July 26, 2012

Why I only kinda liked The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight Rises is a good movie. Not a great one.

I wasn't necessarily expecting greatness, just a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. And to that extent, I got what I was looking for; I walked out of the theater last Friday feeling thoroughly entertained.

But in retrospect, there are things worth nitpicking. Legitimate holes in a well-made film that make christening it "the best ever" seem very odd indeed. Perhaps Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have a bunch of these issues as well, but that's a blog post for another time. For now, let's take The Dark Knight Rises down a few pegs.

Editor's note: Spoilers below. Traverse downward at your own risk.

First off, Bane is no Joker. No one expected a repeat of Heath Ledger's award-winning and totally unprecedented performance, but there's really nothing to Tom Hardy's character at all. He's bulky, he's rebellious, and he's into ruining Bruce Wayne and snapping Batman in two. He breaks into the stock market (!) to use stolen fingerprints (!!) to short some stock and fuck up a guy's finances (!!!). Say that outloud to someone and see if they think it's "cool" or "interesting" or "makes sense." But more than that: Why? Were Bane's motivations shrouded in mystery on purpose, or were they just casualties of a jam-packed movie that just didn't feel the need to provide more backstory?

While writing about Inception a while back, I attacked Nolan for refusing to "examine a thought for more than a fleeting second or two." Lately, however, I believe that's the only reason Inception -- and, to a lesser extent, The Dark Knight Rises -- works at all. Nolan is skilled at telling a story quickly and with great confidence; he gives you no time to wonder about a plot point or a bit of dialogue because ten seconds later he's already onto another visually stunning action sequence or key conversation between two wonderful actors adding gravitas to bit parts.

This isn't a strategy that should always be employed, but it does help hold things together that might otherwise fall apart. Nolan's job with these blockbusters is mostly to send you home with a smile on your face, or at least a pleasantly intrigued look. He sneaks big ideas and sprawling plots into popcorn flicks and dazzles his fans with how cohesive it all seems. But when you sit down and consider his work after the fact, it doesn't always fit. The leaps from A to B to C can be tenuous at best, and while it's impressive when it "succeeds" with a movie like Inception (or, on a smaller scale, Memento), that doesn't mean it's above reproach.

For example, and I think this is a very fair question to ask of a movie created by an expert storyteller like Nolan: When Bane takes over Gotham, why was there virtually no mention of how its citizens responded to his rule?

I came upon this point in an preachy review of The Dark Knight Rises and its politics, and I couldn't agree more. Based on what we saw, Matthew Modine and his pals holed up in their houses for five months until Batman randomly returned. If the movie had taken another route -- if the people of Gotham began to accept this new overlord, maybe because of a "hero vacuum" without Batman around -- then the quest to win the city back would have a lot more meaning. Maybe Bane does something horrifying and reminds everyone of his true purpose. Maybe Batman does something selfless and reminds everyone of his true purpose.

Either way, it's a wasted opportunity. Give this whole conflict some legitimacy with five extra minutes of screen time, and now we're considerably more invested in the fate of Gotham under Bane. There's a big opportunity here for Nolan to "show not tell," too; to offer up some insight into what's really going on in the city. Maybe there's anarchy, maybe allegiances are shifting, maybe there's more than Scarecrow's kangaroo court afoot. The people are afraid, sure, but is that all? We're supposed to accept that "OK, Bane and his scary mask and the tanks in the streets make everyone quietly uncomfortable" and then wait for someone to save the day?

It's arguably the crux of the whole movie -- Batman's city has been taken away from him -- but we get more of Bruce Wayne figuring out how to climb some rocks (with the power of fear!) than the trials and tribulations of his hometown. There's a lot going on by then that Nolan still has to get through, but if there was ever a time to take a breath and make the threat a little more real, a little more personal, I think it was right then and there.

There's also another scene that bothered not only myself but a few others I spoke to: the cut to Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, alive and out in the world, at the very end. Come on. How much more power might that scene have had if you just show Michael Caine's Alfred smiling at an unseen figure? The end result is the same, and you don't have to smack the audience in the face with "BATMAN IS ALIVE DON'T WORRY," which feels more and more like a creative cop-out. Not the biggest deal, but when you're a talented filmmaker who is supposedly crafting a "masterpiece" it's a glaring swing-and-miss.

And let's not even get into the Talia al Ghul "twist." When a character switches sides at the 140-minute mark of a movie with no subtle foreshadowing at all and the only motivation being her real last name, that's just lazy. It sucked a lot of the life out of Batman's day-saving and an ending that, despite its flaws, I was very invested in.

I did enjoy the renewed emphasis on Bruce Wayne/Batman as the main character, though, along with how good Anne Hathaway turned out to be. I'm a huge fan of Rachel Getting Married yet expected nothing from the young actress, and boy did I feel dumb afterwards. I'd also feel shitty if I didn't mention the opening sequence, which was intriguing, complex, unfathomably expensive and instantly forgettable. Only a film like this, on such a grand scale, can start you off with that kinda scene and then just sweep it away for whatever comes next.

But too much of the movie felt contrived: Chris Nolan plowing us forward with skill and technical mastery while offering up an incomplete story and an unsatisfying lack of character development. Considering how much hype and buildup it has resting on its shoulders, The Dark Knight Rises mostly delivers. But if you think it was "great," or some other overly positive adjective, perhaps you and I were seeing different movies.

No comments: