Jul 28, 2012

It's Not About "Dark," Damn It

In less than 48 hours, I'm going to be seeing The Dark Knight Rises. I'm not a fan of Nolan's Batman by any means, so I'm basically seeing it for completist purposes. I've seen the first two in theaters, and I just want to satisfy my curiosity. Plus, after the way I loved Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man, I feel like this has been the best year for superhero movies thus far and I'm hoping to get lucky with this one. Maybe I'll like it.

But what I'd like to talk about right now are my reasons for not being a fan of the Nolan Batmans, and how that ties into a larger issue I have with comic books and comic-book movies. I've frequently seen my argument against these movies be dismissed with "You don't like it because it's too dark," especially in light of my championing a movie like Avengers. That's reductive at best, and is ridiculous. It's not about "dark," and it never was. You know what my favorite comic book movie pre-Thor was?

That's right. It was The Crow. You know, that movie where Eric Draven comes back from the dead to avenge his murder and the murder/rape of his girlfriend by killing everyone involved? Really, roses and puppies, that movie is.

Hey, know what one of my favorite comics in recent years is?

CRIMINAL by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. A noir comic. And if you know about noir, you know going in that things do not end on a bright note, pretty much at any time.

All this goes to say, I'm sick of my argument against the Nolanverse being reduced to "It's dark." That's not my argument. It never was. So what is my problem with them?

I can't buy into them. And before I get into that, I just want to get this out of the way. Look, I'm not the type of comic book fan that judges the movies based on their adherence to the details of the comics. If I were, I'd hate... well, everything. No, I don't even judge comics based on their strict adherence to continuity, so why would I judge comic book movies that way? These heroes are serialized characters, and they're open to a variety of interpretations.

So I really only judge superhero movies by two things: (1) how much they capture the spirit and the magic of the character, and (2) how little it takes me out of the story, which is to say how much it gets me immersed in what I'm watching and how long it keeps me there.

The first criterion is important when watching these movies for the first time, but is less important in subsequent viewings (basically, the novelty gets lost. If you find a superhero movie where the "magic" stays on after 10 viewings, please tell me. Also, I've only seen Avengers four times.). The second is just important to watching any movie, period. Now, you can make up for the lack of the second criterion with an influx of the first (prime example that was pointed out to me earlier today: there's no way that T-Rex in Jurassic Park should have gotten into that building, but it's too awesome not to do), but overall, especially on rewatching, if you don't fulfill the second criterion, you're just taking us out of the story.

And that's where I stand with Nolan's Batmans. I can't get into the story, pretty much at all.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne spends over an hour of our movie time training to be a ninja. He practices all these ninja moves, but when he becomes Batman, what does he do? Put on the most constricting mobility-hindering suit possible.

I know it's an aesthetic gripe. I'm aware of that. But it's a big glaring plot hole, and it's constantly there on the screen. The annoying thing is that Nolan's first film is filled to the brim with great actors who deliver equally great performances (except for Katie Holmes), but the suit is right there, calling attention to itself. You're supposed to find this man frightening, but nothing about him is frightening. He's in a Halloween suit. He can't turn his neck. The entire movie spends so much time establishing how "grounded" and "realistic" it is, but the very way Batman is presented is "realistic" in a Hollywood point of view, which is not at all "believable," but more "not fantastic." It wouldn't even be so glaring if Jim Gordon didn't get so much screen time. How is who's supposed to be the world's most perfect human wearing body armor from head to toe while the old policeman next to him is only wearing a bulletproof vest?

Seriously, I rewatched Batman Begins recently and actually thought it was pretty good, up till the point that he put the suit on, and then it was done. I was taken out of the story, and I couldn't get back in to the story.

"But Duy," you ask, "as you say, you can make up for lack of tightness in the story if it captures the magic. Didn't it do that for you? After all, Batman had a bunch of gadgets and a cool tank."

Well, no, frankly, it didn't do that for me, and that's the part where my comic prejudices come into play. Batman is many things, and surely, being "Mr. Gadgets" is a fair interpretation, but it's not mine. To me, Batman was made cool by the fact that he had a keen detective mind (barely present in Begins) and was the world's best physical specimen, the DC Universe's answer to Captain America.

To me, the gadgets don't make Batman cool; it's the other way around. They're cool because Batman uses them. But that's not the case with Bat-Bale, who is so reliant upon all his gadgets. And again, that's fair if you like that interpretation of Batman, but considering that he spent over an hour of movie time learning how to be a fighting machine, I don't think you can blame me for being disappointed that he eschewed it for the chance to be James Bond with gadgets.

