Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Fire Rises aka Hiatus Over (SPOILERS AWAIT)

It's been a minute as the kids say...my two week gap between blogs turned into a three month hiatus pretty quickly and in the interim I missed quite a few moments in comic book history. 

"The Amazing Spider-Man" has come and gone without a review from yours truly (I liked it), but I think I'll save the details for the Blu-Ray release.

Days of Future Past is coming to the big screen; I'll have to find my soapbox somewhere else to discuss this one.  I'm not opposed, just let me say that for now...

"AvX" is creeping on it's 10th issue this coming Wednesday and I haven't touched on it at all (mixed feelings) but that I will save until the story is completed.

There's this whole MarvelNOW! gimmick on the horizon that I have extremely mixed feelings on that I will elaborate on along with "AVX".

This month marks the one year anniversary of DC's "New 52" relaunch so I am shooting to touch on that in two weeks when it is officially at it's close.

And then there is the movie that to date has exceeded an $800 million gross worldwide since it's release: "Dark Knight Rises".  This I think is the most appropriate focus for my first blog back given my pretty obvious leanings towards anything Bat-related.  Warning, spoilers will abound so if you haven't seen the movie yet, this is your one & only warning...well besides the title...

Sorry about that flash in the center there, but I figured in this instance I would rather take a picture of my own poster than download a Google image. Also my own proof that I attended the full-on Trilogy showing in IMAX!  What a treat that was, especially to finally see "Batman Begins" in that format and to experience "Dark Knight" one more time in theatres.

Before we get to "DKRises", let me touch on a few little things in the other flicks that I found funny;

1) King Joffrey from "Game of Thrones" in "Begins"

2) The crowd largely laughing at Joker's "Well hello beautiful" greeting to Rachel Daws in "TDK"

3) The AMC staff telling us we weren't allowed to clap or cheer or move around wearing the lanyards they gave us to distinguish us as Trilogy viewers because people were complaining about the noise...

4) Also AMC staff attempting to do a quiz game with prizes in a jam-packed IMAX theatre without microphones so we could actually hear what they were asking. Bonus fail points for the fact that the few questions they actually asked were about "TDK" and none about "Begins"...

Just a few little tidbits about my experience going to the Trilogy that I found humerous. Now onto the main show...

That was a hell of a way to kick things off with the mid-air airplane rescue sequence that introduced us to Bane and his status quo in the Nolan-verse.  Yeah, while there were some points of dialogue I found hard to understand, it was not a movie-killing dilemma and by my third viewing of the film it wasn't even an afterthought.  What this scene was for me was a great contrast to the open of "TDK" which, as odd as this may sound, was small.  It was a bank robbery, even with the giant school bus crash it was still just a robbery scene.

This, this was so much bigger with the mid-air gymnastics and the replacement corpse and the plane ripping in pieces and the sacrifical lamb who, for me, was a sign that something deeper was going on here.  It takes a true fanatic to sacrifice himself for a cause and this was the first nod towards the League of Shadows I'd say.

Since I'm bringing it up there, I may as well touch upon The League and how that was one of my favorite elements of this movie.  The inclusion of The League gave "DKR" a tie to "Begins", a touchstone in the history that created this version of Bruce Wayne, and a link to the "Legacy" & "Bane of the Demon" comic book stories in which Bane was involved with Ra's & Talia Al Ghul. In fact Ra's was hoping Bane would become Talia's consort! 

