After the Dust Settles Bolt, Bane, and Batman - a review.

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The hardest part of doing something well is replicating it. Few people can operate at the peak of their game, like a metronome, continuously and predictably. Just ask a guy who has managed to give his girlfriend an orgasm and you will know exactly what I am talking about. As soon as the climax is reached she wants another one, almost immediately. The pressure, and fear, of having to deliver the same high, the same excitement, or the same sense of euphoria can cripple a man. Without drawing too much curiosity or awkward questions, because my mother reads my blog, I will admit that, to a certain extent, I might know what I am talking about in this area.

There is nothing to be ashamed of. Few people, throughout the course of human history, have managed to replicate their successes over and over again. You can find these oddities if you Google search “the greatest” anything. The names pop up, repetitively and predictably: Da Vinci, Edison, Einstein, Ali, Pélé, and a couple of others. But, in general, these kinds of people are rare—most people do one thing well, and, more often than not, do it once. Doing the double is rare. A hat trick is even rarer.

It is not impossible to replicate success, though. It simply becomes hard for a great number of people because the conditions that were necessary for the previous success change. For the film director, the audience becomes smarter or more discerning while the capitalist finds his niche market flooded with competitors, all producing similar products (which are sometimes better). The artist finds it impossible to tap into the emotions and social circumstances that led her brush strokes when she produced her masterpiece, and the sportsman, after Herculean feats of athleticism, is faced with more agile, stronger, faster, and better trained competitors. For the lover, everything is harder…except what really counts.

It is why, quite often, the creator (the director, the capitalist, the artist, or the athlete—anyone will do) decides that the reproduction of a past achievement amounts to a retardation of his or her art and decides to call it quits. Originality is hard to repeat. The spark of madness that ignites ingenuity and creativity burns once, in a particular way, and then fades, extinguished forever. Many creators are aware of this fact, and upon realising that they have made something special, something out of the ordinary, respectably hang up their tools and revel in their successes, or move on to something new and different.

Sometimes, this realisation is the best thing a person can do. Sometimes, once is enough.

But if he, the creator, decides to persist in a given avenue of creation, he walks a perilous path; the reproduction of success is just a stone’s throw away from failure. If he gets it right, he will be listed amongst the legends of his kind and all of the plaudits that come with the success—critical acclaim for the director; financial gain for the capitalist, immortality for the artist; and a place amongst the legends of his sport for the athlete—will be his. If he gets it wrong, the best he can hope for is a place on a VH1 countdown with a name like “Top 100 People Who Should Have Quit While They Were Ahead.

It is dangerous, the second attempt at amazing the crowd. The mob can be impressed and placated once—but a head might be demanded the second time around. Just ask Christopher Nolan. Or Usain Bolt.

Since 2008, Nolan and Bolt have had the world enthralled with their respective talents. Nolan, since directing Memento and The Prestige, has carved a niche for himself as the master of a genre of thrillers that has become colloquially known as “the mindfuck.” Bolt, on the other hand, has had his success on the field, jogging past athletic world records, and dividing the world into two fanatic halves: those with him (the fans and the cameraman that is always looking for the Jamaican superstar), and those behind him (Gay, Gatlin, Powell and pretty much anyone who is anti-Bolt).

Respectively, the two are as different from each other as the day is from the night. Bolt, is flamboyant, ferociously talented, and fully aware of how far ahead of the rest of the world he is. Nolan, in sharp contrast, is quieter, preferring to let his creations do the talking. Bolt speaks first and then backs it up. Nolan does first and then asks you whether he did it. Although they operate in differing spheres of human life they have two common factors: they both entertain, and they both decided, in 2012, to replicate the successes they had achieved four years ago.

For what seemed like an eternity, Nolan and Bolt promised, teased, and taunted their respective audiences. Bolt, after his heroics in the 2008 Olympic Games (9.69s in the 100m, 19.32s in the 200m, and a Jamaican 4x100m world record of 37.10s), set new world records at the World Championships in 2009. In blistering form, he set the new 100m peg at 9.58s and upped the ante in the 200m with a time of 19.19s. Later, in 2010, after winning the IAAF Diamond League races he was finally beaten by Tyson Gay, in Paris, at the DN Galan. In 2011, the unspeakable happened: Usain Bolt was disqualified from the 100m finals in the World Championships for a false start. He, however, managed to hold on to his 200m title and then helped Jamaica to another 4x100m relay world record time of 37.04s. Across the creative divide, Nolan toyed with the world.

