Sunday, July 22, 2012

movie review: 'the dark knight rises'

It's hard to name a trilogy where the last entry is the best. 

The original Star Wars movies, The Godfather trilogy, the original X-Men trilogy, the Spider-Man trilogy, even the Lord of the Rings movies often suffer from the last movie just not being able to close the loop (I understand that my issues with Return of the King are primarily structural, but I'm sorry, The Two Towers is, in my opinion, a better film. And to some degree, I understand the problem. In the first movie, you establish everything. In the second movie, you ramp it up. In the third movie, you draw things to a close the best you can - and most filmmakers just can't. The expectations are the highest, you expect the best, the most epic things on screen - and often times, it just doesn't deliver.

So maybe, just maybe, it would have been better had The Dark Knight Rises never been made. That's a harsh indictment, but you couldn't realistically hope to top The Dark Knight. That's an implicit condemnation of The Dark Knight Rises, I know that, but considering how great, how much The Dark Knight crystallized the modern superhero blockbuster, it would be impossible to top it. With Heath Ledger giving the most powerful performance of his career, with that film ending the way it did, how can you follow that?

At some point, this had to have occurred to director Christopher Nolan, and you can tell that he tried - oh, did he try - to make this movie the biggest and most impactful of all three films. The conflict was bigger, the stakes were higher, the danger was greater... and I'm sorry, but it doesn't work.

Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises isn't terrible. It isn't the worst ending to a trilogy I've seen - the comparisons to Spider-Man 3 and The Godfather Part III are unfair - but the film just doesn't work, despite all of the efforts involved. I can't say that this movie is uniformly unworkable - there are shining moments of brilliance, I can't deny that - but ultimately The Dark Knight Rises, regardless of comparisons to its predecessors, is the worst of the trilogy and arguably a failure. I'm going to try to explain why without spoiling anything - and at some point, I'm going to drop all pretence, because I have to discuss the ending and the thematic payoffs, but you'll be warned when that happens.

Let me make this clear - The Dark Knight Rises has all of the pieces of that epic finale that it wants to be. The acting is universally solid across the board, and damn near amazing when it comes to some characters. Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman all reprise their roles and deliver excellently (although I'm not entirely pleased that Alfred's character seems to vanish for over half of the movie), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers the best performance of his career thus far as a beat cop named Blake. Hell, I'll even stick up for Tom Hardy doing the best he can with Bane, and Anne Hathaway trying to make Selina Kyle work. This is really an ensemble piece, and if they had just titled this film Gotham, I think it would have sounded a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises. It certainly fits the tone of the film a lot more (I'll come back to this).

In terms of directing and cinematography, this is a great looking film. The shot composition is excellent, the action is framed beautifully (although not quite as nicely as The Avengers, in my opinion), and the scenes that could look silly with a bad director look awesome as all hell here. And I'll be the first to say that the fight choreography here is the best of all three movies, and the special effects have never looked better. And Hans Zimmer's score is epic, sweeping, and does a lot of work to make this movie feel big and ponderous and meaningful.

The sad thing is that it had to do that work, because the script and plot of this film is an absolute disaster.

At this point, being familiar with Batman continuity outside of these movies allowed me to pinpoint the exact comics Christopher Nolan was drawing inspiration from - and this isn't exactly a bad thing, because one of those comics is one of the most well-written and crafted pieces of all time. That comic is The Dark Knight Returns, written by future nutcase Frank Miller, and along with Watchmen, was one of two comics released in the mid-80s that would be responsible for redefining the medium. And you know what? If Christopher Nolan had chosen just to use The Dark Knight Returns as his primary influence, it could have worked, and would have made for a very interesting political commentary (oh, the political elements are here, but I'll get into that after the spoiler point). But unfortunately, there are two other comics that Nolan draw influence from. The first is Knightfall, where Bane does the one thing that made his character famous in comic-book history rather than a footnote. The second was No-Man's Land, a rather bleak comic that did a lot to explore Gotham as a whole, and probably would have fit the tone Nolan was looking to examine.

