Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pieces Form the Whole: The Dark Knight Rises

Major spoilers for basically the whole movie.

The Internet has engineered a brutal, stupid feedback loop between film writer and film consumer, one that only seems to precipitate with each high-profile release that garners some degree of negative critical attention. I first became aware of the problem with Toy Story 3, a fine and warm movie that earned its tiny pool of detractors hatred that Pixar could never have imagined; this vitriol has only snowballed with each major studio release that has Rotten Tomatoes on its side early enough to earn it the adoration of raving, faceless idiots. The Avengers is an earlier example from this year, but The Dark Knight Rises got people mad enough to send death threats to critics audacious enough to speak ill of it.

Attitudes like this, obviously, are detrimental to film criticism and the improvement of the form as a whole. Glenn Kenny wrote an interesting, if not slightly overgeneralized, piece about how nerd culture and fanboyism tend to omit alternate interpretations of what constitutes "art." Yes, hivemind thought has always existed, and yes, relegating it to a scope as comparatively small as film discussion is a little bit frivolous when it led to things like the ascendancy of the Nazi party. But this is all emblematic of the Internet's democratization of voice, a process that both giveth and taketh away. We have access to voices of staggering breadth and diversity, all of which are privy to shitty comments posted by indignant 14-year-olds.

So essentially what this all amounts to is the eternal lash, backlash, back-backlash that the Internet permits, amplified to a degree that only the biggest movie of the year could possibly reach. I am joining the fray because, well, that's what I like to do. I enjoy the opportunity to organize my thoughts on movies, especially ones that are as grandiose and ambitious as The Dark Knight Rises. It's a three-hour long comic book magnum opus, something that I would never have thought possible a decade ago were it not for its overwhelmingly successful predecessor, and as such it has its share of problems. Because the film attempts so much, I feel it's best examined by looking at each of its major elements and figuring out how they contribute to or detract from the film at large. Maybe it seems picky, but such is the aforementioned power of the Internet.

Batman: I was interested in some of the paths they set up for Batman at the beginning of the film: infirm, spiritually broken, physically crushed, The Dark Knight Rises opens with him as a used-up man lurking in a city that doesn't want him anymore. Watching him crawl back to heroic renown for the first half of the movie is compelling. The movie decides to double down on its "hero hits abyssal depths" quota, though, and Bane re-breaks him and relegates him to some hellish prison, a jarringly literal treatment of the lowest point in the hero's journey. We are then treated to montages and flashbacks aplenty of Batman's vertebrae being snapped conveniently back into place and intensive prison workouts and Batman trying to make a jump and falling fifty feet while tied to a rope because that's really good for your body. And yet after all this physical trauma, he still comes back able to beat Bane mano-a-mano at the end of the film. Batman gets away with a lot of shit in this film that he just doesn't earn, and though I understand Christopher Nolan's intentions, the results don't cohere with his universe's internal logic.

Catwoman: Anne Hathaway excels at anything that isn't an action scene, and her role as an ethical free agent adds some much-needed chaos to the film. Unfortunately, the best director in the world couldn't make her look convincingly formidable in a fist fight, and not especially one with proven action choreography problems like Nolan. Her punches are sloppy, her movement lethargic, and those bullshit razor stilettos are just embarrassing. Here we are smack-dab in what's touted as the grittiest, most realistic comic book adaptation ever, and our one female hero is running around and performing complex martial arts in bladed high heels? Trash. Plus, the romantic subplot is a total ass pull, undermining the importance of the final act's events and ensuring that every woman, regardless of allegiance or agenda, is subservient to Brucie's big ol' billionaire Bat-dick.