This was just one of many comic book elements that seeped into the foundation on which "DKR" was built without selling out to the "true to the comic book" crowd that infuriate me so much when movie-time comes around.  For me, there are just certain elements that MUST be kept intact in order for the character to function but beyond that I somewhat enjoy seeing a different take on otherwise familiar elements of these characters I have been following for most of my life.  Thomas & Martha Wayne have to die, Uncle Ben has to die, Wolverine has to get adamantium, Xavier & Magneto must be friends-turned-foes, those are character fundamentals but how they get there, and the fallout from those events, well that's half the fun in porting a comic book character into a different medium.  There's nothing wrong with a straight interpretation like "Watchmen" but for me it lacks the creative soul of the Nolan-verse Batmen or "X-Men: First Class"

That same creative soul is evident in the way in which Catwoman is portrayed in this interpretation.  She's not Frank Miller's prostitute nor is she just a straight-up thief, rather a more layered character who is doing what she feels she has to in order to survive.  It was a character brought to life wonderfully by Anne Hathaway, and admittedly I, like many, didn't think she could get it done but I kept my mind open and was rewarded handsomely for it.  It was in little touches like a curl of the lips before jumping out the Wayne Manor window or a look in the eye when the doors of the bar are bolted shut.  Hathaway was a complete character and in a wholely different fashion than Michelle Pfeiffer. 

Pfeiffer's Catwoman was a tragic figure who was tossed around by life, quite literally as a matter of fact, and turned her rage at being nearly murdered into an overall disdain for men.  She was much less the master-thief and much more a female creature of vengeance, a countpart to match Batman.  We saw the end of Selina Kyle's story and were provided with just enough details to draw our own conclusions about the life that brought her to Max Schreck.

In "DKR" we are introduced to Selina Kyle's life-in-progress, there is no stopping to tells us how she got where she is, how she became this master burglar, and what the life is that she's trying to get away from.  I think it's safe to say that all that backstory, that info dump, it wasn't needed in her character, especially since the desperation for a new life is written all over the face of Hathaway's Selina Kyle. She warns Bruce of the storm coming, but she's obviously just as scared of it when it actually comes at the hands of Bane.  She wants free of this life, but is immediately regretful of the consequences of her actions when that gate slams shut and traps Bats with Bane.  She is not wholly evil, hell I don't think she is remotely evil, just another lost & confused soul in the chaotic mess that is Gotham City. 

Before I forget, and lest he seem neglected, I must point out how great a job I think Tom Hardy did with Bane and how much I enjoy watching him transcend roles that could so easily just be "tough guy" types.  I thought he did that wonderfully in "Warrior" and was somewhat traumatized/surprised by his character "Bronson", and I think he brought that same ability to Bane.  As any long-time reader of Bat-comics could tell you, Bane is a character that seems hard for a writer to get a grasp on.  He was created for the sole purpose of breaking Batman and once that goal was accomplished he floundered for many years until Gail Simone got ahold of him for "Secret Six".  He is a character easy to write off as a brute, an unthinking muscle bound thug especially considering the way the super-steroid Venom was such an integral part of his character's origin.  The truth was that he was an extremely intelligent being, the guy most likely to spend his time reading the prison library rather than fighting in the yard. 

Check out "Vengeance of Bane" to see the source material on Bane's origin and you will appreciate how it was adapted to the movie and co-opted for Talia Al Ghul's origin story (another wonderful bit of comic book influence).  As for Hardy, I thought he did a tremendous job of coming off as a man with a plan, a thinking man albeit a brutally violent one when necessary.  The entire first fight scene between Bats & Bane, especially as a long-time comic reader, was exceptionally brutal in large part because I knew what was coming at the end.  The close-ups on Bane shattering the cowl, each shot of a desperate Bats trying to stay on his feet, the calm nature in which Bane carried himself in this fight, it all added up to a gut-wrenching experience as a viewer.  Conversely, the scene in which Bane frees the prisoners in Blackgate while using the picture of Harvey Dent accompanied with Gordon's words...that was just powerful. 

Part of that was due to the flash-forwards of Gotham tearing itself apart (fulfillment of The Joker's words to some degree I suppose) but part of that was also due to Hardy's eyes and his body language, his two most important tools of communication given the mask concealing a large portion of his face.  Since I've mentioned the mask I may as well get one of my complaint out of the way now...no it's not about the mask muffling his voice, like I said before that quickly became unnoticeable for me. My complaint is how they never truly described it's function beyond something along the lines of "it keeps the agony at bay"; I wasn't looking to have my hand-held here but I thought it was a very important piece of who the character was so it should have been elaborated on to some degree.  I suppose I will have to wait for the Blu-Ray for this one as recent interviews give a clue that there was a scene (or scenes) cut from the film addressing this point.

