Skip to main content

The Batman has to come back.

The Dark Knight Rises
(2012)

(SPOILERS) More rousing than the first film, but more formulaic and less daring than the second, Christopher Nolan concludes his trilogy in the overblown and some times stodgy fashion that informed The Dark Knight. But, unlike that film, there is no sense that a passion to tell this tale fuelled him. While The Dark Knight stood out from its peers as something different, Rises echoes the first installment by hitting many of the standard superhero tale beats and adopting many of its clichés and plot devices. That said, Nolan continues to refine his technique, and as unwieldy the multi-subplots in this are he keeps his mighty engine from spluttering and giving out.


There was a sense of danger to the narrative in The Dark Knight, at least until the final act when Harvey Dent and the plotline-too-many with the ferry dulled the mix, largely because the Joker - both in performance and as a plot motivator - felt like an unpredictable element. Here, with the return of The League of Shadows, the canvas is much safer and more ordinary, more of a typical superhero/action movie plot. The desire to destroy Gotham is almost mundane. The use of Talia is a house of cards that makes no sense once she is revealed (and her motivation is even less believable - she hated her father, until Batman killed him, then she assumed his cause?) 


That said, a couple of areas that I've seen criticism of gave me no great pause; how would the Dent Act actually have worked in clearing organised crime from Gotham, and the "betrayal' of the character by having Batman hang up his cape for eight years for no good (enough) reason. Not being a particular aficionado of the comics this didn’t seem like a deal-breaker. I found him getting back into shape - twice - more of a stretch; I'm also not sure it really works in story terms it's an unsatisfying kind of extension and repetition (like the double ending of Excalibur, it tests the patience as it doesn’t actually do anything very interesting with the delay it creates; it just hammers home what we all already know). More than either of the previous two films, Nolan teeters on the divide between comic book fantasy and real world grounding, and his reliance on the tropes of the former sees him occasionally lose his footing.



The film appears to willfully embrace ever bigger and more brazen clichéd plot points as it goes along. Batman climbs not once, not twice, but three times to get out of the well, aided by zen advice that would make Yoda blush. Disappointing that the best Batman can do when he and Bane play a rematch is engage in exactly the same sort of fisticuffs as before. Okay, there’s misdirection as motivation, but with all that time out you’d have thought he’d work out a more complex strategy than socking him repeatedly in the mush. And aren’t the residents of Wayne’s prison a genial bunch? Wouldn’t we all love to have Tom Conti as a cellmate?



Bane breaks out a nuclear device like a beefed-up Bond villain (or a standard Mission: Impossible climax). Later, with seconds left until detonation, Batman stands around talking to Catwoman and Gordon rather than making haste to dispose of it. 

It’s not just the story construction. The third installment is chock-full of ripe dialogue spilling from every other character's mouth. I quite enjoyed Michael Caine's Alfred in the first two films but every line here is a tedious platitude; Wayne really didn't need the spur of the truth about Rachel to tell him to hop it. He spends the first portion of the film bemoaning Bruce for giving up and when Wayne gets back in the saddle he bemoans him for not giving up in the wrong way.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt's speech about being an orphan is almost audacious in that all concerned maintained straight faces throughout the scene. And, oh, the little orphans!

I like Gordon-Levitt as an actor and his character was engaging during the first half, but I was disappointed they threw him this film's storyline-too-many (saving the little orphans) rather than something more meaty (I was half expecting a twist with him revealed to have been impersonating Batman because Wayne was too broken to fight any more). His disillusionment with the system and confrontation of Gordon over the latter’s decisions fits with the series thematically but that in itself presents a concern. The plot strand consciously evokes ideas that were explored better previously. Oldman can do no wrong, of course, but Gordon is a thanklessly dull character.



The subplot of the police fighting back didn't really engage either, and the "heroic" street battle seemed faintly ridiculous (and like so much here, appears to be aiming squarely for the most clichéd presentation).  Beseiged Gotham is a great idea, but in a film this long you'd have thought it could have been more fully realised. In my mind it should have approximated the milieu of Escape from New York, but what we saw was remarkably civilised.


