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28 July 2012 @ 11:05 pm
Why Do We Fail, Master Bruce? The Captivating Suckage of The Dark Knight Rises  
Are you ready for one of my longest reviews ever?

Did you hear about this movie The Dark Knight Rises? Of course you did! Personally, I think that we should all agree to call it Batman Rises, because that was Christopher Nolan's title for the thing. But Warner Bros. demanded that the movie have “Dark Knight” in the title, and even though Nolan always felt that “Dark Knight” was a title that referred to both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, he acquiesced to their assertions and... okay, let's move on.

If you’re somehow unaware, Batman Rises is the last in a retroactive trilogy of Batman films. Chris Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and his cohort David Goyer never set out for the first two movies to be part of a planned trilogy, but when they got to the third entry, they opted to try to put a bow on the whole thing, so here we are today, talking about a three-hour epic theoretically starring Batman in his “last” adventure.

My</b> Batman." I'm talking about every incarnation of Batman ever. Perhaps most importantly, I'm even talking about this version doing something that betrays the established character from the first two movies in the very same season.

Even so, saying someone "got Batman wrong" is... kind of a loaded statement, and it presumes one’s previous familiarity with the character’s major traits. If you already know and love these characters, I’m right there with you, and no doubt you understand what a combination blessing/curse that kind of involvement in a fictional universe can be. It’s wonderful to do a deep dive into a fictional world, but when someone translates that world into another medium, those have gone deep into that world can’t help but notice all the changes. And they can’t help but want to see the same characters they already love, albeit in a new medium. That doesn’t mean that fans of Batman want the same stories over and over. People like me… we’re simply not all that excited to see a character named “Batman” who doesn’t behave like any Batman we’ve ever known before. A given film director may have his own vision for the character, but if his Batman is murderous or lazy or morbidly obese, to cite a few examples, a lot of established fans will be less than pleased.

On the other hand, I think there’s a tendency to label “fans” as being overly strident and resistant to change. I’m not saying that Batman fans, or fans of any fictional universe in general, are opposed to different interpretations or automatically hate all deviations from the source. Remember when they added that whole bit where Joe Chill actually gets caught in Batman Begins, and then Bruce picks up a pistol and wants to avenge his parents with a gun before realizing how that ties him to the nature of his parents’ deaths, etc.? The fans largely embraced that little change because it perfectly fit in with what we already knew about Bruce/Batman while adding a logical beat to the origin. Indeed, Batfans can even love a lighter interpretation of the character if it still feels right on the whole — take a look at how well-received “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” was.

All I’m saying is that there are some things that established Batman fans might be stringent about. Even so, being a good Batman movie for fans of the character and being a good movie as a whole aren’t necessarily the same thing, right? You can do a completely original interpretation and wind up with something still worthwhile as a story on its own merits. Again… in theory.

With all of the above blather in mind, let’s deal with how this movie blows it as a Batman film before we start talking about how it fails as a standalone narrative, because I think we can reasonably separate the two out.

As a Batman Film: The Fan’s Perspective

At least the flick has the decency to get its biggest failure out of the gate up front. The movie opens with us learning that Batman has done the exact opposite of “rising” over the past eight years. Yes, eight goddamn years have passed between the second and third films, and it seems Batman quit entirely right after the last scene of The Dark Knight. He didn't just quit being Batman, either (although that’d be bullshit enough). He pretty much quit everything possible. He quit being Batman, he quit checking on his company, he quit giving two damns about anything in Gotham (including whether or not his charitable foundation was even functioning properly), and he quit leaving the goddamn house. Hell, he quit leaving ONE WING of his house. The only thing he didn't quit doing is eating and sleeping for eight ridiculous years.

Let’s talk about Batman as a character in the comics. Some people feel that Batman is best defined as a detective, and that those who lose sight of that don't understand the character. These are the people who were particularly disappointed by the Burton/Schumacher films; even the ‘60s TV series had more detective work. Although I get where those fans are coming from, to me, Batman’s never-ending one-man war is the core of the character. Rachel Dawes gets it absolutely right in Batman Begins when she says that Batman is now the real person and Bruce Wayne is the mask. She gets it totally right again in The Dark Knight when she says that, because of that fact, Bruce can never really live without Batman. He’ll never stop fighting, even if the fight is seemingly “won,” because — as once stated in an episode of “Justice League” — his quest isn’t about just cleaning up one city or stopping a particular kind of criminal. It’s about making sure that no child should ever again have to live in fear or experience tragedy as he did in his youth. There have been many, many stories about Alfred getting frustrated that Bruce won’t even leave the Batcave while some information is collating, or won’t come home some nights because he’s doing a stakeout on a rooftop. He never, ever quits. And he can’t. I’ve often cited the issue of Superman/Batman in which the characters discuss how Clark is an architect, a world-builder with an eye affixed towards a brighter future, whereas Batman is a fireman, just running from one problem to the next with no end in sight.

