Monday, July 23, 2012

Rise always comes... before the fall.

I saw it in IMAX.  And I remained unmoved.  Unmoved by the characters and even by the cinematography.  It was so strange.  I don't think my expectations were that high.  But it just didn't reach into my soul and grab me like The Dark Knight.  There was no sense of desperate peril, no sense of madness.  Everything seemed very clinical.  And then Nolan, to my dismay, reached for spectacle.  But I'm starting to understand some of my dissatisfaction.

First off, the key points of the movie were handled very childishly and out of sync with both the character of Batman and the ideal of 'epic' .  The focal points of the movie are, to my mind, Bane breaking Batman, his rising out of the Pit and the rematch against Bane.  The first showed an inconsistency with the character of Batman.  It was done rather shabbily what with Batman, after having been out of action (and presumably out of shape) for 8 years, walking into a trap and fighting someone he couldn't beat (two things that are rather anti-Batman).  The second felt terribly rushed, and very inconsistent with the idea of 'epic'.  They put Rise in the title of the movie.  If the Rise was supposed to be really epic, you have to see Bruce fail at least a half-dozen times (he did on his third attempt what no one else had ever done except Talia).  He'd have to see something heartbreaking happening in Gotham, become furious, then cut to an attempt, then he fails.  Rinse and repeat to when the old man says to jump without the rope, find your fear (just like in Knightfall).  And the third moment suffered from Nolan's absolute inability to judge or film a hand-to-hand combat sequence.  One wonders if he'd seen the Bourne Trilogy or even a Jackie Chan film.  They weren't fighting like trained martial artists, they were brawling like a pair of prizefighters.  Batman didn't defeat this monster who had broken him like he was nothing by using his wits, his brain, learning from his mistakes.  He did exactly the same thing he did in the first fight (fighting him on his turf by his rules) and for some reason, he won instead of lost.  He outmuscled someone who was his physical superior and that simply doesn't make any sense.

Next I feel as though there were easier ways for Nolan to get a nuke into Gotham.  Putting aside the idea that a single nuke would even destroy Gotham (last I checked Nagasaki and Hiroshima are still around), if the League of Shadows really did want to go down a notch from 'having the city rip itself apart through fear' to 'let's just nuke the damn thing', all the subterfuge of developing a fusion reactor, a deal with a Wayne boardmember for construction contracts laced with explosives, a mad scientist, stealing fingerprints to make stock trades, losing the Wayne millions, invalidating him as CEO, getting Tate access to the reactor, weaponizing it, an anonymous triggerman and a decay countdown to detonation could have much more easily and plausibly been handled by simply smuggling a nuke into Gotham.  This would have removed the need for Daggett, Talia, the Doctor, the Fusion Reactor, the Stock Market, Catwoman - basically a chunk of the movie that formulates the plot beyond "League of Shadows wants to break Bat and Blow up Gotham".  The story is simple - Revenge or more accurately "The League of Shadows Strikes Back" - but instead of keeping the story elemental and winning the audience with the visuals and the execution, Nolan shows off how smart the story was by putting all these extra elements in and resorting to sleight-of-hand without giving us a reason to believe why all of it was necessary.

But the biggest problem I have with the story is simply how disconnected it is from the Nolan universe previously established, the Batman canon, and the final moments of The Dark Knight.  As to the Nolan universe, simply put, if the answer to Gotham's ills lay simply in one piece of legislation, the Dent Act, why was it necessary to create Batman in the first place?  The story lays out a simple premise - too much is wrong with Gotham for any one thing to work.  The Batman is meant to be a symbol to all of Gotham to address the things that Bruce Wayne can't solve with money.  He's a tool to make in-roads against organized crime, street violence, police corruption, court corruption.  And only then does he discover he has two more, novel enemies no one expected, the criminally insane (Scarecrow and Joker) and international terrorism (the League).  But the Dent Act, by simply preventing people from getting parole, has somehow cleaned the police force and judiciary completely, crushed all organized crime, and made Gotham a working metropolis?  I imagine Nolan would argue that organized crime was all but crushed by the Joker (he burned the money and killed both crimelords) but since when has that stopped people from simply replacing them (as Maroni replace Falcone).  Rachel makes pains in the first movie to point out that crime is simply a symptom of economic failings in the city. Nolan created a universe of a persistent problem that would need serious solutions but instead the whole thing was rectified by killing a couple of people and one piece of law.

