Friday, August 15, 2014

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Christopher Nolan

When I first saw The Dark Knight Rises, I walked out angry about how long and awful it was, but after a rewatch, I find that I've softened on this movie a bit.  It's still a kind of garbage movie, but I found there were definitely some things to like about it.  It's weird to look at it this way because it's the last of the three movies, but it seems to me like The Dark Knight Rises is like a bridge between the aesthetics of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  With Batman Begins I got the sense that Nolan et al weren't entirely sure what they wanted the series to be, so they put out the realistic approach that they wanted, but left themselves open to the more fantastic elements of the superhero genre: Batman's crazy tech, the League of Assassins, Scarecrow's fear gas, etc.  When they saw that people seemed to be responding to the realism of it, The Dark Knight capitalized on that and pushed the realism further, giving us something more akin to a crime movie.  The Dark Knight Rises splits the difference, keeping the realism while still remaining comfortable with the more fantastic elements that wouldn't have been out of place in Batman Begins.  The League of Assassins is back, Bane's long game plot to destroy Gotham while Bruce Wayne watches is an insanely comic book super villain-esque plot, we get a Catwoman team up along the way, Batman fakes his own death, and THERE'S A FUCKING BATMAN STATUE TO HONOR HIS MEMORY!  So how did this Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of Nolan tones all go so wrong?

First, let's talk about the best thing in the movie because I think it leads pretty well into the worst thing about it.  Bane.  Bane is the best thing in this movie.  "But oh that atrocious Sean Connery impression through a gas mask voice!" you lament, as you clutch your pearls, and a prominently displayed piece marked "REVERANCE TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL" dangles in between your fat old-time political cartoon fingers.  I softly cradle you in my arms because I remember that I too was once like you, and again I say it: Bane is the best thing in this movie.  Tom Hardy and Christopher Nolan create a version of Bane that is still very much true to what I think is the core of the character despite the determined exclusion of his trademark enthusiasm for steroids.  Bane is a man who has the strength, determination, and will of Batman.  He gets the jump on Batman in this movie because at this point in Nolan's timeline Batman's pretty much quit the game.  He's out of touch and he's gotten soft.  Would Bane still have gotten ahead of Batman at the top of his game in The Dark Knight?  Yeah, probably.  That's what villains do in these things -- they get ahead of the hero and the hero learns a lesson.  Moreover, while Bane is a man who is driven by an ideology, Batman is driven by a very vague notion of justice.  It seems Batman just hasn't really given much thought as to the scale of that justice, and his role has been largely reactionary, while Bane's message is clear and proactive: the status quo is corruption and in order to fix it, it must be dismantled: with a nuclear bomb.

Bane's plot to destroy Gotham is a great use of the over-the-top scheming that should be standard from a SUPER VILLAIN, but it's played straight enough that it doesn't seem too out of place with the tone that Nolan goes for.  Tom Hardy's performance is the kind of camp that perfectly offsets the self-seriousness of the movie around him as well as working to establish the idea that Bane is also a charismatic character.  There's a reason why Bane was able to build himself an army, and it's because he's a likable, imposing figure who is offering change through revolution to Gotham's long-suffering and forgotten.  Tom Hardy makes Bane look like he's having a great time overturning the status quo.  Perhaps Bane doesn't exactly delight in all the murdering like Heath Ledger's Joker seemed to, but he's certainly feeling comfortable in his convictions.  It's all a part of the job for Bane, and while it would be tempting to think that Bane loves his job, I think it's more that he is his job.  Bane exists as the primary agent of his cause and as little else, which is what makes him so intimidating.

Now as I understood it, Bane's whole end game was to destroy Gotham and make Batman watch, thus breaking him completely.  The class revolt that Bane triggers is really just a step along the way to detonating a bomb in Gotham, a way to provoke chaos and fear and bring out the worst in people, which means one of the more interesting pieces of this movie-- Gotham's violent class war-- is largely just set dressing, right?  I believe at the time of this movie's release we were in the thick of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the idea of class war was certainly lurking in the American consciousness, so it makes sense the Nolan and company would try to work that in somehow to give their finale a little more timely relevance, but I think that's exactly the problem with it: it's a great idea that just feels tacked on without any actual thought or development.  But as it stands in the movie we have, the promising and relevant idea of a class uprising is turned into a couple of cartoonish street riot scenes and then a backdrop for the third act of the movie.

