Aug 13, 2012

Back Issue Ben Reviews The Dark Knight Rises

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

(Duy here. I've said before that I would see The Dark Knight Rises and that I wouldn't write about it if I didn't like it. I'm sticking to that, but Back Issue Ben wanted to write about it — he actually did before I even saw it, and now that I've seen it, I got to read it and am running it. Suffice it to say, while I don't always agree with the opinions of my guest Cubers, I pretty much do agree with most of this one.)

The Dark Knight Rises
by Ben Smith

I went into The Dark Knight Rises with the lowest of expectations, and it still found a way to disappoint me. I haven't been the biggest fan of Nolan's take on the character of Batman, but through the previous two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I could at least concede that the movies were well acted and generally entertaining to watch. Dark Knight Rises is neither. Furthermore, as much as I could nitpick the plot of the previous two films, they weren't so bad that they took me completely out of the movie the way Rises does. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First off, let's discuss the acting.

I've seen Tom Hardy receive a lot of praise online and from co-workers for his portrayal of the bruising Bane, and I suppose he does a good job. Though, it doesn't seem that hard to walk around with a mask the entire movie and talk with a cartoon voice. (Seriously, that voice made me laugh the first time I heard it in the movie. I don't know that that is the desired response. He sounded like a British Speak-and-Spell with terrorist tendencies). He's a physically imposing presence, but I'm still not convinced you can't hire a professional wrestler to do the exact same thing.

Christian Bale is the star of these movies, and yet nobody ever seems to so much as notice him in them. The main reaction people have to him is the BATMAN VOICE, and he does it again in this movie, to even more hilarious results. His rendition of "where's the trigger?" near the end of the movie resulted in Back Issue Ben nearly having a seizure from laughing so hard. (My laughing and repeating the "where's the trigger line", prompted my four-year-old son to start saying it, with increasing levels of commitment, merely serving to perpetuate our laughter. It was a great family moment. Thank you, Dark Knight Rises)

Anne Hathaway is impressive as Catwoman at the beginning of the movie. Her performance in that early scene where she switches from nervous, to badass, to scared victim, and back is one of the highlights of the movie. Unfortunately, I don't think she's given a whole lot more to do for the rest of the movie. I mean, I know she's running around as Catwoman, but that's mostly it, running around. (Not that seeing her run around in a black bodysuit is anything to be cynical about, so I'm not going to be too critical here.)

Joseph Gordon Levitt was pretty good as Dick Grayson. Unfortunately, he wasn't Dick Grayson. I know some people were probably happy that he was worked into the movies in this vague way, but all it did for me is wish that he was actually playing Robin outright. He looks the part, he had the heart and compassion of the character down. He would have been great at it. Otherwise, they're just trying to set him up as the next Batman in a movie that will probably never be made, because Nolan is done and the next person they hire will want to do their own thing. (There's a joke about "Dick" and "Rises" in there somewhere.

The two highlights and anchors of the previous films, for me, were Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. With good reason, these guys are highly accomplished and respected actors. Which makes their misuse in this movie a borderline criminal act. (Wouldn't that be great to see on the news? "Director arrested for misuse of actor in film". I'd read that article). Morgan Freeman is given nothing to do in this movie. He makes a really good hostage. He has nothing to work with. Michael Caine has too much to work with at the beginning of the movie. He's the father, he's the source of Wikipedia like information about Bane, he's got random tales and wisdom. Caine has been the emotional center of the previous movies for me. (In Batman Begins, when kid Bruce starts crying to Alfred....well, it hits me in my robot heart. I'll say that much). Not so here. I found the dialogue he was given was trying a little too hard to hit the viewer, and it missed the mark for his one.

Overall, the much ballyhooed "funny parts" were delivered so badly that they weren't funny (Batman's "So that's what that feels like" line to Catwoman might have been good if it wasn't delivered in the BATMAN VOICE), and many of the serious parts were delivered so badly that they were funny. The dialogue was exposition heavy and tried to provide explanations for the shortcuts in the movie. (The scene where Daggett tells Bane, "you're pure evil" is memorably bad).

Main example: there is a device that Catwoman is after throughout the movie. I'm going to paraphrase an exchange early in the movie. (I'm doing this from memory, but overall I believe it to be pretty accurate, so get off my case). 
Catwoman: "You should have just given me what I wanted."
Criminal: "Oh, you mean the clean slate? The magic device you plug your name and birth date into, and it erases your electronic history?"

Wow, who talks like that outside of 1980s comic books? (Tom DeFalco called, he wants his dialogue back). (I don't know why I'm picking on Tom DeFalco. Let's just move on). It's the main problem I had with the Green Lantern movie. The characters explain, explain, explain everything in the movie. It's not natural, it's noticeable, and it's clunky.

