate, as she’s known for most of the movie) is the real villain of the piece. Bane is her lackey, the apparent villain stealing everyone’s attention while she runs the scheme behind the scenes. In the comics, Talia and Bruce have a complex relationship; they love each other, and she’s been known to work with him or against him depending on her own goals, like Catwoman; she’s also the mother of his son. Several characters push Bruce toward Talia in the movie, and she’s presented as a do-gooder he can trust, which makes it a bit eye-roll-worthy when Nolan gives us a big hint that she’s evil by showing us her scar when the two have sex. I spent the rest of the movie after that scene waiting for her to betray Bruce, fairly certain that she was exactly who she ended up to be.

Again, I’m left feeling Nolan missed an opportunity with a villain here. Part of the Batman mythos is that he’s not just a rich crimefighter—he’s also one of the world’s greatest detectives. He had his origin in Detective Comics, remember? Yet he completely misses the fact that he’s sleeping with the enemy. And never mind that seconds after Talia dies, Batman waltzes over and shoves his tongue down Catwoman’s throat, so it doesn’t sound like he was blinded by love. Talia is just there in the background for most of the movie, only to show up and die at the end like her father did in Batman Begins. You could almost remove her completely without changing the rest of the movie; it feels like a waste of an iconic villain and another place where the movie misses chances for Bruce to show off his intelligence and maturity by figuring out he’s being played in favor of having him solve Gotham’s problems by punching people and riding around in military prototypes.

All that aside, I say again: The Dark Knight Rises is a good movie. There’s not a bad performance on the screen—hell, every primary performer nails it. Christian Bale has been a spot-on Bruce Wayne through this trilogy; these movies are the first time the character has felt right to me outside the comics or Batman: The Animated Series. Michael Caine is easily the definitive Alfred, and Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon could have been ripped straight out of a Frank Miller story. If Bane is a dull follow-up to the Joker, Tom Hardy’s still a pro at emoting menace with his eyes; if Selina Kyle/Catwoman doesn’t get enough screen time, Anne Hathaway still makes every second count when she’s in a scene. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, though the character he plays feels extraneous to the plot (yeah, okay, he’s this universe’s Robin—but I always thought Robin was lame even in the comics).

And while we’re talking about performers, I suppose the city of Gotham deserves some props as well. That’s right—somewhere along the way, when Batman and Catwoman are both locked in their respective prisons, the city of Gotham becomes a character in its own right. Maybe that’s what the Nolans were aiming for by removing the obvious protagonists for part of the film; if so, it was a risk, and not one that pays off like they probably hoped. Seeing a city tear itself apart while the rest of the world watches helplessly is entertaining in theory, but without characters on the inside that we can relate to (as opposed to, again, a bunch of boring new cop characters whose names I can’t remember), the sequence doesn’t have the emotional pay-off it needs.

Still, I’m left wondering about that Gotham after the end of the trilogy. All the mobsters that were put away under the Dent Act after TDK are loose on the streets again. With the prisons opened, the Joker might be free again (though his fate goes unmentioned in the film). The Scarecrow is definitely free; he also has the honor of being the only supervillain to appear in all three films. In a sense, Gotham needs the Batman more than ever—most of what he accomplished has been undone. But Batman is retired; in true epic trilogy fashion, we get the sense that the universe keeps going on, but our hero has reached the end of his journey, and that’s what sets the Dark Knight trilogy apart from all the superhero movies that came before it.

Assuming the money-grubbing cokeheads in Hollywood don’t go against Nolan’s wishes and hire a different director to pump out another sequel, of course.

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