Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Punishment More Severe (my pal Chris' take on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES)

My friend Chris (you may know him as Jackson Publick of THE VENTURE BROS.) and I have an annual tradition. Every summer, after the onslaught of comic book movies has abated, we go back and forth with e-mail summaries of our opinions on this genre we both hold close to our geeky hearts. Chris is more of a Marvelite, while I have always been more of a DC guy, but we share sensibilities as to what we love about superheroes, both the colorful, cheesy retro glory of the Silver and Bronze age and some more serious modern takes on this mythology.

Last week (or, in Internet terms, below), I posted my lengthy, mostly positive thoughts on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. To save time, I sent Chris the link to the piece. His take was decidedly different, and while I can either forgive or disagree with some of his complaints, he raises some damn salient points. I asked him if I could reprint his e-mail (since it deserves more exposure than merely my inbox).

So, with only slight editing, here’s Chris’ take on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

I didn't like DARK KNIGHT RISES much (it had its moments) and was utterly surprised at how disappointed and disinterested I was in this movie that I'd been so looking forward to, from a filmmaker and cast I have nothing but love and admiration for.

Here’s my first impression: It's a well-made, good-looking film. I liked all the actors. I liked Catwoman. I liked the Bat (plane). I liked the Talia twist. And I guess it was a reasonable conclusion to the story Nolan was telling. I just do not like the story he was telling.

I loved BATMAN BEGINS. Sure, it got a little dorky in places, but it was pretty great--and the first "real" Batman movie we've ever gotten. Then THE DARK KNIGHT blew my head off. Loved it the first time I saw it (though I thought it could use a little more Batman) and love it more and more every time I see it. And I'm not comic book purist. I've got no problem with costume changes, or character amalgamations, or what movie or play Bruce was watching when his parents got long as it's true to the essence of a character and/or serves the greater good of grounding the comic book stuff in reality. I'm fine with armor, I'm fine with leather-clad X-men, I'm fine with organic webshooters...

And Nolan was incredibly true to the character in those first couple of films. He mixed and matched elements of the comic book and seamlessly dressed him up with some of his own bits, draping it all on top of a familiar, faithful foundation of the Batman character.

But DARK KNIGHT RISES... it just seems like he built the entire thing--plot and character motivations--from all the purely Nolan bits that he added along the way. And that struck me as incredibly selfish.

He quit being Batman because a girl Nolan invented got killed. He took the slightly-more-than-tolerable love interest from the first two movies and made it the centerpiece of his plot.

First of all, BATMAN DOES NOT FUCKING QUIT. Especially not after only one year on the job--a job he began because people close to him were murdered. Maybe I should have seen that coming. Nolan's Batman doesn't want to be Batman. He wanted to quit in THE DARK KNIGHT, too. But that was an aside to everything else going on. What I thought was the requisite crisis of faith story all comic heroes go through. And I thought that ground was covered in TDK. Hero wants to quit. Terrible villainy forces him to reevaluate and embrace his heroism. I thought by the end of that movie he realized he had to be bigger than himself, fight through the pain and move on. Which brings me to my second point...

Why would he take the blame for Harvey Dent's death? Seriously... this was my ONE complaint with THE DARK KNIGHT. I didn't get the logic then and I double-extra don't now. Actually, the first time I saw TDK, I thought Batman was taking the blame for Dent's death as a way to get back his street cred or something. Both the Joker and Eric Roberts' character make such a point of how they're not afraid of Batman because he won't "cross that line" and kill people, I thought him taking the murder rap would make people on the street fear him again. Subsequent viewings made me realize that wasn't the case. So, again... why the fuck would he take the blame for Harvey Dent's death (and the cops he killed)? The Joker and his henchmen just murdered dozens of people and tried to murder hundreds more. The mob was running around offing people left and right. How hard would it be to chalk one more murder up to that crazy night? So again, Nolan's built an entire story around my least favorite, least plausible Nolan addition to the Batman world.

So I go to see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the movie starts, and we've got a mopey Batman who quit 8 years ago because of two plot points that I don't buy into... and so immediately I'm not buying into this movie. And nothing I see in the next 3 hours pulls me back on board. Because the plot gets wicked stupid.

For this supposedly "realistic, dark, grounded" take on Batman, the villains' plot and motivations boil down to these most implausible, comic-booky statements:

"I will destroy Gotham!" and "I will get you, Batman!"

