Occupy Crime Alley


(I’m trying to avoid outright movie-ruining spoilers, but I still strongly recommend you don’t read any of this until after you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises).

The two best things I’ve read in regards to The Dark Knight Rises were both on Twitter. Olly Moss pointed out that Bane sounds exactly like Dr. Henry Killinger. And then this after-screening review:

My take on it is pretty much the same as my opinion of every other Christopher Nolan movie I’ve seen (Memento, Inception, and the three Batman movies, for those keeping track). It’s not bad, or even mediocre; it’s an extremely well-made movie by a screenwriter/director who knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly what he wants to achieve. They just don’t make me feel anything. (Except for Inception, which made me feel exhausted).

It’s like taking a Voight-Kampff test and failing. “You see a plane split in two and crash. A woman lifts her leg and uses her stiletto heel to choke a guy. A man has his back broken then climbs up a well as Middle Eastern prisoners chant. A young boy sings the National Anthem and then the football field collapses underneath the players while bridges explode.” What are you trying to show me? Why don’t I feel anything?! But instead of flipping the table and killing the interviewer, I just go home with resignation and blog about it.

I said pretty much the same thing about The Dark Knight, and I thought that was actually a much more enjoyable movie. Heath Ledger’s performance was genuinely outstanding, and that plus the amazing chase sequence actually managed to get me engaged in what I was watching, however briefly. In The Dark Knight Rises, Anne Hathaway is really trying to do the same thing and bring some charisma to the story, but it just blends in with everything else and becomes generally inert.

Except for the sound mixing and questionable choices in voices — Christian Bale’s already silly Batman voice combined with Bane’s weird mask and accent make any conversation between the two of them almost comical — you can’t find fault with any of the technical work. Even though the film’s almost three hours, the script is pretty tight and everything moves quickly enough.

All the performances are fine but weirdly muted. Marion Cotillard is just inherently appealing and charismatic, but it kind of takes all her natural charm to make up for the fact that her role in most of the story is kind of silly and unnecessary. Most of the other recognizable actors seem like a lot of star power devoted to looking calmly concerned and making the occasional wry remark. It’s a shame that the silliest part of these three Batman movies has been Batman, but this one spends the bulk of its time with Bruce Wayne; for the most part, Batman just shuts up and flies around in his new plane.

I can’t even criticize it from the comic book geek angle, because it’s clear that Christopher Nolan has a complete understanding of and respect for the source material, without being bound to following the comic book version letter-for-letter. Bane is one of the all-time dumbest Batman villains, but the movie drops the most ridiculous aspects of the character (venom) and wisely gets at the true value of the character: somebody who is Batman’s equal in both strength and intelligence. With everything from the original stories and characters (except for Two-Face), Nolan takes exactly what he can use to make the point he’s trying to make, and he ignores the rest.

I respect that. And I have a ton of respect for Nolan’s insistence on practical effects instead of an overabundance of CG. And I have a ton of respect for his building up a stable of actors that he likes working with, from one film to the next.

I also respect a script that doesn’t treat me like I’m stupid. This is still very much a comic book story, but the movie tells it with absolute conviction; there’s no trace of pandering, camp, or irony. (Or humor, but that’s a different complaint). If a plot point gets introduced, it expects you to remember it and to be able to follow what’s going on. I liked that there wasn’t a ton of exposition or over-explanation.

And I didn’t predict the “twist” with the villain reveal at all. For that matter, I didn’t see the revelation of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character coming, either. In retrospect, each was blatantly obvious to anyone who had a familiarity with the story lines in the comic. But I still didn’t feel a jolt of surprise, or a spark of sudden recognition, or even embarrassed for not catching on sooner. I didn’t feel much of anything. It all just kind of… happened.

There was one moment that sparked a genuine reaction in me: at the very end, with Michael Caine as Alfred at the cafe in Florence. There’s a split second of recognition, and then a slight smile before he recovers and composes himself, then moves on. It’s extraordinarily subtle, but perfect. Just the barest hint of a smile for half a second conveys a sense of absolute joy, a thousand times more effectively than ten minutes of hobbits frolicking on a bed in slow motion at the end of Return of the King.

I’d guess that it works so well because it’s realistic; that’s exactly how his character would react if all of this were real. And maybe I just don’t want realism from movies as much as I think, especially when they’re movies about super-heroes. Barely anything in The Avengers was even remotely realistic, and it still was a hell of a lot of fun without feeling silly.

I realize that Batman has a ton of baggage — not in the orphaned as a child sense, but the campy 60s TV series and increasingly ridiculous Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movie series sense — but I don’t think it was necessary to over-compensate this much. It’d be okay to turn the melodrama dial up a notch or two. I’m hoping that if this does turn into a Robin or Nightwing franchise, that they keep the production values and the integrity of the filmmaking, but lighten up a little and make them more fun.