Then this movie opens up with the announcement that Batman quit eight years ago and has been a useless sack of shit ever since, because… why? Because the city is mostly clean now? We’ve already covered why that’s a bullshit reason. Because his would-be girlfriend died? Again, bullshit — Bruce has lost tons of girls in tons over many different interpretations of the character. And when they do whatever the hell they do to end the romance — abandon him because the truth is too difficult or turn out to be evil or tragically decide they can’t be together or whatever — he doesn’t mope in his house for one year, let alone eight. He just gets colder, less trusting, and sometimes even angrier than he already was. Besides, since when was Rachel his primary reason for being freaking Batman?

Don’t try to argue that this Batman is so different from the comic-book hero. How incredibly driven did he need to be to travel the world with nothing, to train for almost a decade to fight injustice?

So Batman quitting and moping for eight years is pretty much the worst thing since Batman was killing people back in those Tim Burton movies. And quite frankly, you could argue that, based on his first couple of awkward appearances in Detective Comics, Batman as a murderer might actually have more of a comic book precedent than this does! Batman may accept someone else taking up the mantle of the Bat, sure. He may even sometimes entertain the idea of what good he can do as Bruce Wayne, because he’s dedicated to the cause. But he doesn’t quit and rot for the better part of a decade like some emo Howard Hughes. That’s pretty unforgivable, and it’s completely out of step with the character in any other media, including his comic source material. Perhaps most importantly, it’s out of step with THIS VERSION of the character: The man who ran off into the night, abandoning his fortune and everything (as well as everyone he knew — so yeah, it's not like Rachel was always The Dream "One") for 10 years, so that he could put himself into the toughest situations he’d ever faced just to become an instrument of justice. That’s a man who’s unbelievably driven. Iron Man can be a quitter. Captain American can be a quitter. But Batman is never a quitter— in fact, he’s so obsessively dedicated that he tends to stay in the costume too long after he’s lost his athletic edge.


"I trained my mind and body for years to become the absolute best at self-pity."


This is certainly a weak start, but it really only occupies the first 40/45 minutes or so. Given that we have a movie on our hands that lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes, that’s not even one-third of the flick. Hopefully, then, there’s plenty of time to correct… right?

Perhaps the whole eight-year-rot thing is an attempt by the filmmakers to “surprise” us by doing the unexpected. Nolan seems to be putting a ton of effort into leaving us “surprised,” and every time he does this, it’s to the detriment of the primary narrative or the detriment of the fanservice he seems to think he’s providing.

There are two supposed “twists” near the film’s end, and neither one is remotely good. Let’s get the less-egregious “twist” out of the way first, though. I’m referring to the fact that Talia is behind the entire plot. A much more evil Talia is at work here than perhaps the Batman fans at home are used to, but that’s not to say that Talia hasn’t had her darker, more sinister periods. It evens feels like a moment that fans are supposed to enjoy. I think there’s a brief thrill to be gotten from learning that Talia is on the screen… in some capacity.

It would be more acceptable for this twist to occur, however, if she ever felt like her character had a place in the movie. This is a character who’s barely present in the story (and all the more conspicuous/suspicious to the average viewer for her overall lack of involvement, I’d argue). I honestly think the movie might’ve benefited from dropping Catwoman entirely and just focusing on the relationship between Bruce and “Miranda Tate.” Maybe then it wouldn’t feel like such a grand betrayal of the narrative to suddenly say “Remember that character you got all that backstory on and have gotten to know as your primary villain throughout this film? Well, that was all bullshit.”

Ultimately, the Talia twist is a mistake, and the main reason for that is because it retroactively damages all the time we spent with Bane by making him go from “intelligent, well-spoken plotting beast” to “glorified flunky.” We spent most of the movie getting to know what an intelligent threat he is, and now that’s been thrown under the bus.

Most of all, it’s his impressive origin that really gets crushed beneath the bus’ wheels. This is where Talia manages to both damage the movie’s storytelling while simultaneously failing as a bit of fanservice. The screenwriters took years of Bane’s origin story and neatly compressed it, piling the “monster born into hell” story on top of the “thrown down a pit-prison from which no man ever escaped, he climbed back out” story and the “taken under Ra’s al Ghul’s wing as his heir apparent” story and summarizing it for the sake of a film in a rather clever way. It just made Bane seem all the more threatening and impressive to hear of his birth and his escape.

Then they turn around and say “No, that was bullshit. Talia did all that.”

Talia. Who never even gets a fight scene to prove that she’s supposed that tough! Who we never really get a chance to know! In all of their hurry to climb inside a giant cake just so they could jump out and yell “surprise!,” the filmmakers crushed all of the meticulously decorated icing on the thing.