That complaint aside, it was wonderful to have a character that was much the opposite of Batman.  In Ra's Al Ghul we had a man who was essentially a complete equal both physically & mentally for Batman while in The Joker you had a man who could not match up physically but whose brain was his true weapon. Ra's wanted to use chaos to create order which is in reality quite close to what Bruce himself does. The Joker created chaos for the sake of chaos and had no desire to see any sort of order born from it.  He wanted to prove that everyone, at their core, is just like him.  In Bane, Bats had an opponent in the same vein as Ra's, only infinitely more physically dominating.  Bats had no hope in a fight against him, even a fully recovered Bruce required Selina Kyle's assistance to survive his second go-around with Bane.  Still, there was one thing Bane had in common with The Joker...an ace in the hole!

The revelation that Marion Cottillard's Miranda Tate character was in fact Talia Al Ghul was expected by pretty much everyone who had been following the movie through its production, BUT when it finally happened, it caught me completely off-guard.  It was as if the lengthy wait between her introduction and the reveal caused me to think that we had all been wrong about this one.  Yet just as quickly as the knife slid into the seams of the Bat-armor, it all came rushing back to me that this was the moment I had been waiting for since Miranda stepped onto the screen.  Both the pre & post revelatory character portrayals were quite well done I must say, and I truly appreciated some of the comic-booky elements that were brought in...like say Talia's seduction of Bruce (see "Son of the Demon") which was an element I have seen many people question.  For me, once the reveal hit, it all just seemed part of a larger plan to pull Bruce closer into her web.  Shared parental pain, sex, the ability to save WayneCorp from the financial ruin both Bruce himself & Bane heaped upon it, and ultimately getting Bruce to turn over control of the bomb to her.  This is true villany if you ask me, not anything Selina Kyle did, rather working over the course of years to insinuate yourself into someone's life, slowly earning their trust, than using that trust to stab them in the back and destroy their whole city.  And her death scene...the look on Talia's face as her life fades away...freaky...

But it wasn't just Bruce she suckered in...it was Alfred, with Michael Caine amazing in his role of terrified father who has finally reached the point where he had to let Bruce pick himself back up (harkening back to "Begins").  Despite the "why do we fall" phrase being used several times over in the first two movies, Bruce never really had to pick himself back up...Alfred was always there to help him get up.  Whether it be physcially like when Wayne Manor burned down in "Begins" or spiritually during the whole "some men want to watch the world burn" speech, Alfred was always there for Bruce.  This was the first time in the trilogy he really had to do it alone.  It was a scene borrowed, but altered, from the "Knightquest: The Search" story arc, an arc that sadly was not reprinted in the recently released "Knightfall: Knightquest" collection nor is it in the "Knightfall: Knight's End" collection coming out soon.  Maybe it's because DC didn't want to remind people Bruce's broken back was healed via mutant powers.  If not for the coda at the end with Alfred, Bruce, & Selina, I think my heart would still be broken for Alfred with the scene in which he had to bury his "son" and confess to the Wayne's his failures.

Then there's Lucius who vouched for Miranda as well, just like Alfred trying to push Bruce into her arms in hopes it would bring him back to reality.  Morgan Freeman was as good as ever in his role as the eager weapons maker...Q to Bruce's James Bond I suppose, and while his role was nowhere near the level of import to "DKR" that it was to "TDK", his presence at the funeral scene is testament enough to how integral he was to the story as a whole.  Which brings me to the third man in Batman's life, fourth if you count Thomas Wayne's enduring influence, James Gordon...

