Thursday, July 26, 2012

What Batman Has Become -- Reflections on "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)

'Sup, bro! Let's get ready to rumble!

Batman is an amazing character. He’s specific enough to be relatable, yet general enough to be universal. On one side he’s a man possessed by anger and a desire to serve justice as he sees it; on the other, he’s an anonymous masked man upon which anyone can project their own identity. As a result, everyone has their own idea as to what they think Batman is, which may explain why he has been so malleable over the years, able to be a dark knight detective, a playboy vigilante, and a campy crime fighter without ever truly compromising or destroying the vision of creator Bob Kane.

Like it or not, Christopher Nolan has a definite idea as to who he believes Batman is. In Batman Begins, he was a revenge seeking millionaire with the training of a terrorist. With The Dark Knight, he was the morally ambiguous symbol caught between Harvey Dent’s altruism and the Joker’s anarchy. And in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s climatic third act of this trilogy, Batman is a pussy.

That’s right. He’s a pussy.

We begin The Dark Knight Rises seven years after the end of the previous film. The story Batman and Jim Gordon concocted in the wake of Dent’s death has turned Dent into a saint and led to the creation of the Dent Act, a law that has somehow managed to put an end to due process and keep all members of Gotham’s organized crime syndicates behind bars forever. Gotham has never seen better days, and Batman is nowhere to be found. Wayne has hung up the cowl and taken up a cane and a case of clinical depression. According to Nolan’s story, Bruce Wayne has stopped being Batman because Rachel Dawes died. His parents died and he thirsted for revenge so badly he wound up in a terrorist group, but when his girlfriend dies, he quits. It’s a thin motivation to say the least.

I understand why Nolan thought this was a good idea. It all stems from the George Lucas/Joseph Campbell school of hero storytelling, in which the hero refuses the call to adventure. And that’s what Bruce Wayne does for a huge bulk of the film, until he is drawn into the adventure by Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a master thief who lifts his fingerprints while masquerading as a servant. Why does she need Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints? It’s complicated, almost needlessly so.

It’s all a part of an epic plan by Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked terrorist who looks like a cross between Darth Vader and Steve Austin. This plan begins with the abduction of a nuclear physicist in a brilliantly staged action sequence that made little sense, and involves an invasion of the stock exchange, the destruction of a football field, and the release of every criminal in Gotham in the name of “liberation.” Who is being liberated? Bane suggests it’s everyone in the city, but since Gotham is only populated by criminals, police, rich assholes, and orphans, it’s hard to tell.

Bane’s whole plan is like a game of Jenga, every piece needing to be carefully moved just so that it won’t come crumbling down, making it all feel remarkably contrived. I don’t think I would have minded this so much if I felt more closely connected to Bane. It’s not until the end of the film that we understand Bane’s motivation clearly, and it’s too little too late. Nolan really does Bane a disservice here, not doing much more than making him menacing without providing us significant reason to feel the weight of that menace. He holds the cards of Bane’s motivation too close to the chest, wanting to avoid giving away a great plot twist that he ultimately sacrifices what could have been a powerful character.

As Bruce Wayne inevitably decides to don the cowl and the gravelly voice again, other characters emerge on the periphery of the story. John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a beat cop on the rise with a heart for orphans, and a nagging suspicion that Batman is still around. Along with Selina Kyle, Blake helps bring the Batman back, then proceeds to work behind the scenes with Commissioner Gordon to stop the most disturbing part of Bane’s diabolical plan. We also meet Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy do-gooder who wants access to a fusion reactor Wayne Industries has hiding under Gotham to create alternative energy. As with Bane’s motivation, Miranda Tate’s is equally unclear until it’s too late to make it dramatically appealing. It’s almost as if Nolan, obviously an acolyte of Alfred Hitchcock, forgot Hitchcock’s rule about preferring suspense over surprise. In this film, he’s in love with surprises, but without clearly defined characters, the surprises have no emotional resonance; they are just hollow twists meant for people to tweet or text “WTF” to their friends.

While most of this review has been negative – because there is a lot to be frustrated with in The Dark Knight Rises – there are some definite positives, too. I love Anne Hathaway here as Selina Kyle, who is – in classic Nolan style – never called Catwoman. She’s scrappy, funny, sexy, and well-written. Hathaway is having the time of her life playing this character, and it shows. Equally excellent is Joseph Gordon Levitt as John Blake. Levitt is such a likable actor, and as with Selina Kyle’s character, his is clearly defined, making the gimmicky ending feel a little less gimmicky. Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine as Gordon, Lucius Fox, and Alfred respectively, do their thing and do it well. Michael Caine, especially, gives a great performance; the scene where he must face the consequences of burning Rachel’s letter from The Dark Knight is one of the film’s finest.

Technically, of course, Nolan’s direction shines. The stunts are incredible and jaw dropping, the vehicles super cool, and the visual effects gorgeous. This is expected. Nolan is one of our finest visual directors, his compositions stunning, and the camera movements purposeful and exciting. I can’t think of anyone who can stage a better chase sequence than Nolan.

I just wish more had been invested in creating a villain we could become invested in. In Batman Begins, it didn’t matter so much that Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow weren’t particularly interesting because the story was all about Bruce’s personal journey of self-discovery. The Joker was a force of nature and Heath Ledger’s iconic performance brought us into his crazy, demented world. With Rises, though, Bane needed to be more than just scary – he needed to resonate.

And Batman needed to be more of a man, or at least more of the man we thought he was after the first two films. But it’s obvious that the problem with this film is that Nolan doesn’t believe in Batman, even if the characters in his story pay lip service to the notion that they do. He doesn’t believe a real man would want to play dress up and play judge and jury with criminals, all the while toeing the delicate line between good and evil. He believes that Batman would be undone by a broken heart, but not by a broken back. This doesn’t sit well with me as a lifelong fan of Batman, but that’s not important. What’s important is that it doesn’t jibe with the character we were given back in Batman Begins. This is a change that feels contrived because the character was written into a corner.

Oh well. Despite what I think, The Dark Knight Rises will impress many with its lavish set pieces, epic scale, and iconography. It’s a spectacle, a flawed, flawed spectacle.