Blown Out of Proportion — The Dark Knight Rises

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

A great burden has fallen to Nolan’s Batman films. In a genre dominated by successful affirmative super hero films like ‘The Avengers,’ they remain the only deconstructive superhero films to still be successful with audiences.  And this is no easy task—because it is fundamentally harder for audiences to like a film that challenges their faith rather than rewards them for it.  Other attempts at superhero deconstruction, like 2009’s ‘Watchmen,’ failed miserably.  The secret to both ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, I think, was that they sat precariously, but perfectly, on the edge of a knife between philosophy and entertainment—too much generic action and they would have become a confusing mess; too much overt philosophy and it would have become pedantic and muffled.  It’s a miracle that both previous films stayed so balanced, but in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ the series has wobbled.

Let me be clear here: This is by no means an awful film.  I don’t think it’s possible for Nolan to make such a thing.  He fills ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with many great elements: a great villain, relevant social themes, clear and concise action.  It’s all there: it just doesn’t mesh the way it should.  Like the child who puts too much sugar in a recipe because he thinks it will be sweeter, Nolan fails in this film to remember that balance and proportion means as much as the ingredients itself.

Nolan’s Batman films, as a whole, intelligently ask the question: Is Batman a good thing?  ‘Batman Begins’ consists of Bruce Wayne’s initial decision to become Batman. ‘The Dark Knight’ deals with the consequences of that decision.  Now it’s up to the ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to answer whether or not Batman is still “worth it.”  This is the conflict of this film; it should drive it.  We see it with Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, with a young cop, with Commissioner Gordon, and with many other characters.  Everyone, it seems, except Bruce Wayne.

The film begins with a robbery at Wayne Manner that rather suddenly sends Bruce Wayne, a recluse who hasn’t put on the batsuit for eight years, back into Batman mode.  There’s very little sense that Bruce Wayne is at all conflicted about this decision, even as Alfred begs him not to.  Perhaps this is motivated in part by a young cop, Blake, who inexplicably knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman–because of a gut feeling–and tells Wayne to be Batman again.  Afterwards, there’s no real doubt in Wayne’s mind that he should be Batman, and so the fundamental question of the entire series is answered very early on.

Two things come to mind after watching this section of the film.  First, how is it that this cop is the only person that could figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman?  In the past Nolan found clever ways to get around this issue, but here it just seems like lazy writing.  Second, and more importantly, this film’s decision to answer the key question of the entire franchise so early feels like a mistake.  Yes, most of us were probably expecting Bruce Wayne to conclude that Batman is necessary to inspire people, to remind them that the only true defense against either anarchy (as represented by the Joker in the last film) or tyranny (as represented by Bane in this one) lies in an individual’s choice to do good.  But this should have been a grand climax to this film.  It is not so here.  The events of this first half hour of the film could compromise the entire plot, but instead we are given the shorthand version.  And it seems so strange—Nolan had all the ingredients there, he just forgot about balance and proportion.

Despite this error in the first half hour, the next two hours of the film, which consist of Batman battling the villain Bane, still play out well despite now being devoid of the series’ main question.  Nolan gives us a lot of good action and some great character moments.  Though Bruce Wayne is no longer struggling with the idea of Batman’s existence, he still learns a few important lessons.  Catwoman, as portrayed surprisingly well by Anne Hathaway, is a lot of fun.  In particular, Nolan does a brilliant job with Bane, whom he creates to be an anti-Batman, someone with all the training and resources of Batman (who also wears a mask) who uses his abilities for the complete opposite goal.  This dichotomy really works well, and on the strength of this section I was willing to forgive the film for its earlier blunder.  Though he miscalculated earlier, Nolan remembers balance very well here.

And then in the last fifteen minutes of the film, things go down hill once again.  It begins with a plot twist that derails Bane as the main villain, revealing that he was working for “someone else” all along. And this “someone else” (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for those who still haven’t seen the film) is then killed five minutes later, so that there isn’t really enough time to develop this twist.  It feels cheap and tawdry, and it is something that Nolan should have known better than to do.  A twist is fine, you just need enough time to make it mean something, and it doesn’t do so here.  I really loved Bane as a villain, and to mark him down to “Number 2” so close to the end just doesn’t work.  And the ending itself is a little confusing–still more plot twists manifest  as Nolan tries to manipulate the audience from somberness to joy in a matter of seconds.  It’s a little too much, even for Nolan, and so this part falls a little flat.  Not a lot, but a little.  And a little is all it takes sometimes.  As in the beginning, Nolan makes the mistake of mismanaging elements.  All the ingredients are there, he just didn’t have a sense of proportion and balance.

