The Dark Knight Rises (another view)
Tony Keen — 18-Aug-12
“SOME DAYS YOU JUST CAN’T GET RID OF A BOMB!”
And so has arrived the other most anticipated superhero movie of the summer, after Joss Whedon’s Avengers (sorry, The Amazing Spider-Man, you don’t quite cut the mustard). They make an interesting coupling, with Nolan’s movie the scarred flipside of Two-Face’s coin to Whedon’s sunny upbeat optimism. Gavin Burrows has already reviewed The Dark Knight Rises for this site, and I suggest that, if you’re okay with spoilers, you go and read that now. I don’t want to challenge or disagree with Gavin’s review here – rather, I want to cover some areas of interest that he doesn’t. I shall try to keep this largely spoiler-free.
First of all, I agree with Gavin that Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is one of the best things in the movie. She’s certainly better-characterized than Catwoman was in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), where “Oh, she’s mad” often seemed considered adequate to explain her motivation. Unfortunately, so complex is Nolan’s movie that there isn’t enough screen time given to Hathaway. Nor indeed to Marion Cotillard, or, to be honest, anyone in the movie, with the exception of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s policeman, clearly, for Nolan at least, the emotional heart of the movie.
Bane is also better characterized than he was in Joel Schumacher’s ludicrous* Batman & Robin (1997). Indeed, he’s probably better characterized here, and given a more coherent back story, than he ever has been in the comics. Given the wealth of colourful villains the Batman comics have to offer, Bane at first seems a strange choice; a product of the post-Watchmen Hand-Staple-Forehead Age of comics, he lacks the cachet of his Golden and Silver Age predecessors. But I can see why Nolan felt he was the right character for the story he wanted to tell here. (Incidentally, it is interesting to reflect upon the degree to which the shape of Nolan’s trilogy has been formed by the clearly corporate decision that Ra’s al Ghul and the Scarecrow were the next villains up after those that had been used in the Burton/Schumacher series.)
What is less understandable is why an actor of the calibre of Tom Hardy was needed for a role that could have been played by almost anyone, and why Hardy then plumped for a voice performance that owes much to Victorian Gothic melodramas and their cinematic interpretations, a performance neatly parodied by Al Murray on BBC Radio 5 Live. In fairness, though, whilst noting that much of Bane’s dialogue is inaudible, one needs to add that other characters, such as Commissioner Gordon, are also drowned out by the music or background noise.
Gavin has done an excellent round-up of the political interpretations of the movie. To that I shall only add that I can well understand how some have, for good or ill, seen the movie as right-wing. But the superhero genre, being about adolescent power fantasies, has an inherent bias towards the right wing, and this is more so in the case of Batman than of many others, arising as he does from the same right-wing paranoid fantasy that fuels Dirty Harry and Death Wish; that there are bad men out there, and not only can the law not protect you from them, but the law is sufficiently weak that these bad men can bend it to protect themselves. And, of course, we are still dealing with Frank Miller’s Batman here, and all that entails. Where Batman Begins (2005) drew heavily upon Miller’s Batman: Year One, with a bit of The Dark Knight Returns thrown in, The Dark Knight Rises is Dark Knight Returns (including a direct lift of some dialogue) with a bit of Year One. (Fortunately Nolan is not foolish enough to want to make use of the dreadful Dark Night Strikes Again.)
In any case, as Gavin says, the political references are mere window-dressing to give the movie a contemporary gloss. Seek not here for a serious engagement with contemporary issues.
Gavin (and Abigail Nussbaum) talks about the fetishization of Batman as important at the centre of the movie, and that certainly is an element. But I also think Nolan attempts to demystify Batman, by stripping him of his iconography. Where Whedon leaps into the superhero genre and embraces it wholeheartedly, Nolan seems to be uncomfortable with certain aspects, and questions the genre. The obvious moment embodying this might seem to be when Bats is suddenly left by Selina Kyle when he’s not watching, in a Stealth Bye. But that’s really just an ironic reversal of what Batman generally does to other people (“So that’s what that feels like”, a lift this time from Kingdom Come).
