5 changing elements of Nolan's Batman universe
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With The Dark Knight Rises hitting cinemas tomorrow, Rob Meiklejohn looks back at some of the key themes of the previous two movies, considers how Nolan’s universe has evolved and looks forward to what we can expect in the final instalment...
Last week I had the pleasure of re-watching the first two films in Nolan’s Batman trilogy on the big screen. Ahead of the release of The Dark Knight Rises on Friday I decided to look back over some themes from the first two films, examine the ways in which Nolan’s world has developed and speculate as to where things might go for The Dark Knight Rises.
One of the most marked differences between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is the transformation of Gotham from a work of fiction into something which is much more recognisably modelled on its real world filming location of Chicago.
The Gotham of Batman Begins is evidently a comic book city. We do get sweeping vistas of a Chicago sky line but we also get plenty of locations which ground it firmly in the fiction of Batman. Arkham Asylum, the Narrows, Wayne Tower, and the Wayne-funded public railway system all play key roles in the first film but disappear for the second. Even Wayne Manor, which is being rebuilt, only gets a passing mention in The Dark Knight. Similarly, key locations outside of Gotham mirror this shift. In Begins we’re treated to sword fights in the mystical, mountain topping, gunpowder filled temple of the League of Shadows. By contrast The Dark Knight chooses an office building in Hong Kong for a kidnapping set piece. Both are enjoyable but it certainly seems that following Batman Begins Nolan made a deliberate attempt to ground his vision more solidly in our world.
Based on trailers and promotional material we can safely say that The Dark Knight Rises will definitely see a return to Wayne Manor and the Batcave. Beyond that, I'd expect that Nolan is going to use Dark Knight Rises to show us more areas of Gotham from real-world inspired locations (such as the stock exchange) but with a few nods to the more elaborately fictional (such as Gotham's elaborate sewer system).
Horror and hallucinations
Just like Nolan's evolving representation of Gotham City, many of the more fantastical elements of horror which punctuate Batman Begins are dropped for The Dark Knight. In Begins the handy plot device of Scarecrow's hallucinogenic fear toxin allows us to see all kinds of nightmarish visions from the perspective of his victims. Horses breathe fire, eyes glow red, and faces dissolve or distort.
In contrast the only truly scary or grisly moment in The Dark Knight comes via Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face, and even that owes more to Cronenbergian body horror than any traditional comic aesthetic. So much more of the violence in The Dark Knight is implied - particularly where the Joker is concerned, his disappearing pencil trick being the most memorable example.
Considering Bane’s notoriety in the Batman universe, it’s fair to assume that Christian Bale’s character will take a beating and a half over the course of Dark Knight Rises. However I’d suspect that as with The Dark Knight, Nolan will err towards the implicit rather than the explicit, leaving us wincing over injuries we feel but don’t necessarily see.
Watching Batman Begins again, I was surprised at quite how many funny lines it contains. Morgan Freeman’s wisecracks about the failure to market the Batsuit prototype to "the billionaire base-jumping spelunking crowd" being one of many highlights.
In Dark Knight the humour shifts function slightly and becomes a release to help the audience deal with the incredible levels of tension Nolan creates. For instance, I’d maintain that the Joker dressed in drag saying "Hi" to a mutilated Harvey Dent isn’t particularly funny. However it never fails to elicit a huge laugh from an audience being dragged through one of the film’s most harrowing sections. With the expected dark tone of The Dark Knight Rises we’re likely to be in for more of the same.
Increasingly it seems to be the case with Christopher Nolan films that you get the best joke in the trailer (not that plenty of crummy comedies aren’t guilty of the same trick). Again I wouldn’t be surprised if Catwoman nicking Bruce’s Lamborghini isn’t the highlight in terms of straight humour, with perhaps the occasional chuckle at anything which offsets the interminably climactic tension I’m guessing we’re in for.
