Sunday, July 22, 2012
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: The Definitive Review From a Diehard Bat-Fan
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Review:
- With BATMAN BEGINS, the sheer thrill of seeing the Batman mythos taken seriously, of seeing these characters portrayed by A-list actors, of putting the DARK back into the Dark Knight ... it was more than enough to make me love that film. Finally, we were out of the Bat-hell that was the Schumaker-era. Finally, we had moved on past the campiness and into a film that drew inspiration from the classic comics of Denny O'Neil and Neil Adams. Finally, we had the Batman film that we'd been waiting for. Then THE DARK KNIGHT came along, and director Christopher Nolan again assaulted us with a film of unparalleled, thunderous momentum and intensity. The movie had flaws, but it was incredibly easy to overlook them - Heath Ledger's stunning performance as The Joker was so brilliant and badass that it elevated the film past any superhero movie before or since. But with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Nolan's sweeping directorial prowess and sensory assault just isn't enough. Narratively, he seems to run out of gas before our eyes. Watching the film, it was almost as if I could see Nolan fall out of love with BATMAN as the movie went on. The direction was as epic as ever, the cast as talented (if not more so) ... but the message of the movie felt limp and confused. The plot holes and inconsistencies felt more pronounced, and the more grating aspects of the series all the more noticeable. The fact is: I am a lifelong Batman fan. I know the comics inside and out - the character and the mythology fascinate me to no end. There's no character I geek-out for more so than Batman, and that includes Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. But I didn't get that high from DKR. And trust me ... I take no joy in saying this, but here it is: this is a very good film, but it's also a low-point in Nolan's heretofore superlative Batman trilogy,
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
DKR takes place a full eight years after the events of the previous film. Gotham has settled into a time of relative peace, but that peace is built on a lie - the lie that Harvey Dent was a martyr, killed at the hands of the city's enemy: Batman. The Dent Act has cracked down on crime, and now Commissioner Gordon watches over a city that is safer, though he bears the burden of knowing that that safety was built on false pretense - and that it cost Gotham its true savior. To that end, Bruce Wayne is now a recluse, holed up in Wayne Manor, using a cane to get around on a hobbled leg. Wayne's gone emo - shaggy, bearded, and still hung up on the death of Rachel Dawes.
Now, let me pause here to say how falsely this rang with me. BATMAN, the most obsessive, driven hero in pop-culture - a man who spent YEARS training to become the pinnacle of human potential, to become a one-man war on crime - has been sitting on the sidelines for a decade, pining for his lost love?! Remember, in this particular movie-verse, he was only actually Batman for about a year. And he just gives it up and becomes Howard Hughes? Yes, in Frank Miller's classic Dark Knight Returns, it's all about Batman coming out of retirement - but that's when he's middle-aged and had been fighting crime for decades. Hell, in Batman Beyond Bruce Wayne is still going strong well past the date he received an AARP membership. I get it, this is Nolan's take on the character. But I'm sorry, this take is lame.
To further expand (and to get even heavier into MASSIVE SPOILER territory) ,,, I just don't get what Nolan is going for with Bruce Wayne's character arc here. The first act of the movie is all about a Bruce Wayne who's given up being Batman for years. But the threat of a new uber-villain - the sadistic BANE - is enough to convince him to get back into the bat-suit. And yet ... the movie is not at all about Bruce Wayne embracing the Batman. Somehow, the plot evolves to be about Bruce Wayne *growing out* of being Batman, and leaving that identity behind him. Essentially, the film - in a very short span of time - takes Bruce Wayne in two completely different directions. On one hand, it builds and builds towards the Dark Knight returning, but then rather abruptly veers into much different thematic territory. The ending of the film sees Bruce Wayne fake his own death - that of Wayne and that of Batman. Wayne gives up his role as protector of Gotham. He gives up his identity as Batman. And he goes off on a European vacation with Selina Kyle. The film tries to rationalize this sudden swing with a series of earlier scenes, in which Bruce is held captive, in the same nearly inescapable prison that Bane once called home. The big emotional beat here is that Bruce as Batman had no fear of death, and thus was a weaker man - unable to garner the strength of spirit to escape the prison. Only by realizing that he did have more to live for - that there was life beyond Batman - did Bruce muster the willpower to escape. I get it. Sort of. But this just rang false to me. It contradicts the much-more powerful premise that Bruce Wayne is the mask, and only Batman is real. It undermines the arc of the first half of the movie - the return of Batman - when we realize that the return was never going to be more than a one-shot deal.
Let me jump around a little bit here ... and please note: there are a number of mini-rants below. Most of these aren't deal-breakers as far as my enjoyment of the movie goes, but things that bugged me. More so, these were things that kept the movie from being *great*, from reaching the levels of awesome found in Begins and most especially in Dark Knight.
