Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises, Falls, and Rises Again...

I was one of those nerds who thought that "The Dark Knight" should have been at the very least considered for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2009. While I can understand the argument for why "Milk" or "Slumdog Millionaire" would be better, I can't imagine anyone arguing that it's a lesser film than "Frost/Nixon", "Benjamin Button", or "The Reader". I mean, honestly, does anyone actually remember "The Reader"?

But that's the Academy for you. It took them three tries before recognizing "Lord of the Rings", and "Return of the King" wasn't even the best of the trilogy, in my opinion. They picked "Annie Hall" over "Star Wars".

Then again, a lot of people think the Academy changed its rules for Best Picture nominees specifically because of the "Dark Knight" snub, and for that reason, I think a lot of people were hoping that "The Dark Knight Rises" would be the first comic book movie considered for Best Picture. Even if it wasn't quite as good as "The Dark Knight", the Academy might nominate it just as penance for the 2009 snub.

Here's the problem. "The Dark Knight Rises" isn't even CLOSE to as good as "The Dark Knight". It's not even as good as "Batman Begins", which really shocked me.

And to be perfectly honest, even if this movie DID get the "honor" of being the first comic book movie nominated for Best Picture, I don't think we should be proud of that. This movie, while certainly not BAD (and actually pretty good) is not a good representation of comic book mythology in general, let alone Batman mythology. A nomination would basically be the Academy saying, "We don't care how good the actual movie is, so long as it is needlessly topical and doesn't have bright colors." That wouldn't bring any new mainstream credibility to the genre.

Some of you might be thinking, "Why should we care what the Academy thinks?" Well, to a degree, we really shouldn't. The Academy Awards don't dictate what makes a good movie. However, they DO dictate what a studio is shooting for in terms of a movie's quality. For example, after "Beauty and the Beast" got nominated for Best Picture, suddenly animated films from Disney tried (and often failed) to shoot for that same kind of clout. It raised the bar for them. They knew they could accomplish more than just box office success, and that kind of awareness grants the creators a certain amount of freedom to focus more on quality than profitability.

In other words, the Academy recognizing a comic book movie as a quality piece of cinema would tell Warner Bros., Fox, Sony, and Marvel Studios that they don't have to simply try and make a ton of money. They can explore deeper concepts and critics no longer have to add the caveat "for a comic book movie" to any compliment they give.

However, if they recognize this comic book movie, it will say that a comic book movie has to be as gritty, dark, and realistic as possible in order to be considered a "true" film.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is not a comic book movie that takes its source material seriously. Catwoman is never once called "Catwoman". Batman is still wearing bulky, heavy armor that looks awful. Bane has only the most superficial similarities to his comic book counterpart.

It's like when you're in Junior High and your English teacher asks you to write an essay about something that has to contain words from your weekly vocabulary list. You go out of your way to include them just because you're supposed to, but if it weren't expected, you probably wouldn't have bothered.

That's what's going on here. Nolan clearly doesn't WANT to be making a Batman movie. Frankly, this movie probably would have been better off if it didn't include Batman. If it was just a movie about a city being cut off from the rest of the world and plunged into anarchy, that would be interesting. I mean, that's a really cool premise that you can do a lot with. But because Nolan is trying (but failing) SO HARD to give Batman a complete story arc in the midst of all this, we really have no time to really explore it.

This movie probably looked good on paper. If I just look at the overall plot or outline of this movie, it sounds amazing. The problem is with the execution of the screenplay. This is easily the messiest Nolan Bros. screenplay ever, and that includes "Inception".

The individual parts are well-put-together and the presentation is excellent, but it never really comes together in the way the previous two movies did.

OK, beyond here, we're getting into SPOILERS.

First and foremost, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is easily the best part of the movie. She has a scary confidence that works perfectly for the character and minus a few ass-shots, she's easily the least-objectified Catwoman in probably any medium ever. She's basically the only character with a traditional arc and whenever she's in a scene, the movie returns to life. She is the best live action Catwoman ever, and minus the fact that she doesn't really have a thing for cats other than wearing cat ears and she's never actually called "Catwoman", she still has the personality that unmistakably belongs to that character.