If I'm being completely honest, all three of these comic lines could have been workable for The Dark Knight Rises - but Nolan chose to mash all three of them together and then fuse in a fresh plotline of his own, which renders the plot a twisted, tangled mess that has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. And here's where Nolan's focus on realism proves to be his undoing, because if he wants the plot to be relatable and cerebral and 'above' the comic books he's drawing from, accessible to the mainstream, I'm not going to be as forgiving when it comes to the plot holes. I'm not going to spoil anything at this point, but let me say that Bruce Wayne could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he got in contact with the corporate lawyer for Wayne Enterprises - and for a man who is supposed to be a smart and well-connected as him, the fact that he doesn't is a real problem.

I'm getting close to discussing themes and elements of this movie that will require spoilers, so let me talk about a few other problems I can talk about without spoiling, the first being Selina Kyle. I will give Nolan some minor applause for finally passing the Bechdel test, but even despite Anne Hathaway trying to make her character work, Nolan's script doesn't have any idea what she's supposed to be. A third of the time she's out for herself, a third of the time she's speaking for the poor of Gotham, and the last third of the time she's an incredibly awkward insert-love-interest-here stand-in that even the movie seems to mock. 

At this point I have to talk about Nolan's 'hyper-masculine' philosophy with regards to film-making, and the portrayal of Selina Kyle is a great place to do it. Thanks to their convoluted plots, the generally bleak settings, and the stoic, heavy style of directing, many have commented that Nolan's cinematography and directing style could be considered emotionally cold or distant. This is namely because Nolan places human reason far above emotion - his Ideal Man is a titan of reason and logic, not swayed by his passions or his feelings. And while I can't deny I find this appealing, it also leads to a sexless portrayal of women in his films - or worse. The crowning moment for this was Inception, where Cobb's wife and her emotional breakdown dragged her into limbo, and Cobb's connections to her nearly result in his destruction as well, in a job that demands reason and logic within the human mind. It's a window of insight into Nolan that very soon explains a great deal of his portrayal of female characters in movies. Compared to a Tarantino or a Rodriquez or even a Zack Snyder, Nolan seems unconcerned with female sexuality in films, and actively works to de-emphasize it through cold, austere film-making. Let me make this clear: you will never see a sex scene in a Christopher Nolan film.

So it was baffling to me that he chose to include Selina Kyle - Catwoman, one of the most sexualized characters in comic book history - in The Dark Knight Rises. That is, until you realize that not only is Anne Hathaway never called Catwoman in the film, but her character is hardly a sexual being at all - at least until she's called upon to drop into the insert-love-interest-here spot. In fact, I'd have a hard time saying she's got a character at all - she's less of a person and more of a plot device, used to push Bruce and Batman towards the inevitable. She does a pretty decent job with what she has, but she's probably the most sexless Catwoman character I've seen on screen, and frankly, while it was expected from Nolan, I was hoping he's step out of his box. 

And speaking of the inevitable, I now have to talk about Bane - and unlike some, I think Bane actually works as an effective villain in this film. He's imposing as all hell, he's a potent physical presence, and it's probably the only way Bane's character could have been realistically done well in a Batman movie. But there are two problems with his character, and the first problem is the line delivery. Unlike some, I can overlook the strange voice - I've heard the comment that he sounds like Darth Vader crossed with Sean Connery, but it didn't both me. My problem was with the obvious dubbing - and dear God, it was obvious.  The overdubbing was too loud and it didn't flow well with the rest of the film - sure, it sounded ominous, but it really broke my suspension of disbelief when his voice was so much louder in the sound mix. The second problem is a little tougher to define - basically, the ending twist (that anybody who's read enough Batman comics will see coming, by the way) leaves Bane something of a shell of a character, ultimately lacking importance in the long run. He executes an incredibly complex scheme (which is full of holes, but it was still impressive) - but the twist strips any true payoff to the ending, and I was left with a real sense of disappointment. 

And now, to talk about themes and other plot problems, I have to spoil pretty much the whole movie. For those who are stopping here, I still think, despite the many, many flaws of this film, it's worth seeing. It's the weakest of the trilogy, though, and it's sure as hell not as good as The Avengers (albeit better than The Amazing Spider-Man). Spoilers after the jump.

As I said above, the plot of this movie is a fucking mess, but that's only partially because Nolan tried to cram three very different comics together into a whole. No, the other problem is themes and politics, neither of which are executed in ways that I can remotely accept if I want to like this movie.

