The Dark Knight Rises is just around the corner and, despite my efforts, it's been impossible to not read about it and get incredibly psyched. After all, we remember the awesomeness of The Dark Knight, and Christopher Nolan has shown us (with Inception, if nothing else) that he can create one intense movie.
Yet as I've read of this upcoming movie and of its apparent inspirations, it occurred to me: most people probably don't even know who Bane (the villain-to-be) is. And it might not be immediately apparent why this new movie is set a full eight years after the previous one. So, given my immense repository of useless information (which includes comic book lore), I thought I'd make an effort to create a sort of background primer explaining the source material that Christopher Nolan appears to be working with.
Believe it or not, we have seen Bane before. In the godawful Batman & Robin movie, Bane appears as a skinny little git who grows into a tank of a minion, when fueled to the gills with some nasty greenish compound known as Venom. His sole purpose in that movie is to serve as a giant bruiser for Batman to fight and, more or less, easily dispatch, serving merely as an idle distraction before getting to the 'main course' of Poison Ivy. What you need to do now is forget that this iteration of Bane ever existed. I thought about putting a picture up of what that Bane looked like, but I'm not going to. It's about as accurate to the source material as if Batman were some dog dressed in Bat-tights.
Anyways, what makes Bane special among Batman's eclectic coterie of bad guys is that Bane is the only villain who has ever completely and utterly defeated Batman. Not only did he beat Batman in a viciously brutal fistfight, but he destroys Batman emotionally as well. He's the only one who pushes Batman past his limit and, by doing so, messes Batman up so thoroughly that Batman gives up and lets someone else take the Batman moniker.
How does this happen, you ask? In comics, the story is called Knightfall. A complete unknown at this point in Batman's history, Bane realizes that attacking Batman directly is futile, and so decides to stage an enormous breakout of Arkham Asylum, the place where all of Batman's villains are imprisoned. Batman doesn't know who did it or how, but the result is close to absolute anarchy, as foes such as the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Two-Face, and more spill out into Gotham and create their own little pockets of tyranny or madness. The police are completely unable to cope, hundreds of people are dying as victims in various insane schemes, and it's all up to Batman. He takes them down one-by-one and is driven to exhaustion. He is injured and shot repeatedly, and nearly runs out of his stock of gadgets and paraphernalia.
Thinking it all over after recapturing the last villain, Batman returns home to the Wayne mansion and finds Bane waiting for him. It turns out that, in Batman's haste to stop all the bad guys who escaped, Bane has been able to track Batman's whereabouts and discover both the location of the Bat-cave and the fact that Batman is actually Bruce Wayne. Despite Batman's determination to fight Bane regardless, you can tell that Batman doesn't have a chance. He looks haggard, his face worn and unshaven, and he's shuddering, unable to shake off his exhaustion. And Bane, a villain who he's never even seen before, would arguably be Batman's equal in a fight, even if Batman were fully rested and armed. Thus, in short order, Bane brutalizes Batman, toys with him like he would a child, and then breaks his back and turns Batman into a paraplegic.
While, eventually, Batman recovers years later and defeats Bane personally, it's important to note that Bane is a combination of brute force and cunning. Unlike others, Bane is smart enough to weaken Batman and push him beyond his endurance before Bane even thinks of facing him. What will Christopher Nolan do with his version of Bane? Well, I'm willing to bet that the drug Venom won't be mentioned. In the comics, Bane does in fact have this compound that boosts his strength, but it's so secondary to what makes him a threat that it would just be pointless to bring up, especially considering that Christopher Nolan's Batman universe likes to have a firm grounding in reality.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. In what is perhaps the most fitting homage to Heath Ledger's crazy and epic take on the Joker, the Bruce Wayne of this third movie is going to be one who is legitimately damaged from the encounter. Batman is older, he looks gaunt, he's regarded as having murdered Harvey Dent, and is essentially a pariah, both among the police and in the media. In fact, Batman is regarded as "missing" for all of those years. It wouldn't be surprising if along with this trauma comes a strong dose of cynicism.
All this reminded me of The Dark Knight Returns, a comic that basically asks, “What if Batman became so overwhelmed with crime fighting that he gave up, retired for a dozen years, then came back, much older, to try once more in a Gotham that's become far more corrupt and dark in his absence." And I've read an article or two that suggests that this comic is one of those that was used for prime inspiration in the making of this particular film. This got me incredibly excited as The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most intense, cutting, and impressive comics I've ever read, and any nod to it is undeniably good.
To summarize, The Dark Knight Returns has an old, unhappy sixty year old Bruce Wayne realize that, without the brutal vigilantism of the Batman alter-ego in his life, he's doomed to die alone and unhappy. So, despite the impossibility of one man turning about a truly twisted dystopian Gotham, an aged Bruce Wayne dons the cowl once more and fights crime again. What makes The Dark Knight Returns unsettling, however, is how the cynicism of this unhappy old man comes against Batman's thou-shalt-not-kill mentality. Batman becomes more brutal, more willing to push the line, and ends up dying for it. (For more details, see my old review)
While Christopher Nolan is obviously not going to follow the events of The Dark Knight Returns (it climaxes with Batman and Superman fighting to the death, after all), it's worth noting that the atmosphere and mood of that comic will almost certainly be employed. It's also interesting to note that the Bat-Tank that we've seen already was directly inspired by the same vehicle in The Dark Knight Returns. Lastly, if it's a major inspiration, it's more likely that Batman will die by the end of the movie. It would be a suitably intense end to the series, but we'll see...
Unfortunately, I haven't quite decided what to make of Catwoman. I've read a fair amount of comics in my day, and I've yet to read a great Catwoman story. She's the femme fatale, the mischievous flirt of a thief, and basically serves as a lighthearted foil to Batman's serious justice-must-be-done mentality. She flip flops back and forth between helping Batman and helping the villain of the week, whoever provides the cleanest and most exciting adventure with moneybags at the end.
What concerns me is that, based on the trailers we've seen, Catwoman seems to be more enthralled with arguing the philosophy of a pretty Occupy Wall Street drone more than anything. On the bright side, this might manifest as her serving as a beautiful, buxom female Robin Hood. Or it might result in her operating as a one-note political message, much like how Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox in The Dark Knight's only purpose was to remind us that wiretapping is unconstitutional and evil. It could go either way.
But what really concerns me with Catwoman is the fact that, as mentioned above, there's already a LOT on the plate already when it comes to characters and the plot. Batman's deterioration of spirit combined with the enormous, existential threat of Bane is going to dominate the movie, as it should. Is there truly room for Catwoman? I've no problem with Anne Hathaway prancing about sexily and stealing things but, given what I've outlined, she just sounds out of place in a story like this. I only hope that Christopher Nolan has an ace up his sleeve on this one.
In the end, I have great hopes for The Dark Knight Rises combined with unending caution. This movie is going to be hyped to high hell, and it has a huge hurdle to jump with regard to just how awesome The Dark Knight was. But the director is one of the best and has yet to disappoint us. The source material is very strong and intense stuff, so my fingers are crossed. I'm just hoping that the addition of Catwoman (not to mention Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as new characters) doesn't cause the film to keel over under the weight. Time will tell, in just over a week!