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The Dark Knight Rises and Selina Kyle

A life-consuming dissertation and a lack of excitement about Nolan's latest offering meant that by the time I managed to see The Dark Knight Rises, several key points had already been inadvertantly spoiled. Thankfully a combination of my truly appalling memory and an overwhelming gullibility when watching films resulted in me promptly forgetting said spoilers and enjoying the film with fresh eyes. That said, this piece contains spoilers.

I should have been excited of course. The opening shots from The Dark Knight are still etched into my otherwise awful memory banks, as daylight - daylight! - shone on Gotham before insanity was unleashed. The Dark Knight was a juggernaut of a film, jumping straight into the action with the understanding that the groundwork had already been laid in Batman Begins. The utter freedom of a second film in a trilogy - no need for a solid beginning or ending, just all middle - meant that the film never stopped. In fact half way through it pivots and hits reverse, screaming into a new direction that left more conventional linear films seem old and stale.
Killer heels

As a fan of the Batman comics, the knowledge that Bane was to feature as the main villain should have soothed my brain, still recovering from the visual assault of Tron Legacy. The Knightfall books are solid comics, and Vengeance of Bane (which details his origins and is included in the Knightfall collected editions) is a particular favourite of mine. A run-down Batman, emotionally and physically exhausted, is broken by Bane. Not only in the physical sense but, and just as importantly, psychologically as well. Bane frees the inmates from the Asylum, and wears down his target. Unlike Schumacher's brawny interpretation, Bane is not only massive but of extreme intelligence. In a matter of hours he deduces just who Batman is, and seeks to break both sides of the man.

And of course, Catwoman. Favourite of my Gotham characters, in comics and film form (we do not speak of the self-titled film), star of a large bulk of my comic titles, and inspiration behind much of my writing. From the moment her involvement was announced both she, and Anne Hathaway, were surrounded by a media buzz. A media that might not know who Bane was - or for that matter Jim Gordon and most others - but they sure as hell knew who the slinky cat burglar was. From Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, and Eartha Kitt to Michelle Pfeiffer and now Hathaway, Catwoman is as iconic a character as Batman himself, alongside the Joker of The Dark Knight and Burton's Batman. As a woman though, media and fan focus on her tends to take a rather different angle, scrutinising her looks and sex appeal far more than they do her fitness or apparent ability to rob a safe. But Catwoman has built her character on that very sex appeal, leading to many critics conflating sexuality and sexualisation. Catwoman possesses the former, but is still capable of being targeted by the latter.

Yet after The Dark Knight, I was done. I happily consumed the madcap adventures of the Marvel heroes, being as they are a completely different animal, but I knew that Nolan, and Batman, had hit the top. Greater than the sum of its parts, there was no improving on The Dark Knight, and the shadow that Heath Ledger had cast upon the role has ensured its legend. The knowledge that "Catwoman" would be in the next instalment alarmed rather than enticed me. A difficult character to get right, now in the hands of a director not well renowned for the fate of women in his films.

Tom Hardy as Bane

Fortunately, such low expectations can only ever be exceeded, and this was perhaps to my advantage. The Dark Knight Rises does not match The Dark Knight, but it is a great film all the same, and a strong finish for the trilogy. The opening sequence not only embraces daylight - as in fact does much of the film - but takes place in the air, far from Gotham, with villainous planning that would put even Bruce's gadgetry to shame. This distance serves to highlight just how small Batman's domain really is, and when we find him eventually as a recluse of several years, shut down since the death of Rachel, Bane's might is further underscored.

A glamorous Selina Kyle bamboozles the decrepit Bruce, and brings a much needed light touch to proceedings ("Oops"), stealing scenes as well as jewellery as she effortlessly outwits Batman while unwillingly helping Bane's associates. Anne Hathaway is one of the stars of the show, channelling the kitsch of the '60s television series while not looking terribly out of place in Nolan's hyper-realistic Gotham. Her lines, along with Michael Caine's tear jerking monologues, are what reflect some depth of character within Bruce, who is otherwise somewhat relegated to the sidelines.