As I said in my review of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne never gave up his quest for vengeance for his parents' deaths, and he lived out that quest through the alter-ego of Batman. I could go into a long diatribe regarding themes and metaphors, but fortunately Kyle Kallgren of Brows Held High already did that for me here. And while that does confirm basically everything I already wrote in my review of that film, it also directly leads into the expected repercussions in the opening of The Dark Knight Rises. Instead of actually moving on with his life, Bruce has retired as Batman and become a hermit in Wayne Manor - a symbolic form of stasis, not advancing his life as Bruce Wayne nor remaining in the darkness as Batman. So through the combination of complicated acts (instigated by Selina Kyle and perpetuated by Bane), Bruce decides to come out of retirement - much to the consternation of Alfred. Now, initially, this puzzled me - wouldn't Alfred want to see Bruce revive himself? He certainly was encouraging of Bruce to be Batman in The Dark Knight.

And then it really hit me - Bruce is older and vulnerable, and eight years of watching him decay probably made something deeper click for Alfred. He saw that the only driving motivation for Bruce was hollow vengeance, and without Rachel as the light at the end of the tunnel, Bruce had nothing left to lose. And since Alfred did genuinely care for a man he raised, he recognized Bruce's death wish when he saw it. He desperately tries to tell Bruce that Rachel chose Harvey Dent instead of him and that he burned the letter to spare Bruce pain, but it highlights Alfred's fatal mistake - one even he acknowledges in his tearful farewell. He wanted to spare Bruce pain - the necessary breaking (symbolically of the heart) that Bruce would need to rise and put his life back together again, so he'd no longer need Batman. 

But here's my point - why does Alfred then leave? After all the reckless and stupid things that Bruce Wayne had done, did he honestly think that one tearful confession and a dramatic departure would be enough to change the man's mind, a man who spent eight fucking years not getting over anything? I get why it needed to happen for plot reasons, but it really undermines Alfred's character and his loyalty to Bruce, even despite everything. It also doesn't help the film that Michael Caine vanishes for the rest of the movie up until the very end - the character had an attitude and energy the story thrived on, and his loss was painfully missed.

But cutting back to Bruce Wayne, he chooses to go after Bane anyways - and he gets his back broken and his ass kicked, as expected. Bane tosses him in the prison where he once was imprisoned, with a TV so Bane can torture him with scenes of Gotham's collapse. Now let me make this clear - this and the following sequences are great dramatic payoff for Bruce Wayne, loaded with great metaphors and following the trusted themes of rising out of the darkness. The film is being incredibly heavy-handed with its themes, but like The Dark Knight, I can accept it because in the broad, arch style that Nolan's going for. 

However, there is a big problem - Bane is fully aware that his death is inevitable when Gotham is to be destroyed. Unlike the Joker, I don't a firm grasp of what Bane actually believes in, because it's clear all the messages he delivers to Gotham at large can't be believed, because he's ultimately planning to destroy the city. The way Bane's dialogue is written makes him appear to be something of a hard-left terrorist (somewhat reminiscent of Stalinism, come to think of it), but I have a hard time deciphering the message Nolan was going for. I'd like to say that he's trying to model him off of an 'Occupy Wall Street' terrorist (there are certainly some statements and turns of phrase that make that comparison impossible to ignore), but given that Bane is always working for the League of Shadows and not some higher cause, any ideal he tries to espouse is highly suspect. The guy isn't trying to show 'a new state for western civilization' - he's a hired thug with delusions of grandeur, and I suspect that might be Nolan's deeper point regarding the ultimate hypocrisy when it comes to terrorism and these movements.

However, this point will be missed on a lot of people. Hell, Selina Kyle in the actual movie bought into Bane's 'new order' hook, line, and sinker, taunting Bruce Wayne with it, because she actually believes that society would be better if people like Bruce - who have never worked for any wealth - deserve to fall. And it's only later in the film where she actually seems to regret the disaster Bane's regime has created. But let's make this clear - all of these analogies are through interpretation, and considering how heavy-handed this movie is with themes and metaphor (and considering there's a scene of Bane shooting up a stock exchange and mocking the traders, not to mention a montage of rich homes getting trashed), I can't help but feel Nolan's sympathies don't lie with Selina's ideals (particularly considering the ending, but I'll get to that). Furthermore, it doesn't help reinforce things when you see that Nolan's hero is a reclusive billionaire whose company used to run Gotham, and only fell into disrepair 'during peacetime' (subtle!) when said lord neglected his fief.