And you know, it made some sense for a man that we’re told was always overly brutal and monstrous in the eyes of Ra’s al Ghul to want to destroy Gotham years after it was no longer a den of sin anyway. For Talia to want to destroy Gotham in order to complete her father’s wishes just makes her seem like a moron. As he was portrayed in this franchise, Ra’s al Ghul wouldn’t have wanted to destroy Gotham anymore anyway; the cesspit of sin and despair was eradicated by Batman and Harvey Dent (at least for all Bane/Talia knew at the time). Yet Talia takes up the cause of doing something her father wouldn’t have ever done in order to… honor him, in some really stupid way. It just doesn’t make sense, unless you’re going to claim that Talia somehow knew the truth about Dent and the “Dent Act” all along. And there’s no evidence for that.

Oh, we’ll get back to the “Dent Act,” but we have to close out with the stupidest attempt at fanservice in the whole film. In his final “twist,” Nolan treats the moment when John Blake’s real name is revealed to be “Robin” as some sort of great “gotcha!” moment. But my god, what the hell did he get us on? Yes, Chris – you surprised us by making a totally original character have the legal name of “Robin,” a name that means absolutely nothing because A) none of Batman’s sidekicks in any version of the DC Universe have ever been ex-cops, let alone named “John Blake,” B) this guy bears no resemblance to any Robin character or even the base concept of “Robin” as we know it, and C) Blake is never, ever going to become “Robin” anyway; he’s going to become the next Batman. That’s made clear at the film’s end. Yes, you surprised us by jumping out and saying “Robin!” but you could have easily just had someone say “Penguin!” It would’ve had every bit as much meaning for the fans of the character and/or the viewers of the film, which is to say “none at all.”


NO.


This isn’t even the biggest problem with the character of Blake. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great in this thankless role, which is good, because he’s actually the hero of the entire story. He’s the proactive character who takes charge and handles just about everything. In comparison, Batman seems downright reactive; it’s Blake who does the heavy heroic lifting in this thing. Perhaps he’s the new “Dark Knight” of the title, but since he’s not really “Dark” at all, that doesn’t seem to fit. I do think however, that as far as Nolan’s ORIGINAL title, it’s clear that this is a story about Batman’s value as a symbol rising and, ultimately, the NEW Batman rising… not about Bruce Wayne’s personal rise. Did anyone show up to see this, though? Some assclown who Nolan made up taking over as an iconic character? I especially love (i.e., hate) how this rookie cop has known who Batman really is since his childhood, and he didn’t even have to perform any detective work to do it. Which feels EXACTLY like a fanfic where a new ensign on the Enterprise proves that he’s even better than Kirk and Spock combined by saving the entire ship while the rest of the crew flails and screams.

I also love how Blake immediately figures out that, since Bruce’s fake smile means he’s clearly been in pain his whole life from losing his parents just like Blake himself has been, that must also mean that Bruce is Batman. Damn. This guy is good. Like, “better than Batman at detective work” level-good.

In short, Blake, as he’s written, is one of those decisions that feels like it’s one-third Mary-Sue-style “My new guy is gonna be the bestest, noblest character there is,” one-third “I want to make a statement on how Batman can be ANYONE, as my characters keep saying” and one-third “I really want to invent a new character that will make a mark on this property” … but the character invented isn’t unique enough to realistically have that kind of staying power. Of course, sometimes mass-market recognizability trumps originality or creativity, so who knows? Maybe John Blake will become a player in the comics one day.

Allow me to offer an alternative to Blake, though. It’s one that would solve another minor problem in this film: The disappearance of Jim Gordon’s family. Early on, we are given the information that Jim Gordon’s family has left him. This is provided to us for no reason. Perhaps they just wanted to make all of the characters look as pathetic as Bruce. Perhaps they wanted to ensure that he has no emotional stake in the takeover of Gotham, because they hate the idea of personal drama. Perhaps they wanted to be true to the comics, where Gordon’s family DID drift apart… although that was really just done in the service of A) making him a single father with Barbara and B) getting him back together with old love interest Sarah Essen. With neither of those factors in play here, the decision to dump his family does nothing but hurt the dramatic weight surrounding the character's various risks and ultimate fate.

But what if, instead of some character we’ve never heard of, our heroic, idealistic young cop was young Barbara Gordon? I can see multiple ways that this would be more satisfying to both Batfans AND uninitiated moviegoers. See, in the comics,Barbara did toy with getting into the police force and even worked as the station in a support capacity for a while. She’s exceedingly intelligent. Here in the films, we’ve jumped ahead 8 years, and the last time we saw the top of little Barbara’s head in The Dark Knight, she could’ve been anywhere from 9 to 13 years old. Maybe she should be a young rookie cop who used her intelligence to hit the street early. It makes the fact that she becomes Batman’s heir apparent much more satisfying and dramatic, it gives us a reason to care that Gordon’s family is gone (because she’d be all the family he has left, increasing her value in the narrative), and it greatly increases the personal stakes for him. A tough young Barbara who is implied to rise as the new Batgirl (Batwoman?) to take the place of the Batman… that’s something that would’ve been worth all this crap. Especially if nobody ever called her “Robin” nonsensically. Plus it would’ve driven home the “ANYONE could be Batman” notion even harder than making the new adopter of the mantle be another athletic 30something white orphan dude with dark hair.