In that sense ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is ultimately a disappointment.  The series, which for two films had sat precariously on the edge of the knife, finally loses balance and slips off, and so this film falls short of being truly groundbreaking. But, to take some of my own advice, let’s keep things in proportion. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is still good, it is still entertaining, and there are still ideas and themes in it that are worth examining by writers much more capable than I; and so while it is not what it should be, it is good for what it is, and it ultimately doesn’t hurt the legacy of the earlier films, nor Nolan as an auteur.  This is still the definitive Batman saga, and it will be a long time before anybody tops it.

In one more bit of reflection, let’s look over this summer as a whole in regards to the superhero genre. Right before the ‘Avengers’ came out in May, I recalled thinking that this summer, with the ultimate affirmation (‘The Avengers’), what I thought would be the ultimate deconstruction (‘The Dark Knight Rises’), and a reboot of Spider-Man (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’) would be legendary and represent the height of this genre.  And financially, at least, it was, as all three films did very well, which shows that the public still has a lot of faith in super heroes.  But because of my disappointment with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (which was edited out of greatness) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (which was mismanaged), I can’t say, with full conviction, that this was the best summer for superheroes ever. Still, as Heimdall said in ‘Thor’, there is always hope; and with the continued success of superhero films, I still find myself excited for what the likes of Marvel and DC have in store for us in the years to come.

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NR: The King of the Monsters

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

There are a couple of film series that I watch purely for nonsensical gratuitous action-packed thrills.  One is the acclaimed ‘James Bond’ series, and the other is Toho Ltd.’s legendary slice of cheese, ‘Godzilla’.

After 50 years in which Toho produced 28 films, the series went into hibernation, awaiting a third reboot. Now, working with Legendary Pictures (responsible for reboots such as ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’), Toho shall wake the king of all kaiju for a Hollywood film in 2012. The last time Toho left the series in American hands, it turned out as a drive-thru action picture, not a feast of monster mayhem. The folks at Legendary seem to understand the franchise’s essence and appeal, however, so I’m quite positive about the project.

Now, as Collider (among others) reports, Legendary has hired the reboot’s director: Gareth Edwards, a new kid on the block.  This guy just brought us an independent monster movie, appropriately titled ‘Monsters’, that I, unfortunately, missed in the preferable theater experience.  The critical reaction was mostly positive, citing it as intelligent, emotional, and effective, and Edwards’ reputation got a level up.  I wish I could say something of value about his skill set, ideas, etc., but so it goes.  There is reasonable doubt of whether Edwards is too green to handle a project the size of ‘Godzilla’.  It’s a lot on his shoulders, and I would understand if he played it safe, or went with the studio’s agenda without much resistance.  In question also is his ability to handle a larger-than-life action picture, having jumped from conservative filmmaking to a film devoted to colorful excess.  I can’t answer either question, of course, but it has me somewhat worried.

‘Godzilla’ is a B-movie icon because of the violence inherent in the premise. Still, the creature was born from legitimate fears.  It’s not only possible, it’s certainly preferable to tell the story about the apocalyptic paranoia at its heart.  This, hopefully, is why Legendary hired Gareth Edwards.  I hope that he can prove the monster’s transcendence.  He’ll also have to deliver on the fiery intensity, awesome visuals, and monster mashes the franchise is known for.  For what my wishes are worth, I wish the project luck.  Go for it, folks.  Earn my ten dollars.

Batman Begins

Stars:  ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  A splendidly dark little picture, which, like all good movies, led to a whole lotta imitators and the latest craze of rebooting everything.  Gee, thanks Chris.

Holy Batman, Batman!

Holy Batman, Batman!

Review:  The man in the batsuit had experienced some crummy luck in the cinema.  The ’80s and ’90s ‘Batman’ series had a promising start, but quickly fell into unentertaining garbage, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of comic book fans, cinephiles and the general movie-going public.  And even worse than being boring, the cinematic Batman was shallow.  No longer would the Bat-fans accept a simple hero in tights, no, they demanded the complexity and incredible writing that Alan Moore, Frank Miller and others had poured into the comic books.  Thankfully, the Bat-fans had an advocate in the ‘Wood who felt exactly the same way.  Enter Christopher Nolan — and let’s not forget David Goyer and Chris’ brother, Jonathan.  The Nolans were rising stars, having blown minds via their disturbing and visionary movie, ‘Memento’, and they now had the clout to do something about the state of Batman. Thank God that Warner Bros. had the wisdom to hire them.