This, of course feeds into the second problem.  I've heard a lot of Batman fans express displeasure over the Nolan-verse as too liberal with some of the key elements of Batman and I have largely given him a pass on these criticisms in the interest of the good storytelling.  But good storytelling having been eschewed, I must come to the naysayers perspective.  Bruce has given up the Batman for 8 years at the beginning of the story. He has done so, not because the Dent Act has made the streets so safe that he is unneeded, not because the burden of escaping nightly police manhunts while fighting crime has taken too much of a toll, but rather because the loss of Rachel has broken him.  To my mind, fine, that is a little out of the obsessive, driven, crazy characterizations that every iteration of Bruce Wayne have held to, but I can forgive it.  What I can't forgive is the idea that Bruce would become such a recluse as to let his family's company, upon which so many in Gotham depend, fall by the wayside.  That would be like saying Bruce stopped caring about Gotham, which is, in a word, impossible.  But that is exactly what Bruce has done: Rachel died and he's said to hell with everything.  Homeless shelters for at-risk youth are running out of money and he doesn't give a damn.  And this is utterly out of character for Batman.

Bruce Wayne has always understood that crime in Gotham has to be fought from two directions.  The first is by night, as the Batman, the vigilant protector and deterrent of crime in Gotham.  The second is by day, the massive charitable work of the Wayne Foundation to help keep certain impoverished people from being driven in the direction of providing labour to the criminal industry in the first place.  I've read in various places that the soup kitchen network of the Wayne Foundation is where Bruce gets the most valuable intelligence on where he should be when the nightfalls.  The idea that anything could cause Bruce to give up on Gotham while it was still in need strikes at the heart of the notion that a man would choose to become Batman in the first place.  Batman was born of tragedy, guilt and a need: the loss of his parents, his guilt over not having the power to stop it and Gotham's need for a symbol and rallying cry.  These three factors drive him to commit his life to never having anyone suffer his fate.  Living happily ever after with Rachel was never his primary concern - it only became a nice possibility after he'd committed to cleaning up Gotham.  Nolan would have us believe that more tragedy and guilt over his failure to save Rachel would cause him to see the futility of it all rather than drive him even further into his mission.  Which is, uh, a different direction from how other writers have interpreted Bruce Wayne.

And finally, and to me, most unforgivably, Nolan straight up copped out.  We're going to give them a SUPER-HAPPY ENDING!  Batman doesn't want to be officially known as a hero.  There's a statue of him in Gotham City Hall.  He hasn't given everything to Gotham...not yet.  He survives.  Sorry but it has to be one or the other.  You get the statue if you die.  If you don't die, you fade away as an urban legend.  Instead, Gotham City has been ravaged by an anarcho-terrorist group that has held the city hostage for three months, a nuke went off in the bay, Batman saves the day, gets a statue of himself erected and...retires to Italy.  I was just watching in awe.  His city, which he has fought and suffered and bled for is in tatters, crime no doubt will be on the fall in this fucking-urban-failed-state...and he just walks away.

And he left the Batcave open! :-)

But seriously it isn't that bad.  It certainly tries to be an epic conclusion.  It really just tries too hard.  No mention of Joker...It's astonishing how much control over what we make is completely out of our hands.  I would argue The Dark Knight Rises lost a star in more ways than one when Heath Ledger died.

P.S.  There has been a tendency to see this movie as merely a summer blockbuster (in the vein of the Avengers, or Transformers) that has caused a lot of people to overlook its shortcomings.  Nolan is hot as hell right now so people give him the benefit of the doubt.  However some people have been able to articulate some of the thematic and characterization issues that I noticed in both erudite and less than sophisticated ways.  It seems clear that Chris Nolan's original assessment was correct: It's nearly impossible to make a great third movie in a trilogy.


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