Oh, if only...


I don’t want to get too far off-point here with personal theoretical, however. If I do, I’ll be writing just as much fanfic as the Nolans were (ZING). Let’s get back to Not-Robin Rises.

How about Alfred? Michael Caine gives an emotionally devastating performance, but that doesn’t meant his actions make a ton of sense for the character or for the plot. Yet he’s one small reason why this movie is so incredibly watchable in spite of numerous flaws. His scenes are some of the most powerful and affecting in the film. Now, do we really believe that Alfred would just walk out on Bruce like that? Even if Bruce said “goodbye” to him, I don’t think it’d happen. Hell, even Bruce didn’t think it’d really happen! I mean, damn, Alfred didn’t even stay mad at him after he did everything he could to wreck the Wayne family rep in Batman Begins. Of course, if Alfred REALLY loved Bruce, maybe he shouldn’t have waited eight freakin’ years to try to shake him out of his miserable stupor. But more on that later.

Among the newbs, Anne Hathaway is a standout. She owns every scene she’s in. She embodies Selina Kyle in a way no one ever has on film. Her costume is pretty goofy, and Nolan is apparently afraid of actually calling her “Catwoman” (this case of acute nomenclaturephobia is usually most pronounced in Marvel movies, not DC properties).She’s a breath of fresh air whenever she’s around, giving the film a much-needed sense of FUN. The only problem with her is that she doesn’t really have any reason to be here. But we’ll get to that later, too.

Up until the ultimate reveal of the “true mastermind,” Bane is handled pretty wonderfully. He easily stands up to the test of rivaling the previous four bad guys in this now-it’s-a-trilogy. Sure, he’s not South American in any way, and the voice that Tom Hardy affects is… odd, but the character is pretty much on-point. His relationship with the League of Shadows was never all that important in the comics, but it makes sense to turn that into a central factor here.

The important thing is that Bane is portrayed as a physical powerhouse, an intelligent plotter, and a wise speaker while simultaneously being capable of incredible brutality. He will snap the neck of those who annoy him, and he demands intense loyalty from those who follow him. He is a hellish creature whose cynical, cold outlook on the value of humanity is informed by the circumstances into which he was born and raised (or so we think… for most of the movie). That’s Bane, and they get all of that stuff right. I really loved Hardy’s performance. I’d watch this dude play any character he wants, really.


Seriously, Hardy looks like he ATE his 2002 self.


Then, of course, they ruin his origin at the end, but there’s something else to consider that they wreck: The mask.

I’m not claiming that the new mask is bad at all; in fact, it looks very cool and lets us get a lot of emotion off of Hardy’s face. And yet… why did Nolan change the mask’s purpose? Usually, he changes things to try and make them “more realistic.” In this case, he went LESS realistic. In the comics, a tube runs from the mask to Bane’s wrist. Bane can turn a knob on the wrist device to pump a thin amount of liquid into his spine via the mask. The liquid is a narcotic steroid that enhances his strength a bit while also dulling the pain he feels.

So in this movie, Instead of the mask serving as a delivery system for steroids, Bane’s mask is used to dull his pain. How? Well, it’s not attached to anything. We get to see it from all possible sides, so it’s positive that it delivers nothing to Bane. There’s no gas running into it, no liquids, no tubes. We’re told that the mask dulls the pain from an injury he sustained protecting Talia in the prison. We see that it contains some weird metal-like teeth/springs over his mouth that, when they’re broken… somehow cause him to feel pain again. Based on the obvious visual evidence, the mask seems to clearly operate on magic.

Oh, you feel that I’m overthinking this? Dude; we’re talking about Christopher Nolan’s dedication to “realism” in a world where a guy dresses up as a giant bat and beats up clowns. Chris is the man who thought it was too unrealistic for Joker to have his skin bleached by chemicals, because that’s just impossible. I’ll call bullshit on him making a character LESS plausible and LESS realistic in comparison to the comic-book counterparts as much and as often as I want.

Whether we should even accept his claims of “realism” are another matter. In fact, let’s go even farther down the rabbit hole of realism right now.

