Saturday, July 21, 2012

On the Big Screen: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

"S AFETY NOT GUARANTEED" read the marquee of the Spectrum Theater, but the exhibitors were only advertising the indie time-travel picture that was playing alongside the venue's typical arthouse fare and the new Christopher Nolan film. For one night, at least, those lines might give a moviegoer pause, for not since The Warriors, I suppose, has a motion picture seemed to drive a nation mad, from the hysterical threats made to critics, through Rush Limbaugh's baroque interpretations of it, to the horror of Friday morning in Aurora CO. You could almost believe that the film was evil, that something about the idea of it -- its own apocalyptic agenda and the corporate hype of an ultimate movie event -- was exerting a malignant influence on people. My screening didn't live up to those implications. The Spectrum is an old neighborhood theater far from the malls where most people went to see this picture. A 9:40 p.m. screening last night was about one-third full, though many more probably turned out for the 8:00 show on another screen. I don't know if you're better off watching it with a bigger crowd, though you probably are better off paying extra for the IMAX show at Crossgates Mall, but the picture can be judged separately -- it has to be, eventually -- from this disturbing week in pop-culture history in which it premiered. So here's what we'll do. The next paragraph will be a spoiler-free summary of my opinion, after which, in order to explain myself better, I must give things away.

As a comic-book fan and Batman fan, I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, but it probably has the worst writing of Nolan's trilogy. Most of the script's faults are inherent in Nolan's self-assigned task to complete a cohesive trilogy of movies; he could have told the same basic story much more effectively without most of the continuity baggage. On the other hand, Rises easily has the best action of the three films, and Batman's two principal antagonists in this picture are at least equal, combined, to Heath Ledger's already-legendary turn as the Joker in the previous film. Two other new characters, however, are anchors dragging the show down. The ending reinforces a major difference between Nolan's vision and the fundamental Batman concept that ultimately prevents Nolan's films, despite their many virtues, from ever being the definitive Batman movies. For now, however, they stand quantitatively, at least, as the most consistently well done series of superhero films from one director.

 And with that said...




"Let the games begin!..."

We last left Batman fleeing from the police and taking the rap for Harvey Dent's brief crime spree at the end of The Dark Knight, and the first surprise of the new picture is that he apparently did not continue fighting crime after that escape. Bruce Wayne was apparently more injured, physically and spiritually, than we realized, and has made himself a limping recluse in the eight ensuing years. He has grown so out of touch that he seems bemused rather than indignant when a cat-burglar in a maid's costume raids his private rooms at Wayne Manor, steals his martyred mother's pearl necklace, and kicks his cane out from under him before backflipping out a window. He's still smart enough to notice something unusual: the cat-burglar, whom research quickly identifies as Selina "The Cat" Kyle, had dusted his safe for fingerprints -- his. Intrigued if not aroused, and also alerted by rumors of a mysterious masked man building an army in the sewers, he decides to don his costume once more despite the entreaties of a panicky Alfred, who fears for his master's life and will take any measure to deter what he sees as a pointless death wish. The cat-burglar and the masked man seem to be working for the same person, John Daggett -- a sinister businessman pursuing a hostile takeover of Wayne's financial empire. Bruce's only ally is Miranda Tate, an investment partner in a massive, money-losing clean-energy project, to whom Bruce turns over control of his empire to keep it, and especially Lucius Fox's arsenal of weapons and vehicles, out of Daggett's hands. Realizing that Daggett isn't dealing square with Selina, Batman tries to flip her to his side but his plan backfires when she delivers him to the masked man, Bane, who's been waiting for an opportunity to break him. Still, her increasing revulsion at the way Bane brutalizes the outmatched Batman leads us to think our hero's gut feeling about her isn't entirely wrong. For now, Bane dumps Bruce Wayne in a deep hole far away while he perpetrates a hostile takeover of Daggetts's scheme, converting it to a hostile takeover of Gotham City, enforced by his possession of a mobile, undisarmable nuclear bomb. Inevitably, however, the Dark Knight rises, joined by an eclectic assortment of allies, to take the city back -- but at what cost?

