Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Cinema File #21: "The Dark Knight Rises" Review


Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman film is the culmination of a seven year project to bring back the balls of the classic DC character long since ripped to shreds by Joel Shuemacher and a studio obsessed with toylines and fast food tie-ins. It's been the most un-mainstream mainstream franchise and until now has lived up to or even exceeded all expectations, with its second installment ranking as possibly one of the best superhero movies of all time, despite a gritty, hyper realistic tone that all but thumbs its nose at the whole notion of a superhero movie. So, did the last part of the trilogy measure up and provide a satisfying conclusion to the epic? Eh...not so much.

To say that the The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as its immediate predecessor is almost an unfair standard considering how great that movie was, but at the same time, I can't help but use the prism of the first two movies to judge the ultimate success of this one. To make two movies as good as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (to say nothing of Nolan's other work which is generally top notch), is a feat, and to expect a hat trick might just be too much to ask. Is it right that I'm disappointed? The Dark Knight Rises is not a bad film in general or compared to other movies, but it is by far the worst in the franchise, and considering the finality it brings to the series, in many ways it serves to diminish what came before it.



I've never really been a fan of Nolan's take on the character of Batman. The idea of the Bat as a symbol that transcends the man has always seemed like the exact wrong way to see the one man in a universe of superheroes who stands up and rebuilds himself into something as strong as any of them. I guess its a consequence of removing all semblance of super powers from this version of the world, that Batman ceases to be our human representative in a superhuman community, and becomes a larger than life superhuman in his own right. The Dark Knight Rises is the pay off of this inverted twist on the character, and it might just be my aversion to the whole premise that has me sour on the main event, but as I reflect on how the whole story played out, I think its more than that.

The Dark Knight Rises takes place several years after the events of the last film, with Batman an inactive fugitive, Bruce Wayne a Howard Hughes-esque hermit (at least as far as the general public is concerned), and Gotham City living through an era of peace thanks to the Dent Act, a law inspired by the late and still officially great Harvey Dent that makes it easier to prosecute organized crime. An encounter with Catwoman leads an already crippled Bruce to Bane, a terrorist and disciple of Ra's Al Ghul with a plan to destroy the city, a constant morphine drip in his face, and an instantly imitatible accent. Already the essential Batman seems lost up Nolan's ass here, as we find that far from the accomplished crimefighter with a rich rogues gallery of some of the most interesting villains in the entire DC canon, he took on Al Ghul, Scarecrow, the Joker (once), then takes a break for a few years, then ends it all with at best a second tier bad guy. Is this really deserving of being the last Batman story?

This isn't an irate comic book geek's plea for faithfulness to the source material, just the down beat of a casual fan who really likes this character and thinks this movie takes "re-interpretation" just one step too far. The Dark Knight Rises is as fitting an end to Nolan's vision of who Batman is as any film could be, but as a result, it just exemplifies how foreign that vision is to the Batman I and I suspect many fans love. I can't adequately explain exactly what I mean by this without giving away a massive spoiler concerning the end of the film, but suffice it to say, Bruce Wayne does something in the last few moments that the Bruce Wayne I know would never, ever do. It goes against everything that Batman is and everything he stands for. I wonder if part of it stems from an inherent flaw in trying to tell the last story of a character whose mission is by definition without end, and yet at the risk of sounding like a smug armchair quarterback, I feel like this might be one of the worst possible ways to do it.

The lead up is fine and generally entertaining, though the story feels a little more muddled than the prior films. As Catwoman's story gave way to Bain's, I couldn't help feeling like the former was much more interesting, and wishing that her interplay with Batman would have been more dominant. I could have even gone with eliminating Bane altogether, which considering he is the main villain of the piece, isn't a good sign. It's not that he's bad as an actor or as a character, its just that so much of his involvement seems like a retread of the first film, and he's not nearly as charismatic as Liam Neeson in what is essentially the same role, just with bigger muscles and less sophistication. Plus, a fairly predictable last minute reveal leaves him relegated to basically a henchman. And frankly, I don't understand why a more traditional translation of the character was not in keeping with Nolan's more realistic portrayal. Is the steroid Venom too comic booky? To change it to morphine seems pointless, and leads to the unnecessarily encumbersome face mask the character wears throughout the film that not only forced the producers to re-dub every line, but also severely reduces the actor's ability to convey his emotions, which hampers my ability to engage with him, sympathetically or otherwise. What's the point of giving the character more depth than he ever had in the comics if one poor design choice completely diminishes it?

I get the anarchistic, "Damn the 1%" Occupy Wall Street vibe they're going for, but I wonder if actually telling this story from the perspective of the anarchist, and thus making Batman and the billionaire Bruce Wayne the defender of the elite dominated status quo, doesn't make the whole thing seem a bit more icky than it was meant to be. We already established that this sort of social violence was not the way to enact real change in the first movie, and covered escalation and madness in the second, so why not have Batman go after a villain that typifies the one bad guy he's not yet taken on in the series so far despite its presence in all three films, namely his fellow rich mucky mucks. Make Batman an ally to the downtrodden and not just a crusader for the city as some abstract construct. Nolan had said previously that the Penguin would have been a difficult villain to translate into his series, but I think he would have been the perfect bad guy for this story, and could have been done easily with someone like Phillip Seymour Hoffman or even a Nathan Lane if you wanted to do a more comic take on it. Hell, you can even throw in Maxie Zeus and build a cabal of well to do villains, with Catwoman being the natural counterpoint and Batman caught in the middle.

Apart from the limitations arbitrarily placed upon Tom Hardy, there really isn't a bad thing I can say about the actors. Pretty much to a person they turn in stellar performances that are in keeping with the gripping, uncompromising tone of this series, whether it's Hathaway's effortless shift between roles, Oldman's recognition of his lost honor, and especially Michael Caine, who is easily better than he's ever been in the series so far. Even though I might think the story and the characters are a bit misguided, it is told very well and is never boring (the worst sin I think a movie can commit). If you don't at least choke up at the end, as I did even as I was decrying it as a betrayal of the characters involved, than you simply have no soul. The one exception I might make is Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is perfectly good, but forced to carry the movie despite his character having no connection to anything prior to this film. It's a testament to the quality of the storytelling that we are able to follow this random cop so long, almost longer than the main characters we actually care about, but ultimately, I went to a Batman movie expecting Batman, not a little bit of Batman, and some new guy who steals the show. The way he discovers who and what Batman is is laughably bad and the resolution to his character was so asinine that I almost stood up in the theater and booed. His fate ties in directly with this idea of the Batman as symbol that must live on past the man, but even if I bought into that framework, I'd still say the way they wrap it up through Levitt's character is a major let down.

And that's the thing about this movie. It's not terrible, its just a let down. It certainly isn't Avengers bad, but its dragged down by the greatness of what came before it. It's not even so bad that I would lump it in with the classic rule of bad third installments of otherwise great trilogies. Its entertaining enough that I can't not recommend seeing it, and if you've seen the first two, you probably already have or soon will, and I wouldn't suggest skipping it. Just don't get your hopes up. It comes nowhere near the level of The Dark Knight or even Batman Begins, but its still better than half the big budget crap released this year. From a thematic standpoint, its the perfect ending to the story you know, even if the execution leaves something to be desired, and the ultimate aim is contrary to what I may have wanted to see as a fan. In short, its worth your time and money, just maybe not worthy of a spot on any best lists.

And yeah, I could look up the proper spelling of Joel Shuemacher's name, but fuck it, he doesn't deserve it.


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