‘Batman Begins’ pressed the restart button on the franchise, even disregarding the much-loved Burton’s ‘Batman’ from ’89.  This gave them the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do with the character and the series, and they milked it for all it was worth.  Christopher Nolan drew influence from one of the best dark sci-fi films in existence, ‘Blade Runner’, to construct the new Gotham and its accompanying tone.  Appropriately, then, ‘Begins’ feels downright dystopian, and could just as easily be set sometime in the far, apocalyptic future.  Though we are given clear indications that Gotham is part of the present day world that you and I know, at times it seems that the city could be an oasis in the middle of a destroyed America.  In contrast, Burton’s Gotham from ’89 and ’92 seemed more fantastical and gothic, almost storybook in quality.  For the ultragritty, post-modern Batman, the ‘Blade Runner’-esque anarchic structure works quite beautifully.  This structure isn’t just part of the set design.  It’s part of the psychology of Bruce Wayne and the story itself, harkening back to Nolan’s ‘Memento’, which was all about that same cinematic interplay.  But while ‘Memento’ was played almost entirely in chronological reverse, which mirrored the mental defects and self-deception of its protagonist, ‘Begins’ is fragmented, with Bruce’s tragedies, bittersweet memories, and journey towards creating his famous caped persona all slowly being put together until they become present.  He’s been shattered, and in picking up the pieces he overcomes himself and becomes the hero.  Brilliant stuff, that.

Christian Bale fills the role perfectly.  There are times I wished he’d shown more of Batman’s trademark maturity and inventiveness, but seeing that this is Batman, you know, beginning, it’s all right that those elements can be growing.  Michael Caine’s Alfred is great, of course.  There have been some complaints about how well Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes may or may not work in the movie, but I found her character performance really wasn’t lacking.  She’s a good romantic character and makes Bale’s Bruce feel more at home in Gotham.  The villains, unfortunately, were a bit weak, though not unmemorable or lacking in good qualities.  Because Nolan insisted on putting more emphasis on Batman this time ’round (again, contrast with Burton’s movie), he ended up putting the main villain, Ra’s Al Ghul, more in the background, so even though the bad guy’s played by the always kickass Liam Neeson, he doesn’t turn out as strong as, say, Nicholson’s Joker, or even DeVito’s abominable Penguin.

Now, onto the philosophy.  The Nolans do love their brainteasers and soul searchers, thankfully, and they more than happily filled the need for complexity.  The sum of the movie’s themes is (taking a deep breath, now!) that humanity has inestimable value even in the midst of moral degradation and chaos, and this value extends even to those playing the role of villain, therefore mercy is more powerful than vengeance, and true fairness and justice serve rather than manipulate.  Okay, breathing normally again.  So Batman, even though he uses fear and intimidation against the darker denizens of Gotham, shows surprising compassion and mercy throughout the narrative.  Early on, he refuses to kill a murderer while under the tutelage of Ra’s Al Ghul, and ends up having to betray the villain’s League of Shadows to keep his integrity (by blowing stuff up) when he learns of Ra’s plans to destroy Gotham.  On top of that, while turning against the villain, he ends up saving his life, even though he didn’t know it was him (watch the movie, it makes sense).  Ra’s later chides him for this, expecting better from a pupil of his.  This comes back to bite the villain in a big way, later, as Batman grants his wish to not be saved and lets him die in a train wreck.  Not only does this stay in line with Batman’s classic code of no-killing, it makes a pretty good point, even theologically.  According to Christ, Ra’s behavior is a good way to be self-damned. By refusing to embrace mercy and to show it, some people refuse it for themselves and end up destroying themselves.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”  The inverse, unfortunately, is also true.

‘Batman Begins’, of course, was a hit.  It is dark, gritty, dystopian, philosophical, and it is still pulpy fun.  If you’re among the aforementioned Bat-fans, this deserves your notice, and it certainly deserves to be on your movie shelf, and regularly spinning in the player of your choice.