I meant to write an article discussing Christopher Nolan‘s latest (and final?) Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises (henceforth, TDKR). I started off writing that article but ended up writing a screed about going to the movies. Words not wasted, perhaps, but now I return to the original intent: trying to say a few words about the movie itself.
The bottom line is that I give it an “Eh!” on a scale of “Wow!”, “Ah!”, “Eh!”, “Meh!”, “Nah!” & “Ugh!” It’s above the no-go line, so I say it’s worth seeing if it’s in your interest zone. If you’ve seen the other two, you certainly want to see this one. That said, it’s my least favorite in Nolan’s Batman trilogy as well as my least favorite Nolan film. And to be honest, were it not for superhero movie fatigue setting in, I might well have given this a higher rating. I’ve just gotten tired of the genre.
Warning: In this article I’m not going to make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so if you (a) haven’t seen the movie and (2) don’t like spoilers, then you shouldn’t continue reading.
[Unfunny true story: During the summer reruns of the long-dead television show, NYPD Blue, I made the mistake of casually mentioning to my (ex-)wife, who had wandered into the room during a repeat and asked about a hospital scene, “Oh, you know, Bobby died.” I never heard the end of it. It became a black mark on my “permanent record.”]
This latest version of Batman draws inspiration from three sources, the primary one being the story of the villain Bane defeating the Batman, as told in the Knightfall arc from 1993. It also draws some elements from the Frank Miller 1986 classic, The Dark Night Returns (primarily tone and the idea of Batman returning from retirement, I would guess). Finally, the idea of Gotham under siege, and the idea of aid from Catwoman, comes from the very long-running 1999 arc, No Man’s Land.
Several posts ago I wrote about how we’re upping the ante on the level of violence. That trend seemed especially obvious to me watching TDKR, and is a key reason for the dissatisfaction I had with the movie. The amount of casual murder of bystanders is very high (consider the stock market scene, for example). Perhaps we’re supposed to cheer the casual murder of those rich, money-grubbing bastards, but the whole firing a gun into a crowd idea seems a bit prescient under the circumstances.
(While it seems clear that the Aurora gunman hadn’t seen this movie, it’s equally clear he had seen the equally violent second entry in Nolan’s Batman canon. We can’t blame one movie for putting ideas in a crazy person’s head, but we can ask if, perhaps, “entertainment” is going a bit too far in general.)
Let me say that I am not, in principle, opposed to violence in films. I’m a guy, and I like explosions, crashes, gun fire and personal combat as much as any (I love Asian martial arts films, for example). It’s when things cross some vague line I have that it takes me out of the story. I can first recall this happening in Verhoeven‘s Total Recall, which to me is the most violent of Schwarzenegger’s films. The line has to do with innocent bystanders being killed rather than the active participants in the story.
In TDKR, the tide turned for me during the big street fight scene. Let’s leave aside the idea of boldly marching into a well-armed force. (The British learned not to do things like that over 200 years ago when we booted them out of America.) A bit of stealth and cleverness seems called for here. The only thing that prevents complete slaughter is Batman showing up in that tricky Batcopter (and as it is, we see several cops shot down; fortunately the bad guys have the usual Hollywood Bad Guy inability to hit a close target).
Let’s talk for just a moment about how they were trapped. In train tunnels and sewers. Capable of exchanging messages on strings, but apparently not one single human-sized exit remained useable? Bane blew them all up? Color me unconvinced. Keep in mind all it took was a single explosion to free them. (Are there no backhoes in Gotham?)
Consider the two key fights between B-man and Bane. Here we have two of Ra’s al Ghul‘s best (that is, most skilled) students (Bane was apparently capable of holding off an entire prison of men until his rescue). And the best they can do is slug each other like a couple of big dummies. Oh, sure, there were a few leg kicks, but the worst martial arts movie I ever saw had vastly superior fight scenes.