The Dark Knight was even worse, because in addition to all of that, he would continually lose in it. The first scene he's in, he gets bitten by a dog. Hardly a challenge for the Caped Crusader. The final scene he's in, he falls two stories and gets knocked out, despite his heavy body armor (funnily enough, if he didn't have that heavy body armor, he'd have been able to right himself). There's just nothing spectacular about this Batman beyond his gadgets, and I just find the overreliance on gadgets and weapons kinda lame. So to me, he doesn't fit criterion 1 at all — much less so when you consider that Captain America would come out next year.

But what about criterion 2? Look, I've never seen The Dark Knight again, but I remember two things about it right off the bat whenever anyone asks me what I think of it, and one of them is the big plot hole in the middle, where Gordon fakes his death, then Batman chases the Joker around Gothamm, intentionally crashes his bike, intentionally knocks himself unconscious (which he wouldn't have to, if he were wearing Captain America style clothing and were able to you know, right himself), so that Joker comes this close to killing him, so Gordon could reveal that he didn't die, and pull a gun on Joker int he nick of time, thus saving Batman. But no, this was all a plan! Honest!

It's just things like this that continually take me out of the story, and if I'm not able to immerse myself in the story, I can't say I'm a fan of it, can I? Nolan just asks us to take the movie too seriously, but I think superheroes are inherently absurd. For further explanation, let's go to David Mazzucchelli, from his BATMAN: YEAR ONE afterword.

(By the way, I actually did like Dark Knight the first time. The second thing I remember about it is Heath Ledger's performance, which was transcendent and amazing. Then again, it's probably a bad sign that the first two things I think of are plot holes and the villain.)

When I've said this to people, I've often received the defense of "Well, what do you expect? It's a superhero movie." But I think that's unfair to superhero movies. Why should we hold them to a lower standard because they're superhero movies? They should still be logical as they're presented to us, with the world and the characters and their actions being congruous with each other. You can present to me the most unrealistic scenario, and as long as it's in line with the world that's been presented to us and I can empathize with the characters' actions and reactions, as long as the events have sound progressive logic to them, I would buy into the movie. Nolan's Batman doesn't do that. (For the record, I think the best explanation I've ever seen regarding this was specifically that it was absurd and the disconnect between the Bat-elements and the grounded setting really highlighted the former. Great if you can see the blatant absurdity as a positive, but I just find it difficult to do because I think Nolan's trying too hard to ask us to see it as anything but. It's all about perceptions.)

Not for me, anyway. I'm mainly writing this because I hate telling people that I don't like Nolan's Batman and being greeted with reactions like "GASP! Heathen! How dare you!" All I'm saying is that it hits my suspension of disbelief threshold too much. That's a threshold that's different for everyone, and I'm not saying anyone's wrong for liking them. I'm saying I don't.

(Also, I'm saying the first two were lame. They just didn't get any of the magic of the superheroes. Well, I guess they do if you like Bat-Gadget-Man.)

Now, having gotten that out of the way, I just want to get something else out of the way. So be warned; I'm putting my rant hat on. 

I'm sick of praises for this movie being phrased to bash Avengers, or any of the Marvel movies in particular. I was pointed to a review saying how it was a contrast to "Marvel's witty, slickly-produced spectacles," with "witty, slickly-produced spectacles" being used as a negative. Last week, someone said "Dark Knight Rises makes Avengers look like a kiddie film!" AVENGERS IS A KID-FRIENDLY FILM! Why is that a bad thing? But what really gets me is the ones that attack Avengers and the Marvel movies for not being substantial, whereas the Nolan Batfilms are thought-provoking. Avengers was a movie about hope and heart and heroism. It's SUPPOSED to be primal and idealistic. It's not supposed to make you think; it's supposed to speak to your gut and make you feel the goodness from a most basic level. Why does something have to try to say something deep or meaningful about "society" in order to be good? I like deep, dark, things as long as they're well-crafted, but it seems to me that people tend to automatically give points for something just by being dark and subtract points for something when they're not. Seriously well-done, well-crafted things that appeal to both children and adults is so underrated from an artistic level, as if they're somehow "less" because they don't deal with a deeper theme, that they choose to focus on uplifting themes. Is this the world we live in?

Oh no! Tom "Loki" Hiddleston likes the fact
that kids watched Avengers! Doesn't he know
superheroes are serious business??

Now, having said all that, I like variety in my entertainment, and the older I get, the more eclectic my tastes get. I'm still going to see The Dark Knight Rises on Sunday. The completist in me wants to see it, and I don't give in to him very often, so I'm going to see it. I'm a comic book fan, and I love LIFE WITH ARCHIE: THE MARRIED LIFE and I love CRIMINAL: LAST OF THE INNOCENT, two stories with the same premise and two completely different tones and directions. So I feel like there's room in this world for both a dark Batman movie and an uplifting movie like Avengers (though, if you were to ask me, given Hollywood's copycat nature, I know which one I want them to ape going forward). 