And there's something I find really insulting about the energy policy of this movie, namely the means of how Bane plans to destroy Gotham City: by means of a recalibrated nuclear fusion reactor that Bruce had Wayne Enterprises develop to power Gotham. Besides being a torrid blend of the same damn plot device from Angels & Demons crossed with The Avengers, the fact that it's a recalibrated fusion reactor does two things I find infuriating. First of all, a fusion reactor would be a huge step to redeeming some of the negative connotations of nuclear energy (no residual fallout and waste produced, cleaner energy, etc.), and that the fact that Nolan preys of fears of people who are scared of nuclear power for precisely this reason is infuriating. The second issue is that Bruce was apparently 'scared away' from this project when there were signs that weapons could be created from such a device, and thus closed down a potentially enormous scientific breakthrough. Forgive me for saying this, but Bruce Wayne blew a lot of credibility when he said that he's only willing to release the device 'when the people are ready' - and that attitude is fucking wrong. What, Bruce, do you honestly think you're stable enough to make a call like that, deny the world potentially huge breaking advances in scientific process? And I get it if you want to release it through Wayne Enterprises (despite some of my compunctions on it), but doesn't the fact that you don't want to release it to the public directly contradict the ending to 'The Dark Knight', when you ultimately made the case that humanity was good? It was one of the moments that pissed me off to no end.

But then again, I don't think most people, particularly Americans, are going to see this sort of thing - and that's because this film does a lot to play on the particular fears of the United States. Between the terrorist attacks of Bane and the pseudo-anarcho-Stalinism he advocates and enforces, to the bleak fear and despair of being abandoned by their government, from the nuclear terror that's been plaguing the U.S. since Chernobyl and before, to the fact the overhead shots are obviously recognizably New York City - these are tactics designed to draw emotion from the audience. And while Nolan's form of guiding and manipulating these emotions through cinematography is masterful, the clunkiness and heavy-handedness of the script (couldn't afford not to include a 'We do not negotiate with terrorists' line, eh, Nolan, from the president no less (who also happens to be a white guy)?), coupled with the fact that Bane is really a cipher of a villain, leads me to not feeling the same tug that The Dark Knight provided.

But let me make this clear, even all of this cannot redeem the ending of this movie. I'm not going to lie, the reason why this review is late is because I had to see this movie a second time to rationalize my thoughts - because the last minute of this film pissed me off so much. Basically (spoilers, you were warned), Batman hooks the bomb up to his 'Bat' and flies the explosive over the bay, where it explodes and apparently kills him. This is right after he kisses Selina Kyle (in a facepalmingly bad moment) and gives Jim Gordon a touching farewell courtesy of one of the most powerful lines in the entire series (if I'm correct, it's from the excellent comic series Kingdom Come). This is a powerful, potent ending, showing that as Batman, he has found freedom in death. The lord dies for his city, a noble sacrifice, leaving his heir to succeed him (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character), his estate to be divided to aid others, and to reunite with the parents that were taken from him long ago. And let me make this clear - this is a ballsy move. It's a definitive, incredibly powerful moment as Gotham finally accepts the hero it needed and deserved, and it's also a way for Nolan to end the trilogy. As an ending coda, it's a great way to end the series.

AND THEN... Alfred, as part of his settlement of Bruce's will, travels to a cafe in Florence - where it is revealed that not only is Bruce Wayne alive, he's comfortably anonymous, with Selina Kyle by his side. He's finally moved on with his life, no longer needing Batman. And Alfred smiles.

Now, I will give this ending something: it's a good way to pay off the motifs that were developed throughout the series. It ties the knot, it gives Bruce Wayne some peace, and a convenient love interest that fans have been cheering for. 