As has been noted elsewhere, it’s interesting that the two most popular superheroes of this generation are merely billionaires (Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne) who use their money, along with low carb diets and the occasional round of push-ups, to become Iron Man and Batman respectively. Gadgetry and technology are the bedrock of these heroes’ super powers. Batman Begins certainly leads strongly in the gadgetry stakes, with the trip to Morgan Freeman’s laboratory proving every bit as enjoyable as the finest of James Bond’s visits to Q Branch.
Personally I found the gadgets in The Dark Knight to be, with the exception of the insanely good Batpod, something of a disappointment. The ninja star style projectiles Batman fires from his wrists were only mentioned briefly in the beginning of the film and felt like something of an easy get out for his final confrontation with the Joker. Especially as, despite firing them into the Joker’s face from point blank range following a quip about giving him more scars, they seem to do virtually no damage at all. Equally, the huge sonar monitoring system piggybacking on the collective cell phones of Gotham’s long-suffering residents feels a little clunky. As do Lucius’ (a guy who designs and builds weapons for a living and is totally cool with a bit of kidnap) sudden moral doubts over using the monitoring device to catch a psychopathic terrorist who is about to kill hundreds.
Obviously Batman’s headline-grabbing new toy for The Dark Knight Rises is the Batwing, or more simply "The Bat" (Nolan can’t seem to bring himself to use the terms Batwing or Batcave and according to one early review of TDKR he even avoids directly calling Anne Hathaway’s character "Catwoman"), and I’m sure it’ll be every bit as exciting as the Batpod and Batcar were previously. However beyond that I’m expecting the gadgets of TDKR to take a back seat to drama. Gadgets feel like an ingredient Nolan has become less interested in for their own merits and prefers to use as plot devices.
Watching it again, the politics of Batman Begins are almost conspicuous by their absence. Gotham’s plight speaks to broad social themes but there’s nothing in the film which comments too directly on our own society. Perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect any more given that it was Nolan’s first big-budget film. Equally it’s also worth remembering that Batman Begins was written and produced in the middle of an economic boom and before enthusiasm for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had truly soured. Quite simply there wasn’t as much scope for comment as there is in 2012.
The Dark Knight ramped up the political element with more focus on the day to day mechanics of power in Gotham. Seeing the internal political manoeuvrings of City Hall adds a flavour of The West Wing to proceedings, but the film shifts focus too frequently to deliver a meaningful pay-off in this regard.
The aforementioned mobile phone sonar network has been hailed in some quarters as a comment on the slew of anti-terror phone taps which had been authorised by the Bush administration at the time of release. Even if this is the case, the message is a muddled one, as Lucius’ cod-outrage and the subsequent destruction of the machine sit uncomfortably against the fact that it did its job and saved the lives of hundreds of people.
The Dark Knight’s strongest political comment, in my opinion, is the final revelation that the villainy of Two-Face must be hidden in order to save the reputation and political legacy of the man he once was. This convenient political lie almost brings to mind the "Serial Killer" story line from season five of The Wire (if you haven’t seen it then just do) and I’m happy to see that The Dark Knight Rises will be continuing this theme.
It seems that TDKR is set to continue this trend with news of scenes being filmed in and around the stock exchange, leading some to describe the film as "Occupy Gotham". Catwoman’s line to Bruce about him and "all his friends" thinking that they could "live so large and leave so little for the rest of us" looks to be a nice comment on Gotham’s 1%. Additionally the fact that scenes were shot on Wall Street and inside the Gotham’s stock exchange suggest that Nolan might be using his last film to push a more overtly political message than we’ve seen previously. I look forward to seeing if he can pull it off.
Well those are my thoughts and predictions, which I expect to be shown up as hugely ill-informed and misguided once The Dark Knight Rises hits cinemas tomorrow. Still, looking back at the first two films is a hugely enjoyable experience, and one I would recommend to anyone. Nolan has created an incredible universe and I fully expect him to round it out with that rarest of things: a satisfying and well made third instalment. Enjoy the new film, re-watch the old ones and try not to gasp when you realise that little kid Batman saves in the Narrows grows up to be Joffrey Baratheon...
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