Secondly, is it entertaining to watch?

The first time we see Batman at all is forty minutes into the movie. Now, this isn't the first chapter of a new version of the character, where we have to slog through the obligatory origin story before we can get to the good stuff. (I'm not really entirely sure this is a complaint of mine, because I think the Batman costume in these movies looks so ridiculous, that they're better off without it. But still, it is supposed to be a Batman movie). This is the pulse-pounding (should be) action-packed conclusion to one of the most highly regarded comic book film series of all time. There's an action sequence at the beginning to introduce Bane (speaking of, I'm not sure two people would just dangle straight down if they're being towed by an airplane), and then we are treated to thirty-five minutes of exposition and set-up. I know those that defend the movie will argue that this is all key development in this ultra-complex and "mature" take on the character, and my response to them is this picture of Batman punching the Scarecrow.

That's what I want to see.

One hour and twenty minutes into the movie, we get our first substantial fight, between Batman and Bane. Let me repeat that for you. The first fight in this movie is one hour and twenty minutes into it. Not only that, but it is largely a boring fight. The standard "you're too outclassed, but we have to show you really getting pounded so when you win in the last act it will be more impressive" Hollywood cliché. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastered this fight). Nothing but telegraphed haymakers delivered with lots of grunting and Liefeld-ian faces.

I know we have an auteur making these films, and he wants to explore themes and use Batman as a vehicle to comment on modern society and whatnot. Which is fine, but I kind of want to see him punch things too. Batman fighting on screen shouldn't be less impressive than Hawkeye and Black Widow from the Avengers movie. (Sorry, I tried really hard not to bring Avengers into this, because I don't think they're similar movies at all. But let's face it, they're going to be linked together forever for no other reason than they both will have dominated the summer of 2012. They will be the Magic and Bird of comic book movies, for my sports geeks out there. Or they won't be, I don't know, give me a break).

Beyond all that, this movie is something that I can't say any other Nolan movie has ever been, and that is that it is completely predictable. I knew everything that was going to happen before it happened. As soon as Alfred was going on about his trips to that cafe (totally stolen from Good Will Hunting by the way), I knew exactly how the end of the movie was going to go down. Immediately. This was twenty minutes or so into the movie, and I knew what the ending was going to be. I knew Batman would appear to die, and then the last shot of the movie would be Alfred and Bruce giving each other the head nods in this restaurant. Over and over again, there wasn't a moment in this movie where I thought, "Wow, didn't see that coming". (I knew right from the beginning that that was Talia, to the point it was frustrating me that it was taking so long for them to reveal it. Not really a complaint I guess, because they can't do it too early, but whatever, it's my review).

Quick tangent: I have been accused more than once recently of not liking the character of Batman. My response to that is to travel back to 1989, and watch a young Back Issue Ben going to see the Tim Burton Batman movie at least eight times, and painting a large yellow oval bat symbol on his bedroom wall. I'd also invite you to see my movie collection, where you'll find all four volumes of The Animated Series on DVD, the 1966 movie, and all four of the 1990s movies. My son is wearing Batman underwear to daycare today. Don't try to discredit my opinion by claiming I hate the character.

Lastly, the plot. Oh, the wonderful plot.

Nolan's Batman movies are grounded in making the character and his world believable, and yet nothing that happens in Dark Knight Rises is believable.

Nolan established a world where everything down to Batman's cape is explained to the point where any sense of wonder, or of the fantastic, was stripmined right out of the movie. Yes it is still about a man that dresses up like a bat and fights crime, but he did his best to dress it up in a real-world setting that makes the viewer believe that this could really happen. (This isn't just my geek-voice complaining. I have heard that exact thing described to me as a positive from many co-workers). This is the internal logic and foundation of the movies that Nolan established. That's what makes the more fantastic leaps you're required to make in Rises all the more impossible to accept.

In a world where Batman suffers real physical damage from his exploits, we're also expected to ignore that he wills himself back into health not once, but twice, within the span of this movie. The second time is so impossible (I'm no doctor, but it seems pretty damn impossible to go from your spine sticking out of your back to doing pushups in three months) there is no continuing on at that point. There's no way I could continue to play fair with that movie as I'm watching it, if the people making the movie aren't going to play fair with me. This isn't some movie full of characters that crawl up walls, where you could conceivably allow yourself to believe they could heal from a broken spine in a few months. This was a world about a real man, doing extraordinary things, healing in an unreal way. In a world where the Joker is just some madman that wears smeared makeup, that does not fit. I'm sorry.