I hope I've described at least a potentially compelling story, and as filmed it is compelling much of the time. But if the plot seems labored even in my minimal description, bear in mind that I haven't told you everything. On its own, this has the makings of a good third Batman movie. The problem is, Nolan wants to make the last Batman movie. He wants to complete a trilogy by filling his third film with references to the first. That means we're reintroduced to the League of Shadows and to Ra's al Ghul -- Liam Neeson returns for some flashback and hallucination scenes -- when we might have thought that we'd never have to think of them again after Batman Begins. But to reinforce the trilogy nature of his story, Nolan drops two heavy shoes. First, he ties Bane to the League, in a bald burst of exposition from Michael Caine -- since Alfred somehow knows this -- that Bane is an ex-member of the League expelled for being somehow too mean. And the moment the League is invoked, the comics fans in the audience can start waiting for the other shoe, the one many had expected all along, to drop. Boy, does it drop. This plot twist is a dud in three ways. First, Nolan makes a tease of it as fellow prisoners tell Bruce a legend of the one person who escaped from their hole. From these accounts, Bruce assumes that the person was Bane and that he was an unwanted child of Ra's al-Ghul. He is, of course, wrong, and he has to get the correct facts explained to him by someone who's just literally stabbed him in the back back in Gotham. Worse, this backstabbing involves the revelation of a major figure in the Batman legend, but Nolan has actually done nothing to make the naming of this character the tremendous moment he seems to want it to be. The name is spat out, almost as an afterthought or a sop to comics fans who are presumed to be thrilled to hear it -- though they're not supposed to care if Selina Kyle is never called "Catwoman." Worst of all, the abrupt nature of this revelation, contrived so Nolan can have a late plot twist, instantly turns Bane into a stooge. This could have been avoided. If Bane had made clear all along that he answered to somebody, or did what he did in tribute to some mystery person, than there'd be some buildup toward that person finally taking a bow. But the better course would have been to skip the League of Shadows stuff altogether. Nolan's trilogy would be no less complete and cohesive; the films, after all, are about Bruce Wayne, not the League.

What is the story of Bruce Wayne, anyway? For all that The Dark Knight Rises ends with Batman once more revered as a hero, Bruce has spent the last two pictures struggling to squirm his way out of the costume. For him, to live a real life means to be rid of Batman. This was the tragic core of The Dark Knight. In that picture, Wayne selfishly tried to shift the burden of heroism onto other shoulders so he could get the girl, and get her from the very man he appointed Gotham's white knight. The results were disastrous on every level. In the new movie, he can be reckless about re-donning the cowl because, with Rachel Dawes dead, he feels he has nothing to live for. Yet we've already noticed that he's become Batman again at least in part to pursue a woman, one with whom he's also willing to flirt as Bruce Wayne before snatching that necklace off her neck. This woman is also the only person on Earth who dresses in any way like himself -- though Nolan is at pains to deny that Selina's work clothes, if you will, are a superhero costume. A soulmate, perhaps? An ideal woman who would not force a choice between love and crimefighting on him? Not quite, because Nolan's Selina Kyle is also looking for a way out of the life. She expects payment from Daggett in the form of a "Clean Slate" program that would obliterate her criminal record and allow her to make a fresh start -- doing what, exactly? Later, Bruce Wayne (and his "powerful friend") dangle the same enticement before her. If Bruce and Selina are soulmates in this picture, it is not so much because they both enjoy romping on rooftops in hot costumes but because they both want the clean break and the fresh start. This only reinforces Nolan's message that a happy ending for Bruce Wayne is when he is no longer Batman. A comics fans can't be blamed for balking at that idea, though on the alternate-universe level it is well-executed here, thanks largely to the chemistry between Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway and the Nolan Brothers' efforts to condense the classic long arc of redemption that has left Catwoman no worse than an antihero in the comics. That may be strange to say given that Nolan's Selina is an unrepentant killer, but the movies have never been as big on the code-against-killing thing as the comics. Batman snatches a gun from her hand in one scene, but I think he grows more forgiving after she saves his life with extreme prejudice later in the picture. Well, I know he grows more forgiving because I saw the end of the movie, and let's leave it at that. But while a happily-ever-after finish for these two is many fans' dream, it can be said that it also misses the point of Batman, and Bruce Wayne, for whom the pursuit of justice is his life -- a fact that Selina Kyle, paradoxically enough, may be the one woman capable of appreciating.

