Posted on 8/17/12 11:05 PM
Ah, The Dark Knight Rises... why do you so refuse to let me love you?
Christopher Nolan finally concluded his commercially- and critically successful Batman movie trilogy this past week, ending nearly a decade of what have consistently, or at least until the final chapter, been some of the very finest superhero movies ever put to film. Did DKR succeed as the final chapter in an epic trilogy, or did the dark knight, ironically, fall, headfirst into the Cavern of Mediocrity?
Now, before I BEGIN on this DARK (k)NIGHT to explain away my feelings towards the project in question, I would like to summarize where I stand with the two prequels, as those opinions will (have) directly influence my appreciation for RISES.
While it is without question that both prequels are fantastic movies, I happen to belong in the camp that places Begins on a higher pedestal than TDK. The former is, I think, unquestionably the better MOVIE, in that it has a more coherent, focused and tight narrative structure; the story is relatively straightforward and simple, with the obvious emphasis being placed on Bruce's character arc and growth, both as a person and as the Batman, and likewise that of Gotham City itself. It also doesn't hurt that it has one of the best tingle-in-my-pants final scenes I've ever watched, with Gordon and Batman on the roof talking about Joker. The story had a much better sense of natural progression, is what I'm trying to say.
The clever among you might have inferred, correctly, what I implied at the end of the previous paragraph, being that TDK does not have a very coherent narrative at all - it is, rather, a series of moments that happen because the story has to keep moving, and not because it would make the most sense for the story to go into that particular direction. That said, though, TDK is clearly the better showcase of SPECTACLE, like a Nightmarish Carnival Funhouse of Terror, and that's exactly what makes it so damn effective. Not being straddled by the need of lots of exposition, and lacking any kind of character growth or progression (except for Harvey Two-Face, and it's ironic that he's also the one character that completely throws the movie out of whack for me), Nolan went about trying to make the most exciting movie possible.. and he succeeded. So really, it all boils down to whether you prefer atmosphere and spectacle over story and narrative flow, and, as mentioned previously, I happen to belong to the latter group. Don't get me wrong, I still think TDK was an easy 9/10, it's just that I happen to think Begins was damn near flawless, like a 9.5. TDK worked so well because it was a completely different movie from Begins, both in theme and, more importantly, tone.
[I don't feel like this is exactly adequate an explanation of the two prequels, but we are here to discuss Rises after all, which means I gotta draw the line somewhere]
So, with the two movies, what you're left with are two phenomenal, and very distinct from each other, expressions of Batman's universe; being similar to each other as to be considered kin, but at the same time varied enough as to make a direct comparison between the two somewhat problematic.
Dark Knight Rises, then, is not only tasked with the goal to tie up the two previous, distinct movies, both in their plot-points and feel, but also has to appear to be its own, separate entity, with its own unique story and flow. What's surprising isn't that it stumbles in places, but really it's that it succeeds as often as it does. That said, there are some really bad flaws with this movie that prevent me from placing it on the same shelf with the others.
Let's start with the positives first: I think setting this movie 8 years after TDK was a genius move, as it allowed the story to sufficiently move away from the events in TDK (and also potentially explain the absence of Ledger's Joker. Who knows what's happened to him in 8 years? He's probably dead), while also showing what has happened to Bruce, his circle, and Gotham in general.
One aspect I found absolutely fascinating and wished there was a lot more of, was the evidence of the physical toll Batman's escapades have taken on Bruce's body. He is broken, battered and half-crippled, living in solitude with the weight of the Dark Secret crushing his spirit. It is the picture of what happens to a man, so fundamentally broken that he chooses to run around with a mask on at night fighting criminals, being forced to come to terms with the realization that his mission is complete and there's no one left to save, and understanding that he can never move on with his life, thereby remaining stuck in a self-made limbo where he can't go back and is unable to move forward. The fight has broken his body, leaving him with a cane and limp, he has chronic kidney damage and almost no cartilage left anywhere on his person. It is undeniably refreshing to see such a famous and legendary character being made to look so human and vulnerable, even before Bane breaks his back. I realize that Bruce has been made to look human decades ago in the comics, but I'm talking about seeing it done in a Big Event Blockbuster Movie.
