Movies: The Dark Knight Rises

…based on Bob Kane’s Batman, written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer, directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy.

The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment of the Nolan brothers’ take on the Batman Mythos, has been criticized and praised alike with heavy-handed gusto by media and culture critics.  You’ll hear how it’s violent, bleak, self-indulgent.  It’s epic, intricate, spectacularly visual.  Dark Knight Rises is guilty of all.  The film also carries considerable baggage: the crazy expectations that seem to accompany any Chris Nolan project, the legacy of the last film, the Dark Knight, which receives too much credit for a number of reasons, not to mention carrying the standard for the entire DC Comics/Warner Brothers line.  A crushing weight, Man-of-Steel worthy.

And Batman and the Nolans are up for it.  This is an awesome film.  Awesome in its most literal sense.  DKR pushes the boundaries of super-hero/anti-hero narrative.  It engages in multi-layered, multi-generational story telling.  It takes this version of Batman – a contemporary characterization that still retains the essential elements – breaks him down, examines his ethos, and brings him back from the brink.  Visuals, performances, character arcs – its’ all there.  The movie is a cut or two above…

And DKR does not achieve this in a vacuum.  Nolan and company employ a secret weapon (that’s not so secret to comic book fans):  years and years of great Batman stories from DC Comics, including Knightfall, which introduced the Bane character, but most importantly the great Frank Miller treatise, The Dark Knight Returns.

You may have heard of The Dark Knight Returns, even if you’re not into comics.  Considered by many as one of the greatest of all graphic novel stories, Miller’s DKR has been on short-lists and college syllabuses for two decades now (including a couple of lectures taught by yours truly).  This is an all-time Beemsville fave, a comic book and storytelling standard of comparison.  It’s about a middle-aged Bruce Wayne taking up the cape and cowl after retiring years earlier, squaring off with old enemies, finding that true justice and inner peace still elude him.  He must surrender to his psychosis – not only for himself but for Gotham City.

And just as the Nolan brothers utilized Frank Miller’s Batman Year One for Batman Begins, used Alan Miller’s The Killing Joke while making The Dark Knight, they’ve mined some of the best elements of The Dark Knight Returns for this movie.  It’s a lesson that bears repeating for filmmakers when referencing comics:  respect and use the source material.

The best moments of the film echo those memorable pages from Miller’s story – the political/societal context, the conflict of Bruce Wayne’s new life and the pull of the Batcave.  The mistakes he makes when he does return and faces a younger, more savage breed of villain.  The symbolic resonance of Batman for Gotham, his fall and road to eventual triumph, and some of those climatic moments and revelations with vital characters from Batman’s past.

There are differences, too.  Miller’s Batman, a self-aware psychotic, quickly realizes he can only function when he embraces the masked alter-ego wholly, that everything else is facade; Nolan would provide his Bruce Wayne an out, a means to exist beyond Batman, which presents an ambitious step in the character arc, building upon the first two movies.

These were the moments that made my skin prickle, that had me grinning like a young kid.

But you don’t need to be a Dark Knight Returns aficionado to enjoy and absorb Dark Knight Rises.  After all, this movie has Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman in key supporting roles.  It has the Hans Zimmer score and the Nolan visual tempo.  They work in Catwoman, crazy urban chase scenes, and the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction without missing a beat.  The plot is intricate, meticulous, and takes full advantage of what you know (or think you know) about the Batman Mythos.

At the same time, we realize this movie isn’t for everyone.  It is lengthy, and the plot and multiple character arcs demand some attention.  If you’re not up for active viewing and using the old melon, you’re better off with the latest buddy comedy or shoot-em-up.

The story also takes characters with whom we’ve become emotionally invested, and subjects them to a variety of Very Bad Things.  It’s uncomfortable at points, wrenching – as it should be.  And I could tell the Mrs. was becoming concerned and even annoyed as Bad Things continued to happen to Bruce and company.  Some people don’t enjoy mental/psychological jujitsu.

But the payoff is worth it, as she readily agreed.  The Nolans come through.  Bottom line: If you are any kind of Batman or comic book fan, you simply cannot miss this film.

First we get Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, and now this one.  What a year for geeks at the movies.

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