But I can't fucking believe Christopher Nolan wrote this of his own free will, because it flies in the face of plenty of things that Nolan tried to create, particularly the feudal elements of the films. It completely sucks all of the drama from Batman's excellently-executed 'death' when you realize he faked the whole damn thing (about that faking, by the way: I'm fairly certain this is an error in the script, because Bane says the bomb will go off in five months, and Bruce Wayne fixed the autopilot six months before he 'died' - which, given the shaky timeframe of the opening, probably isn't all that possible). And while his personal arc may have received some degree of closure, it sure as hell didn't close the broader. Part of the theme is that despite Bruce Wayne's personal vengeance fantasy that the Batman alter-ego was, it did ultimately have a greater good and inspire positive changes in Gotham - so to have him walk away again is a greater betrayal of his mission, because he can't possibly know that Gordon-Levitt's character is going to take up his mantle! 

Now you might ask, 'Well, give Bruce a break - he earned his right to move on, he's only human,' and this sort of argument pisses me off the most, because it's not just a betrayal of Bruce's character, but of the philosophy of the company behind him. It's often held in the comics industry that Marvel Comics writes stories with characters one can relate to, that in addition to their superhuman efforts, they have human problems as well. But DC Comics, with more archly-defined heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman and yes, BATMAN, more commonly writes stories with characters one can look up to. That can mean the character is more broadly defined, but part of the themes that have always tied into Batman's mythos is that he's the symbol of justice, something far greater than himself. Even if his quest might be petty in these films, the ideals he represents sure as hell aren't.

And that's what makes this ending a complete fucking BETRAYAL of the ideals behind the Batman symbol, if not the Batman character. I understand that Bruce Wayne the man quit, and I get that the 'legacy' of Batman will continue on, but Wayne couldn't possibly have known that (even if he somehow had time to rebuild the Bat-Signal, which also doesn't make any sense how that got there). If he had died in the bomb blast, Gordon-Levitt going to take up the mantle would work better, because as it is, Wayne has just quit again (I consider his eight year vacation a 'quit' as well) - and the fact that the symbol of justice just quits even once is unbelievable to the point of being a little insulting. And with Selina Kyle with him, it gets even worse - if I'm going to be completely honest, it feels like a fanfic happy ending - they get to restart and be happy together devoid of consequences. Instead of dying nobly for his people, the lord faked his death and went gallivanting off with a girl, not knowing or caring what he left behind. 

To me, the ending represents a mechanical payoff of some motifs, but not of greater substance, and I find it hard to believe Nolan actually wrote it. For one, it's a betrayal of the ideal in favour of an emotional connection, which as I wrote about above, he doesn't have a lot of sympathy before. No, if anything, this feels either forced by the studio or something of the coward's way out - Nolan didn't have it in him to kill Batman, so he conveniently gave him an exit and a perfunctory love interest to boot. 

But whatever. As it is, I have a really hard time liking this movie, particularly with the ending. I will admit there are glorious set pieces and a lot was done right, but the stuff that was done wrong is too appalling wrong for me to really forgive. Yes, there are great moments, but great moments do not make a good film. The 'music video' scene in Southland Tales doesn't redeem the fact that movie is an appalling mess, and some of the fantastic sequences in this film don't redeem it any more. And as much as I said I was sick of Batman, and wary of some of the choices Christopher Nolan was making in terms of characters and plot going into this film, the pieces were here to make a fantastic movie - and it didn't happen. 

The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest film of the Nolan Batman trilogy, and the weakest film of Christopher Nolan's career. I can't say I'm not disappointed - but at the same time, I still think if you want some closure, there are moments that give you that, and there are flashes of brilliance here. If you can overlook the problems, you'll probably like this movie - I just couldn't.

So, yeah - it's the movie people probably deserved, but not the one we needed to make Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy a true masterpiece. 


  1. This comes close to three hours, but it didn’t matter to me, because I just couldn’t take my eyes off of this from start to finish. The story did hit some pit-falls here and there, but they weren’t enough to take me out of the grand, epic scale of this movie and I have to give a lot of that credit to Nolan who ends everything in a nice little set-up that I think Batman, as well as all of these other characters, deserve. Great review Silens.

  2. Your review is just about as long as the movie.

  3. Excellent review. You put down in words the exact feelings and thoughts I had while sitting through this mess of a movie.

    Your last line could use a little re-wording to really pack a punch. Sweet burn though. Heh.

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