Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Written: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph “Commissioner” Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, Aidan Gillen, and pretty much everyone else.

    One thing everyone seems to be able to agree on. This is a big movie. Everything about it is big. Big cast. Big ambitions. Big scope. Big spectacle. Big budget. Big explosions. Big expectations. Being a sequel to BIG. Being an acronym for “Batman is Great.” Big balls. Big baldy. Big business.

    But the more I think about it, the thing that I like best about the movie is one of its smallest scenes. It takes place between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne (out of costume, wearing a plain tee-shirt) and his butler and caretaker, Michael Caine’s Alfred. They talk for a few minutes in a sparsely decorated stairway about whether or not Wayne can go on being Batman without eventually being killed. Alfred begs Bruce to give it up, tells him he’s certain to be killed if he continues; that he can’t stand by and watch Bruce throw his life away. Bruce hangs back in the shadows, knowing Alfred is right, knowing that by continuing on this course he’s going to lose the few people he still has any human connection to at all. And knowing he’s going to do it anyway.

    In a movie which features a nuclear time bomb, a gigantic heavily-armed hovercraft, the wholesale destruction of a stadium, a gigantic Cecil B. DeMille-style hand-to-hand battle with a cast of hundreds, and a grown man in a rubber bat suit, that scene sticks with me. Caine and Bale don’t make any grand speeches. Bale barely says a word. The whole thing is virtually irrelevant to the plot. But there’s something real there. Something passes between these two excellent actors, in this small scene, which is deeply touching and deeply true. They’re talking about whether one of the two of them (I won’t spoil who) is going to put on a cape and drive a motorcycle to punch a supervillain who lives in the Gotham City sewers. But they’re not really talking about that; they’re talking about whether it’s worth living in the world anymore. Alfred is laying out his soul, begging the person he cares about to care about himself enough to at least give life an honest attempt. There’s something deeply heartbreaking about the way Alfred so nakedly begs, and the way you can see both that Bruce’s heart is breaking and yet that there’s so little of a person left there that he can’t respond in kind. It’s very small. But it’s real.

Looks like someone needs a hug

    I mention this, because most of this movie isn’t real. The BIG is mostly bluster, an attempt to overwhelm with sheer mass. An attempt to meet the ridiculous expectations by giving us too much to process, flummoxing our sense and making us confuse exhaustion with satisfaction. In fact, this is an extremely silly film which ultimately buckles from the ridiculous weight it insists upon carrying. It never quite generates enough mass to entirely disappear into its own black hole, but it’s inarguably top-heavy. It’s a movie full of big ideas which never really venture past the surface; a movie which is deeply grim but mostly over ridiculous things. The movie is basically a gothy teenager, thinking it’s the first one ever to discover that life is meaningless and people are jerks.

    But the weird thing is, it’s directed by Christopher Nolan. So the serious parts are actually done so well that they’re legitimately arresting. And that makes the underlying ridiculousness seem all the more inexplicable.

    We’re introduced to Mr. Wayne eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT. Apparently, his unnecessary plan to publicly blame himself for an event which no one else witnessed and could have had almost any explanation worked better than I thought it would, because thanks to Harvey’s heroic death they passed a bunch of draconian laws which have prevented parole for convicts associated with organized crime and hence the city is safe and Batman is no longer needed. Fortunately everyone convicted under these laws was definitely guilty and had nothing more to contribute to society or culture, so it’s OK that they threw away the key and everyone is happy and in fact celebrates the awkwardly-named “Harvey Dent Day” every year at Wayne manor.

Wayne, though, is not at the party, having become an eccentric recluse with a cane and a big beard who sort of squats in one unfinished wing of the gigantic rebuilt mansion, presumably dividing his time between throwing away his family fortune on quixotic clean energy projects and carefully saving and categorizing jars of his own urine. He’s lured out of this idyllic existence, as so many of us are, by being robbed by Anne Hathaway. Having already seen her costumed as a maid, he correctly surmises that she must also own a skin-tight leather catsuit, and so our intrepid hero ventures out into the world to follow up on these important leads, in the process discovering that there’s a lot more going on outside the mansion than just cocktail parties for dead DAs and long expository monologues delivered by Gary Oldman. For instance, there’s also a shirtless Darth Vader living in the sewer, and at some point Morgan Freeman invented flying cars but for some reason never told anyone.