In 2010, Inception, starring Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, and Marion Cotillard, was released to a hungry audience. It stormed the box office (raking in $825,532,764 worldwide), started furious debates about whether the totem actually stopped at the end of the film (It stopped, guys. There was that wobble at the end…) and piqued the world’s appetite for another clever instalment of the Batman franchise.

A month after Bolt was disqualified from the Daegu Games for a false start Nolan sent the world into frenzy, releasing the teaser trailer of The Dark Knight Rises, set for worldwide release in July, 2012. The teaser, predictably, went viral. It spawned the kinds of reviews that most film critics dedicate to works like Citizen Kane. I, personally, watched it every time I was near a reliable Internet connection.

So there the world was, between Bolt and Batman, watching, waiting, and wondering. And tweeting. When 2012 finally came around, would the mob crucify or congratulate them? The question hovered, unanswered, until July 27.

Roughly around the same time the curtains were raised on Nolan’s final contribution to the Batman trilogy Bolt carried the Jamaican flag at the Olympic Games in London. The former had to face a box office monolith in the shape of his preceding work, The Dark Knight, while the latter was faced with what seemed to be certain impossibility: He had to break the Olympic sprinting records he set at the Beijing Olympics in the 100m and 200m distances, respectively.

Could Nolan top The Dark Knight, a film that had developed such a wide cult following? Could the third film develop, maintain, and conclude a film franchise that had been wasting away until Nolan took control of it in 2005? Could he, against all odds, fulfil all the fantasies harboured by the millions of fans who repetitively watched, analysed, replayed, downloaded, tweeted, and raved about each teasing trailer or featurette?

Bolt was not without his fair share of scrutiny either. A poor run of form and some niggling injuries going into the Jamaican Olympic Trials saw him beaten by Yohan Blake, his younger training partner, and if the media was anything to believe, the eventual usurper of the sprinting throne. Could he cover the 100m faster than his 9.69s Olympic record? And even if he could, would he? What about the 200m? 19.30s was a tough act to follow even for a sprinter with Bolt’s unique abilities. No man had ever defended their sprinting titles before—every four years, a head rolled, and a new man ascended to the throne. Could Bolt be the first, and the only one?

The questions surrounding these two magnetic personalities floated and bounced around in the print media and the dot-com universe, never quite receiving a straightforward answer from any one faction. Hardcore Batman fans were convinced that Nolan would disappoint, others diligently made their way to their nearest Home Affairs office and changed their middle names to Batman (I came close to joining the latter). Former Olympic sprinters said Usain Bolt could not win the triple double; after all it had not been done before. And yet fans, far and wide, believed that the great man could dash across the Olympic track in record time, silence his critics, and amaze the world once more with his athleticism.

Come July, Nolan was the first to face the music. The Dark Knight Rises was screened, firstly, to critics and select fans on 20 July, before cinemas opened their doors to the general public on 27 July. At long last filmgoers could put the tantalising Youtube and IMDB trailers to rest and settle down for, approximately, three hours of Nolanesque entertainment. On the same day, the Olympic Games opened in London.

The time had come for Nolan and Bolt to deliver.

Whether they delivered must be answered with a straightforward “no”. But it is not the parental “no” that encompasses every moral and legal precedent in such an easy and authoritative manner. It is a heavily qualified “no”. Because these two respective entities, The Dark Knight Rises and Usain Bolt, are not that simple; they cannot be summed up in one easy answer that cuts through all the criticisms and praises aimed at them. The two, respectively, succeed and fail at certain hurdles; they amaze here and disappoint there—they deliver, but not in the way you would expect them too.

