Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why The Dark Knight Rises Fell Short (for me at least)

First thing's first. This posting is going to be pretty much all spoilers, so if you haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, move on.

When I walked out of Dark Knight Rises, I found myself significantly underwhelmed, which was in stark comparison to how I walked out of Batman Begins, with my mind blown in disbelief that somebody had made the Batman movie I never thought WB would have the guts to make, or how after watching The Dark Knight, I was so revved up, I literally could not sleep (which was problematic because I had just seen a midnight show).

It took a bit of time for me to sort out how I felt about TDKR. On the one hand, I was pretty disappointed with it. But, as time passed, I realized that I couldn't really say it was a bad movie. I know what it looks like when a director drops the ball on a comic book trilogy. This movie wasn't at all like Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, where Ratner mistook randomly killing off characters for dramatic suspense, or like Spider-Man 3, in which everything that was wrong with the movie could be summed up in a 5 minute sequence where a very emo Peter Parker does a very angry jazz dance.

Still, in comparison to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, for various reasons TDKR just didn't meet the standards set by its predecessors, and failed to do so by a considerable margin. Batman Begins was the exact film that fans had wanted to be made. It was a film that actually developed and analyzed the Batman origin story instead of existing just to hock toys. Nolan did the unthinkable and followed it up with a movie that was far more deserving of 2008's best picture Oscar than the winning Slumdog Millionaire. (Not saying that Slumdog wasn't good, but four years later, Dark Knight still has a lot more of a cultural impact than Slumdog did.) Unfortunately, TDKR was burdened with a plot that was overwhelming from the start, drew its inspiration from one of the weaker eras of the Batman comics, and went a bit too far with its interpretation of the characters.

At any rate, I've been asked to justify how it is that a diehard Batman/Chis Nolan fan such as myself wasn't blown away by the concluding chapter to the Dark Knight trilogy.

The Characters

I think the first problem I had with Dark Knight Rises was that it sort of undid the ending of Dark Knight. In that film, even though Batman is clearly affected by the death of Rachel Dawes, he finds it in himself to fight past the pain. He vows to continue being Gotham's protector, even if it means being seen as the villan. It's an ending that rivals Empire Strikes Back in terms of having the heros suffer a tremendous loss, but striving to rise above it.

Except he doesn't. Dark Knight Rises opens with Bruce Wayne as a recluse who has given up on being Batman. I realize that since this is a movie and not a comic, I shouldn't expect Nolan's version to have Batman going off on nightly adventures, but having him do nothing for eight years straight really seems contradictory to the version of Batman he crafted in the previous two films.

While we're at it, was I seriously the only person who was bothered by how little of Batman is in this Batman movie? Even in his Bruce Wayne persona, it felt as if there was a sizable amount of the film where he just wasn't there. The supporting characters in Batman may be interesting, but when it comes to telling the final chapter in a character's story, and when that story is being told an epic with a multi million dollar budget, you expect that character to be in the bulk of the story.

Other characters seem to contradict their attitudes in the previous movie as well. Lucius Fox is no longer disgusted by the idea of Batman abusing his power as he did by hacking every cell phone in Gotham. Instead, he happily shows Bruce Wayne more toys which he could use to dominate an unruly populace.

Then they're's Gordon and Alfred, both of whom also seemed to be under-used in this film, which would have been fine if they weren't so integral to the story in the previous two films.

As for the new characters to this film, I wasn't honestly that big a fan of the treatment of Bane. I'm perfectly fine with the decision to drop the aspect of his character where he injects himself with a super steroid before going into a fight. However, the way that Tom Hardy had Bane speak was too quirky to sound menacing. That is, at least when you could even understand his dialogue. He sounded like Ian McKellan playing Darth Vader as Gandalf. He was way too jolly to be evil.

Hardy's line reading aside, Nolan violated one of the core rules of writing: Show, don't tell. In the other movies, the audience was shown what it needed to conclude for itself that the villans were evil. For example, nobody has to tell us that the Joker is both a genius and a maniac. We figure that out for ourselves through the bank heist he plots at the opening of the movie. Same goes for Scarecrow. Nobody tells us that he's a corrupt doctor. We learn that by watching him declare gangsters insane so they don't get sent to prison. Nobody has to tells us he's fearless. We come to that conclusion when we see him gas Batman and set him on fire.

With Bane, we're given his entire backstory through a plot dump from Alfred. We're told we should be afraid of him because he was too uncontrollable for the League of Shadows. We're told that he must be ruthless because he supposedly was born and raised in a prison. The result is that when Batman starts chasing Bane, it feels less like he's doing so out of personal motivation and more like he's doing so because that's what the plot requires of him.

I'm on the fence of how I feel about Miranda/Talia. It was a good plot twist having Ra's al Ghul's daughter be under Batman's nose the whole time. In fact, it makes for a more plausible telling of one of the storylines in the comic where Batman becomes romantically involved with Talia, even fathering a child with her, even though he is fully aware that she's the daughter of one of his greatest foes.

Just one problem with pulling it off as a plot twist: Marion Cotillard was too perfect a casting choice for the role. When she was announced as being in the cast, it was a wide assumption on the internet that she'd be playing Talia al Ghul. I had actually assumed that's who she was supposed to be until her character introduced herself as Miranda Tate.

I know. It's kind of unfair to fault Nolan for doing too good a job of casting, and I reiterate that it does make for a good plot twist, but it would have made for a better twist if he cast against expectations of the character as he did with Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins, where he cast the Arabian villain with the very Irish Liam Neeson and the very Japanese Ken Wantanabe.

The Plot

The plot of Batman Begins is extremely straightforward. It's the about the creation of a hero. We learn his motivation for becoming a vigilante. We see him work to become his vision of a hero, and it pays off when he saves the city. It's a nice, clean but epic story.