Gordon, one could say, has been a part of Bruce's life almost as long as Alfred given that touching scene in "Begins" in which a young, presumably beat-cop Gordon give a young, lonely, terrified Bruce his coat and tries to convince him it will all be okay.  It was a moment that actually seemed somewhat hopeful, despite its inherent sadness, and one that I was quite glad to see revisited as the film drew to its close.  The "DKR" moment between Batman and Gordon in which Batman recounts that shared event in the life of Gordon & Bruce Wayne was a wonderful nod to the moment in "Begins" when Bats quoted Katie Holmes' Rachel Dawes right back to her before diving off a rooftop.  It was that revelatory moment when Batman willingly dropped the mask to someone he trusted and allowed a person to see that it was Bruce inside the Bat.

Ultimately though, that question of identity, after seeing all three movies in one sitting, I believe I can safely say that identity is the central theme of the entire Nolan-verse and that is the role, well one of the roles, that the character of Robin John Blake played...

He's a parallel to Bruce, an orphan but one who went the legitimate route to defend & protect the city that took his parents from him by becoming a cop.  He's tied into the Wayne history by the fact he once lived in a boy's home that was funded by the Wayne Foundation, he's tied to Batman via an apparent belief that the Bat will come back from his self-imposed exile, and he's tied to Bruce Wayne by a knowledge as to who really is behind the Batman mask.  Now, here's my other big complaint on the story arc of the movie...and again, it's not one I feel like it's a "hand-holding", rather one that could have, SHOULD have, been fleshed out more.  The overly simplistic explanation for how Blake knows Bruce is Batman didn't sit right with me on first viewing, on third viewing, nor tonight 3 weeks since my last viewing.  This is an instance where I am hating an aspect of the movie for it's missed opportunity...for the time that could have been devoted to Blake truly earning his stripes as a detective, by taking his hunch and searching for proof.  This would certainly have been a much more interesting side-bar than the story of Matthew Modine's Foley character and would have played marvelously into the ultimate pay-off of this movie when Blake takes on the possessions of the World's Greatest Detective.  Missed opportunity...

All that being said, I thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt did an amazing job in his role and served perfectly as an amalgam of the Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake Robin's.  He was an orphan & a cop like Grayson, a hothead like Todd, and figured out the secret like Drake...it was something I truly appreciated and I for one like that he wasn't simply named Dick Grayson.  It at least left some mystery as to his ultimate fate...also the cute little nod to Robin being his full name put a smile on my face.

So what does all of this have to do with identity and where does Bruce Wayne fit into his own story?  Well the conceit of the Nolan-verse since "Begins" is that "It's not who I am underneath, but what I *do* that defines me", or in other words it doesn't matter a wit WHO Batman is.

As a matter of fact, a large part of what makes "TDK" work, a very large part of its entire premise is about grooming Harvey Dent to serve as a replacement for Batman...not literally stepping into the Bat-suit, but accomplishing the same goals legitimately as District Attorney.  This movie especially wasn't just about Bruce running in his tights chasing The Joker, but was all about identity.  No one knew who The Joker truly was and it didn't matter because his identity wouldn't have changed a thing about his actions.  His identity was just as unimportant to the public as the identity of Batman was...or at least until Joker put a spotlight on the question.  As Harvey pointed out, no one cared until things started going wrong then fear caused everyone to cry for his unmasking.  That's why Harvey took the bullet because he understood that Batman's true identity did not matter in the long run.  In fact the only identity that mattered was that of Harvey's and that ended up splintered right down the middle....

And that question of identity, that is the question answered by the ending of the movie when Bruce fades off into the sunset (or explodes if you want) and leaves the entirety of the Batcave in the hands of John Blake.  He's passing the mantle of the Bat on because, in truth, all that matters is that the man behind the mask strive for the same ideals as that of Bruce Wayne. 