Pushing Aside Preconceived Notions: The Film on Its Own

It’s hard to detach myself from my history with these characters; it was my considerable level of personal Batman experience that left me let down with how a couple of characters were portrayed in The Dark Knight. Sometimes, knowing too much can remove a bit of joy. But I’m going to try my best to step back and look at the problems this movie contains without dealing with its comic-book origins.

Let’s start with the realism factor. For a guy who is really obsessed with making his superhero movies “realistic” (go ahead and chuckle; it’s a natural response), he sure does abandon that notion halfway into this flick. Maybe even earlier, really. I’m not talking about the damn-near-invalid Bruce Wayne going out once more as

Batman without so much as some jumping jacks to get him going; I’ll buy that just because we’re watching an action movie with a costumed hero, and this is the kind of stuff you should really expect regardless of the overall “realistic” tone.

Even so, when you know that “realism” is at the core of the filmmaking impetus, it becomes tougher to believe that a mask with no attachments or medications can somehow remove a man’s endless pain. It also becomes hard to believe that pouring a couple of pints of blood from Dude #1’s body into Dude #2’s corpse would make the DNA evidence suddenly show that Dude #2 is, in fact, Dude #1. It becomes hard to believe that the public (and Bruce Wayne’s own board members) would accept, without question, stock trades performed by “Bruce Wayne” at a stock exchange during a time when that exchange location was very publically in the midst of a major hostage situation. And most importantly, it becomes pretty tough to believe that no major military action would be taken by the U.S. government when an entire urban center is held hostage for five goddamn months. Sneaking in a couple of special forces dudes who promptly get killed is a pretty weak excuse for what would logically go down here. This, much like the opening of the film, is another instance where the extended off-screen timeframe — five freaking months! — hurts the plausibility of the narrative as a whole.

On the flip side, let’s face the unintentional hilarity of a “realistic superhero movie” down for a moment. Plausibility and realism is never a major factor of a superhero story, and I think we should all accept that up-front. There’s nothing realistic about a guy in a Bat costume who fights against the army of secret ninjas that trained him, and that’s fine. If Nolan isn’t being as “realistic” as he used to be, maybe we should really just embrace the notion that he was never that “realistic” to begin with. By doing so, we could remove a lot of the implausibility I denoted in the above examples.

But even in the most ridiculous universe there is, I can’t imagine America or any other militarized nation standing aside for five goddamn months while a city is held hostage. Bomb or no bomb, there’d be a bare minimum of five large-scale tactical strikes in that time, and that’s probably erring on the low side.

There are really two major ways in which this movie fails on its own terms. One of them is about this plot functioning on its own, and the other one is about this functioning as a sequel to the previous film.

We’ve already covered why I find the siege of Gotham a bit hard to swallow, and that extends much farther once you start trying to buy into the notion of “cops have been trapped underground in the same clothes for five months but are ready to go to war immediately.” Uh, where have they been sleeping? Did they really stay in those same clothes for five months? They’re all clean-shaven and battle-ready? Where are the bathrooms? Wouldn’t they look like absolute hell by now? No, they just look a wee bit musty. Yeah. “Realism!”

But there’s a much bigger problem with it, and it’s the first of my two major problems with the film on its own merits. It’s all about introducing ideas that are never followed up on. See, early in the film, we start to get some lip service from Selina Kyle about the notion of the haves vs. the have-nots. Then Bane marches in, and gives his speech to the people of the football stadium, calling for them to “TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR CITY!” Then he gives another speech in front of Blackgate prison, this time about Harvey Dent’s true nature, revealing the ending of The Dark Knight to the public before declaring all the people imprisoned under Dent’s name to be victims of a false idol. There’s a lot of talking about or to the citizens of Gotham in this thing.
So why don’t we ever get any clue what those citizens themselves think?

Doesn’t it seem strange to raise the spectre of “the poor are suffering and resent the rich” without ever showing anyone who feels that way other than Selina and her sidekick? Doesn’t it seem really bizarre to always have Bane speaking out to the people, but you never show anyone reacting to his speeches – either embracing his ideas or rejecting him as a monster – aside from the violent prisoners of Blackgate?

Remember how integral the “regular citizens” were to the plots of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight? Particularly in the second film, Gotham was a city populated by a hell of a lot more people than just cops, criminals and plot devices. The normal folk of Gotham were integral to that movie. And they should’ve been integral here.

Even when we get those crazy “trial” scenes with Crane manning the podium (wait… who, in this entire city, would EVER have put Crane in charge of this? Surely there are no prisoners who LIKE this guy that used to experiment on, uh, other prisoners. What the hell?), all of the people surrounding the room and yelling at the accused are… the exact same people who were in the sewer at the start of the movie and at the front of the line that marched out of Blackgate. The only people we ever see embracing Bane’s crazy new world are the same damn group of prisoners and League-of-Shadows thugs! In particular, there seems to be about seven Blackgate prisoners who keep showing up. In the final battle, who’s defending Bane? The same loyal flunkies we saw in the sewers at the film’s start, and the same seven or so prisoners who headed up that line out of Blackgate. That’s how it always is.