On the other hand, we have Bane. He has a mask, he was born in a prison, he's smart, he's huge, and he breaks Batman's back. Beyond that, he's really nothing like his comic book counterpart. He was excommunicated from the League of Shadows, he inexplicably has a lot of really loyal followers, and it turns out he's working for Talia al Ghul the whole time. He wants to blow up the city because she wants to. He makes Batman suffer because she wants him to. His character is effectively robbed of any genuine motivation other than twoo wuv. Tom Hardy does a fine job creating a walking contradiction. I honestly like that. But the mask is really hard to act through and his voice is way too garbled and weirdly mixed to ever really draw you in.

Batman has probably the weakest character arc in the movie. He retired as Batman after Dent's death because it allowed Gotham to pass a law that allowed them to detain organized criminals without parole, effectively ending organized crime. We could have taken this opportunity to show that Gotham is still rotten even without organized crime, but outside of a couple speeches, we don't really get that impression. Supposedly, Batman just... won. Huzzah?

But since Rachel died, Batman also gives up on being Bruce Wayne. His one reason to return to a normal life is gone, so he just sort of sits around and waits for stuff to happen. Funny, because that's how I felt throughout most of this movie.

Honestly, I think it would have made more sense if Batman spent all of his time in the cave, training and recovering, waiting for the day the city needed him again. Otherwise, what the hell was he doing for eight years? Staring out a window? He spent his years after the death of Joe Chill aimlessly walking the earth and training until he was given a path by Ra's al Ghul. He was just as lost then, but at least he was DOING something. If he had spent the past eight years obsessively rebuilding the Batcave and training, it also would have spared one of the bigger problems with this movie.

The first act of the movie involves the sort-of crippled Bruce Wayne recovering and getting back in the saddle to take on Bane. This is fine. The problem is, this is ALSO the second act of the movie. It completely destroys the pacing of the film.

If they had started out with him being in the best shape he's ever been and narrow-mindedly dedicated to throwing himself into the fire, we could have kept all the stuff about Bruce Wayne being a recluse and Batman disappearing, but we could see his starting trajectory as hubris and his eventual fall and rise feels more powerful that way.

Also, I think that Bane should have started off by releasing the Blackgate prisoners. This forces Batman to come out of retirement to face them, and then (like in Knightfall) he would get tired, allowing Bane to take advantage and THEN break him. It also would allow an opportunity for Batman to face the criminals he put away and face their judgement, something that he probably has coming to him.

Anyway, Batman's escape from Bane's prison is pretty cool. He learns that the only person who ever escaped the prison was a child, and he realizes that what allowed her to do it was the fact that she had to do it without a rope to catch her if she fell. This is a great metaphor for any number of things and it could have been a great moment if it had ANYTHING to do with ANY of the themes explored in the movie.

One thing that made "The Dark Knight" such a great film was that it knew what it was about. It explored themes of order, chaos, moral ambiguity, and the nature of justice, all themes explored in "Batman Begins" as well. In "The Dark Knight Rises", we get some of that order and chaos dynamic, but never in a compelling way. Order = Good, Chaos = Bad. Catwoman provides some moral ambiguity, but it's only ever surface-level and never deeply impacts anything. Justice is completely missing entirely. If anyone is ever punished in this film, it's usually for arbitrary reasons and done by the bad guys. This movie has no idea what it's about and the plot is practically BEGGING to be explored in a deeper way, but it just never happens.

