In the paraphrased words of Bill Simmons, there’s the initial wave of enthusiasm, then there’s the backlash, then there’s the backlash to the backlash. Repeat ad nauseum until all media is stripped of any and all cultural impact. Rinse. Repeat. I saw The Dark Knight Rises last weekend. Beware: here there be spoilers.
I wasn’t always a comic book guy, but I’ve been generally enthusiastic about most of the filmed incarnations of the Caped Crusader, and particularly fond of Christopher Nolan’s contributions to the franchise. Nolan is a filmmaker I hold dear to my heart for a number of reasons. His breakout hit Memento opened up the narrative and mechanical possibilities of film and story-telling. At the time, there was nothing quite like it, and I went into the theater not knowing what to expect. Since then, his work has (usually) been stellar; massive but tightly wound machines of spectacle that engage the intellect as well as the senses. At his best, Nolan, makes movies that take my breath away, and make me marvel at the awesome power and majesty of motion pictures. At his worst, his movies are still generally OK, if a little boring.
As far as Nolan’s Batman goes, a recent rewatch of Batman Begins found me in a more appreciative place than I was upon its initial release. The dark and gritty (adjectives that have lately been thrown around with much eye-rolling, but are still appropriate descriptors) reboot accomplished something that its predecessors could not: a superhero film that weaved the impossible and fantastic world of comic books into the grim reality of post 9/11 America with frighteningly compelling results. At the time, however, I was a vaguely elitist college sophomore, and remember being begrudgingly supportive, but somewhat dismissive.
That being said, when The Dark Knight began to heat up in 2008, I wasn’t a disciple of Nolan’s Bat, but the closer it drew to July, the more intense my anticipation became. It dwindled with the announcement that Heath Ledger was playing The Joker (at the time Ledger was mostly notable for 10 Things I Hate About You and other light-hearted fare), and then surged back full force when I saw promotional stills and audio clips of the actor in full makeup. I snapped up a ticket for the earliest IMAX showing available, which meant I basically avoided all of my friends for three days after the premiere. I went to the theater, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.
To say I loved The Dark Knight would be an understatement. That film profoundly changed my fascination and understanding of the Batman mythos, Nolan, filmmaking, and expectations for screenwriting and set pieces. Even today, after I’ve had four years to back off my first impression, I still consider The Dark Knight to be the greatest comic book movie ever produced, and one of the greatest films, period, produced in the last ten years.
It’s with great sadness, then, that I have to raise bile in the throats of Batman/fanboys everywhere and say that I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises. Actually, once again, I’m falling victim to understatement: I hated The Dark Knight Rises. The more time I’ve spent away from it, the more filled with ire I become. I say this as somebody who desperately wanted Nolan to top himself, who desperately wanted the trilogy to go out with an awe-inducing, explosive final chapter. Sadly, in my humble opinion, The Dark Knight Rises fails as a standalone film, as the closing chapter of an otherwise great trilogy, and as a film worthy of either Batman or Christopher Nolan. Without further ado, let’s jump right in:
The Dark Knight Rises is 164 minutes long. To be fair, my beloved The Dark Knight clocked in at 152 minutes, but the viewing experiences are strikingly different. Despite its mammoth length, every scene in TDKR seems to move at breakneck speed, with characters spewing exposition. Parallel lines of action edited together with hyperkinetic energy, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion. The film is interminably long yet gratingly rushed. I get the impression that Nolan’s original cut was somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 hours long, and got cut down with slap-dash careless cutting. This is the only possible explanation for a film that feels tailor made for today’s attention-deficient teenagers being so damn long.