In the end, the Batman is a symbol, one created by Bruce Wayne, one mythologized by the citizens & criminals of Gotham, and one that will endure in statue form & possibly in the form of one Robin John Blake in the movie world, and perpetually in the hearts and souls of the fans who have kept Batman alive for the last seventy-plus years.  The only movie question would be whether or not Warner Bros. would have the gumption to have a Batman who is not Bruce Wayne gracing the silver screen?  DC Comics had the balls to have Dick Grayson in the cowl when "TDK" was released instead of rushing to get Bruce back into gear. It would be intriguing to see WB do the same for the Bat-Film franchise...

So where does Bruce Wayne fit into all this chaos that has gone on around him? Well I think the conclusion I have come to is that much like how the identity of Batman does not matter, to a degree the story of Bruce is the least important aspect of the Nolan-verse (funny how that's the exact opposite of how Nolan explains the trilogy). 

The Bruce we see in "Begins" is not that different from the Bruce we see in "TDK", and really there's not much change in the angry, stubborn, driven, arrogant man in "DKR" until after he is broken.  It is only then that we see Bruce evolve from a man clinging onto the dead (parents, then Rachel) or his past (parents, then Rachel) and into a man actually looking at a future.  For two-and-a-half movies we are witness to Bruce reacting to the events around him and it is only in the latter half of "DKR" that we see Bruce making an active choice to change his life (well first he's gotta help save Gotham). I believe Bruce had to hit rock bottom in his own life, literally after being tossed into the pit, and he had to see his city in that same position in order to affect any true change.  Perhaps he also had to find someone he thought could pick up where he left off...and yes I know that was a key point of "TDK" but that Bruce functioned on the idea that if Harvey was the guy than he could have Rachel despite the fact that Rachel clearly was with Harvey no matter what..."Don't make me your one hope for a normal life" was what she said to Bruce and "I'm not sure if they day will ever come when you don't need Batman", is what I believe the words in the letter were...even Rachel knew that Bruce had not changed enough to survive without the cape and cowl.  Despite his statements that it didn't matter who was behind the mask, I don't think he truly embraced that idea until "DKR".

So with Nolan's Bat-Trilogy closed, and probably another reboot in store for the future, I think I can saw that this is a series that for me stands on par with the Original Star Wars Trilogy or the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  It is truly a wonderful unified piece of work bringing in original story elements, pieces of comic book lore, and creating a world that feels as real...despite adhering to comic book notions of "real"...as the world we exist in.  If you have only seen these movies and have never ventured into the world of the comic book or graphic novel, I strongly suggest you pick up "Year One" to see the soil in which "Batman Begins" grew, grab "The Killing Joke" to see a great tale of The Joker or "Face The Face" for a top notch Two Face arc...neither of which have direct impact on "TDK" but it's harder to pint down a specific comic tale that does, and "Vengeance of Bane", "No Man's Land", or "Legacy" to see some of the elements that fueled "DKR". 

I also strongly suggest you take the time to watch all three movies in one sitting to see the themes that
carry over from one to the next, it really enhances that unified feel.  So this is my thank you to all of the people that made this Trilogy happen; from writers to actors to directors to camera operators to the continuity editors and beyond, without all of you none of this would have been possible.


So next time I think I will tackle the one year anniversary of the New 52...the good & the bad & everything in-between as well as how I feel about the next year of this project.  In the meantime, go check out my Amazon Store linked over on the right or my Wish List below and check out my archives to read all the other comic book minutea I've written about over the last few years.  Oh and I'm quite excited because for the first time ever, I'm going to the Baltimore Comic-Con in September!  If you're in the area, check it out right here!  Stan Lee, Scott Snyder, Garth Ennis...there's a whole calvacade of talent on tap! 

Sadly one of the men who was scheduled, a legend in the comics industry, just passed away a few days ago at the age of 85, Joe Kubert. For more on his life read this obit from the NY Times or check ou this biography that was written about him a few years ago.  His influence on comics will live on for a long time to come not only in his sons Adam & Andy, but also in the numerous men & women who have come through his school.  This may not have been one of his most famous, but it was probably one of the first times I saw his art: