The Dark Knight Rises

August 15, 2012

As one of the biggest films of the year, and certainly one of the most talked about, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bother writing about The Dark Knight Rises a full month after its release.  I was sick to death of critics and bloggers and message board nerds even before I saw it.  Still, it’s out, and I have thoughts, so here we are.  It is a testament to the film that even though I wasn’t a big fan of it (I enjoyed it well enough, but it is rife with problems and is certainly the least of a trilogy that has seen some degree of diminishing returns with each successive installment – yes, Batman Begins is quite easily the best of the three), it is too interesting to ignore. 

“Interesting” is a word that might pop up a fair few times here, because quite frankly, this film is definitely “interesting” more than it is good or bad or pretty much anything else, both in ways specific to itself as well in a wider context of other summer tentpoles and especially the final entry in a trilogy.  It certainly adheres to the studio logic that each successive film in a series should be BIGGER than the last, and especially so if it’s the last of a particular iteration.  The best corollary to TDKR (I’ll be damned if I’m typing out the whole title everytime) is probably Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 3, also the final part of a trilogy that came off the most financially (and, notably, the most artistically) successful installment.  That film stands as a cautionary tale of just how wrong things can go in a Hollywood franchise, even with a proven creative team and cast behind it.  The world building effectively done by the first film, and the character development moving along nicely through the second, 3 fell prey to an overabundance of Things Happening without it ever really cohering.  It felt like they simply ran out of story to tell and were bereft of a good idea, so they threw in about ten bad ones and hoped nobody noticed.  The shoe-horned nature of the characters of Venom and Gwen Stacey were bad enough, but the tangents of Emo Peter Parker and of course, Harry’s amnesia (which rendered the arc of his descent completely inert and silly) were unforgiveable.  Substance, logic, and the solid structure that proved so entertaining and moving in Spider-man 2 were ignored in favour of the almighty moreTDKR certainly expands the number of characters, as well as the running time (it is almost three hours long), and it ups the stakes significantly.  Even the technology gets the upgrade, for instead of one Batmobile/Tumbler and then the Batpod, we get a flying vehicle called “The Bat” as well as several extra Tumblers roaming about.  The plot is exceptionally busy, even moreso than the The Dark Knight, as we have Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a hermit needing “to get back in the game”, we have Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) running afoul of some nasty corporate slimeballs, we have those corporate slimeballs attempting a hostile takeover, we have Bane (Tom Hardy) and his underground army, the fallout from Harvey Dent’s death and the imminent sacking of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), not to mention a hugely expensive new power source that is also essentially a nuclear reactor and then Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a good, honest cop who believes in The Batman.  There is, needless to say, a lot of movie here.

As a general rule, I think if a movie can’t deliver on every aspect it wants to it should be judiciously edited down to just the elements that work.  There is an argument for that being a beneficial ethos here, sure, but this was really a rare case where the movie should have been longer.  Whereas in Spider-man 3, all of the excess was clearly there to add huge effects sequences and, hopefully, make it all that much more “epic”, in TDKR there’s a pretty clear sense of the ideas behind all of these plots and subplots and characters, and if you’re stretching you can even draw thematically relevant parallels between a fair number of them.  Of course, just because you can see the intention behind something doesn’t mean it is effective in its own right, and here a these plots have varying degrees of success, and often thanks to different elements (Kyle works because of Hathaway, other areas because of the concept, etc).  Probably the most severe problem stems from Nolan himself, who has in his last three movies (this, The Dark Knight, and Inception) been largely unable to marry his ambitions with his abilities.