Best Fetlife meetup ever.

 This slowly leads us into an enjoyably convoluted plot which involves pretty much every single element and character from the previous two films, plus Matthew Modine because fuck it, he wandered onto the set. Things are blown up, ever more characters are introduced, missiles are fired, motorcycles are ridden, punches are thrown, laborious metaphors are constructed. It’s a pretty well constructed -- if hilariously overbuilt-- story. The mystery is engaging, the spectacle is impressive, the characters are colorful, numerous, and well-acted. It even remembers to have some fun every now and again (mostly thanks to Anne Hathaway’s quippy Selina Kyle).

But it’s hard to deny that in the end,  it’s simply too big for it’s own good. It’s a whole miniseries crammed into a frantic 165 minutes where a whole fucking lot happens, but not much sinks in. It’s almost a cliffs notes of a movie. The abridged DARK KNIGHT RISES. It feels like a movie version of a novel too beloved by fans to allow anything to be excised. The result is a movie with almost no narrative slack, but no real narrative impact, either. A plot checklist with a whole fucking lot of checks. It’s crafty and gripping while you’re watching, but as soon as it’s over you find yourself thinking about the plot holes instead of the characters. Because stuffing three films’ worth of plots into a single film doesn’t really give you time to do anything satisfying with the characters. They’re always occupied frantically moving the plot forward, and never seem to have time to be affected by it. And consequently the audience can never be much affected by it.

By my count, there are no less than eight major characters --four of them totally new-- competing for time and relevance throughout the film’s 165 minutes with not only each other, but also what seems like dozens of minor characters, setpieces, expository flashbacks, and explosions. Nolan knows he has to find something for all of them to do, and with each new story that gets added, the gigantic ball of plot becomes more tangled and unwieldy. The result is that every character gets the bare outline of an arc, but no more. Every character gets a setup, one or two scenes of conflict, and then a resolution. But that’s simply not enough to really convey meaningful growth. Even Wayne himself barely has a character arc here. We learn, because the film outright tells us, that he has to learn to fear again in order to “rise” -- fair enough, it’s a good setup that addresses both the reason he became Batman to begin with and the reason he can’t care enough about his own life to exist without Batman. But how, exactly, does this change come about? At the start of the final act, he just announces that he now has something to fear, and that does the trick. Any kind of meaningful change has to happen off camera -- there’s no time for it. The movie just settles for telling us it’s happened. And that, my friends, makes for somewhat superficial and unsatisfying storytelling. 

Bane Kitty is really fucking hard to understand.

The film is no better with the philosophical issues that it raises. It starts off by tantalizing us with the dynamic between poor Selina Kyle and obscenely wealthy Bruce Wayne. What right does he have, she asks, to take so much while others have so little? Good question. Too bad it never comes up again. Likewise, Tom Hardy’s Bane character takes over the city with a long speech about oppression, and proposes that he’s going to free Gotham’s citizens to make their own choices regardless of their past or the leadership. But then he, um, doesn’t. Just like PROMETHEUS a few months ago --and for that matter, the two previous Nolan Batman films-- the film is bold enough to ask some ballsy questions, but then acts confused and changes the subject when you ask for an answer, or at least a discussion.

On that subject, friend of the site Dan P pointed me to this quote from Nolan, which appears in a Rolling Stone article unpromisingly subtitled, “Director Argues he has no Particular Message:”

"We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things."

This seems to me to read as Nolan acknowledging that his films deliberately raise issues they have no interest in meaningfully addressing, and basically arguing there is no reason to seriously consider these issues in the context of the film. If that’s true, it’s a real shame, because of course these very issues are the most interesting thing about this whole trilogy. To read that quote, you would think Nolan just wants us to watch his trilogy as a series of action movies about a guy in a batsuit fighting supervillains. But of course, that’s always been the weakest element in them.