Batman is so distraught over the death of Rachel Dawes, that he has put himself into self-imposed exile at the beginning of the movie, for eight years. Batman has quit on Gotham and his mission over his sadness of the death of a loved one. Repeat that again in your head for me. It's okay, I'll wait for you. Batman was born out of the death of his parents at the hands of a criminal. An act he vowed to himself to try and prevent from happening to anyone else. So, what prompts him to give up his quest at the beginning of this movie? The death of a loved one at the hands of criminals! Wow. Look, I know you can make the argument that he couldn't handle his role in the death of Rachel, and maybe that's a reasonable explanation, but it's not really a Batman that I want to root for. A guy that quits helping others because he's sad. I know they make a big deal about the streets being safer, but as near as I can tell, Catwoman didn't invent people to hire her to steal Wayne's fingerprints. Crime still exists, even if it's only on the level of, say, a mugger sticking up families on their way out of the theatre.

There is no discernible reason given in the movie, for Batman to trust Catwoman as much as he does. All he knows about her is that she is a lifetime thief and she's kinda hot (I guess hotness wins out!). The fact that his plan to save the day at the end of the movie relies so much on her, when the last time he saw her, she was betraying him so badly that he ended up getting his back broken and thrown in a hole, is beyond any reasonable sort of explanation.

There are so many more:

  • Why are the police kept alive underground, by Bane and his crew? He kills everyone else he runs across in the movie, but their master plan just involves leaving them buried underground. (On that note, those policemen looked surprisingly well-shaven and healthy when they're freed from their underground prison. I've imagined a dream scenario where they actually enjoy being down there, and they've set up all kinds of areas to work out, and someone created his own barber business because he happened to have a shaving kit in his backpack, and someone set up a garden to grow fruits and stuff. They were down there for months, they had a lot of time). 
  • Blake just waltzes into Wayne Manor and says, "hey, I know you're Batman, because you got that Batman kinda smile." One, Bruce doesn't even offer up so much as a "nuh-uh" in response. Second, I'm now going to use "you got that Batman smile" on as regular a basis as possible. 
  • Batman takes the time to create a big gasoline outline of his bat symbol, all while a bomb that is going to destroy the city is quickly ticking down, and Commissioner Gordon is being marched to his death. Way to prioritize Batman. Gotta get your brand out there. 
  • You're telling me an adolescent child is the only one that could escape that pit? Nobody thought to tie a bunch of ropes together? Why throw Batman into what seems to be the mostly easily escapable prison in history? At the very least, why throw him into one that has a built in escape route? I don't even understand the logistics of this pit. You have to climb up to a certain point, and then jump across to his platform. Can you not just continue climbing up the conveniently provided rope? Someone feel free to explain this to me, because I am confused. 
  • Are there any citizens of Gotham that aren't cops or criminals? You'd have to think the regular citizens would outnumber the prisoners released from Blackgate by a significant margin. That the citizens seem so eager and willing to descend into chaos says a lot about the hope that was supposedly provided by the end of The Dark Knight. 

Side note: Mrs. Back Issue Ben felt it was pretty sad that we will not be able to let our young boys watch these Batman movies. Primarily because someone is being brutally murdered for no reason other than to show how evil and badass Bane is, every time the character appears on camera. Add that to the Joker from The Dark Knight, and these are not exactly family friendly films. Batman is still a superhero right? Shouldn't kids be able to see his movies? I get that he's a character open to various interpretations and levels of complexity, but that just seems wrong to me. I don't know, I don't have an answer for that one.
There are many many more examples I could give, but there is no need to go into all of them. I think you get the drift. But I'll end this whole shebang on this last one.

Yes, Batman saves the day at the end. He save the city from total destruction at the hands of a nuclear bomb, and it's a feel good-moment and everyone claps. But does he really save the city? Because of Batman's direct inaction, and mind-boggling decision-making, Gotham is in complete ruin. The citizens of the city, at best, were subjected to terrorist rule for months, and at worst, participated in it. The city has been demolished, the bridges in and out blown to pieces, even the football stadium was destroyed (that's just mean), and the water is probably not going to be drinkable any time soon. The hope that many of the film's supporters would have you believe exists at the end, does not exist. Bane and Talia successfully destroyed the city of Gotham. Even worse, Bruce Wayne has abandoned them to their ruin. He decided that getting rid of the bomb he created, and had a direct impact in putting into the hands of terrorists, was good enough, and he's done. He successfully got rid of the immediate problem for Gotham, but left the city to figure out the rest. The bad guys won; it just doesn't seem like it unless you look hard enough.