I’ve maintained for the last several years, especially as Nolan has risen to the ranks of the most bankable directors in the industry, that his artistic peak was the one-two punch of Batman Begins and then, for my money his best film, The Prestige.  Both had reasonably complicated plots, sure, but they were also firmly centered on a main character and their journey – Bruce and the way his guilt and his fear were inextricably linked and how he overcame it, and Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier’s descent from professional envy to horrible, twisted insanity.  They both crucially featured a slower, more deliberate speed that was mainly interested in the psyche.  It also helps that they’re Wally Pfister’s best work with Nolan (one disappointment with TDKR is that moving Gotham to New York didn’t lead to anything particularly interested, whereas the changing use of Chicago in the previous two greatly serviced the overall themes and feel of the whole), giving stunning visuals to enhance the stories.  Since then, Nolan has had trouble expressing his ideas in a satisfyingly cinematic fashion.  It’s no coincidence that the action sequences are the least successful parts of Batman Begins, as it turns out Nolan isn’t very good with that kind of storytelling.  If there’s a lot happening, he has difficulty expressing it with clarity and emotional impact.  The stunning centerpiece of The Dark Knight – The Joker’s chase, the interrogation, and then the bombs – is flanked by tiring sequences of piece-moving involving the mob and their laundering and later a not entirely successful “final test” by the Joker that just doesn’t have the impact that the relatively slowed down and increasingly dread-filled middle movement had.  Even with that portion there are problems, but Ledger’s performance is so intoxicatingly watchable and disturbing that the relatively minor editing flaws don’t matter.  Inception was enjoyable as a puzzle box, but the hasty style left little room for emotional resonance, and as good as the zero-gravity hotel fight was, the winter fortress sequence was straight-up bad filmmaking.  As much as people like to talk of these films adhering to the “chaos cinema” trend in action movies, Nolan is not very good at that style at all.  Indeed, he treats the exposition in much the same way as he would an action sequence in TDKR; a lot of the story feels like something that’s necessary to get through to move on rather than be experienced in its own right.  Compare it to the way Paul Greengrass built tension and moved the story along in The Bourne Supremacy using those same chaos cinema techniques (not to mention how perfectly they married with the actual action scenes) and Nolan looks like a rank amateur.  If you step back and think about TDKR, you can see the kernels of great ideas worth exploring, but Nolan expresses them in such a way that they feel half-assed and just something he needs to get through.  The surfeit of ideas in the script need room to breathe to work properly, and there’s just not enough time for them to do so.

As a consequence, the sometimes complicated-seeming politics of the film come off as contradictory or just half-thoughts not fully explored.  Nolan pulls in elements of the Occupy movement as well as Guantanamo and Infinite Detention, as well as questions about the role of the government in protecting its citizens and the ways in which they go about it.  It’s easy to call the film right wing or even fascist, and while those elements are always going to pop up in any Batman story, Nolan’s inability to properly express any of them makes the argument moot.  There’s a good portion of the film that draws somewhat from A Tale of Two Cities and, more specifically, The Reign of Terror, and while the ad hoc court set looked great (reminiscent of the paintings of the Tennis Court Oath as well as later representations of Robespierre’s mock trials), there should have been more horror at a society turned upside down and eating itself then there was.  That potential for epic scale dread was squandered by a storytelling style that’s more interested in delivering information that feeling the emotions behind it.

Which brings us to the question of whether this film is “good” or not.  I certainly enjoyed watching it, and I’m actually keen to see it again at some point, though admittedly I’m not fussed with re-watching it at the cinema.  There are some good performances, and despite all of my bitching, the action scenes here (especially the Bane/Batman beatdown in the middle, which is tellingly more about the slow build and brutality than kinetics) are better than previous entries.  The Bat flying through the sky is pretty spectacular, and an early sequence involving a swarm of police cars is terrific.  Hathaway brings a welcome lightness to the film, and Gordon-Levitt sells the Boy Scout earnestness far more than the character probably deserved.  In fact, the final 40-odd minutes are genuinely exciting and huge in a way that so many blockbusters fail to be, and though these scenes feature a number of problems as far as clarity goes, there’s enough good to paper over them.  Even the twist worked for me.  It might not work as well as that other huge blockbuster of the summer, The Avengers, did, but it’s also considerably more ambitious.  It’s the ambition that saves it, even as it causes a considerable number of issues, and I’d rather have too many ideas than none at all.

-M

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