The reappearance of the Scarecrow was a welcome and unexpected touch, and Cillian Murphy was given some good lines. Anne Hathaway does a creditable job with a so-so character (as in, there was nothing new for Selina Kyle there), but can’t compete with Michelle Pfeiffer. And, while I felt a bit sorry for Hardy buried under an inexpressive mask and saddled with an uncompelling character, he does all but make up for it by adopting a wonderfully plummy voice (the offhand way in which he exits the story is less satisfying). Bale is ever-dependable, bringing the de rigueur intensity, and Morgan Freeman provided a welcomed his light touch.



Thematically, the film is a muddle. The plotting in general is so focused (although focused is the wrong word, given how d) on forming a conclusion to the superhero's story that attempts to ascribe some sort of political thematic consistency (let alone manifesto) is wrong-footed and doomed to failure. Nolan attempts to pull a few threads of topicality together but they never amount to more than window-dressing and lack any overall coherence. 



Wayne loses his fortune so he can become one of the people (but there's just enough left to go round when it's needed at the end). There's no resonance to Bane's appropriation of Occupy Wall Street language; it look more like a cynical move of a director trying to catch the lightning in a bottle of the The Dark Knight twice (although I'm as dubious of the claims of that film being a coherent commentary; it makes a better fist of displaying a few zeitgeisty elements, however). Suggesting that The Dark Knight Rises is on the side of a Conservative agenda may appear to state the obvious of a genre where the superhero upholds and imposes order, assuming the right to dictate this to others. Nolan's take on Batman has been at some pains to deconstruct the character's more fascistic impulses (in The Dark Knight in particular) but I don't think he's really that engaged by wrapping his story in political commentary (which I think probably reflects that he is. to some extent, a small "c" conservative), or even underlining it with the same.



It has been said that the "police repel the 99% scene" (is that what we are supposed to read them as representing, though?) defines the Conservative agenda of Rises (some Conservative critics have relished claiming the film as their own), but a coherent right wing interpretation of the film is not really possible; the political elements feel clumsy and attention-seeking at best. Nolan appropriated Occupy Wall Street once shooting was in progress, and the film showily makes Wayne one of the 99% (Talia, behind the “revolution”, is one of the privileged 1%).  



It seems as possible that it is the police who rally against Bane's army because the only representation of the "people" in the film is the little orphans; the police are used here the same way as the ferry passengers were in The Dark Knight (notably the weakest elements of both sequels are where it tries to relate events to ordinary mortals – expectedly, as this is a superhero movie). Gordon-Levitt's character leaves the restored system at the end because he sees it as morally flawed. 


Readings have evoked the French Revolution (Russ Douthat in The New York Times), no doubt spurred by Gordon quoting A Tale of Two Cities,  and I have some sympathy with the idea that Nolan's "quiet toryism" led to him devise a story where

he’s trying to simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse

but it doesn't follow through. Individual scenes can be picked out as implying a position, but the film is messy and muddled politically throughout. For every point you could claim that Nolan is pushing a Conservative agenda you could find another where he is critiquing it.


I did wonder about the fusion reactor MacGuffin; I’ve seen it suggested that this was evidence of an anti-green stance and that clean energy didn't work (except that the film states the device does work), fitting the Conservative agenda model. Like almost everything here, I don't think the over-reading of subtext bears fruit. You might argue that it represents a critique of the dangers of any nuclear-based energy in a post-Fukushima world (albeit that the stress is put on fusion being clean). Alternatively, here we have the rich elite (Wayne) denying the public free energy (even if it is ostensibly to prevent the greater danger from its potential for weaponising - I don't really see how that can be a coherent consideration on Wayne’s part since the nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for 70 years). This could be seen as Nolan's continued interest in tackling of a character that is simply wrong but thinks they know what is best for all. Of course, Nolan has priors for exploration of alternative energies (Tesla in The Prestige). 


The final scene(s) were unexpected in part, as if Nolan was riffing on the ambiguity he delivered at the end of Inception. While Gordon-Levitt's destiny could be seen from a mile off, the object of Alfred's attention over a liqueur appeared as if in a dream (this, not least because it went to an upbeat place, somewhere the trilogy did not appear to be leading us) .



While The Dark Knight Rises is riddled with problems, many of which come attached to Nolan’s adopted mode of striving for the “epic”, it engaged me throughout. Which, although I think it is by far this film’s superior, The Dark Knight failed to do. I look forward to Nolan returning to passion projects, unencumbered by a franchise that has at best diluted his sensibilities. 



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***