Alas, it remains the case here as well. I foolishly (and apparently against the director’s wishes) got invested in the symbolism and themes, but I guess the important thing is the action, right? Problem is, there’s not a whole lot of action setpieces, and when they happen their quality is all over the place. There’s nothing to match the stunning truck chase from THE DARK KNIGHT, but the action is generally more comprehensible than it has been in the last two films. So you can tell what’s happening, but that just raises a new problem: it’s all surprisingly low on imagination. Bane has a couple nice setpieces, including a reasonably well-choreographed motorcycle chase and that Stadium explosion you’ve already seen in the trailers, but that’s honestly as memorable as the action gets. In fact, it’s hard not to notice that the basic conflict is essentially a remake of BEGINS: A plot by the League O’ Shadows (LOS, FYI) to blow up the city with a big bomb travelling around the city on a vehicle. The bulk of the rest of the action sequences involve Bane and Batman clumsily slugging at each other, or Batman flying an absurd, apparently invulnerable flying saucer and shooting missiles at people on the ground. This is a guy who was trained by ninjas? In retrospect, I almost liked it better when it was edited so I couldn’t tell what was going on. Wally Pfister still stubbornly refuses to shoot anything that has the least bit of atmosphere in it, so now that he has to hold the camera still in broad daylight, you can really tell what monotonous slugfests most Batman fights are. And how silly that suit looks on a grown man. They could spend 250 million on this movie but didn’t bother to train Bale so he looks like he can actually fight?* And then want to tell me that there’s no point in thinking about anything else in the film? What does that even leave?

Doves flying = symbolism. John Woo proved it.
Turns out it leaves just one thing: a long, complicated, overwrought drama overrun by characters looking for a resolution. But as it happens, this is the film’s secret weapon. Consider this: You know how in action films there is always a whiny girlfriend, who wants our hero to stop being so awesome and give up his code and settle down for a life of placid domesticity? They always gotta do that, it’s just sort of part of the formula at this point. I guess they put it in there as an empty gesture towards not glorifying antisocial vigilante violence, but come on, you know what we want to see -- some god damned irresponsible sociopathic violence. A bad thing in real life, but a good thing in the movies. OK, here the girlfriend is played by Michael Caine, but come on, you’re not actually supposed to agree with him. It’s just an empty gesture. They gotta say it so they don’t get sued if some asshole gets the wrong idea and turns vigilante.** Right?

Which brings us back to that scene I was talking about at the start of this review. Somehow, it doesn’t feel like a throwaway gesture here. It feels like an earnest plea by someone who is probably right. And I found myself sort of halfway hoping that Bruce would reconsider. I found myself halfway hoping that Batman could really never show up. In a Batman movie. Right about that time, I realized that for all its bluster, superficiality, and silliness, there is something fundamental in this Batman trilogy that works. Nolan, graced with a stunning dream cast of most of the best actors alive and working right now, has crafted an epic drama under the guise of making superhero action movies. Now, it’s a consistently silly, sometimes hilariously ludicrous drama. But the actors sell the heck out of it, the scope is breathtaking, and the dialogue is snappy and ingratiating. By the end, you realize you care about what happens to these Gotham City ninnies. When the movie plays rough with them, you root for them to recover and worry that they won’t be able to. When they start succeeding, you cheer for them. Most simply, when they talk, you listen.

Now let's do the WHEN HARRY MET SALLY ending!

There are plenty of things to complain about here. Yes, Bane’s plan is the exact same stupid plan that already didn’t work for Ras Al-Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS, and yes, it’s foiled the exact same way. And yes, plenty of shit here doesn’t make a lot of sense, a little sense, or occasionally even a lick of sense. The action can be clumsy and uninvolving. The drama can be thinly sketched and lazy. The themes can be muddled and superficial. And depending on your level of experience with reality, you may find it impossible to reconcile a complex, ensemble psychological drama with a guy wearing rubber bat ears and a cape. All these things are valid complaints.

But even given those factors, there is something giddy and compelling about the level of seriousness the film takes with its characters and its world. For all its unearned pretensions of depth and portent, there’s an earnest care for the people at the heart of this silly drama. Few people get the opportunity to put $ 250 million into a dense, Dickensian drama about fear, hope, and redemption, so in the rare event that it comes along you gotta sort of appreciate it. Comic books, at their heart, are as much soap operas as they are action movies -- laboriously overbuilt collages of colorful characters and shamelessly overwrought drama wandering about their ever-more-complex, ever-shifting world with listless plots which struggle for new territory, get lost in the motley minutiae, wander back, and forget where they started. RISES, for all it’s overreaching, in some ways represents the best of this ridiculous but endearing variety of American storytelling. The surface may be all false flash, but its heart is as resolutely, stalwartly geeky as it deserves to be. For a movie this self-consciously devoted to being BIG, it’s nice to know that the little things still make the most difference. Plus, Batman flies a flying saucer. As they say in the funny pages,


Barely, and only because Selina Kyle talks briefly but slightly over 30 seconds to her female neighbor/sidekick.

*Turns out Bale studied a form of Mixed Martial Arts called the Keysi fighting method, as I probably should have assumed he would. But like most MMA fighting styles, it looks like real fighting instead of choreographed movie fighting, which is to say, it’s boring and clumsy to watch.

**Not interested in talking about that subject, please feel free to discuss on other sites, but not here.


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  2. I JUST saw this and, I dunno, it was alright I guess. For a movie with so much going on, with supposedly super high stakes, nothing made much of an impact. Considering the second half of the movie is about the possibility of a nuclear bomb destroying an entire city with thousands of people inside, Gotham only feels like it’s populated by cops, prisoners, and the main characters. There’s never a sense that Gotham is a living, breathing city with average pedestrians living there. The entire movie, and the series, is about protecting the city of Gotham and its people and how the people of Gotham feel about Batman and Batman being a symbol of hope for the people of Gotham and blah blee blah in conclusion, A LOT of talk about the feelings of Gotham’s populace. But do we ever see ANYONE in this fucking city?? Even after Bane’s takeover, there really isn’t much of what it’s like for the average Gotham citizen to live in a closed off city run by a madman whose going to blow it up! Nobody seems to be experiencing too many hardships. We see some people huddled in blankets drinking coffee….that’s about it. Matthew Modine’s wife certainly seems to be doing just fine. For a movie that tries to be politically relevant about the state of power and control in our society, the masses are not only not humanized in the slightest, but barely seen. And since the movie’s political stance is practically incoherent and not very smart, it just deflated the entire picture for me. We all know the bomb won’t destroy Gotham, but you have to make me care about the struggle to save the day. And if there is a completely invisible populace threatened by a bomb that will never kill them, well that makes everything kind of not that exciting.
    So the weight of the physical bomby threat is absent, and on top of that, Bane is NOT A GOOD VILLAIN. In fact, he’s very uncharismatic and not terribly interesting to watch, and his character stays pretty much the same from beginning to end. And ultimately he’s completely inconsequential, with Marion Cotilliard being the REAL villain. I had this spoiled for me before I saw this, so it was in my mind the entire time, and it is not a well set-up twist. There is nothing to her character or to the way she is performed. Everything before the SHOCKING reveal for her character is practically arbitrary. There is no nuance to her character, no layering or subtlety or attention to detail. I watched her character like it was the second time I’ve seen the movie, and she couldn’t be more of a blank, empty plot twist. It’s really very lazy character writing.
    Anyway, those are my biggest beefs. That and it’s so overstuffed it can’t take it’s time with anything and it just blows through everything twice as fast as it should to have any sort of impact and it’s still almost 3 hours long. Give me some time to get a feel for Gotham as a city recovering from its violent past, so that when there is a hostile takeover, it feels like a significant tonal change and not just something else that happens in the plot because, you know, final installment in a trilogy, big stakes! When a character is sentenced to exile and has to walk across flimsy ice and will surely die, give the scene some room for some tension! Draw it out a bit! Instead the guy falls through like immediately, onto the next scene, Gary Oldman’s doing something, next scene Joseph Gordon Levitt has a heart of gold, next scene Anne Hathaway has doubts, next scene on and on. Engross me with atmosphere and people worth caring about, don’t just cram in as many plots and simplistic motivations as you can! Don’t take yourself so seriously if there isn’t much actual drama. Batman 3 flaps its wings awful hard, but it rarely soars (you can put that on the DVD box).

  3. I thought that it was a major weakness that the movie never explores the way the population reacts when Bane "frees" them from their hierarchical, quasi-fascist society. But then it turns out Nolan doesn't care about any of that stuff at all, it's just window dressing for the plot. So I guess we can't be too mad at him for not wasting time actually exploring issues which would be interesting.

