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. 

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Gloat all you like, but just remember, I’m the star of this picture.

The Avengers 5.11: Epic
Epic has something of a Marmite reputation, and even as someone who rather likes it, I can quite see its flaws. A budget-conscious Brian Clemens was inspired to utilise readily-available Elstree sets, props and costumes, the results both pushing the show’s ever burgeoning self-reflexive agenda and providing a much more effective (and amusing) "Avengers girl ensnared by villains attempting to do for her" plot than The House That Jack BuiltDon't Look Behind You and the subsequent The Joker. Where it falters is in being little more than a succession of skits and outfit changes for Peter Wyngarde. While that's very nearly enough, it needs that something extra to reach true greatness. Or epic-ness.