Monday, September 24, 2012

Morality and Sacrifice — The Dark Knight Rises

Much more than your average superhero comic-book film, this one is worth seeing for its moral worldview and its deep character portrayals. 

OVERALL Selectively recommended (may be unpalatable for some children)

This movie is a fun, wild ride, and while it has certain deficiencies—most glaringly the absence of a villain as mysterious and disturbing as the Joker—it is a solid capstone on a well-made trilogy, and it offers some powerful lessons in personal sacrifice, virtue and in understanding one's fear.

The production pyrotechnics combine with a solid plot and great character acting to deliver a film in league with director Christopher Nolan's first two installments. Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine — these are some of our best film actors, and any story with them would be worth seeing. This is one of the finest performances I've seen from Caine. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway also complete the well-rounded cast, along with a brief return visit from Liam Neeson. Each of these characters comes with a rich and complex worldview that gives them roundedness and solidity, and makes them intriguing to watch on screen.

One thing I really enjoy about Nolan's work is that he can accomplish much within the space of a few minutes, without sacrificing quality or interupting the flow of the story. He achieves a rhythm with carefully edited and precisely calibrated scenes, making them at once more memorable and able to deal with many plots and subplots simultaneously.
A surprising and original twist comes in Nolan's combination of batwoman and catwoman into one role. Anne Hathaway delivered this duality perfectly; her presence offered the kind of sexual frisson and moral ambiguity that give the Batman story its edge. With a single look Hathaway can communicate a range of emotional reaction, such as at the unexpected return of Bruce Wayne after his imprisonment, where she makes the shift from her betrayal of him to support and even love.

As for Bane (Tom Hardy), he was simply not scary enough. Nolan did such a fine job of creating the devil incarnate in the Joker, that no future villain could ever match it. Bane is a too-obvious character created to seem invincible. His face looks like a skull, he has a strange voice, he is inhumanly strong, and can affect people by touching them. Still, he came off a bit flat, despite the effort to make him seem complex (as the rescuer of a child from the prison pit). 
Bane is the self-styled representative of the 99% (a surprisingly relevant premise), and the moral lesson of the film centers around this conflict, as Bane takes down the stock market and sets up a kangaroo court. Batman wishes not to resort to violence and anarchy in resolving these kinds of class struggles. Batman is no revolutionary, but he does what it necessary to preserve order. For those who worry that the film is too violent for children, this lesson is quite clear even to children and is actually a memorable way to teach nonviolent resolution of conflict.

The best lesson of the film comes in Wayne's imprisonment. Stripped of his batman armor, he returns to his roots as a person struggling with core beliefs, and living in a very primal state. The scene in the pit recalls the original training sequence in Batman Begins, a nice literary device that makes the story feel contiguous with the earlier films.

Dark Knight Rises offers an important lesson: we must not deny our fear or our weaknesses, but rather recognize their power to connect us to our true humanity, our ability to sacrifice, and get us to do what we thought was impossible for the sake of our common welfare. These virtues are not easily found in films, especially not in this genre. For their effort at putting forth these lessons in an entertaining way, the director, cast and crew deserve accolades, and this film deserves to be remembered.

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