For Nolan, delivering the same tension, the same drama and the same oh-my-goodness-Heath-Ledger-is-totally-the-best-Joker-ever is a feat he could never hope to pull off again. In the four years since Heath Ledger passed way, The Dark Knight, fuelled largely by Ledger’s performance as the Joker, has claimed a cult status unmatched by any comic-based film. The success The Dark Knight achieved, firstly as a comic book adaptation and secondly as a summer blockbuster, set expectations for Nolan’s conclusion so ridiculously high The Dark Knight Rises was never going to meet them.

The momentum the film had gained since the first trailer, featuring Commissioner Gordon lying in a hospital bed calling for Batman’s resurrection, had become nearly fatal in its size and direction. It was destined to meet its box-office predictions and generate all of the pop culture references that the first one did, it would impress and awe, but, ultimately and fatally, it would leave critics and some fans a trifle disappointed. There would, inevitably, always be that not-so-Dark-Knight-Rises-ness that would forever haunt the film.

Given all that he had achieved with The Dark Knight Nolan was never going to make everyone happy. The admirable thing he did, in my opinion, was not to try to.

Bolt, in certain respects, was faced with the same dilemma. Beijing 2.0 was going to be a monumental task to accomplish—to break three world records consecutively was unheard of. If he announced that he was going for them and failed, he would always be that guy that said he could…but did not. In all fairness, his performances at the Beijing Olympics had caught the world by surprise. We woke up and found that there was a new “world’s fastest man.” Most people only saw Bolt’s 200m demolition—the 100m, quite literally, passed many people by. It just happened.

But in August, the world was ready. Timetables were marked, decoders and televisions were programmed to change channels, and births were postponed or the ten, twenty and forty seconds that Bolt would be on the track. We all knew when he was racing, and we all had our tweets ready. If he failed we would see it and let the world know it.

Faced with these conundrums, like most creators, Nolan and Bolt took the only route that was available to them: they retained the core of what people like and know, and then imported a truckload of innovation; they mixed the old and familiar with a lot of the fresh and new. In doing so, they managed not to replicate their old successes; they created something new, something different that took us to a place we had not been before.

It is the willingness to create something else instead of dogmatically relying on the past that makes The Dark Knight Rises the most watchable of the three Batman films and Bolt’s performances at the 2012 Summer Olympics the most captivating events of the whole year.

For continuity, Nolan fed the audience a steady diet of actors he had worked with in his previous works. Christian Bale reprised his role as Batman, Gotham’s dark and secretive crusader; Michael Caine came back as Alfred, Bruce’s butler and fatherly figure. Morgan Freeman returned as the clever Lucius Fox, Batman’s armourer, and Gary Oldman, whose acting career has been revived along with the Batman franchise, returned as Commissioner Gordon.

Together, the core group of actors that audiences have come to know and love (or hate in some instances) over the course of Nolan’s directorial career deliver the tense action and dark intrigue that have become the hallmark of Nolan’s Batman films, and arguably, what should have been the standard for all of the preceding films featuring Gotham’s dark knight.

Nolan’s core group of actors do not do anything particularly noteworthy in this film. They hold the course.  No one, however, carries Nolan’s vision for the Batman films better than the lead actor, Christian Bale.

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Bale, who became the first actor to play Batman in three films, sees his role out admirably, and I predict, for the new generation of cinemagoers, sets the standard against which future actors who pick up the Batman cape will be measured. Bale’s casting as Batman had its critics though. And with good reason too.

Batman, unlike Superman, is not a one-size-fits-all superhero. He has undergone so many rewrites and character revisions over the years that it is impossible to find one unanimous depiction of Gotham’s caped crusader. Each Batman revision has its own fans and detractors, and into this mix comes Nolan’s Batman, played by Bale. Some of the criticism that has been levelled at Bale is his inability to exude the charm and opulence that follows Bruce Wayne in the comic books, or the brooding menace that hovers around him in the graphic novels. These arguments, I think, come down to personal preferences influenced, largely, by generation gaps.