Which is The Dark Knight Rises itself. Maybe on the surface it seems like a good movie (it's certainly got lots of violence and takes itself seriously enough) but if you look hard enough, you can see the flaws in the movie. Maybe I'm one of the few that couldn't look past them, and if I am, that kind of saddens me. I think we should expect more, and demand more, from our entertainment than a movie of loosely connected big ideas all held together by overwhelming violence and a desire to seem "serious."

In other words, I can't wait for Avengers to come out on DVD.


Islington Comic Forum said...

Basically: yes. yes. yes.
Thank you. Totally excellent.

Unknown said...

Even though I haven't seen the movie, I "almost" completely agree with you based on the points you have raised regarding Nolan's criminally overrated past two cinematic entries.

The two points, though, which made me raise my eyebrows were as follows:

"I know we have an auteur making these films..."

Don't call Christopher Nolan an 'auteur'. It might be "technically" the case (even though not completely, given that he usually has someone beside him to contribute to his screenplays), but the word auteur evokes the notion of a director in the role of an artistic craftsman. And just because you fill your films with overly pretentious psuedo-psychological gibberish doesn't mean you are an artist.

Christopher Nolan might have almost been one not long ago. I still consider "Memento" and "Following" to be wonderful arthouse pieces. But it feels like that ever since "The Dark Knight", which to me proved that David S. Goyer wasn't the reason for Begins' shortcomings after all, he seems to have completely lost the touch for the truly emotional complexity of his "characters". Even worse, he has abandoned the idea of characters in favour of archetypes.

I might be kinda/sorta some artsy fartsy filmsnob, that is true. But I simply can't help the feeling that the Batman-Film of my dreams would be a 50.000 Dollar budgeted arthouse-noir set in Prague as a cinematic backdrop for Gotham City and directed by a "real" auteur like Lars Von Trier (hey, people are allowed to dream, right?) featuring an incredibly simple plot of Batman trying to solve a series of murders.

The idea that some people believe the closest we have gotten to this are Christopher Nolans over blown action set pieces makes me shiver in sadness.

Unknown said...

"Batman is still a superhero right? Shouldn't kids be able to see his movies?"

I don't know about that, and that's just a really tough question to answer.
But one question especially starts to raise in my mind when I think about it... were Tim Burton's Batman films "that" family friendly?

People keep argue that Christopher Nolan's Batman films are so extremely dark and twisted. Yet, I can't help but feel that none of them were on the same level as "Batman Returns" (my favourite "mainstream" Batman flick thus far) as far as darkness and violence goes.

What does, however, bother me about Christopher Nolan's Batman films which was far less the case with Tim Burton's: people get killed, but it never really gets further addressed in his films. Christopher Nolan wants us to believe that the Joker's violent crimes in "The Dark Knight" are an act of pure evil, yet we never really get a feeling that something is at stake.

It's, what I like to call, "PG-13 violence". Which, in my opinion, is the most disgusting form of violence as it manipulates the spectator to believe that it's of no trouble when somebody gets killed, because we don't see the pain of that person, the blood and sorrow. Quite frankly, I don't have kids, but if I have, I'd rather want them to watch a film that shows them the consequences of violence. That teaches them that death is eternal and that nobody should have to decide about the death of someone else.

In Christopher Nolan's Batman films (and many other PG-13 productions of the past years), we see people getting killed left and right. Yet, we never really "see" them getting killed. We never see the pain that they have to go through. The closest we have gotten so far was Joker's monologue in "The Dark Knight" in which he "explains" why he likes to kill people with a knife. Yet again, he "explains" it to us, while another scene in the same film highlights how he cuts the throat of a gangster without showing us the results of that violent act. The pain that said gangster has to go through until he dies. We are not offended by Joker's violent acts. We are not disgusted by him. No, we might even think how "awesome" and "badass" he is for doing it.

It's as if these films want to tell us that people, in the end of the day, are replaceable. That ultra-violence is okay as long as you don't show it to us. And all of this just to preserve the film's precious and financially important "PG-13" rating. This offends me so much more than any of the violence shown in the infamous "Hostel" movies.

Unknown said...

And about "Shouldn't kids be able to see these Batman movies?", it is true that on a technical level, Batman is supposed to be a "Superhero" an incredibly adolescent concept of vigilantism.
But these Batman films are also comic book "adaptions", and at least in his comic books, Batman was never really supposed to be a children's fantasy, was him? This is a character who has his origins in the pulp noir magazines and Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s. Tim Burton's films especially take a huge nod to these origins.

