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.

Old-Fashioned Notions — Marvel’s The Avengers

Review:  May 4th, 2012 was, in keeping with geek tradition, ‘Star Wars’ Day.  On that most, uh, Force-full of days, we the guardians of sci-fi, fantasy and comic books take a moment to remember when we first got to see the saga of a ragtag team’s struggle against cosmic evil on the big screen.  Let’s never forget those days.  They were very nice, though some of us were eleven in those days, or as yet mere concepts in the hearts of teenage lovers, or not even proper inklings in anyone’s head, really.  But in counterpoint to ‘Star Wars’ Day nostalgia (which is only too appropriate, given “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) on that particular May the Fourth in the U.S. we were blessed with the frankly stunning apotheosis of the cinematic superhero genre: ‘The Avengers’.  And the future — at least of sci-fi action-adventure cinema — seems very bright indeed.

Capping off Marvel Studios’ ambitious (and actually quite sudden) plan to finally approximate the diverse world of comic books (with their multitude of clashing heroes, villains and subgenres) in the movies, ‘The Avengers’ is a major coup for everyone involved in its creation.  Especially writer/director Joss Whedon, who, having previously built up a well-deserved but continually frustrated cult fanbase, successfully helmed one of the biggest summer movies of all time, and if he were to die young, he would die having proven to the world that he really knew what the hell he was doing after all.  Outside the rewards reaped by its creators, however, the whole of genre filmmaking stands to benefit from the film’s success, since, like the original ‘Star Wars’ before it, it can serve as a roadmap to properly realizing fantastic concepts in an appealing human manner.

For as big and silly and wonderful as ‘The Avengers’ gets, it’s grounded by honest, fallible and likable characters that remind us, by their magnetic presence, why we ought to enjoy any of this ballyhoo.  Any hack filmmaker can pit a superhuman against an alien invasion force and call it drama; it takes a real storyteller like Whedon to assemble a team that feels, despite their colorful and disparate personalities, inevitable.  These people — indeed, they are people first, heroes second — compliment each other perfectly.  Flaws become strengths by virtue of the team’s unlikely unity.  Out here in the real world, such moments of cohesion do occur, and tend to generate shockwaves when they do.  Because the film’s structure builds to the point where the team finally coheres, the expected trope of the climatic battle suddenly becomes organic, and the team’s fight against evil, instead of being rote action, is raw humanity gloriously unleashed.  Audiences react to this instinctively in a way they never will to ‘Transformers 3’.  They may not know why the dynamic in ‘The Avengers’ thrills them so deeply, but it surely does, and some of the kids who see the movie in theaters today will turn their quest to replicate the experience into a career in filmmaking.

The team dynamic is not the only secret to the film’s success, but it’s arguably the most important one to discuss in terms of its immediate cultural impact.  It’s the team itself that excites the (to use a word I dislike) zeitgeist.  ‘The Avengers’ is incredible optimistic and fun only because the team coalesces, by doing so healing all wounds and overcoming all evils within the team and without, at least as long as the team is together.  So ‘The Avengers’ is not obviously important like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, because it’s not a critique or a deconstruction of societal forces, but it absolutely is important and resonates so widely because it strongly affirms human community.  Basically all ‘The Avengers’ says is “We need each other.”  But does anything else really need to be said?

Let’s not presume that every work that captures the zeitgeist must include riffs on relevant real-world conflicts, i.e., the Joker-as-archetypal-terrorist plot of ‘The Dark Knight’ (which, I hasten to add, is extremely good) or the military’s presence on Pandora in ‘Avatar’ (which, like it or not, struck a chord with audiences to the tune of billions of dollars.)  Of course, even if we were to say that ‘The Avengers’ must include such imagery to resonate properly, we can easily find it in the film’s central conflict.  Eleven years after 9/11, here’s a massive hit movie that features a hostile force appearing suddenly in the sky and killing thousands in New York (sound familiar?) only to be thwarted by a team led by the embodiment of American heroism.  It’s an optimistic statement that draws (explicitly) on old-fashioned notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  Indeed, while the film’s thesis is pretty much on-the-nose, so, for that matter, is ‘The Dark Knight’.  As much as I appreciate that film, it’s not exactly subtle; in fact, I’d say one reason Batfandom can be so irritating is that they do not understand how simple ‘The Dark Knight’ is, and flatter themselves for understanding a pretty damn obvious thematic message.  That, of course, is part and parcel with the common fantasy among Batfans (and I count myself among their number) of being the brilliant, dark, misunderstood vigilante — as much as I like it, the Batman concept appeals to (typically teenage male) arrogance.  It’s like walking out of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ convinced you’re the only one who realized that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and then thinking you’re the wise Jedi master who has to explain it to everyone.  But ‘The Avengers’ lacks the haughtiness of ‘The Dark Knight’; it isn’t trying to be important, it just is, because Whedon and company have their hearts in the right place.

Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’ impact audiences in deep, unconscious ways, making their particular brands of storytelling popular again.  Before ‘The Avengers’ hit the screen, there were many unqualified rumblings about superhero films dying off, but those diagnoses were really prescriptions, trying to cure cinema of a trend many believed was sapping the movies of their popularity and importance.  It’s much harder to make such statements now without coming off as hopelessly cynical or snobbish, because the superhero genre has just now come into its own, injecting Hollywood and audiences with new enthusiasm for superheroes and other related genres.  For the guardians of geekdom, who have taken over the multiplex yet again, May the Fourth can serve as a reminder of past glories and the possibility of future revelations.

MMM: Desert Chase, E.T., The Dark Knight

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three rousing pieces today as a counterpoint to last week’s subdued direction.

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is one of my favorite films of all time.  John Williams, the modern-day maestro, composed a landmark score for this beauty.  This piece, which follows Indiana Jones through the Egyptian desert as he fights Nazis to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from a truck, hits every visual beat perfectly, and I can envision almost every moment of the iconic scene in my head as it plays.  Check out that climatic brass explosion!

Yes, even more John Williams, from ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’, which I have yet to review.  This end credits piece is, well, rousing.  And tear-jerking.  Pretty much perfect.

Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard may not have the iconic, classy reputation of John Williams, but their score for ‘The Dark Knight’ has some great moments.  In particular this track, accompanying Batman’s willful, messianic transformation from hero to scapegoat.  A beautiful, cathartic piece filled with energy, angst, and hope.

Not-So-Classic Review: Batman Returns

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★1/2☆☆

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Let’s be fair here, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ wasn’t a great movie, but it was at least an entertaining one.  You felt good when you finished watching it—or at least I did.  Coming off of that movie, I decided to check out Tim Burton’s ‘Batman Returns’, believing that it would be like the first movie: Not great but at least entertaining.  I was wrong on that second part.

The movie again sets us in the gothic metropolis of Gotham City.  However, it looks and feels vastly different from the first movie.  Evidently, all of the previous sets and even the matinee paintings had been scrapped, and we are introduced to a redesigned Gotham that looks nothing like the old one.  This is a rather disappointing aspect, as it takes away all sense of familiarity.  Also, the entire film takes place during the Christmas season, so everything is drizzled in wet, cold snow. Why do I say all of this now?  Because this sense of unfamiliarity and, frankly, depression that we get from the Gotham landscape sets the tone remarkably well for the rest of the movie.

We are again introduced to Batman, played again by Michael Keaton.  Evidently, his relationship with Vicky Vale didn’t last and he is again the lone (and single) guardian of the city.  On the villain’s side, we have three, well two and a half at least: The Penguin, The Catwoman, and a greedy industrialist named Max Schreck.  The Penguin (Danny DeVito), we learn is in fact a deformed and oddly carnivorous child (one of his first actions out of birth is to eat the family cat) who was dumped into the sewer by his seemingly un-loving parents.  Don’t worry though; he was raised by a group of lost penguins that live in the sewer, before joining the circus and returning as the leader of a gang of homicidal clowns.  Wow.  That really sounds as ridiculous as I thought it did.  Yes, Tim Burton took a substantial amount of liberty here on the character of the Penguin.  Originally in the comics, he was just a rather stout yet intelligent businessman, named more for his suit than anything else.  Unfortunately, Burton seems to live in a world inhabited by problem children, so he had to “re-invent” the character (although corrupt might be more fitting).  Max Schreck played by Christopher Walken is a self-centered businessman with many skeletons in his closet.  He eventually comes into contact with the Penguin and works as a sort of partner with him, often influencing the Penguin’s actions for the worst.  Lastly there is Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer).  Again, Tim Burton was weird here.  Catwoman is created when Schreck pushes his secretary, Selina Kyle, suspicious of his activities, out a multi-story, falling to what we believe is her death.  But is she dead?  It doesn’t matter, because a group of rogue cats come by, repeatedly biting her, and our secretary is resurrected as a Catwoman, but not before she destroys everything in her apartment to purge herself of—something (?).  Out for revenge and thrills, Catwoman trades sides to her liking in the conflict between Batman and the Penguin.

