As Bat-mania takes over the country, Sudhish Kamath wonders if The Dark Knight Rises concludes the greatest superhero trilogy ever made
The world of comic books gives us stories about extraordinary individuals who jump around town in the most colourful of costumes, fighting the weirdest of freaks. Saving the world is their full-time job. As the narrative jumps between panels, storytellers have the licence to jump temporally and spatially to get on with the action. This is not the medium for character study. This is not the medium for chit-chat or polite conversation. Biff! Wham! Bam! Kapow! Crash! Sploosh! The End.
And when filmmakers adapt such material, they inherit this licence. They are expected to deliver exactly the joy that comic books evoke and celebrate the superhero we grew up reading and watching.Hollywood films, in the past, have always done that, sometimes to logic-defying heights as Superman turned back the world for a couple of minutes to save Lois Lane and still spawned a successful franchise.
Then came graphic novels that reinvented the good old comic book and drenched the pages with shades of reds and greys. Heroes became more complex and stories began to dwell on their psychological journeys — stories that probably appealed only to a niche, grown-up geek population in a few pockets around the world and formed topics of intense discussion only in comic conventions. Until one man turned a flawed, complex superhero, who fails more often than succeeds, into a mass hysteria generating phenomenon.
Christopher Nolan has arguably created the greatest superhero trilogy of all time, the points of debate in The Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding. Rises, riding a massive tide of hype, opened to mixed reviews around the world. While fanboys worshipped and hailed Nolan’s vision, some of the critics chose to pick on some of the logical inconsistencies of the world.
That in itself is the biggest compliment Nolan could’ve ever asked for. That people forgot the fact they were watching comic characters in funny costumes beat each other up like in a WWE match. A movie where one guy is dressed like a Bat, a woman like a Cat and a bald wrestler-type with no means to grab a bite is not exactly the world we live in. Yet Nolan makes these people reflect the world we live in. A world prone to attacks by men with twisted minds. A world where the top one per cent controls the rest. A world where heroes fail.
Illusion of reality
Over his three films, Nolan has made us invest in characters so much that he has managed to create an illusion of reality in the most unreal of situations. We tend to search for realism in spectacular action set pieces that unfold just because the character motivations are so real. We tend to wonder who gave Batman a lift to get from one place to another. Next, when Nolan-produced Man of Steel releases, critics might just ask: Hey, how is it possible for Superman to fly?
Nolan’s is a near flawless trilogy. The first begins the legend and tells us everything about who he is and why he wears a mask. We see a man haunted by his fear turn it into his biggest strength. The second gives Batman a worthy adversary who pushes him over the edge. We see him fail and fall. The third gives us a sense of closure as the story brings him a full circle. We see him rise, having given the world everything he can.
Not many trilogies have had the sense of clarity that Nolan has demonstrated with this perfect three-act story (though the filmmaker claims that he hadn’t planned the films in advance). The trilogy serves as a textbook example for Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey popularly known as the Monomyth. If Batman Begins marked the hero’s ‘Departure,’ The Dark Knight served as an ‘Initiation’ for his transformation towards self-actualisation and Rises provided the perfect finale of the ‘Return’ when the hero becomes the ‘Master of Two Worlds’ and earns his ‘Freedom to Live’.
Nolan goes one step further and bestows his superhero with the status of a messiah, even making him walk on water after his rise (a clear hat-doff to the Son of God). Except, three days is replaced with three months for the sake of movie pop-realism. And saving the world involves, well, saving his world — Gotham.
But the biggest triumph of Nolan’s characterisation of Batman is that he challenges the very idea of our need for a superhero. How realistically can one man take on the mantle of saving the world even if he gives it his all? And for how long? Shouldn’t a superhero inspire people to become heroes themselves in their own little way instead of looking up to God or Batman to save them? Doesn’t a superhero deserve a life of his own? These are territories very few superhero films have dared to enter.Rises probably works best as the finale to the trilogy than a stand-alone film for many but let’s not forget that once we have seen Nolan’s Batman films back to back, every other superhero film ever made (including and especially the previous Batman franchises) would seem shallow.
While other trilogies have been satisfied giving audiences more of the same winning formula, Nolan has chosen to tell us the story of an evolving hero who moves from darkness to light over the course of three films. (Remember critics complaining of the dark frames in Begins? In Rises, Batman, who mostly surfaces in the dark, takes on bad guys in broad daylight.)
To twist Ra’s al Ghul’s quote: “If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal... you become something else entirely. A legend, Mr. Nolan, a legend!”