Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

After the impressive Batman Begins and the stellar Dark Knight, the Nolan Batman franchise ends on a sour, bleating, almost brown note with The Dark Knight Rises—a textbook study, in my view, of the tendency for highly successful film franchises to eventually lead their auteurs into disaster, presumably because success breeds yes-men and auteurs need constructive criticism.

That's the most likely-seeming explanation I can think of for the surprising number of failures evident in TDKR, and while I could probably go on a marathon rant about each one of them, in the interests of page loading time I'll instead focus on the most significant.

(Note that I am not a comic-book nerd, so my sense of what Batman "should be" plays little part in what follows. At one time I was kind of a film-and-TV-Batman nerd, but not enough that I would have avoided rejection by the REAL Batman nerds.)

Point #1: The Clunky Story

    My only significant criticism of this film's predecessor, the Joker-driven Dark Knight, is that Harvey Dent probably just shouldn't have been in it. It was great makeup and a fine performance by Aaron Eckhart, but his story arc contributed to the rushed feeling of the latter part of TDK and resulted in the script beginning to undertake the kind of convoluted gymnastics that TDKR is, well, fraught with.

    And Dent is part of the reason for that very fraughtiness, but only a part. It's almost as if Nolan and fellow screenwriter David S. Goyer (Dark City) started out thinking "Let's make a Bane movie" and then the studio told them "You also have to strongly connect everything Bane does to the events of the previous two movies." And THEN the studio goes, "Oh yeah, and Catwoman has to be in it." And then Nolan and Goyer are just about to unplug the phone when: "Also Robin." The sense I get is that Nolan and Goyer felt as frustrated trying to pull this off as I felt in the theater.

    One of the casualties of the overstuffed and overentangled plot is plausibility. Part of Dark Knight's power was that it stayed closer to the realm of the real than did even Batman Begins, but TDKR gets too fantastical, and I'm not just referring to the mushroom cloud bit. (Nor Blake's ability to just GUESS that Bruce is Batman.) (Nor even Alfred suddenly quitting for the sake of a cheap emotional beat.)

    No, I'm referring to that throwaway scene that feebly tries to explain away the notion that the U.S. government would just allow Bane to rule Gotham for weeks or months or whatever. (And let's not forget the fact that this story takes place in the DC universe. Surely there's some invisible assassin hero/villain/antihero they could call upon to take out Bane while Batman's off in Whereverstan. And then they could call it "Operation Bane-Bane.")

Point #2: The Awkward Attempts at Sociopolitical Commentary

    The undercurrent of class warfare must have been deliberate here. What then are we to make of the fact that Selina subordinates herself to Bruce almost immediately? And politics aside, this makes Catwoman a hanger-on and drains her of her intrigue. You can almost forget Catwoman is even a participant in all this. That one suit-wearing guy on the boat from TDK is more memorable than Catwoman is here.

    Likewise, that all of Bane's anarchistic posturing is a ploy, and his real plot involves the nuclear annihilation of Gotham, not only makes his earlier symbolism feel tacked-on but, more damagingly, makes his entire characterization weaker once you stop to think about it for a moment…to say nothing of the revelation that he answers entirely to Talia.

    In both cases, the uniqueness and power of these villains was sacrificed, apparently so that the over-elaborate structure of the story, and its simultaneous desire to have "something to say," wouldn't totally implode. Well, I guess something had to give.

Point #3: Not Enough Batman Doing Batman Stuff

    We don't call the franchise "Batman & Friends." (We didn't even call the Adam West stuff "Batman & Friends.") Maybe if, in the weeks prior to TDKR's release, they'd announced a follow-up film series with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead, it might not have felt so strange that TDKR seems to spend almost as much time with JGL as Bale.

    And speaking of Bale: another obviously-intentional thematic element here was "Bruce/Batman overcoming his own limitations." I kind of felt like we covered that in the first movie. And while I seem to recall reading somewhere that the Bane-breaking-Batman's-back thing is from a comic book, its inclusion here doesn't work. And not just because those prison scenes go on forever and we totally know how they'll resolve so just RESOLVE IT already. More critically, it feels too strongly like the writers wanted to get Batman out of Gotham so they could show some cool Bane-regime stuff and allow the situation to get more dire. They could have broken Batman's back (which, yes, is dramatic and all) in some other way; fanservice would still be achieved, but at less cost to the story's already strained momentum.

Point #4: Bane's Speech Really Is Pretty Difficult to Understand

    A secondary point, but a significant one, since we're supposed to accept him as our primary antagonist (even though he's really not, but see point #1). Entire lines of dialogue, conveyed with obvious import, are muffled to the point of incomprehensibility. Of course, since it turns out that most of what he says doesn't even matter, well, I guess never mind then.

There's a lot to like in TDKR—the return of Dr. Crane, a quite cool highway chase sequence, and the truly thrilling Bane plane scene. I also can't fault any of the performances. Though Tom Hardy is wasted here, and does occasionally veer into unintentional comedy, it's the fault of the mask, and not much could be done about that.

But the plot is a mishmash, the concept tortured, the pacing alternately rushed and laborious, and the result? The only Nolan Batman film that feels alarmingly like a pre-Nolan Batman film, despite its dour veneer. Mrs. Fraught has only walked out of the movie theater twice in her life: the first time was Doom (for which I take full blame, and I walked out with her), and the second was this one. I actually stayed in the theater after she left, but kind of wish I hadn't.

As of this writing, I haven't yet decided whether to see Man of Steel in the theater; part of my inspiration for writing this may have been to work out my feelings on heavy, somber superhero films. I really did like The Dark Knight quite a bit…but how much of that is owed to Heath Ledger? And though I used to consider myself a Nolan fan, how much of my affection for TDK—and maybe also Begins—might be in spite of the Nolan-ness, rather than because of it?

Star Score: 2 out of 5

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