The story, as has probably been spread all over the Internet by now, is the main set piece here, but unlike TDK, TDKR’s script is a bloated mess, boiling over with half-baked, unfinished thematic proclamations, cheap, Shyamalan-esque twists and turns, and a steadfast unwillingness to take risks and make impacts. Once again, SPOILER ALERT. After the fim’s best sequence and introduction of Bane, we begin in Gotham, eight years after the events of TDK. The most corrupt city in the world has been blessedly crime-free thanks to a piece of (we later find out) rather Orwellian legislation called The Harvey Dent Act. The cleaner streets, coupled with the death of Dent and romantic interest Rachel Dawes has led Bruce Wayne to hang up his cowl and spend most of his days in a Howard Hughes like stupor, nursing an unidentified leg ailment. After a long and boring journey back to fighting weight, Batman tracks the catlike Selina Kyle (never referred to as Catwoman) to her employers, two vaguely evil businessmen who are purchasing Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, so they can pay Bane to break into the stock exchange and make fraudulent trades in Wayne’s name that bankrupt the company and allow them to seize control, effectively shutting off Batman’s golden faucet. This is where the story starts to get a little hazy, but if any of this is already confusing, don’t worry: none of it will matter in the third act anyway. In order to get Wayne Enterprises back on track, Wayne, Fox and the rest of the Wayne loyalists convince French billionaire Miranda Tate to purchase controlling interest so that she might help them get their secret project, a nuclear fusion reactor, online. She agrees, but it’s then revealed that Bane’s master plan is to steal the reactor, use their kidnapped Russian scientist to weaponize it, and then use his army of vaguely ethnic revolutionaries to seize control of Gotham and hold the city hostage with their newly acquired neutron bomb. His demands? None, he just wants to watch Gotham burn (sound familiar?). Oh, and before this happens he and Batman fight and he breaks Batman’s back, and then throws him into a prison halfway across the world.
Deep Breath So Batman watches on TV in his prison cell while Bane unleashes Blackgate Prisonand Arkham Asylum’s inmates and turns Gotham into his own lunatic-run police state (at this point, almost every police officer in Gotham except for Joseph Gordon Leavitt is trapped underground, in perhaps the most ludicrously bad decision ever committed by law enforcement in a non-comedy). In a weird, half-formed attack on the Occupy movement (I think? Everything is so murky at this point in the film), Bane sets up kangaroo courts and pillages the rich and powerful of Gotham, justifying his actions with a letter from Comissioner Gordon admitting that they covered up the true nature of Harvey Dent in order to pass that bill that magically stopped crime in the most heinous place in America. Every way in and out of Gotham has been destroyed, save for one bridge that is heavily guarded by Bane’s shock troops on one side, and the National Guard on the other. Still, Bruce Wayne, after recovering from A BROKEN SPINE manages to climb out of his prison, get across the globe with no money, transport, or ID, and waltzes into Gotham city because…he’s Batman, I guess (I lost count of how many times something utterly impossible is explained away with “I’m Batman” logic). With the help of Lucius Fox, Alfred, Selina, JGL, Gordon, and Miranda Tate, Batman devises a plan to hijack the bomb (which at this point is being shuttled around the city in one of three garbage trucks for undisclosed reasons) and shut it down. All goes according to plan but then it’s revealed that Miranda Tate is actually Talia Al Ghul, aka the daughter of Rha’s Al Ghul, and we find out that literally EVERYTHING THAT WE’VE BEEN TOLDA BOUT BANE is actually Talia’s back story and Bane is just some big dumb strong guy who helped her in prison. Both of them get bitchslapped, but now it’s too late for Fox to disarm the bomb, so Batman flies it out over the sea and courageously gives his life to save Gotham, except not really, because at the end we see that Bruce Wayne actually escaped the explosion somehow and now he’s living in Europe with Selina Kyle, who he is apparently in love with. THE END.
Yeah. So that’s the plot of TDKR. If that weren’t enough to turn you off of the movie, I’ll begin detailing all the other problems I have, starting with the biggest, both figuratively and literally: Bane.
Fair’s fair: Tom Hardy deserves credit for doing the very best he had with a terrible, terrible, terrible role. It’s truly a crime that a thespian with Hardy’s skills has been relegated to acting with only 1/4th of his face visible, and communicating to the audience only through a comically terrible ADR session. In some of the film’s better moments, Hardy perfectly captures the essence of the Bane character: someone who is entirely in control, and at ease with the unthinkable chaos unfurling before him. Hardy’s swagger and icy-cold calculating charm bring life to a character that, if handled by a lesser actor, would have fallen flat on its face.
