Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2012)

8. The Dark Knight Rises

Considering my dislike of “The Dark Knight” but my enjoyment of everything else Nolan has done, I went into the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” uncertain of what to expect. Honestly, I kind of wanted to hate it. Just because I’m stubborn. I left the theater mad all right. Not out of frustration or disappointment but because I had to eat a whole lot of crow. Goddamn it. He pulled it off. Light spoiler alert for the review ahead.

The movie had me pretty much from minute one. Bane’s aerial escape from his airplane prison is a hugely dynamic action sequence, especially the shot where the camera launches out of the falling airplane. Gotham is in peace and Bruce Wayne lives in solitude, his company slowly falling apart. Once a terrorist with a vendetta and a smart-ass thief enter the picture, a complicated series of plot lines begin to fall into place. Some have called the movie convoluted. No doubt, there’s a lot going on here. Like many of Nolan’s films, it demands your attention. However, unlike “The Dark Knight,” the various subplots and concurrent storylines never falter around needlessly. Watching all the story threads come together is amazingly satisfying. Every scene has importance. This is a very tight ship and, even with a nearly three hour long runtime, expertly paced.

The plot can pretty clearly be split into two halves here, much like “Batman Begins.” The first half is the most fun, as it concerns Bruce being pulled back out of his shell, a new threat emerging, and introducing fascinating new characters. After a serious plot turn, some major characters are waylaid and the story becomes almost oppressively grim. Gotham is turned into an isolated police state, governed by a mad warlord, the threat of nuclear annihilation looming over it constantly. Normally, in a superhero movie, you don’t have to worry about the good guy loosing or lots of innocent people dying. But Christopher Nolan is an auteur. If anybody was going to cross those lines, it would be him. The grimness of the second act makes the hero’s triumphant return and the action-packed finale deeply satisfying.

I frequently joke about the supposed political subtext in the Nolanverse, especially the reading that “The Dark Knight” is an allegory for the War on Terror. (And the less said about Rush Limbaugh’s typically misinformed interpretation, the better.) However, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore the political subtext in “The Dark Knight Rises.” This is a movie about the haves vs. the have-nots. Bruce Wayne starts the film out as a millionaire, protected from the problems of the street, a fact Catwoman is all too willing to point out. Class warfare erupts and the poor and downtrodden raid the mansions and homes of the rich and protected. There’s a deeper, more sinister level to the images of people marching on the streets, since it’s all being engineered by a madman determined to destroy the city. Nolan’s outlook is downbeat. Given a chance to govern themselves, Gotham City quickly descends into a violent state with a kangaroo court system. (Which provides the film’s most amusing cameo.) Bruce’s arc is essentially that of a one-percenter learning to become part of the 99%. Imagine the college term papers that will be written about this one.

Tied into these themes is the character of Bane. I’ve always considered Bane, in the comics, to be a highly gimmicky character with a silly Luchador mask, not much more then the Batfamily answer to Doomsday who quickly suffered villain decay after his initial appearance. Aside from Gail Simone, most writers haven’t been able to do much that’s intriguing with him. Nolan and his team actually make him an interesting character. Bane is the ideological opposite of Batman. He is just as strong, just as smart, as Bruce, even benefits from the same training. While Bruce was raised in privilege, Bane was raised in poverty, in the worse prison on Earth. When he tells Batman that the shadows obey him, you believe it. As the film goes on and the villain establishes his rule over Gotham, he becomes a truly threatening figure. It’s so effective you can easily overlooked Tom Hardy’s muffled, Sean Connery impersonation. His monologue delivered in front of Black Gate Prison is destined to go down as an iconic, lingering moment in film history.

None of this would mean much if the film wasn’t as damn successful as an action movie as it is. I can’t say this Batman is a pussy. He kicks so many asses. Bats and Selina are quickly established as a fantastic battle couple. The rooftop battle when the two first become acquainted is fantastic. However, it doesn’t compare to when the two of them descend into the sewer, picking off henchmen one by one. That’s just two solid minutes of ass-kickery. The one-on-one standoff with Bane is incredibly effective, just as punishing and brutal as it needs to be. (I wasn’t sure if Nolan would use the classic lifted-over-shoulders-and-down-on-the-knee pose, but he did and it’s awesome.) The Bat, the new vehicle which is halfway between the Batcopter and the Batwing, is incredibly versatile. Its extensive use in the second half of the film leads to some fantastically exciting moments. Nolan has finally learned how to direct an action scene and all without compromising his usual style.