I don't buy that Manhattan could get cut off from the world for three months. I don't buy that people would follow the scant, half-assed Occupy rhetoric of a guy in a mask holding them for ransom with a nuclear bomb. The League of Shadows' determination to destroy Gotham in BATMAN BEGINS was barely believable and a little silly, but worked in that film because we spent time with the League and with Ra’s, but here we have a pair of second generation Leaguers just going about their business with no explanation or motivation other than "We're just totally evil and you killed our friend." Not even a little bit of lip service paid to why the League would feel it's necessary to exterminate an entire city.

Then Alfred quits or gets fired because of this fucking letter Nolan invented from this fucking girl Nolan invented that burned up 8 years ago. ALFRED DOES NOT FUCKING QUIT EITHER! And if he does--you bring him back in the fourth act, not after Batman dies.

Then Batman's back gets broken and he's sent to a prison to heal in record time and somehow gets back into a city that's completely cut off, even from SEAL team 6. Why? Because he has to save... the city? The cops? At this point, I don't even understand where anyone in this city stands. Are the 1000 escaped convicts just running the show? Or did the whole city turn into quasi-revolutionaries? Are the good people of Gotham cowering in their homes, or are they joining in Crane's kangaroo court because they drank the Kool Aid? I can't tell. I can only assume the inmates scare the shit out of everyone and maybe 10-20% of the population are amoral opportunists who join up with the gang and everyone else is just a victim trying to live their lives, but we don't really see much peril. We don't see the gangs roving the streets, beating up little old ladies, or fathers scrounging for food to feed their families. We see a couple of schmucks sent out onto the ice of the East River. It's almost like the police are the only good people in Gotham who need saving...

Saving by one guy in a costume, who's half a mile up in the sky in his plane. Because he's such a symbol and an inspiration. A guy who hates being Batman and hates Gotham so much he wants to get the hell out. But not before he passes his own personal nightmare on to a frisky young non-billionaire, non-ninja trained cop.

I just don't get why Nolan took this road, because I think he could have accomplished all of the same dramatic goals without the baffling logic problems and without gutting Batman as a character.

You want to have a story that takes place 8 years later, with a physically and mentally broken down Batman who's hung up his cape? Fine... then give us a Batman who kept working for five of those years until the streets were cleaned up. Let the audience at least imagine their hero's further adventures you're unwilling to give them. It would make his wrecked body more believable. We would sympathize more with a guy who threw himself into his work after his girlfriend died, doubled down on crimefighting at the expense of his body and sanity. We would see the pain it caused Alfred to watch this happen to him... etc.

You want the Dent Law and the clean streets to be built on a lie? Fine... lie about the mafia killing Dent and those cops. Lie about the Joker doing it. For one, you'd have an easier time passing a Dent Law if the blame was cast on the people who the Dent Law is designed to prosecute. And it's a much more damning lie to cover up and have to live with, one which would be easier to uncover. Plus, wouldn't all those pesky reporters have run Gordon and the mayor out of town for working with a masked cop killer once that fake Batman-killed-Dent story broke?

I kept wishing, also, that Nolan would play the story closer to Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS overall. I know it's not fair to do that to a filmmaker, but Nolan was systematically setting up just about every other element from that story in this film, and then failed to deliver on any of them, or to improve on them (and I know he can--if you've ever read the book THE PRESTIGE was based on, Nolan improved on it immensely). For instance...

Bane is basically the mutant leader. Nolan's built up a disenfranchised Gotham populace who, under Bane's leadership, are openly rebelling (I think... see above comments). He's a false prophet, a bad guy leader... they need to be saved, their energies directed in a more positive direction. They need a good leader. A hero... a symbol... sound familiar?

Why does Nolan hammer on this "leader" and "symbol" and "inspiration" crap... only to take it nowhere? Why does he hammer on this 99%er rebellion thing to take it nowhere? Why does the climax take place in broad daylight? WHERE IS THAT GLORIOUS MOMENT WHERE BATMAN JUMPS ON A HORSE AND LEADS THESE PEOPLE TO TAKE BACK THEIR CITY?!!!

Isn't that what all that was supposed to be leading to? The reluctant hero, who realizes he can't do it alone, that one man can't save a city, but can INSPIRE a city to save itself, stepping out of the shadows and saying "Yes, here I am, I'm Batman... let's roll!"

Nope. Just a hundred cops, and what's that dot on the horizon? I think it's Batman in his little plane, safe from all this street fighting, saving the city like only one man can.

I really thought we'd get that DARK KNIGHT RETURNS cave ending, too. Again, because it would have been better than what we got. The hero who's too old for the costume but knows his work isn't done and he needs to try a new angle. A Batman who fakes his death and goes underground not because he wants to skip off to Italy with Catwoman but because he's been outed as Bruce Wayne. Who knows he can't do it alone and has found a like-minded partner (who's young enough to put on the suit when the symbol is needed) and a group of disenfranchised people whose energies he can channel into doing good.