So ... I have to talk about Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I mean John Blake. I mean "Robin." His NAME WAS ROBIN. This was the single worst, most eye-rolling moment of the movie to me. And there was something about it that really bothered me. Nolan has said many times that he doesn't like Robin. That's always bothered me, because Dick Grayson is an awesome character. Tim Drake is an awesome character. Hell, Damian Wayne has become a pretty awesome character over the last few years. But the reveal of Blake as a dude named Robin - and the setup of him potentially inheriting the mantle of the bat - it felt cheesy. It felt lame. It felt like a weird mix of fan service and spite. "You wanted a Robin, here's your Robin." Some random cop doesn't just become Robin or Batman or Nightwing. Again, it felt unnecessary, and it felt like a short-cut. It felt like a plot point that is far too easy and optimistic for this franchise. We had a whole movie about the years of hardship and training and preparation that it took for Bruce Wayne to become Batman. But John Blake just gets to step into those shoes? It seems to undermine not just Batman cannon, but a lot of what we've already seen in this trilogy. Thematically, it doesn't even make much sense. By the end of DKR, we're supposed to be happy that Bruce has "escaped" this life and found peace. And yet we're also supposed to be happy that Blake has embraced the cape and cowl - stepping right into the role that was supposedly so horrible and tragic for Bruce. It's one of many examples of the movie undermining itself.
Another example is Bane. Bane is built up quite solidly. His first encounter with Batman is suitably intense, gripping, and unnerving. When he very quickly disposes of Batman and "breaks" him during their initial mano e mano encounter - in a scene that evokes the classic Knightfall comic book storyline - it's probably the single best moment in the movie ... its biggest, most holy-$#@& scene. But towards the movie's end, a bunch of things happen that just plain destroy Bane as a character. For one thing, there's the false reveal of Ra's Al Ghul as his father, in a very strange scene where Liam Neeson appears to Bruce as a hallucination. This is played as a major reveal ... but why? It's proven false soon after, and that negates the entire origin story of Bane that we'd heard earlier - which was pretty effective in building him up as an uber-badass. For another thing, Bane is built up as a leader, a tactician, a mastermind ... only to eventually be revealed as a mere pawn for Talia Al Ghul. The movie goes so far as to re-tell Bane's origin with Talia in his place - the ol' bait-and-switch - transferring much of Bane's badass status to Talia. Suddenly, Bane is just a lackey, a pawn. Finally, as if to reinforce his sudden demotion to jobber status, Bane's climactic fight with Batman comes to an abrupt end when he's promptly obliterated by Catwoman, who kills him point-blank with a high-tech firearm, and who fires off a well-timed quip in the process. WTF? This completely kills the epicness of the Batman vs. Bane brawl. Catwoman straight-up kills Bane and Batman doesn't say a word in protest. And ultimately, Bane goes out like a chump instead of like a champ.
Speaking of Talia Al Ghul ... I love Ra's and Talia. Two of my all-time favorite characters. I wasn't surprised whatsoever that "Miranda Tate" turned out to be Talia ... as soon as Marion Cottillard was cast, I knew she'd turn out to be the Daughter of the Demon. But the movie killed the character by insisting on keeping her identity a "mystery" for so long. By doing this, they forced Talia's motivation for helping to destroy Gotham to be reduced to two sentences of clunky exposition ... exposition that barely made sense. Apparently, Talia hated her father ... until Batman killed him, at which point she decided to take up his cause and destroy a city full of people. Ummm ... okay? Look, the reason we all love Talia is because she's an uber-complex and conflicted character, torn between her love for her father and her love for Bruce Wayne, her "beloved." There was none of that complexity in DKR. Talia was a Bond villain, a thinly-drawn cypher. We spent so much time with her posing as a corporate titan that we never saw her as a badass. Her complex relationship with Batman was reduced to an out-of-nowhere tryst with Bruce and an out-of-nowhere turn to all-out, megalomaniacal villainy. Weak.