More significant is the amount of time Nolan delays the appearance of Batman (as opposed to Bruce Wayne), and the limited amount of screen time Batman (as opposed to Bruce Wayne) gets, almost as if Nolan is now embarrassed by the costume. And also there is a clear shift in the movie from night-time settings to daytime. Being a creature of the night has always been an important part of the Batman mythos, and in Burton’s two movies almost nothing takes place outside in the daylight, to such a degree that when there is a daylight exterior in Batman Forever, it’s quite jarring. Batman Begins is much the same as the Burton movies, but an awful lot of Dark Knight Rises happens in daylight. In particular, Nolan moves Batman’s fights from the night into the day, where the final climactic action set-piece takes place. This, of course, brings its own problems. Gotham at night can be the Art Deco-cum-Gothic fantasy metropolis of Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson’s imaginings (as it is in Batman Begins). By day, Gotham is all too obviously New York under a thin disguise.
But that is far from being the worst of the movie’s problems. One serious issue is how dumb it is. Without going into spoiler detail, too much of the plot is driven either by implausible co-incidence, or by people being colossally stupid. Now, you might say, it’s a superhero movie – one should expect it to be dumb. But Nolan has been feted for the intelligence of his movies, and in particular the intelligence of his blockbusters – he is supposed to be the director who treats his audiences as being as intelligent as he is. Given that, it’s entirely legitimate to point out that Dark Knight Rises isn’t anything like as intelligent a movie as Inception (itself not half as clever as it likes to pretend it is).
The other problem is how unsurprising everything in this movie is. Most developments are telegraphed well in advance. Again, without resorting to plot spoilers, a line of dialogue will make you think something is going to happen, and it duly does. Another line will make you think someone is not what they seem, and so they turn out to be. A character clearly set up for something indeed has the scene you expected. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the Batman mythos, the superhero genre, or even just action movies, should find all this pretty predictable. There is nothing as shocking or surprising here as the death of Rachel in The Dark Knight (for all that it is a girlfriend-in-the-fridge moment), or Alfred’s destruction of her letter to Bruce, or indeed any number of moments in other Nolan movies, such as The Prestige or Inception.
Of course, one can go too far in criticism. It remains astonishing what Nolan has been able to get away with in his Batman trilogy, and it is hard to imagine that when the franchise is rebooted (as, inevitably, it will be) his achievements can be matched. It will be interesting to see what he does with the Superman reboot Man of Steel (though the involvement of Zack Snyder is surely a warning sign).
Dark Knight Rises is a superior superhero movie, better than most examples of the genre, including all the Burton/Schumacher series except, arguably, the first. It’s also better than most of what gets passed off as superhero comics these days – the movies remain the best place for worthwhile superhero stories. There is much to enjoy here: Gary Oldman remains the best Commissioner Gordon we’re ever likely to see, and Michael Caine brings more depth to the role of Alfred than we have any right to expection in a movie like this (though he does disappear halfway through).
But against the standards Nolan has set himself, Dark Knight Rises doesn’t rise far enough, and must be considered the least of the trilogy, and the worst of all of Nolan’s movies. The problem is that he has said everything he wants to say about Batman in Batman Begins and Dark Knight, and, especially in the latter movie, set the bar very high for himself, and left himself with nowhere to go. Dark Knight redefined what could be achieved in the superhero genre. Dark Knight Rises is merely a good example of that genre, and that’s no longer really good enough.
* I should say that I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. I have a lot more time than many for Schumacher’s two entries in the franchise, despite their manifest faults. For all the dodgy performances, Batman Forever (1995) is more coherent than Burton’s over-rated Batman Returns, and I have a sneaking admiration for the chutzpah of Batman & Robin in putting on screen what is essentially an Adam West Batman episode made by people with astronomically more money than sense.