But I think you've said it best. This character lends itself to so many different takes and interpretations that it really depends on which take you personally love the most. My favourite Batman stories are set in a more gothic "reality", in a Gotham City that looks and feels more like a Eastern-European capital rather than a big american metropolis. With noir-esque stories more in the vain of the chilling post-war horrors of a "The Third Man" and "The Element of Crime".

Some of my favourite Batman books, among many, are "Harvest Breed", "Night Cries", almost everything by the creative team of Doug Moench and Kelly Jones and many "Elseworld" stories. All of them definitely "not" kid friendly stories which I wouldn't necessarily let my kids read. Then again my mother let me read them when I was 7 years old, and I think I have a firm grasp about violence and it's consequences.

Ben Smith said...

You make some good points.

Auteur may be the incorrect word, I'm not smart enough on film to say otherwise. He's probably as close as we'll ever get in the mainstream Hollywood system though, as he seems to get a certain amount of autonomy in a business where everyone has notes and opinions. (Memento was amazing though. I absolutely love that movie.)

As for the violence, you make some good points about the Burton Batman movies. My wife's main complaint is the random violence. They bust in the door at the Stock Exchange and just start spraying innocent people. Like you said, there are no consequences shown on either side. It's just violence to show how evil the bad guys are.

- Back Issue Ben

JV said...

I liked The Dark Knight Rises but I didn't love it. It had many flaws some of which you point out in your article and I agree with. Overall though, these cons didn't get in the way of my enjoyment of TDKR. Both you and Harry Knowles don't buy that Bruce Wayne giving up the cowl because of the death of a loved one. I'll have to disagree with you there. I think it's a minor gripe. Frank Miller did the same thing in The Dark Knight Returns, Wayne retires because of the death of Jason Todd yet no one made a fuss about it. Why should it be any different in TDKR? Both Miller and Nolan are clearly going for a more human and fallible version of the character(this is not the all-knowing Grant Morrison version). Yes, the efforts aren't consistent but stressing the man in Batman is still consistent with the character. It's like you said, there are many iterations of the Batman. Clearly the Nolan interpretation is not the one you were looking for. Still, here's hoping that in the next reboot they emphasize the detective aspect of the character.

Duy Tano said...

The thing for me personally is that for this particular movie, it's not even about Batman. This is the most impressive Batman, physically speaking, of all three movies. But whereas in the other two movies I can say that while I didn't prefer the Batman in them, they were still well-told stories, I can't really say the same thing about this one. Batman is my main gripe in the first two, and he's in them a lot (obviously). The story is my main gripe with this one.

I'm not a fan of the Morrison version either (neither is Ben, who isn't a fan of anything Morrison), but I would like a Batman that's more competent; one who deduces the story's big mystery and not have it spoonfed to him by the villain as she stabs him, and one who doesn't rely on third parties to get things done. Batman did one thing on his own in the entire movie, without the help of Catwoman or Alfred (or Talia, for that matter), and that was get back into Gotham -- and they didn't even show that.

But man, that's not even my main complaint. The entire time I was watching this movie, I almost fell asleep twice, and the one thing that prevented me from doing so were the continual plot holes making me go "What the--", "How the--", "Why the--"

On the retirement note, while Miller did it with DKR (I would argue that it's not the same thing, but again, minor), I remember when Batman Forever came out and everyone complained that "He meets Chase Meridian and so he decides to be Bruce Wayne and quit as Batman? Batman would never do that!" So it's kind of weird to me that that particular plot point (which gets resolved by Bruce deciding to still be Batman) got such criticism while the ending for this one, which is essentially the same thing, gets a pass.

Ben Smith said...

Most of my nitpicks I could have overlooked if I was being entertained. Unfortunately, I found it boring so I gotta occupy my mind somehow.

I've heard the "he's more human" praise before. Maybe it's true, I guess I don't want that version. I don't want to watch quitter Batman. As much as I find invincible Batman overplayed in the comics, maybe it would work better in the movies. I don't know.

And yes, hopefully we'll get a detective Batman one day.

JV said...

Duy, the reason why no one gives any flack about Wayne quitting at the end is because 1) It's a beautiful ending in its execution (no matter who "Robin" is *snicker*), 2) Bruce is passing the mantle on to someone who he thinks is worthy unlike before where he just gave up so that's a bit of a consolation, 3) Nolan's theme from the very beginning is that the Batman is a symbol, he can be anyone (highly debatable, of course but we see it here and we see it in Batman Inc.)so the ending comes full circle with Batman Begins thematically.

Duy Tano said...

I get the thematic resonance, but the actual execution didn't work for me.

(I just realized I broke my promise of not talking about this movie, so that's all you're getting! Nyah!)

JV said...

I consider it a feat in itself that I got you to even talk about it, heheh...

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