Catwoman. Catwoman at her best is a tough-as-nails femme fatale. Raised on the wrong side of the tracks, devious, devilish, but fiercely loyal and protective of the people and causes she holds dear. Catwoman is the most badass of all badass female characters in fiction. She will kick your ass and break your heart all at once. Now ... Anne Hathaway is a fine actress. And she gives it a good go here - she tries. But she's no Selina Kyle. It felt like watching a girl-next-door play-acting at being a badass. You could feel Hathaway trying her damndest to do the sultry voice and bad attitude, but she just wasn't pulling it off. I never believed that she could take out one armed thug, let alone dozens. I never believed that Batman would fall for her hard, let alone quit being Batman to hang out with her. We didn't get Selina's backstory - we barely got into her head. The fetishistic/psycho-sexual aspect of the character was never really touched on, and her chemistry with Bale was pretty nonexistent. And ... the Catwoman costume in this movie was boring and generic - a plain leather biker suit with no style or flourish. How hard would it have been to have just used the instant-classic, Darwyn Cooke-designed suit from the comics? Ultimately, this Catwoman was never offensive or Halle Berry-level bad, but she was also nothing special. It's a shame. Catwoman is one of the best characters in the Batman universe, and she deserves an iconic portrayal (I guess there's still Michelle Pfeifer from Batman Returns ... who Hathaway can't touch).
Alfred ... he up and leaves Bruce because Bruce becomes Batman again. What? This was a major beat in the movie and it, again, rang false. I could see it if it happened *after* Bruce gets mauled by Bane. But it happens so early on that it has no resonance. In the previous films, Alfred seemed to take satisfaction in helping to see through Bruce's quest to clean up Gotham. Now, Bruce's most faithful friend just ups and deserts him?
One more thing: as bone-crunching as some of the action is in this movie, most of it didn't feel like Batman. In the Knightfall comics, Bane breaks Batman by strategically exhausting him mentally and physically. By the time Bane personally confronts Bruce inside of Wayne Manor, he's a shell of his usual self. It takes every ounce of Bruce's willpower to fight back against Bane, and ultimately, Bruce has no more fight left in him. But in DKR, Bruce returns to a Bane-controlled Gotham to literally wage war on his foe. Batman leads an army of cops in an effort to take back the city. And yet ... Batman's big plan to confront Bane is to simply duke it out with him? Their fight is visceral and intense, but it might as well be a boxing match. It felt off to have Bruce come all the way back to Gotham - after having been imprisoned for so long - without much in the way of a plan. Of course, he did plan an elaborate bit of theatrics - a dramatic lighting of a bat-symbol-shaped flame - to announce his return to Gotham. Too bad he didn't also bring some ideas of how to take out Bane aside from punch him a bunch of times.
A lot of the issues I have with the film can be traced back to its jumpy pacing. The movie picks strange moments to leap forward in time, undercutting a lot of potential drama and build-up. We see Bruce dramatically escape from the prison Bane sticks him in, but then we just see him appear back in prison-state Gotham moments later, with no explanation given of how he got back in. Bruce falls for Miranda and Selina at the seeming drop of a hat. Look, we all know that the weak link of the last two films was the love interests - but here, the lack of chemistry and believability in the relationships is even more pronounced. Meanwhile, Alfred storms out of Bruce's life incredibly abruptly. Then there's Blake's arc. Bruce talks to Blake a couple of times, and suddenly we're to believe that he's been entrusted with Bruce's most sacred and personal creation - the mantle of the bat. How about when Bane seizes Gotham ... it's hard to figure out exactly the effect on ordinary citizens, and it's difficult to discern the larger ramifications of his takeover - we get some quick cuts to the military and the President (played by no less than the great William Devane!) talking over the matter, but it all feels pretty incidental to the main plot. Finally, the random cameos by Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane were totally baffling to me - Cillian is great, but why have him appear as Crane if he does nothing the least bit Scarecrow-ish?
So yeah, DKR has a lot of issues. The pacing is uneven, the twists feel out-of-nowhere and cheesy, and thematically, the film lacks cohesion and consistency, seemingly contradicting itself and previous films in the series at every turn. But please, don't get me wrong ... the persistent power of Nolan's direction is still a force to be reckoned with. While lacking the sorts of iconic shots that made The Dark Knight so memorable, DKR still runs like a rocket engine. Nolan is among the best ever at giving his films an operatic, apocalyptic momentum. And for a while, DKR has a haunting sense of racing towards Armageddon (and that's partly why the multiple "happy endings" of the film ring so false, thematically). But Nolan and his cast again make the film riveting more often than not. Bale is as intense as ever as Bruce Wayne / Batman (though the strained, gravelly Bat-voice feels more absurd with each passing movie). But come on - look at this cast. The seasoned supporting players like Caine, Freeman, and Oldman are reliably kickass. Tom Hardy makes some odd choices as Bane (the voice is alternately creepy and just weird and campy - sometimes he sounds badass, sometimes like Dr. Frankenfurter - undoubtedly, he's got too much dialogue) ... but Hardy's become one of my favorite actors precisely because he's so unpredictable and unhinged. There's no doubt though that Hardy helps make Bane into a great, imposing villain for much of the movie ... at least until the script butchers him. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has some truly great scenes in the film. Even if his character never fully worked for me, Levitt is one of those guys who's so good, he makes any part he plays better than it might have been otherwise. Again though, it's hard to overstate how much Oldman, Caine, and Freeman are MVP's of the film. They give so much gravitas and dignity to their roles, they elevate every scene they're involved in.
