While other directors strive to ground their superhero movies with relatable characters, Christopher Nolan has achieved something greater with “The Dark Knight Rises”: he wraps up his gritty Batman trilogy with an operatic flourish and a sublime catharsis, coming full circle back to “Batman Begins.” In fact, he makes us forget that we’re watching a superhero movie at all. It’s just terrific drama and mythmaking. And true to his word, Nolan enhances the experience with the added clarity and larger than life theatricality of IMAX.
“These are larger than life characters and I very much enjoyed tapping into this operatic sensibility of that,” Nolan suggested at a recent press conference. “I really tried to push the audience’s emotions in extreme directions using the extremities of those characters, and I think naturally from that you’re aiming of course for mythic status. And there’s a nice correspondence between that impulse in why you want to make the film and why audiences hopefully want to enjoy the film.”
Nolan pointed to an important exchange early on in “Batman Begins” between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred that pays off nicely in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Wayne explains that he needs to find a symbol to fight injustice. “Alfred, as somebody who looks after him and cares for him, only goes along with it because there’s a logic to it,” Nolan insisted. “And the logic as we worked on the character had to be that symbolism — it had to be about mythmaking and the symbol of hope and people in a very corrupt society who are looking for some kind of tipping point to come back to good. That’s always been the heart of Bruce Wayne’s story.”
And Wayne’s story is defined by two primal images: falling into a pit at the beginning of “Batman Begins” and crawling out of a pit at the midpoint of “The Dark Knight Rises.” In effect, the films are mirror images: Wayne learns to overcome his fear of death in the first one; and in the last one he regains his fear to complete his journey. Yet in both films he must confront his mentor, Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), the Darth Vader of the tale, first directly and then indirectly through the brutal terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), who’s also bent on destroying Gotham.
Speaking of Gotham, Nolan’s screenwriting brother, Jonathan, found inspiration in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” a perfect metaphor for doppelgangers, orphans, and terrorism. “In all these films we threatened to turn Gotham inside out and to pull it on itself,” the scribe noted. “We haven’t achieved that until this film and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ to me was the most harrowing portrait of a relatable, recognizable civilization that had completely fallen to pieces due to terrorists in Paris in that period.”
The director admitted that he’d never actually read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ until after discovering the reference in his brother’s draft of the script. Then he expanded the metaphor in his draft. “What Dickens does in that book in terms of having all his characters come together in one unified story with all these great thematic elements and all this great emotionalism and drama, felt exactly the tone that we were looking for,” Nolan added.
For Nolan, though, it’s all about the relationships in helping Wayne find salvation: Anne Hathaway’s Selina/Catwoman, a femme fatale and kindred spirit; and his three guardians: Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the gadget master; Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), his conscience; and the grandfatherly Alfred. Indeed, there’s an emotional exchange between Alfred and Wayne about his future that not only refers back to the earlier one about symbolism but also to “Inception.” All they need is the spinning top.
Murder, memory, magic, and mythmaking — that’s the Nolan canon. “The Dark Knight Rises” harmoniously brings it all together. That might even be the recipe for a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
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