Tom Hardy does well with Bane, turning in a sinister performance despite a costume that leans towards the pantomime-Schumacher end of the scale. Reviewers have had endless fun describing his vocals - "like Sir Ian McKellen gargling meths in a wind tunnel" is a particular favourite - but in fact he sounds almost identical to a slightly muffled Peter O'Toole, a harsh edged stage voice which perhaps explains the frequent comparisons to those other darlings of the stage, McKellen and Patrick Stewart. The audio for Bane has been cleared up dramatically, with a slightly higher voice making his wording easier to discern. The only real problem is that the voice of Bane rarely sounds like it is coming from the mouth of Bane - his words hang across the front of the scene, like a documentary narrator. This disconnect is rather jarring in the opening sequence, but the viewer soon adjusts, and his creepy theatrical voice is in good contrast to his overwhelming bulk.

Bane vs Bats by H. Caldwell Tanner ‏Bane vs Bats, alternative edit!

Alongside Hathaway though, the other star is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, a police officer and new character, who is portrayed as highly intelligent, a natural detective, and with a simmering anger underneath. Sound familiar? If we were having difficulties realising it, the point is further hammered home by stating that Blake is an orphan, and a last minute reveal of his full name is a cheeky nod to the comics. Gordon-Levitt is, arguably of course, the star of the film. The dark knight who rises is not Bruce Wayne alone, and while this is Nolan's final Batman adventure, he has ended it with a new beginning, coming full circle on his Batman Begins. He has also - surprising me - not ended on a grim final note, but a hopeful opening on a new chapter. Finish with the audience crying for more rather than commiserating over the end of the trilogy - marvellous.

The film does drag slightly in the middle, and it's here that those few negative reviews really get their teeth into the various plot threads that don't quite make sense. As a comics fan, I'm quite aware that this dragged more for me because I was expecting something else: in Knightfall when Batman is broken and out of commission, a new person takes over the cowl and keeps the villains at bay, before succumbing to darkness himself and needing a helping hand from the triumphantly returned Wayne; in No Man's Land, when Gotham is similarly cut off from the rest of the world and run by madmen, others again step up to the plate and try and keep things together until the big Bat himself shows up. With all the talk of Batman's mask meaning that anyone could be the Dark Knight, I was waiting for someone else to step into his shoes. Yet we really did have to wait for Bruce to pull himself out of a giant hole in the middle of nowhere, after having his back cracked back into place, and to return to Gotham in the space of less than three months.

Nightwing Fan Poster

For all the hyper-realness of Nolan's trilogy though, it is still based on a series of superhero comics books, a medium that specialises in plotting the highly improbable. In Knightfall Bane doesn't kill Batman because he sees no need - Wayne is broken in both body and mind, after being subjected to a reign of terror when all his most insane enemies, including the Joker, are unleashed on the city at once. Batman is beaten, fully, and hands over to a younger man. In the film it is Blackgate Prison that is unleashed on Gotham, a much more tangible threat to a world terrified of terrorists and lone gunmen, and the breaking of Wayne's mind is to watch his city burn. That we have to have him dropped in a prison pit, which coincidentally tells us more about Bane's origin and gives us a handy theme tune on the subjects of rising and hope, is something you just have to swallow in this kind of film. It's Batman for goodness sake, much more implausible things happen to him every month in his various comics.

Two things were overplayed in the run up to this film, not by the film makers themselves but by the media: the role of Catwoman, and the similarities to the Occupy movement. Much was made of Catwoman's slinky outfit and her ridiculously high heels, with fingers pointed at Hathaway demanding to know just how sexy she could be in the role (and some truly awful interviewers who insisted on focusing on her body rather than her acting). In fact Selina Kyle exudes supreme self-confidence,  a cocky cat-burglar with a conscience, furious with the rich yet protective of those weaker than herself. She makes some mistakes, outwits people time and again, and pulls through as the good character we all know her to be. She's one of the very few "villainous" characters in the Batman stable that can successfully tease and manipulate Batman, precisely because she's not that villainous at all. She steals from the rich - it's not a crime many can condemn her for when compared to what the Joker got up to.