It's also a pretty confusing statement that Nolan is putting out there.  I'm not sure about what exactly he's trying to say with this one.  I mean, speaking as one of America's 99%, Bane's message is appealing to me.  Maybe we should just dismantle capitalism and tear apart the Upper East Side for being complicit in a system that actively works against 99% of its people, right? It doesn't seem like it's been doing any favors for us lately.  I guess all the murder and violence is wrong, but Bane's message is resonant, despite it being just another step along the way in his mission to destroy Gotham.  If Bane's the bad guy we're supposed to be rooting against, then why is his message so appealing?  And what about Batman?  Isn't Batman the good guy that we're rooting for?  When Batman sees that Gotham is falling apart, and it's not entirely because of a super-villain's plot what's his response?  He saves the city from blowing up, fakes his own death, and decides to go on a permanent Italian vacation.  I thought Batman's whole shit was that Gotham was his city.  You saved the city from a nuclear bomb, but what happens afterward?  Everyone in Gotham decides they should all just pretend it never happened and go back to this system whose incredible flaws and corruption were just exposed to the entire world?  Wouldn't that period of rebuilding be at least as chaotic?  Wouldn't Batman want to stick around for that just to make sure nobody else needs to get hurt?  So I guess I'm still wondering what Nolan wants us to think about this.  He presents these viewpoints with the idea that there is nuance, but he never follows through in exploring that, favoring instead a strange transition from the interesting gray area of a violent class war to the more easily opposable and offensive marshall law.  Then he caps it all off with a black and white "Batman saves the day and everything's fine let's honor him with a statue" ending because it's his big finale and we've got to have some kind of closure.

Bane's message of changing the system seems justified despite it just being a part of his villainous plot, and sure, maybe it's going about it in the wrong way, but Batman's not out there to change anything at all.  Batman is fighting for everything to be just the same as it ever was, and as soon as he gets the chance he leaves it all behind.  It's that kind of inability to commit to a stance that takes an interesting idea, "how would Batman deal with class uprising?" and turns it into something frustrating with no clear payoff.  Further, it reflects these movies' inability to decide what they want to be.  Batman Begins wanted a grounded, realistic take on a concept that is inherently unrealistic, The Dark Knight was less a crime movie and more a movie embarrassed by its source material, and The Dark Knight Rises tries to make a relevant political statement without actually taking any kind of position on the issue they bring into question.  And it's not even one of those things where it's up to the audience to decide what the movie means, since either side of the argument doesn't ever really get a chance to develop.  Bane's incitement of class warfare is incidental to his mission and politics, and Batman ultimately abandons any political responsibility after he fakes his death.

I guess I wouldn't find the confusing politics of this movie so frustrating if Nolan didn't take up most of the first act trying to establish class disparity as a theme in this movie.  Catwoman has a little threatening monologue that she whispers to Bruce Wayne, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt pretty much gets Batman back into the game by shaming him about how he doesn't even know about what's happening to the real people of Gotham anymore on account of his locking himself away in his mansion.  Couple all of that with the idea that one of the popularly cynical takes on Batman is "Billionaire who beats up poor people in the streets," and after the first act, I'm getting pretty excited to see how Nolan addresses this facet of Batman's character, but by the end of the movie that idea's just kind of quietly swept under the rug, like Bruce Wayne's bum knee.  At least it didn't feel like every character was just explaining the entire movie to each other like in The Dark Knight.

Anyway, there was stuff I liked about this movie too, I swear.  Like Bane.  And that part where Batman finally comes back on the scene on his motorcycle and he just kind of fucks things up.  Also the part where Batman is in the bottom of the pit with a broken back and the only way out is through total determination and believing in yourself, and Batman's like, "um duh."  I remember people talking about how that part was boring, but I guess I've just always been down with people aggressively training and believing in themselves.  Because I'm an AMERICAN.  Oh yeah and SCARECROW COURT.  Scarecrow court was the best thing since Bane.  More Scarecrow Court.

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