Monday, August 20, 2012

Why The Dark Knight Works


I have now seen all three of The Dark Knight movies. Of those three, I loved the first and the third, and I only watched the second one again because I wanted to refresh my memory before seeing The Dark Knight Rises.

A blog post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix, discussing heroes, inspired my post. There is a plethora of hero-movies now, either Marvel or DC Comics style, which shows that everyone loves a hero. Some heroes have superpowers, some are just super guys. Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight is one of the latter.

In his post The Secret Weapon of Crafting Effective Heroes, Larry says:

“It’s a double-edged deal: empathy for the situation the hero is in… empathy for the person the hero IS in that situation.”

Why do we like Bruce Wayne so much?

Empathy, that’s why, even though he doesn’t seem very likeable. His persona to the outside world is a playboy billionaire (the kind we all love to hate) who buys hotels and fast cars, and always has adoring women on his arm. He even manages to burn down the family mansion in a bout of drunken birthday party madness. Aha, but that’s not true, is it? We have empathy with Bruce because we know the truth, and we remember that truth when he gets into dangerous situations. We remember why he is who he is, and why he does what he does.

The real Bruce Wayne is passionate about truth and justice, a passion ignited by his parents’ death at the hands of a mugger when Bruce was just a little boy. Bruce has always blamed himself for their deaths.

His morbid self-hatred and grief led him—after many travels—to join up with Ra's al Ghul, a man whose twisted sense of ‘cleansing’ society ultimately revolts Bruce. Ra's al Ghul uses various minions from Gotham’s underworld in a plot to destroy Gotham City by vaporizing the water supply into gas laced with the Scarecrow's fear-inducing toxin. He does not succeed, and Bruce saves the day, killing his previous mentor in the process. He emerges on Gotham’s social scene, while cementing his position as a caped crusader, with the help of Sgt. Jim Gordon (superbly played by actor Gary Oldman). All this time Bruce eschews love, even though it’s clear he should be with longtime friend, the assistant DA Rachel Dawes, who cannot bring herself to love both Bruce and Batman.

Larry advises in Booster Shots For Your Search For Story:

“Your bad guy needs a motive, too.”

The second film (The Dark Knight) somehow moved away from the threat of Ra's al Ghul’s organization (League of Shadows), supposedly obliterated with his death. A new menace pops up: The Joker played by Heath Ledger. Here my loyalty wavered. In Liam Neeson’s Ra's al Ghul, I found passion and a skewed commitment, but commitment nonetheless, to a cause, however misguided. In the Joker, there are no redeeming qualities. Violence and mayhem, with no discernible motive undermined the strong themes of the first movie. Harvey Dent, a good guy turned bad by circumstances, the DA who ends up dead, brings out another side to Bruce Wayne, showing him as a man who is prepared to shoulder the burdens of others to preserve their good reputation in memory. In the episode leading to Harvey’s death, Bruce injures himself badly. He becomes a recluse, mourning both Harvey and Rachel, also killed by the Joker.

The Dark Knight Rises winds up this excellent series in a brilliant way, for a number of reasons.

Bruce Wayne is not a superhero, and has never pretended to be one. He uses technology provided by Fox (the inimitable Morgan Freeman). He doesn't just bounce back into action. He has to get his strength back after a long period of inactivity; he has to endure what his enemy (Tom Hardy as the aptly named Bane) has endured. This tribulation makes him vulnerable, and more real and appealing to us.
Bane finally achieves what Ra's al Ghul failed to do. He secures Gotham City and holds its people to ransom using a nuclear device. Although Ra's al Ghul is dead, it seems that his legacy continues with his daughter and Bane. Surprisingly, details show a touching, tender and sympathetic side to the evil killing machine we call Bane. An unrequited love story that has its own back history and one which might be Bane’s saving grace. This element lifts the movie above the level of a kill-fest and gives viewers a deeper understanding of the powerful themes at play.

But back to Bruce… In a fascinating denouement, Bruce’s betrayers are revealed, and he fights back and wins … although seeming to die in the end.

Among other 'discoveries,' Alfred gives a vital clue, which reassures the viewer that the end might not be the end after all. The film also closes the door on the Dark Knight, but opens another one to his legacy, with Robin. (A relief when so many series never know when to call it a day.)

In the last film, we are reassured our hero is not forgotten, and we are given hope that what he stood for—truth and justice—has another champion. There is also the expectation that Bruce finds peace and love, two things ripped from him in such an untimely fashion. This makes him into someone who can appreciate those powerful, although gentle qualities.

This makes him our hero.

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