Another leveling element is Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. The character adds so much energy and humor to the film. There are several laugh-out-loud moments involving her. I’m a Hathaway fan but I wasn’t immediately sold when I heard her cast in the iconic part. But she really is the perfect Catwoman. If Nolan took lots of liberties with Bane or previous Bat-villains, he hews shockingly close to the source material when it comes to Selina. She’s a criminal but has her own moral code. Her intelligence and attitude has her standing toe-to-toe with Batman, making them a perfect couple. (They even got Holly Robinson in here.) Sassy, intelligent, strong, masking a dark past without letting it define her, she’s definitely one of the best female characters to ever appear in a Nolan film. Not to mention that Hathaway wears the cat suit fantastically. She’s hot on a level that I honestly have trouble putting into words. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping. My only complaint is that she never gets to use a whip.

The rest of the cast stands up. Christian Bale actually expands pass his typically intensity here. The eight years of isolation has changed Bruce Wayne and when he decides to get back into the game, you can actually see him having fun. The movie establishes just how much Alfred cares about him, especially in two heart-breaking scenes. He’s certainly more then just a wise advice dispenser this time. Kaine is wonderful. Commissioner Gordon kicks a lot of ass, essentially filling the hero role while Bruce is exiled during the second half. Along with John Blake, the other new character played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who proves to be just as intuitive and strong a character as Batman is.

I might make fun of his accent but Tom Hardy is imposing and intimidating as Bane, embodying the character’s cunning and crushing power. Marion Cotillard is not as interesting a love interest as Hathaway is. (And the movie seems to drawl a lot of attention to the previously unnoticed mole on her forehead.) She just isn’t giving as much to, at least until the final sequence when a fire blazes up behind her eyes. Hell, even Morgan Freeman is given plenty of stuff to do. Luscious Fox is an active character all throughout the film. You can definitely tell the changes happening to the city are affecting him negatively.

As damn good as the rest of the movie is, I do have a handful of complaints. The most major of which is a last minute plot twist that more or less sells out Bane as a character, undermining pretty much everything that was interesting about him throughout the film. It’s a good twist but I’m not exactly sure it was worth it. The rest of my grievances are pretty much just petty bitching. I still hate the Batsuit. Hans Zimmer’s score, despite making good use of the main characters' theme, is still rather dull. Alfred disappears for a large portion of the story and I do miss him. Liam Neeson’s much publicized cameo comes off as a little silly. Let's just say it brings the phrase "Force Ghost" to mind. It’s fair to say the film drags a tad bit in its latter half. Also, Batman mopping for eight years over a woman who obviously didn’t even love him seems possibly out of character. Nolan continues to not show much skill for giving his villains awesome death scenes. Also, the movie should have been called “Batman Rises,” which is obviously the superior title that rolls off the tongue much better then the somewhat awkward “The Dark Knight Rises.” (I guess if a movie makes a billion dollars worldwide, you’re inclined to make sure people know this movie is a sequel to that one.) I'm willing to forgive most of these.

The ending does some incredible brave things that I can’t imagine any other summer blockbuster daring to do. Everything is wrapped up perfectly. You feel a real sense of loss and awe just when you’re supposed to. Like in “The Prestige” though, Nolan has one more magic trick up his sleeve. I don’t want to spoil anything and I certainly don’t expect another sequel set in the same universe but… At the very least, the adventure continues.

I don’t envy the director who gets the next, inevitable Batman reboot. Nolan is going to be a hard act to follow. My complaints about “The Dark Knight” still stand but the trilogy is certainly wrapped up in spectacular fashion. Is “The Dark Knight Rises” the best Batman movie ever made? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. I'm awfully close to saying it though. [Grade: A]


Sean Catlett said...

Saw it Saturday, here are some knee-jerx which may change slightly over time.

I like it the best of the three Nolan Batmans. It doesn't have the dumbness of the second half of Batman Begins and isn't a goddamned clusterfuck like The Dark Knight. I'd call it the most consistent.

Bane is a good villain, appropriately sadistic. This older, sadder Batman is incredibly compelling. Selena Kyle is a castrating bitch and yet somehow alluring (and you bet I'd fuck her on the Batpod, don't tell me it didn't cross your mind too). Robert Blake is a badass without accomplishing much of anything. Alfred has a couple of heartbreaking monologues. Commissioner Gordon is just awesome.

The strength of the characters and their interactions overpower the direction and editing, or one or both are weak. I did notice I wasn't really engaged with the film for any long stretch, merely watching what was happening and disappearing into it for very brief times. Is it that most of the film feels like a montage? I know Nolan does this a lot in his movies, but I don't think he struck a rhythm with this one. I would have liked certain scenes to be slower, mainly after Gotham goes to the dogs. But hey, I was interested.

I have larger complaints with some story choices. After Wayne is thrown into the pit, the film misses an opportunity to get abstract and weird. They certainly should have gone that direction if they're going to bring back Liam Neeson as a Force Ghost. But the prison never really seems so bad and Wayne's escape is inevitable. So why not make it harder for him? Why not make the prison completely deserted and increase the darkness time? Why not bring it closer to the confines of his mind so that it makes more sense he is running across characters from the previous films? Then you can bring back Rachel AND The Joker. Not to mention make Wayne's escape much more triumphant if he has NO HELP WHATSOEVER.

Also two moments are a bit sudden due to the pace of the film: Selena's Betrayal and Cotillard's plot twist. Both times I was like "Oh! Oh, okay" but didn't get rocketed to the back of my skull. I guess the latter isn't such a big deal but the first Bane/Batman fight deserved a better setup and also deserved to be longer. And perhaps had no spectators other than Selena.

Annnd the ending. I argued with a friend who hated every second of it, whereas I didn't have too much of a problem with it. Only that not confirming that it was Wayne sitting at the table and cut back to Blake at Alfred's smile and nod would have been nice. Eh, no biggie... how did he fucking escape a mushroom cloud?

More on the thematic aspect in a bit. I have some opinions.

fish-fish, pasta, pasta

Bonehead XL said...

Re: Catwoman on the Batpod. To be perfectly honest, it didn't occur to me. I don't think the Batpod is a two-seater. However, the scene where she pins the guy's hand to the wall with her razor-heels... Yeeeeeeeah.

You bring up some good points about the prison sequences. I guess it would have strained believability for Bruce not to have [i]any[/i] help in his recovery. It does seem like Bane maybe made it a little too easy for him to recover and escape. These are the sort of story conventions you just get use to when it comes to superhero/sci-fi movies. You know, why doesn't Blofeld just kill James Bond, etc.
I guess you could make the case that Nolan is probably the kind of person you'd expect to subvert or avoid such cliches but... Eeeeh.

As for the Miranda Tate reveal, that was a spoiler that had been plastered all over the internet months ago but, by the time it came along in the actual movie, I had forgotten about it. All the other spoilers I've read ended up being bullshit, so I had sort of discounted those rumors as well. It's the sort of twist I expect to kind of go over most viewers who aren't comic nerds' heads. And if they were going to include the character, I wish they had done a little more with her.

Sean Catlett said...

My brain wants to say a lot on this but most of it is neither here nor there so I'll try to stay focused.

I'd heard about the Dark Knight conservatism/mordern allegory thing for the first time about a year ago, and it surprised me because I didn't really see it in the film when it came out, and I remained unconvinced after reading the article as well. Mainly because the Dark Knight kinda toes the line on both sides of the political aisle (where values and ideals are concerned) and is wishy-washy in general as to what it is actually saying. The most I saw in it is that there is a lot of lamenting on breaking people's privacy, as there is some evidence of anti-Communist sentiment in Rises. Not enough to really to turn either film into a platform, I'd say (this means I might be in some agreement with Kurt Loder's review of Rises, and he is a Libertarian, right?).

Since then I have read a lot of essays on the art of drama by David Mamet, as well as recently reading Tolkein's introduction to the Lord of the Rings, and they both take what I think is the Correct view of this: it is the job of the audience's reactive element to assign allegory to the art, not the job of the dramatist's creative element to do it for them (barring accidents of the author's subconcious). The role of the artist is to tell a good story and get out of the way (Christopher Nolan does this a lot better than his brother Jonathan, if Person of Interest is any indication).

I've been trying these days to take it a bit further and isolate a work of art from a possible allegorical statement. It is limiting to the art if it is only there to make you feel bad about rape, and limiting to the viewer if you view it as an attack on one's values, be they on the Left or the Right. Sometimes a story is simply about a mermaid finding her true love and not about rebuking her lesbian tendencies and worshipping the phallus. The Dark Knight Rises, according to one of the screenwriters anyhow, is a closer parallel to A Tale of Two Cities than it is to either Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party. And I like that idea.

But I understand that it is difficult. We humans are highly adept at pattern recognition, for better or worse, and sometimes an attack IS an attack (Avatar) and it makes you a bit wary in future cases. I am also guilty of taking a humourless, curmudgeonly view of something and writing it off (District 9) until having second/third/fourth thoughts about it. And it's more rewarding in the long run to Keep Calm and Carry On.

So, all in all, Nolan's trilogy is a strange one, where each film stands apart from the other atmospherically and varies in quality and arrangement, but is spiritually about staying strong and fighting corruption. I'll take it.