Batman is a man. No radioactive spiders or gamma-ray bursts for him; no son of Krypton is he. Part of his enduring charm is that he is just one of us—with an awesome amount of training and some very cool toys. In some ways, it’s those cool toys that define him. In days of yore (yore what?), Batman and Jim West always had exactly the right tool at the right time (and, yeah, some of that was pretty silly). But in any era, and this is key, Batman was smart. He is smart enough to defeat Superman (in Dark Knight Returns as well as in a Justice League arc), and he did it by understanding their weaknesses!
So you’re the Batman, and you’re about to go up against a truly fearsome opponent; what do you do? This Batman wades in for a good old mano a mano duke’m nuke’m punch out. (Why, oh why, would you punch a guy in his iron mask?) Maybe it’s a steady diet of martial arts films (those guys know how to stage a fight), but the fight scenes, to me, were boring and disappointing. I will give Nolan some credit for keeping the camera back and not going for the quick-cut close-ups often used to transform inexperienced actors into apparent fighting machines.
I have no complaint with the acting. Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon) and the always wonderful Michael Caine (Alfred) are masters at their craft, and Christian Bale‘s Bruce Wayne is as good as any previous version and better than most. In fact, I’d rank them: Bale, Keaton, Kilmer, all future actors in the role, any cartoon actors in the role, and then finally Clooney. (I generally love Clooney’s work, in fact, he’s one of my favorite actors, but Batman & Robin was an abomination.) And, of course, like Caine, Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) dresses up any scene merely by being in it.
I can’t help but ponder the choice of casting what is clearly New York City in the role of Gotham City. In the comics, to the extent it resembles any city, to me Gotham resembles Chicago. It does have a port, but not obviously a sea port. The historical dark tone of Chicago (gangs, political corruption) makes it a good parallel in my mind. And to the extent Superman’s city, Metropolis, resembles any real city, that city for me is New York City. (Note that this is exclusively my take. If you research the origins of Batman back in the 30s, you’ll find that NYC was indeed the seed of Gotham City. A nickname for New York back then was, ta-da, Gotham.)
But it’s not just the vague miscasting, it’s the “terrorist attack on the city” that seems in questionable taste to me. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds indulged in similar imagery, specifically with regard to floating ash and “missing” posters. Some scenes in TDKR with falling snow evoked similar comparison. (Keep in mind the snow wasn’t accidental, but put there deliberately by the director.)
Perhaps it’s a case of enough time having passed (just over 10 years is apparently enough in these fast-paced days), or perhaps it’s a case of a director deliberately leveraging the national consciousness for effect. How you feel about that will vary. I still recall vividly that day in September, and I recall how it affected me for a good year afterwards. Thinking about it to any deep degree still affects me profoundly.
I would have preferred another city.
And then there’s the overall plot. Bane and (spoiler) Miranda Tate want to blow up Gotham City. Because reasons. Insane reasons. Tate spends most of the movie being Bruce Wayne’s friend and savior of his company from what turns out to be another foray by Bane. Except, fooled ya, she and Bane are in it together, and once she’s revealed (surprise!), she turns out to be bat-shit crazy (which is, perhaps, apropos in a Batman movie). It seems we have a new sort of villain these days: the insane terrorist who just wants to blow it all up.
Intelligent movies require something from their audience, and this movie required very little. It was just a fun(-ish) ride. It raises no interesting points for discussion, nor does it challenge you in any way. It lacks the charm of, say Ironman, and Batman fans are well acquainted with the Batman ethos. There’s really nothing new or particularly interesting here. In some ways it’s almost hard to believe that the man who made this movie also made Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception.
Just a few words about Nolan and the film as a film. I know many find Nolan’s film-making pedestrian or unoriginal (if I follow their complaints), but it’s occurred to me that he tries to be as transparent as possible in style. His camera setups don’t call attention to themselves; he tries to let the content come through untouched by fancy camera work or editing. Something else I want to watch for if I see TDKR again is the prominent use of vertical lines and other ascending visual motifs (note the staircase behind Bruce Wayne in a conversation with Alfred). Dark Knight rises… get it?
One last thing: did anyone actually think Batman got blown up at the end? Was anyone surprised when it turned out he wasn’t?