Because of this, Batman's story arc feels forced and it never makes sense. In the first movie, he decided that his city, while broken, is worth saving, and that it was his duty to be its savior. In the second movie, he started thinking about a life after Batman, both for himself and for Gotham, and in the end he was able to give Gotham a new lease on life, but at the cost of his own reputation and future. In the third movie, he decides that he needs to put everything on the line in order to save his city, but we never really get a compelling reason WHY. His eight-year absence and lethargy implies that he stopped caring about the city, and as soon as Bane shows up, he carelessly throws himself at him, alienating himself from his friends and colleagues and burning his empire to the ground. It looks like he's already willing to give everything up to stop Bane, but it starts off more as a disregard for his own life. He has nothing to live for. Then once he escapes from Bane's prison, he basically reaffirmed that he has to risk everything to save the city. He didn't learn ANYTHING except maybe that he should do some push ups before taking on Bane. It would have been more compelling if we were given a reason for him to care about his own life or Gotham (other than THINK OF THE POOR ORPHANS). If he had something to gain or to lose. Batman gets way too much screen time that basically revolves around his own depression and lots of exposition. This is boring. "Iron Man 2" had more character development than this.

Anyway, back to the other characters.

The reveal of Talia al Ghul is easy to see coming if you know the character, but I imagine people who didn't know any better thought it was a surprise. However, the movie tries so hard not to telegraph her true identity that we start to wonder why she's hanging around so much, particularly since her motivation is pretty unclear. We never really understand why she cares so much about finishing her father's work. It would have been more compelling if she simply wanted to make Batman suffer.

A bit more head-slappingly stupid is the reveal that John Blake is supposed to be Robin. No, not Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, or anyone like that. His first name, which is only revealed at the end, is literally "Robin". Seriously. This is what I mean when I say that Nolan is trying to get the bare minimum in terms of references. He doesn't want to say "Dick Grayson" or "Tim Drake" because the stupid audiences might not get it. Fuck that shit. I liked John Blake OK, especially his bit where he and Batman have a heart-to-heart about being orphans and putting on a "mask", but I'm sorry, it takes more to be Batman than just being an orphan and having a strong sense of justice.

Speaking of which, why the FUCK is John Blake inheriting the Batman legacy instead of Catwoman? He has no hand-to-hand combat training, he's not stealthy, and he inexplicably decides not to be a police officer anymore for a not-so-clearly defined reason. It would have made way more sense for Catwoman to be the new Dark Knight. She has the training, she has nothing better to do, she's stealthy, and she's capable of doing the things that the law can't or won't do. She can be what Gotham needs in a way that John Blake isn't ready to be. But nope, Catwoman gets to be Batman's girlfriend instead. Yippee.

Despite the film's pacing, stylistic, and thematic problems and my one or two major gripes with the story, I did enjoy it. The score is fantastic, the action is good, though never great, the anarchic Gotham City is a really cool idea that I wish could have been explored more, the acting is excellent, and I had fun. It's still better than any of the Batman movies from the original quartet.

But here's my whole point. Nolan made a conscious decision to make this the last Batman movie in this franchise. He had the opportunity to have all of his themes resonate and explode in an epic finale that could have taken us places we could never go because no other Batman film is ever going to consider killing Bruce Wayne and dealing with the end game. All of the things I had hoped would be explored were barely touched on, if at all.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I wasn't expecting to get a good Batman movie, but I was expecting a great Nolan movie. Instead, I just got a decent movie. I would watch literally any other Nolan movie rather than watch this one.

You might think my expectations were too high, but the thing is, this movie had every opportunity to be a great film. It had a massive amount of momentum and a great plot to work with. There's no reason why this film shouldn't be great. But it's not. So I think it's not unreasonable to be disappointed.

All in all, I give it about the same recommendation that I gave "Amazing Spider-Man". If you were already planning to see it, go ahead and see it and you'll probably enjoy it. If you weren't planning on seeing it, don't bother.

1 comment:

  1. Now I'm really glad I never went to see this.

    Going to a Batman movie and getting...this...would have been a huge slap in the face for me. Catwoman wasn't even called catwoman? Well at least she played the personality well. It really is a pity though. I definitely don't think I'll be seeing this.