2 thoughts on “Occupy Crime Alley

  1. I have seen the movie twice. (And in true comic book geek form, I went back and watched parts of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight — both which are much better.)

    I think Nolan made two mistakes with this movie that made it less enjoyable and less than the other two movies:

    1) He got away from the essence of Batman — The character is haunted by his past. Driven. Almost insane, himself. (And that was pointed out very well in the Dark Knight with the interrogation of the Joker.) That doesn’t just go away. He doesn’t just think anyone can be Batman. He’s Batman. Ultimately, he believes he is the only one who can do the job. And that his job is necessary. The idea that he would be content to hide away for 8 years without the drive to come by constantly eating away at him is just wrong. He is arrogant and firmly believes he is the smartest person in the room. And most of the time he is right.

    2) Nolan never gives Batman a true defining moment with Bane in this movie. Batman never learns that his arrogance caused him to get defeated the first battle (thinking he could beat him in a brawl) with Bane and then come back and beat with physically and mentally. That never happens. And, in fact, Catwoman has to save him.

    I watched the last hour of Superman II recently. That movie has not aged well. The special effects are not great — not even as good as Superman, the Movie. But, it is still enjoyable. Mainly because Superman has a defining moment with Zod — where he crushes his hand. It is and will always be a great scene.

    From my point of view, this is were Nolan swung and missed with this movie. There is never a point in this movie that you look at Batman and know why he is such a badass. Why someone with no superpowers can be so unstoppable. There is never a point where Batman makes Bane afraid.

  2. Chris, I agree on your second point. For the first, I don’t know if I’d call it a “mistake,” since I suspect it’s exactly what Christopher Nolan intended.

    I only saw Batman Begins once, on its opening weekend, so I could be misremembering it. But I got the impression that he wasn’t intending these movies to be installments in the Batman franchise, but a self-contained trilogy. And it’s not quite a reboot or “re-imagining” or whatever, but kind of like he’d made a trilogy of his own that happened to use a bunch of pre-existing characters.

    The first one was about his being driven to become the Batman, doubting himself, being betrayed, and then defining himself as a hero with his own rules, instead of just Ra’s al Ghul’s disciple. So basically, it was Batman: Year One.

    The second one was about his decline, more or less; the Joker came in to teach him that the city wasn’t ruled by order and justice but by chaos and self-interest. He won the city back as Batman, but realized that it required him to stop being Bruce Wayne; people close to him died. So it was obviously The Killing Joke but I don’t know what else; maybe The Dark Knight Returns?

    And so the final one was intended to show that the city would always need the idea of Batman, even if it didn’t need Bruce Wayne to be the Batman. So I don’t think Nolan was as concerned about making a movie about Batman as an iconic character in an indefinitely-running storyline, but a movie that fit within his three-movie story arc and showed one character from beginning to end. So I don’t think he was trying to make Knightfall as much as Batman, Incorporated.

    By that measure, he kind of got what you were talking about in the second point: thematically, anyway, Bane was supposed to be a direct analogue for Batman — a disciple of Ra’s al Ghul, driven by revenge and determination, completely equal if not superior in physical ability, smart enough to head up an underground organization and take over a city, etc.

    My interpretation was that Nolan wanted to show that it’s not just a case of Batman coming in and stopping the bad guy, saving the day for everyone. He wanted to show Batman inspiring people to save themselves — it’s why freeing the cops was such a big deal, and why Catwoman redeemed herself to beat Bane.

    I can see the point behind it all, but I agree that it didn’t work. Bane just peters out; it’s not just that Catwoman comes in to save the day, she also mocks Batman for not using guns — it cheapens one of the character’s defining virtues for the sake of a joke. And then “he’s not the real villain” just feels like weakening that whole confrontation for the sake of a surprise twist. There’s no reason to have Talia in the story, as far as I can tell.

    Part of the problem is something I didn’t realize until my friend Matt pointed out — the weakest part of these Batman movies is always Batman. The voice is just plain silly, and the costume is about as well-done as can be done but still looks clunky and awkward; it gives the impression that you can’t do a live-action Batman and not have him come across as goofy. I think Nolan went all-in on realism for these movies (which is an extremely bad call), and tried to make Bruce Wayne as interesting a character as Batman. It just doesn’t work.

    And like you say, there are no defining moments like a “comic book movie” should have. Even if it were cool to jump out of a bit while prisoners chant below you; it’s something that the villain already did first. (Talia ends up looking more bad-ass in that scene than Bruce Wayne does).

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