Selina Kyle

Her spiky heels have serrated edges, acting as knives and deterrents, while her slinky outfit guarantees that men underestimate her and end up disarmed and unconscious. Most tellingly, at no point does the camera linger upon her more curvaceous areas, yet she exudes sex appeal - on her own terms. Film makers and comic creators, take note! Catwoman does not have a major role in this film compared to Bane and Batman, but the attachment of her name led to a media frenzy. Some fans may be disappointed that she isn't in more scenes, but I think this deliberate downplaying actually helps highlight her screen time all the more. And wonder of wonders, her main purpose isn't as a love interest. Batman appears to regard her as an equal, with respect for her talents.

Pre-release set shots whipped up an excitement that Nolan had somehow predicted the Occupy movement that dominated the headlines in late 2011 and earlier this year. The truth is a rather different story, with the convicts of Blackgate Prison taking back the city (mention of how they were held without parole is somewhat brushed aside when seemingly all of them happily grab guns on the way out), supposedly rich people being sentenced by Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow, to death or exile (also death), and the police being the ones who fight back for the people alongside Batman. The people themselves, I guess, were busy. To balance out the celebration of authority over anarchy, Blake is astounded when the outside forces choose to blow up a bridge rather than let him help people and children escape. This is perhaps less a condemnation of brainless jurisdiction though than it is a reminder of why we should support the vigilantism of Batman, and the breaking of the rules by Gordon. A handy lesson for Blake as he ponders his new career.

Bat Logic by Kelly AngelAh, I see - Bat logic!

Batman's refusal to use guns is underscored at least twice, yet the subjugation of Gotham is accomplished when Bane's army break into Batman's armoury. That several cars are exploded by Catwoman on the Batpod is also ignored, but to be fair Batman tends to only use weapons that disarm firepower around him, resulting in an all out slapfight at the end. (Although he does lead heat seeking missiles to collide with other vehicles and buildings, both surely with occupants...)

Finally, there is Talia al Ghul, a character I managed to completely forget was in this (huzzah!) which led me to thinking that Miranda Tate seemed awfully suspicious. My complete gullibility, and distracting knowledge of the comics, meant that I really enjoyed the reveal of her true nature. And Marion Cotillard is of course fantastic when she plays evil, with her and Bane's devotion no doubt inspiring legions of fanfic writers in the coming months. Cotillard, along with Gary Oldman to a lesser extent, was underused which rather undermined her final betrayal. Her fanaticism, alongside Bane and his original company, was however very well played.

Add a nuclear bomb to the mix, Alfred at breaking point, past revelations and backstories, and even Owen from Torchwood, and this film has a hell of a lot going on. But it works. It's not the unending glee of The Dark Knight, but it is tightly strung edge-of-the-seat stuff, with characters you can believe in and an ending you can cheer for.

Dozier's Batman was deliciously kitsch, Burton's brilliantly goth, and Schumacher's ridiculously pantomime. Nolan manages to take the best of all three - the camp, the dark, and the light - and give us something just real enough to be disturbing, and just fantastical enough to be fun.

And Selina Kyle is portrayed extremely well - kudos to Hathaway and Nolan both.

Selina Kyle

Note - coming second to The Dark Knight doesn't mean The Dark Knight Rises is a four star film. It is top notch by itself.

Comments (2) Trackbacks (2)
  1. I absolutely loved the film. I did notice the plot holes and typical dramatic moments, but I allowed them to be there without hating the film in any way, despite what numerous critics have said. Because it’s after all a superhero movie – it cannot be completely realistic and the plot completely tight. It wouldn’t be fun then. This is as realistic and entertaining as a superhero movie gets.
    I agree that Anne did a great job and Catwoman was portrayed well but I expected her to be a bit more athletic in shape, not in a sexual way but in a realistic way. We see Bruce working out and getting stronger but Selina on the other hand is a little too skinny to be kicking ass. Even Black Widow looked believable in her action scenes.
    Joker’s character and performance was legendary and although Bane didn’t match up, his portrayal was awesome nonetheless. I completely agree with your bottom line: “Coming second to The Dark Knight doesn’t mean The Dark Knight Rises is a four star film. It is top notch by itself.”

  2. I’m happy to see you were surprised by Talia as well. I avoided the media hype and anything about this film so I could go in fresh. Great review!

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