The first Batman I knew was Michael Keaton (Batman, Batman Returns); he looked more like a detective than anything else. Then Val Kilmer (Batman Forever) stole the show, but he had that annoying habit of sounding like a terrorist John McClane would enjoy mowing down with an uzzi while screaming out “Yippecaye, mother*****!” After Kilmer’s portrayal, I vomited my way through George Clooney’s hijacking in Batman & Robin and denounced my favourite DC Comics character. Despite my personal feelings though, there are some aspects of Keaton’s Batman—brooding, sinister and calculating—that are better than Bale’s, and some of Bale’s that are better than Kilmer’s ice-cold (and slightly impersonal) rendition. It all comes to where you started the series—the later you start, the more discerning you are. Clooney is the worst; he is all of the colourful and playful things that made Batman fans cringe back when every punch was followed with a yellow WHAM!

It is hard to rule, conclusively, on Bale’ Batman performance—he is good to some people and bad to others—like the Batman. Whether Bale was a good casting choice as Batman is, in my opinion, a moot question. Like Daniel Craig’s selection as James Bond, you have to see it as the answer to an important question: how best to keep a character relevant to the times. Keaton worked in 1989. Val Kilmer was good for the 90s. Clooney worked in an alternate universe somewhere.

Bolt, like Nolan, did the same thing: he kept the core of what people loved about him—he remained an entertainer. The showmanship the world saw at the 2008 games was, thankfully, not tempered with the maturity of ageing. At every given opportunity Bolt entertained the crowd. Whenever the camera focused on him he wasted no time in putting on a show. Whether it was shadowboxing with Blake or doing the Mo Farah, Bolt made sure you knew who it was that you were watching. You were not watching the bulked-up, aggressively breathing, eagle-eyed runners of old. You were watching a physical comedian, like Charlie Chaplin. But faster. Much faster.

For many people, though, this showmanship translated into other things. Some saw it as arrogance, or the downfall of many Greek heroes, hubris. All interpretations of Bolt’s behaviour are perfectly valid, of course. But, like Bale’s Batman portrayal, the appreciation of his antics comes down to certain generation gaps—the Old School likes humble athletes, people who win and then thank their mommies and their daddies and their kittens. The New School prefers a little bit of drama. They want some Kanye West-esque behaviour, they want an athlete that wins and then puts on a show.

The old school tolerated people like Ali because they were the first of their kind. They look at Bolt, Mayweather, and Balotelli as cheap imitations of the past. In contrast, the candy-coloured sneaker generation looks at them as the norm. They fit the times. They are good at what they do and they are not ashamed to show it—something the youth of today seems to embrace. Personality is one the most profitable commodities in the current world and athletes like Bolt or Balotelli see it as part of their repertoire of tricks. Being good at something is not good enough anymore; you also have to match your talent with extravagant showmanship.

This difference in interpreting Bolt’s showmanship, like appreciation for Nolan’ Batman choice does not detract from the execution, though. It is different, not bad. And going into The Dark Knight Rises or sitting down to watch the 100m finals, it was comforting to know some of the old staples would remain—Nolan and Bolt were not going to completely flip the script.

By providing their respective audiences with a comfort zone from which to operate Nolan and Bolt were able to steer a new course, something audience members and critics might not have noticed.

Nolan, for starters, took a gamble and cast Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle, only the third actress to don Catwoman’s tight-fitting suit after Michelle Pfeiffer stitched it together in Batman Returns (1992), and Halle Berry desecrated it in 2004. Catwoman’s addition in the film’s plot set new debates in motion. Most, if not all of them, revolved around one issue: whether the role matched the story and if Hathaway was the person to fill it.

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Personally, Hathaway managed to pull of the much-reworked Catwoman. She does not do it brilliantly, and the role itself is not iconic. But, and here I thank God and the Higgs boson, she did not massacre the role. Although Nolan’s Catwoman was not the quintessential femme fatale that readers are used to, Hathaway’s portrayal managed to carry the role and do it some justice. Understandably, many fans were disappointed with Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, but I do think that such disappointment should be tempered by another viewing of the Halle Berry version.