The Dark Knight had a slightly more complicated plot, but for the most part it was a classic tale of good versus evil, and about how easily the forces of good could be corrupted. However, there was one part where the story went off the rails a little. There was a needlessly complicated sequence that begins with Batman arriving at a murder scene of two victims named Harvey and Dent, and has him somehow following the fingerprint on a shattered bullet to an apartment where several police officers have been tied up. It's an awkward part where the plot became too complicated for its own good.

Unfortunately, the first half of TDKR is heavy with an over complicated plot. At the start of the film we're hit with a battery of plot points. There's some kind of new energy reactor. There's a theft of finger prints. There's criminals operating out of the sewer. Bruce Wayne has gone bankrupt. Mergers and acquisitions are happening, and so on. All of this is happening on top of the fallout from Dark Knight. It all ties together halfway through the movie, but it's kind of exhausting trying to keep track of everything that's going on prior to the stadium scene. Personally, I had a hard time getting into the movie because I couldn't quite figure out what was the core of the story I was supposed to get behind.

Then there's the second half of the movie, which really amounts to one big plot hole. I know. Many of the greatest movies have plot holes in them. Why did the Empire wait until they circled the big planet to blow up the little one? Wasn't is just a bit too coincidental Spock exiled Kirk to a planet that just happened to be where the older time travelling Spock was? I get it. No story is going to be perfect, so why let a plot hole get in the way if it makes for a great tale otherwise.

It's easy to do when it's a minor plot hole, but the one in Dark Knight Rises was quite large, in which Bane is setting out to finish what the League of Shadows had set out to do. In Batman Begins we learned that first the League tried to drive Gotham into the ground over the long term through economics. When that failed, they opted for a more immediate approach, sending the city into a drug induced state of mass panic, but even that was thwarted. Clearly an even more immediate approach was required.

And Bane does come up with a more immediate approach. He acquires a nuclear bomb... with a five month timer. Even 007 never had a villan stupid enough to give him that much leeway. I also found it a bit confusing as to why they would bother with the charade of threatening to blow up the city if anybody tried to leave. Equally confusing is why Talia even bothers waiting to hit the detonator switch. She and Bane are both in town when the bomb is scheduled to go off. If she's so willing to die with Gotham, at the very least, why not trigger the bomb the moment she realizes that Batman has returned?

The whole class warfare aspect of the story also felt like Nolan was trying a bit too hard to be topical with the story, and addressing the current economic crisis. Never mind the fact that a recession was already at the core of Batman Begins. The story of  TDKR never really commits to the class warfare plot, and doesn't feel like an essential element. It might have worked better if the story adressed whether or not Bruce Wayne was doing enough for the people of Gotham with his money in his role as a civilian, or if he put so much effort in maintaining the illusion of being a billionaire playboy that the people of Gotham think of him as one who doesn't give back.

Fundamentally, a lot of my problem with the plot came from the choice of source material. Nolan picked two 90's era Batman stories to base the bulk of the film on. The first half draws heavily from Knightfall, the story in which Bane breaks Batman's back. The second half draws from No Man's Land, a year long story where an earthquake hits Gotham, and the U.S. Government chooses to abandon it, rather than rebuild.

Knightfall isn't that really good of a story to begin with. The story only exists to capitalize off of the success DC had with killing off Superman. It's notable in the chronology of Batman as being the story that took him out of commission for sometime, but from a storytelling point of view, it's got nothing on The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One or any of the other stories that were used as inspiration for the first two films.

As for No Man's Land, Nolan only really borrowed the main premise from that story. The plot, which centered around Batman's rogues gallery battling for control of the ruined Gotham, would have been too unwieldily to adapt to film anyway. However, the replacement story that they came up with just felt so unconvincing. We're seriously expected to believe that everybody is going to just sit back and relax while terrorists cart a nuclear weapon around the city?

Then again, I had no issue with trying to figure out how the Joker had the means to set up explosives all around Gotham without anybody noticing in Dark Knight. I guess what bugs some people doesn't bug others.

The Good

Now there are quite a few aspects of the film I was able to get behind. I appreciated how heavily the plot of Dark Knight Rises tied back to Batman Begins. When Batman Begins was initially released, I think the public may have been a bit too put off by Batman & Robin to really get behind a new Batman movie. It never really experienced the sort of buzz that surrounded Dark Knight. By bookending the plot of the third movie with the plot of the first movie, it felt like Nolan was reminding audiences of his less talked about Batman movie.

I also really liked the idea of Bruce Wayne letting himself have a happy ending. Writers seem to revel in depicting Wayne as an endlessly tragic character. In writing tales set in Wayne's future they either have him as a militant psychopath, such as in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, or as a bitter and solitary man, such as in Batman Beyond. It's nice to see an interpretation of Batman where his tragedy is treated as part of his back story, but not as an essential aspect of his character.

Lastly, I liked the appearance of Jonathan Crane in the courtroom scenes. Movies based on comic books almost always use a villan for one movie then dump them after that. It's fun to see members of the rogues gallery behave the way their comic counterparts do, showing up in stories where they're not the central villans.

So there you have it. It's probably more than anybody ever cared to read on why a person thought of a movie as being adequate instead of exceptional. Even though as an individual movie it was a disappointment as an individual movie, it made for a good enough conclusion to the Dark Knight Trilogy. Or, at least I should say it made for a better conclusion than other attempted trilogies, such as Spider-Man or X-Men. I suppose that just goes to show how good a storyteller Christopher Nolan is. Even when he makes a movie that's only half as good as his usual work, it's still better than what other people put out.

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