    I actually think Bane is a reasonably OK villain; less interesting than the Joker, obviously, but probably better all around than Ras Al Ghul part 1. Or at least, he seems to be until it's revealed that he actually has the same plan, the same motivation, and actually nothing personally invested except that a girl he likes told him to.

    I also have to agree with you (hopefully it comes across in my review) that I think the characters are all pretty much interchangable plot devices. All more evidence that Nolan is too busy to show us anything when he can just tell us.

    Still, I think I am a little easier on this one just because it IS so ridiculous and self-consciously serious. It's not the great movie it thinks it is, but if you can relax and ignore its lazy storytelling I think you can have some fun with it.

  4. Also you should probably read Mr. M's review of DARK KNIGHT (does not yet rise) at

    He lays out the fundamental problems with Nolan's run on the series pretty entertainingly.

  5. Good review, Mr. S. Definitely the first one I've read that makes me at all curious about checking it out eventually. I do like the supporting cast of these movies, so your point that even when the basic themes and spectacle and main characters let you down (as they inevitably do) you're still left with a handful of great actors to sell the drama. And thanks for the shoutout. I think we totally agree on what doesn't work about Nolan's approach, though you seem to feel that the title character of a trilogy being uninteresting, unbelievable, and ineffectual is less of a dealbreaker than I do. Just once I'd like to see a Batman movie made by someone who seems to like the character and not just see him as the unfortunate but necessary name brand they were contractually obligated to slap onto the movie they actually wanted to make. I hope the inevitable reboot takes a more gothic-horror-detective approach, perhaps with Batman stalking a serial killer (Mr. Zsaz, most likely) through the underworld, so various members of his rogue's gallery could make appearances. That would be something I'd enjoy, though, so there's a probably a very good reason why it'll never happen.

    1. You know, I feel like recently the Marvel films have hit upon a much better tone for their movies than the ponderous, self-consciously serious Nolan films (and for that matter, the Singer/Ratner X-MEN films before them). They stopped trying to apologize for the inherent silliness of the characters and just went for it. Thor is a fucking Norse God from a magic universe, you paid for it, get over it. He's magic, now watch the movie.

      I think Batman could benefit from a similar treatment. A tone which is not afraid to embrace the basic ridiculousness while still taking the *character* seriously. Treat them respectfully within the context they've always existed in -- a sublimely pulpy, high-drama soap opera fantasy world. Making fun of it or trying to cover it up misses the point. We suspend disbelief to so that we can take the drama seriously on its own terms, like the Bible. Of the Nolan Batmans, RISES actually comes closest to that balance, I think, to getting that tone right, but its still almost apologetically weighed down by all this grown-up realism which is ill-suited to the fundamental material. But of all the Batman films, really only MASK OF THE PHANTASM has really been in the ballpark of marring the wonderful absurdity of fantasy with the genuine depth of emotion you get from taking overwrought gothic drama seriously. And I know you don't do cartoons, so that's out for you.

      Problem is, Superhero movies are right down hurting from the same thing that is ruining Action movies -- irony. No one can seem to get themselves to take it seriously on its own terms. If Batman can be saved, I think it will have to be by someone like Alex Proyas or the Wachowski... siblings... who can take a highly exaggerated reality and treat it seriously.

    2. Nah, I like Mask of the Phantasm. I used to watch the Batman cartoon all the time when it first came out, so I had no trouble warming up to the characters and the design style. It's a pretty cool movie, throwing in just enough semi-realistic violence to give the story some weight, but still having comic booky stuff like animatronic clowns and jetpacks and shit. I remember some cool action sequences, too, like the one with the tanker truck. But I don't see cartoons as being that much of a leap from comic books (they're still just drawings, which don't have to deal with the absurdity factor of a grown man wearing a rubber batsuit) so I don't think it's really fair to put it up against live-action productions.

      When they do make another one, I don't want to see any origin story or any real arc for the character. He's Batman. He doesn't need to change any more than Dirty Harry does. I don't want to see a story ABOUT Batman. I want to see a story STARRING Batman. I think once you cut loose a lot of the pop psychologizing the character has picked up over the decades, you end up with a pretty straightfoward blend of Sherlock Holmes and Death With, with a few sci-fi and horror trappings to keep it weird. That's what I would like to see: something streamlined and unafraid to just be a goddamn superhero story.