If you don’t like the way the characters are introduced, you’re not going to like the story.  The Penguin manifests himself to the people of Gotham as a rejected misfit and gains enough popular sentiment to run for mayor.  The movie portrays him as incredibly conflicted as he struggles between the desire for power and crime (with support from Shreck), and the idea of being a legitimately good person.  To his credit, though not up to par with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, DeVito’s performance is a good one and shows a lot of enthusiasm for the character, especially under heavy make-up.  Meanwhile, Batman struggles to combat this potential threat along with romancing Selina Kyle, not knowing that she is the Catwoman.  This sounds like a decent enough plot, but it’s all very muddled and confusing.  The acting is good, but its simply not compelling enough.  Michael Keaton’s performance is up to par, but he doesn’t have enough lines.  Michelle Pfiefer is interesting as Catwoman, but she tends to overact.  Even Christopher Walken has too bland a character to really shine.  What further compromises the story is the level of bizarreness in this movie, and it’s not just limited to the nature of the characters themselves.  For example, there is a scene where the Penguin gives a Patton-Style speech to an army of penguins with rocket launchers on their back, and the filmmakers treat it seriously.  I’m sorry, but no—that is unacceptable.  At times, it doesn’t even really feel like this movie is about Batman.  It feels more about the Penguin.  Unfortunately this undermines his role as a villain to an unnecessary degree, and it ultimately doesn’t feel natural.  The ending though is the killing blow for this plot.  A general rule about superhero movies is that somehow, even if the hero loses, they manages to do something or cause something that allows them to win at least in spirit.  ‘Batman Returns’ manages to do just the opposite.  Even though he has managed to beat all of the villains in this movie and save Gotham, our hero finds himself depressed and challenged at then end, and the audience feels that he has truly lost.  Batman, by essence, is a symbol of hope, and this movie denies us the ability to experience that.

The other aspects of the movie go the way of the plot.  The sets and setup are interesting to look at but end up coming across as too melancholy.  I don’t like movies that take place during Christmas that aren’t about Christmas (Okay, just ‘Die Hard’).  But somehow, when Christmas serves as a backdrop, it is often distracting or, worse, depressing.  Danny Elfman’s score, which was so lively and powerful in Batman, has been reduced to depression and sadness in this movie, and despite a few interesting “diddies” here and there, is overall weak and unfulfilling.

In short, ‘Batman Returns’ represents the problem with giving someone like Tim Burton too much creative freedom.  Burton must have been dissatisfied with ‘Batman’, and in the sequel he just tried to do too many things too differently.  To his credit, the story is interesting, but it simply isn’t handled well in the context of this movie.  Perhaps it would have worked better if this movie were not a Batman film.  Had he made a cult-gothic thriller about the plight of a deformed-man in a city of crime, this movie may have turned out better.  But as a Batman movie, it’s just a disappointment.

Classic Review: Batman (1989)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★1/2☆


Review:  Let’s take a brief look at the Batman saga leading up to the 1989 Batman movie.  The character had first introduced in the 1930’s in Detective Comics, and was revolutionary for its time.  Drawing influence from horror movies and classic myths like Zorro, creator Bob Kane created the prototypical “dark” superhero (characters like Spawn and The Darkness owe much to Batman) and a pop culture phenomenon that still is thriving today.  Kids of the 1930’s must have been thrilled to read of the exploits of famed billionaire Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, then known as the Bat-Man, in all of its action, grit, and surprising depth-of-story.  Unfortunately, starting in the 1940’s, the character of Batman was softened up to become more kid-friendly, especially with the inclusion of Robin.  This softening reached its apex in the 1960’s with the infamous Adam West Batman television show (de ne nu nu nu nu nu nu Batman!).  This series was drenched in camp and comic value, and little of the darkness and complexity that had originally permeated the character remained.  However, beginning in the 1970’s, a movement grew amongst comic book writers to return Batman back to his darker origins.  Most notable of these efforts was the fabled 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, considered to be a masterpiece among graphic novels. Following up on this renewed interest in a darker Batman, Warner Brothers commissioned the making of a feature length Batman movie, and dark visionary Tim Burton was put at the helm.  What we get is one of the most interesting and yet oddly flawed interpretations of Batman.