And Nolan still delivers the goods - with help from cinematographer extraordinaire Wally Pfister - in making the movie look huge and breathtaking, In IMAX, it's stunning to look at. I honestly think that those who come away loving this film will do so because they simply got completely caught up in the overpowering imagery of certain scenes. That's when the movie is at it's best - when it's dealing with simple, emotional, cinematic beats. The high-speed chases through the streets of Gotham - Batman piloting his ultra-sleek, ultra-cool Batwing. The big, stirring moments - as when Gordon lights up that flaming Bat-symbol, triumphantly announcing that the Dark Knight has returned. Or, perhaps most memorably, when a determined Bruce Wayne uses every ounce of his legendary willpower to escape from the inescapable prison - scaling its unscalable walls to impossible freedom. As Han Zimmer's epic score soars, as Bruce's fellow inmates chant in ominous tones, as Bruce channels his inner Batman and scales those walls - that is the moment where you think "damn, Christopher Nolan is the real deal, man." And hey, I'm a Nolan fan from way back. I count Memento as one of my top movies of all-time. I've loved his work from The Prestige to Inception, from Batman Begins to Dark Knight. And there are a handful of scenes in DKR where Nolan does indeed wow you as only he can.
That's why I do feel a bit torn about this one. I did thoroughly enjoy it, and there is some truly exceptional filmmaking to be found in certain points of the movie. In and of itself, it works as a good, solid, entertaining superhero flick. But there are two very high standards that this film was going to have to live up to. One was Batman Begins, and to a larger extent The Dark Knight. TDK was and is a true modern-day classic, perhaps the apex of serious superhero movies. Could Nolan make a film that was on par with - or better yet, that outdid - the movie that raised the bar? Secondly, there is simply the Batman legend. Nolan is playing in quite the sandbox here, adapting beloved characters that shaped childhoods, that have had their stories told in countless comics and cartoons. Heath Ledger's Joker was different than previous versions - but it was so interesting, so complex, so unique - that it instantly became iconic in its own right. I don't know if we'll be saying the same about this movie's versions of Bane, Catwoman, or Talia Al Ghul. Certainly, not about "Robin" Blake.
If you look at the metatext here, it almost feels like Nolan wants to move beyond Batman, just as Bruce does in the film. I don't know that Nolan ever truly loved Batman, but he found his place of passion, his voice, when he realized that he could use Batman as a metaphor for our modern-day political struggles - as a symbol for the hopes and fears and moral ambiguity of a post-9/11 world. From that perspective, there is a unique sort of symmetry and closure in DKR. But it feels more true to Nolan's internal political debate than it does true to the character of Bruce Wayne / Batman. Superheroes can be used as political allegory, but ultimately it all comes back to the core of the character. What makes Bruce Wayne who he is? And ultimately, what is the Batman mythology all about? The Dark Knight worked as political allegory and as a Batman story because it found the sweet spot where the two intersected. The clash between Batman and The Joker is also a clash between order and chaos, method and madness - between civilized society and violent anarchy. But where was that sweet spot in DKR? The political allegory that Nolan aimed for necessitated a story where Bruce Wayne returns as Batman, only to forsake the mantle, erase his identity, and start a new and more carefree, peaceful life. The political message clashed with the Batman character, and the overarching theme of the film forced Bruce to act very un-Batman-like. There wasn't that same subtextual symmetry in this one as in the previous films. The end result? Nolan's political message becomes muddled, as does what he has to say about Batman and Bruce Wayne. Ultimately, the message that comes through most clearly seems to be Nolan saying "I'm done with Batman, and for that I feel content." Problem is: Batman is never content, and never stops fighting. And perhaps that's the issue at the heart of this; the reason why The Dark Knight Rises entertained me yet left me wanting, why it wowed me on a technical level, but never fully won me over on an emotional one.
As for how I graded this movie ... at the end of the day, I give the movie props for its best and biggest moments. Relative to other comic book adaptations, there is still a level of quality and craftsmanship here that is above and beyond the norm, second to none. And certainly, a level of thematic ambition that you don't see in many films in this genre. But I also grade movies in terms of: how well did the film accomplish what it set out to do? Earlier this summer, The Avengers set a new standard in terms of a superhero movie that was a near-perfect execution of its intended plot and tone. DKR aimed high and shot for the moon - but like I said ... it ran out of gas before the finish line - crushed under the weight of its ambitions and its legacy.
My Grade: B+