And make no mistake about it, I want to like this movie; I don't buy things or tickets to things that I don't want to like. But I wanted to get that clear to you guys before I saw it: I didn't like the first two, I know what I'm getting into, and thus I'm waiving my right to complain about this one on the Cube if I end up not liking it. If I do like it, well, expect me to write something about it. 

But if I don't like it, well, you should know: it has nothing to do with it being "dark," and it never did.


JV said...

Oh boy, if you thought you had to make leaps of logic in TDK then I have a feeling you ain't gonna like TDKR either. I consider all the things you loathed about TDK as artistic license. To me, they weren't so glaring that it got in the way of my enjoyment of the movie, the way the story was told, the performances and the thrills more than made up for any minor flaws that TDK had. TDKR is entertaining but there's a hell of a lot more plot holes in this third installment. So good luck! Don't walk out of the theater, all right? ;-)

Madeley said...

There were a couple of points when I was watching TDKR when I thought of you Duy- he actually turns his head about a dozen times in the suit, and I thought "Duy'll be happy with that."

It's funny you mention Avengers being bashed in comparison to the Nolan Batmans, because I've actually been experiencing the opposite: A seemingly endless parade of griping about how rubbish DC are, how rubbish the new Man of Steel trailer looks (couldn't disagree more, myself), and how everything should be more like Avengers. Why we can't have both is completely beyond me, and I was fed up of the comparisons before TDKR was even released.

I've been thinking about the differences between the Nolans and the Marvels a lot, and I think one of the things that striked me is how they approach the source material in completely different ways. I'd say it's the equivalent of how movies are adapted from books. Some films are adapted from novels so beloved that they can't help but exist in comparison to the source material. And appropriately so: you wouldn't want a version of To Kill A Mockingbird that wasn't faithful to one of the 20th Century's great works.

On the other hand, you can have adaptations of Shakespearean works that are readically different from how they were originally staged. Or even films like Clockwork Orange, or the Godfather. They may be adapted from written works, but they exist as wholly different entities, almost independent of where they came from. This doesn't take a way either from the greatness of the source material, or the greatness of the movies.

I think Avengers is the former kind of film. It's amazing, and I love it, and it's very faithful, but it doesn't exist as a film in it's own vacuum. The Nolan Batmans are complete reinterpretations- they take stuff from the comics, but I think as films, they take advantage of the way movies function in the way that Avengers didn't- but to function in that way, perhaps they had to sacrifice some fidelity to the original work.

I don't think I've reached any big conclusion on this, just kicking ideas around really. I'd say that there are pros and cons to either approach, and I'm just happy these directors are trying something different, and not trying to make all of these things the same way.

I have noticed, anecdotally, that people who really love movies as well as really loving comics are more enclined to like the Nolan Batmans, whereas people who tend to be more comics people prefer the Avengers. But that's my observation from a pretty small sample.

Duy Tano said...

It's funny that you should mention those two methods of adapting a book, Gatch, because I was just thinking today of, of all things, the Watchmen movie, which kind of went in both directions and didn't really know which direction it wanted to go in. (Am I faithful? YES! Wait, now Nite Owl is doing spin kicks!)

I would fit your theory since I am not a movie guy; I don't really judge movies via their artistic or technical competence. I just want to enjoy myself. It's very much the opposite of how I read comics.

I find myself unable to judge the Man of Steel trailer, because, quite frankly, of Amazing Spider-Man, which I thought just had some of the most underwhelming trailers ever, and kind of steered the perception of the movie in a certain direction -- one the movie didn't go in. I think Man of Steel is going to be about balance. If he's not in the suit by the end of the first hour, I'm betting it'll be too long. I've been thinking about the pros and cons of the whole thing. It's Snyder, so we're going to get a lot of visual spectacle, which is great for Superman, but it's also Snyder, so I'm afraid that Kal is going to punch Zod's face and have it cave in or something.

I agree that Nolan's Batman shouldn't be judged in comparison to Avengers, as the audiences are completely different. Now, whether or not the Nolan Batmans are doing the right thing by aiming at a specifically older audience, well, that's a moral debate that I'd rather not get into, I think.

Islington Comic Forum said...

Great article. Agree with every bit of it. Nice one.
(Have added you to my two cents: http://islingtoncomic.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/batman-year-100.html )

Did you see DKR yet? What did you think of that?

DK = was kinda good because like you said Heath Ledger and also the bombastic Hans Zimmer score but DKR = URGH! The stupid suit thing again PLUS the fact that: WHY HAS THE WHOLE WORLD NOT FIGURED OUT THE BRUCE WAYNE THING YET?

(Oops - sorry to shout).

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