Again... not fair to expect an adaptation of a comic book, even one he borrows from so liberally. But I don't think he resolved a lot of stuff. And I can't be inspired by a Batman who doesn't want to be Batman, who mopes over a girl, who fires his best friend because of a girl, and then fakes his death so he won't have to be a hero anymore.

Like I said, if that's the Batman Nolan was building, then this was, I guess, a reasonable conclusion to that story. I can't deny there is charm and satisfaction in seeing him end up with Catwoman at a cafe, or watching Blake discover the Bat Cave. But I guess what bugs me is that, in the last hurrah for a very satisfying series, what I thought was a really mature, faithful interpretation of Batman turned into an Elseworlds or WHAT IF? story.

Also, side note: what up with just not giving a shit about Gotham being Gotham anymore? Maybe people in Chicago had this complaint of TDK because they recognized their city like I recognize New York in this one, but geez... throw us a bone once in a while, Nolan. Give us an elevated train somewhere, or a CG Wayne Tower on the horizon that looks like the one in BATMAN BEGINS. But naked overhead footage of New York with a half-constructed Freedom Tower? Pittsburgh business districts and LA highways? Give it some love and atmosphere, man.

There. I'm done now. That's much more than my 2 cents. I expect change.

Chris followed up his e-mail after he saw the movie a second time, saying that while he still had his issues with it, he enjoyed it more the second time around (as did I). Here is what I wrote in response to Chris’ e-mail:

Some friends were over last night, non comic book people who had just seen the film, and they both loved it. We were talking about the movie, and I raised some of your (and some of my) concerns, and they both got it. But we all still loved the movie. I think what you've come up with are ways that a great movie could've been a masterpiece.

I'm sure I'm going through that stage where the blinders are on because of how much I WANTED to love the movie. Not to say that I'm going to have a 180 shift ala the Burton films, but the issues you raised will no doubt continue to, um, rise as the hype settles.

The Batman-who-doesn't-want-to-be-Batman is a little annoying, but this isn't the comic book Batman; This is a far more flawed, more realistic character. I do totally 100% agree that what happened between TDK and TDKR was surprising and off-putting. The Dent Act is a stretch, and I was shocked that Batman apparently hadn't been in action since that film. There seems to be a contingency of fanboys who are trying to infer that he was still working as Batman for a long time, but I'm not seeing it.

The whole "Gotham must be destroyed because it's beyond redemption" was one of my big issues with BATMAN BEGINS, but for some reason, it didn't bother me in this movie. I think that most of the people working for Bane (and hence Talia) were as fooled by the fake rhetoric as those Gotham residents who did likewise. My interpretation was that it was just Talia who wanted to carry out her father's mission, out of revenge for his death.

I also thought that completely shutting off the city was a bit of a stretch, but it didn't kill it for me. I could see most people just hiding in their homes, too afraid to do anything. Which is why, YES, you are TOTALLY RIGHT, the climax should've been Batman—the symbol—inspiring the people to take back the city. The Batman on the horse scene would've been awesome.

I hated—HATED that Chicago was replaced with New York. I get that they felt the city had to be an island, but it totally blew continuity in a supposedly realistic context. The least they could've done was CGI out some of the more recognizable buildings. But it was so off putting. The whole bomb thing was a bit over the top (I keep watching the Internet for "Some Days You Just Can't Get Rid of a Bomb" mash-up memes). But it worked.

Sadly, it seems as if all superhero movies always end up being About a Girl. Captain America's bummed because he's late for a date. Thor's sad because he left Jane Foster on Midgard. Superman mopes around because Lois is living with Cyclops. You'd think if there was one character for whom they could've ditched the love angle, it would be Batman, but I guess even he's impervious.

It's funny, though, I am glad that you enjoyed it (as a movie) more the second time. Ah, the way we get possessive of this crap.

POSTSCRIPT, Dec. 21, 2012

I watched the movie again recently after purchasing the Blu-Ray, and it's true... the more I watch it, the less I love it. It's such a DOUR film for a superhero movie. There's very little triumph, way too many leaps in logic and character behavior, and, as Chris so succinctly pointed out, way too little Batman (not literally, but figuratively). Ultimately, this movie is a kinda sad ending to a promising trilogy.

1 comment:

Anita Light said...

This was a great read! Good to know someone else saw an ending that didn't appear to represent what the first two movies were trying to build. Your friend Chris is a pretty smart guy, would love to here more of those perspectives on more movies.