Similarly, Bolt fans might have felt short-changed by his “failure” to break all his Olympic records—the only record left standing at the London Games was the 19.30s he set in the 200m. Failure is a strong word; it implies that Bolt came short of some industry standard. Not so. Bolt was racing against himself—no one has come close to the times he set in the previous Olympics. In London he was barely threatened. Perhaps he could have run faster, maybe he could have trashed his records. But to what end? He is the fastest recorded man in the world. He is, basically, racing against himself at this point in time.

Whatever disappointment fans might experience is a tad unjustified. He set the world alight with each of his runs, setting a new 100m Olympic record of 9.63s, and bringing Jamaica across the finish line in the 4x100m relay in another record time, 36.84s. His three gold medals at the London Games are in uncharted territory—no sprinter has swept the track as cleanly and as ruthlessly as Usain Bolt. Although it would have been desirable to see him smash his records, the style in which he won his gold medals, considering the stage and prestige of the event, are more than admirable and should keep any fan happy and detractor silent. Bolt did a Nolan—he might not have made everyone happy, but he did not disappoint.

Keeping the newness going, Nolan’s next notable addition to The Dark Knight was Tom Hardy who picked up the mantle of Gotham’s arch-criminal, Bane. Huge and masked, with a deep, raspy voice, the eloquence only villains possess, and the twisted political and social beliefs audiences have come to expect from Nolan’s villains over the course of the franchise, Bane was an interesting and captivating character who took Batman’s story to deeper and darker depths. Tom Hardy’s performance was inch-perfect, and he did more with just his eyes than the entire Green Lantern and Superman Returns casts combined. True to his word, Nolan delivered a villain that tested Batman, physically and mentally, while keeping the dark tenor set by The Dark Knight.

Unfortunately, Bane’s character, and Hardy’s portrayal thereof, will forever be compared to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker. It is an unwarranted comparison—the two are completely different. Bane cannot be quantified in Joker terms and vice versa. In much the same manner, it is impossible to compare Bolt’s exploits in 2008 to the recent London Games—neither is better than the other, they are just different. The danger of achieving success at anything, and choosing to continue in the creation process, is constantly justifying why the sequel is not like the predecessor—the expectation to produce the same result can be so high that the freshness of a new design is often ignored. In many respects, Bane and Bolt suffer, unnecessarily, from those criticisms.

Most online reviews of the The Dark Knight Rises (and running commentary on Usain Bolt’s races) tried to answer a crucial question: whether it (or he, Bolt) delivered. I think it is a sketchy question to try to answer. Deliver what exactly? Another Dark Knight? Another Beijing?

If you watch The Dark Knight Rises using The Dark Knight as the standard, you will lose many of the subtleties of the film. The Dark Knight Rises is a conclusion; it is meant to tie up the tale and close the chapter on a Nolan project that the world has obsessed over. Nolan does it in a clever way. He brings it full circle by using clever plot devices such as linking it with his first and second films. The script utilises characters and stories from the preceding films, but not excessively, to create a story that started off at a certain point and ended at another. Few trilogies have the ability to remain relevant from sequel to sequel. From personal experience only Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy manages such a feat. Nolan’s Batman films come close to Jackson’s brilliance. They are a lot smarter than, for example, The Matrix trilogy, which went on the most random tangents once the original plot ran out. Nolan keeps The Dark Knight Rises steady. It has a definite feel and vision that spans the entirety of his three films.

For many viewers, though, The Dark Knight Rises will forever be the not-The-Dark-Knight. This conclusion is not fair, though. Comparing the one to the other is like asking someone to give you exactly the same orgasm, or asking a theme park director to give you the same adrenaline rush that had you screaming in fear and excitement when you went on a roller coaster for the first time. Both demands are impossible to meet. After the first round, or ride, you build up a tolerance. The only way to even remotely capture the same high is to resort to outrageous stimuli. That is what each successive Matrix did: more fight scenes, more CGI, more bad Keanue Reeves, more sketchy, and supposedly, complex dialogue (WTF did the Architect say in that scene from Reloaded?). More, more, more, more. In the end you got less.

So, respectively, Nolan and Bolt did not give the world the perfect film or athletics competition—Bolt is still being criticised for being cocky and The Dark Knight Rises is still being shredded by viewers who were “let down” (“Let down? From what?” I ask. From the non-existent high The Amazing Spiderman took you on?).