That being said, Bane sucks. The worst sin of all is that all of the backstory given to Bane, which loosely follows bits and pieces of Bane’s original comic book origin, is rendered moot when it’s revealed that he’s nothing more than Talia al Ghul’s lapdog. Furthermore, the humdrum action and lackluster choreography do nothing to communicate just how awesomely powerful and badass Bane is supposed to be, even as set up by the grittier, more reality-bound world of the Nolan films. For someone who is supposed to be a physical specimen of unfathomable proportions, Bane’s fights are remarkably dull and unimpressive. It’s only in the third act, during the final fight between Bane and Batman, that we’re given some visual cues as to the sheer might of Bane, and treated to a few shots of him punching through columns of marble with relative ease. In TDK, the Joker is shown to be a master manipulator and a psychological terrorist, a skill set that is reinforced with almost every scene. The Joker is always in control. The Joker, while not without his minions, engages his enemies on a personal level, gets inside the heads of everyone he talks to, figures out their weaknesses and twists with sadistic glee. Bane just sort of wanders from scene to scene, punches a few people, and then has his army do the rest. He’s not a compelling character, he’s just a thug with an origin explained through a different character’s dialogue in a few slapdash scenes, and even this turns out to be false. Yawn. Oh, and that voice is terrible. Not only does he sound like some weird dying English dinosaur talking through a ceiling fan, it’s painfully obvious that Nolan decided to ADR all of his dialogue after the initial response to the teaser (people complained that Bane was nearly unintelligible, which I think could have been exploited in an interesting way).
Perhaps the biggest failing of TDKR, especially in relation to its predecessors, is how inorganically the script moves along. In a move worthy of freshman screenwriting students, the Nolans throw all logical character development and motivation out the window for the purposes of advancing the silly, nonsensical, and plodding plot. Selin Kyle’s entire back story boils down to “she’s poor”. The actions undertaken by Talia al Ghul, Bane, and the League of Shadows are puzzling at best, and nonsensical at worst. If the ultimate plan is to blow Gotham sky-high, why wait 5 months to set off the bomb? Pre-emptive rebuttal to the person reading this thinking: “THEY WANTED TO MAKE A STATEMENT”: the League of Shadows/the Al Ghul’s are not in the business of making statements. They’re all about restoring balance to the universe and inflicting justice on an unjust world. None of that involves making grand sweeping gestures to…who, exactly? Nobody knows who they are. That’s why they’re called THE LEAGUE OF SHADOWS. I didn’t realize secret clock and dagger organizations had newsletters. Sheesh. In similar fashion, the leaders of Gotham decide to send every single police officer into the sewers to track down Bane because…well, I’m not really sure. This is the single dumbest thing anybody has ever done in a Chris Nolan Batman movie. Almost as dumb as the CIA agent at the beginning of the film who lets some anonymous masked men on board his aircraft without even seeing who they are first.
The runner-up failure prize goes to action sequences and choreography. With the exception of the first scene, the big action set pieces are only mildly entertaining at best, and at worst confusing and headache-inducing. The hand-to-hand combat in Nolan’s Batman films has always been a little lackluster, but he’s had the good sense to hide a lot of it in the shadows/use it sparingly before. Not so in TDKR: Batman throws headbutts, elbow drops, and right crosses with reckless abandon, and every scene ends up looking like an old Bruce Lee film: lots of armed men standing around dumbfounded, holding their apparently useless guns as they wait in line to be punched in the face by Batman. Even worse is the final fight between the Gotham police and Bane’s Occupy Wall Street army, which begins as a Revolutionary War style charge in the middle of the streets and ends with everybody punching and strangling each other. I’m half-convinced this is supposed to be a throwback to the Adam West TV series. Gigantic multi-colored animations saying “Pow!” and “Zort!” wouldn’t have been out of place here.
There’s not much to say about TDKR. I find it truly baffling that there are people who claim it is even better than TDK, and even more baffling that some people admit all the faults but claim they enjoyed it regardless. My kneejerk reaction is to say many nerds were just too amped up about the release, and when the film disappointed they were unable to admit to themselves that they had worked themselves into a frenzy over nothing.
Needless to say, I didn’t like this movie, but it irks me on a level greater than a plain old bad movie. I’ve heard from more than one friend working in Hollywood that Nolan never wanted to do a third installment, and that TDKR was a favor he owed the studio after getting Inception greenlit. I can’t say how likely or unlikely that story is, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Everything about TDKR feels phony, mailed-in, lazy, and sloppy. It’s insultingly loose and limp considering the proven chops of Nolan, a man who, love him or hate him, has displayed a fanatic discipline to filmmaking in the past. I get the feeling that at this point, Nolan just didn’t care and wanted to move on. I’m not sure if I can really blame him, but one would think that the man would be a little more thoughtful when ending what was, by all rights, his baby. I guess that’s what happens when you get kicked around by the studio system, but unliked Batman, Nolan didn’t care which innocent viewer bystanders got caught in the crossfire.