Where are the regular people? Are the regular folk all hiding like Matthew Modine and the Wayne Enterprises board members? If you keep talking about the idea of the“people taking back” the city, it’s pretty stupid to narrow the entire down to “Bane and his criminals, trapped cops, a few hiding rich guys, a handful of orphans, and, uh, Selina and Holly.”

And in all honesty… every single cop was in the sewers except three?!

It’s a huge mistake to introduce big ideas and then never bother to explore them. I’m not saying that Christopher Nolan needed to take a stand on whether he has more sympathy for the rich or the poor. Hell, he could’ve even avoided that issue entirely by emphasizing how fictional his scenario is. In the end, I’m just saying that it seems like a portrayal of a divided populace… or a populace in hiding… or a populace with an opinion… or really, ANY NORMAL PEOPLE IN ALL OF GOTHAM DOING ANYTHING AT ALL would’ve been nice. I guess perhaps the orphans are supposed to be our window into normalcy, but they don’t even seem terribly inconvenienced by the siege whenever Blake goes to visit them, and… they’re kids. They aren’t very likely to take up arms for or against any given uprising. They’re busy on the swingset.

Man, can you imagine if, in Prometheus, Ridley Scott had made a couple of scenes where the characters mentioned “We might find the creators of humanity!”… and then the movie dropped that plotline to focus on some random alien monsters attacking the team’s spaceship mid-flight, and they never got to the planet with the Engineers? That’s basically what Nolan did here. He centered a huge chunk of his plot upon the notion of rallying the so-called “regular people” into some kind of uprising. And then we never find out if there is an uprising of the people, or if there isn’t, or there’s a division amongst the people, or… anything, actually. The “regular people” of Gotham are MIA, aside from a bunch of helpless kids who aren’t very likely to care.

It’s just so odd and disappointing that so much of the movie’s dialogue is centered on this idea of the rise of the downtrodden, but the only downtrodden we’re ever shown responding to the call (either positively or negatively) are violent psychopaths who escape from prison. It’s even odder and more frustrating when the dialogue is framed around something that sounds so political and potentially incendiary, which is how Selina’s dialogue often comes off. It seems to be echoing ongoing arguments that have rattled through Washington for the past few years about whether we should demand most of our taxes from the wealthy or from the lower class, the recent illustration of how 99% of the nation’s wealth is controlled by 1% of the population… but it’s just empty words. He makes momentary references to contemporary topics, and then doesn’t explore them at all.

When you bring up high-minded concepts, you really shouldn’t just mention a concept and then hide under a rock without going any further. If you shout “Euthanasia!” or something potentially complex/incendiary, the natural response from the audience is to say “Yeah? What about it?” You need to try to do SOMETHING there. I can’t even call this a cop-out, because Nolan doesn’t even take any time to actively cop out.
Sigh.

So what’s the other major problem with this film? A little something called “The Fallacy of the Sequel.”

Frequenters of books and some websites that analyze films may have heard this term before. It’s a label that’s been given to any sequel film which retroactively erases the happy ending of the previous movie. It’s a common trope because it pushes characters back from a place of comfort and gives them new obstacles to overcome in the sequel film. It’s a “fallacy” because it actually damages the previous movie’s conclusion in retrospect. Examples commonly cited include Alien 3 (that family unit of heroes that safely escaped? Died in a fire almost immediately), Ghostbusters 2 (after being celebrated as heroes? The city immediately turned on the Ghostbusters and destroyed their livelihood),and Rocky V (when he overcame a nigh-inhuman opponent and inspired the Russian people? Rocky also got permanent brain damage that will cripple him for life.)

You can add Batman Rises to that list.

At the end of The Dark Knight, even after the people of Gotham stand up and refuse to be driven to murder by the Joker’s boat-bombing plan, Jim Gordon still comes to the realization that the Joker ultimately won. He took one of the best of Gotham’s citizens and proved that he could corrupt him. He drove Harvey Dent mad. But Batman saves Harvey reputation, and thus ensures the city’s continuing hope for the future, by taking the blame for Harvey’s crimes. He commits Noble Sacrifice in a way we don’t typically see on film: not with an actual death, but with the tarnishing of his own image.

It’s not exactly the standard “happy ending,” given that our hero is declared guilty of crimes he never committed. But he does it by choice, to keep hope alive in Gotham — the hope that people like Joker are wrong about humanity. It’s an unusual way to achieve “victory.” It’s a moral and mental victory that comes not from punching something really hard, but from calculated dishonesty. How often do you see that?

It was inevitable that any sequel would involve someone “outing” this big secret. I knew that had to come. But I sure didn’t expect that we’d be told that Batman’s choice, his final victory over Joker, was actually a huge mistake.