Perhaps, in summation of this article, it can be said that Nolan and Bolt gave the world cocaine with The Dark Knight and Beijing 2008, and heroin with The Dark Knight Rises and London 2012. The world may have been disappointed by the different high, not the lack thereof.

Like any fitting swansong to a tale that has held audiences hostage, The Dark Knight Rises is epic and dripping with whip-smart dialogue, sprawling, testosterone-charged action scenes, a healthy sprinkling of nostalgia, and just a touch of madness, all set to Hans Zimmer’s maniacally engrossing score and soundtrack. The Dark Knight Rises, like the other Nolan creations in the series, did not hold back on the creativity and sets lofty standards for other comic book based films to match. It might be a long while before we see a trilogy of this quality. The good news is that Nolan concludes his Batman trilogy in a way that provides ample space for creative reinterpretation in the future. So, while there might not be another Nolanesque take on Batman, there will the chance of seeing a new creation.

From the looks of it, London 2012 could be the last time the world sees the likes of Usain Bolt. He will be in action at the World Championships next year, where he aims to break his world records again. But he might be too old to compete in the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, in 2016. For the most part, Bolt’s performances at the Olympic Games are getting the applause they deserve—what he achieved, when, and how he achieved it, is the stuff of legends. I hope that The Dark Knight Rises is viewed in the same light—as a new creation, individual in its direction.

  • Amélie

    False modesty is an annoying trait of athletes. You compete to win, and no one wins so that they can hide in a corner in ‘deep humility’. I like Bolt because he celebrates his victories as we would, given the chance: Ezekiel-Kemboi style jump for joy!

    As for Nolan, whatever his detractors say, the man delivered. Heath Ledger was good but sometimes I feel that his passing has embellished his portrayal of the Joker more than necessary. The story was always about Batman and in TDKR, he brought the story back to him. After all the transformations that Batman has undergone, Nolan found a way to unify all his storylines and make a seamless character with a comprehensible backstory and purpose. He made Batman accessible to all of us who cannot afford comic/ graphic novel subscriptions so well done him!

    • There are few things worse than false modesty. My stance is that if you win, you win. You can laugh, cry, dance, scream, or strip naked if you want to. You have just won. I think Usain Bolt celebrates his victories in the best way–it is refreshing to see a person revel in their abilities. And he has never trampled over anyone, he has never called anyone out. All he has ever said was that he is good. So far, no one has proven him wrong.

      Nolan made one of the best films I have seen with The Dark Knight Rises. As I said, many people will judge it on the basis that it is not the Dark Knight, which is a bit mad because no film can be like another. Everything is different. A film fails, for me, when it does not achieve the purpose it set out to do. A drama fails when it does not make me sad or thoughtful; a comedy fails when I cry through it–The Dark Knight Rises does not fail because it is not The Dark Knight. It’s all in the name. This is The Dark Knight Rises.

      Nolan did a good thing with TDKR. He finally delivered a superhero film. The first film was introductory–nothing really happened. The second one was a thriller. I would never let my kid watch that film. The third one was a true superhero film: there was a good guy, a bad guy, the fought, someone lost, and things blew up. The brilliant thing about TDKR is that everything justified. You got the feeling that “everything that has a beginning has an end…[Neo]”.

      Also, how epic would it be if Nolan directed The Flash…starring…USAIN BOLT. The world would explode.

      • Amélie

        That would be epic. They wouldn’t even have to use CGI for the action parts.

        I think Usain is fully aware of his abilities. If he were to say that he can outrun anyone for the next 3 Olympics games, then we might call that hubris. But for now he knows it’s his time so let him celebrate.

        Nolan, well…having seen TDKR, let me just say that I can watch the Batman Trilogy in one go and it will be a day well spent!

        This was a good read, by the way. I should stop reading your articles when I’m in the office, though. Science is not supposed to be funny and after pretending to read the article, I blew my cover by laughing at this:

        “Clooney is the worst; he is all of the colourful and playful things that made Batman fans cringe back when every punch was followed with a yellow WHAM!”

        I am still laughing.