The plot in Batman is interesting in the sense that, unlike many superhero movies, this one really is not an origin story.  We are introduced to Batman (Michael Keaton) on a dark, drizzly night in Gotham City, terrorizing two crooks.  It is almost surprising about how liberal this approach is. In fact, an important and unique message of the movie is revealed in one of Batman’s first lines.  Holding a terrified criminal over the edge of a building, he simply says, “I’m Batman,” before disappearing into the night.  Take note of this, because what Burton will show us is a Batman who has virtually no conflict.  He has already decided before the movie what he will be, leaving the audience to miss out on the fun it must have been to see the character make this choice.  In this movie, Batman is dark, violent, and resolute; we the audience must simply take it from there.

What else of the plot?  The rest of the movie is spent showing Batman battling the nefarious Joker (Jack Nicholson).  In fact, this movie almost feels more about the rise and fall of the Joker than Batman.  He is actually given a back-story—we see him change from common criminal to clown prince of crime.  That said, there is nothing particularly special for most of the movie, as it boils down to our hero foiling various plans—sometimes-silly ones– by the Joker to “…run this city into the ground.”  Apart from a small plot twist at the end though, it is pretty average, albeit entertaining.  There is also a sub-plot, some semblance of one anyway.  Bruce Wayne begins dating a reporter named Vicky Vale, who is very interested in discovering the identity of the Batman.  Soon however, Bruce Wayne finds he can’t balance love and crime fighting.  However he really isn’t given the choice of giving up the Batman role—sure there are a few scenes of him debating whether or not to tell Vicky about his alter ego, but one of the beauties of Batman is why he chooses to do these things and if he really should.  Burton’s movie simply doesn’t deliver on that.

It is a shame that the story was simply sub-par.  Not that the audience needs a complex story, but Batman does.  A character as intricate and dark as him deserves to have a story of the same caliber.  What Burton gives us is the darkness, but never really the intricacy.  It’s also a shame because the acting in this movie is exceptionally good.  Michael Keaton gives a great performance as Batman despite him being an odd choice for the part.  The former comic captures a more powerful and mysterious portrait of Batman, an obvious contrast to Adam West’s silly version.  Jack Nicholson as the Joker is equally impressive, delivering a mixture of psychotic violence and corny gags.  Even Kim Basinger gives a surprisingly good performance as Vicky Vale.  All of these actors are great at showing that their characters are suppressing motion, that all of them are hiding thoughts and feelings that would normally be released at a great emotional climax.  Unfortunately, Tim Burton gives us no such emotional climax here either, and all that acting, especially from Keaton and Basinger goes to waste for the most part.

Despite the plot, this movie more than excels in other areas.  Burton’s dark visionary style led to what were then the most elaborate and gothic sets ever created.  He succeeds very much in making Gotham City a sinister and dirty place, very well representing the crime that takes place there.  Combined with detailed miniature models and well-done matinee paintings, Burton succeeds in making the city a real and living, if also creepy, place.  Also of note are the Batmobile and Batwing vehicles, both of which are highly stylized and fun to watch in action during the film.

Perhaps most worthy of note though is Danny Elfman’s score.  Building on dark themes and classic orchestration, Elfman creates a powerful and evil sort of music, one that can invigorate just as easily as it can scare, perfectly fitting the character it describes.  However, it is somewhat compromised by the inclusion of not one but two Prince songs, I suppose as some sort of marketing tie-in.  They both suck, and I would do your best to ignore them.
So what are my final thoughts on Batman?  It represents the triumph of style over substance, image over quality.  It’s a fun movie to look at, and its entertaining as a popcorn movie, but Batman is a character who is capable of so much more, and it wouldn’t be for about another fifteen years before the Batman character was featured in a movie deserving of his complexity.  That said, this film does deserve credit for many things.  It at least ends the right way, with Batman as a symbol of hope for Gotham, something I can’t say about all subsequent Batman movies.  It is also responsible for re-igniting mainstream interest in Batman, and subsequent triumphs like Batman: the Animated Series would not have existed if not for this movie.  Also, I think that it serves well as a stepping-stone between the campy Batman of the 1960’s and the truly gritty Batman of today.  Indeed, even the Christopher Nolan films owe something to the original Burton film.

In short, Batman is what can be called a flawed masterpiece, full of its own errors, and yet having an overall positive effect on the hero it portrayed.  It’s worth a watch, but it won’t fully get you your Batman fix.