John Blake — whom, as I’ve already established, is really our active protagonist —lambasts Jim Gordon when he learns the truth about Harvey’s transformation into Two-Face. He tells him how dirty his hands are, and how we now have laws that take away civil liberties that are built upon a lie.
We’re obviously meant to sympathize with Blake in this scene… hell, even the musical score sympathizes with his angry little speech. But he’s talking about the core victory at the climax of the last film, and he’s telling us it was horrible. He’s telling us that inspiring people around that fallen figure was a horrible thing to do, and even worse, it’s robbed people of their freedoms. On top of that, Gordon has been wracked with guilt and angst over the decision to go with Batman’s plan. Hell, they even seem to imply that this is the reason he was abandoned by his family.

And if you want to make it worse yet, consider this: Batman’s apparently okay with the whole loss-of liberty thing! Hmm… not very Batmanlike of him to stand idly by while people are persecuted unjustly.

And also, isn’t it weird that, once again, we don’t see any of Gotham’s citizens react to the truth? Given how important this lie was to retaining Gotham’s hope for the future, shouldn’t we have seen some of the normal people in the city react to the announcement that Harvey Dent turned into a psychopath? Yet no one reacts but the criminals and John Blake. A grand failure of storytelling, to be certain.

So yeah, the victory of overcoming the Joker’s machinations to turn our brightest stars into our darkest psychos was apparently, in truth, a bad idea. We should’ve let the Joker demoralize the city and crush the hopes of everyone, because at least it would’ve been honest, I guess.

Then again…

In the film’s final scenes, Blake suddenly seems to sympathize with Gordon’s decision, agreeing that our structures did become shackles. But by then, it seems a little late to reverse course on the damage done to the previous film’s “victory.”

Even if Batman’s decision was wise and heroic at the time of The Dark Knight’s final scenes, I guess it became a really bad deal later on. And since Bruce was rotting in Wayne Manor like a punk bitch, it’s not like he was going to do anything about the Draconian measures being enacted. He was too busy listening to emo rock in his study or something.

Speaking of pathetic fails, let’s wrap up the list of complaints by talking about individual character failures that litter the movie’s duration.

After being informed by Ra’ s in the first movie that the League of Shadows was responsible for sacking Rome and burning London over the course of history, Bruce declares confidently to Alfred that the League of Shadows was defined entirely by Ra’s al Ghul and can’t exist without him. MASTER DETECTIVE!

In a world where Jim Gordon has turned a detailed search-and-investigation of DNA evidence around in less than 36 hours (see: The Dark Knight), Selina Kyle frequently robs people in an attention grabbing outfit that leaves her hair hanging all over the place. EXPERT THIEF!

Lucius Fox, who once made a common cell phone work as a sonar device that can map out any area, can’t figure out a way to send any information to the outside world during five months of being holed up in Wayne Tower. TECH GENIUS!

Alfred, who repeatedly told Bruce that he’d never give up on him back in the first movie… totally gives up on him. But not until after he finally spills the truth about the thing that’s been making Bruce miserable for eight years, because apparently they never had a conversation about this. For eight years. While Alfred was enabling his hermit lifestyle. FOR EIGHT YEARS. Jesus Christ, Alfred. And people say that Harry Osborn had a lousy-ass butler in Spider-Man 3. LOYAL SERVANT!


"Why do we fall, Master Bruce?"

"Probably because you don't tell me shit, Alfred."


Matthew Modine’s idea of executing a search pattern is to send every single cop into the city’s sewers. Because if you just clog an area with enough dudes, one of them is probably going to trip over something useful. FUTURE POLICE COMMISSIONER!

All right, all right… maybe I’ll ease down a bit.

A Splendid Little Clusterfuck

It’s a testament to what an interesting failure this movie is that I can prattle on about it for so long. There’s a lot of meat here, and it’s not just because of the lengthy running time. Nolan goes big. Especially as of late, he seems to be always peppering his movies with big ideas, striking performances, and an epic scope.

This movie’s no exception. Nolan has Bale giving 110% just like he always does. He has Tom Hardy acting his goofy little mask off, and he has Anne Hathaway stealing the show. He has Michael Caine ripping out our hearts, and he has Gary Oldman once more providing us with the pitch-perfect Jim Gordon, a character I never would’ve imagined he’d nail so perfectly. He also has Morgan Freeman… well, being Morgan Freeman, which is more than enough for most folks.

It’s an incredible cast, and Pittsburgh (the new Gotham stand-in, replacing Chicago from the first two flicks) looks great here, with its buildings that look like intimidating spires covered in some fake-yet-lush snow.