The only other such character exploration I can recall is in Spider-Man 2, where Peter starts systematically losing his powers. His frustration at being so famous and yet not having enough money to pay rent, his inability to have a social life or to keep a job and the impossible task of trying to juggle both his identities all combine to throw him into a sort of deep depression that regresses his genetic gifts. Now, while it is true that both Peter and Bruce are let of the hook entirely too easily, with the former just, I dunno, "believing" in himself and the latter by implanting magic metal frames into his knee caps and magically being super-for-realsies-healthy again, just like magic, and then later coming back from his broken back by... like, working it off and listening to a few pep-talks, it is nevertheless incredibly refreshing to see these themes even come up in such popcorn movies at all.
A lot of critics have complained that the plot is "muddy" or "incomprehensible," and to that I must accuse said critics of not paying attention. The plot, as far as its narrative goes, is pretty basic: Taggart, who is on the board of directors of Wayne Enterprises, wants to take over as CEO because he believes that Bruce and the current management are doing a piss-poor job of it (to his credit, he's right. Spending most of your available funds on designing a sustainable energy thingy that is then promptly kept in the "off" position is, from a business perspective, unacceptable), and I'm sure the millions in wealth he'll accrue is a nice bonus, too. He hires Bane under the assumption that Bane's a mercenary that will do as he is paid, and tells him to acquire Bruce's fingerprints and use them to access the stock market, thereby framing Bruce for a debacle in which all his money was lost, effectively opening the door for Taggart to take over the company. Bane does this by hiring Selena Kyle to steal said prints. However, Bane is really an excommunicated member of the League of Shadows - the bad guys from Begins - who wants to honor his former master by completing his plan; i.e. destroying Gotham. Everything else that happens afterwards is coincidental and circumstantial to that which came before.
The film tries to take the narrative structure of the first film and combine it with the spectacle of the second, and while it isn't completely successful in either regard, it does do an admirable job. Bruce is once again given a character arc, probably the best of the series, and Selena has a very interesting story to her, as well, though it's slightly hobbled by her limited time on camera. JGL does okay in a flat role.
Hans Zimmer's score is pulse-pounding and awesome, though perhaps not ever reaching the masterful sonic resonance of the Joker's disjointedly nerve-wracking theme.
Having spent enough time on the positives for you to get the point, there are several negatives that I would likewise make an effort to address.
Bane is completely suitable as the villain to this story, which, being in that it tries to feel like Begins, essentially continues on from that movie in terms of feel, and a flashier villain such as the Riddler would stand out and not blend into that interpretation of the Batman universe. The one problem I have with his interpretation on-screen is, surprisingly his back story. Now, since I've already said that the movie strives to be like the first, it's not surprising that it wants to explain the origins of its villain. However, this time around I really didn't like nor buy it. The whole round prison thing struck me as simultaneously stupid, corny and lazy. It would be much more effective to leave his story as an excommunicated LoS soldier and Rhas al'Ghul's first pupil coming back for vengeance than to try and wedge in the whole protector of Talia thing. Specifically, having him turn out to be this softy with a heart of gold just doing whatever Talia told him to because he "loved" her essentially places him into the same position the character endured in Batman & Robin - just a mean henchman controlled by his boss. A far cry from the dark, intelligent and sophisticated mastermind we were promised in the trailers.
Ah yes, Talia al'Ghul, aka Miranda... I really, really actively disliked her character. First of all, she's completely unnecessary and horribly written, existing solely to take over Bruce's company and then later turn into the main villain... She makes no sense and only serves to destroy whatever menace Bane had throughout the movie. Why did she fuck Bruce and ask him to fly away with her if she was so intent on killing him? You'd think that, with him lying naked next to her by the fireplace, she could slice his neck open or something, but I guess that would be too easy. Come to think of it, she ties together the two worst elements in the bloody film: the Bane situation AND the stupid bomb-plot. Seriously, a giant, round bomb that will vaporize the city? "I will kill you THIS TIME, Mr. Bond!" It's like: how much more cliche can you make the fucking story? Oh! I know! Let's have Alfred meet Bruce at the very end, proving he survived and, coincidentally, came to the same place Alfred was taking about previously. Even when the scene was first happening, I remember telling myself that it was later going to be important... it was a foreshadowing in the least subtle way possible.