Bane: I imagine that Nolan's process for selecting the villains for this trilogy was fairly simple: pick the ones that aren't uncomfortably ridiculous. That left him with Scarecrow, Joker, and Bane. Two-Face and Ras al-Ghul are pushing it, but legitimized at least by talented actors. Bane is interesting in concept, but falls short in execution. Is anyone actually scared of this guy? He does not sound intimidating, with a voice like a British butler speaking into a vocoder, and he definitely doesn't look it, shrunk down from the grotesque proportions of comic book Bane. Neither element is strong enough to overcome the deficiencies of the other, and as such, he inspires neither political nor physical fear. Never has a back breaking looked so painless. He also feels like a much shabbier catalyst for the events of the film than the Joker did, and though it's not fair to compare Bane to the Joker, Batman's one truly good villain is sorely missed here. The Joker is important because he lays Batman's dark side so bare, exposes the chaotic nature of the clash between good and evil; Bane is just some dude with an ego and a neutron bomb that Batman has to beat up.

Officer Blake: Everything Blake accomplishes through the course of the film could have been done so by Commissioner Gordon, who is oddly sidelined here. Except, of course, that obvious and God-awful setup at the end of the film. Is he the new Batman? Batman's hero-of-the-common-man sidekick Robin? Who cares? The character demonstrates none of the qualities that we expect from any sort of superhero figure, short of a rigid moral compass, and that just isn't enough. Overall this role is a big waste of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a clumsy way to stitch a theme to a movie that honestly didn't really need another one.

Miranda Tate: She's the other sexy woman in the film, which of course means that Batman gets to fuck her too. You could argue that it's part of Talia al-Ghul's long con or whatever, but still - lame. Lamer still is that she represents Gotham's advance toward renewable energy, a cleaner and brighter future or whatever, and then she ends up being an evil nihilist out to avenge her father by eradicating every person in the city? Perhaps this is a good time to discuss the movie's...

Themes and politics: Sure, the ultimate point is that mankind is not yet sophisticated or mature enough to wield such earthshaking power, but this transformative nuclear force for good is left without a champion who isn't a conniving backstabber. Gotham continues to wallow in its own foetor at the end of the film, settling for a few pithy words about hope and a flaming Batman symbol to ride them through the city's proven tendency toward crime and violence and hatred. Not inspiring! It's a sad culmination to the film's treatment of anger as a conduit for political and personal action: we the people are free to take to the streets and change our lot in life, sure, but in the end we all have Batman watching over us so let's just skulk back to our houses and lead quiet lives in our shitty city. Furthermore, aligning the action of the common man with a devious supervillain like Bane leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. The movie suggests that there's something wrong with the way the system operates, but in the end nothing changes at all, and we're meant to view this as a positive as long as we have ~hope~.

Aesthetics and pacing: The movie is almost three hours long, but for the most part, it is surprisingly well balanced. I did find myself getting a bit restless toward the end, largely because the stakes don't feel all that urgent, but Nolan's impressive command of action spectacle keeps things chugging toward the finish line. The score is a typical Hans Zimmer orchestral powerhouse, substituting volume for innovation. It is so loud that it drowns out dialogue more than once. Bane is rendered particularly unintelligible during any scene with music. Kind of a sloppy mistake, but I suppose it could be read as the movie conceding that what it has to say ultimately isn't as important as how it looks and sounds.

But with all this said, I still thought the movie was pretty good. Its constituent parts are often flawed, but it coheres into a fairly respectable (if not politically dubious) action film. It's very difficult to not compare it to The Dark Knight, a legitimately great movie that manages a near-seamless union of theme and execution. Piloting a ship of this magnitude was going to be difficult no matter what, even before the departure of one of its predecessor's greatest assets, and in not totally fucking up Nolan has blazed new ground for the comic book film. It is a form that can be satisfying; we have seen evidence of that throughout this trilogy. This is not the film that people are going to return to when they remind themselves of that, though. This is Nolan's Return of the Jedi to his Empire Strikes Back, a competent conclusion riddled with issues that are made all the more glaring by the heights that the series had previously reached. At this point there's no way to tell whether or not the public canon will remember it that way, but it's left the depth of controversy surrounding the film feeling a bit silly, hasn't it?


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