As Nolan's Catwoman picture, Rises is a success. It also succeeds as an action movie, from the bludgeoning brawls between Batman and Bane to the epic chase scenes through the streets and skies of Gotham in the final act. Visually the film's as fine as the others, though there's some choppiness in the editing, especially early on, that creates the bizarre impression of a 165-minute movie that feels truncated -- I wouldn't be surprised to see a considerably extended edition at some point. Rises is worst in its writing, both in bad dialogue and bad ideas. Sadly, much of the bad stuff focuses on Michael Caine's underutilized Alfred, who's burdened with explaining Bane to the world and with an awful, mawkish scene in which he tells Bruce the truth about the Rachel Dawes breakup letter he burned at the end of Dark Knight. That's part of this film's confused attitude toward lies, the big lie being the legend of the martyred Harvey Dent. Nolan seems to want to deplore a resort to "noble" lies yet also to affirm their occasional necessity, the need for someone to dirty his hands so another's can stay clean. Certain lies are among the film's necessary evils, but they also give occasion for the film's more sanctimonious characters, including Bruce Wayne himself, to throw snit-fits. The worst offender in this regard, and nearly the worst major character in the movie, is its most mysterious, the much-speculated-upon policeman John Blake. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Blake reminds me of the sort of character fan-fictioneers call a "Mary Sue," a too-good-to-be-true personality with privileged access to legendary personalities. All you need to know about Blake is that in his youth, as an angry orphan, he pegged Bruce Wayne as Batman because he recognized a certain look in his eyes. Yes, indeed. But Blake has only just begun to be insufferable, and the end of his arc seems supremely unmerited. The film could have done without him quite nicely, just as it could have done without many things. Rises is overstuffed and rushed at the same time, which is more likely than it sounds because that simply means it's doubly flawed -- too much of the bad and not enough of the good, or the good done too quickly or abruptly. Someone who isn't a comic-book fan or an action-movie fan could easily and understandably dismiss it as a bloated trifle; they certainly have a right to do so without facing threats of bodily harm.

Even if Rises seems bloated, Nolan still manages his neat trick of not having the epic scale of the action dwarf his strong personalities. Bale has been consistently good, Hathaway and Hardy are terrific, and even the more mundane characters portrayed by Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman often shine. I can't close without defending Hardy from both the "you're not Heath Ledger" and the "I can't understand what you're saying" critics. His Bane is a tremendous physical presence as well as a classic pompous ass of a villain; he's like Goldfinger and Oddjob rolled into one. I didn't mind the muffler effect of his muzzle, because Bane is so self-absorbed (except when he's ultimately revealed as a loyal puppy) that I felt that he didn't really care whether anyone understood him or not. I found his brutal nihilism not much inferior to the Joker's lethal anarchy -- though I must add that the vaunted political subtext of the new movie isn't all it's cracked up to be. That may be a good thing, since it'll make Bane a more timeless villain down the line, and it'll be in the future, when the madness of this sick week is long past, and perhaps after there are more Batman films for comparison, that Nolan's achievement will get the fair appraisal it deserves.


hobbyfan said...

I finally got around to seeing "Rises", and, well, this is the mother of all letdowns.

I agree that it's bloated in its length, but the plot could've been better played out in a shorter time frame.

To have Bane go from being the big kahuna, cocky, arrogant, and incorrigible, to being a oversized lapdog in a matter of seconds is just inexcusably bad writing. Like, I wouldn't trust the Nolans to do Vince McMahon's life story if that ever needs be done.

All the efforts Nolan put into concealing certain plot devices in the movie, such as Miranda Tate, went for naught because the geeks, as obsessive-compulsive as they are, read between the lines, then had to say "I told you so!" when the movie came out and the truth about Miranda was revealed for all to see. What a waste.

Personally, given what came out of this, I don't really have high hopes for Man of Steel next year, given that Nolan is producing, but not directing (and hopefully not writing). He really needs to work on researching his source material a little better.

I shan't be surprised if there is a call for a Catwoman movie w/Anne Hathaway reprising, but written by a more capable sort who understands the character......

Samuel Wilson said...

Nolan shares story credit on Man of Steel but didn't write the actual script. His problem isn't lack of "research" but rather an assumption that people know the source material and will read between the lines, which is why his movies often seem to have important scenes missing. Given that Hathaway is almost universally regarded as the best thing about the movie, whether Nolan "understands" the comic-book character of Catwoman is moot.