Some of the action is solid. It’s always a thrill to see the Batpod do that little wheel-spinning sharp-turn thing, and I utterly loved the fight in the sewers where Bane turned all of Batman’s tricks against him: It’s an easy highlight of the whole production, and it gives Bane some great lines there as well. Honestly, it might be the best fight in the whole trilogy.

The fact that the characters and plot take some unexpected turns leaves us with a lot to discuss. Yes, the vast majority of those turns turn out to be imbecilic, but this is a far cry from walking out of The Avengers. That movie may have been a blast and a half, but there wasn’t a ton to examine afterwards. Batman Rises leaves you with a lot on your mind.

When the movie was over, I had to process it a bit. I knew my reaction wasn’t positive, but many elements of the last 45 minutes kind of distracted me from how many issues the movie has. It’s hard not to get swept up in the pumping rhythms of Hans Zimmer’s score while Batman is heading off to get himself killed.

Although this movie may be a damned mess of bad decisions, bad plotting, bad continuity and paper-thin concept exploration, it’s not like I didn’t find it much more watchable than the Schumacher movies. I’m sure I’ll watch The Dark Knight Rises again. Similar to other sequels like Alien 3, it’s a movie that’s gorgeous to behold as you sit there and ponder “How did they screw this up so damned bad?”

Maybe Catwoman is completely tertiary to the plot and could easily be excised from the whole thing with no loss except for the removal of Bruce’s “happy ending” (and it’s not like their relationship was anywhere near developed enough for “Being with Selina” to be a grand victory anyway). And sure, Robin John Blake is almost certainly going to his ass killed within 48 hours of putting on the Batsuit (remember; Bruce had multiple martial arts styles and ninjitsu training… Not-Robin has none of this). And sure, Batman himself doesn’t defeat any of the bad guys; it’s up to either Catwoman or a convenient car accident to handle that.


Wait, if "Batman can be anyone," then this guy from the second was totally justified in retrospect, right? Especially since Blake isn't much better prepared...


But this movie holds my attention, even when it’s consistently being stupid. It looks and feels high-minded, even when it’s really very poorly thought out. It’s oddly captivating, in part for its performances and in part for the technical level of filmmaking skill.

I can see myself coming back here frequently, just to get myself mad all over again. I’ll almost certainly buy a used DVD copy one day from the bargain bin, and I’ll never think it’s as poorly plotted as Batman Returns. These are at least victories, small though they may be. Many people are sad to see Nolan’s era end. And sure, I guess things could get worse. Ultimately, though, this left me with no desire to see any spinoffs, “untold stories” or other elements of Nolan’s Batman universe.

I give this incarnation my permission to die.


That'll do, Bruce. That'll do.
 
 
 
Whomeveroberongeiger on July 30th, 2012 03:25 am (UTC)
Re: Part Three
1) A few people online referred to her as "Holly," and I believed it. It seemed plausible enough. As for Selina being a lesbian... she never gives this girl any affection in return, even though the Jen/Holly sure seems interested in Selina, so I don't think there's much evidence of Selina being a lesbian. If necessary, you can always pretend that she plays both sides. But really, regardless of her sexuality, I think I have go back to "It's not like the Bruce/Selina or Batman/Catwoman relationship got any development that made it a satisfying Happy Ending anyway" argument. These two are just getting to be attracted to each other somewhat, if you ask me - they're not ready for some kind of "in it for the long haul" disappearing act.

I also didn't go into the whole "Clean Slate" thing, but seriously... many of those records aren't accessible via the Internet all, at least in our version of reality, so that's gotta be one hell of a program...

2) A few other people online have pointed out that it takes Bruce 24 days (!) to get back to Gotham. This was determined based on the scenes showing the red "core countdown" both right after his escape and shortly after his re-emergence. So that's... probably a fairly reasonable amount of time, I guess. Maybe even a little TOO long in some respects (although perhaps one or two of those days was wasted painting flammable liquid onto the side of the bridge in the shape of a Bat?) But I do feel like there's some stuff on the cutting room floor here... probably a scene of Bruce using ninja skills to sneak across the bridge, for example. (He'd have to make sure that Bane wasn't watching, of course, or he'd see right through that... but I can't think of any OTHER way he got into Gotham.)

2) Actually, I've been told by a number of people how this film felt like it was full of despair. I guess I didn't feel it for whatever reason. Maybe I was too irritated/entertained/distracted by other things. Again, I could make many Alien 3 analogies here... and some people have pointed out online that the Nolan Batfilms could be interpreted as following the same sort of thematic "birth, life, death" cycle that the first three Alien films do, which also accounts for why the third films in both feel like lengthy downers.

Off-topic again: Did you at least like Bane, though? I was pretty impressed with him, but again, my main issue is that we get to learn so much about him that ultimately isn't true. Although maybe he was born into a prison too? He does have that line during the awesome sewer fight about how he didn't even see daylight until he was six... hmmm.