Yet another completely useless fucking caricature posing as three-dimensional is that other Lieutenant that takes over while Gordon's mumbling in bed, I can't recall his name at the moment and am way too lazy to CTRL+T and Google. What point does he serve? What did he achieve? His only mission was to play this character that doesn't wanna help out the resistance, but then does so anyway... and dies. Like, I really don't know where they were going with him... And Sullivan is a pretty great actor usually, so you would think this would be no-brainer, unfortunately, though, it's just a campy embarrassment. He's essentially playing the Cpt. Stacy character from Amazing Spider-Man. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with Stacy's portrayal in the movie, it's just that Spider-Man was very different from TDKR, requiring a different tone, and that kind of broad performance has no place in the context of this faux-realistic, subdued and somber film. It's like nails-on-a-chalkboard every time he's on screen. In one scene, he slowly looks up at the camera dramatically and proclaims, after he takes over for Gordon and Batman shows himself to help the cops, "I am going to do what Gordon never could. I'm gonna nail The Bat-Man!" I swear to Kratos, when he did that I slapped myself.
The only real excuse that I guess you could try and 8x-360-no-scope-no-steady-aim in a row with an attachment-free-Dragunov is that his character was to be the living embodiment of the notion of sacrificing everything for a cause, and obviously paying the ultimate sacrifice. And that explanation would be damn good one if we were given even the smallest reason to feel anything for the character. But he's so, just... there, hanging around and delivering horrid dialog... personally, I was kinda hoping for an unexpected mid-sentence bullet to the head a lot sooner than when the actual character eventually ended up dying.
Really though, the problems are overall pretty minor, and even though I spent a disproportional amount of time bashing the hell out of this movie, the fact remains that it's still very good. I just wanted it to be so much better, and more than that, I really feel like it COULD have been all that, if Nolan still gave enough of a shit about Batman by this point to bring up the obvious deficiencies in Goyer's screenplay. The man wrote Inception, for Helios's sake, which had its faults but they certainly weren't in the script department. I'm sure he could've figured out what parts weren't working and fixed it much better than I will attempt to.
So this is basically what I have come up with. Now, there's obviously holes in my explanation in the script parts of the film, but remember those can be changed up and tweaked to match what I came up with before the movie starts shooting. It will obviously need a re-write, but it's completely manageable, especially a couple of years ago.
Remove Miranda entirely, give company to Fox. That would not only make the plot less busy, but also make Wayne Ent.'s financial situation more believable, since there wouldn't have been so much extra money funneled from Miranda into the energy project, i.e. bigger drain on company's resources. During the first Bane fight, since we're getting rid of the origin and therefore the prison, I would have had Selena change her mind and save Batman from Bane after learning that he's Bruce. There were some guys on a higher level staring at the fight, have her run through and take those guys out, then, just after Bane breaks Batman's back, save him by, I dunno, shooting Bane in the shoulder and making him retreat or something. It doesn't matter. Then, have Selena, since she's from the streets and would know good hiding places, lie low with Bruce while he recovers from his injury, while Gotham is falling apart around them. She can go out and bring him food; they can fall in love and fuck next to a fireplace, it would more sense and be better for the story. That way, when Selena is begging him to leave with her and tells him he gave Gotham everything, when he says, "Not everything, not yet," it would have a much deeper emotional weight to it. Have Fox, Robin and them completely take care of the bomb themselves, and make Batman fight Bane, but not in that place, it's too crowded. Bane retreats a few blocks and Batman follows him, where they fight and Batman ends up winning and kicks Bane's ass. Meanwhile, Selena destroys the barricade with the cycle and gets the hell out of doge. Bane, being a pain in the brain, unzips his jackets and reveals a suicide vest that he wore just in case his plan failed. This way, at least he takes out Batman. He explodes (Batman's too tired to run away) and Batman dies, with his body becoming too burnt to identify. The people witness the fight and Batman becomes a hero, while Bruce is just assumed dead during the events of Bane's uprising. That statue is still built and et cetera. This would fit the movie series' sense of ultimate tragedy being the only inevitable conclusion possible. JGL's character - nothing changed except don't mention his first name (Robin), I think the audience can kinda guess where things are going by themselves. Mentioning that name makes it tacky and cheesy.
For me, changing just a few of these more lazy details makes the movie a hell of a lot better. In fact, had Nolan did what I wrote, I wouldn't hesitate to call it the best of the three. As it stands, however, it's the worst. The part that hurts the most is that, with the way the movie is made, it's not even possible to fan-edit it and remove the parts that don't work.
TDKR is still a great film, one worth the price of admission and the 3 hours of your time. Unfortunately, it just so happens to pale in comparison to its predecessors.
Not gonna spend time wrapping this up, this review is already way longer than it should be.. so if you're still reading this, tell me what you thought of the movie!! Seriously, I wanna know.